Thursday, August 13, 2009


I've been lax as of late, for which I apologize. In part, my sporadic posting has been the result of over stimulation: I first went on vacation to Virginia, where I visited Andrew at the now-famous Polyface Farm; then I attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference in Amherst, MA. Between processing 600 chickens in 4 hours, taking notes on 7 excellent workshops, and participating in a pie-eating contest, it has been a busy couple of weeks. But perhaps a larger explanation for my silence on the blogging front has been a series of challenges, which this season keeps throwing at us.

It began with out strawberries, which received rain almost from the moment they first blushed red. Not only did the lack of sun make the berries watery and less-than-optimally sweet, but it also allowed fungus to spread rapidly, killing the plants and rotting the fruit. Then, on June 1st, we suffered the latest frost in anyone's memory. We covered everything we could to protect our fragile transplants, but a strong wind in the night bared the melons to the frosty air. We lost a huge fraction of our early crop, and then the ensuing rains of June polished off the rest of the crop, other than a few hearty vines. Before that, Don had never lost a crop in 15 years of farming.

The cold and wet of June and then July brought other disasters as well. Phythophthora infestans, also known as Late Blight, traveled swiftly from Ohio to Maine, killing every tomato in its path. Eschewing dangerous sprays (even certified organic sprays can be extremely harmful if the farmer contacts them in the process of spraying), we watched as our gorgeous, luscious tomato plants swiftly rotted before our eyes, literally days before our first harvest.

The weather then perked up for a bit, and we hoped to recoup our losses and move on with life. Until a storm system dumped 5 inches of rain on us in 1 day, followed by another 2 inches two days later. (As a point of reference, the average month here recieves around 4 inches of rain). My garden all but became an aquaculture site*, and our bare summer fallow field moonlighted as a small pond. A few days later, a new disease surfaced in the peppers, and possibly in the summer squash. Plant pathologists from the extension service gave us the grim news: a different strain of Phytophthora, this one a soil borne disease which can survive in a field for years and will attack solanacious crops and cucurbits--aka everything tasty from summer.

Agriculturally, this season sucks.

Increasingly, I've come to empathize with the position of conventional farmers, the sort of folk who wrote the essay "The Omnivore's Delusion" (not to be confused with Michael Pollan's best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma). But before anyone starts advertising conventional fungicides to me, allow me to reiterate my commitment to our growing practices, even in the face of (some) crop failures.

"The Omnivore's Delusion" is an important essay, I believe, one that should be read by anyone who considers him or herself an advocate of sustainable, local ag. This is not so that you can "know the enemy" and thereby outsmart them (such an antagonistic mindset only serves to repackage and recycle a long-standing and singularly vicious mistrust between city and country, conservative and liberal). No, I cite Blake Hurst's essay because it offers a long overdue reminder of the complexity of farming.

I agree with the author, that a great many people seem to revere Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is the Word made print of the sustainable ag gospel. Pollan is a good man, and one of the most articulate advocates for me and other farmers like me. But he is not a farmer. There are a great many things he either does not know, or does not have the space to include in a book. Reading Michael Pollan no more makes you an expert on agriculture and food policy than sleeping at a Holiday Inn Express makes you a heart surgeon (despite what the commercials would lead you to believe).

It does make you a more informed consumer, and it provides a certain amount of critical vocabulary with which to then may seek out a deeper understanding.

Take late blight, for example. Hurst, hearing of the tomato blight in New England, would probably say, "for the sake of your family and the financial solvency of your farm, you should spray fungicide and save your harvest." I, on the other hand, view late blight this year as a reminder of the value of diversification and of our CSA community. Our shareholders have supported us stalwartly in this challenging season and frequently expressed the sentiment that this year, more than any other, is an example of why they joined a CSA. Not everyone can or wants to be a CSA farmer. But it is one way, just as surely as commodity corn is another way of farming (and one dependent on federal subsidy largess).

My kind of farming is not a rejection of technology, just as growing corn is not (inherently) a rejection of soil stewardship. The theme that I kept coming back to again and again as I read Hurst's piece is this: look closer. In this sense, he offers a valuable perspective.

*Though, miracle of miracles, it survived the deluge and has been thriving when all else fails. Continue sending good thoughts my way, whoever you are!


LP said...

I agree with the diversification moral of the story, but I'm not sure that I understand how the late blight disaster supports the value of a CSA. Is it because members haven't abandoned the programs despite the disappointment some of them surely feel at the collapse of the organic tomato crop?

LP said...

P.S. This is a great post on the debate Hurst has inspired:

Alexandra said...

I'm so sorry to hear about the challenges you have been facing this season, but, from your post, it is clear you are still learning a great deal. Challenges such as this sound terribly daunting, but it seems you are pushing through! (I wouldn't expect any less!)

Thank you so much for sharing your stories from the farm. It helps us cubicle dwellers tremendously!

andrew said...

600 chickens in four hours? surely it didn't take us that long.

Anonymous said...

I understand the blight is due to most of the seedlings being supplied from one company.

Diversity in suppliers, seeds, varieties would be a (partial) solution

Once again the big ag model shows that its is not sustainable and has negative (tho unintended) consequences for all of us.


MK said...

the blight was caused by a variety of factors: first, the weather conditions this year were blight heaven. Late blight probably would not have showed up as early as it did without teh introduction of a great many infected transplants, which had been shipped in from the South (Late blight can overwinter there; it is highly unusual for it to outlast winter here). Home gardeners across new england bought the diseased transplants and didn't know how to recognize the problem or prevent the fungus spreading.

Colleen said...

have you seen this blog:

and the blightee?

I thought of you when I saw it.