Thursday, July 25, 2013

Wind Revisited

                In an earlier post, I described how absolutely not normal high velocity winds in May damaged many transplants and some field plants in an unprecedented manner for our region. Now, a couple of months later, more damage resulting from those high velocity winds have made it quite apparent.
                One of the earlier field plantings damaged were bean plants as shown in the previous entries. Those beans had not been covered by row covers. Three other plantings had been covered… at one point, that is…
                As previously mentioned, high velocity winds accosted the region this year in quite an unprecedented manner. It was relentless. Occasionally there was a day with a somewhat mild breeze, but that was uncommon. As May arrived and the wind had not subsided… it had grown beyond annoying… and as the last entry mentioned, it significantly damaged some of the plantings.
                It was not until May 27 that the high velocity winds seemed to disappear… at last! But the damage was done, only we would not realize the full extent until July. What were mostly at stake, that would reveal itself a month or so later were the crops covered by row covers. I shall attempt to explain this…
                First off… row covers. Row covers are a light fabric that has been created and is used to cover rows of crops for a multitude of reasons. For our purposes here, they are used to keep off early season pests from the plantings. Row covers are used in lieu of chemicals, such as pesticides and is completely harmless, ergo, acceptable for organic farming. Of course, I will always choose the organic approach, and over the years, as I have learned about the various pests that attack plants, such as beans and squash in our region, I have found row covers to be a great source of protection.
                For example, let’s start with the squash family, which also includes zucchini. Squash is attacked in our region by a legion of pests from the squash vine borer to the squash bug. These pests lay their eggs on the plants, and once the eggs hatch, as in the case of the squash vine borer, the larvae tunnel into the plant stems and kill the plant. As for the squash bugs, their eggs hatch to nymphs, which begin by devouring the leaves… then the entire plant. In order to protect the squash plants row cover is used. This prevents the adult vine borer moth and the adult squash bug from landing on the plant directly and laying their eggs.
                Now, there is more to this story because squash plants need pollinators, such as bees, to cross pollinate their flowers. So, once the flowers develop on the plants, the row covers are removed. At that point in the plant’s development, the squash plant will be well enough established to withstand a much larger assault of those pests. (Make no mistake about this. They WILL succumb to the damage eventually when growing organically. This approach merely prolongs the plant’s life.)
                Another example is beans. Beans are kept under the row cover until they flower as well. Beans do not require cross pollinators, but I have found through experience that uncovering the beans when they flower greatly increases their production.
                Beans are attacked by a myriad of bugs, none of which do nearly as much harm as the Mexican bean beetle. (It is difficult to even type that name without a curse spewing from my mouth!) Mexican bean beetles are not native to this region, but have adapted quite readily. In the region in which Mexico resides, there is a native species of parasitic wasp that keeps those nasty beetles in check. Unfortunately for us, those beneficial insects do not overwinter in this region. (Hey, but with global warming/climate change… Who knows what the future will bring!) Anyway, this beetle can produce multiple generations in one season and simply ravage a bean crop in as little as a week… as this year has revealed.
                Before moving on, other crops can also be destroyed by pests without row cover, but the list is too long to incorporate here. One other that was specifically affected on the farm this year were watermelons, where cucumber beetles lay there larvae by the root system, which the larvae then tunnel into and kill the crop.
                What happened at the farm as a result of the high velocity winds in May, was that most of the row covers were ripped from the ground, thus leaving many of those crops vulnerable to the pests just mentioned. It would be easy to say, “Just recover the crops!”, which we did… only to have the relentless wind rip the row cover off again. It was beyond frustrating. Beyond all of the other work detail involved in May, of which there is a MOUNTAIN!, replacing row cover became quite a… futile effort.
                I will pause here to state that there are ways to make sure the row cover stays in place, but the cost of that effort was not affordable this year. And as a result… those confounded pests ravaged the plantings almost immediately. In our region, timing is everything when it comes to avoiding pest damage, especially as an organic farmer since pesticides are not an option. While those high velocity winds blew, those devouring pests did not hesitate to attack the crops they love!
                Beans in particular have been ravaged. We grow a multitude of varieties from green to yellow to purple to roma and dragon beans. We are seemingly “blessed” with the reality that soy beans are grown on a large neighboring field. Of course I jest. Mexican bean beetles love soy beans as well. However, once the neighboring field sprays pesticides, those Mexican bean beetles look for a better home… like the healthy organic beans not far away…newly exposed from beneath row cover by the relentless high velocity winds…

Here is a picture of Mexican bean beetle damage. They ravage the leaves first… then the beans. If they are not contained early on, multiple generations soon result…

…as this picture shows. The yellow blobs in the picture are Mexican bean beetles. (Unfortunately, none of those in this picture survived for comment…) This picture relays a late stage where the bean leaves are almost completely devastated. There is little hope of a continued harvest at this point.
                The same situation has been witnessed with the squash/zucchini, watermelon and cantaloupes. A simple aspect of timing for organic farming can equate to either success or complete failure. Unfortunately for us, the high velocity winds throughout May have resulted in almost complete devastation of these crops.
                There is not much more to add to this unfortunate development for 2013, other than to learn and move on. The learning part is actually more difficult than it might seem. Instead of planning on how to protect crops from weather situations common to the region, now, we must protect those crops from… virtually anything. Prepare for the unpredictable! (Ahh… farming in the 21st century!!!)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Termite Inspection

                My parent’s property, that is, the property on which Nev-R-Dun Farm resides, has an annual house termite inspection by a company that… inspects for termites. This has been going on as long as I can remember. Every year, an inspector comes to the property, looks in the basement and around the house for signs of termites and other damaging insects, then, as they do every year, they give an assessment of “no damage” and leave. That is, until this year…
                I must pause here to explain why such inspections have been deemed necessary. A long time ago, in fact I barely remember the incident…  In fact, I sort of remember remembering the incident, the old farm house actually had termites. And the part that I barely remember is that an extermination crew worked at the farm and drilled through the tremendous concrete of the front porch in order to give “breathing room” to the hundred plus year old beams in the house’s basement, which lie deeply buried behind the concrete, but allowed… and this is absolutely crucial to this entry… moisture to collect around the old wooden beams, which termites love to devour…WHEN WET. Whoever thought a colossal concrete front porch was a great idea, obviously did not realize the moisture damage that would LEAD to the termites.
                I am leading this entry by the way, because termites just don’t “happen”, but I will get back to that. Anyway, that was 1976. The bicentennial celebration of our country happened that year, and I was six soon to be seven years old. Hence the reason that memory is not so clear. I have no idea what chemicals were used to kill those pests, but since that was about 37 years ago, chances are the chemicals have faded… thankfully… I hope…
                So, every year, an inspector comes out to the old farm house to look for signs of insect damage that might cause structural harm to the abode. And like I mentioned above, every year they inspect and find no damage… until this year… Actually that is not true, that is the damage part... I guess I should just relay the story.
                A month or so ago, the inspector showed up at the farm house. I was not aware of his arrival. Lori and I were working on the harvest, and as luck would have it, my brother, Jerry, was at the farm and he met the inspector instead of me. Once again, these inspections are routine. The inspector looks for insect damage… sees none… and moves on. Until this year…
                While Lori and I were washing and sorting salad mix on the back porch of the house, I heard a bit of commotion, but could not discern what it was. Soon enough, I could hear my brother’s voice talking to someone. I spied around the corner of the house and saw an older gentleman dressed in the bug-ridding company’s attire. He looked to be in his sixties at least, and my thought left it at that. However, my expectation of them arriving on the back porch was delayed. It seemed the older man became mesmerized by a bin of fennel we had sitting around the corner.
                He asked what it was and studied it for a long time. Then, the inspection continued. He saw Lori and I sorting and cleaning the salad mix. “Is this how you make it organic?” was one of the questions he asked. Seriously. That is what he asked. And I will pause.
                A great part of my exasperation over the event focused on here… is ignorance…simple, straight and true lack of knowledge on the issue at hand. While the elderly gent could be ignorant enough to assume the mere washing of lettuce makes it organic, that person of supposed knowledge on termites ultimately knew ONE way in which to deal with such pests. Poisons!
                What followed should be considered a comedy, if so much more was not at stake than a mere termite inspection. As I followed the movements of my brother and the “old” man, it struck me that that inspection was the longest by far I had ever witnessed. Either the “old” man was bored and was “killing” time, or something more was at stake. More was at stake, but I learned this later on. I figured the inspection would eventually end, and the merry old fool would go on his way. That was not to be.
                A couple of days later, I noticed his car in the driveway and saw that he was talking to my father inside the house. Now my father is no spring chicken either. He will be eighty this year. And while he is not by any means incapable of action or decision making, he is from the “old school” that does not realize that chemicals and such are not only harmful, but completely not necessary. (I realize I may sound extreme in that analysis, but time will reveal the accuracy of my assessment… should we survive long enough that is. But I digress.)
                Later that day, my father informed me that I would receive a phone call from the “old” inspector to set up a day to “treat” our non-existent termite situation. I was also informed that my mother and father were going away on vacation for a while.
                Egads! What had that “old” inspector fool talked my father into? (And I warn you now that the following is quite a roller coaster of events.) From my perspective as an organic farmer, I had many issues. Quite obviously, any chemical treatment could very well jeopardize the integrity of my operation… and that was absolutely unacceptable!  But I had no idea what kind of “treatment” was involved…
                The next day, my brother appeared and I questioned him on the “old” inspector’s actions a few days before. Apparently, as soon as the “old” inspector met my brother at the inspection, he asserted that it has been well over thirty years since the property had been treated for termites and it was well overdue. The “old” man searched and searched for signs of termites… and found some ants under a bin lying beside the house and explained that that could be part of a termite colony… ALTHOUGH there were no signs inside the house. As he stated to my brother, that whole side of the house could be teetering from termite damage… even though there was no evidence of termites!
                What a chemical salesman! How does one sell chemicals to rid customers of pests they do not have? FEAR!!! “Well, I cannot show you proof that there are termites… but they might be there…”
                I have sped beyond the logic of this entry and I apologize. Nonetheless, I absolutely despise these…  Enough!
                Bluntly, the reality was this. The house had termites and the situation was eradicated in 1976. For some reason, despite all of the yearly inspections, the termite killing company dropped the ball on further chemical usage. And then, 37 years later, some “old” inspector shows up asserting that another chemical dosage is necessary or else… I guess… the house would disintegrate.
                And precisely here is where such an approach toward termites hits the wall of logic for me… and knowledge. As I explained to my father later, termites do not just “appear”. There has to be the right environment for them to thrive. And the farmhouse did have that… back in 1976! That was corrected… and no sign of termites has arisen since. There are 37 years of evidence that the problem was fixed… and counting…
                But the old inspector/chemical salesman needed his sale. He called and left a message for me on my cell phone sounding like the old feeble wise man he hoped to portray. I called him back and said I could not be there for the scheduled chemical application, which I couldn’t because I would be at the farmer’s market and to cancel the planned procedure altogether. “Really?” was his reply. I told him I thought the process was superfluous. He laughed. His façade of the feeble old wise inspector disintegrated. Essentially, it was not up to me to decide. It was up to my father. The slick snake felt assured that my father would still go ahead with the “treatment”.
                He was right. Once my father returned home, he set up another “treatment” before I had time to talk with him about it. In order not to prolong this unnecessarily, I will jump to the next situation. I was without voice in the decision, and the only thing I could do was be present at the time that the company showed up to “treat” the non-existent termite situation.
                On a Thursday afternoon, the termite “field” guys showed up. When they saw what had been ordered/sold to my father, they were in extreme dismay. The chemical procedure sold by the “old” inspector was almost impossible. It was the same procedure that was used in 1976, only instead of a concrete front porch, there was a concrete back porch, and pavers along the side of the house, along with multiple plantings of rhododendrons, etc., all of which needed to have either a trench dug around or drilled through to apply the “treatment”. The “field” guys apologized profusely that they just could not do what my father had paid them to do. Obviously, I was quite happy with the development. There would be no chemical treatment that day!
                But the story goes on. I was told by the “field” guys that the inspectors were rather new to the company and simply did not understand what was involved in the processes. At one point, the exasperated leader of the crew stated that he needed to find out who the inspector was who sold the treatment. I told him the “old” man’s name. He raised his eyebrows and threw his arms in the air. It appeared that this situation was nothing new the “field” guys.
                The situation did become more complex. If the intense treatment was not used, that is, the $900 dollar treatment my father paid for, there was another treatment that was much easier and less costly, but it would require a yearly visit and inspection that would amount to around $300 annually…
                I will pause again. I have been present for at least the last ten years as the termite inspectors have visited the house, looked around, then quickly left since there was no termite evidence. It was only because of this latest “old” inspector that any of this nonsense even happened, who talked my father into a treatment, that the “field” guys could not perform… and WAS ABSOLUTELY NOT NECESSARY… and then, leads to a yearly “treatment”… WHICH WAS EQUALLY AS UNNECESSARY!!!
                I will stop here. The “old” inspector again called my father to set up an appointment for treatment after the “field” guys left, and by that point my father had had enough and cancelled the entire thing. Despite the “old” inspector insisting that the “field” guys were wrong in their assessment, my father had grown tired of the situation… that and perhaps my constant assurance that it was COMPLETELY unnecessary.
                So, thankfully, there will be no chemical termite treatment on the farm house. This has been quite an upsetting situation for me personally, beyond the impact on the farm. It is “old” school mentality based on unnecessary poisons. And I will leave this entry with a warning to anyone in the area who has an elderly home owner who “might” have termites. While I will not reveal the name of the company in question, I have told this story to a few people at this point, and they have guessed both the company and the “old” inspector. The entire situation is a sham. It is a rip-off. That inspector who acts like the “old” wise feeble friend is only out for money. Pass this one along!

Thursday, July 4, 2013


                Just what the… is fennel?
                Oh how many times I have been asked what fennel is at the farmer’s market! Or, more specifically, what does one do with it? My clichéd remark always seems to elicit the same exasperated sigh… “You eat it.” That never seems to answer the question. So what exactly is fennel?
                Fennel is in the umbelliferae family. This family of plants is so named because of the manner in which it flowers and produces seeds, that is, by the formation of umbels. (That is the extent of my description on umbels here. You will have to look up further info if you are curious.) The umbelliferae family also includes carrots, although fennel tastes nothing like carrots. Dill is also in that family… and fennel tastes nothing like dill. Okay, here we go… cilantro, cumin, caraway, celery, parsley, even Queen Anne’s lace are part of the umbelliferae family, and NONE of those varieties taste like fennel.
                So what does fennel taste like? In my quickest and best description, it has a mild anise (which is also in the umbelliferae family, and DOES somewhat taste like fennel) flavor, which is close to the flavor of liquorice.
                Alright, I have to pause here because my word check thing on the computer tells me that I spelled liquorice wrong, which, by the way, I HAVE NOT, but while checking into the spelling, I have discovered that the “umbelliferae” plant family is now known as the “apiaceae” family. Good grief, but where did that come from? Now I have to investigate into this “apiaceae” thing when it was quite easy to know an umbelliferae plant… by its umbels… and I have not even described that accurately! Who is coming up with these terms anyway?!!
                Ugh! Where was I? Okay, fennel… here is a picture…

                And here is one a little closer up…

                Fennel is popular in Mediterranean cuisine and is a delicious addition to quite a few dishes from salads to stir fry. But this is not why fennel is the focus of this entry. While fennel is delicious to humans, I have not found many other creatures with the same palate. And so, other than parsley worms and perhaps a slug or two, I do not worry about pest or mammal damage to my fennel plantings.
                At least I didn’t… until we planted out the third batch of seedlings. This process takes seedlings that we started in soil blocks and then transplants them in a row less than a foot apart. Here is another picture of a fennel row…

                So, we finished planting the seedlings and the day was finished. The next day, I saw this…

                On the right side of the row, you can make out the soil blocks, which are darker in color, that had been removed from the soil… and the fennel devoured! What the…?!!!
                Here I will pause to stress that there is always something “new” that develops in farming, and whatever the “new” development may be, it is usually negative in some form or another.  Once again I will assert that Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, MUST have been a farmer. “Whatever can go wrong, will.” After years of growing fennel, I have never encountered such an event as a new row of fennel being devoured in its entirety.
                But such was the case. So, as with all the “new” developments on the farm, the matter was investigated so as to avoid a similar situation in the future. First off, who or what was the culprit? It was obvious that some creature ripped the entire plants from the soil, every last one of them. Immediately, the situation appeared quite odd. I will explain.
                Here is a close up of a ripped up soil block with no fennel remaining…

                My first thought was some type of mammal must have been the culprit. A rabbit, and there are rabbits in that field… damn rabbits, but I ruled that one out. Rabbits nibble here and there. They do not devour over two hundred transplants neatly planted in two straight rows. Nor have I even seen nibble damage from rabbits on fennel. Deer were out of the question because no deer get into the deer fence in that area. The only other mammal culprit possibility would have been a groundhog. In fact, groundhogs are the only creature, besides humans, of which I have witnessed “mow” down an entire row of vegetables without leaving a survivor. But I ruled out groundhogs as well for two reasons. First, there are crops in that field that groundhogs love, such as lettuce and beans and none of those plants had been touched. Groundhogs for some reason had not made an appearance at the farm at that point, which is absolutely amazing, albeit a complete digression.
                The second reason can be seen in the pictures…

                There were no visible footprints! Neither rabbit prints nor groundhog prints could be seen imprinted in the freshly tilled soil. It does not matter what size either a rabbit or groundhog is, it will leave tracks in such freshly tilled soil.
                What then? Aliens? I know some of you have reached that conclusion, but I am still attempting to hold onto sanity at this point. There had to be another culprit, but what?
                Lori, who is helping me at the farm and is a seasoned veteran from Canticle Farm in Olean, New York, mentioned how one year on their farm, crows ate all of their zucchini plants as they sprouted in the fields. Hmm… crows could definitely do that to fennel seedlings as well… And that would explain the lack of footprints… as well as every last one of the seedlings being molested. Crows are a persistent bunch.
                With that, I had my answer. Birds. The fennel was attacked from flying culprits. And of that I am quite certain. The next group of fennel seedlings were covered with row covers to keep those birds out. And it worked… but I may have actually stumbled onto the real culprit as I approached the new seedlings covered with row cover the other day. The farm had been accosted once again this year with a high velocity wind storm, which pulled some of the row cover off of the new fennel. In precisely that area as I approached… I saw a catbird!
                I will have much to say about catbirds in another entry, and that will be at another time. While I LIKE catbirds, and they do good things around the farm, I am beginning to realize that they may need to be “defended” against as well, at least to a degree.
                All in all, the reason the fennel attack has been the focus of this entry is to reveal how complex farming actually is. Nature is constantly evolving, and the farm must evolve as well. And to end with one final cliché… there’s never a dull moment…