The Alleged Farm News – 16 October, 2014

This Weeks Share: Cabbage, Carrots, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Very hot pepper, Radishes, Blue Gold potatoes, Shallots, Spinach, Tomatoes, Butternut winter squash

You have probably been wondering since I mentioned this piece of farm equipment a month ago why any farmer would feel the need for a 48-row corn planter, even those guys out on the plains growing thousands of acres of corn and soy beans. Deere already makes a 90 foot wide 36-row unit that meets the needs of most farmers and barely fits on a country road. It is hard to imagine a really good reason to ramp up to the bigger planter, especially at one and a half times the cost of the 36-row one.

Well, farmers like shiny new toys too. They may seem conservative and sober, dour even. Hardly the types to fall for the latest gadget. But they do seem to have a thing for big equipment. And it’s not just the size. Each generation adds some gizmo–active pneumatic downforce, the Seedstar monitoring system–that improves performance. Plus, of course, the tax code’s generous depreciation schedule strongly encourages farmers to buy new equipment.

Farmers are also under serious pressure to increase efficiency all the time. That’s usually the suggested answer to their economic woes. Corn and milk prices are low? Well, just find a way to produce more with less. That obviously makes more sense than demanding a fair price, even though the resulting increased production just has the effect of driving the price down further. The big farms in our town have more or less tripled their herds since we moved here, and found ways–drugs mostly, but also genetics and an extra milking every day–to squeeze more out of their cows. They have built huge new free stall barns and bought mixer wagons to make getting the specially formulated feed to the cows easier (cows generally don’t waste their time any more wandering around eating grass). They have forage harvesters that can fill a dump truck with silage in a few minutes, and giant rotating milking parlors. One farm has even installed robotic milkers in their new barn. And for the moment milk prices are above the break even point, though they have only gone up about 33% in the two decades we have lived here.

There’s another, more compelling reason for farmers to switch to the biggest, fastest equipment they can get. They increasingly need that speed in order to get their crops planted in the spring. There’s a limited window of opportunity to plant most crops. You have to wait for the soil to warm and dry in order to be able to work it and get the seeds to germinate reliably (and you need them all to come up to get the yield to make any money). But you need to get them in early enough that they have time to mature before you loose warmth and daylight. Not that getting your crops in on time guarantees a good harvest. Plenty of things can go wrong during the growing season. But not getting your crops in on time pretty well guarantees a bad harvest.

If for some reason the weather becomes more unpredictable, more prone to go to extremes, you may find that the right timing and conditions only overlap for a brief spell. You have to be able to take advantage of that chance to plant. And in order to to do that you need machines that can plant in a hurry. In those circumstances twelve extra rows on the planter are less luxury than necessity. And for farmers across the corn belt those circumstances are becoming far more common.

Not that farmers seem particularly inclined to discuss why that is. You might think farmers would be leading the fight to get us deal with climate change. Imagine if investment bankers’ annual bonuses got blown away in big storms. How long would they sit around and put up with our inaction? But farmers are harder to organize. They are geographically dispersed and temperamentally disinclined to do what they’re told. And even if you could get them to act together, they are often deeply suspicious of environmental issues, fundamentally opposed to regulation, leery of politics, skeptical of grand solutions. They tend to go for tangible answers to tangible problems.

Obviously the climate change problem is becoming rather more tangible–more so, perhaps, for farmers than for just about anyone except residents of certain low lying Pacific island nations. But for the moment farmers are being offered tangible solutions in the form of 48-row corn planters. That this is only a temporary solution, and a mighty expensive one at that (what a great idea to make farmers pay the price for climate change) does not seem to have gotten farmers sufficiently riled to overcome their usual habits. I am not sure what it will take to do that. Or maybe they are riled, but they just don’t have time to do anything about it. Even with those giant corn planters, they tend to be rather busy. Plus even if they are ranting about climate change, you just can’t hear them over the noise of the tractor.


Vegetable notes: You have two small chiles, one red and one orange, in your share. Treat them with respect. Though diminutive, they are powerful. The orange one, a Fatali, in particular, though the red one, a Paper Lantern is no slouch. You don’t want to cut up one of these and then put your fingers anywhere near your eyes–unless you enjoy temporary blindness. Which raises the question of why we hand them out rather than putting them in a hazardous waste container or selling them to police agencies for crowd control. Well, some people like hot food and not only are these hot, they are also tasty. If you are intrigued but cautious just use a little bit from the tip and stay away from the seeds.

You could use whatever portion of one of the chiles seems wise in an Indian cabbage and carrot and cabbage dish. Grate a few carrots, roughly chop half a cabbage and slice up an onion. Heat some oil in a pot over medium heat and add some mustard seeds. When they start to pop add the onion and cook for a few minutes until it starts to soften. Add the carrot and cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally until the cabbage has started to wilt. Add the chile, finely chopped, salt, pepper and ginger and cook a minute or two more. Take off the heat and stir in the juice of half a lemon and some cilantro.

You could also peel, seed and cube your squash, and toss the cubes with salt, pepper, sage, a little cumin, maple syrup, olive oil and a bit of hot peppers. Roast the squash at 400 degrees for about an hour until it starts to caramelize and is tender.