Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In the Garden with Flea Beetles

I was just rounding out hour number five of transplanting onions in the garden, when a rain storm blew over the hill and soaked me through. Now that I am in dry clothes with a cup of tea, the sun is back on the scene. Oh well.

We have been dealing with flea beetles. If you are unfamiliar with them, they are black with a reflective, almost metallic looking shell. They eat small holes through the leaves of a specific group of plants, mostly radishes, kale, arugula, and things in the kohl family. If you were to see one and reach out to squish it, you'd probably fail, because it would have rocketed into the air and onto the next leaf by the time your hand received your brain's impulse. They thrive on the plantain in our pastures, so I have no hope of actually diminishing them on any scale, but I would like to control their activity in our garden. We read about two organic options: 1) Spray the plants with a strong solution of cayenne pepper, which would protect the plants by making them undesirable, but not reduce the pest's numbers. 2) Buy yellow fly traps. Flea beetles are supposedly attracted to the color, and after landing there they get stuck to the adhesive layer and die. I didn't love the idea of spending money on something I could make with a few random things we have here, and Garth found confirmation online that people have had some success making their own. Here is my version. It kind of works.

I chose a few pieces of glass, and rummaged through a pile of old oil paints- strange ones I had to buy in art school and haven't used since. I found a windsor yellow and painted it onto one side of the glass. I initially intended to let it dry, but the flea beetles were getting ahead of us, so I shortened the timeline by smushing one half of a plastic bag over the wet paint. I trimmed the plastic and took it up to the garden where I poured some mineral oil over it. If you put too little oil on the glass, the flea beetles will hop on and hop right off. If you put on too much oil, it runs over the edges and onto your garden. But if the amount of oil is just right, the flea beetles leap on and won't leave. I think this trap has lots of room to evolve, but it is doing something. There are still a lot of them eating our plants, but at least I feel like I have a hand in the game as it plays out.

And on a final note, we had the first fruits of the garden this year- a salad made with thinnings from our rows of kale, lettuces, and arugula. Although we enjoyed the dandelion greens I harvested from the fields throughout April, there is something to be said for the tenderness of cultivated plants.

- Alanna

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Ramps

My interest in farming and food production, though longstanding, has been abstract for most of my life. Apart from butchering an occasional deer, my teenaged ideas about food were formed at some degree of removal from the source of what I actually ate. I became largely vegetarian in an attempt to minimize my environmental impact and to minimize my support of factory farms. The venison was okay to my mind, because I knew there was an excessively large population in my suburban area, and - apart from cars - human hunters were their only predators. In college and after it I tried to shop at farmers' market. I read Michael Pollen.

Moving to the farm has made my thinking about these topics far more serious, which is to say, far more specific. Organic practices are easy to endorse in principle, but as I look at a bed of cabbages in which every seedling has been killed by flea beetles, it is easy to imagine what a godsend effective pesticides must have seemed, and must still seem, to many market growers. I am now an emphatic omnivore, not only because I have come to believe that a high fat, relatively high protein diet is probably ideal for humans, but also because most farms in our area, and our farm in particular, is much better suited to growing animals on grass than anything else.

As these smaller questions have been both complicated and clarified, the larger question of agriculture has come into focus. The alternative agriculture publications I read, such as Acres, Graze, and The Stockman Grass Farmer, implicitly acknowledge what books like The Botany of Desire and Against the Grain explicitly state - that agriculture is a process of coevolution rather than human control. The latter of these two books, which I found interesting, though frustratingly cursory, posits that the ancestors of the annual crops that either directly, or as livestock feed, provide the vast majority of human food evolved to take advantage of the brief niches left in the wake of a huge environmental upheaval, such as a fire or a flood,. Because of this, the partnership we have created with them requires us to continuously simulate these conditions. We keep huge swaths of land bare and fertilized for them, they provide food for us. The result is erosion, soil mineral depletion, famine and for most civilizations throughout history eventual collapse.

Though our entire world rests on the supposition that the dynamic of bare land and monocultures can be maintained over the long term, that continued scientific advances can keep yields permanently high, I am skeptical. Whether phosphorus depletion, topsoil loss, or energy scarcity, the maximum yield for the arable land on the planet will be reached, and then decline. This is one reason cows strike me as better than corn, at least in the long term; though lower yielding in a single year, an agriculture of cows on grass, perhaps followed by chickens, sheep and pigs, is closer to the sort of stable ecological systems that cover the parts of the planet not recently touched by flood or fire or humans.

Which brings me to ramps. Ramps, also known as wild leeks, grow in dense bunches on the floor of deciduous forests. They have broad, droopy leaves growing up from slim bases, and their flavor is complex and earthy, like an onion crossed with a mushroom. We bought several bunches at the market last year, and this spring we hoped to buy them with dirt still attached so that we could establish a patch in our woods. But a month ago Alanna and I were out walking the fence line, and on the steep, wooded bank above the pasture we saw a swath of emerald amid the dormant trunks. I hopped the fence and picked a few just to make sure, and as we continued, we sighted more and more patches.

Ramps are beautifully adapted to their niche. They do not compete by aggressive growth or setting huge amounts of seed or exuding chemicals from their roots to poison neighboring plants. In fact, they don't seem to compete much at all. Instead, in the month or so before the trees have begun to leaf out, the ramps grow their tops and take advantage of the available sunlight. When they are shaded out their leaves die back, and they send up flowers and set seed. But because they harvest all their energy in so brief a window, with such marginal temperatures and light, they are slow to grow and to spread, whether by seed or by splitting off a new bulblet. The most reliable source I could find suggests that they take five to six years to reach maturity, at which point they are about the same size as a scallion. This same source suggested that for a patch to have a stable population only 5-15% can be harvested annually. Given this extended time frame, ramps would seem to be poor candidates for domestication, so I am guessing that the burgeoning interest in wild edibles will likely see them eradicated from much of their native habitat.

It is incredibly difficult for me to have the patience and perspective to limit myself, a fault I suspect much of humanity shares with me. I hope that I can be wise enough to harvest the small bounty of the rocky slope above our pasture in a way that does not diminish it. But the idea of imposing to a greater or lesser extent a set of animals and plants on a place, and hoping that they can be nudged into some sort of stable relationship while simultaneously providing human food feels sometimes foolishly optimistic, sometimes insane. From hunting megafauna to extinction to tilling the prairie, human intervention in North America (or anywhere else, for that matter) has not generally led to increased ecological stability.

When I think of the tiny bulbs sleeping ten months of the year in the shale and duff, unfurling lush leaves for a brief moment, incrementally building their reserves like interest in a bank account until they can split off an offspring or send up a shoot, I am encouraged and disheartened. I am encouraged that I can understand the cycle and try to live within limits that will not compromise it. I am disheartened at the thought this understanding prompts of larger cycles that I don't understand or choose to ignore for fear of the limits they would imply.