Covid creeps closer; a worker on our landlord’s farm fell ill and is in quarantine at present. I’m not too alarmed (yet) for our farm because we don’t share a workspace with that farm crew, we keep our distance, we have prophylactic measures in place, and the sick worker is being cared for. But I am angry. At a time when the country is threatened by this illness and so many people are out of work and struggling to pay their bills, it’s insane that the president ignores the advice of his own administration’s medical experts and holds mass indoor rallies to celebrate his vanity and trumpet his ignorance. What can you say about his so-called “conservative” supporters who seemingly seek to conserve nothing more than their own sense of privilege? Meanwhile, the essential workers, like the farm workers, must labor to survive in an increasingly dangerous environment. I’m mindful that no matter how careful we are at work, at the end of the day the workers must return home to crowded apartments where social distancing is impossible. For many farm workers the workplace may be their safest place. It’s hard to keep positive sometimes and I’m counting the days until I can vote for change. Meanwhile, we’re already planting the crops that we’ll be harvesting in what I hope will be a new era where medical science gets renewed respect.
The smoke has been hard to live with too. It’s been difficult to breathe at times, and every breath is a reminder of what we’re losing to the fires. As a farmer, it’s easy to observe how the smoke is slowing the growth of some crops. A friend with a fruit farm remarked this morning how her fig crop is ripening more slowly under these unseasonably dark skies. In our own greenhouse we can see how the arugula is responding to the lower light by growing slower and more etiolated. Climate change deniers, like Trump and the chumps who crowd his rallies, reject the idea that human activity is capable of changing the climate. But the smoke tells the truth. Poor management is the issue, says the man who bankrupted a casino, as well a number of other businesses, and he blames Democrat States for not “sweeping the leaves.” Of course, many of the fires are on Federal land- supposedly his jurisdiction and responsibility- so he’s an idiot who only speaks to “own the libs” and blame the victims. But even a broken clock is right twice a day; it’s true that poor forest management is partly to blame for these catastrophic fires, which only proves the point that human behavior DOES have a lot of influence on the climate. So, while we wait for an opportunity to depose the Twitler, we strap on our masks against the Covid virus and the smoke and we do the essential work of harvesting food. Right now we’re in the middle of tomato season, while much of the crop has been lost to scalding heat and disrupted markets, there’s still plenty to pick over the next month.
So things are sad, but one remedy for depression is to stay busy. We don’t have the luxury of hiding from the smoke but at least it smells great inside our house. The crew has been grooming the beds of perennial herbs, and Starling has been running the dehydrators 24/7, drying oregano, thyme, and marjoram. These aromatic, mint family herbs all go with tomatoes like cookies go with milk, so it makes sense to pick them now that it’s time to make tomato sauce for the winter. With so much uncertainty over the viability of supply chains we’ve noticed more interest on the part of the public to lay aside a stash of tomato sauce against the coming winter. Or maybe it’s just that being out of work means more people have time to make sauce. Anyway, our house smells like herbs and it’s great. And it’s good for the oregano, thyme, and marjoram plants to get a trim too; that way the plants don’t go to flower, but are stimulated to produce fresh growth. Oregano, thyme, and marjoram are perennial in this climate and will grow all year if encouraged. I want to have healthy plants come winter because these herbs also marry well with the soups, stews, and roasted winter veggies. Speaking of winter, we picked the first “winter squash” this week and you have them in the box. These are “small” Napolitano squash- and they are small, considering that the “big” ones reach 30 and 40 pound apiece. I’m still thinking about how we’ll move the whoppers. Cook Napolitano squash like their Butternut cousins. They’ll keep for up to year too, if you can’t use them now. That’s a fact, not Trumpstyle b.s. – keep the squash out of direct sunlight in a cool, dry space and they’ll only get sweeter with time.
Starling is also drying herbs for teas and herbal infusions. Yes, it’s an Allman Brothers’ tune, but “Sweet Melissa” is one name for Lemon Balm or Melissa officinalis, which makes a delightful tisane. It’s a mint family member too, and “Lemon mint” is another name for it. I propagated the plants we’re picking now from wild plants I found in the redwood forests 20 years ago. With so many local redwood forests burned I comfort myself to know that the redwoods will largely survive the fires and grow back. Sweet Melissa will survive too- she’s tougher than she looks. We might talk about about “destroying the planet,” but the planet is going to be fine. The cockroaches, the rats, the ground squirrels, and the flies are going to be fine- it’s our grandchildren who are going to suffer if we don’t take responsibility for our actions on the planet. A true conservative with family values would value the future; these Trump republicans are like locusts without the grasshopper’s ability to fly without burning oil.
Then there’s apple mint, another survivor. It makes a pleasing herbal tea and nothing can kill this plant! It does have a sweet apple scent, and it’s calming, which is always a good trait. I should drink some now!
And finally there’s Lemon verbena, which is not a mint family member. It makes a delightful tea with a flavor that is just the right thing to help ease us into fall. Various claims are made about the health benefits of Lemon Verbena. All I can say is that it has to be better for you than injecting bleach.
We will be rolling out lots more dried herbs as the weeks unfold; summer savory, sage, sweet laurel, rosemary, lavender and a special herb that I will talk about later, Hoja Santa. November can’t come quick enough and when it does we can all raise our cups with hope for what the future can bring. Let’s look forward to fall cooking and a celebration that will have us all toasting to the opportunity of breathing new life into our land.
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden
Last winter, right before Covid erupted into our midst, I had the opportunity to visit the Tucson Gem and Mineral show in Arizona. Sure, I’d been told just how big the event was, how every year the whole city of Tucson surrenders itself to an ultimate “rock show.” But I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the event; block after block of tents, and hotel rooms and pavilions and parking lots and convention center halls and county fairgrounds crammed with vendors offering every kind of crystal and gem and mineral for sale by the piece, the kilogram, the pallet, or the ton. There were hollow amethysts geodes big enough to park a motorcycle in and tiny opals that flash with kaleidoscopic displays of light and color. Every kind of green and blue could be found hiding in heaps of jade and turquoise alongside other stones that seemed like fossilized rainbows. The variety of beautiful rocks coming out of the ground was overwhelming and it seems marvelous that the dark, sunless earth beneath our feet can be capable of producing such a majestic display of color. Of course, what’s true for jewels is true for beans too!
One year I tilled up the level acre of ground I have in my front yard and planted a row of every kind of bean I could find seed for. I had over 30 varieties planted when I was done, not including fava beans or garbanzo beans, as they are not true beans. Yes, favas and garbanzos are legumes but they are more closely related to vetches than to kidney beans. True beans are classified as Phaseolus varieties and they evolved in the “New World,” having been selected from their wild cousins and cultivated and tamed by Pre-Columbian indigenous farmers across the middle Americas. I planted red beans, black beans, striped beans, dotted beans, green beans, yellow beans, pink beans, white beans splashed with color….an overflowing treasure chest of lustrous little jewels that had been saved by different farmers over the centuries, planted side by side so that I could judge them on their merits. My experiment proved one thing to me- there is an obvious reason why the common Pinto bean is SO common in the supermarket!
We humans make a fetish out of rarity; black carbon that has been compressed into a briquette form is valued (a little) for its use as a barbecue fuel. Take that same carbon and compress it deep in the earth under millions of tons of rock for millions of years and you’ll get a diamond- rarer and more expensive. The Pinto bean is like a charcoal briquette- valued, for sure, and useful, but not precious enough to put on a wedding ring. Planted next to so many of its colorful, mottled, striped, speckled, spotted leguminous cousins, and given the same regimen of sun, soil, water, the Pinto bean grossly out-produced all of its colorful rivals. My fresh Pinto beans tasted great too, and like all really fresh beans, they didn’t take long to cook up tender and savory with no ” overnight pre-soaking” ritual necessary. The efficiency, economy, and practicality of this bean is astonishing. So, this year I didn’t grow Pinto beans for you. Instead, I chose to plant Tongue of Fire beans because they’re beautiful- a bit rarer to find in the marketplace maybe, and not necessarily tastier than their common cousins, but gorgeous.
We’re going to pull up every mature bean plant this week and strip off every bean. Fall is approaching and we’re scampering to open up as much ground as we can so we can begin planting for winter harvests. Some of the beans that we pick will be rattling around inside completely dried pods. These beans may look “dried” but they have a great deal of residual moisture in them and they will cook very promptly compared to some store bought dried beans. I’ve been scandalized at different moments in my life when the dried beans I’d gotten in the store took hours to cook- they must have been SO old! Once you’ve shelled your beans (a good chore for any kids lurking about) then give them a quick look through to take out any damaged or withered beans before putting them in a pot of water and bringing them to a simmer. Check the beans every so often – they won’t take long to cook. True, as the beans cook they will lose the cute red markings that made them so attractive raw, but they’re going to taste great. Or maybe you don’t cook these beans at all. If you were to store these beans in a cool, dry place, they’d make perfect seed stock for your own backyard bean garden next spring. This is one reason why beans are even more valuable than mineral jewels; you can’t plant a sapphire back in the earth and return in four months to harvest a bucket of gems.
A lot of the beans we pick today and tomorrow will be harvested at the fresh “shelly-bean” stage. These bean pods are fully filled out with plump beans but have not dried out. These beans will even take less time to cook than their recently dried friends. The pods are a bit more difficult to open than the dried pods but it’s no big struggle and they’re a very pretty red color. This bright pod might seem like a very frivolous fashion-forward statement coming from a humble bean plant, but it’s actually a very practical aspect of the Tongue of Fire bean. Most Tongue of Fire beans are harvested at this full-pod but tender stage, the beans being plucked from among green leaves, and the bright red of the pod makes the beans very easy for the picker to see as they hang in the foliage. If you get beans that have been harvested at this young stage you should store them in the refrigerator until use so that they don’t wilt. These fresh beans would be great in soups and bean salads, which brings a last comparison between beans and jewels to mind; Marilyn Monroe sang “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” and I’m not going to argue with her, but you can’t eat jewels.
© 2020 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin.
The potatoes in this week’s share box are “new” potatoes; that is, they have been dug from beneath green plants that are only just beginning to wilt down. As such, these very fresh potatoes will not store for a long time the way that a cured potato can. But do they ever taste good! They should be kept in the refrigerator until you use them so that they do not wilt. Be aware, too, that they will cook much faster than a “regular” potato, so adjust your preparation times accordingly. I have a few more things to say about potatoes today but I have been encouraged by Shelley and my partner, Starr, to say a few words about technology.
No, I don’t know much about technology, and I don’t have much that is meaningful to say, but…..
This has been a very challenging year for our business and 2020 promises to continue to be weird and unpredictable all the way up until the ball drops on TV at 11:59 PM Eastern Standard TIme on December 31st. We’ve been muddling through, but even the potatoes in this week’s box speak to the difficulties we’ve been working through. When the Covid crisis announced itself to American civic life in early March one of the first consequences was financial chaos. For a while we had no monies on hand to buy seeds the way we usually would, and I was unable to source the certified disease-free seed potatoes the way we usually do.
We’re getting to the “technology” but….
Potatoes are underground stems, not roots, and potato plants are not typically started from seeds, but from pieces of potatoes that have viable “eyes” or buds that will develop new plants. Since potatoes can pick up viruses from the soil that affect production it’s a good idea to source the potatoes that will be cut into sections for planting from companies that specialize in disease free planting stock. Insects are a common vector for potato viruses so these farms are usually located in places like Oregon or Idaho where freezing wintertime temperatures keep insect pressure to a minimum. Good certified disease free potato ground is also often highly mineral- perhaps volcanic in origin- because these soils are less hospitable for the viral pathogens that affect potatoes.
“Viruses” affect computer systems too….
Anyway, I couldn’t source the disease free seed potatoes that I wanted when I wanted them. I decided to use the last few cull potatoes we had on hand – the little weird ones that were too ugly to sell, the ones that had been damaged by the shovel or had a sun scald burn on one side, or where a beetle had chewed a hole in the side. So we couldn’t hope for a big crop, but I figured we’d get by. However, the website we had been using to support our business was very out of date and after turning the issue over in our minds we decided we couldn’t get by with it indefinitely. With all the unquantifiable variables and insecurities and opportunities alive in the business and growing environment we had to make a decision to go forward and invest in new platforms that would help us keep growing and selling and delivering- or quit. So we decided to go for it, and we’re now rolling out the new website and e-commerce platform this week. We’re hoping we’ll be better able to handle transactions in a transparent and more reliable fashion than before. The labor of entering all the info that our old system required was unsustainable. We strive to be a model of “sustainable” agriculture, but if we can’t sustain ourselves we can’t care for the soil.
The reflection I went through when deciding to go ahead with getting a new website reminded me that sometimes I get sick of farming and quit. The last time I quit was in the winter of 1990 after a severe cold front in December ’89 destroyed all of the crops we’d planted to survive on during the winter. I took a trip to Bolivia to look at the cactus forests in the red-rock desert country of the Tarija Department, down near the frontera with Argentina. I found myself staying in the little mountain town of Tupiza and venturing out into the deserts to look for cacti. One afternoon, after a long hike and after having been rained on and then baked by the sun I was dragging my tail feathers into town, sore-footed, and still a few blocks from the little room I was staying in when I heard children laughing at me.
I turned and saw three girls, about 13 years old, dressed in the uniforms of the Catholic school they attended. They squealed and ran down a side alley. Since I’m so tall and white and looked so strangely out of place I was used to people staring and commenting. I kept plodding along. Then the girls suddenly popped out onto the sidewalk in front of me, and the boldest girl made to block my path.
“Are you German?” she demanded to know.
“Good afternoon, Senoritas,” I responded. “No, I’m not German. I’m a Californian.”
The girls went into a huddle without getting out of my way. The bold one again addressed me, a bit more diplomatically.
“We have to do a report for civics on foreigners, and we were going to do it on Germans, but since you’re here we will interview you instead.”
“What would you like to know?” I asked.
“You can make yourself presentable and come to my house at 5pm,” she said, “and we will interview you.” She gave me her address, and with that the girls raced off.
I cleaned up, then showed up. I knocked on the door of a little cinder-block house, quite respectable but humble in it’s out door appearance, and was seated in the living room. There was a figurine of the Virgin on a shelf, a portrait of the Pope on the wall and a crucifix, and a small TV on a bureau. Against one wall was a couch where two of the girls were seated, and there was an armchair with the third. And in the middle of the room, dominating the room the way Mt Shasta dominates northern California, or Fuji dominates Japan, was an immense multicolored pile of potatoes. I was served tea and cookies, and the girls got right down to business.
“Are you married?” “Where’s your wife?” “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” “Are you Catholic?” “Do you have any children?”
“Senoritas,” I pleaded. “One at a time. No, I’m not married?”
“I have not yet found the right woman.”
“But you’re looking, right? How old are you?”
“I am 30. When I find the right woman, and I’m making a reasonable income and have some degree of security in my life, then maybe I can start a family.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a farmer.”
The girls could handle the fact that I was unmarried, 30, and not Catholic. They could believe that I’d travel halfway around the world to look at cacti, and they were even willing to accept that I was not German. But they did not buy the idea that I was a farmer. Their fathers were farmers. Their fathers got up every morning before dawn as their fathers had done before them, and they went to their little plots of ground where they grew potatoes. They didn’t travel. They grew many varieties of potato as insurance because some years one kind would do better, and other years favored a different kind. And when the harvests came in they dug the potatoes by hand and stored them in the house so that their crop would be safe for thieves and rodents and insects and cold temperatures. With their year’s food supply assured, they’d sell their excess harvest in the Tupiza farmers market. Farmers don’t travel.
“But I am a farmer,” I said. And I told them about the crops I cultivate them and how and where I sell them. The girls weren’t going to tell me I was lying, but they weren’t convinced. After another huddle they arrived at a solution. “You are an ingeniero agronomo,” they declared. “That’s why you know about growing but get to travel and are not rooted to the soil like a potato.”
With the issue of my suspicious livelihood out of the way they were able to get back on track for an in-depth exploration of my religion, or lack there-of, my family, or lack there-of, and my income, or lack thereof. When they were finished taking notes I was on my way. They were lovely girls; charming, direct, funny, and sincere, and my encounter with them was one of the more enjoyable visits I’ve ever had with anybody. Today I wonder what they’re up to now and I ask myself how far technology has made itself at home in Tupiza. There was that TV in the living room, after all, so maybe the three girls grew up to manage their family farms’ on-line sales platforms. Who knows; maybe one of the three grew up to be a high-tech sorceress here in Silicon Babylon? We’re nothing, if not a diverse society of doers and makers, and technology is just as important down in the earth of the potato patch as it is atop the highest skyscraper where the tech wizards eat the potatoes we grow. We look forward to your feed-back as we go about our business of trying to feed you.
© 2020 Essay and photo by Andy Griffin.