The Fat of the Land

Month: April, 2015

Firsts

DSC_3641_2

Seed pots came first—a windowsill full of them that I started with the preschool class I was teaching at the time. We’d planted with abandon, filling egg cartons and yogurt cups for the fun of it. A complete novice who’d kept no more than a few planters on the porch, I had purchased cheap soil and cheap seeds, not expecting much to happen. We watered them with spray bottles and waited, the kids enthralled.

Like magic (and at the time, I could explain it no other way), nearly every seed sprouted and we soon had a windowsill full of infant plants—beans, corn, sweet alyssum, sunflowers, squash. I was proud to send each kiddo home with a box of garden starts at the end of the school year. A few forwarded pictures of corn stalks or sunflowers towering at the edge of their backyards later that summer. I was hooked.

That unexpected experience was followed by another: a summer spent working on a friend’s garlic farm, enjoying the quiet company of plants and good people. By mid-winter, I enrolled in a two-year horticulture program. Four years later, I found myself in a place my preschool teaching self couldn’t have predicted: standing in a field, sowing tray after tray of seeds (confident now that they would grow), preparing for my first attempt at small farm entrepreneurship.

I was on leased land, owned by a woman whose rural plot had more back yard than she needed. Two other women had farmed the site before me, developing the acre parcel into a spare but functional farm. When their lives shifted, I (and my soon-to-be-husband that I dragged along with me) became their successor. The opportunity arrived when I was ready and willing to give up my day job, so I took a chance, spent much of my savings, and found myself standing there, unsure of everything I thought I knew but happy for the fresh air, the possibilities, the view.

Most of the seeds I planted that day were eaten by mice who left a calling card of empty husks and ample droppings. From that point forward, nothing about the farm was simple. The view quickly narrowed to a list of tasks that lengthened exponentially with each day. Every action invited reaction from the field and its inhabitants, rarely in my favor. It was only an acre, but that field grew fiercely in spring, faster than I could till or mow. With mostly hand tools, a twice-rented tiller, and a frequently failing mower, I was ill prepared and outnumbered.

We never even got to a quarter of the acre that summer; kale, collards, leeks, and white clover left behind by the previous farmers grew towering seed heads. Weeds, unshackled, exploded into a dense, four-foot jungle around them. The blizzard of thistle seeds that poured from that feral patch in late July—onto the freshly turned soil of my winter garden, and over the fence into neighboring pastures—still triggers a wave of panic when I think about it.

Though my days that spring increasingly read like a detailed manual on how not to farm a small plot, the vegetables grew. After three new belts and a trip to the repair shop, I could finally keep up with the mowing. Almost everything went in late, but it all got in—last of all the irrigation tape, which wasn’t fully installed until late June, a milestone that allowed me to quit hand-watering and start hoeing. It was too late, of course, to catch the weeds at a manageable size, and among them I found the first free gift that field gave me: scattered between lettuces I’d grown for opening market day were dozens of mustard plants I hadn’t planted—gorgeous purple- and fuchsia-splashed leaves with wide, pale green petioles. I let them stay, knowing I wouldn’t have much else ready for sale in two weeks.

On that first harvest day, as I plucked heads of lettuce and bundled greens, sprayed the dirt from radishes and salad turnips, and sliced bags of baby arugula leaves, I felt like an archeologist: from those unruly rows, those four months of thankless toil, emerged artifacts of authentic beauty. I was in awe of them, spread out on my modest market table, in awe of the customers who were drawn to them, smiling, who returned week after week for my field’s glowing vegetables.

We never made any money. The work didn’t really get much easier. We grew tired of the commute, and lasted only one more season. I’m back to a tiny urban garden with tight, infertile soil. The field is back to pasture. But its secret has been revealed: even when you can’t see the vegetables for the weeds, they’re still out there. Having tasted them all but assures that in some other field, some other version of me will give it another go.

Water

IMG_7686

I just got back from a road trip to Tahoe, that stunning mountain lake straddling the California-Nevada border in the high Sierras. It’s spring, a time by which winter storms have historically filled lowland reservoirs and capped the high country with deep snowpack. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not the case this year. We drove by nearly empty seasonal lakebeds whose only chance of realizing their full-lake potential is right now; even Tahoe, the second deepest lake in North America, is so low that boat docks loom above sand and rock instead of the clear, sapphire-blue water for which the lake is famous.

And that color (which is still there despite the lake’s low water) is, to our eyes, water’s dream of itself—sparkling in its sequined gown, clear as a soprano’s C. Water so astoundingly blue electrifies the imagination, sends it diving toward rocks clearly visible meters below as if water was sky and our thoughts birds. But to water’s eyes, it is chameleon: hidden in underground reservoirs, it is no color at all; frozen in ice sheets, it is polished steel; flowing through plants, it glows green; rising as steam or falling as finely-cut flakes, it is white as the midday sun.

To a farmer in the Willamette Valley, water’s finest color is chocolate: fertile soil moistened to perfect smoothness—not the dry clods and dust of late summer, not the slick mud of winter, but the bouncy chestnut-brown of living, breathing, humus-rich soil. It’s a color they can see without even breaking through the crust: in the way the weeds explode into life, the way the seeds sprout without doting, in the color of the crops as they glisten a thousand shades of green.

We live in a land of water, and also a land of drought. In emerald spring, it’s easy to forget how the grass will dry down a couple months from now. Historically, our annual summer draught is moderated; though surface water recedes well before the summer irrigation season is over, snowmelt makes up the difference. Climate change threatens to unravel that neat symmetry. Tenacious droughts in the Southwest and California increasingly appear less anomaly than foreshadow of our own not-too-distant future as we repeatedly watch the Cascades’ snowpack dwindle (this year to around twenty percent of its historic average). Maintaining the status quo, we will undoubtedly reach the point of requiring much more water than we have.

On the residential end of the water-use spectrum, there are many straightforward ways to conserve: only run full washing machine or dishwasher loads; don’t water your lawn or, better yet, tear it out and plant a food garden that utilizes drip irrigation, or a xeriscape garden that will eventually require no supplemental water; water your garden with soaker hoses or drip tubing, or (if you insist on hand-watering certain plantings like I do) overhead water in the morning when the least amount of evaporation will occur; fix leaky faucets; install low-flow emitters and appliances; and, for the truly dedicated household, adopt an “if it’s yellow let it mellow” policy (toilet flushing accounts for nearly 40% of residential indoor water use, and averages 3.5 gallons per flush).

Beyond all these important behavioral adjustments, as individuals we can join another powerful collective voice in the conversation. Sourcing the majority of our annual groceries from small, local farms and producers can have a tremendous impact on water conservation. Agriculture is the single greatest waster of the world’s water resources, statistics pumped up by large commercial farms’ mass irrigation systems and focus on cash crops (many of which have particularly high water needs). Smaller farms mitigate those inefficiencies with labor and more expensive materials (such as the installation of drip irrigation tubing), dry farming techniques, and careful variety selection (choosing vegetables and animal breeds adapted to drier conditions means the same good food with less water).

Making observations on the ground instead of from the cab of an air-conditioned tractor, working with soil instead of petro-chemical fertilizers, these farmers will also be the source of adaptations and innovations that follow and respond to the shifting climate. Their research is collective; it echoes the desires of our communities and the features of our landscapes. Supporting their work now means investing in the knowledge (and good food) they can bring to our future.