The Alleged Farm News – 11 September, 2014

The Alleged Farm News -11 September, 2014

This Weeks Share: Basil, Cucumbers, Dill, Eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Hot peppers, Blue Gold potatoes, Squash, Tomatoes, Acorn winter squash


Ten years or so ago I bought a John Deere bush hog. It has been sitting in the weeds the past two years, the gear box irreparably cracked, the whole drive shaft pretty well toasted. Apparently, however, that one purchase granted me a lifetime subscription to The Furrow, the Deere magazine. Actually, it is a pretty good tractor magazine. Well, I say that, but with no real basis for comparison. You see, and I am loathe to admit this, I only get one tractor magazine. For all I know Kubota puts out a totally kick-ass publication. Despite the fact that I have bought two Kubota tractors, a rather more substantial investment than a single medium duty mower, they send me nothing, the cheapskates.

The Furrow provides a number of pretty upbeat stories about successful growers of various kinds, but also some actually interesting pieces about no-till research, cover crops, market farmers, dinosaur bones and even the astonishing ability of life forms to develop resistance to almost any chemical we throw at them (not something you necessarily expect big ag to admit). Plus it always has a page of corny jokes and inspirational sayings at the back, which no doubt come in handy when you have to give a speech to Farm Bureau or the Elks Club.

Surprisingly, though, John Deere does not put out The Furrow purely as an act of kindness. In addition to all that editorial content, each issue is liberally larded with exciting news about the latest Deere equipment. And I often enjoy the ads as much as the articles, especially the ones for their biggest machines, huge, sleek, gleaming, iconic green triumphs of industrial engineering.

The most recent issue had a particularly fine centerfold that included the latest in cotton pickers, the brand new combination ripper and the redesigned 9R/RT series tractors. This is the sort of equipment that real farmers use to manage all those huge operations that keep us well stocked with corn syrup and cheap processed food at the small cost of disappearing aquifers, dead soil and the occasional few billions of dollars of subsidies, and it is pretty cool stuff. All those shiny machines bring out the little boy in me. They make me think of Sam when he was four and knew the names of all the implements and would chastise his grandmother when she got them wrong.

My gaze was drawn to the tractors, as just about anyone’s would be, except perhaps a cotton farmer. They are the ones so large they have to bend in the middle to turn. When I glanced at the list of features one in particular caught my attention. And it was not the 510 horsepower engine, though that kind of power is impressive and undeniably useful around the yard. Nor was it the 78 gallon a minute hydraulic system, which give the tractor the power to lift up to 10 tons on its hitch. It was not even the efficiency manager with thumbwheel control for the 18 speed transmission that, in conjunction with the ground radar module, allows the operator to maintain consistent speeds, or the ActiveSeat utilizing electrohydraulic technology and air suspension to create remarkable operator comfort.

It was, rather, the electric refrigerator. At first I assumed this must be part of the engine cooling system. But no, it is an actual refrigerator in the tractor cab. I used to joke that the big, fancy tractors my neighbors drive have expresso machines built in (which would not be that hard to do; the engine heat would be more than sufficient to boil water and steam milk, and with that ActiveSeat you would not even have to worry about spilling your cappuccino on your nice clean coveralls). I begin to think that may actually come to pass. I am not quite sure why having a refrigerator in a tractor cab seems slightly ridiculous. Given the hours farmers spend in their tractors it makes some sense. Maybe it’s really the hours farmers spend in their tractors that bothers me. When having the comforts of home in your tractor cab becomes necessary you should think about maybe spending more time at home.

I appreciate that these huge pieces of equipment–take a look at Deere’s 48-row corn planter–help increase farming efficiency, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But I am a trifle skeptical of the cult of efficiency. Not that I am a huge fan of the sort of Slow Food cult of inefficiency either. Maybe I am just not a fan of cults. Being able to seed 75 acres of corn an hour obviously has its appeal, otherwise nobody would be shelling out $450,000 for that huge planter. But that kind of farming comes with other costs too. The drive to increase farming efficiency is part of a national agriculture system that has helped make farming less accessible to young people, less profitable for everyone, less environmentally sound, and less likely to produce healthy food. You can get a 64 ounce soda at the corner store for about the same price as a red pepper, which is both a testament to the remarkable increase in farm productivity and a health disaster.

This may be a somewhat less pressing matter of national policy, but the drive to increase farming efficiency also seems to me to take some of the fun out of farming. Given my generally dour comments about my job, it may strike you as amusing to hear me talk about fun. And now that you mention it, perhaps that is not the right word. Maybe I mean satisfaction. Whatever you want to call it, farming can offer some compensation for its hardships. There’s pleasure in making something tangible, pleasure in work with your hands, pleasure in being close to the ground, pleasure in hearing a flock of birds whirr over your head, pleasure in looking up from your work to admire the late afternoon light on the hillside.

Not that any of this is necessarily unavailable when you spend most of your farming hours in the cab of a 500 horsepower tractor. It is just harder to come by. All that machinery and efficiency starts to get in the way. There’s not a lot of value in admiring the view when you have to get in all that corn to pay for that huge planter you bought to get in all that corn. And while I don’t mean to over romanticize the life of the peasant, that seems like a loss. But at least your drinks are cold.


Vegetable Notes: We mostly grow one strain of garlic variously known as Music, German White or German Porcelain. It has good cold hardiness and tends to size up well, though it was a little smaller than normal this year. There’s no particular reason for me to grow another kind, except that having just one kind of garlic, no matter how reliable, seems a little boring. So I have been trying out a purple variety the past two years. It is pretty, and I like that it has somewhat smaller cloves, but so far it has produced really quite small heads, as you can see since you have one in your share this week. Let me know what you think. I am not sure it is worth trialing it another year, but if you like it I will keep trying.

I am not sure how you all feel about hot peppers, but I keep growing them anyway. We do grow fewer really hot ones, but they are still out there. And now here in your box. We have included a selection of small ones, including a jalapeño (blunt dark green) a cherry pepper (round red), a wax pepper (bigger and pale), and a Paper Lantern (wrinkly red). The later is the hottest of the lot (though not nearly the hottest we grow; that honor goes to the Bhut Jalokia). If you feel uninclined to try it you can you can just use it for its ornamental value.

You could enjoy the ornamental value of your potatoes too, with their handsome blue/purple skin. But I suggest eating them. They are pretty multipurpose potatoes. About the only thing I would not do is bake them, though they would be fine baked. I also suggest washing them. Once again, they come to you unwashed because we continue to have problems with the washed ones going bad. We tried washing potatoes last week and ended up throwing them all on the compost pile. We thought you would prefer to get them and clean them rather than have us clean them and throw them away.