December 26, 2009

Lately I’ve been philosophically amazed at how much time one can spend? waste? preparing orders for growing supplies. This commentary is something of an offshoot to the “catalog campaign” that occurs every so often, in which I spend many hours reading descriptions of plants or whathaveyou in order to make a purchase decision. Not so long ago I was on the verge of placing an order for some hundreds of dollars worth of fruit trees with Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley. I like shopping there because I feel good about the idea of supporting a company that caters to organic growers, and I am able to make a two hour drive to pick up my items in person, which saves me shipping charges and gives me a chance to take a scenic drive through some beautiful country.

So I called their customer service in order to determine how it would work that I could pick up my order of fruit trees. The representative I spoke with was, I felt, less than nice, and I was informed in rather firm terms that if I wanted the fruit trees, they would have to be shipped to me at a cost of $30 per box because no way no how did they hold orders. That information would have been helpful at the beginning of the process, alas. I was facing needing about 3 or more shipping boxes, so now in addition to my costs for the purchase, I’m looking at another $100 or so in extra and unaccounted for expenses. Maybe not much for some people, but I found this upsetting both in terms of the principle and the lack of flexibility. So after all my research, this order may or may not go through. And I’m certainly not feeling warm fuzzies toward this seller at the moment. Likely I’ll have to pick one or two boxes worth of trees to get from PVGS and take the rest of my business elsewhere, as there are other nurseries that don’t seem to have these kinds of rigid rules.

And then I moved on to a search for sweet potatoes. I have never grown them before and would like to try, especially since cooking with them this Thanksgiving reminded me of how delicious and easy to prepare they are. I did a lot of reading and then began looking for suppliers. I found a place in Tennessee that looked amazing….a true mom and pop farm that would sell 500 plants for something like $60…how great is that? But then I started looking for the inevitable…….hard to find……where is it…..NO ORDERS TO CALIFORNIA OR HAWAII. *deep sigh*. Nuts. Living in California can be like being in a compound sometimes, if it’s a good deal and you’d like to grow it, rest assured that there will be some major problem trying to obtain it. Why? Our state’s ever-shifting USDA quarantines that are supposed to keep CA agriculture safe from pests and pathogens that threaten us. Never mind that NAFTA and other economically important import activity pumps invasive species into this state at a rate of which the government has just about lost control. However this time I wanted to know, what was so problematic about sweet potatoes? A little more internet digging revealed that the worry revolved around a colorful insect called the sweet potato weevil, whose larvae make an impressive ruination of the edible part of the plant. This insect doesn’t travel particularly far on its own steam, and there is already apparently an established population of them in San Diego county (seems like poor SD gets visited by just about everything, but I digress). So I abandoned Tennessee and went to search for a California supplier of sweet potato slips. There is one, in Merced. They are very sophisticated and use advanced laboratory techniques to make sure that not so much as a stray virus infects their plants. And they even sell the purple skinned and fleshed kind of sweet potato I’d like to grow. But the cost? 99 cents per slip if ordering less than 500 slips, and 60 cents per slip if ordering 500 or more. Ouch. So now comes the second stage of deep thought. What the hell do I want to do? If I buy 500 plants, that leaves me with a potential yield of 2,500 or more tubers if my growing season is successful. Even if my growing season were to be an abject failure, I have a vivid image of purple tubers overflowing out of my newly finished (I hope) root cellar something like in that film “Son of the Blob”. So I suppose even for the discount, $300 worth of discounted slips is out of the question. I’ll determine some other number, and save California from an insect that is already here.

I could point out how easy it would be to have an order from the Tennessee folks sent to southern Oregon, make a four hour drive to pick up the illegal plants, and smuggle them home past the “do you have any fresh fruits or plants on board” joke of an agricultural checkpoint outside Yreka….why are we using taxpayer money to only periodically station folks to ask a question that depends on the honesty and decency of our citizens? Don’t we know better than that by now? Fortunately, I support the concept that my desire to keep costs down is unimportant compared to the potential to cause my state neighbors economic harm, unlike people and industries who don’t care, and bring in god knows what in order to save a buck or a little convenience.

Still, all this turned out to be an interesting odyssey of learning about obscure…issues…in the course of simply trying to grow a new kind of crop. And really, the sweet potato project began when I heard about a crop found in the Phillippines called Ubi that I would like to grow. It is similar to, yet botanically distinct from, purple sweet potatoes….but until I can find those, I guess I’ll have to content myself with whatever I can find around these parts.

December 3, 2009

My generation has been cheated, and I’ll tell you why.

At 11:30pm a few nights ago, I found myself cajoled out of bed, trussed up in my cold-weather work clothes, driving off in a pickup with my farming partner and his brother, on our way to the local rice fields. There was something special they thought I should see. Usually at 11:30pm I tell people to go stuff themselves, but something sounded different here.

We crawled along, talking about the usual farming stuff…..when they’d gotten out of the rice fields after harvest, who still had yet to flood their fields, who messed up this harvest or did well at the other one. I was asked to keep the window down, and the still air was icy. All the land around was lit in shades of grays and deep blues, and clearest of all was the unending gray of the gravel levees that ran between the fields recently run with water. In the distance I could hear the sound of a large machine, and the see the lights from Beale AFB as well as the towers perched on top of the Sutter Buttes shone in the distance. We crept along, slower and slower, and finally came to a halt. The machine was much louder now, and we carefully exited the truck in order to see the rice fields we had come to, filled with water for the winter. In the distance were masses of white out on the water. The machine was not a machine at all, but was now making a roaring sound much like a turbine. We took three more steps forward and with the roar of a jetliner taking off, hundreds of thousands of geese exploded into the air. They looked like a wave of foam across the watery fields. The noise was simply incredible. We crept on to yet another section, and heard and saw the same thing. This was the experience of migration, the birds that depend on the man-made "wetlands" of the rice fields to feed before they move on to wherever it is they are going. I know from reading books that even 75 years ago, what I just saw was common. People took it for granted to see a sky so full of birds that it blacked out the sun. Now, it is an experience apparantly to be found only at midnight in the middle of nowhere. If you know a rice farmer who can find it. All I could think was, how we "people in general" have managed to screw so much up, in such a short amount of time. I know I’ll remember what I saw and heard for a long, long time. We may have screwed it up, but we haven’t killed it….not yet.