Archive for September, 2010

Buying Local? How to Shop for Nutrition

Many of us buy our food from local farmers, and for good reason!  Supporting farmers is most always a worthy cause, your cash stays in your local economy, the food is fresher, and the food’s carbon footprint is often smaller.  But, we don’t hear many claims about local food being more nutritious, and here’s why:  nutrition totally depends on soil quality, and soil quality can vary greatly from farm to farm.  

If two identical tomato plants were planted in different soils – one in nutrient rich, biologically active soil, and the other in soil lacking in any nutrient, the tomato produced from rich soil would provide far more nutrition.  Plants can’t create nutrients out of air.  Vitamins and minerals, nutrients we all expect in a good tomato, must be supplied by the soil.  For example, take manganese.  It’s a crucial mineral for activating enzymes for our bodies to use vitamins B1, C, and choline.  If manganese is not in our soil, it’s not in our food.  Soil quality is key! 

colorful, tasty peppers

What about the farms where you buy your fruits and veggies?  Do you know the quality of their soil?  When you go to farmers markets, does the produce from certain farms stand out? 

Here are simple things anyone can look for to get an initial feel for soil quality:  

At the Produce Stand: 

  • How does the produce look?  Fruits and veggies grown on healthy, balanced, productive soils are often beautiful.  They won’t look perfect, but they should be the picture of health:  plump, heavy, shiny, deep in color, and very appetizing.
  • Very little insect damage.  This one is controversial, as organic producers usually take a hit for damage to their crops.  This is definitely true for farms transitioning to organic – pests attack these crops with little mercy.  However, for a farm that’s been using organic methods for at least 3 or 4 years, if the soil is rich, the plants will have all they need to defend themselves against pests.  Poor soil leaves crops vulnerable.  If you doubt this, read Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm.  In three years he transformed his depleted soil that would barely produce anything worth eating into deep, rich soil that produced healthy, nutritious produce with virtually no insect predation.  The veggies were so satisfying he juiced them into tonics.  Amazing!  
  • Does the farmer offer samples?  Taste it!  Nutritious produce tastes like you’re getting something special.  Sweet, juicy, flavor at its height.  Nutritious produce never tastes watery, dry, tough, or bland. 

Know Your Region’s History: 

  • Do you live in a Corn Belt state?  Don’t worry, it’s a good thing!  Your region’s top soil is probably depleted, but you’re sitting on highly-mineralized, glacial subsoil.  Good farmers know how to tap into this and rebuild quality top soil.
  • Live in the Deep South or Upper South?  These regions were heavily farmed in cotton and tobacco, two of the worst crops for soil.  The soil is likely depleted.  Ask your farmer how she rebuilt the soil. 
  • Live in a state known for dairy?  Good news – productive cows on grass require highly fertile soils.  For more information, read Newman Turner’s old and wise book Fertility Pastures

gorgeous, deeply-colored beets

If noticing these things tends to leave you with more questions, ask the questions!  Ask your farmer how he returns nutrients to the soil.  If he says, “we buy fertilizer” ask what kind of fertilizer.  Write it down, and check it out.  If he says, “we apply lime and rotate crops and use grazing and deep-rooted legumes to build fertile top soil” you’ve got yourself an excellent farmer.  

While I was visiting my parents recently in Oklahoma, we stopped at a large farmer’s market.  Most of the produce looked good, but not great.  There was one stand where the produce looked perfect, gorgeous.  I kept on walking, thinking produce that perfect was probably fed an all-chemical diet.  This was before I read Malabar Farm.  Now I wish I would have stopped and asked, “How do you fertilize?”  “How do you manage insects?”  Without asking, I might have missed out on some exceptionally nutritious fruit and veggies.  

Have thoughts or questions?  Leave a comment!

Coming to Terms with the Dust Bowl

I’ve finished reading a real gem of an old 1940s farming book, Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm.  Bromfield questions why farmers so readily squandered their farm’s wealth through bad farming practices.  Erosion and “burning out” the soil (taking organic content and minerals out of the soil via selling crops and never adding nutrients back in) are hot on his mind.  He writes about the Deep South, as it once had mineral-rich soil that was turned into dust by cotton.  He mentions our Corn Belt states, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, as “rich states commonly believed to possess inexhaustible fertility” as depleted, emptied of fertility in three generations.  And then, he got me.  He described Oklahoma, my home state, as “eroded and depleted in one generation.”     

One generation!  For sure he was talking about the Dust Bowl. 

Growing up, I always heard people speak of the Dust Bowl in awe.  Grownups used phrases like “pictures cannot describe…” and “you wouldn’t believe…”   I learned early on that until Merle Haggard sang his “Okie from Muskogee” song with pride, it wasn’t nice to be called an Okie, especially by a Californian.     

But my big take-away was that the Dust Bowl was an act of God.  For most of my life, I believed a horrendous drought like no other caused it.  Humans were innocent victims of a double beat-down by the Great Depression and the choking dust.  I think a lot of people still believe this because we never hear about the bad farming practices that directly caused it.

Sure drought contributed, but the prairies had experienced bad droughts before.  Diverse grasses with 20-foot long roots held dry soil in place.  The Dust Bowl difference:  the prairies were gone. 

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (another great book) documents the farming scene after World War I and into the 1920s.  Wheat prices had soared world-wide, and there was a great rush to plant and get rich.  Speculators came into Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, sparsely-populated areas with mineral-rich soils, to plant wheat.  They plowed away vast acreages of prairie sod and planted.  They got rich for a while, until the wheat bubble burst in the 1920s.  They left town and left the soil wide open with no cover.  Then severe drought came.  The soil cracked and loosened, and hot, dry winds started carrying it away in sheets.

This was environmental disaster on a monumental scale.  Timothy Egan wrote that one enormous dust cloud reached DC, right as a congressional committee was meeting on the disaster.  It’s eerie to think I could be farming on Oklahoma soil, so far from home.  Bromfield mentions that eco-agriculture and respect for the soil was really picking up in the late 1940s.  I really, really wish it had continued.  World War II munitions plants already knew the intricacies of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, key elements in chemical fertilizer.  Farmers were offered easy, drudgery-free ways to fertilize, and soil was disregarded once again.  I think we’re making a turn again though.  Small farms are multiplying, and interest in non-chemical fertility is rising.  Let’s hope it sticks this time.

Update on Roundup-Resistant Marestail

I’m a little cautious when it comes to making claims, but I’ll say it anyway – “SUCCESS!” 

We took a pasture walk yesterday, and we couldn’t find any marestail.  In this post I detailed our efforts in getting rid of this nasty but impressive weed.  Our fields were infested with it last year, especially in areas where it had no grass competition.  We mowed four times last summer (a very wet summer) and two times this summer (a very hot and dry summer).  We’ve done nothing else but spread compost on about two acres so far.  Marestail is nowhere to be seen on any of our fields.   

Because marestail has very shallow roots, I’m sure this summer’s drought helped to eradicate it (even though it’s flourishing in our neighbor’s GMO soybean field- maybe it’s not just resistant to round up, but loves it?).  Regardless, we’re so happy to have found a chemical-free way to off this weed.  I doubt soybean farmers have the cash flow to take their marestail-infested fields out of production, but I bet if they did for just one year most of the marestail would be gone.  They could thickly seed a very competitive plant, like American sweet clover, and mow for one year.  The sweet clover could out-compete the marestail for sunlight and nutrients, and the bush hog would take care of the rest.    This is exactly what we’re going to try on our neighbor’s fields.  Our neighbor has invited us to convert his fields to pasture.  They’re tired of looking at weed-infested, gnarly soybean fields.  We’ll keep the updates coming.

Behold! Our Drainage Ditch

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the wise saying goes.  Last weekend, I struck out from the house toward our drainage ditch with pruning shears in hand, aiming to take down some weeds that were threatening to spread into the pastures.  I reached the edge of the ditch and started cutting down the Beggarticks, a beautiful plant actually, with a striking yellow flower.  It was a shame to cut it down, but it seeds like crazy. 

I started edging towards the center of the ditch, keeping an eye out for snakes, when suddenly the entire width of the ditch came into view.  It was gorgeous!  Okay, so the atmosphere had a lot to do with it.  It was a beautiful early September evening with temperatures in the 70s, no biting bugs, and with the setting sun, it was a photographer’s true golden hour.  But the plants growing in the ditch were a sight to behold.  In addition to the Beggartick’s bright yellows, I saw maroons/purples in the leaves and seed heads of the tall airy Virginia switchgrass.  Many plants I haven’t identified yet offered beautiful textures and shades of greens, browns, pinks and even blues.  Even the poison ivy was beautiful (never thought I’d say that) as it was beginning to turn its early fall orangey shades.  But the focal point in this ditch was a single huge millet (or bulrush?).  Wow.  Its drapey seed head was over 5 feet off the ground, and it looked like the seeds were just spilling out of the top, poising for a good drop.  The seed head’s color was what really caught my eye.  It matched the sunset—a gorgeous salmon-orange.

It’s times like these when you’re outside, in nature, all alone, that something can really strike you and hold you there for a moment.  After about 30 seconds had passed, I even said softly out loud, “you’re so pretty!” to the millet.  It was overwhelming to me that nature would combine this majesty of plants in a big utilitarian man-made drainage ditch.  I was without a doubt in the right place at the right time.  

Walking back towards the house, I thought about many of Gene Logsdon’s writings on finding supreme peace and beauty in your own back yard.  I love this passage, at the end of his All Flesh is Grass book: 

“To name all the myriad lives, botanical and biological, that find home in the meadow would bore the reader, I fear.  And most of these lives I do not even know yet.  I walk my pastures enveloped by them all, finding on every walk something new or something reassuringly old.  I sit at the top point of the pasture hill, look over my little domain, and wonder why I have been so blessed to be here and blessed even more by knowing for certain that I do not want to be anywhere else…”

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