The Risky Business of Planting Seeds
BY BEN HARTMAN
This past spring I took a risk and planted Mei Qing Choi, a Chinese pak choi with misty green leaves and a crunchy, celery-like stem, beside rows of early tomatoes. I wanted to see how well the crop would grow at that time of year, and to see if the two crops were compatible.
Not long after it was established, I noticed that the undersides of the leaves were coated with aphids—tiny black insects. I quickly sprayed them with organic oil, an extract of the neem tree found in India that targets only specific pests rather than killing all pests, including sometimes beneficial ones.
The neem put a serious dent into the aphid population but even still, by the next day, the aphids had spread onto the tomatoes and had coated several stems. The plants looked like they had black acne. All was not well on the farm.
When I checked on the plants later that evening, my eyes popped out. In addition to aphids, I saw a small plague of wasps all over both the tomatoes and the pak choi, and little round pods on many of the leaves. It was a scene from the Old Testament. “Nice try,” I thought about my experiment.
To my surprise, though, I found out that the bugs were aphidius wasps—bugs that dine on aphids. The little round pods were dead aphid mummies!
Had I reacted too harshly by spraying with a more common broad-spectrum insecticide, the aphidius wasps would surely have been killed; nature would not have played her role.
After six years of farming, I have learned that risks like these are an essential part of the profession, and they are the best way to learn how to farm well.
Winter is visiting the farm these days. As I sharpen tools to ready for next year, I think back on other risks we took this growing season. For instance, in November 2010 we seeded spinach and lettuce in the ground under hoops and covered them with plastic to see which ones would grow all winter. In the summer we trialed at least a dozen new plant varieties (black cherry tomatoes, French lettuces, seedless yellow watermelon, to name a few). Some of these experiments turned out well; others—the crop of heirloom pole beans that never matured, the ever-bearing strawberries that rotted in the wet spring—didn’t.
I try to take stock of these lessons. How can we scale up an experiment that succeeded so we can share the success with customers?
How should we incorporate new knowledge into how we farm? What should we stop doing?
And every winter, as I review the list of failures and successes, I am tempted to stop taking risks and just go with what I know.
But the reality is that if I don’t risk and fail, the farm stops growing and I stop learning. “Starting over” is part of the job.
… to be continued in the spring issue, available March 1, 2012.
Ben Hartman, along with wife Rachel Hershberger, owns and operates Clay Bottom Farm, a CSA farm in Goshen, Indiana. Ben grew up on a corn and soybean farm in LaGrange County, Indiana, and studied philosophy and English literature in college. When he is not growing food on their clay soil, he likes to dig it up and make ceramic landscape tiles.
Also spelled pac choi, bok choy and pac choy, the vegetable is a variety of Chinese cabbage from the Yangtze River Delta region. It was exported to Korea, where it is commonly used to make kimchi, a fermented food. It is growing in popularity in the United States as a succulent, nutrient-dense green.
Pak choi’s stems have a crisp celery-like texture and make a great addition to soups and stir-fries. Its dark green leaves are high in vitamin A and C. Baby pak choi is a less-mature variety that makes a flavorful addition to salad mixes.
A core challenge for the local food movement is finding ways to make fresh food available year round. Pak choi—along with spinach, carrots and chard, among many others—is an example of a nutritious food that can be grown even in the middle of winter with simple cold-frame protection. Learning about and purchasing these types of local foods from local farms is an excellent way to reduce dependence on foreign oil (needed to transport out-of-season food across the country), support the local economy and to eat in a more ecological way.