|I know some vegetable farmers who keep meticulous records of the cost (financial cost, anyway) associated with each crop they grow. They can tell you precisely how much they paid to produce the head of lettuce on their market table. That may not seem like much of an accounting feat. But a farmer and farm crew can have a lot of interactions with a head of lettuce in the course of getting it from seed order to market, and keeping track of all those interactions and all the other inputs would require a fair amount of record keeping.
On our farm, in addition to seeding and transplanting and cutting and washing the head of lettuce, someone had to water it in the greenhouse two or three times a day for four weeks, spread compost on the bed in the high tunnel where it grew, dig in the compost, hoe out the first flush of weeds, spread fertilizer (we use North Country organic fertilizer), rake the bed smooth, mark the row, set up and run the irrigation, put the sides of the high tunnel down at night and back up in the morning and weed. And those are just the tasks most directly related to the lettuce. Someone on the farm also put up the seedling greenhouse and high tunnel, washed the seedling tray, got the potting soil and fertilizer to the farm, built the washing area, sharpened the harvest knife, washed the harvest bucket, repaired the greenhouse heater, installed the frost free water line to the seedling house. And in addition to that labor, there are the inputs: seed, potting soil, seedling tray, seedling greenhouse, greenhouse bench, greenhouse heater, propane for greenhouse heater, vent fan and shutter, frost free hydrant, electricity for water pump, heater and vent fan, field house, compost, fertilizer, bucket tractor, diesel and oil and filters and repairs for tractor, shovel, hoe, rake, hose, nozzle, and the land itself.
And for the farmer who is keeping track of all those costs, figuring out just how many minutes were spent watering and how many ounces of fertilizer were applied per square foot and what portion of the cost of a stirrup hoe can be charged to a head of lettuce, there is the expense of all that time doing bookkeeping, plus paper, pen and plenty of aspirin. Or maybe plenty of bourbon, followed by plenty of aspirin.
It will probably surprise nobody that I am not one of those farmers who can calculate the cost of a crop. Well maybe I could, but I don’t want to. Just coming up with the list of tasks and inputs above made me feel slightly dizzy. Anything more and I would have had to lie down and apply cool endive leaves to my brow. I can think of so many more fruitful things than bookkeeping to do with my
time. Plus I am afraid I would find the results of any tedious calculations I undertook a little too depressing. I prefer to maintain a rough sense of my costs on a par with my understanding of internal combustion engines.
Lately, though, I have been wondering just how much weeds cost me. We have been putting out a lot of hay mulch in the past week or so. I had the Elsworth, who run a custom feed operation a mile or two down the road, round bale two of our hay fields. We ended up with 40 bales (that’s about 10 tons of hay), and we have been putting the hay between the rows of plastic mulch (biodegradable corn-based Italian plastic mulch) we transplant into. Between the plastic and hay, we hope to cover all the ground where our crops are not growing and suppress the weeds. If it works we will save ourselves a lot of weeding labor later, retain soil moisture, decrease the transmission of soil-borne diseases to the crops, boost beneficial microbial soil life and add a lot of organic matter to the fields. Even if it does not work as well as I hope it will–and since we are talking about farming it is pretty well guaranteed to fall short of expectations–it will do a lot of good.
Enough good that I would love to mulch most of the farm (plus it is aesthetically pleasing; if the camera were not broken I would include a picture of the onion patch, but you will have to come and see if for yourself). So why am I not doing that. Well, we have used almost thirty of those bales already, and so far we have only mulched the onions, the first outside tomatoes and some of the pumpkins. To mulch just the other crops where it would make the biggest difference–the summer and winter squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, celeriac, rutabagas and leeks–would require another 60 or 70 bales, and we could easily use that many again mulching other crops such as late season potatoes, herbs and kale.
To get that many bales and the equipment to move and spread them efficiently would require a serious investment. It is tempting, if only because the mulched beds look so good. But is it worth it? Does the war on weeds justify the cost? Are weeds even truly the enemy?
Weeds do take away nutrients and moisture and sunlight from our crops, which they can almost always out compete for these resources, and they can provide habitats for bugs and diseases that damage our crops. If we never weeded we would not have much to pack in the CSA boxes–except weeds. But does that mean we have to get rid of every weed or is the desire to create a perfectly tended field less an agricultural imperative than an expression of our authoritarian aesthetic drive to impose our sense of order on everything around us? Do I like the way my onion patch looks right now because I can see how productive it will be or because it is so clearly under control? And how would I account for the pleasure–whatever its source–I take in my onion patch when totting up the production costs of an onion?
And while I am in this questioning mood what makes me think after all these years of farming that my onion patch is under control? Even if we have found a way to keep the weeds out there are still onion thrips and botrytis fungi and hail storms threatening. When you try to grow crops there are always things threatening no matter how much mulch you put down.
To set out a row of onions is to learn that your ability to control your environment is limited. The world around you is, if not actually hostile to your onion growing aims, at least indifferent and teeming with other aims any number of which may come into conflict with your attempts to bring in a nice crop of onions or even just enjoy the sight of a well tended onion patch for long. But farmers are pig headed, so we keep trying anyway, hoping that our efforts, whatever their cost, will at least occasionally afford us a brief moment of feeling in control. It takes a lot of work and hay, but it sure is nice to see when you succeed every now and then.