Archive for January, 2009

Apocalypse Deferred

cover crop view of farm“What’s your ‘Plan B’?” a radio reporter asked business school students the other day. One young woman’s answer caught my ear.

“If things get bad enough,” she said, “my friends and I are thinking of getting a farm together.”

I’m not going to argue. I graduated in ‘81 with a degree in Philosophy and I’ve been “down on the farm” ever since. Society didn’t need youngsters lecturing on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer back then any more than it needs more business majors now. Now I’m fifty. I farm 60 acres of organic vegetables and I live at the end of a road with olive and lemon trees in my yard, plenty of firewood at hand, an array of pole-mounted solar panels in the pasture, two wells, a gun, and a diversified portfolio of stocks that range from goats, sheep and cattle to a single, colossal Gloucestershire Old Spot pig. If worse comes to worse I’m as ready as most people are. Have I learned all there is to know about farming? No, but my education in philosophy gives me the skills to act like I do, and my experience in the field has taught me lessons I won’t forget. So, going out to the young woman in the radio interview who almost has an MBA, and to all her friends, here are my ten cents about going back to the land.
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First of all, don’t buy a farm. Snarled lines of credit are at the heart of this whole economic crisis, so getting a loan is difficult. Also, at least here in California, land prices are preposterous. It’s almost impossible to pay a land mortgage off with a farm’s earnings unless you grow marijuana. And trust me; you don’t want to start your farming career by growing weed. Yes, Cannabis was created by the same loving god that created apples, wheat, fish and cattle, but strictly speaking, pot is not a food group. If worse does come to worse and food is scarce you’ll feel stupid sitting in a barn full of drugs that stimulate your appetite. If it turns out that apocalypse is deferred, you can always sell drugs but that will spoil vegetable cultivation for you. One thing I’ve learned about economics from farming is that the more consumers need something, the less they’ll pay for it. I know growers that got started in the ‘70s growing marijuana who were never able to make their organic vegetable farms amount to more than money losing fronts for their drug sales. The development of their farming skills were stunted by their eventual dependence on easy money. The feeling of well-being and pride that comes from growing your own food will make you want to get better at it every year. Self-described experts disagree about marijuana, but I can tell you for sure that farming is addictive.

culinary favas for spring harvestSecondly, and more importantly, buying a farm is not a good idea if you can rent one, especially for a first-time farmer. Mother Nature is the inscrutable, silent partner in every farming venture. She’s not like an exotic dancer down at the Bada Bing who’ll strip to the short hairs before Mustang Sally finishes blaring from the speakers. A piece of land reveals itself slowly. Even after years of working the same soil you’ll discover new possibilities and limitations. If you rent land you have the option to move on should it turn out that the soil, climate, or water don’t meet your needs. I met one couple, intent on raising grapes for their own winery, who spent seven figures on acreage before they discovered the ground they’d bought was plagued with soil pathogens that made organic grape production impossible. Now they rent their land to a vegetable grower and the capital they need to expand their winery business is tied up in real estate.

When you go to look for land to rent don’t allow the beauty or tranquility of a piece of rural property to sway your better judgment. Plants need good soil, plenty of light and adequate water to thrive, not beauty or isolation. The enchanting redwood forest that surrounds the sylvan meadow may stir the heart, but it probably hides swarms of hungry deer that eat your crops come nightfall. The isolated, ridge-top field with the mind expanding view may feed the soul, but when you need to get a flat tire repaired, buy diesel, or get your crops to market it will take you too much time. Matthew said of salvation; “For many are called but few are chosen.” When I think back to people I knew who dreamed of being organic farmers, besides the ones lured off the garden path by Mary Jane, the largest number failed because they tried to farm a piece of ground that they’d fallen in love with. A vision of Pomona seduced them and led them on, but they were never able to support themselves because the land they had a relationship with had too many “issues.” Mother Nature takes many alluring forms but she doesn’t have much pity for suckers.

Once you’ve found an affordable piece of ground to rent with good soil, water, and access, pay attention to kinds of farm equipment that your neighbors have. Being a peasant looks great on paper, but it’s a drag in real life to bend over when your back is blown out. As soon as you can, you’re going to want to buy equipment to ease your labors. Seriously consider buying the same kind of equipment as your neighbors have, or at least the same brand. The big farm down the road isn’t your competitor the way that Net Flicks is to a neighborhood video store. There aren’t many farms left, and the farmers in your area, both conventional and organic, make up your new peer group. You’ll need to turn to them for help and you’ll want to help them when they ask for it. Your tractor will break down, and when it does you’ll need to borrow or rent another one until it’s running again. Parts for an off-brand tractor can be expensive, hard to find, or difficult to get quickly, but if you have a common brand you can often scavenge in a neighbor’s bone yard for the thing you need. Then there are the tractor’s axels to think about.

next years winter squash ground under cover cropI know a fellow who learned his farming up in the Sacramento area where fields are typically bedded up in sixty-inch beds after the fashion of the processor tomato industry. He moved down here to the coast where row crops are usually planted out on forty or eighty-inch beds but he never adapted his farming practices to our area. When his tractor broke down he couldn’t borrow his neighbors’ equipment because their tractors’ wheels wouldn’t fit his beds, nor could he rent a tractor, since all the dealers in the area have their rental units configured on forties or eighties and didn’t want to mess around with adjusting the axels. He went bankrupt, mostly because he drank too much, put his trust in the wrong people, and wouldn’t listen to his workers, but everything counts in farming and there’s no point in making your life any harder than it needs to be. My friend had the pride of standing out from the crowd, but he lost thousands of dollars and he couldn’t fall back on the generosity of his neighbors and borrow a tractor when he needed one. When it came time for him to sell his equipment nobody local wanted it.

When you’re not looking for good land or a used John Deere tractor, read about the crops you want to grow. Having a “green thumb” is not a talent or an instinct, it’s about paying attention. Plants want to grow. Discover under what ecological regimen the crop you’re interested in evolved under and try to create those conditions on your farm. Beware of hybrid varieties that have “evolved” recently under “laboratory” conditions. These crops may not be capable of yield under organic “field” conditions unless they receive the high nitrogen inputs and chemical crutches of their test tube “ancestors.” Beware, too, of the old-fashioned “heirloom” crops that were popular when your grandparents were infants. There may be good reasons these varieties passed from general use. Heirloom crops may not be very resistant to diseases in your growing region, they may take too long to mature under your day length conditions, or they may be pretty but yield poorly. In short, beware, as in “be aware.” Plant varieties that work well for your neighbors but experiment on a small scale with new or different crops, in case your neighbors are fools or are too stuck in their ways to change when new opportunities beckon.

Once you have a farm, don’t plant out the whole place at once. Managing a farm is a bit like making music. Take Trois Gymnopedies, by Eric Satie, for example. It’s a musical composition which contains thousands of notes. Every single note sounds beautiful, but the overall effect is easiest to appreciate if the pianist doesn’t play them all at once. Timing is everything, in the concert hall and in the beet field. On the farm you’ll want to keep some open ground to plant into if your initial sowings fail. You’ll want open ground for sequential sowings so that your harvests don’t come all at once. And you’ll want to keep some ground fallow to rest and recuperate for future crops. It’s true that nature marks the time for the passage of the seasons, but for finding the appropriate rhythm of your farm your abandoned MBA may come in useful; long term success in farming has as much to do with creating a steady, year-round cash flow as with getting close to nature. Spread out the planting, the harvesting, and the sales so you can do a good job and you’re not overwhelmed. “Less” is often “more.” One rule I keep is to never sow anything new until I’ve taken care of the crops I’ve already planted. Why throw good money after bad?

Once you start harvesting some crops will inevitably spoil before you can pick or sell them. When this happens, don’t feel guilty because “food is being wasted.” You’re a producer now, not a consumer. You haven’t “wasted” food until you’ve spent time or money to pick it, wash it, pack it, deliver it, and then thrown it away! The earth is like a bank account; vegetables that go unpicked stay with the earth– no withdrawal is made. Is oil “wasted” because it hasn’t been pumped yet? A crop taken from the ground is a loan from the soil that needs to be repaid with fertilizer that put nutrients back into the earth. If unpicked, unwashed, unpacked, unsold “food” bothers you, buy a goat, a pig, a sheep or a rabbit and feed them your overproduction. Then eat your animals in the winter when they’re fat from the excess vegetables you grew and you’re skinny from overwork.

Is there more? Of course there is. The harvest is the most important event in the world that happens every year, and I’m glad young MBAs are thinking about it. If I was a young business school senior, I’d start an apiary. Bee keepers don’t need to rent land because farmers like me want to share their land with bees and we may even pay the bee keeper for the pleasure. All you need to build bee hives is a hammer, some nails, and a saw. If you’re busted flat you can start your first colony by capturing bees when they swarm. Honey sells well in local markets because it has unique, therapeutic, anti-allergenic properties qualities. Honey keeps well, travels well, and you can even make it into mead. There’s always money in alcohol. How’s that for a “Plan B?” Happy trails, business majors. Fear not. We were made for the earth and she for us.

Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

Orach Seeds are now available! comment below or email: julia at mariquita dot com.  1/3 cup seeds for $5 includes shipping and handling for US addresses.

Learn more about great cooking in SF: Cook with James

Red Greens

orach growing in our fieldOrach, or Atriplex hortensis, is a leafy vegetable that I grow that is related to spinach. You can sometimes find this plant in seed catalogues listed as “Goosefoot,” or “Mountain spinach.” There’s nothing avian or particularly mountainous about orach; in fact, “hortensis,” the second part of its proper scientific name, means “of the garden” in Latin, but the plant does bear a close resemblance to the even wilder, more antique and weedier form of spinach called Lamb’s Quarters. Orach comes in one of two decorator colors, purple or green, but it always has a nice, mellow flavor. Orach is never found in the supermarket despite the fact that it is easy to grow, nutritious, colorful, and tasty raw or cooked, and you only rarely find it in farmers markets.  Why?  One reason must be that the orach seed that is commercially available is ridiculously expensive, and it often germinates poorly. But I also attribute the absence of this ancient vegetable in the modern era to poor marketing on the part of the farmers.

It’s foolish for a professional grower to even plant a crop without a market in mind so it’s important for any would-be orach farmer to first consider the promotional challenges facing Atriplex hortensis. “Orach” is a pretty weird word for a “common name” and not many people even know how to pronounce it. (Pronounce “orach” like Iraq with an “O” and you’re doing fine.)  Then there’s the flavor to consider. Like spinach, orach is a member of the Chenopodiaceae family. In fact, almost any recipe for spinach can be comfortably and flavorfully be adapted to accommodate orach if people would only try it. Again I blame language for getting in the way of communication; consumers’ tongues would tell them the truth about orach if they would simply cease to shape names and concentrate on tasting the leaves instead. Here’s the problem.

The outline of an orach leaf can be construed to resemble a goose foot so orach is sometimes sold as “goosefoot.” The green form is called “Golden Goosefoot” and the purple variety is called “Purple Goosefoot.” These odd sounding English names have classical roots; “Cheno” comes from the Greek for goose, and “pod” means foot. Because orach was the first of this family to gain notice and acceptance it shares its scientific name with its more famous, contemporary green cousin. Unfortunately for orach, this “fowl” branding does little to add luster or sex appeal as a modern vegetable product.  Insecure consumers respond to a name like “purple goosefoot” by letting their minds wander to all the places a goose’s foot is likely to have stepped rather than wondering if a gratin of the vegetable pairs up best with red or white wine. Humans have such odd inhibitions! Did you know that a now fabulously successful fruit failed with the American public when it was first introduced into the marketplace as the “New Zealand Gooseberry”?  Geese again! But sales took flight when Frieda Caplan, of Frieda’s Finest Specialty Vegetables in the Los Angeles Produce Terminal, rebranded the sorry fuzzy brown fruit after the cute, but flightless Kiwi bird. Perhaps Frieda could reposition orach as “Purple Kiwifeet” and make a second fortune.

Or maybe I should garner a celebrity endorsement to spice up the glamour quotient for orach I grow the way the Nunes Company in Salinas called upon Brooke Shields when they wanted to promote their organic Iceberg lettuce products in 1989.  (“Hi, this is Whoopie Goldberg for Mariquita Farm. Have you eaten your purple geese feet today?”) Back in the 80’s even Brooke Shields couldn’t convince the average organic consumer to buy much Iceberg lettuce but sometimes celebrity can sell food. Just look at how everyone but Adolph Hitler has worn a white moustache to promote milk for the Dairy Council. Orach has been eaten since Eden, and I’ve read in different herbals that the plant was mentioned in the Bible, though I’ve never been able to locate the verse.  God’s word would be a fantastic endorsement.

**Popeye selling spinach in Salinas**In the meantime, spinach still has Popeye pitching its virtues, and the numbers don’t lie. In the first few years following Popeye’s conspicuous consumption of spinach, back in the cartoons of the 30’s, the popularity of spinach among America’s children exploded. Spinach’s Hollywood razzle dazzle wore off by the time I was a youngster in the 60’s but spinach remains a leader among greens. Don’t get me wrong. I love greens, but I think “purples” deserve our consideration too.

Spinach does best in a cool, coastal climate, but not all of us can farm near the beach, and orach thrives in hot, inland like zones, like Mariquita Farm’s Hollister location. It does well in the freezing cold too. I grew a crop of orach for seed this past summer, and a lot of orach seeds “volunteered” this fall after the rains. Temperatures sank into the high twenties this past week, but the orach grew beautifully through the frost, nonetheless. Spinach, by contrast, does terribly in the cold. And orach seems practically immune to the various mildews and molds that affect spinach so fungicide isn’t necessary, even for growers that use it. I have “issues” with fungicides, even if they’re organic, and we spray no chemicals, natural or otherwise on our crops, so orach’s vitality is very attractive to me. Winter, spring, summer, fall, orach grows easily. So why don’t more farmers grow it?

**Orach Seed that Andy saved**One reason that orach isn’t planted widely is the cost of the seed. I paid $126 for a pound of goosefoot seed three years ago and the germination rate was poor. Today I checked on the price and it had climbed to $185. Spinach seed is readily available and it’s a lot cheaper. Last year I decided to grow out a few orach plants and produce my own seed supply. Out of only 4 beds, 40 inches wide and two hundred feet long, I got four garbage cans of seed. Each orach seed was encased in a papery membrane. In masse, the orach seeds looked like breakfast cereal. I lacked the machinery to buff the membranes off and the seeds wouldn’t pass through my Planet Junior planters.  So I improvised another way of sowing raw, unprocessed orach seed. I removed the plates from an Earthway brand seeder that normally act to calibrate the amount of seed that is spilled into the soil and let the oatmeal-like seeds spill out like rain. The first planting from my own seed germinated with astonishing vigor. John Bauer, a farmer friend of mine who is also a seed dealer, informs me that the papery husk that seed companies go to such lengths to remove from orach seed actually helps the seed germinate. Apparently, when the papery husks rot in the soil they release enzymes which stimulate germination. Not only did my own seed stock germinate better than “store-bought” seed, it produced a crop that was a deeper purple than the mother stock I’d purchased. Hopefully, this year I can convince the public to cook my orach and the colorful crops I grow will be like so many geese, laying me golden eggs.

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text and photos copyright 2009 Andy Griffin  ||   all photos taken by Andy Griffin

** email us if you’d like to try planting some our orach seeds: we’ll send them to you for $5: that covers shipping and handling, the 1/3 cup seeds themselves are free.   julia at mariquita dot com

photo key:

1) orach growing in our field
2) Popeye helping Salinas sell spinach
3) orach seed that Andy saved with the husks still on

another orach photo, and another.
a couple of orach recipes




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