Five Quechua girls followed me down the steep cobbled street at a distance, giggling, until one of them got up the nerve to dash past and confront me. “Would you please come to my house for tea?” she asked.
Her friends crowded around. They were thirteen or fourteen years old, dressed alike in the matching skirts and dark sweaters of their school uniform and their hair was tied back in long black, glossy braids. Having gotten over their shyness, they made the quantum leap to boldness and began pelting me with questions en patota; “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”
“Shut up,” barked out the boss girl to her companions. “He’ll answer our questions one by one in a proper interview.”
“Why, yes,” I replied. “I would be delighted to come to your house for tea.”
The girls went into a brief huddle, and arrangements were made. One girl wrote out the address on a piece of note paper, another girl drew a map, and a third girl left to get some cookies. “We’re looking forward to visiting with you at 5:30,” they said. “Please don’t stand us up.”
They didn’t need to worry. I’d been traveling alone in Bolivia for a month. It was 1991. I’d been a farm worker for years but my first attempt at managing a business had ended in failure a few months before when a hard frost destroyed all my crops and froze my cash flow. Bolivia seemed like a good place to go and look at my life from a distance. I was just coming back from a walk in the mountains when the girls stopped me. It was late in the day and windy. I was cold and tired. Hot tea and feminine company sounded nice. These bronze faced girls were bright eyed and charming. I was curious to see how they lived.
I scrubbed up at the room where I was staying and found a clean shirt. The town was tiny, so the girl’s street wasn’t hard to find. I made sure to knock on the door precisely at 5:30, and the leader of the pack welcomed me into her home. I entered a small living room with a sofa against one wall. My young hostess motioned for me to sit. Her friends brought in chairs from the rest of the house and sat around the edge of the room with their backs to the walls. Hanging from the walls was a framed image of La Virgen del Socavón, a clock, and a calendar with a shiny picture of the Swiss Alps. The Alps looked like the painted backdrop for a toy train layout compared to the sullen peaks of the Andean Cordillera that loomed up outside. In the middle of the floor and almost filling the room was an immense pile of freshly dug potatoes.
The girls poured cups of mate de coca and passed around the cookies. After they each spilled a ritual drop of tea onto the floor they got down to business. “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”
“One at a time,” I pleaded. So the girls slowed down and introduced themselves. Their homework was to study a foreign country and I looked foreign. I swung at their questions almost as fast as they pitched; “No, I wasn’t German. Yes, I liked Bolivia. No, I didn’t have children yet, although yes, I was already 32 years old, but no, I hadn’t met the right woman yet, and yes, I’d been to Miami, but no, I don’t live there, and anyway California is nice too.” I even tried to ask the girls a few questions of my own.
“How come you keep the potatoes in the house?” I asked.
“Because they’ll freeze outside or someone will steal them,” the girl said.
“In California I’m a farmer and I grow potatoes,” I said.
“Oh, everyone grows potatoes,” another girl said. I suppose she was right, at least in her world.
Her world was harsh. In the Andes the day may dawn icy, but by mid-morning the sun can be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The atmosphere is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. Outer space seems close.
Most people in Bolivia live on the Altiplano, which means “high plains” in Spanish. The Altiplano is high– the altitude ranges from 9,000 feet above sea-level to around 14,000 feet– but the land is nothing close to being as flat as its name implies. The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of plants to evolve tuberous growth habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of them important food crops. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. Andeans also cultivate an edible tuberous oxalis, called oca. Potatoes are tuberous nightshades that evolved in the Andes, and they are cultivated there in great profusion.
While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, a farmer’s market in Bolivia has potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones in colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The potatoes heaped on the living room floor where I attended the tea party were brown.
Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use Mother Nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.
Life isn’t easy in the Andes. Half the people I met in Bolivia talked of making their way to Miami. But among traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Even as the Virgin of the Mines looks down from the wall, the people will spill a drop of their beverage or let a crumb of their food fall to the ground before taking a drink or swallowing a bite. “A taste for Pachamama,” they’ll murmur, “a taste for me.” I heard this phrase so often in Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. Spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places but in the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama also keeps skinny, stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place, but the habit everyday people there have of giving “thanks” lends a hard and austere country a grace that even affluent countries can aspire
When the tea party was over my mob of hostesses hopped up from their chairs and thanked me profusely for helping them with their homework.
“Encantado,” I said. “The pleasure was mine.”
Text and Photos, copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
A-Z Photo Galley from Andy
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Two Small Farms CSA
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Restaurants We Sell To
On Saturday we planted corn. I hope the crop is a success because the seed was expensive. My friend, John Bauer, is a seed salesman and he brought me a sweet corn variety he swears by. John used to farm in Massachusetts and he grew a lot of corn. Out here in California among us coastal growers more accustomed to planting broccoli, lettuce, or strawberries, he’s something of a “Johnny Corn Seed,” tramping the country and promoting the merits of Zea mays. John hauled a fifty pound sack of corn seed out of the bed of his pick-up truck by its ears and flopped it onto the barn floor. “There,” he said. “When your crew gets a taste of this sweet corn they’re going to think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
I looked at the bag of gold that lay between us. “I don’t know about that,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “This corn is like candy!”
The sun had already set and there was food on the stove in the kitchen and a bottle of wine on the table so I said, “come on in.” John and I sat down to dinner and talked about corn.
“This corn isn’t cheap,” he said, “but every seed will germinate, even in cold soil. You’re going to want to drop seed in a single row on forty inch centers with a six-inch spacing.”
That sounded easy. The way I farm, all my planting beds are forty inches wide. The axel on my tractor is set at eighty inches, so it can straddle two beds at once, and all my sowing and cultivating implements are set to accommodate those dimensions.
“Do you have a corn planter?” John asked.
John’s got that whole “Yankee ingenuity thing” going on. He thrives on building seed sleds, mechanical cultivators and other labor saving devices. I’m all thumbs. I don’t have much equipment on my farm, and since I’ve never grown a lot of corn, it’s never made sense for me to buy a special seeder. Besides, there’s my crew to think of.
“You know that ten acre piece on the south side of San Miguel Canyon Road,” I asked,” where the road leaves the valley and heads up into the hills?
Seed dealers get around. “Sure,” John said. “It’s in strawberries.”
“I farmed that ground in 1990,” I said. “Ofelio and his brother Juan worked with me then and they asked if they could grow a patch of corn at the edge of the field. Every time we irrigated the rows in that part of the field they’d put on an extra length of pipe and water their corn too.”
John could see where I was heading. “Did they grow field corn?” he asked.
“Well, Mexican corn” I said. Corn has been in cultivation a long time– between 7000 to 12,000 years according to some estimates– and archeobotanists trace its origins to the Rio Balsas in Mexico, not far from Jacona, where Ofelio and Juan grew up.
“Those two were old school,” I said. “Ofelio had a face like a toad. Juan looked like the Indian on the nickel, except that he always wore a cowboy hat, and he had a cast over his left eye, so he was half blind. They didn’t buy their corn from a catalogue. When it came time for seed they went to De La Colmena Market and bought a ten pound bag of the same purple Michoacano corn Ofelio’s wife used for pozole.”
No other plant that has been fiddled with by humans as much as corn. Probably working from Teosinte, a wild grass that is the most likely proto corn, Native American farmers evolved varieties that were adapted to many different environments, from cold mountain highlands to humid tropical lowlands. The culture of corn spread across the Americas like a shock wave, reaching south-eastern Canada to the north and Chile to the south. There were thousands of varieties of corn just in ancient Mexico. The kind of corn Ofelio and Juan liked had big, fat, starchy lavender kernels with a dent in the tip
“They planted it by hand?” John asked.
“Well, first they soaked the corn seed in a bucket of water,” I said. “Then they sharpened a couple of willow sticks. When the corn swelled up they dumped it into feed bags, and threw the bags over their shoulders. They poked holes in the soil with their sticks, let five or six seeds drop from the bags into each hole, scuffed a little dirt with their feet to cover it all, and took another step; poke, poke, drop, drop, scuff, scuff, step, step, over and over until the whole patch was planted.” Ofelio and Juan had come north during the Bracero program in the 50s. Since then, they’d been paid to do every kind of farm work in the US except plant corn by hand, but the rhythm of corn sowing they’d learned as kids stayed with them their whole lives.
“If you don’t have to plant a lot of seed, sowing corn by hand works just fine,” John said.
“Then on Sunday,” I said, “Ofelio’s wife and daughter would get dressed up and go to mass down at the Church of the Assumption in Pajaro, but Ofelio and Juan would worship the corn god.”
“They’d do what?” John asked.
“They’d throw a couple of folding in chairs and an ice chest into the back of Ofelio’s Datsun pick-up and head out to their milpa.”
A milpa is an ingenious agricultural system the ancient Mexicans developed. They planted corn in little hills, and at the foot of the corn stalks they planted beans. The beans grow with the corn, trailing up the stalks. In between the hills of corn they planted squash. The milpa is an example of the potential felicitous harmony between the earth and the human body; the corn supports the beans, the beans, being legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soil for the corn, and the big, broad squash leaves shade out the weeds. Corn, squash and beans, eaten together, also make for a balanced human diet. Milpa agriculture doesn’t work in a production economy where labor costs are high, but as a form of subsistence agriculture, it is genius.
“Juan and Ofelio would poke around in their garden for an hour or two, weeding or watching out for gophers, and by noon they’d retire to the shade of an oak tree nearby, and open up their folding chairs and a couple of beers. They’d tune their radio to the oldies station that spun Ranchera hits by singers like Vicente Fernandez, or Rocío Dúrcal, and they’d hang out. They could make twelve ounces of Budweiser last for hours.”
“How did their corn taste?” John wanted to know. In the US, some dent corn varieties are used to make hominy grits, but many are grown for livestock feed.
“Well, it depends,” I said. “Sweet corn gets right to the point– small plant, big ears, fast growth. But their corn grew, and grew, and grew. When the ears were finally starting to fill out, and the kernels were in the milk, they picked some and Ofelio’s wife made special tamales, not out of masa from dried corn, but from the fresh corn she scraped off the cob with a knife. And instead of wrapping the tamales in dried corn husks, she used green corn husks. Those tamales were sweet, and just about the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
“And then when they found some ears infected with corn fungus, so that the kernels were all swollen and black and distorted, they picked them and took them home as cuitlacoche.
Cuitlacoche looks gross, but it has kind of an earthy, smoky flavor when it’s cooked that’s real good, like mushrooms.
“When the kernels were still fresh, but turning lavender, they’d roast them in their husks over the barbecue and bring them to work to eat cold. I thought their corn on the cob was pretty chewy, but they said it had authentic corn flavor. Who am I to argue? And in the end, when the corn was dried, they took all they had left to Ofelio’s wife for pozole, so I guess you could say their corn tasted like home.”
So maybe Ofelio or Juan wouldn’t be entirely happy with my sweet corn, but my daughter and my wife will be, so I’m looking forward to our harvest. Last Friday I hauled the seed out to the field. I took the big sack by its ears and hauled it off the truck. José opened the bag and reached for a handful of the yellow kernels. He’s from Oaxaca, not too far to the south from Rio Balsas. José looked skeptical. “These seeds sure are small,” he said, “but before we plant them we’ll soak them in water. They’ll swell right up.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
June 21st Spring Fandango With Piccino and our Farm: Sunday June 21, Noon to 9:00
A-Z Recipes for Vegetables
A-Z Photo Gallery from the farm
Some Food Bloggers We Know
“How does your wife cook roosters?” Elias asked. Elias is a Zacateco of the old school, raised on a small ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. He’s been here in California for thirty years, but he still wouldn’t dream of going to the store for chicken or eggs when you can have a flock of hens scratching around the dust. Elias also believes in the restorative power of pure, natural food. A happy chicken makes a tasty chicken! Because it’s natural, and so that his hens can be happy, Elias also keeps a number of brightly feathered roosters to strut about the yard and crow their own praises. Of course, living as he does now on a suburban street and not on a ranchito in Mexico, Elias has to contend with neighbors who don’t share his appreciation for natural living. Recently he decided to slaughter several of his older roosters and keep only the most virile cocks to husband his flock. I had to explain to Elias that my wife had probably never cooked a rooster in her life.
“My wife cooks gallos long and slow in a caldo like pozole,” Elias said. Traditional pozole is usually made from a pig’s head that’s been quartered and cooked slowly in a light chile broth with plenty of hominy corn so that the soup gets body from the bones, but I imagine a whole chicken would make a very acceptable substitute. I told Elias that I’d like to try cooking one of his birds, so a few days later he brought me a big one, all cleaned and ready to go. It was a Sunday morning, so I got out a big earthenware pot I bought at the Spanish Table over on San Pablo in Berkeley, heaped up some dry rounds of oak, and built a fire. I placed the chicken in the pot and surrounded it with vegetables fresh from my fields. I used several stems of green garlic, a couple of leeks sliced into rounds, a few sprigs of thyme, a bunch of soup celery stems chopped up fine and a bay leaf or two, plus sliced fresh mushrooms, and chunks of Chantenay carrot and parsley root.
Parsley root is a curious vegetable. I’d read with interest the passage in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider where she writes that “(parsley root) has been deemed the significant indicator of authentic Jewish chicken soup.” I’m not Jewish, but great soup is nondenominational. Besides, if I’m going to grow parsley root on my farm I’d better be proficient in using it. Parsley root is a common vegetable across Central Europe– it’s often called “Hamburg parsley”– but it’s not too well known here in California, compared to its leafy green cousins, Italian parsley and curly parsley. I didn’t have any potatoes on hand and I hoped the parsley root could thicken the broth as it cooked, as well as add an herbal, savory note to the stew. I splashed a couple of cups of white wine into the clay pot, added enough water to cover the bird and the veggies, nestled the pot in the coals at the edge of the fire pit, and set the heavy clay lid down on top. After a half hour I had steam coming out from under the lid, so I raked a few coals back so that the liquid only simmered and sat back with my dog in the shade to enjoy the day.
Six hours and three beers later I judged the chicken to be almost ready. The meat had fallen from the bones. Droplets of golden fat had risen to the surface, and I do mean “golden.” Because the rooster had spent his life in the sun chasing after hens and flies, pecking at grass and weeds, and eating ants, bugs, and seeds, he’d taken in a lot of natural carotene. He hadn’t been a fat bird, but what fat he’d had was saffron yellow, and the dark meat was dark like a game-bird’s flesh. I added some pasta shells to the broth, let them cook a bit, and then carefully carried my clay pot into the kitchen. When the stew cooled enough I took out the bones, the bay leaves, and the thyme stems. The meat wasn’t as tender as a mother kissing her baby, but it wasn’t as tough as my pair of Tony Lama rough-out cowboy boots either. Company was coming over so I decided to cut the chicken into small pieces. We gathered around the table and sat down.
After grace was said– me giving thanks to the Lord for giving us this time to share a meal together, and for all we’ve been blessed with etc. etc. – my twelve-year old daughter opened her eyes and stared into the pot.
“Is there pig in that?” she asked.
“Of course not, Lena,” I replied. And here’s where I went wrong. Up until this point I’d been living out the small family farm, local, organic, grass-fed, sustainable gospel; really “walking the walk,” so to speak. “It’s a boiled rooster!”
Lena put a curl to her lip that would have made Elvis patented sulky sneer look like Alfred E. Neuman’s idiot grin. I got the message. Sometimes it’s important to know when to swan in and “talk the talk.” Here’s what I should have said:
“Tonight’s special, Miss, is le Coq a la international.”
And when Lena looked up at me quizzically, I could have hooked her.
“Chef has prepared le coq hearthside over cured Black oak in a terracotta olla from Spanish Table, seamlessly blending Hamburg parsley, Rioja garlic and English thyme with French wine, Welsh leeks, Italian pasta and Greek laurel. Enjoy!”
But it was too late; I’d already called my stew “boiled rooster.” Naturally, there was plenty left over, even though it tasted pretty good. I had some for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day, and so did Julia. But my stew seemed to grow in the pot. I’d originally made a couple of quarts of chicken stew, but by the third day the stuff filled up a five gallon bucket and was threatening to overwhelm the refrigerator. I decided to share some with my dogs.
Blue got a hefty serving of chicken stew. He’s a big, hard-working, hard-barking livestock guard dog, and his portion of stew disappeared so fast it was as though the whole doggie dish had been sucked down a black hole like a stray photon. Red, on the other hand, is a reflective dog, timid around sheep, and less subject to violent passions, so I had a chance to work on my sales pitch. I wanted to balance my developing kitchen chops with some “front of the house” finesse.
“Hi, darling,” I said to Red. “Today’s special is a rich stew of crispy- crunchy kibble mixed with lots of tasty-licious, roostery goodness.” I set the bowl down with ceremony. When I came back five minutes later Red had finished her meal. She’d polished her bowl, but she still sat peering into it like a lonesome lover gazing down a wishing well. When Red finally looked up, her shining eyes told me that I can cook a rooster for her anytime. Cooking is like that; it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, but when the stars align, cooking brings as much joy and satisfaction to the cook as it does to the diner.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Julia’s new Food Blog Index: each of these is someone I personally know one way or another
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April showers bring May weeds! And one of the fastest growing weeds on my farm is Chenopodium album, or “fat hen,” an exasperating member of the spinach family. But besides any vegetable “fat-hens” that may be found popping up among the rows of vegetables, our farm also hosts any number of actual avian hens.
During the winter months, when the farm is cloaked in nitrogen-fixing cover crops, pheasants take cover under the tall stands of oats, peas and fava beans. Pheasants aren’t native to San Benito County but were introduced into the Hollister Valley back when the land was covered with hay fields so that the ranchers could augment their income by running hunting clubs. Today, many of Hollister’s hay fields are gone, replaced by a scatter of mammoth homes, hobby “ranchettes,” and row-crop vegetable fields, but the feral pheasants remain. As I walk around the farm I can hear the birds calling to each other from their hiding places. Their voices sound like rusty gate hinges grating, but pheasants are beautiful creatures. Their banded, speckled, iridescent plumage provides them with excellent camouflage against soil and amongst the shadows of the grasses; they’ll wait until you almost step on them before they explode into the air with a tremendous flapping of wings.
While clearing pipes from in front of the tractor one morning so that we could plow down the cover crop, our irrigator, Rogelio, found a clutch of pheasant eggs nestled in the grass. Among rural Mexicans, any wild food is esteemed as especially natural and healthful, and so pheasant eggs, like quelites, are reputed to be unusually nutritious. For example, Chenopodium album, the weed we call “fat hen,” is known as “quelite de ceniza” in Spanish and is much appreciated as a flavorful cooking green. Rogelio gathered a cowboy hat full of pheasant eggs to take home and eat and he gave me some to show my children. The nest would have been crushed by the tractor anyway; when the cover crops are turned under the pheasants have to move along. They move into the brush along the banks of Pacheco Creek which runs along the edge of our fields and sometimes make new homes in our artichoke patch. Pheasants occasionally come out of hiding to peck at emergent lettuce sprouts, but they’re not really pests. They eat weed seeds, bugs, snail eggs and ants, just like wild chickens, but there aren’t enough of them to do any lasting damage.
Because artichokes are a perennial crop and the stand remains “standing” in one plot of ground for several seasons, the artichoke patch is an attractive place for birds who seek cover under the big, silvery leaves. When an artichoke plant’s first bud begins to develop in the early spring, it sits atop the nascent flower stalk buried in the basal core of the foliage. One day, as I went through the artichoke patch from plant to plant, peering down inside to see if my artichoke crop was forming, I encountered a little nest full of speckled eggs, perched atop an emergent artichoke. The eggs were tiny; too small for a pheasant to have lain. A quail hen must have thought that the fat artichoke bud made a perfect foundation upon which to build her home and family. But as the artichoke flower stalk rapidly lengthened under the long spring days, her nest was thrust upwards from the comfortable, spiny heart of an artichoke plant ground into the sky. Soon the mother bird was exposed as she sat on her nest, so she fled, leaving her eggs behind. Quail are cute, but they’re stupid, and the hawks, skunks, foxes, bobcats, owls, coyotes and snakes all eat them like popcorn. Sometimes, like pheasants, the quail peck at our crops along the margins of the field, but I don’t feel them as any sort of a threat to production either. Quail eat a lot of ants, which is good, because ants will import aphids and pasture them in a crop in order to milk them of their honeydew, and aphids can be a real pest. In the grand scheme of things, quail are friends to a farmer.
Some birds can be a problem. José called me one day to tell me of a problem we were having with “los patos nalgónes” that were eating a sowing of escarole. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about; “pato nalgón” literally means “fat-assed duck.” When I got to the field he pointed out an offender- a big brassy Canada goose was hauling its keel out of the pond that lies just over the fence on the southern boundary of the land we lease and heading into our field. The goose was truly making a mess, eating one row of escarole seedlings after another, like a cheapskate at a smorgasbord!
“Don’t just stand there” I said “Chase that pinche @#$%&* ganso out of there!”
José put his hoe down and strolled off, picking up dirt clods. The rest of the crew looked on with interest. The first few clods fell wide of their mark but soon the goose took note of José. The big bird was anything but scared. It reared up on its stumpy black legs, flapped its big wings, and advanced with a swaggering waddle, hissing and waving its long, black, snaky neck. The crew howled with laughter and joined in the dirt clod barrage. The gander retreated back to the pond under heavy fire and sailed off out of sight behind some tules. The crew returned to work, delighted with the diverting scandal and already evolving the story of how José, who studies Asian martial arts on his time off, was almost beaten up by a fat-assed duck.
But the contest wasn’t over. Fifteen minutes later the goose returned- with seven other geese, and all eight of them were aggressively hosing up escarole.
“That goose means war,” I cried. “Attack!” And attack we did, waving hoes and ululating like banshees. The geese took to the air, wheeling above us, slowly gaining altitude. They must have felt smug looking down on us as we shrank into mere barking specks by a puddle’s edge.
“Los patos nalgónes” are a pain in my butt when they choose to touch down and treat the farm as just another Motel 6 and Denny’s Restaurant along their international flyway, but actual ducks cause the us few problems, if any. While I was walking in the potato patch once, I found a duck’s nest tucked away in the leaves, all lined with down, and filled with six eggs of the palest green. Sometimes reporters will use the phrase “feather the nest” when speaking of politicians or corporate pirates who connive to lead lives of luxurious circumstance at the public’s expense. Compared to human raptors that roost in cushy penthouse suites high above Wall Street this feathered duck nest seemed so vulnerable under the open sky. What did I do with the eggs? Nothing. I like to see ducks on the farm, and there is nothing more adorable that a duck hen leading her string of ducklings to the pond for swimming lessons. But as I moved away down the row of potatoes a crow that had been shadowing me flapped over. In minutes the duck eggs were consumed. It made me sad for a moment; sometimes it’s a bird eat bird world out there, and I guess you could say that Mariquita farm is “all fowled up.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Fat Hen Recipes || A-Z Vegetable Recipes
Andy helps Kelsie Kerr (wonderful chef and caterer who yes, did a lengthy stint at that place in Berkeley) with a cooking class at Cavallo Point: Farmer, Vintner, Chef.
Saturday, April 25th 4:30-8:30pm.$150/head includes meal and wine and of course Andy’s rhetoric!
Dinner in the Field! Saturday, June 20th at High Ground Organics, our Two Small Farms partner farm,to raise funds for their children’s school. In Watsonville at a gorgeous organic farm. $130/head includes farm tour, amazing meal prepared and served in the field by fabulous chef Andrew Cohen. Read More.
The dandelion greens sold in supermarkets are not the same breed of plant as the yellow flowered weeds we see squeezing from between the cracks in sidewalks or smiling up from cemetery lawns. “Dandelion” is a common name that comes to English from the Medieval Latin dens leonis, meaning “lion’s tooth,” and it has been applied without precision to a number of different weedy annual herbs that have jagged edges to their leaves. Scientists recognize over 1200 subspecies of the common parking lot dandelion, which they know as Taraxacum officinale. The word Taraxacum comes from the Greek words taraxos and akos, meaning, respectively “disorder” and “remedy.” Wild dandelions are considered medicinal plants as well as spring salad greens and are used in traditional cultures as a diuretic. The diuretic aspect gave wild dandies one of the more colorful names in culinary botany, pissenlit in French or pissabed in English. In some places, like Italy, tender young Taraxacum officinale dandelions are still gathered from the wild or grown on farms. There they are sold in the markets as “wild chicories,” even when they’re cultivated and even though a botanist will tell you they are not technically chicories. (If you want to pick fights with traditionally minded Italian shoppers over the proper scientific Latin names for their common vegetables or about the arcane details of botanical taxonomy, go ahead, but I won’t be there to back you up!)
The plant usually sold as “dandelion” in the U.S. is related only distantly to the sidewalk dandelion, though both are members of the same sprawling plant family, the Compositae, along with lettuces, artichokes, sunflowers, and thistles. The scientific name for cultivated dandelions is Chicorium intybus. The chicories that we call “dandelions” are more commonly known in Europe as Catalogna chicories, presumably because they were first developed in Catalonia. If allowed to bloom, a Catalan dandelion will show off a multi-branched spray of lovely, sky-blue flowers instead of the solitary yellow flower-head of a pissabed dandy. To make dandelion nomenclature even more complex, there is a vertitable tribe of different kinds of “Catalogna dandelions” within the Chicorium intybus, including some varieties whose leaves are smooth, defying the whole reason for calling them “lion’s teeth” in the first place.
Because dandelion chicories grow well during our cool California winters I grew three kinds this year (see the family portrait). Puntarelle Galantina, the one with the weirdo, swollen coral-like stalk is used for a traditional Roman winter salad, and I grew it for SPQR, a restaurant in San Francisco that has a Roman inspired menu. I also grew another dandelion variety that is also sometimes known as “puntarelle,” the Catalogna Frastigliata, which has the thick, white stems to the leaf, but is otherwise “normal.” I’m told that it is customary in Rome to cut the stems into slivers for the traditional Roman puntarelle salad described below. Julia and I have “done in Watsonville what the Romans do at home” by using a funny looking Roman “knife” used to slice the slender puntarelle leaves that a friend picked up for us in a Roman flea market. (See photo) Can you imagine an America where enough people eat dandelion salad to support flea market vendors that specialize in the appropriate tools? The green part of the Frastigliata leaves can be used as a cooking green, just like the regular “supermarket” dandelion that we see most often in the United States.
The third dandelion that I grew for the “family portrait” is a leafy form of dandy with leaves that entirely lack the toothy edges that gave the plant its common name in the first place. Variety is the spice of life, and here are many other forms of dandelion out there, including a red–stemmed form from Greece that is becoming popular here now because it is colorful and looks nice on a produce rack. The Greek dandelion is pretty, and it tastes just as good as the other forms. To me, all dandelions taste like spring.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Dandelion Recipes
1 head puntarelle: cut the white part into thin strips then plunge into ice water. They should curl up a bit. Leave them in the water while you make the dressing:
Mix together: (I use a small blender jar for this)
2-3 stalks green garlic or 2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
Large pinch of coarse kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Dress the puntarelle curly sticks.
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.
The 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).
When 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
It’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
Hi everybody: It’s pouring rain, the fields are a swamp, the goats are starting to kid, one ewe gave triplet lambs today, and I’ve got to start thinking about spring planting. I’m distracted. I look forward to writing a Ladybug Letter every two weeks but I just didn’t have it in me today, so instead I dug back into the digital files and found a letter I wrote back in 2003. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. -andy on 2-17-09
E Pluribus Onion
Ramakrishna compared the ego to an onion. Peel away an onion’s rings the way spiritual experiences strip at the ego until finally, after all the layers are gone, there is nothing; no central core with an egoistic structure, and no onion either, just a void with no barrier remaining to a union with Brahma. I wouldn’t know, but it’s not for lack of trying.
I peeled an onion, a saucer-shaped cipollini Bianco di Maggio to be exact. After eight layers I was left with a tiny pearly white, tear drop-shaped piece of lily bulb. I broke it open – layer number nine – and nothing remained but tears in my eyes from the oxidized sulfur compounds released from the onion’s tissue by my violence. Is this a deep and metaphoric experience, I wondered, or have I just wasted an onion?
So I gathered the curled, juicy onion pieces together and tossed them in a bowl of cool water so they couldn’t oxidize any more and turn bitter. As cheap and ubiquitous as they are onions are not easy to grow, at least not organically, so I didn’t want to waste one. I have shed more tears over growing onions than I ever have from eating them.
To yield well an onion bed must be kept completely free of weeds. Allium roots are quite shallow and the plants can’t tolerate much competition. Without recourse to herbicides and soil fumigants organic onion culture can entail costly hand-weeding once the plants are too large for mechanical cultivation. Onions grow slowly, too, giving weeds lots of opportunities to sprout, and onions are hungry for fertilizer and thirsty for water. Onions demand full sun and perfect drainage. It is fair to say that onions are among the most self-centered and egoistic of the garden vegetables. Am I what I eat?
There was sourdough bread on the table in front of me and a cube of butter. Feeling a void at my core I spread some butter on the bread. I poured the bowl of onions into a colander and shook it to drain them. “Would Ramakrishna approve?” I asked myself as I cobbled the buttered bread with puzzle pieces of raw onion and sprinkled them with a pinch of salt. Not everyone appreciates onions they way I do. Some religious traditions in Hinduism hold that the Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya castes, or the priestly, warrior, and professional classes, should avoid “hot” foods like onions that lead to lustful thoughts. Jains supposedly don’t eat onions either, and neither did the priests or royalty of ancient Egypt. The slaves who built the pyramids ate onions, though, raw and cooked, with great frequency. “We can’t all have been Cleopatra in a past life.” I decided, and bit into my sandwich. Some of us are eternal peasants.
The onion I was eating was sweet and mild and hardly bit me back, but its aroma reawakened Ramakrishna to my mind. Funny how the onion Ramakrishna saw as a perfect metaphor for the illusion of individuality and the nothingness of the void should have been seen by ancient Latins as a symbol of wholeness. Our words onion and union share a common Latin root in unio, meaning unity. The successive layers of an onion wrapped up in a single round bulb do suggest unity, especially when compared to their alliaceous cousins, the multi-cloved garlics. And somehow, even if you can never spy the life force at the heart of an onion or see it moving between the layers of an onion as you peel them away when you plant an onion bulb it will give birth to more genetically identical onions, thus wrapping the past, the present, and the future of vegetal individuality into one silky tear-jerking ball.
Maybe it’s just the onion causing my mouth to water but I say onions are like the spicy, girly, back-up singers whose role on stage is to sway back and forth cooing sweet harmonies that allow some otherwise hunky but mediocre lead singer to sound good. What cuisine hasn’t been sweetened and enhanced by onions? Where would we be if onions didn’t add zest to American potato salad, or sugar to Pakistani dal, or bind together Chinese dumplings? If ancient Egyptian priests, Jains, Brahmins, warriors and Vaisyas can’t share in my onion harvest that just leaves more for the rest of us.
I swallow the last bite of my onion sandwich and feel full for a moment; full of onion, full of thoughts about the onion-eating pyramid builders that came before us. Peeling onions and looking for your ego can get anybody feeling hollow and teary-eyed, but gather up those aromatic scraps into a meal you can share with friends and you can transform the moment; people will be talking, glasses will be clinking, and spicy lilies will be shaking their hips and harmonizing in the background.
What did those ancient Latins used to say? E Pluribus Onion?
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Onion Recipes, including Chinese Dumplings & Pakistani Dal: recipes Julia gathered in travels
Baby Goat Photos we took today
A few Mystery Veggie Boxes at Incanto in San Francisco available for this Thursday, 2-19-09. Read More….
Once upon a time marshmallows were made of the sticky juices squeezed from the pulverized roots of marsh mallow, or Althaea officinalis. Nowadays marshmallows are made from a viscous protein solution, like gelatin, that’s been whipped full of air and sugar, but the old name still sticks. The marsh mallow is a weedy relative of Gossypium hirsutum, the cotton plant, Althaea rosea, the hollyhock, and Abelmoshus esculentus, or okra. I don’t grow cotton, hollyhocks, or okra, but my farm is plagued with another mallow, Malva neglecta, or cheeseweed. If you try to pull a cheeseweed up it’s likely to break off above the ground, leaving the roots behind to re-sprout and leaving your hands slimy. The roots of most mallows are typically mucilaginous when you crush them. There’s even a mallow species that scientists have given the name Bastardia viscosa var. sanctae-crucis, or “the viscous Bastardia from Santa Cruz,” in vulgar English.
I know now that a number of different Mallow species have medicinal properties and are said to be good for soothing coughs and healing wounds. In fact, today’s confectionery marshmallow was originally conceived as a palatable delivery system for bitter medicine. One time, when I was traveling in Bolivia, I stayed with a farm family in a lovely hacienda far out in the back country of Tarija Province. When she learned that I was a farmer, the ama de casa was delighted to show me her lovely kitchen garden that took up the entire central courtyard. After lunch, she and her husband took a siesta, but I was restless, so after lying around for a while I decided to do my hostess a favor by pulling up the cheeseweeds I’d seen growing amongst her peppers. How was I to know that they were actually “yerbas curativas,” and very difficult to grow in Bolivia? When she woke up from her nap the good woman was dismayed– she said something about a bicho malo that always ate the malva seedlings before the plants could grow. I felt sad. We certainly don’t have that problem here. American bugs won’t eat Malva neglecta and neither will we. Meanwhile the drug companies get rich selling cough syrup and I pay farm workers to kill malva. It’s too bad I can’t make artisanal, medicinal “field mallows” for you all to roast at home, but the FDA would probably frown on that.
So why, you ask, is Malva neglecta called “cheeseweed” if it’s slimy, fibrous and tough?
MalvaCheeseweed has a schizocarp shaped like a cheese wheel. “Schizocarp” is fancy botanical talk for a fruit that splits up into pieces. The ten seeds that make up each cheeseweed fruit fall to the ground like rain when the plant matures and they remain vital in the soil for years. On bad days I think I can remember hearing a story on National Public Radio where some scientists discovered a ceramic jar full of seeds in an undisturbed Anasazi cave dwelling that was five thousand years old. Hoping to discover new facts about ancient agriculture, the scientists planted the ancient seeds. But only the Malva neglecta sprouted. This tale could just be my paranoia talking, though. So what can a farmer like me do to rid a plot of ground of mallow without resorting to powerful toxic chemicals that also defy the ages?
First, before planting, we pre-irrigate the field we’re going to plant. Mallow seeds sprout almost overnight once they’ve been refreshed with a drink of water. Then we plant our crop. Carrots take fourteen days to germinate, and onions can take ten. The first two leaves, or cotyledons, of a nascent malva plant look like a pair of tiny green valentines. After the mallow seeds have sprouted but before the crop we’ve sown has germinated, we pass over the weedy bed with a hand held gas torch. The mallow seedlings are tender and wilt to death at the merest touch of flame. There is no need to stand over the seedlings and incinerate them. Bigger organic farms use tractor mounted torches and speed down the field. You can think of this organic flame weeding technique as “roasting field mallows” if you want. Burning mallows down the rows is never as fun as roasting marshmallows over the coals, but one thing’s for sure; no matter how much Malva neglecta we’re able to kill there are always “smore” where they came from!
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
lamb photos from new ones born this week: these have nothing to do with the article above, but they sure are cute! video of the same lamb batch (I’m just starting my video career, stay tuned for better footage in the future! -julia)
“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.
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.
Secondly, 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.
I 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
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