Friday, August 23, 2013

Seed-Saving for Local Corn: an Annual Schedule

FIRST DRAFT The following steps include Boulder, Utah dates. You can use precisely the same steps in any corn-growing region. All you have to do is modify the dates to fit your local growing conditions. 1. May 1 - June 1 Prepare the bed. Corn does best in compact areas, such as squares. Corn planted in long rows will not pollinate well, and yield will be very low. The bed needs to at least 1/4 mile from the nearest corn field or cross-pollination will occur and destroy our genetic stock. The minimum area for maintaining enough genetic diversity, for optimum wind-protection, and for good pollination is 50' x 50'. At our farm, with its 50'-wide beds, we should ideally plant an area 50' x 100'. The bigger the area, the faster the development of your local corn variety. Dig shallow trenches 8" wide and 30" apart. Water deeply to force weeds. Burn, hoe, or pull weeds every few days until planting. 2. June 10, after risk of frost is over Plant the seeds in the trenches 1" deep and spaced 8" apart across the trench, and 12" apart along the trench. Each trench will have two rows of seeds. Seeds should be covered with dirt. Water deeply. 3. Through June Keep watering every 2-3 days, until soil is just moist to 2" deep, until plants are 3" tall. Then water very deeply and stop watering for a week, or until plants show signs of dehydration stress. 4. Through July to the first monsoon Water deeply as needed. The idea is to stress the plants gently between waterings. This accomplishes two things: it forces the plants to put down deep roots, which helps them survive with less water later; and it will stress the least drought-tolerant plants to the point where they fail to thrive. This eliminates thirsty genes from the mix. 5. Monsoon season Avoid watering much during monsoon season, but watch the plants. Ideally, the plants will be smaller than their well-watered counterparts nearby. Plants on the edge of the bed will most likely be small and yellowish, and may barely tassel. This is fine. If the plants show real water stress, soak them. This will require tower sprinklers as the plants get taller. Jets of water can destroy the tassels, so if the plants look stressed during tasseling, you may need to flood the trenches with a hose or gate-pipe. The tassels should be shaggy and covered with pollen. If you have time, you can shake the pollen into a paper bag and dust silks with it. This can improve pollination, but is generally not necessary, and may end up pushing the gene-pool toward plants that have trouble pollinating on their own. Generally, less intervention is better. 6. Late August through September Little water required during this time, maybe once per week. The silks will turn brown, the tassels will become bare, and the leaves will begin to dry up a little. This is flour corn, so the ears can --and should- stay on the stalks as long as possible. Watch out for birds and other animals, especially raccoons. 7. Late September, or when husks are dry when the plants have little or no green left, you can begin harvesting. Ideally, the husks should be entirely tan [or dark purple for some plants] and totally dry before you pick the ears. To pick, grasp an ear and snap it downward. The stem of the ear will snap. then step on the base of the stalk to push it to the ground. Do not let the ears get wet. spread them out on Blake's deck or some equivalent place where they get plenty of air and sunlight. If they get wet, they'll get moldy and be ruined. Let them dry for several days. You can begin shucking at any time or let them stay in the husks if there's no mold. 8. When all the ears are dry, shuck them. Do not break the ears. Be thorough, not leaving chunks of cob in the husks. The husks can go back in the field. All the stalks and husks should be flat on the ground to rot over the winter. The goats like to look through this stuff for stray kernels and to eat the leaves. 9. Sort the ears. You are looking for 300-350 of the biggest healthy ears. Discard malformed, deformed, bug-infested, moldy, or otherwise undesirable ears. You need to end up with at least 300 virtually perfect ears, the biggest of the year. If you have to choose between two identically-sized ears [which is more likely if you grow a bigger field] choose the ear with darker color, as these contain more phytonutrients than the pale ears do. Set aside these precious ears, away from rodents, bugs, chickens, and restaurant customers, who will want to take them home. 10. During sorting, put all of the moldy and bug infested ears in the chicken yard. Put all of the healthy but small or malformed ears in metal trashcans for winter chicken feed. It's not necessary to remove the kernels from the cobs. 11. Shell your seed-ears. The easiest way to do this is to set up an empty, totally clean and dry trashcan, and snap in half each of the ears inside the can. Usually, a few of the kernels will pop off the cob and land in the trashcan. when you come to the true all-star ears --the biggest, darkest, most beautiful of the year-- break off a n extra palm-full of kernels. We want to favor these genes above all others. But don't take too many kernels from any one ear or you will lose genetic diversity. This next part is tedious: a 50' x 50' bed will contain 2,100 plants. You need to save TWICE AS MANY SEEDS AS YOU'LL NEED FOR NEXT YEAR'S PLANTING. So, if you want to plant a 50' x 100' area next year [you'll know because of the crop-rotation plan], you'll need to save 2x 4,200 seeds = 8,400 seeds. How do you know how many you have? You count. It sucks. If you have a very accurate digital scale you can count half and weigh them and then weigh another equal portion and call it good, but it takes lots of seeds to make an ounce, so it's best to count and be sure. Why save twice as many as you need? Because a late frost can wipe out the first planting very easily. And then, depending on date, you'll either need to re-plant or save your remaining seeds until next year. Can you imagine the stress the old-timers endured? Now take your seeds and place them in a lidded stoneware jar. A sealed mason jar or a plastic bag is much more likely to end up moldy. Stoneware breathes and is rodent- and bug-proof. Put the seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. Not a freezing place. Blake's basement is perfect. Label the jar and make sure it's not where it will get dropped. It contains a summer's work. 12. Sometime before planting, spread all the seeds out, preferably in cookie sheets, and separate them by color. I know, this sucks too. Count how many seeds of each color and record the numbers. This is how we monitor genetic drift over time. I have data from past seasons. It's only slightly interesting so far, but eventually a certain color or group of colors will become dominant, a sure sign that we have a phenotypically-distinct variety. 13. Repeat all of the above until you're too old to continue. Make sure you have an heir who understands all this.. Hope that a distinct, highly-adapted local variety emerges before the big petroleum crisis, or before the water war gets heavy, or before the apocalypse. Your greatest asset in this project is comprehension. We need to stick to the goal [a truly local corn variety, suited to Boulder's conditions]; we need to used proper methods [enumerated above, but best abbreviated by saying that we are exposing these plants to Boulder's conditions, not babying them with lots of compost and water and fertilizer, etc, so that evolution happens as quickly as possible]; and we need to keep the project going [because, of course, if we stop, we don't make progress, and if the seeds don't survive, we'll have to start all over]. For comprehension, please read my blog post "Going Native: the Boulder Corn Project". Or call me.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Going Native: the Boulder Corn Project

I am one of the owners of a small farm in remote Boulder, Utah, tight between the desert canyons of the Escalante River and the vast alpine plateau of 11,500-foot Boulder Mountain. We grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, most of which supply the pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Hell's Backbone Grill, also in Boulder. Boulder is a challenging place to farm: we are at 6600 feet above sea-level, our soil is sandy and was overgrazed and neglected when we bought it, we get only ten inches of rain per year, we have severe wind, and our growing season is short. We have had hail in July, sleet in August, snow in September. Our thin atmosphere means cool nights. As of today, August 22, 2013, we have no color on our tomatoes. It's been too cool recently. These conditions are challenging per se, but we are battling another reality familiar to American farmers who work outside the more temperate zones: the seeds we can buy, what the big seed companies have for sale, are for vegetable varieties that do not generally thrive in our peculiar, harsh, local conditions. Most seed companies operate on the sensible and profitable assumption that their customers live in places that don't look at all like Boulder. Places with topsoil, rain, humidity, heat, relatively gentle daily temperature swings, fairly predictable seasons. So, we don't just battle our harsh conditions. We also battle the unsuitability of the plants on which most American farmers can rely.

This has led us to a great deal of difficulty, improvisation, hard work, and head-scratching. When I gardened a hot and surprisingly-fertile patch of ground in Tucson years ago, I could put a tomato seed in the ground in February, run a slow drip on it, and have perfect tomatoes until November. Here we can barely count on a month of production, and tomatoes tend to be a little bit acidic, better cooked, canned, or dried than eaten fresh. As a kid on our farm in Massachusetts we rarely watered. Growth was fast and lush. Here we water almost constantly. The wind dries the leaves and the soil can't hold water. In New England we could choose almost any vegetable variety that caught our interest. Here in Boulder we are slowly learning, through repeated failure and frequent success, that some varieties thrive here, but many don't. Thankfully, some of our favorite old stand-byes -New England Pie pumpkins, lacinato kale, snow peas, Yukon Gold potatoes, Detroit Red Top beets, and many others- thrive here, as long as our irrigation water is running. Sadly, other favorites just can't handle the stress: beloved Brandywine tomatoes are somehow insipid, Poblano peppers are tiny and supermarket-flavorless, eggplants barely grow at all, and some salad greens come out leathery unless we build elaborate shade structures. Our list of suitable varieties is in constant refinement. Which is a way of saying that it's getting shorter.

All this difficulty has directed us deep into the history of this place, looking for solutions. This valley has been home to people for a very long time, though the first white settlers -Mormon ranchers- arrived here only about 120 years ago. The ancient inhabitants are surprisingly present: their arrowheads are everywhere, common as litter is in the suburbs. Many Boulderites use 1,000-year-old metates -the hollowed stones in which the ancient people ground grains- as splash-diverters under their hose faucets. The canyon walls in and around Boulder are galleries of superimposed petroglyphs, pictographs, and cowboy signatures, showing habitation over thousands of years. Local legend has it that the Mormon settlers found functioning irrigation ditches all down the valley when they arrived, and that they simply maintained those ditches and extended them to irrigate pastures and hay-fields. We are surrounded by evidence that people thrived here before modern horticulture and piped irrigation and electric power. And archaeologists have pieced together a picture of this ancient farming: the people grew potatoes, squash, and corn in irrigated fields, and hunted seasonally. A few ears of corn have survived the years in dry cliffside granaries, somehow safe from rot and rodents. You can still see check-dams in some canyons, despite our common flash-floods.

What did farming look like here a thousand years ago? We don't know in detail, but we can surmise that Boulder was even more remote then than it is now. This valley was on the edge of the so-called Anasazi region. The cultural center of the region was over 100 tortuous miles to the east. We know many of the ancient trade routes, and Boulder -then as now- was far off the beaten path. It's probably safe to guess that the ancient Boulderites gradually migrated here up the Escalante river canyon, a route now blocked to walkers by artificial Lake Powell. The canyon in those times, long before the extreme erosion caused by modern cattle grazing, was a shallower, grassy, linear meadow. Game could be chased into tributary canyons. Seeds and roots were plentiful. Maybe hunters walked up modern-day Calf Creek and spotted our green valley and decided to give it a go. Perennial streams and lots of runoff from Boulder Mountain's huge snow-pack probably made the place just as welcoming then as it is now. Visitors here, after driving hours through the sear desert, often gasp in delight when they turn the bend and see Boulder for the first time: a lush, green valley framed by buff sandstone cliffs and domes. It's a beautiful place. The remains of an ancient village are on display at Anasazi State Park, right in the middle of town. Deer creek is nearby, and the surrounding fields are still farmed.

The people arrived with seeds, of course. Seeds were their wealth. Without them, they couldn't travel into unsettled territory except on short hunting or trade trips. Seeds allowed them to move into a new place and stay. If my guess is right, the people arrived from the east through the canyons. They probably came from the San Juan River country, a place that supported many villages for a very long time. Their soil is more absorbent than ours, their summers are a bit longer and warmer, and they don't have our wind. But conditions were basically similar. So the seeds the first people brought could sprout and produce in this valley. Let's picture that first summer here: a band of people walks up from the bottom of Calf Creek, following the sandstone ridge where State Route 12 now winds. They arrive in spring, as soon after the snow melts as possible. They find a sheltered, fairly flat area near water and quickly get to work. Most likely, the men worked on shelter -probably dugouts protected by short wattle-and-daub walls and vented roofs- while the women began to break soil and plant. They carried twice as much seed as bare- necessity would require. They planted half the seed when they felt safe from frost, probably about the middle of May, because that's what had worked for them in the past. Then, about June first it snowed and the ground froze. Only a few seedlings survived. So, scared now, they waited a couple of weeks and planted the precious remainder of their seeds. They did what pre-industrial farmers always did: they hoped, conjured, prayed, crossed their fingers, sacrificed, danced... we don't know their particular practices, but they were probably stressed right into superstition, as we still are today in this most-difficult and haphazard of occupations. One thing we can be certain of is that these first people either had success with their crops that first summer or they left the valley for someone else to colonize later. They depended on the food. They couldn't go very long without it, because they were no longer hunter-gatherers. So, let's say that second, desperate, last-ditch planting went well. The corn and squash and potatoes sprouted and the pests weren't too bad and the weather cooperated, and the mountain kept sending down its precious -which is to say sacred- streams of water, and the soil held it just enough, and the children kept the ravens away, and, in September, with a new dusting of snow on the mountain, they harvested. There was enough. But, unlike most modern farmers, they didn't just eat their food. They had to look to the next year and the next. So they sorted their corn by size. They kept the biggest, best ears for seed, and set aside the rest for storage, to be eaten all winter and through the following spring and summer. The biggest ears of corn represented success: for a plant to produce an ear bigger than most, it needs to thrive in the conditions of the place. It needs to sprout, and grow vigorously. It needs to resist grasshoppers and drought and birds. It needs to stand unbroken through successive windstorms. In other words, it needs to be well-suited to this place.

Not every plant did well. Open-pollinated corn, unlike our modern hybridized and genetically-modified varieties, was extremely genetically diverse. In the corn fields, the plants tasseled and the wind and bees and moths spread heir pollen to nearby plants. The pollen travelled up the silks, and each seed became the offspring of the plant it grew on and the nearby plant that pollinated it. Let's say the seeds that arrived in this valley had been farmed in the San Juan region for a few hundred years, during which the farmers always saved seeds from the best ears, year after year. Sometimes, maybe after a drought or a severe storm or a bad best year, they had to trade for seeds from outside the area. But they did everything they could to save their own precious seed. Gradually, year after year, century after century, they genetic makeup of the local corn drifted. Or, more accurately, the people steered it. They steered it in the direction of greater productivity, and, remember, greater productivity is the result of greater adaptation to the local growing conditions. San Juan corn became distinct from Mesa Verde corn, which was quite distinct from Zuni corn, and radically different from the low-desert corn than may have infrequently made its way up the trade routes from the Gila valley and even Mexico. Imported seed was valuable only when the local plants failed. Trading for imported corn was an act of desperation following disaster.

As long as the people saved seeds from enough plants they avoided a genetic bottleneck and the disaster of diminished yields and eventual demise of the local variety. But with genetic diversity comes unpredictability. If you have enough diversity to keep the local variety vigorous you can't be entirely sure what each ear will look like at harvest time. As the variety develops over years of successful seed-saving, it will tend to take on certain traits - a number of rows of kernels, a dominant color, a flavor and texture, a size, for example- but it will also contain some wildness. Some kernels will contain colors not seen in years. There will be variety. In some ways the variety is welcome. Many native people today cultivate several varieties in microclimates near home, and some cultivate varieties that have particular colors, flavors, and storage-traits. But what the farmers strove for was a balance between predictability and wildness. Predictability meant they got the traits they wanted: certain flavors and cooking times and suitability to the place, but it also skirted the loss of vitality and good yields. "Inbreeding depression" was a well-understood possibility, to be avoided assiduously. Wildness, or too much genetic diversity, on the other hand, meant always living with uncertainty and with a portion of each year's crop that didn't taste right, or that was the wrong color for a particular ceremony or favorite food, or that invited pests, or otherwise failed to measure up. To maintain this balance, the farmers kept seeds from enough plants that they didn't enter a bottleneck, from which, they knew, only importing seeds from outside the area could save them. But they didn't save seeds from every plant. If they had, they'd be passing maladapted traits onto the next generation. So the practice was to save seeds from the best ears, and to make sure those ears were from more than a certain minimum number of plants. Modern genetic science has determined that, in order to avoid inbreeding depression -the loss of vitality and the eventual demise of a variety due to too little genetic diversity in the seed stock- a corn variety needs to grow from the saved seed of at least 110 plants. At very least. If the isolated farmers of this valley saved the seed of exactly 110 plants one winter, the following summer's crop would be right on the brink of an eventually-fatal fall into inbreeding depression. This precarious position would have been terrifying in a place like this, and it risked squandering the work of many generations of conscientious farming. We don't know the details, but it's reasonable to assume that the ancient farmers had a system for assuring a safe amount of genetic diversity in their corn every year. Maybe they had a number. Maybe some other measure. What we know is that for a farming people to survive in a place without imports they needed to keep seed from at very least 110 plants every year.

The ancient people died out here hundreds of years ago. We don't know why. It was likely drought that forced them out, or killed them. It's plausible that conditions deteriorated over time until the people decided to pack up and move somewhere more hospitable. This happened in Boulder around World War I, too, when a drought made life here intolerable. One possibility is that they failed to maintain their seed bank. Maybe they ate it in desperation one bad winter. Maybe someone got greedy and impatient and failed to follow the traditional rules for keeping seed from a certain number of plants. In any event, we know that the corn they grew no longer exists, or maybe exists only in hidden snippets of DNA in other places along the trade routes. Maybe the early Mormon settlers used some native corn, though they disdained it in favor of their midwestern varieties. Maybe wind moved pollen from a native field to a settler's field. Maybe some ancient Boulder corn, or some of its traits, survive in the varieties that a few Native growers still maintain today. But Boulder's ancient corn is gone, probably forever. It's possible that someone will uncover an intact ancient granary with viable corn in it, but it's highly unlikely that viable ears from at least 110 plants will surface near Boulder.

But one exciting, gorgeous fact inspires us at Hell's Backbone Farm today: even though the ancient corn is gone, the conditions that formed it in the first place are still here: we still inhabit a high-altitude desert, our soil is still sandy, our rain is sparse, our mountain runoff is mercifully plentiful most years, our wind is brutal, our growing season is short, our nights are cool, our grasshoppers are like an invading army, our ravens are smart and hungry. And all these forces, in their aggregate peculiar to Boulder, put pressure on corn plants. Most fail. Some thrive. And the thriving plants contain the genes we need to develop a new Boulder corn variety that is beautifully suited to this place.

But let's step back for a moment and ask why we should care. Yes, the story is fascinating. It's a glimpse into a deep, mysterious past. And yes, growing food feels sometimes like a conduit to our most congruent humanity. But a look at the current state of food and farming in this country reveals several issues of pressing, even urgent concern. Our food supply is at risk. Over the last 70 years our farming culture has industrialized radically. Very few people now farm, and the few who do are doing it on such a scale and with such demands on their time, energy, and finances, and under such pressure from their banks and corporate customers and insurers, that the old ways can barely survive. The ancient corn of Boulder required many generations of painstaking effort, a great deal of accumulated wisdom, and a commitment to place that we can't fathom. We're in a hurry now, and we've come up with ingenious ways to avoid all that effort and learning: rather than slowly coaxing a corn variety through its adaptation to a place, we now adapt the place to the corn. There are farmers in Boulder who grow midwestern, GMO feed corn just like their counterparts in Iowa. They compensate for sandy soil with 'round-the-clock irrigation. They compensate for lack of nutrients with massive amounts of imported chemical fertilizers. They battle grasshoppers with Nolo Bait. I once muttered to one of my fellow-farmers here that they may be using Predator Drones to fight back the hail. In short, they are using the brute force of chemical and mechanical engineering and petroleum-burning machinery to accomplish, in this peculiar place, what the ancient people used to do with the elegance and ingenuity of seed-saving and patient adaptation to place. These approaches to farming are fundamentally different. Where the old way is, at root, an investment in a future of food security and, therefor, healthy land, this new, mechanized, chemical method is, at root, a response to the sense that land is a resource to be used. Farming has gone from soil-building and seed-saving to extractive industry in a generation. And the result is a very fragile system that depends more and more on an enormous network of manufacturers, transportation routes, specialist engineers, financiers, insurers, and others who know nothing of farming per se, or of the soil that makes it possible. They get spectacular short-term yields at the expense of the ecological, social, and economic health of farming communities. So we care because we love our place. We want to live to see it thrive ecologically, socially, and economically. This broad holistic view makes us care. It helps us see the folly of industrial agriculture in general, and the tragedy of the lost genetic inheritance of the ancient Boulder corn in particular. We see locally-adapted, open-pollinated food varieties as ethical and practical solutions to the depletion of soils; the contamination of air, soil, and water; the disintegration and failure of local economies and families; the inevitable collapse of the petroleum economy; and the the corruption of our food supply by distant food engineers and marketers. Of course, this is a lot of responsibility to put on a local corn variety. But what happens to Boulder, this remote and tiny town, if gas prices rise to current European heights? Who will be able to fertilize their midwestern corn then? And how much will dinner cost? And running the tractor? Few farmers in this region will survive a petroleum crisis. We plan to survive. We don't use the chemical inputs, or the diesel, or the expertise of distant specialists. We're banking against the kind of systemic failure of markets that is cyclical and inevitable, and we're assuming that gas will only get more expensive, and that food will only get more artificial and expensive. These are safe bets. The outcome -food security- makes the Boulder corn project compelling.

But what exactly are we doing at Hell's Backbone Farm? It's actually quite simple: four years ago I stood in the Anasazi State Park museum in Boulder and looked at the corn they have displayed there. It's multi-colored. Red, black, white, yellow. The ears are big. The display implies that these ears of corn were excavated from the adjacent 1,000-year-old Anasazi village ruins, but actually they are modern "indian" corn. Which makes sense. But the display got me thinking: if Boulder is such a unique place, then long-term inhabitants most likely had a unique corn variety. And if that variety no longer exists and we are dependent on midwestern feed corn to feed our livestock, and, therefor, on chemical inputs and vast amounts of precious irrigation water, isn't Boulder's population uncomfortably exposed to distant market forces? Isn't our independent existence out here on the fringe of America badly endangered inasmuch as we choose to buy manufactured food and grow generic varieties that can't thrive here unassisted? The answer seems obvious to me: we are at the mercy of strangers who don't even know we exist, who most likely have never even set foot in a place like this, and they are taking our money and entrenching a system of agriculture that all but forces our children off the farm. And a solution seems equally obvious: we can choose the old agriculture as insurance against the fragile system that treats us so poorly. That corn display opened up to me the possibility of simply sidestepping modern agriculture. We could develop our own highly-adapted varieties and find food security the old, proven way. By security I don't mean certainty. There's still drought and hail and grasshoppers. But why voluntarily -and at great expense- add petroleum politics, market cycles, commodities pricces, and all that to the uncertainties? So this is what I did:

First, I took a map of the Colorado Plateau and used a highlighter to mark the areas of this region that are roughly as high as we are, between 6000 and 7000 feet. Then I looked to see what Indian reservations had farming areas inside the highlighted areas. I overlaid the two maps. I looked for seeds in Native Seed Search's catalog and found some from the areas I'd identified. I found some growers online and bought some seeds from them. I talked with a farmer on the Hopi reservation who agreed to sell me a few seeds from his old and nearly-extinct mesa-top variety. I got an envelope of seeds from near Zuni Pueblo. All in all, I collected seeds from 12 native, open-pollinated, Colorado Plateau varieties, added some seeds from a modern open-pollinated variety renowned for its extremely short growing season, and included a handful of seeds from a Saskatchewan short-season variety. All the varieties were, as far as I could be sure, open-pollinated and un-contaminated by GMO corn. I very carefully sorted the seeds by days-to-tassel. I prepared our winter chicken yard, our most fertile plot of land every spring when the chickens get moved to other fields, and planted the seeds on a staggered schedule so that all the plants would tassel at about the same time. I wanted every plant to have a chance to pollinate every other plant. This went pretty well, though some plants didn't conform to the schedule, probably because they contain lots of genetic variety. No matter: the plants that fell outside the schedule failed to pass on their genes, and failed to get pollinated except by other non-conformists. They fell out of the project. I did something that farmers almost never do: I neglected the plants. I gave them just enough water to grow. I kept them stressed. I let the grasshoppers eat. I weeded just a little. A windstorm knocked down the entire field, and I despaired, and then most of the plants righted themselves. They ones that failed to stand back up got fed to the goats, ears and all. I didn't want them in windy Boulder. At the end of the season I harvested from about 4,000 plants. That's not a big field. Tiny, actually, but with more genetic diversity than may exist today in the entire state of Iowa. I spread all the incredibly-colored ears out to dry. 5,000 ears or so. A very long day's work to shuck and spread. They cured for a while. I picked out the moldy and bug-ridden ears and fed them to the chickens. Then I sorted the ears by size. I kept about 300 of the biggest healthy ears, well more than the absolute minimum of 110. I put all the rest in steel trashcans for winter chicken feed. The I broke each of the big, choice ears over another trashcan, so that a few kernels popped off each ear, until I had about twice as many seeds as I wanted to save, about 10,000. Yes, I counted. I set aside the ends of the ears for chicken feed. I saved the seeds in a stoneware jar, a good, breathable, mouseproof container, functionally not so different from those Anasazi cliffside granaries that are common in these canyons. Then, the following spring, I sorted all those seeds by color. Red, orange, yellow, a few greens, turquoise, pale blue, dark blue, black, purple, lavender, pink, magenta, white. Chinmarked, striped, speckled. I recorded the number of each color so I could track drift toward a particular color over time. Then I dug another field -you don't want to plant heavy-feeding corn two years in a row in the same place, even if chickens live on it for months- and planted the second year. And I repeated all of the above two more times. In a month or so we're going to harvest our fourth year of corn from that original extremely-diverse planting. So far, the corn is drifting a bit toward red. Haven't seen green in two years. White is uncommon. The ears are maybe a little longer. I can't be sure because conditions change every year. This year was a little dry, and I planted in a very sandy, exposed place. I expect a lower yield this year. But every year I pick the best ears and feed the rest to the chickens. And science and faith both say that every year the corn becomes a little bit more of this place. Those tall, falling-over plants didn't show up this year at all, which is good because yesterday we had quite a windstorm. I haven't watered in a month, and the plants look quite happy. The grasshoppers don't seem interested. A mile away, the GMO feed corn is sticky with anhydrous ammonia and roundup, and is ankle-deep in now-polluted snowmelt. That corn is taller and brighter-green. But I know it survives on a false economy of artificially-cheap subsidized petroleum products and a water allotment that is far from equitable. And the enormous tractor the rancher bought for his huge plantings (huge by Boulder standards, anyway) is credit, so he needs to keep planting, and he's wearing out his unsuitable soil, and he is on the path to eventual failure. But my humble patch of intentionally-neglected corn is one year closer to having the survival traits that the ancient Boulder corn had. It will never be the same corn, but it will, slowly, become equally tolerant of this harsh place.

It takes little imagination these days to picture Boulder after a petroleum crisis, or as the victim of a Washington budget dispute, or cut off from the world by a landslide on the one mountain road that keeps us connected to the markets. America is a wealthy and resilient place, but times are hard. Our systems can't be pushed very hard without breaking. And Boulder is a place almost unknown to the America that rules. We have no money or voice in New York or Washington. We are almost invisible. Our own systems are fragile. Some days we don't have water in our house, and the power flickers off frequently, and the internet is outdated. Not far from here a highway washed away and won't be replaced for two years because the terrain is extreme, and resources are stretched thin, and, frankly, the rural Colorado Plateau is just not a budget priority. We're pretty comfortable for now, but our future is terribly uncertain. If Boulder survives a coming disruption, it may be in small part because we've spent a few years saving seeds from corn plants that do well here. Most likely, change will be incremental, not catastrophic or revolutionary, and I like to picture my neighbors someday breaking through their contempt for my little project, showing some interest, looking through the smog of by-then silly ideological disagreements to wonder if wisdom lies in adaptation to place. I believe our health, our community, and our survival here on the edge depend on it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Good Farm Is Neither Tame Nor Wild

I'd like to establish some loose conceptual boundaries for future essays, and take down a couple of pious assumptions while I'm at it.  In this short piece, I'll focus on what amount to two ideologies of farming, both of which are based on sloppy and narrow thinking about the place farms occupy in "nature", which, as a term and a concept, is of course also the victim of bad thinking.

Farming does, indeed, require lots and lots of thinking, but good farmers are a very humble lot, and end each season knowing little more than they did in the spring.  Actually, all farmers end the season this way, but the good ones acknowledge their perennial ignorance, while the bad ones see their short-term successes as evidence that they know what they're doing.  But good farming cannot be measured in crop yields.  Farming is land stewardship, and the skill of the farmer is measured in soil fertility.  It is possible to remove 440 bushels of corn from an acre of Iowa loam the same way it's possible to remove all the coal in a Tennessee mountain.  You can't do it every year in perpetuity, but if you add enough chemicals and plant tight, you can do it this year.  This is a stunt, not good farming.  It destroys soil structure, sends an irreplaceable resource down to the sea, depends on toxic inputs in vast quantities, radically suppresses biodiversity, exposes farmers to great financial risk, requires massive and expensive equipment, bulldozes our agricultural inheritance, concentrates wealth in a very few agricultural mega-corporations, etc.  Crop yield, seen as the sole evidence of farming skill, is impressive: roughly ten times more calories per acre than our pre-chemical, pre-GMO ancestors could produce.  But this is an engineer's success.  As long as farming success is seen narrowly as a problem of low yields followed by a solution of high yields, only the metrics of extractive industry will prop up the fiction of progress.  Because these yields come at a cost that the narrow metrics of progress do not acknowledge.

So, the "success" of the industrial farming model depends upon narrowly-defined problems, and narrowly-measured solutions.  It requires us to focus so closely on crop yields that we forget everything else.   Forgetting the health of the soil and the farmer, the state of agronomic culture, the health of the environment and the many species that are dying out in farm-country, the health of consumers, the radical redistribution of toxic wastes, the monstrous wastefulness of the food distribution system, and many, many other things it is possible to say that industrial agriculture is a success.  But the slightest inquiry into the true breadth of industrial agriculture's indiscriminate destruction reveals a broken and unsustainable system.

This broadening of our awareness of the destructiveness of industrial agriculture has brought many Americans to new, more ethical, healthier, and more sustainable eating and growing practices.  Since the late '60s, and very quickly in recent years, we have moved a significant number of acres out of chemical-industrial crop production and into superior methods, mostly industrial organic methods.  Around 5% of Americans now eat industrial organics every day.  These crops are produced without chemical inputs [except the fuels used for tractors on the fields and trucks to the supermarkets], and wildlife and farmers both are seeing the health benefits.  Some organic producers have shown a willingness to rotate crops, fallow fields, and preserve wetlands on their farms.  These intelligent [and traditional] methods help preserve soil fertility and biodiversity.  Organic farmers tend to use winter cover-cropping and compost to add organic matter back into the soil.  This simulates the life cycle of perennial prairies and is a vast improvement over the purely-extractive practices of "conventional" [chemical-industrial] agriculture.  Still, the economies of scale and distribution, and the lending and insurance practices that underwrite these farms all but require mono-cropping, minimum-wage labor, and complicity with the subsidized petroleum-based transportation system.  The soil has benefitted immensely in the small areas now in organic management, but the human and environmental costs are still unsustainable.  It is widely understood in the organic farming community, for example, that few operations would survive without illegal-immigrant labor.  And the produce is more expensive than most single-income families can afford.

With these two industrial agricultures in mind, one relying on chemical inputs and government subsidies, and the other depending on cheap labor and government subsidies and well-off consumers, a small group of more holistic farmers has started to produce, mostly for local markets and on a very small scale.  Many tiny farms have sprouted around the country in the last several years, staffed by mostly young and idealistic farmers who subsidize the inefficiencies of their farms with enthusiastic cheap labor.  They do not aim to win contracts with Whole Foods, choosing instead to sell their produce to local restaurants, or at the farmers' market, or even to grow only for their own consumption.  Really, they are doing what almost all of our ancestors did for millennia, but this deep conservatism appears radical in our topsy-turvy times.  Out of these tiny farms, --some run by pseudo-homesteaders, some by vegans, some by libertarian-leaning market-naysayers, some by rural families who simply do not otherwise have access to decent food under the industrial model--, has emerged a loose new food ideology that draws heavily from the themes of protest movements since the late '60s.  Very roughly speaking, these small farmers speak of an agriculture that eschews "science" [by which they appear to mean “pretentions of objectivity"], corporate measures of productivity, market factors, and newfangled products, methods, and varieties.  They tend toward the polyculture of our ancestors' kitchen gardens: many varieties of fruits and vegetables, especially those adapted to the particular conditions of particular farms; a mixture of annual and perennial crops; the inclusion of animals into the system; suspicion and general rejection of high-input chemical methods; an intense interest in seed-saving and the preservation of heirloom varieties; and a growing interest in seasonality, crop rotation, succession-planting, cover-cropping, composting, grazing rotations, and other deep practices that are focused on soil-building, and which industrial agriculture since WW2 had almost extinguished.  This is a small but real revival of wisdom we almost lost.  But some of the mores and language of past protest movements have crept into the rhetoric of late.  Even the more traditionalist of these small farmers have a reflexive tendency to explain the life of these small farms in terms of the farms' wildness, or approximation of wild conditions.  One farmer I know will not fence out deer, because, as she says, "Who am I to keep them out.  This is their land."  Another will not pull weeds, because she claims they suffer.  Another watches gophers kill everything he plants, but doesn't act, because he believes the gophers are crucial to the health of his farm.  I see trees unpruned, unchecked population explosions of aphids and grasshoppers, rabbits in the carrots, dogs locked in pickup trucks barking at the rabbits, hawks taking chickens, skunks gorging on eggs and spraying dogs and farmers, volunteer potato plants scattered throughout beds of other plants regardless of rotation schedule, and a general reliance upon a faith that the whole system will "balance itself out over time", to quote one callow landowner.  The unquestioned assumption behind all of this, I suspect, is that wilderness is the proper typology for farming, or, expressed differently, that a farm is a simulacrum of the untamed wild.

I want to propose a middle way.  Between the narrow, blinkered stupidity of the extractive industrial model, on the one hand, and the everything-goes wild-farm model, on the other, is a place our ancestors would recognize.  In it, farms are neither strip-mines nor jungles.  They are neither monocultures nor havens for weeds and pests.  These farms are carefully cultivated, carefully planned, and tend to be neat and tidy.  The farmer operates in space and time, planting enough of what the family wants to eat, but not too much, and with knowledge of what has grown where in the past, and what will grow where in the future.  The farmer knows the soil [or, at least, what it will do while remaining totally mysterious], never knows the weather, has a more or less articulate sense of what each patch of ground needs right now, and probably hopes that someday someone he loves will take over and be just as conscientious.  He makes tough decisions: remove the pretty old apple tree to let in more sun; get rid of the pigs because they eat too much for this plot; phase out the damned Menorcas because they can fly over any fence and they love lettuce; grow no solanaceas this year because disease hit last year... he neither imposes order nor quits pursuing it.  He recognizes that not all plants and animals are useful to his family, so he weeds [all summer long], and does whatever he can to help the corn get a buttress-root up on the pigweed.  He shoots the skunks.  He tries everything to keep the deer out, and finally buys taller fencing.  He sees himself as a kind of conductor of an unruly orchestra.  He knows he has to work with these contumacious musicians if he ever wants to make music.  And, if he persists, and keeps his hubris under his hat, and reads lots of books, and pretty much dreams about his farm all day and night for the rest of his life, he will bring it all to moments of concord.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ecology, Ethics, and Inaction

It should be our Western prerogative to validate the intuitions of the Buddha with the clear sight of science.  Science has, after all, led us through the blasted Cartesian wilderness toward the long-suspected oasis of the One.  The late Enlightenment propels us toward an enlightenment, in which all things are finally and correctly understood as interdependent.  At least it is possible to extrapolate from the trajectory of our incomplete but growing understanding the location and nature of this oasis: it is where the arcs of cosmology, deep ecology, and modern liberal ethics intersect.

The principal mirage that obscures the way forward is the specialist's insistence that things be viewed, described, and explained in isolation from other things, from the systems of which they are parts.  As Buddhism insists on "correct view", in which every thing is connected to every other and there is no such thing as "independent origination", so science, gradually, perceives that there are no closed systems and that the distinctness of things is ultimately illusory, more the product of obscured perception than of objective observation.  Science, over and over, proves the empirical and takes it farther, beyond subjective perception and into what intuition has always seen: a vast and single entirety.  This should complicate our ethics and bring the runaway modern project to a wheel-locking halt.  I hope it does.

The central ethic of "progress" is, and always has been, to identify and solve problems.  The principal agents of progress are the people who stand to profit from solutions, and the managers and engineers they employ to do the solving.  When profit entices, it behooves the profiteers to define their problems as narrowly as possible and to employ specialists who know exactly how to provide a quick, efficient, and cost-effective solution.  For example, in the 1950s the population of the American southwest was growing very rapidly, and was facing the natural limits of water and power availability.  An association of Arizona ranchers, Nevada gambling magnates, Los Angeles developers, and the like petitioned the U.S. government for permission and funding to build an enormous dam in Glen Canyon.  The problem was lack of accessible water and power, and the solution, as the interested parties and their managers and engineers saw it, was to trap the Colorado behind a wall.  To engineers, this is an "elegant" solution, as it kills both problems with one stone.  The managers loved it because everyone involved worked on one tidy project, well away from the usual complications of competing interests.  And the profiteers loved it because they were suddenly empowered to extract enormous wealth from a natural resource.

They defined the problem narrowly, and solved it.  This is progress.  But what was the real problem in the arid southwest on the 1950s?  Had the ranchers, under pressure to produce more beef for the new sunbelt, begun to overgraze their fragile land?  Did the development of Las Vegas and Los Angeles depend upon shortsighted wishful thinking about water and power?  Did the Washington politicians and bureaucrats, the Army Corps engineers, and the citizens of Phoenix see the Colorado as an untapped resource that begged for exploitation?  Yes.  Of course they did.  As the late Dave Brower, head of the Sierra Club during those days, said to an as-yet un-enlightened Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and beholden to the dam's backers in Arizona:  "You can't have been down in that canyon and have un-reserved enthusiasm for this grotesque project".  He was right.  The interested parties had not been into Glen Canyon.  They didn't know that it contained one of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the country, that it was the northernmost outpost of many subtropical species, that it was full of ancient artifacts and that it had been home to several civilizations, or even that it was incomparably beautiful.  And even if they had known the place, how could Glen Canyon's real value, completely unquantifiable, compete against the relentless measuring and projections used in the calculus of progress?  Remember, progress is solving narrowly-defined problems.  It brooks no complication.

But what if Glen Canyon were seen, correctly, as one of the hearts of the world?  A place necessary for the health of the whole?  If the developers, ranchers, managers, engineers and politicians had known, in some deep, enlightened way, that Glen Canyon had its fingers and veins and neurons spread across the entire region and overlapping the edges of other regions and systems ad infinitum forever to the everexpanding edge of the One?  Their definition of the problem would have expanded, their calculations would have become infinitely complex, they would have become humble in the face of their own inexperience and ignorance, and they would have become immobilized by a kind of holy anxiety.  This anxiety arises from the mere suspicion that everything is interdependent.  This suspicion, more a matter of intuition or faith than a sure knowledge, utterly dams the modern project, based as it is on narrow perceptions and a greed for solutions.  What could have saved the canyon, and us as a species, and the world, is the inability to act decisively.  Certainty is our enemy.  Hubris is the impetus behind the grotesque "solutions" of progress.  Only ignorance, the father of certainty and hubris, could fail to see Glen Canyon for what it was: a magnificent local unfolding of the One and a part of us all.  The new people of the southwest needed more meat, so they identified their own heart as meat and cut it out and ate it, and now they wonder why they feel weak.

Of course, most of the above has been said, more or less, many times before.  In fact, I have become very, very tired of pretty much all standard forms of environmental-defense writing.  Some people still need to learn about the ripple effect and the principles of ecology, and some people will find "spiritual" defenses of the environment powerful and convincing.  I do hope that good writers keep coming to the defense of the natural world, and that the agents of progress will drop to their knees in humility and remorse as they read these defenses.  But I want to return to the notion of holy anxiety, because I have less faith in the efficacy of environmental defense than I do in the ability of people to become overwhelmed by the boundlessness of their ignorance, to the point of paralysis.

Because paralysis, of a particular kind, will save us.  Progress needs focus, haste, efficiency, power, certainty, professionalism, specialized knowledge.  It demands that we "leap into battle" and "just do our job", without dithering.  It demands firm, decisive action. But at the moment in which we see progress as a series of narrow solutions to narrowly-defined problems, each of which leads to ever-ramifying and unforeseen problems, the proliferation of which cannot be ever stopped with more engineering, we are open to insight.  And this insight suggests, in the place of progress, a tentative, provisional, second-guessing, contemplative approach to problem-solving.  It places little trust in callow, enthusiastic youth.  It is impatient with the ecstatic ignorance of faith.  It abhors jihad, and force of all kinds.  It favors minimal action with minimal tools, with the least effort possible.  It meanders where progress demands a straight line.  It changes its mind where progress is certain.  It hems and haws.  It wobbles.  It's actually downright feeble and pathetic.  Or so it seems. But when the rigid structures of progress have proven to be merely brittle, and have crumbled to dust, the wiry and lean, wily coyotes of equivocation will still be setting their snares, and mocking the weatherman, and dawdling in the deepest canyons in summer running their hands along the cool walls of what they suspect is their very own heart.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Laugh in Dismissal"

From Curtis White's essay "The Barbaric Heart", published in Orion, May/June 2009:

"We ought to discover that there is something superior to the Barbaric Heart, a Universal that is not only Nature but human capacity and creativity as well. We ought to discover that we are a part of this One, an animal among animals. Ours should be a Dionysian world that refuses the cold comfort of both the capitalist manager and the ecologist technician. The Dionysian does not so much refuse these worlds as laugh in dismissal. Its world is indulgent and ecstatic and curiously impersonal. It is not an animal lover; it is simply happy among animals. It is not a nature lover; it is nature. It doesn’t pity the plight of the polar bear; it romps in the snow. It is a thoughtful and beautiful animal, but it is an animal. The Dionysian fucks, eats, looks for the ecstasy of transcendence, and worships the same gods that the animals worship. Not the God that gives laws, but the gods that encourage living things to thrive. 
We are that strange and wonderful animal that has the metaphysical comfort of knowing that she is part of the tragic chorus of natural beings. We are members of that faith that knows that life is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable. And the mark that we will leave upon the world will not be the mark of brute force clothed in the false virtues of the barbarian but the mark of the ultimate realist, he who makes his own world, demanding the impossible and calling it Beautiful."

Has your day been Apollo's?  Has he recorded your keystrokes, fined you for that overdraft, docked your pay for forgetting to punch your time-card?  Laugh in dismissal!  He falls at sunset.

Curtis White Essay

Please follow this link to an excellent essay on the unity of human work and environmental destruction:
I recommend you set aside some time to read this carefully.

Notice how all endeavors based on the myth of isolation and separateness are unsustainable?  Any action taken in hubris, which is to say in ignorance of its connection to everything, is likely to cause harm.  Our duties as workers start with facing the depth of ecology with profound humility, then vowing to do no harm.

"I'm just doing my job.": an excuse enabled by specialization.

Also note that White uses the inevitable two examples of the depths of our current specialist ignorance: we don't know how to grow and preserve our own food, and we don't know how to build our own shelter.  I will continue to insist that our most fundamental human condition, as naked, omnivorous apes, ties us to shelter and food production in the deepest way.  I think this depth is where White's "spirit" is located.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A very fine essay on handwork:

I recommend this wholeheartedly.  Very finely written, and totally informed.  It certainly puts the gleam of gospel truth on my own experience as an educated office worker with the heebyjeebies.