Archive for March, 2009

Great Balls of Fire

Julia was away with Graydon to visit Great Grandma Marie, leaving me at home with Lena. It was a Sunday— a clear, bright, winter day with the farm shut down and no chores to take care of—  and I thought it would be fun if she and I had a little picnic. We wouldn’t need to go anywhere, except to the store for some chips, soda-pop and hotdogs, because we have a canyon on our property with redwood trees, and at the bottom of the gulch there’s a perfect little spot.

Lena and I went to the market in nearby Corralitos, and then I gathered up some tools. I brought loppers to cut any twigs of poison oak away from the trail, and a pair of pruning shears so that Lena could clip any brush away from the picnic site. I also brought a rake, a mattock, and a shovel, so that I could dig a fire pit, and sweep the area free from sticks and leaves. Lena hauled the picnic goodies, and I hauled the tools. In five minutes we were at the bottom of the canyon and in the middle of the fairy ring.

Lena next to the fairy ring today, 2 years laterThe blackened remains of the stump of the original mother redwood tree were still in the middle of the ring. That’s the pattern—the original redwood tree is cut down or burns down, then new saplings shoot up in a ring from the roots of the stump. Redwoods do not always sprout readily from seeds. Since any redwood groves that are accessible have usually been logged at least once, almost all the large redwood trees we ever see are re-growth, and many are often found growing in some semblance of a ring. This vegetative form of self-propagation was true in the redwood groves even before settlers started to chop down the old-growth forests.

The first redwood trees that the Spaniards encountered during Portola’s expedition in 1769 were growing near the site of our home ranch in the Pajaro Valley. These ancient redwood trees measured thirteen feet in diameter and were the largest, tallest, straightest trees the Spaniards had ever seen. Portola’s men encountered old-growth fairy rings grown out around once fallen, now decomposed Redwood giants, and in those places the rings of massive redwood trunks seemed to surround the central clearing like palisades. The Spanish soldiers needed to rest, so they pastured their horses in the middle of these fairy rings and called the area “Corralitos,” which means “little corrals.”

I dug a pit in the thick duff of fallen redwood leaves. There hadn’t been any rain for weeks, but the soil was damp. We swept an area clean and built a small fire. Lena and I fed the fire with the sticks that she gathered from around the area, and when there were coals in the fire pit I cooked the hotdogs in a little cast iron skillet. We enjoyed the hotdogs, which we never have if Julia is around (All-beef, from the Corralitos Market. They also make great sausages in-house.) We crunched our chips, (also normally verboten junk food) and we swigged our soda drinks (suspect, but allowed under party circumstances).

Lena standing by one of the very few old growth trees left in the canyon by the earliest loggersWhen our meal was over, Lena and I lay on our backs and gazed up into the redwoods. The canyon is so deep and the redwoods tower so high, that being inside the fairy ring is like visiting a primeval world. I told Lena about how her great-grandma, Anna, and her great grandpa, Graydon, got married underneath these redwood trees in 1918. Anna and Graydon were poor and couldn’t afford a church wedding. Besides, picking the right church was difficult since they were from different religions— Anna being a Lutheran, and Graydon a Baptist!

“Don’t you think we should stretch a hose down from the house to put out the campfire?” Lena asked when we were getting ready to go.

“Nah,” I replied. “The soil is wet, and besides, I’m going to put out the coals with shovelfuls of dirt.”

I sent her home, and I stayed to extinguish the coals. I heaped dirt into the fire pit until there was no smoke and then stayed for a while by myself, thinking. The last time the redwoods on our property were cut down was in 1907 when the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906 made for a hot lumber market. But my grandparents weren’t married under saplings, so maybe these trees are re-growth from the first timber harvest of 1868. That would account for their great size.

Then again, these redwoods could even have been cut down the first time even earlier. In 1827 this land was part of the original Rancho Corralitos, granted to Don José Amesti, a Spaniard Basque, by Mexican Emperor Iturbide. Don Amesti built a saw mill in the 1830s and leased parts of his ranch to timber harvesters, so these trees could have been cut down for the first time even earlier.

I read that Don Amesti had three daughters, and one of them was nick-named “Mariquita,” or “ladybug.” When the Americans came, many of the Mexican rancheros were unable to defend their land patents in court because they couldn’t produce the original paperwork signed by the Spanish or Mexican authorities. Maybe the deeds had been destroyed in fires or lost through accident, or by negligence. Sometimes the rancheros “fell off their horses” and broke their necks on their way to their hearings, and the relevant documents blew away like pieces of garbage. Apparently the Amesti heirs were able to successfully defend their claims to the land twice.

The next day, around one in the afternoon, I was padding around in the kitchen in my rubber chef’s clogs, helping Lena with her homework. She’d discovered the old slate that my grandmother used for her school work back in 1905, and wanted to do her homework on it. I reminded her that it was a family heirloom, and that she should treat it with care. Then Manny came running to the kitchen window and pointed. Looking up I could see a great plume of smoke rising beyond the field. The donkeys and goats were bolting for the high ground— they’re not stupid. I tore out of the house.

The fire in the canyon was spreading quickly. Flames licked up through the dried leaves of the brush and wrapped around tree trunks. The hill is so steep that the rising heat was igniting leaves on the ground well ahead of the flames. The smoke was thick.

“Should I connect some hoses and get some water down here?” yelled out Manny over the flames.

“No,” I yelled back. “There’s no time. We have to stop the flames before they get to the eucalyptus.”

Indeed, up the hill is a grove of eucalyptus that my great grandfather planted in the ‘20s. The native redwood trees have evolved within the challenges of fire ecology; their bark burns slowly, the damp needles smolder. But the eucalyptus trees that were introduced from Australia burn like gasoline, and they carpet the forest floor with flammable leaves and bark. I ran uphill through the flames and started to cut a fire line with the mattock. The smoke was searing. It would’ve been smarter to dial 911 on the cell phone. Sometimes singed pride hurts worse than charred flesh.

Manny, his brother, Miguel, and I flailed at the flames like demons. In twenty minutes we stopped the advance of the flames, so we went back to beat out isolated hot spots. I was ripping on adrenalin, but reason began to assert itself. Obviously I had not put the fire out after the picnic with Lena. It must have burned underground all night. Much of what had been burning was poison oak brush, and I’d inhaled a lot of smoke. It dawned on me that my rubber clogs were no protection against coals and could even melt onto my feet.

I sent Manny to string some hoses together and bring water. Miguel kept working on the fire line, since this fire was still burning underground where we couldn’t see it. I threw dirt on glowing logs. Eventually Manny showed up with a garden hose. It had taken him a while to find and connect the dozen or so loose hose we had scattered around  the property. With his thumb, he tried to guide the flow at a flame. The hose pissed out a tepid stream of water. I grabbed the hose. I couldn’t increase the pressure, but because I’m the tallest person on the farm, I was the one to try and spray down the little blazes that were still going up high in the crotches of trees.

I had a hold of the hose when the loose duff beneath my feet gave way and I went skidding down the hill on my butt through the smoking leaves and coals. The eucalyptus trees up the hill had rained down hard little, oily nuts for years, which had been baking in the fire, and which now began rolling inside my pants and catching in the crotch. Great Balls of Fire! It was exciting! Even though the afternoon had been no laughing matter, Miguel had to grin when he saw me stuff the hose down my pants and hold it there until the water ran out my pants leg.

I’d been gone from the house for a couple of hours now, and Lena was worried. The flames had died down and the smoke had dissipated when I looked up and saw Lena stepping gingerly down the trail into the forest up the slope from me.

“Get out of here, Lena” I yelled. “It’s still dangerous.”

Even as I yelled a slight breath of breeze caused the black cinders on a charred trunk of eucalyptus to glow with new life. There were pits in the ground where rotten logs had burned to ashes and left a nest of coals. But Lena doesn’t scare easily.

“Was I right, Papa?” she called out.

“Go home, Lena. You could get burned!”

“But was I right, Papa?” she repeated.

I’ll never live this one down.

“Yes Lena. You were right Now, go!”

So Lena turned and made her way back up the hill, happy that her papa was all right.

The Indians used to burn these woods in the winter to keep the country side open for acorn gathering and game hunting. If I’d planned the fire, gotten a permit and taken precautions, burning the canyon would have been a wise move. As it is, I remember my grandmother saying, “God has mercy on idiots and children.” I’m no child. At least I’m alive. But maybe Julia is right when she says hot dogs are no good for my health.

Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

Photos taken by Andy today, March 17th, 2009:

#1) Lena at the gate to the fairy ring, two years after this story takes place.

#2   Lena standing by one of the very few old growth trees left in the canyon by the earliest loggers.

Vegetable Recipes A - Z

Better Late Than Never

cherry tomatoesIt’s only the beginning of March and a few of my customers are already thinking about summer. “When are you going to have tomatoes?” they ask. We’ve only just planted the seeds in the greenhouse and they haven’t even germinated yet, so it’s too soon for me to begin counting the crates. Of course I could grow hot house tomatoes and be in the middle of my harvest season right now. I’ve done that before. But over the years I’ve changed my ideas about how I should farm, and for the last ten years I’ve followed the same schedule for tomatoes; we sow seeds in early February, transplant the seedlings into the field after the 15th of April when we can reasonably assume that the frost is done for the year, and then we start harvesting at the beginning of August. This production schedule is relatively safe and predictable. I’m no gambler, not in Vegas, not on an Indian Reservation, and not in the field. Other farms often have tomatoes for sale before I do but I won’t do anything special to speed the harvest up. When it comes to tomatoes my philosophy is “Better late than never.”

In 1993, when I farmed with my friend, Greg, we tried to have an early tomato crop by transplanting into the field in early March and protecting the tomatoes from the rain, wind, hail and frost by putting hoops of PVC pipe over the rows and covering them with plastic sheeting. The plastic had slits for ventilation. Results were mixed. The hoop houses were expensive and time-consuming to build. The plastic film caught the raw spring wind like a sail, and we had to anchor the hoop houses to earth during and after every storm. Despite the ventilating slits, conditions inside the hoop houses were moist and breezeless, so we had problems with fungal attack. We had an early tomato harvest that year, and we were able to get a premium price from impatient farmers’ market customers (briefly) for our first crop, but we also had a depressing mess of dirty, torn plastic to throw away in the dump at the end of the summer. I won’t do that again.

In mid-January of 1994 Greg and I went to Mexico to look into growing organic tomatoes for the early market. Our fields in Hollister were waterlogged and the sky was gray when we crossed Pacheco Pass and turned south on I-5. Down in Huron and Five Points on the west side of the San Joaquin the skies were still heavy, but the empty fields were dry. That evening, in the low hills outside of San Diego, we saw tractors preparing ground for the first stateside tomato plantings of the New Year.

At dawn the next day, on the outskirts of Maneadero, south of Ensenada, we saw the first tomato plants in the ground, but they were small, only six inches tall.  Farther south down Mexican Highway 1, in the San Quintin Valley, we saw fields of knee-high tomatoes, but they weren’t in flower. Gangs of workers walked the rows stabbing crooked sticks into the ground to serve as tomato stakes, and other men followed behind unspooling twine and tying the plants up. We jumped back in the truck. Colonet, Camalu, and Colonia Guerrero slipped past; more dusty tomato fields, garbage blowing in the wind, and the occasional rooster strutting down the centerline of the highway, challenging fate and traffic.

Past Rosario the highway turns inland and enters the clean, open desert. We drove south. It wasn’t until we crossed the Tropic of Cancer outside of Todos Santos in the State of Baja California Sur, nine hundred miles later and almost 1,400 miles south of Hollister, that we saw the first red tomatoes hanging on the vine. Land was for sale. Greg found a ranch, a thirty hectare field crisscrossed with power lines and watered with an irrigation canal and a well. He bought the land, and I helped him set the farm up. I was proud of the label I dreamed up– Star of Baja– a tomato in the sky like a sun shining over a desert landscape with the star-shaped calyx on its face.

America has an enormous appetite for winter tomatoes but the vegetables that make good rotational crops are not in demand, so Mexican farmers grow tomatoes year after year in the same fields. This means the soil-born pathogens that affect tomato production multiply until the soil is so contaminated that it has to be sterilized with Methyl bromide to be usable at all. Greg’s land had been fallow, and the soil was clean and alive, but tropical pests like leaf miner were alive too. The business of farming starts with knowing the market, but good agricultural practices take into account what the land can do naturally. A business with a truly organic perspective meets its challenges by growing solutions from the ground up, not mandating results from the top down. Greg and I had a lot of learning to do.

Doing business in Mexico wasn’t easy. There weren’t ready sources for organic fertilizers, packaging materials, or farm equipment. There were farm supply stores, but they couldn’t afford to maintain an inventory of even the most obvious items, like drip tape, PVC pipe fittings, or aluminum gate valves. We could order what we needed, but delivery dates were uncertain, and some things might not arrive at all, so we had to ship most of what we needed down from Alta California. Because Baja is a tourist destination there are plenty of jets flying out of San Jose del Cabo, and you’d imagine it would be simple to book freight to any number of American cities, but the Mexican Airlines were indifferent to the notion of hauling cargo, and US carriers were over-booked.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I had imagined that since so many Mexicans come to the United States to work that if we went to Mexico we’d have a ready, local labor pool to draw from. But Baja Californians don’t want to work on farms any more than Alta Californians do. I saw lines of workers alongside the highway before dawn, shuffling off to get a day’s work done in the fields before the temperatures got hellish, but they were migrant Oaxacans from Southern Mexico where prevailing wages were only five dollars a day. Employers in Baja paid as much as seven dollars a day, so people came north to work, hoping to save enough money to buy their way across the international border into the land of seven dollars an hour. The Oaxacans lived in a squalid camp in the middle of the desert. Their huts were roofed with dried palm leaves, pieces of cardboard, and scraps of galvanized iron sheeting. There was a single rusty pipe and a water tap that dribbled.

Mexico had plenty of arcane regulations for companies to comply with, but enforcement of the labor code managed to be both lax and arbitrary at the same time. The same officials who threatened dire consequences to any employer who disrespected the dignity of the workers freely handed out the business cards of lawyers that could “pre-solve” labor problems. The contrast between the hard working Oaxacan tomato pickers and the narcotic torpor of the authorities was stark. There are good companies doing good work in Mexico, and if it wasn’t for export business a lot of poor Mexicans would have no work at all, but I found growing off-season tomatoes in Mexico to be a depressing affair, and I was glad that it wasn’t my business.

Then, during 1996 and 1997, Greg and I grew organic winter tomatoes in a hot house here in California. This was an interesting project too, but even then energy costs were prohibitive. Greg and I went our separate ways after that and as I watch fuel prices fluctuate wildly I’m glad that when Julia and I started Mariquita Farm in 1998 I didn’t continue indoor tomato production. I had to try everything else first, but I’ve decided to plant tomatoes outside when the soil is warm, let the sun coax the fruit to ripeness, and deliver the harvest to my neighbors in its own time.

“Well, finally,” you might say.

But I say, “Hey, better late than never!”

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin




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