Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Winter, 2015



KW Farms
San Luis Valley, Colorado
Winter Solstice, 2015
Zen Rose runs her tomato enterprise with help
from Bella and Mason


Tomatoes are a rare treasure in the San Luis Valley.  We are crazy with craving them, but only a few ripen here and there before first frost in September, even with a warming climate.  We can get field tomatoes from over the mountains by mid-August, but they have not nearly the bombastic flavor as those grown here. 
            Thus, when I learned that Allen and Irene Graber had a bumper crop of Big Denas in their new greenhouse I jumped at the chance to offer them at our booth at the farmer’s market.  These tasty, symmetrically round, juicy, juicy slicers are perfect for that BLT or hamburger and because they were being grown inside, would be ripe and ready by market time.  Hundreds of lbs. of ripe tomatoes.  In July.
            I agreed to buy a certain amount each week, for which Allen was grateful, since he didn’t have time to sell them directly.  He and Irene have five young children, plus the greenhouse, a big garden, chickens, and Allen’s carpentry business.  Because of religious beliefs, Amish families spend much of their time tending the basics of life without the use of modern conveniences.  On one trip to their house in late summer, for instance, I passed Irene’s brother cutting hay.  A team of six huge draft horses, driven by a draft horse sized man standing above them pulled a broad swather, an impressive sight, not only for the shear demonstration of animal and human strength, but for the coordination of effort, skill, and time involved. 
            Many of the Amish families newly in the expansive western landscape have made concessions to modernity.  Allen and Irene do things the plain and simple way, but they do have a telephone, which is kept in a booth-like structure attached to the side of the house.  I learned this one day when we were loading tomatoes and two of the children took off running and scampered inside the little house.  “Where did they go?”  I asked.
            “They’re answering the telephone,” Irene said.
            “That’s not the pump house?”
            “No, that’s the telephone house.  We can hear it ring inside, but we don’t want to keep it in the house with us.  When someone calls, we come outside to answer it.  That’s why I don’t always answer when you call.”
            She does a better job than I do with the telephone.  She’s thoughtful and conscientious, not like my sloppy begrudging of technology. 
            We sell our grassfed beef at the Monte Vista farmer’s market on Fridays and in Alamosa on Saturdays from July to October.  We decorate our booth with flowers from our yard and colored chalk signs written on a black board.  But with frozen wares tucked away in Igloo coolers, the table is devoid of edibles.  Unknowing customers peruse the space, wondering what’s to eat here, then walk on.  Displaying baskets of the Graber’s brilliant red tomatoes was like baiting a trap.  Even if they weren’t looking to buy tomatoes, those early market customers could not help looking, touching, taking a whiff of these sex kittens of the night shade family. 
            When our favorite grandchild, Zen Rose, came to spend August with us on the farm, she helped me at the market.  We arose early and donned our most colorful get ups, with coordinating aprons whose utility could rival any Amish female’s, with pockets substantial enough to stuff dollar bills, coins - and a telephone.
            Zen Rose the math wizard watched a couple of my tomato transactions and put a gentle hand on my arm, suggesting she would take over.  She weighed the Big Denas and in her head calculated a per tomato price, making sales easier for us and more attractive to customers.  She came up with the price, the pitch, the approach, describing who had grown the tomatoes, where, and how.  And just when a customer’s mouth began to water as they took in their fragrance, our eleven year old entrepreneur would ask, “Would you like some grassfed beef to go along with that?”  That’s how she sold a lot of would-be burgers.
           On a cursory tour of Allen’s greenhouse before the market began, I made an errant assessment that what I was seeing was soil.  I later learned it was actually crushed coconut shell – merely a growing medium to keep the roots in contact with water and synthetic fertilizer.  I was crestfallen to learn the Big Dena’s were hydroponically grown, usual for greenhouse tomatoes.  Not that that necessarily makes them unworthy.  Allen does not use pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, and the tomatoes are tastier and better in every way than anything we can get in the grocery store.  However, they are missing out on all the goodness of healthy soil.  Going hydroponic is like choosing to dance with the most boring person in the room, when you could have the vivacious, fascinating, smart, witty, beautiful belle of the ball.  Aside from that, it felt like sacrilege.
            We became certified organic about twenty years ago.  Initially our decision was based on what little research was available about the impact of chemicals, as well as our observations and intuitive judgements.  But, the more we learned about pasture based farming the more we understood that by aligning our agricultural practices more with Nature, everything works as it should, with no harm done to air, water, animals, or humans.  It is an astoundingly simple gift we Earthlings have
been given: Nature is complete and balanced, providing for every thing and every one. 
            Translating this knowledge, the Colonel’s approach has long been, “If we can save the Earth, it will be with grass.”  And while he is a hemp enthusiast, he doesn’t mean cannabis. 
            There is now a soil health movement afoot that explores and explains why this is true. Not only are chemicals and synthetic fertilizers damaging to animals and the environment, they inhibit the natural processes involved in a plant’s synthesis of nutrients and the delightfully complete synergy among plants, sunlight, water, and microbial life in the soil.  The primary tools in this approach are eliminating or minimizing tillage, planting multi-species cover crops, and implementing properly managed intensive animal impact. Using these regenerative agricultural techniques diminishes atmospheric carbon dioxide, sequestering it as carbon in the soil.  From an economic standpoint, not only do crops grown in soil high in organic matter and humus yield equal or better as those chemically grown, irrigation efficiency and nutritional acquisition improve, as does resistance to pathogens and pests.  Because water use decreases and chemicals can be eliminated, a producer can significantly cut input costs and improve the nutritional density of their crops.
            But, these are tall orders for valley farmers who have for decades made their livelihood with potato/grain rotation monocultures and have a deeply ingrained belief they will fry in hell unless they plow their fields immediately after harvest and leave them tidily bare over winter until planting in late spring.  Or for ranchers who for generations have taken their herds up to set stock mountain graze.  And then there is the historic cattleman vs. sod buster animosity that is still viable enough to stand in the way of grazing animals on crop land.  All of these are obstacles to restoring soil health. 
            Agronomist Patrick O’Neill is our local high priest in this deification of dirt.  He helps producers make the shift and introduces us to the doyens of regenerative agriculture who captivate our imaginations with enticing explanations of the complicated, usually unseen miracles of soil life.              Patrick made it possible for renowned Australian soil ecologist, Christine Jones to come to the San Luis Valley in the fall, 2014.  Later that spring we had more time with her at Paicines Ranch in California. Christine has a unique approach of tying human health to soil nutrition and seems to be able to measure its quality with her own palate, as if she can taste the soil in the food.  The woman's appreciation of sound soil and the food it produces is absolute and total and utterly delightful to watch. Christine's enjoyment of such a meal is a feast in itself that makes all the work and worry, the effort, care, and study involved in producing it worthwhile.    
           This most learned scientist's website is full of fascinating information and gives hope for the future:  amazingcarbon.com.  
           Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition came to visit the valley in August this year.  He arrived in a thirty year old converted school bus, replete with all the comforts of home:  a wood burning stove, a kitchen, dining area, shower, closet, reading chair, sofa, sleeping nest, and all the necessary tools for basic bus maintenance and repairs except a spare tire, which Peter spared - due to excess weight.  He preferred having a piano, an actual studio upright, on which he played a concert of Chopin, while we lounged after dinner.
Enjoying Christine Jones at Paicines
March, 2015
photo by Elaine Patarini
            Peter travels the countryside teaching people about turning atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil carbon.  His traveling companion on this trip was Didi Pershouse, an educator who is writing carbon curriculum for children.  Since the Coalition began in 2010, over two hundred test plots have been established around the world, primarily in North America.  The intention is to map and measure the plots over time to determine what effect land management practices have on soil carbon.  Peter has instituted the Soil Carbon Challenge, a friendly competition among land managers to recognize leadership in agricultural practices that are most effective in regenerating soil and building ecological resiliency.  His website is soilcarboncoalition.org 
            As Peter, Christine, and others teach, the health of the planet begins with the health of the soil, which depends on biodiversity above and below ground.  And just as the community of soil micro-organisms rely on diversity, human health and resilience improves with the diversity of its community. 
            So it was, that soil or no, I continued buying Allen Graber’s tomatoes this summer.  He and Irene were taking a leap of faith expanding their business into the community beyond their Amish brethren and since I had made an agreement with Allen, I wanted him to see that heathens could be reliable partners, and to see that we would be richer for doing business together.
            My initial contact was with Allen, however, I mostly dealt with Irene, and enjoyed getting to know her and the children.  Over the course of the tomato season, we visited weekly in the immaculate carriage house where we selected and weighed tomatoes and the older children hefted twenty lb. boxes out to my delivery van.  We spoke about family, and relatives who live far away, about the dialect of Swiss German that is their first language, and the notion of vacation.  We talked a lot about food.  We never said a word about our reasons for doing what we do.  We stood there together, each with the tenets of our religion.  Irene, with her plain and simple ways.  Me, with my soil.  We each know what we know, which gives rise to our beliefs. 
            Even though I drove to her farm in a motorized vehicle, I had more in common with Irene than with many of my city friends, not only because we prefer to keep our distance from the telephone, but because our time in summer is shaped by growing and preserving food so that we have a year ‘round supply, even in this cold, cold place.
            Zen Rose went home in early September when her Waldorf school started.  The Amish school in the Graber’s neighborhood started the same day.  And Allen pulled up the vines in his greenhouse about that time.  The morning I went to get the last of the tomatoes, there were no children to participate in the process.  
The Great Sand Dunes at Pinky Time
photo by Zen Rose
            As I was leaving the Graber’s lane, I saw another family of Amish children going to school, boys on bicycles following their sisters driving a horse drawn carriage.  They smiled and waved and I felt lonesome for the children, for Irene’s and Zen Rose, and for summer.
            But, in this time of darkness, we are assured of the beautiful design and power of Nature.  The light returns and underground there is a perpetual, raucous party happening - even in the dark. 

                 With love, 

                 Trudi Kretsinger