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…

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