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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations of being an Organic Farmer

The Trials and Tribulations of being an Organic Farmer

September 2008

Somehow I figured that the longer I did something, the more proficient I would become at doing it. Experience begets mastery. Right? Well, maybe at the piano, or ping pong, but not farming. It almost seems as if the longer I do this absurd, yet critical vocation/lifestyle, the more ways I realize that I can get horns waggled by mother nature. Take our cucumber crop this year for instance. Last year we trialed a new variety of Middle Eastern cucumber (also known as the biet alpha group of cucumber varieties) called Divr from Seeds of Change seeds. Trialing is the process of growing a small amount of different varieties side by side in order to evaluate them more thoroughly under your own field’s growing conditions. We were impressed with its smooth skin free from bitter taste and sweet crunchy flesh. So this year we figures that we try growing a couple rows of it to share with the CSA members, excited to share what we thought was a superior variety.
Fast forward to June 2008. Summer weather didn’t grace our piece of paradise on the north slope of Sugarloaf mountain (elev. 6870 feet) here in Williams until after s
The summer solstice. The slow start of warm weather this summer proved to challenge the early season vigor of all the hot weather crops. Not to be tricked by late starts of the Siskiyous, we had covered our cuc’s with remay (spun polyester fabric, kinda like quilt facing) at planting time to insulate them against cold nights and more importantly protect them from the arch nemesis of all cucerbitacea family plants – the dreaded cucumber beetle. So our cucumbers happily grew (slowly I might add) under the remay until warmer temperatures coaxed into liberating them to feel the suns rays directly. We were assured that they had grown enough foliage to combat and pestilence.
The sharp claws of reality sink deep into vegetable flesh. As the fruits began to develop and we walked the rows to asses when to begin picking we noticed that not only did we have a preference for the fruits of the middle eaten cucumber but so did both the spotted and striped cucumber beetles. Not only did they like it, they relished it with a parasitic fervor. The small fruits were crisscrossed with the feeding tracks of the beetles so much so as to resemble the way an engraver beetle chews on a pine log. We were growing another couple rows of tradition Market more green cucumbers and pale yellow lemon cucumbers next to out choice specialty ones and they were largely spared the plague.
Not to be outdone. We figured that the damage was simply an early season fluke, so we took drastic measures and harvested the entire first flush (about 200 pounds) of cucumbers and fed them to out ducks and chickens. Confident that it would enable the plants to redirect their energy into growing new fruits with less damage. But noooo….
Striiike two!
Once again the fruits we horribly scarred and eaten with wounds oozing gelatinous cucumber sap. We counted our losses and tried to get some yield from the patch and sorted out the worst of the worst and wound up feeding another couple wheelbarrow loads of cucs to our enthusiastic ducks, chickens and turkeys. This continued for a few weeks until we were unable to meet our CSA’s quality standards and now the crop sits unharvested, a writhing cesspool of cucumber beetles munching in an orgy of pestilence. To add injury to defeat, their feeding transmits both cucumber mosaic virus and powdery mildew fungus to the leaves of the plants, so the neighboring ones don’t look too good either. A silver lining to this tragedy is that our interns and we made some mean pickles and tasty relish from some of the culls that we will savor in the winter months to come.
As a farmer I want to be able to relay this story to those who marvel at beautiful fruits and vegetables in a CSA box or the market stand, completely innocent of the carnage that lies in waste in the dark recesses of the down and dirty world of domestication and cultivation. For every perfect fruit in a CSA box there is often one or two ugly ones sitting in the row in the field, harvested and rejected. If the rejects are lucky, they get rounded up and fed to livestock on the farm, but all too often they aren’t worth the effort and they get tilled back into the soil to nourish the soil and conjure luck in the quest for cosmetically beautiful food. In a perfect world consumers would be as concerned about the beauty within the fruit (the care put into growing soil and preserving biodiversity on the land) as the physical beauty on the outside of the fruit. Besides, perhaps the bugs are actually showing us which fruits are the most nutritious of the lot. Hmmmm…

Don Tipping
Waning in the wee hours at Seven Seeds Farm on Sugarloaf Mountain 2008

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