The Beet Goes On
For as long as the sugar factory in Spreckles roared and whistled with life a weird penetrating stench hung over the little town. The remarkable odor was accepted by the locals as the smell of money being made and a natural consequence of progress. Why not? Nature, science informs us, demands that every action have an equal and opposite reaction. When a factory grinds up sugarbeets, digests the fermenting pulp, refines the whole sloppy mess into crystals, and finishes by spitting packages of clean, hard, perfectly white sugar cubes out a loading dock door, it is inevitable that amorphous dirty black vapors should leak from every other orifice in the building by way of achieving cosmic balance.
Drive past the site of the abandoned sugar mills today and you will inhale nothing more acrid than the moist salty ocean fog which blows in from the Pacific Ocean just a few miles down the Salinas valley. The sugar industry in central California is dead. Little is left of sugar’s hundred year spasm of frantic activity beyond a few skeletal out buildings and some isolated pieces of rusting farm machinery. And weeds; billions of beet weeds pop up each spring to remind us that we are farming in the wake of sugar. This too is natural. As the long straight rows of sugar beets once earned a few people a lot of money, so the undisciplined beet weeds that cover the land will cost a few people a lot of money. Like me.
Sugar beets were never cultivated on this land I farm. Before I came along to plant my vegetables these fields had been fallow for several years. For the previous decade horses had stumbled around the ranch eating the landowner into bankruptcy. Walnut orchards shaded the property for 50 years before being cut down to make room for the doomed horse ranch. Before the walnuts the land had been planted out in hops, and before the hops long-horned Spanish cattle roamed the valley floor. But during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, sugarbeets were grown in the neighborhood and trucked to the railroad to be shipped to Spreckles for refining. Somewhere along the line an overloaded beet truck spilled a few lumpy beet roots as it rumbled past the farm. The big, round roots rolled into the ditch, and being inedible, heavy, ugly, and hidden in the grass they escaped attention. The sugars stored in these beet’s fibrous tissues fueled seed stalks which shot up into the sun, flowered, and soon sprinkled new seeds on the ground. Winter rains raised up a whole crop of seedlings and wild beets began spreading like a rash across the landscape. We are scratching at the beet weeds with hoes to this day.
I feel the hangover of the sugar rush as I inspect my fields today and it is not sweet. Everywhere the soil is dotted with tiny beet weeds. Each beet seed is actually a small, hard, dried-up fruit containing three individual seeds, so where beets germinate they come up in thick stands. My onion seedlings are tiny green threads barely thicker than hairs and they grow slowly at this stage of their life. The wild beets, by contrast, while small today, will grow with a savage frenzy. Left to explore the limits of their own desires the wild beets will soon choke out the onions. “So why not forget the onions and harvest the beets?” you might ask. Because another law of nature, as immutable as the precepts of Newton or Einstein, declares that the easier something is to grow, the harder it is to sell.
Beet weeds are worse than worthless since they cost me money to remove. The original sugarbeets that spilled from the overloaded truck regressed socially at lightspeed once they rolled into the ditch. What is the “culture” in agriculture but the discipline to be productive beaten into food, floral, or fiber crops through years of patient and diligent husbandry? Once free of their human master the sugar beets naturally exercised their selfish desire to be merely reproductive. Their sweet swollen butts hardened into long, woody grasping roots that sucked at the water table. Ever in a hurry to set seed they accelerated their timetable for setting flower. Anxious to capture the wind and spread their degenerate pollen as far as it could blow they burned whatever sugars they had left in shooting up the tallest seed stalk possible. To defeat the hunger of any passing herbivore they concentrated bitter oxalic acids in their tissues. In no time at all they exorcized any vestigial pure bred poodle-like tendencies to obey man. For a wild beet “culture” is weakness. Culture fades as fast as sugar dissolves. Someday my vegetables will follow the horses, walnuts, hops, and long horn cattle into the west. Only the beet will remain. The beet goes on. And on. And on.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
photos above taken by Andy in 2008 at the abandoned sugar beet factory in Spreckles, CA
page with all 5 photos Andy took plus some bonus culinary beet photos
Tomato Abundance in Palo Alto on Oct. 11th San Marzano Tomatoes for $1.40/#; heirlooms for $2/#!