Archive for September, 2007

James And The Giant Jerusalem Artichoke

Sunchoke blossomsThe Jerusalem artichokes in my fields aren’t artichokes, and they’re not from Jerusalem. So what are they? For one thing, they’re a problem I need to solve soon.

Scientists call Jerusalem artichokes Helianthus tuberosa. Helios is Greek for sun, and anthus means flower, so the Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower that makes a tuber. A tuber is an enlarged, subterranean stem, not a root, with buds that can send out roots, other stems, or leaves. Botanists will tell you that plants evolve a tuberous habit to survive harsh environmental conditions. A tuber can remain alive under an insulating blanket of soil for a long time. When rain finally does come, underground tubers are stimulated to sprout stems and greenery, and the plant grows up into the sun. As conditions get hot and dry again, or freezing cold, the life force of the plant retreats from the foliage back down the stems into the tubers that nest protected in the soil. A tuberous plant stores enough nutrients and water in it’s tissue to survive until the soil warms up and the rain comes.

The sugars and proteins stored in the tubers make many of them valuable crops for people. The potato, for example, is a tuberous member of the Solanaceae, that comes from the Andes, where hot days and cold nights make survival a constant challenge. Potatoes are agriculture’s most commercial tuber, but many other plant families have contributed tuberous crops to agriculture. Anu, or Tropaeolum tuberosum, is an edible tuberous nasturtium from the Andes. Yams, or Dioscorea alata, are tubers from Africa. Oca. Oxalis tuberosa, is a tart, edible oxalis from South America. Some home gardeners in California struggle to overcome the sulphur yellow flowered oxalis weeds that overcome their garden plots. They pull the succulent foliage up by the armful, every spring, but the oxalis always comes back, because it’s re-sprouting from tiny tubers buried deep in the soil. A tuberous habit can be a good adaptation to survive the environmental pressures presented by suburbia.

The French explorer Champlain observed the Indians that he encountered in America cooking Helianthus tubers, and he took them back to Europe. The Italians dubbed the plants ” girasole articocco.” The Italian verb girar means to turn, and sole means sun. Helianthus plants have flowers that turn on their stems during the day so that they’re always tracking the sun, facing east at dawn and facing west in the evening. You can observe this behavior if you pay attention to the common sunflowers in a garden. The English, showing their sensitivity for nuance and that spiritual touch that’s made them such an influence in the Middle East , heard the Italian girasole as “Jerusalem,” and named the plants “Jerusalem artichokes.”

There is a faint rationale to calling the Helianthus tuberosa an “artichoke,” since the flesh of the tuber tastes faintly of artichoke, and both sunflowers and artichoke are members of the Compositae. Plants in the Compositae are distinguished by their flower heads, which are made up, or composed, of many independent florets fused into one apparent common flower head. The face of a sunflower is really the face of a community, not an individual. Lettuces, dandelions, thistles, and radicchio are also composites.

But where the iconic garden sunflower makes one huge head, the Jerusalem artichoke is multi- branched, and makes many small flowers. Helianthus tuberosa will produce seeds, but many of the seeds are sterile. Instead, the Jerusalem artichoke spreads by spreading its tubers underground. In a garden setting Jerusalem artichokes can quickly morph from a crop into a weed if the gardener doesn’t remove every last piece of tuber from the soil. I’m not worried about Jerusalem artichokes infesting my field, because we’ll do a good job on the harvest, and what we don’t get, the gophers will.

What does concern me about my Jerusalem artichoke crop is the sheer volume of bio-mass that we are going to have to hack through to get to the tubers.

Chef James Ormsby standing next to a tal sunchoke plantAfter they flower, the Jerusalem artichoke plants will start to die back. As the stalks wither they take on a hard, fibrous character. It will be easy enough to cut the dry stalks down with machetes, but trying to incorporate the tough, woody stems back into the soil could be like trying to plough an acre of hemp door mats under. The Jerusalem artichokes are just flowering now, so they’ve finished their upward growth, but they’re very tall. Chef James Ormsby came down to visit the field, and the Jerusalem artichokes dwarfed him. I’m 6′1″, and James is much taller than me, but he looks small standing among the Jerusalem artichokes. Some of the plants must be fourteen feet high. I’m thinking of renting or buying a brush chipper, and feeding the stems through it, so that they’re chewed up mechanically and spit out as a mulch before on top of the soil.

Once the plants have died back and the tubers have formed their protective skin, we’ll begin the harvest. There are tons of tubers to dig up and we don’t have enough space in our refrigerator to store them all, but storage won’t be a problem. By their very nature, tubers store well in the ground, so we will leave the Jerusalem artichokes in the soil and dig them up as needed. The tubers we don’t sell we’ll dig up right before they re-sprout in late February, and plant them out in a new patch of ground for our 2008 crop. Which brings me to my last point- by growing some Jerusalem artichokes and propagating my own plants from tubers I save, I can lower my seed costs, which helps me adapt to the sometimes harsh economic conditions I have to outlast.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Photo essay

it includes the following photos:

1. Jerusalem artichokes emerging from the ground in March 2. Jerusalem artichokes in May 3. James and the giant Jerusalem Artichoke 4. Flowering Jerusalem Artichokes

Playing With Dynamite

It’s easy to rent land or borrow money to buy a tractor, but having a family farm means having a family, and that starts with a good woman. The world is full of good women, but not every woman is an asset on a farm. Like many people, I took a few missteps when I first went looking for a life mate. Diana was my most striking failure.

Argentina was a duller place once Diana left to come to America. She’s a beautiful woman, with blond hair and strange golden eyes. She’s a smart woman, who besides her native Castilian, speaks fluent French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and English. The French she speaks properly, because she learned it at an English-style boarding school, the German she learned on her mother’s knee, the Italian she learned from the ladies her mother was friends with in Buenos Aires, and the Portuguese she picked up in a Brazilian women’s prison where she served time for cocaine trafficking. Her affluent father bought her way out of Brazil by selling one of his racehorses.

When I met Diana she used no drug stronger than hierba maté. The herb of hierba maté is a South American desert shrub, Ilex paraguariensis, the dried leaves of which are brewed into a strong tissane called  maté.  Maté is also the word for the dried gourd which is used by the maté drinkers as a cup, or vessel. Maté is prepared by putting a small quantity of hierba maté  leaves in the bottom of the dried gourd, then pouring hot water in to fill it. The maté is then sipped through a silver straw, called a bombilla, that has a spoon-shaped strainer on the end to filter out any particulate matter. Serious Argentinians drink maté daily, or even many times daily.

Diana took her hierba maté like a sacrament, and made a point of using water that was hot enough, but not too hot, else the scalding water drive bitter alkaloids from the stems of the hierba. She considered it important that the drink froth up with a fine foam, not in big bubbles. The only hierba she’d consume was of the highest quality, imported straight from trusted sources in Argentina. Hierba maté is delicious, and because it’s loaded with caffeine, it’s stimulating, but perhaps the most charming thing about the hierba mate ceremony is its social nature, because it is considered right and proper for a hierba sipper to pass their gourd and bombilla around, and in this way people are brought together, and conversations are born.

It was always interesting to hear Diana talk. “These hippies in Santa Cruz,” she’d start out, with exasperation in her voice, and I’d lean forward with a smile, waiting to hear what would come next, because of all people Diana was always the one to have a vision, or feel energies, or talk to birds. She was as close as someone born to Buenas Aires high society can be to being a flower child. And to hear it from her, her neighborhood back home had always been a cradle of non-conformists— the Guevaras lived just down the block. “And wasn’t their son their a disappointment!”

“These hippies in Santa Cruz calling people Nazis because they vote Republican!” She’d continue, and wave her hand in scorn. “In Argentina, we have real Nazis, like my brother, that ignorant, #%^@&*$% prick, tripiando en Hitler!”

But if Diana wasn’t “tripping on Hitler” like her brother, she had a few rough edges, as we all do. When she moved in with me I still was still sharing my house with Ramiro Campos and his family. She and Ramiro crossed swords, and she called him an “indio” — and not with the reverential tone she reserved for a guru she’d visited on an ashram in India. Ramiro called her La Dianamita, The Diana-mite, because she was usually having an explosive emotion,  passion, enthusiasm or scandal.

In San Francisco, Diana understood the empty curb sides by the fire hydrants to have been painted red by the City so that She would always have a place to park. All the yellow, blue, green, and white curbs were marked for her convenience too, and the delivery trucks, the handicapped, and the cabs, taxis, and limousines could all wait. When meter maids failed to appreciate this distinction, she’d  give them a piece of her mind. But Diana was generous to a fault, and she’d give anyone anything. “If we all shared what we had, and took what we needed, then we’d want for nothing, because life is a miracle, and greed is the constipation of the world!” Meter maids loved hearing that.

“I’m telling you, if you want for something, expect a miracle, and it will come,” she’d insist. But if the city ever got a penny from Diana for her parking fines, THAT would be a miracle.

Diana loved the United States for the freedom of opportunity that it offers, and she wouldn’t stand for our country being trashed by pathetic self-loathing Americans. One day we were selling produce at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market, and from across the parking lot she saw a trio of well-dressed, bronze-skinned women with platinum hair and Gucci bags approaching.

“Oh shit,” she said, and turned to busy herself unloading the far side of the pick-up truck where she couldn’t be seen.

But the women had already seen her, and soon there were hugs and kisses and much chatter in rapid-fire Spanish and Italian. The three women were friends of her mothers from Buenos Aires, visiting the United States, and “what an unexpected surprise to see you Diana— and looking so good, so thin, so tan!”

But when the ladies left, Diana’s smile left too.

“You watch,” she said. “When those #%^@&*$%  bitches get back to the hotel room, they’re going to call my mother up and tell that they saw me skinny, in rags, and selling potatoes in the streets like an Indian. They’re running for the phone right now!”

And sure enough, when we got home, there was a message from her father, appalled that she’d fallen so low— the prodigal daughter— and offering her air fare home so she could get her life together once again.

“You see?” she said. “Argentina is so stupid! That’s what I love about America!— that anyone can do anything, and if they want to sell vegetables in the street, then that’s honorable too.” Then Diana went down to the beach and threw her Argentinian passport into the ocean, vowing never to return.

As it turns out, Diana went back to Buenos Aires three weeks later, and her father didn’t pay her airfare. It was her aunt— her favorite aunt— who wrote her a letter with an airplane ticket in it, and begged her to come to Buenos Aires as the guest of honor at her upcoming wedding.

“This is important,” Diana said. “This is her sixth wedding, and nobody in the family takes her seriously anymore. If I don’t go, then no one from the family will be there, and what is family, if it’s not standing by your people?”

I agreed.

“Plus,” she added, “Tia’s weddings are so much fun. Last year she booked the reception at the finest hotel in Buenos Aires. Then she got drunk, stripped naked and danced in the fountain in the lobby. The security guards tossed her out of her own party!”

Diana had airplane tickets, but she didn’t have her passport. It was sitting on the seabed 10,000 feet deep in the Monterey submarine canyon off of Moss Landing. So she called the Argentinian consulate in San Francisco and explained the situation to them—  that she’d lost her passport and a family emergency in Buenos Aires had arisen. The consular official listened with all due concern, and promised her a copy of her passport within a month. Diana hung up, scowling. A month wasn’t good enough. The wedding was next week.

She called back.

“Perhaps there’s been some misunderstanding,” she said.

“No, we don’t think so,” the clerk replied.

“Because you don’t want to mess with me!” Diana started in. “My father is an ambassador!” (Not true. That would be her Uncle. Her father was an alcoholic, a gambler, and a race horse afficionado.) “And my mother’s lover is a prominent general!” (Not sure there, but Diana’s father may have been a retired army officer)  “And I am the close personal friend of….” and here she veered off into a litany of socialites that would have been known to anyone current with the beau monde of Buenos Aires. She concluded by slamming down the phone.

The passport arrived the next day, by special post.

“And that’s what I love about Argentina,” Diana said.

Diana left for the wedding, and all was calm on the farm. When she returned it was high season, and we were busy harvesting everything from Apple pimientos to Green Zebra tomatoes. She helped me load the truck to go to the farmers’ market in Santa Cruz, but we were late. I was speeding down Highway One through Aptos when I heard a siren, and saw a highway patrolman in my rear view mirror. I pulled over.

“You let me handle this,” Diana hissed. “You keep your mouth shut!”

The patrolman approached my pick-up on the passengers side, to avoid being sideswiped in the heavy freeway traffic. My truck was piled high with wet vegetable cartons, tables, tents, and all the paraphernalia of the farmers’ market stall. I was hoping I wouldn’t get a ticket for exceeding my load limit too. Diana rolled her window down. The officer stuck his head in the truck and asked me for my driver’s licence.

Diana looked up at the officer with her golden eyes, and tears began to well up. She sobbed. Then, choking back tears, she began to jabber and plead in German. The office stepped back, looking concerned. She gesticulated, spouted more German, spouted more tears, and when she was done with the cop, he’d welcomed us to Santa Cruz, apologized for frightening us, given us a pantomime of directions to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and wished us a happy stay in America. The patrolman walked back towards his car.

“Go!,” Diana whispered. “Go!”

So I went. The cop didn’t follow.

“What did you say to him,?” I asked.

“Are you happy you didn’t get a ticket?” she asked me.

“Yes, I’m happy. But why were you speaking in German?”

“Your cops,” Diana said. “So cute, and so stupid. If I’d spoken in Castilian, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, and given you a ticket. And if I spoke in Portuguese, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, and given you a ticket, and if I spoke in Italian, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, too, because you Americans can’t tell anyone apart. Everybody knows Americans feel shamed by the French, so I spoke German.”

That’s a snapshot of life with Diana. She lived for novelty, adventure, travel, excitement, and spontaneity. When, after twelve months she tired of the endless cycle of winter, spring, summer, fall, she took off, and moved in with an insurance agent who lived a mile away. I cried with tears of relief to see this striking woman with the golden eyes go. I’m a farmer, and I can only take so much spontaneous combustion. Besides, I agree with Diana.  “What is family, if it’s not standing by your people?” Diana found her family before I found mine, but mine was worth the wait. And that’s the lesson of farming— Nature wants to renew herself, but she takes her own time doing it.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin




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