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.

1 comment:

  1. Please +1 this if you feel so inclined. I'd like a few more readers.