Archive for August 11th, 2009

Blighted Hopes

Sharon August 11th, 2009

One of the consequences of this cold, wet year has been a devastating strain of Blight that has affected both tomatos and potatoes – much of the Northeast has it (it has yet to make it to me, but others have had it).  This has been particularlly destructive to organic farmers – pesticides can be sprayed to control the fungus that causes Late Blight, but while there are organic controls (Seranade seems to be effective), they have to be applied early, before the crop fails.  I know several farmers who have lost all their tomatoes and potatoes.  The bight spreads through airborne spores and is as far west as Indiana and as far north as northern Montreal and Ontario.  Just because you don’t have it yet, doesn’t mean you won’t.

Now the loss of tomatoes is a major inconvenience and an economic pain for gowers.  All of us want our salsa.  But the loss of potatoes, while a lesser economic trouble for most farmers and individuals, is actually more troubling – in tough times, potatoes are one of the more viable home staple crops.  Again, organic controls can be used, but these might not always be available.  In some ways, we are seeing the tremendous vulnerability we face in our food system – and the answer is not “great, let’s get out the pesticides,” obviously.  It is to diversify, and learn to live with our troubles.

I’ve heard people argue that this makes the case for industrial agriculture – if it weren’t for industrial agriculture, we wouldn’t have enough tomatoes, we are told.  But, besides the obvious fact that industrial agriculture doesn’t produce anything that tastes like a real tomato, there’s also the point that this is an industrial disease – late blight was spread in the US through tomato and pepper plants purchased from WalMart and Target and other discount realtors, and shipped around the country.

Certainly, it makes sense to use organic controls if they are available to you, and if you have the infection, to burn all affected plant material. But it also makes sense to learn to live with what we’ve now got.  This is little consolation for farmers and gardeners pulling out blackened plants, but people who have had chronic blight issues do point out that it is possible to learn to live with them.  Sue Robishaw, who has been saving potato seed for decades (most people have been told not to save potato seed because you might get blight, but since seed saving is method of creating food security, she’s had to deal with the reality of blight) has observed that often, early planted potatoes will set out a solid crop of potatoes before they succumb to late blight.  And those that succumb latest and produce the best are the ones to save seed from. 

With tomatoes, we can help by selecting blight-resistant varieties (and no, these are not only hybrids), by planting early determinate varieties that may fruit before late blight takes full hold, and by simply adapting ourselves to the spread of disease.

Just as important as diversifying our varieties, and developing resistant, will be diversifying our gardens.  Yes, tomatoes are a wonderful thing, and potatoes are a staple food.  But turnips and beets and sweet potatoes and corn and dry beans, carrots, parsnips and winter squash are all potential food staples as well – it never serves to rely on only one thing.  And if we don’t get tomato salsa, perhaps we will get roasted pepper, ground cherry or salsa verde.

This is the world we live in now – our vulnerabilities have been magnified.  The best tool we have for creating a resilient system is as much variety and diversity as humanly possible. 


Independence Days Update: Summer Visiting

Sharon August 11th, 2009

Sorry to be late with the update, we were on vacation for a few days, and I’m still catching up.  Boy was it nice to be freed from the farm for a couple of days – and boy was it nice to come back.  I got to go out to dinner to celebrate my birthday while near Boston, and got my favorite present (thanks Mom!) a bookstore gift certificate, and babysitting to go use it.  My actual birthday isn’t until Saturday (I’ll be 37), but we’ve got guests, so we celebrated early.

It is hot here this week, first stretch of hot weather we’ve had, and I’m finding it harder to bear than usual, because I’m not adapted at all to it.   Normally mid-80s and humid in August would be no worries, but we’ve had nothing past the 70s for so long that my body is treating it like a sudden heat wave in March.  Blah!

Crazy, crazy week this one.  We’ve got a borrowed truck for the week, so are trying to do all the things too hard to do without one – chief among them, getting our hay in.  That’s tomorrow’s job – and a hot, sweaty, hay-ey deal it will be, but I can’t complain.  It is a tough year for folks who hay – we’ve had so much rain that a lot of hay is still going into barns.  I’d despaired of finding anything decent for a reasonable price, only to discover that my usual hay guy has some actually quite nice stuff for me.  Plus, he lets my kids climb around the loft in his barn while we’re loading, for which we should be paying him extra.  Isaiah keeps asking why we don’t have a barn like his.  He keeps rolling his eyes and saying he’d trade for a nice, new pole barn that didn’t take so much upkeep, but I admit, I’m with his kids.

The other big job (and the ostensible purpose of the borrowed truck) is to take the revolting Cornish Cross chickens to the butcher.  They are large enough, which is good, but even if they weren’t, we have to get them out of the barn.  I will never, ever raise them again – all they do is eat grain and poop.  I go out in the mornings with a broom and sweep them outside, trying to get them to forage, but they just look at me.  I have to say, I’ve never felt so cheerful about the demise of any group of animals – I don’t like butchering, but these guys are tough to care about.  I won’t be raising them ever again – yes, they put on more meat faster, but it isn’t worth the price in either grain or annoyance factor.  Life’s too short to raise stupid animals ;-) .  Next year, back to the original Cornish, or Delawares, or perhaps some of you have a good suggestion for older breeds to be used for meat?

So far, no blight on our tomatoes or potatoes, but like everyone in the east, I’m holding my breath. Holding it for this warm weather to ripen them, too – I’ve got a lot more green than red, and actually ordered a bushel of canning tomatoes from our local farm, since they are warmer and in the valley, and we don’t have anything yet.  Rain, rain, more rain still coming.  We had two inches yesterday, another 2 (plus hail, if we’re super-lucky) predicted this afternoon.  The one thing we got here is water. 

The new goats are no longer new, they’ve pretty much settled in, with Mina as queen of everything.  They behaved themselves for our goat-sitters, and are happily devouring the willow-weeds.  Selene and Maia should kid sometime pretty much precisely between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – I’m praying for an easy time of it.

Ok, onto the other stuff:

Plant something: spinach, indoors, lettuce, arugula, japanese turnips, valerian root divisions, buckwheat and clover.

Harvest something: Cucumbers, squash, green beans, lettuce, a couple of tomatoes, 1 lonely eggplant, chinese cabbage, scullcap, borage, calendula, beets, arugula, yarrow

Preserve something: scullcap and yarrow tinctures, borage flower vinegar, cucumber pickles, red currant jam.

Waste Not:  Actually, we wasted more than usual.  Our fridge doesn’t work, and while we tried really hard to use everything up before we went to Boston (and brought some stuff with us), we had a big bowl of things to the chickens that wouldn’t have normally gone there. 

Want Not: More homeschooling books from the used book store at my Mom’s, warm pajamas in Asher’s favorite color (pink – he’s very fierce on the subject that all his pajamas must be pink) and long johns and pants for Eli from the great used clothing store.  Sorted through the kids clothes and got a lot to go to Goodwill, and a lot to give away.  Arranged for our winter’s hay to come in, split up some branches for kindling, offered to barter a day’s work picking for some apples to our hay guy who also owns an orchard and is finding it hard to keep up with the apples now that his kids are grown.  Plotted the projects needed in order to move out of the apartment for potential tenants and how to pay for them, began getting organized for that, talked to a neighbor about some firewood in trade for his cutting some of his next year’s supply from our property.  Cleaned out hay barn to make way for hay.  Got ready to spread manure on garden beds after stink-birds go away ;-) .

Built Community Food Systems: Nope

Ate the food: Lotsa lovely veggies, but nothing new. 

How about you? 

BTW, we’re still looking for an LGD puppy or LGD cross puppy, if someone in our part of the country knows a good breeder or has one.  We do both money and barter ;-) .