Farm News

Stalk & Stem: Why Do We Trim?

kale stalks image

Each week, I stand for several hours at the packing shed sink cleaning produce for our CSA families. This kind of work provides wonderful contemplation time. Recently, I caught myself trimming the stalks on a crisp bunch of greens. Before the rough ends hit the bottom of the compost barrel, I thought, “Why did I do that? Surely it wasn’t just to make it look neat and tidy?!” Upon further consideration, I remembered my early post-college days and the first kitchen sink I could call my own. Until the farmer’s market opened in the summer, I bought my vegetables at the old Hy-Vee grocery store in the center of town. The browning, wilted ends were a give-away as to the true age of the produce. Having been trucked in from a long way off, the decomposition process was clearly evident. This is where I first picked up the habit of trimming all my produce. I remember cutting inches off the bottoms of winter greens, ‘just to be on the safe side.’ But now I that I have the privilege of cooking with such fresh produce, my engrained behavior serves no purpose.

TO TRIM OR NOT TO TRIM

When we pick up the paring knife, we are making a critical decision: we are deciding what is edible and what is not. Unless composted, what we deem to be “not edible” contributes unnecessarily to the painfully large amount of food waste in our country.

In my own kitchen, I chop up stems, (including for instance, that [carefully washed] part of the carrot where root becomes top) and sauté them in the pan at the same time the onions and garlic go in. Just by giving the stems a little longer to cook, they are more than edible. By the time the soup or casserole or pasta is finished cooking, the trimmings are as tender as can be. These ‘vegetable edges’ disappear into background flavor and sometimes make two servings into three.

When I’m not planning to sauté, a grater, blender or thin dicing with a knife reduce my stems and stalks to palatable, non-stringy bites that add crunch, color and/or body to whatever raw dish I’m making.

When I have more stems and stalks than I can use in one recipe, I find a way to preserve them. It is easy to keep cleaned, chopped ends in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. On a cold day, you have the makings for a great stock. Likewise, it is easy to let carrot tops or extra parsley stems dry like herbs on your cutting board. I find I use them more frequently this way because the are so visible and accessible.

With corn on our list this week, I’ll offer one more tip a favorite chef taught me. After you cut your corn off, save those cobs! Corn stock is a welcome winter treat in our house. It can be made with the carrot tops, parsley stems or even just water and cobs. The aforementioned favorite chef once made me a corn soup that was simply corn stock, salt, and cream. I can still taste that rich meal!

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE IT OVER THE TOP

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly strict about stems and stalks. There are times when the bitterness of a stem or core is just too much, and I’m certainly not munching on things like grapes stems. The point is to think first, then act so that discarding a part of the vegetable or fruit is more the exception than the rule. Out in the packing shed, back at the sink, every stalk or stem I come across, I think to myself, could my families reasonably be expected to make use of this part of the produce? If not, I keep it at the farm to feed our chickens and to feed our soil. Thanks to my packing shed musings, I’m no longer trimming for looks or out of habit. Nature works hard to feed us. Meal after meal, this is a blessedly simple way we can show our respect.~AJ

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In Praise of Weeds Pt. 2

weeds on april joy farm

Part 2

The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over three weeks, I’m sharing three reasons. Last week I wrote an essay on how Weeds Heal. This week I share how Weeds Nourish. Next week, I’ll explore how Weeds Teach.

Weeds Nourish. If the fact that we need weeds to protect our soil isn’t enough reason to rethink a relationship with ‘noxious’ plants, how about this statement: If we look at the origin of the word we find the Anglo-Saxon, “weod” means “little herb.” If herbs are intended for healing, then weeds are also for healing – of the soil. Many weeds act as collectors of minerals. When they die and decay the minerals are added back to the soil in a form which is available to plants. The purpose of weeds is to correct soil problems.1 Do you remember the “pesky” dandelion I wrote about earlier this summer? Viewed from a soil building perspective, dandelions are anything but ugly nuisances. Dandelions are providing much need minerals to the depleted soils of turf grass lawns.

Because growing food crops entails compromising (disturbing and exposing) topsoil, careful organic farmers utilize the unique characteristics of a diverse number of ‘weeds’ like dandelions to help mitigate such practices. Seeding plants not to harvest and sell, but specifically to improve soil health is known as cover cropping. I think of cover crops as the food I grow to feed my soil.

In fact, some of the plants we use as cover crops, including mustards, buckwheat, vetch, clovers, chickweed, grasses, and rye are, depending on whom you ask, considered “weeds.” But in the right place, at the right time, these ‘weeds’ add tremendous value to our farm system.

Out at the farm, it’s September. You’ll notice our potato, onion and spring brassica fields have all been disked under. The soil looks uncomfortably “bare.” But as an absolute rule, after we harvest a crop, we never leave the soil unplanted. Last week we planted field peas, rye, wheat and clover. This week we’ll be seeding oats, daikon radishes, ryegrass and vetch to the mix. Each of these plants is selected for multiple reasons, all of which are devoted to improving soil health.

But of course, we aren’t the only ones working to keep our soil healthy. SARE2 describes a cover crop as a plant “that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds3, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity.” Sounds a lot like what weeds do too, doesn’t it?

The practice of cover cropping is a beautiful example of biomimicry, “an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate Nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges.”4 I think weeds are, in essence, Nature’s cover crops. So this fall, out in our fields, you can be sure Nature will be planting her selections right in and amidst our carefully selected seeds. There is no doubt in my mind that next year’s produce will be the better for it. Lucky, lucky us. ~AJ


Footnotes

1Taylor, Ronald. Weeds and Why They Grow
2http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Topic-Rooms/Cover-Crops

3You can use some “weeds” to suppress other “weeds.” We plant several rounds of buckwheat in the summer months for this very purpose to shade out slower growing grasses. In the winter, chickweed and cress can germinate in 24 hours and reach full size in 30 days, beating crabgrass to the punch.

4http://biomimicry.asu.edu/about-us/

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In Praise of Weeds

Brassica 'weed'

“Weeds reduce yield and quality of vegetables through direct competition for light, moisture, and nutrients as well as by interference with harvest operations. Noxious weeds are plant species so injurious to agricultural crop interests that they are regulated or controlled by federal and/or state laws.” -Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers

Pick up any gardening magazine, search any website devoted to landscaping or read any textbook on farming and you will find a thousand reasons why humans think weeds are bad.

Likewise, stroll through the local garden center and take notice of the product labels. How many times do you see the words: control, combat, fight, or kill? A quick Google search uncovers HGTV which encourages us to “Learn how to identify and remove common weeds that may be taking over your lawn and garden spaces.” Meanwhile The DIY experts at The Family Handyman have a blog post titled, “How to Eliminate Weeds from Your Grass.”

This would be downright funny to me if it weren’t so sad. On the one hand, we dislike weeds because they ‘take over.’ Some people would argue that a lawn entirely composed of dandelions (a monoculture, i.e. not just one species growing in high density, but one single variety of one single species), is totally un-loveable. But on the other hand, the same people think a monoculture of turf grass is highly desirable. Why do humans think one is ugly and the other is beautiful? Seems rather subjective, doesn’t it?

At the root of all this ‘weed advice’ is a common belief about what makes a weed actually a weed. Humans are in fact, the only species on the planet to make such categorical plant distinctions based on looks. Fascinatingly, other species do preferentially select certain plants, but not for aesthetic reasons, rather for nutritional ones. Dr. William Albrecht, a prestigious soil scientist from the University of Missouri, was famous for clarifying the direct link between soil health and livestock and human health. Part of his foundational work included a study on cow forages. He determined that bovines very quickly sense if a plant is worth the energy to chew it. If it isn’t, they’ll pass over it. In a cow’s world, orchard grass, just because it is orchard grass, is not always ‘good’ to eat. If it happens to be grown in depleted soil, it may not contain adequate nutritional value to make it worthwhile.

weeds heal

Chef Dan Barber, in his book The Third Plate, highlights this aspect of Albrecht’s work. Barber writes, “Albrecht watched as cows walked past what was commonly considered “good grass” to eat seventeen different types of weeds that had been fertilized with calcium limestone, magnesium and phosphate.” He goes on to quote Albrecht: “The cow is not classifying forage crops by variety name, nor by tonnage yield per acre nor by luscious green growth,” then Barber himself adds, “but she is more adept than any biochemist at assessing their true nature. Albrecht came to the humbling conclusion that we can’t really identify a healthy pasture just by looking at it — we have to really see it, and that requires a deeper understanding.”1

For me, this deeper understanding begins very simply. It begins with the basic definition of a weed. Over and over, I hear and read this definition: Weeds are plants that grow where they are not wanted. This description is much too superficial for me because it assumes an arrogant, human-centric view.

A more accurate definition, which highlights our narrow vision and allows for other perspectives, might read: Weeds are plants that grow where humans think they do not want them.

Farming, and specifically my work with weeds, has caused me to shun the language of war and to question any impulse to judge right from wrong or good from bad. The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over the next few weeks, I’ll share my top three reasons. For starters, here’s reason number one.

Weeds Heal. In temperate climates, Nature does not leave disturbed soil uncovered for any length of time. Bare soil is inherently unstable; it can easily be blown or washed away, cause serious erosion and the loss of important nutrients. Unstable, bare soil eventually causes the death of the millions of microscopic plants and animals that form the basis of our entire food web.

Bare soil leads to the demise of our precious topsoil. It takes “at least 100 years” to form a mere 1-inch of topsoil 2 and we human beings are absolutely dependent on this thin crust of our planet. Without healthy, living topsoil, we have no ability to feed ourselves.

(Ironic then, that it is humans who most extensively and repeatedly disturb the soil. Talk about being one’s own worst enemy!)

But as anyone who has ever tilled up a garden knows, after a soil is disturbed, Nature rushes right back in. While this is annoying to a gardener, viewing weeds from an ecological perspective is quite eye opening and anything but offensive. Weeds actually come to our rescue because they act as Nature’s first line of defense to heal the exposed ‘skin’ of the soil. Here are the attributes of weeds that make them superior soil healers:

a) abundant seed production;
b) rapid population establishment;
c) seed dormancy;
d) long-term survival of buried seed;
e) adaptation for spread;
f) presence of vegetative reproductive structures; and
g) ability to occupy sites disturbed by human activities.3

Because they establish quickly and prolifically with limited water and nutrients, weeds act as that first band-aid to protect an ‘injured soil’ from further damage. The roots of rapidly growing plants like pigweed create a network that holds fragile soil in place. Weeds shade the topsoil, (a kind of living mulch), which lowers surface soil temperatures and helps preserve moisture, both of which support the survival of soil organisms. When weeds die they contribute organic matter, which adds tilth and structure to the soil. This enables the soil to more easily absorb and store future rainfall, which subsequently assists in the establishment of a more diverse group of plants.

So ironically, weeds, for all the reasons we dislike them, are supremely suited to repair the soil we humans insist on disturbing. The logical conclusion is this: in a very important way, we owe our continued existence to the healing work of our many unloved weeds. –AJ


Footnotes

1Excerpt from Barber, Dan. The Third Plate:
Dr. William Albrecht, the longtime chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, was born on a farm in central Illinois in 1888… He earned a medical degree but then abandoned formalized medicine because he found treating disease much less interesting, and a lot less effective, than exploring its causes. Albrecht went to the cause.

He began with a simple observation, which more or less informed his life’s work. He saw cows straining their necks to eat grass on the other side of the fence, much like the cows I had once watched at Blue Hill Farm. Why, he asked himself, would a cow risk entanglement with barbed wire when acres of pasture were free for the taking? The question… led Albrecht to discover that cows—supposedly “dumb beasts,” passive and indiscriminate about their diet—actually spend their days in one long, exhaustive search for more nutritious pasture. Cows determine their next bite by swiping their facial hairs against the tips of the grass. The hairs act like antennae, sensitive to the grass’s richness. A quick calculation is made: Does this plant hold enough nutrition to be worth expending the energy required to take a bite? In many cases, Albrecht noticed, the cows didn’t bother.

He had a hunch that these discerning diners made choices based on minerals potentially available in certain grasses. Chemistry, in other words, could explain a cow’s preference. Albrecht watched as cows walked past what was commonly considered “good grass” to eat seventeen different types of weeds that had been fertilized with calcium limestone, magnesium and phosphate. No wonder the cows deemed the other grass a waste of their energy.

“The cow is not classifying forage crops by variety name, nor by tonnage yield per acre nor by luscious green growth,” he wrote, but she is more adept than any biochemist at assessing their true nature. Albrecht came to the humbling conclusion that we can’t really identify a healthy pasture just by looking at it — we have to really see it, and that requires a deeper understanding.

2http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/wa/soils/?cid=nrcs144p2_036333
3List courtesy of Dwight D. Ligenfelter, Extension Agronomist, at Penn State University


“You have to have a vision. Unless you do, nature will never reveal herself.”
~Dr. William A. Albrecht

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Weeds: A Practical Journey Pt. 2

Blue Spruce, hawthorn and willow

PART II

It has been ten years and there are still too many blackberries in the canyon for my liking. However, my naïve belief that if only I was good enough I could somehow “fix” this problem, yes, this has thankfully disappeared. This mindset has given way to a higher truth. Sometimes big problems take little solutions.

Against the advice of several foresters and USDA extension agents, I was firmly determined not to spray the entire canyon with herbicides. So our family’s first attempt at blackberry control was to mow down the canyon blackberries all at once one summer. This was immediately gratifying and seemed effective, until they grew back more vigorous the next year. Worse yet, the blackberries were spreading into our hay field. This was an even bigger issue because the thick stems dull the mower and bind up the hay rake. If left unchecked, that meant our neighbor wouldn’t hay for us anymore. No hay, no bedding for pigs, no feed for donkeys. Clearly, I had to come up with a workable solution, and mowing all at once wasn’t going to cut it (pun intended). As any good scientifically trained person would do, this situation drove me to become an ardent, obsessive researcher. I became determined to understand weeds, inside and out.

I learned that there are paid professionals with the title of Weed Scientist. I learned that there is actually an organization called the Western Society of Weed Science. I learned that there were degree programs in Weed Science at places like Purdue University which blandly classified the work as: the study of vegetation management and Cornell University which prefers the terminology Weed Ecology.

I bought myself a few indispensible books. The first ones in my collection were in full color with photos of weeds at all life stages and close ups of plant anatomy. Weeds of the West, was a great introduction into the world of weeds and weed management. My Mom gave me her copy of Northwest Weeds The Ugly and Beautiful Villains of Fields, Gardens and Roadsides, by Ronald J. Taylor. As I became more of a weed nerd, I purchased the austere, pictureless but fascinating self-published Weeds and Why they Grow by Jay L. McCaman. These books, along with Charles Walters Jr. Weeds, Control without Poisons, have been the formative texts of my education.

I laughed when I read R. J. Taylor’s definition1 of a weed, thinking Himalayan Blackberries could be his weedy poster child:

“Ecologically, a weed might be defined as a pioneer species, a colonizer of open habitats, a species that takes advantage of disruptions of natural plant communities, especially those created by human activity. Thus weeds are “camp followers.” Like the cockroach, the rat and the starling they are uninvited guests in the niche carved out by humankind.”

A whole new world opened up for me as I devoured my source literature. The more I read, the more I realized how complex, interesting and informative weeds could be. Weeds actually weren’t all bad, in fact, they had a few very redeeming qualities.2 But my voracious reading on the subject also got me thinking. If spraying herbicides is a surefire way to solve the problem, why are there so many resources and programs still devoted to weeds? In fact, why are there any weeds left? I’d watched my neighbor spray his fence lines religiously every single year for many years in a row. And every year, he went out and sprayed again, because every year, the blackberries were still there. Why?

This question led me to an important discovery. I took notice of the fact that many weed management recommendations indicated the importance of an action being taken at a certain time of year. I then understood that the very first step in any relationship with a weed is literally to “know thy plant.” Knowing the weed means understanding the characteristics and the life cycle of that particular plant. Weeds are inherently “weaker” (i.e. maintain few/little stores of energy) at certain points in their biological growth and development. Just as it is far easier to get the upper hand on pigweed when I can barely see it emerging from the soil, perennial weeds like blackberries have a point in the annual year where their defenses are lowered.

Until I took up farming, I didn’t have any reason to learn the detailed life cycle of many different plants. But having a solid understanding of the reproduction and basic ecology of a plant is absolutely key to assisting its growth or encouraging its demise. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. A farmer has to know what the peak of ripeness looks, tastes and feels like in order to harvest a crop at the most opportune time. Likewise, a weed like the Himalayan Blackberry has a very discrete pattern of growth. Each year, the plants go through the same process of summer growth and winter dormancy. In the fall, blackberries are in a critical transition phase. The fall is the time the blackberry plant diverts all its food reserves down into its roots. The spring is the time the blackberries divert that stored food up to make new shoots and leaves. I equate it to working all spring and summer to grow food for the winter. But right before one is able to get that entire crop safely stored from winter rains and pests, the crop gets wiped out. In essence, every year the blackberry gambles its energy supply to grow new food. I was going to be like the bear in the beehive — I just needed to find a way to kill the top growth before the plants had a chance to store their food down in the roots.3 By doing so, each year I was starving the blackberries of their food source, which meant that the following spring’s growth would be much weaker. By understanding at what point in their annual life cycle blackberries were most vulnerable, I could get a leg up. When this lesson sunk in, I came to terms with a startling fact. My job as a farmer was to be not only exceptionally good at growing plants but also very skilled at killing them.

There are three basic categories within which all weed management (i.e. killing weeds) techniques are classified: mechanical, biological and chemical

Mechanical control practices involve a physical disruption of the plant. (Think mowing, cultivation, or burning.) Biological methods rely on the use of a microbial organism or biological process to bring about weed suppression. Usually this entails using plant pathogens, insects, mites, fish, birds or other animals to control the weeds. Examples of biological control agents include, but are not limited to: arthropods (insects and mites), plant pathogens (fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes), fish, birds, and animals like goats, cattle and pigs. Chemical methods rely on herbicides to kill or disrupt the normal growth of plants.

As far as blackberries were concerned, one thing was certain. This was not a one-and-done program. For every mechanical, biological or chemical approach, I read over and over,4 in one form or another:

“You can’t treat a patch of blackberry and then walk away. All the control methods can take several years at least to eradicate a large patch. Don’t take a break and let the blackberries regain their strength.”

I made many mistakes and tried many things in my attempt to beat back the blackberries in the canyon. The reality was hard to swallow. When the property was logged, there was a short window of opportunity for new tree seedlings to get the upper hand. (Blackberries cannot survive shade.) But as soon as that tree canopy came down, the clock started ticking.

My early experiences attempting to remove the blackberries from my land taught me that weeds are not a short-term gig. I also determined there are no easy, fast or cheap answers that have consequences I want to live with – consequences I’m willing to dump (or spray if you will) onto the next generation.

So instead, I’ve made small inroads with my canyon blackberries, utilizing their intolerance for shade, the ability of grass to outcompete them and fall mowing to take advantage of their weaknesses. I’ve planted Western Cedar along the north rim and Douglas fir along the south rim, up on flat ground where I can mow around them. At the head of the canyon I planted a cluster of Blue Spruce, willow, dogwood and albeit completely for beauty, three Jacquemontii Birch. Each year, with minor care, these new trees shade out a little more real estate. It may not seem like much, but it’s one, two, three steps in the right direction.

This year, one additional big step will occur in November. With help from the National Resource Conservation Service, my family will collectively craft a long-range plan with a forester whose specialty is restorative forestry stewardship. This will surely be challenging, but hopefully also gratifying work. Just as weeds began their invasion, so have I begun mine. Little by little, small area by small, discreet area, I, along with my family, will take up the monumental effort to reclaim our latent forest.

Blue Spruce, hawthorn and willow

Diversity gives me hope. From left to right: Blue Spruce, hawthorn and willow begin to steal light from the blackberries at the transition zone from low swale to canyon head.

 

blackberries shaded out

Sometimes progress is hard to spot. Here is a picture of a near impossibility prevailing at our farm. A native, extremely slow growing White Oak has managed, with the help of our diligent fall mowing efforts, to survive its seedling stage and rise above the blackberry canopy. We won’t declare victory yet, as there are a lot of blackberries yet to deter, but nonetheless, eight years of determination is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

One piece of an organic farmer’s practical weed toolkit includes asking the important questions, i.e. framing the right ideas. These days, I walk to the edge of my canyon and I try not to just think about how I can “get rid” of the blackberries.

I think instead:

  • What are my true motives?
  • How can I help to create an environment that will support the type of diversity and ecology I know Nature put here for a reason?
  • What kinds of small, meaningful actions can I take to improve this land?
  • How patient and purposeful can I be?

I focus on removal of weeds only as far as I must, but I do not allow that mindset to hold sway. I don’t dance with the negative.

In short, my blackberries taught me a very important lesson. Don’t let the enormity of a situation cause you to take no action. Just because you don’t know how to fix everything, doesn’t mean you can’t fix something. I still have a lot of blackberry scratches to collect on my arms, a lot of blackberries to mow down and shade out. But I also still have a lot of blackberry jam I get to make. I certainly wouldn’t go planting any on purpose, but one has to admit, blackberries have their perks. They sure make near-impenetrable living fences.

Which is exactly why I keep those old, painful logging photos in my daily sight. They continue to remind me of the truth of agricultural actions: they are never simply all good or all bad. Weeds are like humans – complex and curious, sometimes obstinate and often misunderstood. Those old photos remind me that my work as an organic farmer is to keep the consequences of my choices chiefly in mind. To farm with a century-length mindset, to remember many others will follow me, to be aware constantly of the legacy I am leaving day by day.

Those awful photos and the ensuing thorny results have taught me the art of patient persistence. I practice being content approaching each day and each task with the mindset: how can I make this just a little bit better? What is my rightful role in both cause and effect? What modest, little step can I take today which moves me closer to addressing the bigger problem?

I have read a lot of literature about blackberry removal written by professional weed scientists and agronomists. But surprisingly, the best approach came from a soft-spoken social activist. Educator and author Jonathan Kozol has been advocating for inner-city children for nearly fifty years. One blackberry scratch at a time, I repeat to myself his unshakable advice. “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” ~AJ


Northwest Weeds, The Ugly and Beautiful Villains of Fields, Gardens and Roadsides

Next week’s essay might be titled, “In Praise of Weeds.” I bet you find it hard to believe I might have still more to say on this subject.

This is why my neighbor’s approach has done little to deter his fence line blackberries. He sprays in the spring and summer, and the plants simply outgrow the herbicide. If he would spray in the fall, the plants would carry the poison down into the blackberry roots there by potentially killing the blackberries as well as (cringe) contaminating our soil and watershed.

4 http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/node/580

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Weeds: A Practical Journey, Pt. 1

blackberries DSC_0728

PART I

Shifting my mindset (i.e. broadening my philosophy) was the first step to joyfully managing a sustainable, non-chemically dependent farm. But just deciding I wasn’t going to wage any kind of a war against weeds did not change the fact that my farm had several incredibly invasive plants in a few surprising places.

I have a series of photographs that rest in a white envelope on my office desk. It nearly breaks my heart to look at them; yet I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away.

clear cutting barn hillThe 3 ½” x 5” photos are not dated, but I surmise they were taken in the mid-1980’s, probably around 17 years before I would take ownership of this farm. The pictures document the clear-cutting of the farm’s 7-acre canyon. If my dates are right, I would have been about 12 years old.

When I see the rough, exposed landscape in the pictures, a sunken, heavy kind of loss lodges itself deep in my belly, you know – that place where lament, guilt, and misplaced shame like to hang out.

I can hardly stomach a look at the pictures, for when I do, I think about what this rich forest looked like before the trees came down. I think about how much diversity and beauty was lost. But my grief isn’t a simpleminded condemnation of logging. Here’s the truth. I don’t believe the logging itself was wrong or bad.

I live in a house whose skeleton is comprised of dimensional lumber. I write on paper with old-fashioned No. 2 pencils. Just as I eat my produce every day, I use wood every day.

I would be a hypocrite to believe the harvesting of trees in a forest is bad, but the harvesting of wheat or lettuce in my fields is good. Loggers are farmers. Change the crop, change the scale, (and very importantly) change the timeline, but fundamentally, it’s still the same basic act. Harvesting the resources of one environment to serve the needs of another.

clear cuttingNo, I don’t believe the logging itself was wrong or bad. But what makes me ache with sorrow is the unconscionably simplistic selfishness with which such work is too often undertaken. The method, the mindset, and the manner: it is how we do what we do that makes all the difference.

There are many ways to log, just as there are many ways to farm. The reductionist approach inherently disregards the complexity of natural systems. Such a farmer looks over her fields and sees only the cash value of a single crop, not the dynamic, irreplaceable worth of an ecological system. In this mindset, the fields and forests are simply an un-living blank palette on which human-will can be imposed. I prefer to farm in a way that lives off the interest instead of cashing out the principal balance.

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with weeds?

I now live firsthand with the consequences of that 7-acre logging operation. I live in the beautiful brick house. That brick was purchased with money from the timber sale. I live with the rotting stumps and the logging roads that although overgrown, wind their way around the creek. Without the integrity of tree roots to stabilize the banks, the edges of the canyon now slough off in heavy rains. So little by little, the canyon creeps slowly closer to the foundations of the old hay barn. Up until recently, I also lived with the heeled-in1 and long forgotten lot of grand fir seedlings. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, these seedlings were purchased but never replanted in the canyon.

Nearly every time I walk in my forest, I lament the way in which it was logged. Even more, I grieve that it was not re-planted. Action. In-action. Consequence.

If someone could have just found a way to plant new trees, I think, I wouldn’t be facing the monumental challenge I am. What a vastly different environment this would have been just a few short decades hence. I think about the few hundred hours it might have taken then to plant thousands of new trees versus the thousands of hours it will take now to ensure the survival of just a few hundred trees. Why?

Those great opportunists: weeds. Or rather, a certain weed. Yes, year-by-year, a singular species of weed came to completely dominate the canyon. I live with this very important consequence. In fact, you could say my hands-on education in weed management was a direct result.

Rubus armeniacus: a rambling evergreen, perennial, woody shrub with trailing, stout stems that possess sharp, stiff spines. The shrub may reach up to 4 meters tall (Francis).

The stems, referred to as canes, can reach six to just over twelve meters (20-40 feet) and are capable of rooting at the tips. The canes can attain impassable, dense thickets with up to 525 thick woody canes per square meter (Soll 2004).

Rubus armeniacus was introduced intentionally2 into North America on the east coast in 1885 by Luther Burbank (Francis) for its tasty blackberries. This species then became established on the west coast by 1945 (Soll 2004). It has also escaped cultivated areas spreading into wildlands in Hawaii, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (Francis). Himalayan blackberry is native to the Caucasus region in Eurasia (Caplan and Yeakley 2006).3

Now, a person can have the philosophical underpinnings of a saint, but the Himalayan blackberries will still test the strength of your convictions. What could possibly be done? I needed more than just good intentions. I needed tools, education, and a lot of band-aids…

Ok readers, my apologies, but at this moment I must stop writing about weeds and start actually weeding. This morning, I promised myself I’d walk up my lane with the long handled pruners. There’s a certain plant with extensive trailing canes and shiny black berries that is hiding in my wild rose hedge. This intruder keeps lofting itself into the driveway to scrape the passing cars. Thanks for being patient until I can finish my story next week. Right now, I’m going to get to the root of that problem. ~AJ


1 Heeling in is a technique employed when transplants cannot immediately be planted into their final location due to poor weather or soil conditions. The transplants are kept alive by digging a trench in a more accessible area. The plant are very densely set in the trench, and their roots are covered in soil. Some plants are heeled in during winter dormancy, but typically it is a very short term method for “storing” live plants.

2 Remember the photograph I shared last week showing the pigweed in the farmer’s footsteps?

3 http://www.nwcb.wa.gov/siteFiles/Rubus_armeniacus.pdf

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Weeds: A Philosophical Journey Pt. 2

april joy farm field

Part II

full sized pigweed

Full sized pigweed

After my revelation I was convinced it was foolish to think I could truly extirpate my weed ‘problems.’ I felt like I was back at square one. But really, I was just beginning one of the best journeys of my life. I knew clearly that what I had previously thought of as model farms many not truly be the ecologically highest functioning farms. In fact, quite the opposite could be true. Monoculture farms in which thousands of acres are uniformly seeded to one variety of plant definitely had a neat and tidy look. But this approach to growing food has damaging consequences… and it sure didn’t look healthy to me. I began to parse apart the word good so I could discover its true meaning in the context of my farm. I began to question my previously unchallenged ideas about how beauty and health were connected. Privately, the concept of beauty had begun to change considerably for me. What I saw showcased as beautiful in terms of food production was often not indicative of any measure of authentic health.

But publicly, every time I hosted visitors, I felt a little embarrassed because no matter how many hours I worked, my fields never looked as neat and tidy as I thought they should. Well, all that changed one summer day. I was in the middle of giving a farm tour. A guest was complimenting me on how good all my crops looked and how hard it must be to keep up with all the weeding. Before I knew what I was saying, the words, “Well, I think of my farm as a work in progress,” came out of my mouth.

After the tour I turned that phrase over and over in my mind. Like a life raft, I clung to it. Why, each of my rows and aisles and fields and trials were truly a work in progress. Any day of the year you visit the farm, every animal, fruit tree, vegetable, farmer and weed… we are all works in progress. We are all life forms hard at work growing, changing, becoming, expanding or receding. I began to consider my farming practice as just that – A PRACTICE.

Practice is messy. Practice is uncertain. Practice is experiential and chaotic and requires tools and resources and prototypes. Practice requires failure.

IF I could never eradicate all the weeds anyway and IF everything was a work in progress, these two ideas meant I could stop yearning for perfection. Instead (metaphorically) I could leave all the pens and paper and paints and ideas on the drafting table because I was capital W Working. I could stop bludgeoning myself for not having perfectly weeded aisles and manicured lawns. Instead, I could trustingly follow my creative curiosity and thereby take an incremental approach to improvement. This curiosity, without fail, gave me exactly the experiences and challenges I needed to learn. By ceasing to expect perfection in my work, I could allow myself to work more freely. By doing so, I could inch closer to a new, more kind and generous vision of a ‘perfectly imperfect’ farm. In this vision, there was less effort and more flow, less judging and more acceptance, less busy work and more meaningful work.

With this philosophy, my work mattered now in a new way, and my trials did too. Even my failures and weedy patches mattered because from each experience I took away a small shaving of knowledge, of confidence, or of understanding. These small bits began to add up and the big weights of being, looking, or acting in a certain manner began to fall away. Yes, little by little, I am moving closer and closer to my vision of a ‘perfect’ farm. Concurrently, my vision of a ‘perfect’ farm is blossoming into something beyond what I could have imagined from my place of restrictive perfectionism.

Through some moment of grace, and by wrestling with this idea of a work in progress, I realized that actually, I didn’t want that original version of perfection. Because if everything was perfect, then oh my, that meant I would have nothing to work towards. With great relief, I realized I was in the thick of life. I realized I was the happiest as a work in progress, where I could experiment in a fun, free-form way. I suddenly became very thankful for all my weeds; my weeds meant I wasn’t finished with life.

It was the nearly crushing weight of my own weed shaming that allowed me to begin to break apart my awful perfectionist tendencies. My whole life, I would have denied that perfection was my goal, for who admits to that? But my weeds made me confront the truth, because weeds are completely relentless.

Pigweed is a plant you don’t turn your back on. From seed to senescence can take as few as two months. This means 1 seed becomes 1 million seeds in about 8 weeks.

Cultivation left a dust mulch around these young squash plants, thereby discouraging germination of pigweed and other small-seeded weeds. However, foot traffic recompacted the soil enough to re-establish seed–soil contact near the surface, thereby allowing weed seeds to imbibe moisture, germinate, and grow in the footprints. Photo credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

I learned early on to treat pigweed not as one plant, but many, for it truly does contain multitudes. Like other weeds, it undergoes a metamorphosis startlingly fast. The seemingly innocuous little green plants can grow as tall as 4 feet in their short lifespan. The tender, easy to hand-pull seedlings transform into tall and slender red stemmed plants with spiny, needle sharp bracts that hold one million shiny, black seeds.

Pigweed taught me that timing is everything, and thus it transformed my enjoyment of weeding. Because of its skin piercing seedheads, I quickly learned that weeding full grown pigweed was not for the faint of heart. With the right tool, with the right soil conditions, I can roar down and back a 160 foot bed in less than an hour and it is pleasant, enjoyable, peaceful work. As far as pigweed is concerned, size matters!

I’ll always carry a certain fondness for pigweed. In part, because years ago I came across the picture on the left when I was learning about its lifecycle. It’s my absolute all time favorite weed photograph. It reminds me of the quintessential relationship between weeds and humans. The big plants are the “good” vegetable plants. A farmer has taken time to weed all around them, and has been quite successful. But the two patches of pigweed are growing most prolifically—literally—in the farmer’s footsteps. What a conundrum!

Amaranthus retroflexus

The ideal stage at which to weed Amaranthus retroflexus. Just looking at it makes me want to grab my wire hoe and run for the field! Can you see those little green leaves peeking up out of the soil?

But no matter what size the plants are when I go out to weed, you will never hear me gripe or complain. Oh, I will not hesitate to tell you heatedly about their strength and tenacity, but I will refuse, refuse to classify my weeds as enemies. I will refuse to personify them in a way that incites anger, which makes it easy to assume ‘they’ exist purposely to cause me harm. I refuse to believe that because one of us is here, it means we both can’t be. I refuse to believe competing interests can’t find the common ground of collaboration. This farmer and her weeds? We give and we take. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. The weeds in my life keep me in balance. They keep me curious, attentive, and humble. They keep me questioning my false beliefs, the roots of my desires, and my knee-jerk reactions that stem from ego rather than compassion.

I can’t possibly hate pigweed. It never gives up. Once pigweed grows tall enough that you have to use two hands to pull it out, you’ll usually find it has taken root in dry, compact soil. So many times, I’ve rushed by, thinking I can get the job done fast. I’ll pull as hard as I can, but the roots won’t yield. Instead, the top breaks free, right at the soil line. Decapitated, I’ll pitch the spiny top growth and rush on to another task. But, without fail, when I come back a week later, a low, horizontal growing plant will be spreading stealthily, with three or more new arms where only a single vertical one existed before I intervened. This use to infuriate me, but now it makes me laugh so hard at my comical failings. Every time, pigweed teaches me to go beyond the superficial. Each plant seems to ask me, Do you want to effect change? Then stop rushing. Draw back your attention. Align your purpose with your actions.

Moment after moment, you have to be willing to kneel at the foot of truth and to go down deep. You have to be willing to work towards the roots of life. ~AJ

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Weeds: A Philosophical Journey  Pt. 1

sunflowers in the weeds

PART I

red tractor called the "red goat"

The Red Goat ready to eat some weeds.

This is the week I’ll climb up onto the Red Goat and get some mowing done. The old cherry red Farmall A tractor was restored by my brother, Dad and grandfather. They belly-mounted a rotary mower and with her high clearance tires on, boy can she eat up the weeds.

Without any safety features to speak of, and a surprising amount of horsepower, The Red Goat can race across the fields, bounce you off and keep right on going. You have to pay close attention to her at all times, which is another reason I affectionately call her the Red Goat. (Goats are notorious for getting into trouble, most usually after they’ve found a way over, under or otherwise out of their triply –reinforced fenced yards.)

But let’s get back to mowing and weeds. What comes to mind when you think of weeds? When I first started farming, my collective knowledge of weeds pretty much consisted of the following statements:

Weeds are bad, ugly and invasive. All weeds need to be eradicated. If a farmer has weeds, then she isn’t a very good farmer.

As with a few other ‘basics’ I thought I knew, all I can say is, I was wrong on every count. Of all the fascinating, complex, philosophical, scientific subjects one encounters as a farmer, weeds are at the top of my list. Nine years later, as I ponder the lessons weeds have taught me, I couldn’t be more surprised.

Weed management is a hot topic for farmers. There are numerous resources that provide all sorts of tools, tricks and chemicals for ‘controlling or eliminating weed problems.’ Many of these so-called experts alarm farmers by repeatedly citing a basic weed fact. This fact is always along the lines of: One plant of red root pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) [or insert any vile, mean-spirited, vicious weed here] may produce in excess of one million seeds [or insert some incredibly large number of weed seeds raised to the power of infinity here].

I think this fact is suppose make a farmer believe he or she is at war with weeds, and therefore to go forth in trepidation. One is thusly motivated by sheer fear to expunge her fields of any such invaders lest her good name die, suffocated by a thick mass of Crabgrass or other such brute.

This line of thinking is exacerbated by what we believe to be aesthetically good. There are so many images of neat and tidy rows of crops that it is easy to harshly judge one’s own beginning efforts. It is important to understand that from a farmer’s perspective, letting anyone look at your crops is equivalent to inviting a stranger into your house before you’ve had time to clean; the current state of your fields can be deeply personal.

In my case, learning that basic weed fact and holding in my mind the ‘ideal’ picture -perfect looking farm, did exactly as the experts had intended. Unsurprisingly, at first I was exceedingly critical of my planted fields. Too often, I felt nearly defeated by the vast weed populations. I thought I was the problem. I thought I just needed to work harder, be more fastidious, never let my guard down. Operating under my rudimentary belief system (weeds are bad, good farmers don’t have weeds), it’s not difficult to understand how this mindset quickly became self-defeating. I call it weed shaming.

Even though no one ever said a word to me about what my fields looked like, that blasted fact about the proliferation of weed seeds haunted me for too many years. It would be late in the evening; I’d be dog-tired, walking back from livestock chores. I’d make the mistake of passing thru the vegetable field. Upon spying a pigweed outbreak in my lettuce bed, guilt would seize me. Visions of millions of fresh, robust pigweed seed raining down on my fertile soil would cause me to drop to my knees and pull the dreaded weeds until it was literally too dark to make out the thick red taproots. That general scenario repeated itself across many days, many seasons, many weeds, many crops… until it all changed for me.

Ironically, it was this same pervasive fact about weed seeds (one plant turns into one million seeds) that freed me from the tyranny of weed shaming. I was in the midst of an extensive weeding project. I know I was elbow-deep in a vast sea of pigweed. I was sitting back on my knees, taking a short break to unbend my spine. I looked off to the edge of the field, and I noticed a lone pigweed innocently wavering her lance-shaped leaves in the breeze.

That’s when the basis of my weed philosophy germinated. I looked around at all the blossoming young pigweed, I looked at my tired, soil-encrusted hands. I remember thinking, so even if, (as some experts advise), I meticulously pull 99.9999% of the pigweed (pigweed, by the way, germinates continuously in our fields from about March to October), I could still face one million germinating seeds the next year. Why? Because I missed pulling that one little innocent-looking pigweed hanging out over there at the edge of the field. With even a modicum of hindsight, I’ll tell you this: you don’t have to have a statistics degree to know the odds of eliminating even one species of weeds are clearly not in a farmer’s favor.

Huh, I thought to myself. I am basically Sisyphus, rolling one giant ball of pigweed up a steep hill, just to find I’m right back where I started. Then, I began really questioning everything. If I can’t realistically get rid of it, what am I suppose to do? Why is pigweed even here? What purpose does pigweed serve from Nature’s perspective? Is it possible there is some advantage to having pigweed in my field? What soil type and fertility does pigweed need to grow? My out-of-the-box musings eventually led to the two best (farming and life) questions I’ve ever asked myself: What exactly am I doing here, and what are the consequences?

Those early years, I spent too much time and physically over-taxed myself weeding, weeding without thought. Sure, I thought I had a clear purpose: I had weeds, weeds are bad, and doesn’t a freshly weeded bed of vegetables look so perfect? (Without ever saying it, this is what too much of my weed pulling really turned out to be about: perfection.)

But once I realize that pigweed, by sheer, overwhelming abundance, was not in my lifetime going to miraculously disappear from my fields, I decided I’d better explore the meaning of perfect, the concept of good, the philosophy of veracity. I decided I’d better reconcile appearance with integrity, and with health. All this would require a serious overhaul of my sizeable human ego.

I knew, that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t turn back now. I knew: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I knew for the first time in my farming career that I didn’t actually believe the ‘experts’. Or rather, that maybe the experts weren’t who I thought they were. The experts weren’t out there in the world telling me what should or shouldn’t be in growing my vegetable fields. No, the experts were right here, at my feet, surrounding me. Simply because no plant speaks English, I had overlooked my greatest source of knowledge.

So I set off on a journey, determined to forge a working relationship with the prickly, spiny, tenacious, opportunistic, hard-to-love members of my community. Pigweed was first on my get-to-know list. What I learned and how much it has changed me, well, that’s a story I’ll save for next week. Right now, I’ve got a date with the Red Goat. ~AJ

Read part two of Weeds: A Philosophical Journey.

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A Tomato Story

heirloom tomatoes

In 2009 I had the unique opportunity to meet a phenomenal plant breeder named Tom Wagner. Tom was interested in continuing his breeding efforts but he needed more field space than his home in Everett, Washington would allow. Local food advocate Glenn Grossman coordinated a ‘grow out’ project in which Clark County farmers planted and tended some of Tom’s seeds for him.

The wonderful thing about Tom’s work is that he is chiefly interested in breeding tomatoes (and potatoes) for enhanced flavors, colors and nutritional value. Many plant breeders are focused on agri-business driven goals of storage length, or durability, at great expense to the health of the plant, genetic diversity, and the taste of the fruit/vegetable. The year Tom gave me seeds, his project also focused on the following traits in tomatoes:

  • Late Blight resistance
  • Green flesh
  • Bi-color flesh
  • Black and Brown coloring
  • Frost tolerance
  • Insect resistance
  • Early Ripening
  • Odd color combinations (pink and green)

Tom gave me five tomato seed packets, each contained just a few seeds. He had hand written on each packet the ‘names’. I say ‘names’ because none of the seeds he gave me were entirely genetically stable, i.e. the characteristics of the parents of the tomatoes seeds may or may not be expressed in the new generation of tomatoes. It was totally unknown what each plant would look like, and importantly what the fruit would taste like. This is why Tom needed so much field space to continue his work. It may take hundreds or even thousands of plants to find only one or two that have the characteristics a breeder is looking for. Back at my greenhouse I quickly planted: 132608GH, F2 Green Zebra/Stupice, 713309, Glacier/Green Zebra and 13309.

Tom’s tomato plants grew robust and after transplanting, they thrived in my field. By late August, I was completely astounded at the variety of colors, flavors and plant structures that emerged from those few tiny seeds. Previously, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the concept of genetic variability, but Tom’s tomatoes were exotic to both the eye and the palate. Being surrounded by so much single species diversity in which many different genes had found expression in a common form was an extraordinary experience.

One can read about the diversity of a wild place, or flip through the pages of a seed catalog but I am here to say: it is not the same. Until you stand in the middle of genetic abundance one simply cannot imagine the depth of Nature’s toolkit. Tom’s tomatoes taught me that diversity exists on an order of magnitude far greater than my self-limiting human mind had thought possible.

Tom returned to my farm in the late summer and walked the row, sampling and selecting certain fruit he knew held the key to another iteration of his work. I watched him with the plants and I listening to him discuss his lifelong passion. It was then I became so grateful that individuals like Tom were continuing a tradition of breeding for taste, for nutrition, and for plant health. When Tom was ready to leave, I asked him if he would mind if I saved some seeds myself. He seemed quite flattered; that was an excellent idea.

One year tumbled into another. In 2010, I made an effort to plant Tom’s varieties and then, as a novice, I saved seed. Lacking any “names” for the tomatoes that grew, I simply wrote the year and a description of the color and size on each packet.

From then on, I saved and planted a few more of Tom’s tomatoes that were especially beautiful, complexly flavored, and that produced abundantly. The seed packets multiplied. Finally, in 2013 Brad and I took all those saved seed packets and we grew a few of each described color/flavor/size combination. This turned out to be over 80 tomato plants, each producing riotously and diversely. Much to my delight, some consistency had emerged over the last five years. For instance, a plant from a seed packet that I had labeled ‘yellow/green & small’ actually produced a fair amount of little yellowy/green fruit.

It was a late summer morning in 2013 that Chef Mike Campos and I spent a memorable few hours together. We went plant by plant, fruit by fruit, tasting every last one. At the end of the row, from all those plants, all those tomatoes, we emerged with a few outstandingly flavored tomatoes and two mild stomach aches! We culled out the plants that looked ‘cool’ but tasted bland or the tomatoes that were abundant but unimpressive in the mouth. The experience was one I will remember for a long time because it left me philosophizing about the taste of a tomato.

What does a tomato taste like? Before my connection with Tom, I thought I could tell you. But five years after he shared his seeds with me, standing in the middle of that row of indescribably unique and varying abundance, tasting flavor after inimitable flavor, I realized something. This thing we call a tomato or a tree or a human? Tomatoes or trees or humans all have discreet, fundamental forms, and yet each tomato, tree and human is simply unto its own.

We can identify a tomato, a tree, a human, but each of us is indescribably different from every other tomato, tree or human. A tomato is never just a tomato. A tree is never just a tree. Humans are never just humans. Our experiences and our environment shape and define and create us, they allow us to expand or force us to contract. We are more permeable to our surroundings than we know, and yet at the same time we are distinctly, genetically, unalterably our own true self now and forever. What does a tomato taste like? It depends on the stories hidden inside the tomato.

On Sunday, Brad and I headed to the field to harvest heirloom tomatoes. We returned to the packing shed with ten incredible flats. One flat contained entirely only two ‘varieties’ of tomatoes. “Green/yellow/pink & big.” “Chocolate & big.” If I close my eyes, I can still envision the hand-written label on my novice seed-saving packets. I stood there for a while, looking at that one flat, feeling full of pride and pleasure. Those tomatoes held the eighth generation of my seed saving efforts, and probably at least the tenth generation of Tom Wagner’s foundational breeding work. How can I explain what each of these tomatoes represents? What stories lie within each fruit’s seeds, what bounty and luck and work and pluck do all those tangy sweet flavors contain?

It seems unbelievable to me that eight years have passed since I took part in Tom’s tomato “grow out” project. These tomatoes mean a lot to me, which is why I wanted to share this story. I know. It’s not flashy or overly thrilling. But I hope the simple mundaneness of the work it is a testament to the fact that we are a culmination of how and what we spend our time doing and being and thinking and believing.

I don’t expect these oddly colored tomatoes to win any awards or earn me one cent. I don’t even really feel compelled to give them a proper name. But nonetheless, I am proud. I am proud that I worked, I cared, I continued to save seed even when I was dead tired. I sowed and weeded and I cared, even when I didn’t plan on selling one ripe fruit, even when no one else on the planet knew what I was doing or why it mattered. Even when I didn’t know if it really mattered, I still cared enough to try. I held out hope that one day, we’d have remarkably delicious tomatoes, grown in our beautiful soil, tailored to our climate. I held out hope that regardless of the outcome, the work mattered. The caring mattered.

Don’t overlook the greeny/yelheirloom tomatoeslowy multi-lobed tomato that isn’t uniformly round. Don’t pass by the little chocolate one with the netted scars on the bottom. I can vouch: no tomato is just another tomato. Their seeds contain stories, their unusually colored skin contains hope and love and a good deal of patient, ongoing work.

My experience with Tom’s tomatoes instilled in me a compelling lesson. Every bean, every cherry, every glass of milk, slice of bread or grain of rice? Each intrinsically carries its own set of stories. What, and where, and how did each come to be?

Maybe, if we can begin look at each plate of food and likewise each human face with this mindset of curiosity, this alone will unearth the smallest of kindnesses. In new and poignant ways, we might teach ourselves to care, to care abundantly and diversely. ~AJ

P.S. Why do we store our heirloom tomatoes upside-down?

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Agricultural Literacy Matters

I have come to understand that like it or not, part of my job description reads ambassador.  Only 1.9% of Americans currently list agriculture as their occupation, which means most visitors to my farm have no personal connection to farming or farmers.  Many have formed their perceptions of agriculture from behind rolled up car windows, thru glossy magazine photographs, or increasingly rarely, from the distance of childhood memories spent “at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.”

Today, Americans collectively know little of the life cycle of any one plant, yet alone the distinct differences and characteristics of many of our basic crops.  In the news, the few articles about farming are decidedly one-sidedly, written by reporters without any agricultural background.  With respect to growing food, public discussions are reductionistic.  Impatiently we ask, is something “good” or “bad”?  In the case of agriculture, what we don’t understand, we overly simplify.

My primary goal as ambassador is to help restore a basic level of agricultural literacy in our community.  Because so many do not have a personal connection to any aspect of the farming cycle, everything from seed to table is foreign.  The fundamental tenants, the crucial processes, even the language of growing food is a complete mystery to most.

It use to baffle me, given this foreignness of agriculture to so many, given a societal reluctance to get ‘dirty’ and to think about the cycles of life and death, why year after year, so many people want to spend time at farms.  But then I came to witness first hand how visitor after visitor is captivated by the experience.

At the beginning of each farm tour, I use to work very hard to explain with great seriousness the entire system and structure of my farm.  But this approach was entirely unnecessary.  For how can you listen to the encyclopedia being read aloud when there is a pack of grunting, rooting pigs at your feet?  How can you pay attention to statistics and crop rotation maps when the air is perfumed with tomato leaves and you are bursting to ask the name of the most delicately beautiful flower you’ve ever laid eyes on?

No matter what the purpose of the tour, I notice that a comprehensive overview of what the farm is and how it “works” is less important than allowing tiny connections to spontaneously happen.  Any more, I don’t try to bombard visitors with the seriousness and sanctity of growing healthy food.  Instead, we walk and talk and experience small vignettes of today’s farm, which is different than yesterday’s or tomorrow’s farm.  One woman has “the best conversation of her whole day” with my hen Marigold.  Another peers closely at the tiny blue flowers carpeting the recently disturbed soil, declares them gorgeous and then bashfully asks, “But are they a weed?”  A gentleman sees the unique shape of our curved hoe blade and it reminds him of his summers spent in ‘Auntie’s pole bean patch.’  A young boy just wants to know if he can touch his very first pig snout, declaring afterward, that “it is definitely softer than most.”

In my ambassador’s quest for agricultural literacy, I field seemingly simple questions: why some sweet peppers are yellow, why there are sticky tiny bugs on broccoli heads, why some lettuce heads have a pointy top, and why tomatoes don’t grow in winter.  I patiently explain the connection between cilantro and coriander, and why can’t you plant one Brussels sprout if you want to grow more Brussels sprouts.

The questions come at me with a black and white innocence, revealing deep assumptions about how we position ourselves in relationship to Nature.  Some of the questions take me aback with their honest ignorance; surprisingly, there exists little common understanding between humans and the land we walk in.

What is a weed?  How do you grow a grape plant from a seedless grape?  Do you need roosters to have eggs?  A-B-C.  Agriculture Literacy 101.  First we learn the letters, their sound ringing strangely off our tongues.  Then, slowly, over time, because we begin to care, we learn how each piece goes together.

Interestingly, on my ambassador tours, it matters less whether I explain the life cycle of an onion or describe why pigs need wallows.  What matters is the flickering connection 98% of us never knew we yearned to restore.  What matters is that, without fail, every first time visitor to my farm sounds out one new letter, one strange consonant or vowel, and they do it happily, curiously, without any sense that “important, serious” knowledge about our basic human needs is being forced upon them.

Farm systems teach us much of the natural cycles of life, and in doing so, inform and affect our perceptions, our perspectives and our sense of possibility.  Most of us have not spent our childhoods weeding gardens, canning tomatoes, milking cows or watching Mom butcher the mean rooster.  Most of us do not have the luxury of agrarian knowledge accumulated over the course of the two decades of our childhood.

So letter by letter, word by word, concept by concept, I answer the curious questions.  It is brutally slow and an entirely un-comprehensive approach.  But I hold out hope that each naïve question I answer sincerely will lead to another.  I hope that each person who visits will leave yearning to gain a simple fluency of the language of our food.  Yes, here and there, I can only hope a tiny seed germinates common understanding.

It is an absolute delight to bear witness to obtuse misconceptions falling away, sloughed off like one’s heavy, dirty coat at winter’s end.  My own perspective and understanding is deepened by such experiences.  This is because, plant by plant, row by row, hand by hand, a small question leads to conversation, leads to philosophical ponderings, leads to more questions.  Question by question, I become a better ambassador.

Of course lessons from the soil affirm and provide perspective, of course they ‘ground us.’  Regardless of if we have ever kneeled to earth in wonder or not, we too, are of the soil.  We forget often and easily, but we humans depend entirely on the generosity of Earth.  Doesn’t it make sense we rekindle this fundamental relationship?

What are the primary agricultural lessons?  Watching the seasons come full circle, again and again, each year different, but each year with the common and comforting wild moorings affirms for me:  Life, beautiful, miraculous life, goes on.  Food, beautiful, miraculous food, is not to be wasted.  We, beautiful, miraculous creatures, plants and humans, and our fates, are all connected.  ~AJ

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Our Centenarian Apple Tree

Last Saturday, out early on my morning chore round, I was startled to discover a big change in the field. A sizable arm of our more-than-century-old apple tree was on the ground. The limb had apparently broken off sometime in the night. I suspect it gave way because an old injury had hollowed out its center, so much so that it could no longer support the weight of this year’s ripening apple crop.

This is not the first main limb to give way. However large the branches appear when standing underneath, looking up as they arch into the sky, it does not quite prepare one for the enormity of their presence on the ground. (Anyone who has ever split firewood from ‘just one tree’ knows this truth!) Over the course of the day, several others, with some alarm, raced to tell me of the scene. We all sensed a feeling of loss; this magnificent tree was not as indefatigable as we assumed. For years on end, her quiet stoicism had lulled us into believing change danced around her, not within her.

My curiosity with the rotted limb led me to re-learn a few forestry fundamentals. The trunk, or stem, of a tree supports the crown and gives the tree its shape and strength. The trunk consists of four layers of tissue. These layers contain a network of tubes that runs between the roots and the leaves and acts as the central plumbing system for the tree. These tubes carry water and minerals up from the roots to the leaves, and they carry sugar down from the leaves to the branches, trunk and roots.

Heartwood. Xylem/Sapwood. Cambium. Phloem/Inner Bark. Although I never wish such things to happen, when they do, I harbor within me a secret luckiness. I can now actually feel the anatomy of this tree. I can now reach so many previously untouchable places. I can now connect unfamiliar names to personal places. Now I have inspiration to shed a few small ignorances, to learn more truly about this literally longstanding friend of mine.

As a tree grows, older xylem cells in the center of the tree become inactive and die, forming heartwood. Because it is filled with stored sugar, dyes and oils, the heartwood is usually darker than the sapwood. The main function of the heartwood is to support the tree.

Even in the decay, in the dark hollowness of missing heartwood, I see life. At the base of the splintered limb, I find a small pile of soft ‘rubble.’ The substance is finely ground with a texture of moist, black coffee grounds. Immediately its richness resonates with me. Humus! Humus is the dark organic matter that forms when plant and animal matter decays. Amazing. Twenty-four hours ago and twenty five feet in the air, a limb was dying, and at the same time creating the building blocks of fertile soil life.

The xylem, or sapwood, comprises the youngest layers of wood. Its network of thick-walled cells brings water and nutrients up from the roots through tubes inside of the trunk to the leaves and other parts of the tree. As I read, my hands touch the soft paper page, then, like new field guides, my fingertips walk across the landscape of the rough broken sapwood, which is hardening as moisture recedes from its cells. I pause, thinking of the irony of learning the layers of this tree from words printed on pages of her fibers. But I don’t dwell long. The brilliant orange on the underside of the inner bark catches my fancy. I press my nose to the soft, still moist surface, breathing in a sweetness that is earthy. I smell the freshness of hope.

**

This apple tree has reigned over farm life for a span of time I can’t quite comprehend. Just in my short years here, she’s blessed a wedding, comforted the loss of a extraordinary farm feline, hosted countless delicious picnics and suppers, kept me more than once from succumbing to heat stroke and taught many what a full bodied, complex apple really tastes like.

Brad returned from the field the other day and surprised me with a square nail, clearly hand forged, that he had uncovered while transplanting. Surely, this great apple tree knew the owner? Surely, this apple tree watched the horses come through the field. Maybe the machinery that nail belonged to at one time rested under the shade of this very tree? So many memories she holds quietly. I realize now, I might never be closer to the true stories of this farm than when I stand in her shade, circled between her thick roots and rustling leaves, listening with my imagination.

**

As I continue on with daily farm life, I am continually struck by how differently the apple tree’s profile looks now. I think about the lettuces I was transplanting near the shade of that limb just the day before. I think guiltily of the tractor bucket I roughly jostled against the branch while maneuvering in a tight space. The profile I’d grown accustomed to was gone now. All that weight carried for so many years, finally unbounded by gravity.

I stand westward and study her new outline. I work to absorb the lessons. How does one learn to adapt, to shed heaviness counter to others’ expectations, to give of yourself for the necessity of new life?

I begin to see lightness in the new silhouette of the tree. It is as if she has gained slenderness and height. I focus more completely, and soon I am able to see the density of healthy growing apples in her tall arching limbs. I hear the barn swallows chattering and swooping up and over her crown. I notice the comfrey we planted at her base last spring, now nearly as tall as I am, its flowers humming with pollinators. My sadness of loss transforms slowly into acceptance, then into a subtle form of peace. This is why, again and again, I show up.

**

Many years ago, when I first took over farm ownership, I consulted a tree-pruning expert who was well versed in the care and longevity of aged fruit trees. When I asked if we needed to be pruning and ‘managing’ the tree, very professionally he said, “If you are interested in the highest fruit production, then yes. But pruning for longevity, in this case and in my opinion, is unnecessary.”

“She’s taken care of herself a long time,” he said, pausing to look directly at me, “without our meddling.” He was adamant that it was disrespectful to attempt to prop up, support or extend the life of this tree just to maximize fruit production. Better instead, the wise gentleman instructed me, to let this centenarian live out her life freely of her choosing.  -AJ

P.S.  If you study the photo above, you’ll find not just the sharpness of loss, but also the blurred fluttering of new life taking flight.  A fledgling kestrel is learning to fly – right from the safety of the grand old apple tree.

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