Thursday, July 28, 2011

Weed Warfare

                To begin… this is a ruse. This is whimsically mischievous at heart! With that…
                As I was talking a few Saturday’s ago with Greg Thorne of Thorne Farm at the Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market, I asked him if he had any need for Canadian thistle, and more specifically, Canadian thistle that was going to seed. He responded that he indeed had no need for any MORE Canadian thistle than that which was already present on his farm.
                Actually, that particular conversation started rather late at the market, after most of customers had departed and those of us farmers that remained discussed the work we needed to accomplish after that VERY EARLY market was over. I asked Greg what he needed to do, and his response was that he needed to mow the numerous acres of his farm. He did not ask what my most impending task was, but I proffered it any. “I need to do a harvest,” I said. “Oh yeah, what are you harvesting?” He replied. “Canadian thistle. You want any? I can dump about a ton on your land if you are interested.” Greg asserted the above, that he was certainly not interested, but that is when my mind began to spin… actually my mind always kind of spins, but on that particular thought, a nebulous web began to appear…
                Canadian thistle. Egad what a terrible plant that is! Forgive my belligerence at this point, BUT WILL THE CANADIANS PLEASE COME DOWN TO RECLAIM THEIR THISTLE, EH!!! We don’t want it! We don’t need it! Ugh, what a nuisance that plant is!
                But perhaps the reader is not aware of Canadian thistle. If that is the case, the reader should be very thankful… to… something, I guess, but I digress. Anyway, Canadian thistle is a plant that thrives in our region in areas that are not mowed regularly, such as a field of produce. The plant grows rapidly and is one of the first noxious weeds to go to seed. To top this, its root system is downright diabolical to an organic farmer. If one pulls one of those evil plants, first off, without delicate precision, gloves should definitely be worn, else the tiny prickly spines,(the reason it is considered a thistle), will linger in one’s fingers for a week! Nonetheless, having pulled such a plant out of a heavily composted organic field, inevitably, after removing the vertical root, often eight to ten inches in length, the horizontal root, which lingers on average twelve inches beneath the soil, still remains to produce the next “crop” of Canadian thistle. (This is difficult to envision without witnessing first hand, that is, without digging down the foot or more to see how the root system of that plant “networks”.  Canadian thistle plants are veritable covert terrorists to an organic farm!)
                But Canadian thistle is just ONE of the many noxious weeds that thrive in our environment. There are many others. Canadian thistle has been mentioned mostly for the fact that those plants have already gone to seed. Pig weed, rag weed, …weed, there are many to follow. All of those plants have thrived because they inevitably go to seed, so the next generation, having developed and reproduced in precisely THIS region, they are all the more adapted and thus ready to thrive!
                I mention all of this, because a whimsical idea appeared in my mind a few weeks ago, one that would mean nothing to a “conventional” type of farmer, that is, a farmer who readily uses chemical herbicides. It was quite humorous in my mind, and what led to the incubation period of this entry. And then… last Saturday…
                As usual, I was late getting up for the farmer’s market. Unfortunately, my clock is still wound by my long past bartending hours and waking up perky and fresh at 6am just ain’t going to happen. (This is mostly due to the fact that falling asleep before 1am is also a virtual impossibility.) So, I was again late setting up for the market, and as my wearied efforts set up my canopy and tables and set out the produce, I did not even notice my neighbor’s stand’s new addition. In fact, I did not notice until the first throng of customers came by, questioning as to the price of the organic veggies that I had not put out signs for… yet,  then the ensuing verbal exchanges, purchases, and monetary exchanges, etc. It was maybe 8:30 or so that I looked over to my neighbor’s stand to see how Greg and his wife, Kris, were faring, but… alas! All I saw was a shroud of white!
                Now to explain this a little, a small area of vegetation lies between Greg’s stand and mine that contains some type of low-growing evergreen bush, along with dead Canadian thistle as well. Now just how did that thistle die? Actually, I don’t want to know that answer. But this is just a diversion.
                The Thorne Farm stand is directly to the right of mine at the market. We are neighbors as though we were two houses separated by a small patch of green vegetation. How many years has it been? Six, seven? Give or take a few years? Of course we have not always been in the same spot at the market each year, but still… Neighbors are neighbors after all, and benevolent ones… or so I thought.
                And then that white barrier appeared between our two booths. (Actually, it was an attachment to Greg and Kris’ tent to block out the morning sun, which appears at such hours directly from my tent’s direction, BUT, ignore that reality if you wish to be able to consume the ensuing venom of this rant!) That white barrier appeared as a glaring sign. “We do not associate with your kind!” At least that was how I took it! After all of these years… for it to come to this!
                But what had it come to? All that I can think of is two actual home-owning neighbors, again separated by a small stretch of green growth between the houses. On any given day, the neighbors will see each other through the window and waive, say “Hi.”, “How’s it going?”, “What’s with the nectarine prices in South America these days?”, etc. And then,… AND THEN, the one neighbor not only shuts his window, BUT PULLS DOWN THE SHADES!!! “What is it I said?” would be the first thought, followed quickly by the second… “Those nasty, two-faced…”
                So, it has come to this, has it? Mr. Thorne? Or may I still call you “Greg” for short? Perhaps it has become His Almighty Lordship Gregory the First, or something along that line. Nonetheless, so be it. What had started as a nebulous, whimsical thought has developed into… WEED WARFARE!!!
                Yes, that is right, Mr. Thorne, weed warfare it is. I am completely aware that you will NEVER use chemical herbicides on your property. And since you have decided to shut your “seemingly benevolent” window on me, I will now revert to actions I never imagined I would stoop to. Since my own efforts are also organic, all of the organically grown Canadian thistle, wild lettuce, wild chicory, and oh, there are many, many more to come, such as golden rod that are rapidly going to seed, will be covertly dispersed throughout your land, whilst you are hidden behind your barricade! War it is! Again, I did not want to revert to this, but ALL of my future actions are the direct result of your…
                I cannot finish this rant. THIS HAS ALL BEEN MEANT AS A JOKE!!! Greg is one of the most well-meaning people I have ever met in my life. And as the date on the celestial calendar will have it, he will turn 60 years old on August 1. 60! What staying power! And to still be farming! Organically!!! There is a party to be thrown for him, to celebrate his 60th birthday, which I cannot make… because I have too much work to do, but nonetheless, HAPPY BIRTHDAY GREG!!! YOU DESERVE IT!!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011


                And now it seems to be the appropriate time to readdress the Brown Marmorated stink bug situation of 2011. I named this entry “65” for a specific reason. As many of us experienced in our mid-Maryland region, the Brown Marmorated stink bugs have an uncanny ability to invade our homes. How? That is an answer I do not have. Nonetheless, up until this evening, I had killed 65 Brown Marmorated stink bugs within my house of residence. That does not include the numbers already found dead on the window sills. And as fate would have it, I killed number 66 tonight, as it landed on the ceiling just a little while ago, but the number 65 or 66 is really irrelevant.
                I kept track of how many Brown Marmorated stink bugs were killed within the house out of curiosity. What date would it be, when the 65th Brown Marmorated stink bug would be killed in the field? This was an approach to measure just how bad the invasion of those non-native creatures would be. Although their numbers were somewhat minimal outside, until recently that is, the general fear of a population explosion appears to be somewhat warranted.
                The month of June relayed relatively few of those nefarious creatures. But, I was well aware that that was probably early for them to make a presence. As the rows of beans were picked, a few were smashed here or there, but not all that many. I did notice, that there was at least one in any row of crop I entered, be it kale, garlic, potatoes, etc. But that is normal...somwhat normal, that is. In fact, there were only a few Brown Marmorated stink bugs more than the indigenous green and brown shield species. In June, things did not appear so bad.
                Then July came around. On July 7, I smashed my 65th Brown Marmorated stink bug in Field 8. The reason the number 66 is insignificant is because by the 8th of July I had smashed over one hundred. Every day since, stink bugs have been witnessed on almost every crop I visited, and not just on a random plant here or there, but on the great majority. Perhaps, just perhaps, the fear of the Brown Marmorated stink bug invasion is justified. Most definitely, there are more this year than last.
                For weeks now, I have smashed countless stink bugs. The act of counting the murders ceased long ago, for it was futile. But I do need to explain a little on a possible reason why the stink bugs were flourishing on… some of the plants. One major means of fighting those nasty creatures, organically of course, is to make their presence as easily known to the native birds as possible. For a long list of reasons, a list far too long to enumerate here, the chore of weeding, and more specifically, tying and pruning tomatoes is woefully behind schedule. But allow me to explain.
                I will take tomatoes as my example: Tomatoes are a vining plant, at least the varieties I grow for their incredible flavor. However, if they are not assisted in their efforts to vine upward, they will languish on the ground, thus creating a thick mesh of green growth that looks like, well, an indiscernible amount of green growth, until the tomatoes ripen, then there is some color viewed within that verdure. Anyway, in order to allow a tomato vine to thrive, one needs to assist it to grow upwards. I use a trellis system that works fairly well. When it is in place and the tomatoes are trained to grow upward… good things result.
                I was a bit late on that for a few plants this year. I am late every year. In fact, I am earlier in my lateness than other years, but nonetheless, I am late. Anyway, what happens is that the tomato plants grow vigorously in the healthy soil of the farm and… languish on the ground. All pests thrive in such a situation. Let’s start with moles, voles and mice. When an untrellised tomato plant lies on the ground, the fruit also lies on the ground, but the green growth of the plant acts a shield, or barrier to any creature that may devour pests from the air. As a result, rodents are free to scurry about under that canopy and devour any ripening fruit they encounter. Of course, they do not devour the entire fruit, no, they tend to nip at fifty, leaving a slight scar which renders the tomato “inedible” to the human species. But those are the rodents. The Brown Marmorated stink bug flourishes in such a setting as well, and its attack is much like the protected realm described for the rodents.
                Last week, while I was trellising and pruning the Fox Cherry tomatoes in row 25 of Field 8, an alarming number of Brown Marmorated stink bugs were encountered, and immediately squished. Normally, in an average year, there would be one on every fifth plant or so. This year, there has been at least one on every plant! As the hours passed on my trellising efforts, I began to feel the epidemic that the “learned experts” had predicted. For the fact is, as an organic farmer, containing such an epidemic of Brown Marmorated stink bug attacks… is impossible, … that is, … by squishing alone.
                But, there is an upside. This week, as I harvested the Fox Cherry tomatoes that were pruned and trellised last week, I encountered… ONE of those nasty creatures. That is quite a different body count than the hundreds from last week! “What could possibly be the reason for the sudden decrease in Brown Marmorated stink bug population on the Fox Cherry tomato plants?” he asked feigning naivety.
                The answer to that question, as only experience allows me to relate, is that the indigenous bird population are the culprits. In my last entry on the Brown Marmorated stink bugs, I submitted that bats were the main devourers of those nasty insects. Perhaps they still are, BUT, when I approach Field 8 Row 25, a multitude of birds are constantly witnessed darting into and out of those hanging tomato plants. Unfortunately, with my diminished long range vision, I cannot make out what the multiple species of those birds are, but nonetheless, experience has relayed that THEY are the ones responsible for the lack of stink bugs in the vicinity.
                Now some will scoff at this, but I assure you this is no “utopian dream” I describe here. It is experience that dictates the result of avian insect attack. (A short aside: Many times I have heard from farmers their disgust with birds because they nick the fruit. Nonsense! Not one of the tomatoes was nicked, nor are they ever when they are kept off the ground!) Still, this has only been one week since the trellising effort on the tomatoes. So far so good. As for the subsequent weeks, we shall see. This is the second entry on Brown Marmorated stink bugs for 2011. There is surely another to follow…

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ants (Part One)

                Ants. What about them? What do we need to know about those tiny black insects other than that they are… everywhere?
                Well, this is 2011, will be my first response. What does 2011 have to do with anything? Since the May 21, 2011 “rapture” did not occur, what is important about 2011? My response is that with every passing year there is much to learn, and much to build upon for ensuing years.
                Personally, I have been very frustrated over my years of organic farming over the fact that traits of nature that have been known and passed down for countless generations have suddenly fallen from focus, or even memory over the past hundred years or so. Constantly, I encounter situations on the farm that appear shockingly, as though from… outer space, I guess. But upon reflection, and inspection, and more reflection, and more inspection, accompanied by investigation into older texts, I usually find, if not an answer, a similar situation that occurred outside of my own farm’s seeming canopy of bad luck.
                Why is this? Throughout the decade or so I have been selling produce at farmer’s markets, there have been quite a few regular customers who have brought their parent’s to meet me, because my methods, and my approach to farming, remind those fifty year olds of how their parents used to raise a garden. Almost without fail, those “parents”, who range in the seventy to ninety range, look at what I have accomplished “organically”, and proudly recall how their parents did the exact same thing… back in the last major recession. But why bring up economics at this point? The process of vegetation growth knows no commerce. It never did! The sustainable growing practices of all our predecessors long before recorded time never depended on commerce to provide the food that provided sustenance. Ah, but once that produce is harvested… then one can gain a shiny coin from another who is hungry…
                Those old, old, very old days that even predate the Great Depression are long gone. It is difficult to think beyond the ridiculous absurdity of immediate gratification which is our current common existence, at least in mainstream America, where McDonalds and Walmarts lurk in every significant dot of population on the map of the United States of America. I have heard suggestions that our age will be called the “Oil Age”. Oil to me is just a poignant case of the species herd mentality to consume all within its path. The real issue is GREED. But I have digressed far too much from the point of this entry. And for that, I apologize.
                2011. At some point over the past years, I encountered the term of the “hundred year flood”. It was a term used for real estate to take into account a hundred year span of time, to consider the possibility that during that span of time, a major flood might develop in the region. I remember that concept striking upon my mind like a gong of sorts, actually, that is not quite accurate. Let’s see… like a chime, maybe. It was not so much overpowering and deafening loud, as enlightening, in a way that meshed with the flow of my own thoughts. But I have digressed again.
                Anyway, I was struck by the fact that some human endeavors actually took into account something beyond… yesterday! Of course, the reason for that is financial in nature, that is, to make sure that the investment is sound, that the investors will make their money, etc. Nonetheless, there are other less than short-sighted endeavors, but in the realm of agriculture, I have witnessed few. And thus, again, my frustration. The problem, as it appears to me, is that agriculture, viewed as a money making machine, approaches a reality that is extremely complex in a simplistic manner. Instead of learning from our two thousand plus years of recorded history, the current approach is to assume that human ingenuity in regards to chemicals and genetic modification can turn agriculture into that idyllic mass producing machine… that disregards how actual evolution works. But how does evolution work? Not, and I stress NOT, how humans have WANTED it to be!
                Ah, but this has been a long digression, but I hope to make my main point soon…
                Ants. That was how I started this entry. So, what about them? My response is: how many people have actually spent the time to consider how complex their network of activity actually is? Does anyone even notice how similar the activities of ants are to us humans? Henry David Thoreau did, as well as many, many, many others in our past, BUT, how many of us TODAY actually care about such a question? As for me, a farmer, I have realized, that I need to learn quite a lot more than has already been logged through experience in my brain about those miniscule creatures.
                In March, I planted broccoli in Greenhouse 1 of the farm, so as to provide early produce for the farm’s CSA members. In April, I noticed that a number of those broccoli plants were drooping over. I did not know what to think about the situation, for it was quite unfamiliar to me. Then, that drooping broccoli died, and the surrounding broccoli began to droop. What… could possibly be causing that situation? In over ten years of farming, I had never witnessed such a sight.
                And here I will pause. If actual organic farming wisdom was passed down, someone with experience could have quickly pointed out the culprit(s), and also relayed the proper remedy for the ailment. But such is not the case in our “modern age”!
                To begin, there is little time left at disposal to effectively investigate every crop in the numerous fields. However, when one crop starts to die off as rapidly as the broccoli in Greenhouse 1, time is made for investigation. So I investigated. The first thing that struck me was a mound of soil stacked up around the base of the stem of the plants that were dying. After swiping away the mound of soil, teams of ants could be viewed crawling, digging and gnawing on the broccoli stem’s base. What an out of the ordinary spectacle that was! I had never seen anything like it! But, was I actually seeing the situation accurately? Do ants eat broccoli stems?
                I remember years ago that my father proffered the supposed wisdom that ants have never caused any harm in the garden. By the time that “wisdom” was proffered, I also realized how there was no actual “wisdom” to the statement, for his minimal time dabbling in the art of gardenry was not at all sufficient to relay how all of that COMPLEXITY actually works. At the time, I was well aware of how ants will “farm” aphids, which love to dine on such plants as lettuce, and broccoli, because those ants apparently love to eat the aphid dung. I stated briefly something about the aphid “farming” of ants to my father, but that is another divergence.
                Bringing up the aphid “farming” is key to this entry. In oh so many ways, humans LOVE to simplify that which is extremely complex! The human mind loves to assume knowledge and understanding… immediately… and before completely unknown situations! After witnessing the dying broccoli in Greenhouse 1, as well as the ants crawling over the base of the stems, I did a search on-line to see if I could find a similar story. Whatever I typed as a search entry worked, because immediately pictures appeared on the computer screen of the exact same broccoli damage I have been attempting to describe. After searching through a dozen or so sites, which ALL related that that damage had to be from aphids, exasperation consumed me. What I was witnessing was a “typical” human response. Of course aphids were responsible, dummy! The ants were just “farming” them out to the broccoli. BUT THERE WEREN’T ANY APHIDS ON THE BROCCOLI! ALL I SAW WERE… ANTS!!!
                I had quickly realized that there was something more complex involved than what the superficial human mind could offer. Nonetheless, I searched further… and eventually found a website that alleviated my consternation. I am currently far removed from the time when I did that search, or I would offer the link that reflected accurately what I was witnessing in the greenhouse. It was a forum posting I read through, where the first twenty or so entries stated adamantly that aphids were the cause, then, the last entry was posted. I wish I had the actual quote, but the knowledgeable person behind the statement first called the preceding aphid indictment as naïve. Then, that wise person relayed the fact that ants are opportunists, much like humans! No, aphids were NOT killing the broccoli, ANTS were! They were sucking the sap from the stems, thus weakening the plants until they died.
                This broccoli situation very much reflects my efforts attempting to grow plants naturally on the farm. Outside local help almost without fail relays what chemical to put down. Since that is diametrically opposed to the point of growing plants naturally, organically, such advice only further exasperates me. Inevitably, my constant inspection and reflection reveals the cause, but all I seek is someone else who has experienced the same, and, as in this case, does not blame it on aphids! It is distressingly difficult to find such examples. But I, at least, now have experience on the broccoli/ant issue. If anyone else experiences that situation and asks me my advice, I can quickly relay the truth of that situation.
                But, of course, I have only discovered what was actually happening. Now, the greater difficulty arises as to figuring out WHY the broccoli was eaten by ants. I have grown broccoli for years without noticing such damage. Did it happen before and I just did not notice it? Also, some cabbage and cauliflower in the fields experienced the same form of broccoli damage, albeit only a few along the row edges. They are in the same family as broccoli, ergo, others in that family are at the same risk of ant attack. By why this year? Why are ants so desirous of brassica stem juice this year, whereas in the past such attacks have not been noticed? Could it be a result of last summer’s extreme heat and DRY weather?
                There are many questions that arise, and I do not have answers for them as of yet. My approach is to log the incidents in my brain and continue to dwell and delve into them in hopes of finding some sort of answer. But as for now this entry is finished. However, this will not be the last entry for the season on ants…

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On General Sheridan and Groundhogs

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That is a statement I remember hearing from my earliest youth, probably from countless Western movies so prevalent on the limited viewing channels television offered in the seventies and eighties. Personally, I always hated that statement, for the… and I will use the more accurate current vernacular… Native Americans, that is, those indigenous people on the North American continent, who long predated any of the supposed “discoverers” of America, whether it was Columbus or Leif Ericson, lived life in a manner that completely humbles me. They would never need to acknowledge who originally discovered their homeland, for nature is the all powerful force and not some haphazard human wandering. In fact that entire statement of “discovering” America is such a pathetic reflection on our “cultured” view on the world in general, well, it reflects quite accurately how “unnatural” we have become as a species of mammals on the planet. Just to begin… Who “discovered” America? No indigenous creatures need apply!

But again, I have digressed greatly with that rant. The point of this entry begins with General Philip Sheridan’s statement, that,… that is… that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In fact, that is not how he worded that now famous statement. The original wording was “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” It is quite a vast gulf between equating an Indian as being good only if that Indian is no more, than relating that the only “good” Indians that Philip Sheridan had known were dead. This merely reflects how words that travel, either by word of mouth or written down, change from monkey to monkey… ooops! Did I say that? I meant human to human. Alas, the human language is challenging me at this point. Nonetheless, I shall move on, but before I do so, I MUST ASSERT, that there has been no greater example of human societal co-existence that I have learned about than the Native Americans from the coast of the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific! The term “Indian” be damned! We have learned NOTHING if we still do not understand what “culture” actually existed before we trod the TRUE human species down on this continent!

Digressions, digressions! The point of this entry is not so much about General Philip Sheridan’s remark, but more so on how such a statement can be misconstrued over time. And this has nothing to do with the Native Americans, who I RESPECT UNEQUIVOCABLY!!!

The actual issue of this entry has to do with groundhogs, more specifically, how some of my statements on groundhogs have been misconstrued of recent. And these erroneous judgments on my statements need to be clarified. The reason for bringing up General Philip Sheridan in the first place is that my statements on groundhogs are almost opposite of his on… Native Americans.

My statement originated as, “The only good groundhog is a dead groundhog.” It was quite a simple statement, and I thought it was straightforward enough to make its point quite succinctly. But such was not to be that statement’s fate. No, it was quickly turned into the statement, “The only good groundhog I ever met is dead.” Now that is not at all what I intended!

To pause, I am quite aware of how cute Puxsutawney Phil appears to some on Groundhog Day, that cute little docile creature that is lifted up before the cameras and such, but that is not a REAL groundhog. The groundhogs in which I am referring are the coward type, that tunnel under or through any human constructed barrier to devour almost everything in its path.

Personally, I never met a “good” groundhog. Groundhogs, in general, are the most nefarious of creatures to the organic farmer. They do not passively spend their time consuming readily available vegetation nearest its hole. No, they will do whatever it takes to DESTROY as much effort that an organic farmer can produce without a second’s moment of hesitation. They will tunnel under, around, over, even through any type of fencing devised to keep those beasts at bay. It does not matter how satiated they may be from surrounding vegetation, THEY MUST find the freshly nurtured crops that are specifically not intended from THEM! And I am a veteran of the groundhog wars. I have witnessed their relentless activity for years. Today, in fact, I witnessed yet another attempt of a groundhog to infiltrate the fence barrier to Field 4. Very thick and very tall vegetation surrounds the outside of Field 4, but from the inside along the fence barrier, which consists of chicken wire on the lower portion buried in the ground at least three inches, I could easily distinguish a groundhog’s attempt at digging under the barrier on the west side. There is a new three foot section of tunneled dirt of which only a groundhog could be the cause. It did not succeed in that area. Yet. Last Thursday, one did get through, ripping through the chicken wire on a portion of the south side of the fencing, and the result was that it devoured 75% of last week’s intended salad mix, along with the remaining endive and head lettuce, as well as the parsnips and red cabbage. And that was in one day! And most assuredly one groundhog!

They are relentless in their attack. They will stop at nothing,… until death. And thus the statement: The only good groundhog is a dead groundhog.

I am aware that many will not like to read those blunt words, but it is the truth, although the wording could be changed a little bit, but more on that later. As for now… how to relay to the non-farmer what a groundhog’s attack is like… Perhaps an example would be an unwanted guest in one’s house, who eats everything in the refrigerator while one is not at home. After a long day of toil, the homeowner returns famished, only to find that everything in that mechanized cooling devise is empty of all means of sustenance. That may not be an accurate example, but it happens something like that. Only the groundhog works covertly. It is akin to an organic food terrorist, only they don’t blow up anything, they just devour… all of it. They work by cover of vegetation, and mostly during hours when no one is monitoring the situation. If any sound of a human is heard, those cowardly creatures dart off as quickly as possible into holes in the ground that have been dug in such a fashion that it is impossible to root them out. Ugh!!! How I HATE those creatures!!!

In fairness, I will attempt to analyze a groundhog’s beneficial side. I have been told by… a rather naïve lady at one point, that their tunneling aerates the soil. Bah! What nonsense! They only tunnel along field edges and such, and they do not aerate anything that they cannot devour immediately! Does a tree’s root system need to be aerated? For that answer, ask a tree!

One of the main problems with groundhogs is that there is no longer an indigenous creature that attacks, thus limits the population of groundhogs. Although coyotes are making a comeback, wolves have long been driven away from this mid-Atlantic, mid-Maryland region. And so, groundhogs are free to multiply… and devour everything to their stomachs content.

But I will have none of that! As much as I am at war with the corporate agriculture chemical machine, I am also at war with those nefarious cowardly creatures known as groundhogs! I can pick out their movements, their activity almost instantly. The dull gray color of their fur acts upon my eyes like the color of blood! EMERGENCY!!! That infiltrator must be stopped! At all costs!!!

With that, I will clarify my previous statement a bit. Whereas, “the only good groundhog is a dead groundhog” seems to work to a degree, a more clear, more succinct statement is “the only possibility for a groundhog to be good is if it is dead!!!”

Rustle, Rustle

One of the last chores of any day for me is to check the two plastic covered hoop houses that reside on the ridge of the farm. The sun was descending behind trees on the west ridge as I checked Greenhouse 1 last week and all was as should be. Then, I walked toward Greenhouse 2, which is about 30 or so feet away from Greenhouse 1. And as I approached…

I have to pause here for some explanation. I have the intention for the farmland I use to be meticulously “manicured”, if you will. That statement means that all grass, and other green growth will be timely mowed, or even prevented, depending on the plant. As things stand at present, and as it has been for the last many years, tall grass and weeds surround the greenhouses on some of the sides due to… laziness, I guess.

Anyway, it was long after 8pm by the time I approached the west entrance to Greenhouse 2. To the right of the entrance doorway is a mass of grass and weeds approximately four feet high. And as I approached from the northern greenhouse, something rustled within that tall stand of vegetation. What the…?

It was late for clear thinking at that point in the day, (which is long before I start writing these Tales of Idyllia, so that should explain some of the apparent delirium found herein), but nonetheless, I paused. Whatever caused that rustle was of relatively large size. And here experience dictates. If the cause was a mouse, or vole, or mole, or chipmunk, such a noticeable movement would not have been noticed so significantly. But what could it be?

Literally three feet away from the rustle, I paused. Again, what could it be? To explain further, the stand of vegetation was only about six feet across by six feet wide. Something lurked therein, and most assuredly, it was not a creature that should feel comfortable so close to the greenhouse entrance. But what could it be?

After many years of experience witnessing the various creatures that reside around the farm, my mind quickly started deducing what it could be. Groundhog… was my first thought, but it did not linger long. Those filthy, foul, cowards would sprint as quickly as possible to their nearest hole, and that nearest hole was a hundred feet down the hill to the south… I hoped. Anyway, that creature, whatever it was, rustled three feet from me. No, a groundhog would have definitely sprinted away by that point.

The thought of the tremendously large tabby-colored cat that I sometimes see hunting on the farm arose, but cats are predators also. They do not lurk WITHIN the vegetation, they hunt from outside of it. The number of possibilities had diminished, and I guess here might be another poignant place to pause. The key to the analysis going on in my head at the time was that animals tend to act in similar ways according to the species. There are exceptions to the rule, but the key to any knowledge in the realm of nature is to learn the patterns that the native species repetitively reveal.

And with that thought… rabbit! Oh how rabbits frustrate me! Those cute, almost adorable creatures can be such a bane to a farmer’s endeavors! And they will hide in such vegetation, assuming themselves well hidden.
At that moment, a memory arose of a rake that was leaning against the inside of the greenhouse. All I would need to do was to grab that rake, then smash that vegetation with it, and if nothing else, that rabbit would have the scare of a lifetime as it darted away to freedom. Damned rabbits…

But as I entered the greenhouse, my eyes caught site of a few four inch sized rocks on the greenhouse floor…that is a dirt floor, but I digress. For some reason, those rocks instantly steered me away from the rake vegetation smashing idea. Perhaps something more subtle was called for… I picked up a handful of the rocks and walked back outside of the greenhouse to stand a few feet away from the tall stand of vegetation.

And I have to pause here again as well. It is true that I know the end of this little tale, but as I was living it, I did not. There are points in my farming existence, as well as life in general, where a sense of intuition directs my actions in a manner I cannot explain. And it was exactly like that on that day.

So, I stood a few feet away from that mass of vegetation and lobbed one of the rocks in the area between where I stood and the last movement I witnessed in that entanglement. The landing of the rock caused more rustling, and that rustling rustled a little further away from me. What could it be? The movement was slow. Rabbits dart. I began to consciously think that it was not a rabbit after all. Rabbits do not act like that.

I lobbed another rock. The creature rustled away a little further. I lobbed another just behind it as it rustled further away from me. It was only a foot or two from the edge of the deep vegetation, which ended in a mowed area, more succinctly, Field 5 for organic certification purposes, which is a south facing hill where some grapes are planted, but I digress again.

So far so good. I was leading the creature toward the open terrain, but again, what could it be? I was bemused at that point, but in the midst of the ordeal, I was more intent on discovering what form of animal the culprit could be. And just as I was about to lob another rock, the creature bolted, or more accurately staggered into the open area, then down the hill toward the thickets below. The first thing I saw was the black that surprised me, …then the white stripes!

How many readers at this point realize what creature revealed itself as it escaped down the hill? Escaped? Those who realize most assuredly will react much like I did. There was a huge, that is, a TREMENDOUS sense that a tragedy of epic proportions had been oh so narrowly averted. For that black and white striped creature is known in our region as a SKUNK!!! Pepe Le Pew! El Stinko Extremo!

Ah, the skunk, what a surprise it is to witness one of those creatures! More than any other creature… FAR MORE than any other creature found in my Mid-Atlantic Mid-Maryland region, the skunk instills a sense of trepidation within me matched only by, perhaps as an example, political discussion. But that may be… that IS a bad example! Skunks are rather small creatures in relation to my own size. Sure they have sharp teeth and claws, but in a struggle to the death, I am sure I would be victorious, if it was not for that awful, and I mean AWFUL defense spray they emit. There are few odors I have encountered that are more intensely negative than a skunk’s spray. A couple day old skunk carcass that had released its spray is worse, but I wish not to dwell on that memory here. But what are the word’s that can adequately describe that odor? Awful? No. Distressingly disturbing? Unnervingly horrid? Alas, I know of no better description than to say it smells like a skunk! If you have never encountered that smell consider yourself lucky.

And I consider myself VERY lucky that my memory of that odor was not renewed that day. For some reason I avoided using the rake in the greenhouse, and I still wonder at that choice. Did I truly intuit that, or was that merely luck. Nonetheless, I have learned from that experience, and that is what one needs to do when living with nature. And what have I learned? It is a reoccurring lesson that was learned. When dealing with unknown situations in nature, ASSUME NOTHING!!!

No Corn... Early 2011 Edition

The scene: Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market
Time: May 14, 2011 approximately 10:20am

This year, we, that is the Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market decided to open two weeks earlier than usual to have a plant sale. The date chosen was Saturday, May 14th. While plants were the majority of what was offered, some produce was available as well. Most of that produce was either asparagus, which is a very early crop, or crops grown under the cover of greenhouses, such as salad greens and spinach. Most gardeners who read this will realize that a harvest of any kind on May 14th is a miraculous thing.

So the day started, as usual, at 8am, that is, for the customers, and for the most part it went smoothly. The crowd was much sparser than the normal summer farmer’s market crowd, but that was to be expected, for most of the customers realized that the majority of what would be for sale that day would be plants. And I stress “MOST” customers.

Every year at the market, from my spot amidst the line of vendors, somewhere around the middle, I overhear a comment of dismay about there being no corn for sale. Inevitably, this comment is heard early on at the market… before corn is ripe in our growing region. You see, our market is “producer only”, which means that the vendors can only sell what they produce. Many other markets allow for vendors to “buy in” produce. Over to the right and down in Jessup, that is, if you are looking at a map of Maryland at the moment, there is a huge depot where bulk produce is sold. That produce comes from all over the country and the world. And it is CHEAP! Anyway, those markets that allow vendors to “buy in”, allow for bulk produce to be sold at their market without any type of declaration of where the produce originated. As a result, produce from China from one stand could be sold next to local Maryland produce at another.

(That last paragraph was getting long, so I thought I’d start another.) … The Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market’s “producer only” approach means that the produce is grown at the farm from whom you purchase it at the market. Now this leads to the dismay over corn from some customers that stray through the market. I will get back to this point in a moment. As for now, it seems time to paint the rest of the picture for that early Saturday market.

Through the market strolled a couple, a young female pushing a baby carriage and a young man beside her. I have to pause here, because the following will surely sound biased, but I assure you, that after you have witnessed such events countless times over ten plus years, it is not a stereotype, it is blunt reality!

I will skip the description of the female and baby, other than to say she had blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She is of no importance, because she did not make the statement that inspired this entry. The male... He… had short dark hair, was wearing a light blue muscle beater T-shirt, baggy jeans sans belt, which unfortunately revealed the fact that he had on boxer underwear, and tattoos that covered most of his revealed flesh up to his neck but stopping at his face. A rare human specimen indeed. Of course, I jest.

It was just after he walked past my booth that I heard the statement that inspired this entry. And oh so clearly it resonated through the somewhat quiet market…

“Doesn’t nobody have any corn?”

I wouldn’t say the inflection of his voice was that of dismay. It was more of disgust. And that statement almost always is released with disgust, so much as to say, “This place is a complete waste of time.” Or more accurately, something with a multitude of expletives.

Now to begin, I am by no means qualified to be an English teacher, but I certainly am aware of the quandary that arises when one takes the young man’s statement straightforwardly. “Doesn’t nobody…” Eesh! I will have to leave that for the experts to diagram.

Nonetheless, the point is… corn. It is mid-Maryland in mid-May. Corn (Zea mays) is a grain that is not frost tolerant and can mature to a fresh eating stage in 75 days, and is often not planted until the average last frost date for the region, which happens to be May 15. So, if corn was planted realistically in the region the day after that market, it would theoretically be ready for harvest around August 1. For sure, there are many ways to quicken that crop, such as starting in a greenhouse, etc., but that is not the point here. The point is that it was May 14 at our “producer only” market, and a young man was expecting for there to be corn for sale, AND, as a result of us vendors not having corn for sale, where it would really only be available from somewhere over a thousand miles away, we were viewed as a pathetic market.

It is always striking to us farmers, when we come to learn how ignorant many people are on the growing cycle of the produce we bring to market. Even after we encounter such situations year after year! Oh, how I long for the day when supermarkets did not exist, and even the most clueless citizen was aware that you can’t get corn on May 14th, AND THAT IS NOT THE FARMER’S FAULT!!!

Every year a group of us farmers discuss the approaches we can take to educate the public on when produce will be ready in our growing region. When someone complains that there is no corn in May, it very bluntly reveals how remote the chances are for us to truly educate that public. Some will get it, but alas, a slim minority at best.

But enough for this rant! The couple left the market dissatisfied. So what? There will be more comments of disgust about there being no corn for sale at the early markets, I am quite certain about that. But as for that young fellow, I have this to say in response to his unanswered query over a month ago, “Nobody does not have corn, and us market farmers do not have corn, either.”