Category Archives: agriculture

With the cows on a winter day.

A cup of tea with Farmer Betty, that was all that Pippin asked for. Instead, five of us drank cups of the freshest milk at the close of a dairy-rich afternoon.

Nearly twenty years ago (we all pinch ourselves here to be sure this is real) Pippin worked on this dairy for a summer, and the intimate and intense dailiness on her part joined with the great hearts of all three current generations of the farmers to create a bond with our whole family.

Betty gave us a very hands-on tour and let the children help bring the cows into the barn for milking, carry dry feed and milk to heifers and calves, pet the cows who were okay with that, and peer into the giant tank to watch milk come straight from the milking machines through a cooling device.

This farm is not too far from the ocean, and when rains are heavy the tides affect the creeks on the property. The pasture was flooded only a few days previous, so we definitely needed our mud boots. Everyone except me had rubber muck boots, but my solid Vasque hikers worked well, and were easily sprayed off before we entered the milking parlor. All the kids enjoyed testing the feel of their boots in the varying muckiness of the terrain.

I liked the cow dog Lady, who looked just like a pet we had when I was a teenager; she liked to snuggle up to me. We heard from the other family farmers that she is affectionate with them, but only responds to Farmer Betty’s commands as to herding the cows.

Unlike the milk that the calves drank from buckets and bottle, what we got in cups had already been brought to a cool temperature; it wouldn’t be further processed until it reached the creamery. I hadn’t drunk raw milk in many years and it tasted pure and wholesome. Betty asked the children if they could taste alfalfa, or clover maybe? Or floodwaters? 😉

These farmers can still remember the old days when the milk warm from the cows would flow over exposed metal pipes containing freon, for quick cooling. When everyone went to fully contained conduits for more sanitary transport, the taste of the milk changed because it was not ever allowed to “breathe.”

I was soaking up the whole delicious atmosphere of the place; it will likely be a long time before I experience a milking parlor, with its aromatic mix of disinfectant and sweet milk, or a pasture wet with spring grass and manure. The air was chill, and our feet numb in the wintry mud. As we were getting in the car to go home Lady was still at the ready, and over the cow barns a full moon was rising.

The Green Doctor, kindred souls and squashes.

While I was waiting at the fairgrounds gate I saw people leaving with their arms full of watermelons. A woman walked past me wearing a green t-shirt with bold letters proclaiming, “Things go better with kale.”

Then my friend Linda arrived. We entered the Farm-Garden-Homesteading-Everything show and soon found ourselves at a poultry exhibit. When she invited me last week I hadn’t investigated ahead of time what all there would be to see, and chickens were a happy surprise.

As we were admiring the different breeds one exhibitor explained to us that the truest Rhode Island Reds are a very dark mahogany color, and there was a rooster to demonstrate it. He told us about the “Frizzle” gene that causes the feathers of any breed to grow backward.

We got into a discussion with him about whether the upcoming winter would be warmer than usual. He mentioned seeing scores of baby lizards at what would normally be too late in the year, and wild birds setting on new clutches of eggs. I wondered myself yesterday when I saw a bird pulling rice straw out of my strawberry barrels.

Last week I heard another opinion, that the lack of sunspots of late foretells a cold winter coming. I didn’t even know what sunspots were, and will like to see how winter reveals itself. A related question of no import is whether I will remember any of this come winter!

A young woman I’d met briefly at church was at this fair, selling wool that comes from her family’s fiber mill. Another friend was at the medicinal hemp oil booth. I listened to a bright lady from the South talking for 45 minutes about fermenting, as she occasionally sipped from her bottle of kombucha. I even took extensive notes on that talk, and her recipe for kimchi, knowing full well that I will never make it.

More applicable to my life was the cherry tomato tasting, from which Linda and I and even Master Gardener people at a separate booth concluded without a doubt that Green Doctor was our favorite. It was developed by two women who are both doctors 🙂 . By contrast, I ate a little Yellow Pear, while telling the volunteer behind the table that one summer I had grown this variety and thought I must have got a “lemon” of a pear because every fruit on the vine was tasteless. She answered flatly, “They always are.”

For someone like me who avoids shopping, the shopping at this event was certainly great fun. There were two places with vintage clothing and other used items, from which I chose aprons! One seed booth featured corn, beans, and amaranth, all of which were appealingly laid out in varied and rustic baskets. I did indulge in a packet of orange amaranth seeds, and Linda bought a scoop of the Hopi type below; we will share with each other.

By the time we reached the moringa booth I still had some adventuresome energy to expend, but was slowing down a bit in the legs and feet. When I saw the jug of very green drink they were freely offering, signed “Peppermint Moringa Tea,” I helped myself to a cup, and it felt like Strengthening Medicine. From what I learned, the leaves are in fact concentrated nutritionally, but more pertinent to my situation long-term were other aspects of the plant, that it is easy to grow and can thrive in my area, and — look at these dear seeds! I have to try some. Linda bought a small tree. Now I am trying to figure out some way I might organize all my hopelessly burgeoning garden ideas.

It was refreshing to listen to a motivational speaker who was urging us, not to maximize our financial wealth, but to find ourselves and our joy by digging in the dirt and learning how to grow things. To talk to a man who has been hand-forging beautiful tools for fifty years. We hated to leave his booth, where the trowels, coat racks and trivets wanted to be hefted and stroked and admired, and their creator seemed content that they be appreciated, knowing that most of us couldn’t afford to own them.

Hundreds of people all in one place with whom one might discuss natural pest controls and sheep breeds, Mason jars and succulents…. and species of scented geraniums. Linda and I each took home a little nutmeg-scented plant which will remind us of our outing together. I have a few close friends who are fellow-gardeners and who love to share our excitement with each other, but never before have I had a day as full to the brim of like-minded folk as bright and colorful as the squashes we had come to see.

Whatever winter will bring this year, it is not yet upon us, which means more hours and days I might prepare for it, while bringing in extra basil, strawberries, and figs. Now that I’ve returned from the dream-invigorating festival, it’s back to the Real, my own garden.

Dirt, milk, communion.

“The Armenian writer Teotig tells a story about the genocide of the Armenians during World War I. Father Ashod Avedian was a priest of a village near the city of Ezeroum in eastern Turkey. During the deportations, 4,000 Armenian men of that village were separated from their families and driven on a forced march into desolate regions. On their march to death, when food supplies had given out, Father Ashod instructed the men to pray in unison, ‘Lord have mercy,’ then led them in taking the ‘cursed’ soil and swallowing it as communion. The ancient Armenian catechism called the Teaching of St. Gregory says that ‘this dry earth is our habitation, and all assistance and nourishment for our lives [comes] from it and grows on it, and food for our growth, like milk from a mother, comes to us from it.’

“Teotig’s story is a reminder that we belong to the earth and that our redemption includes the earth from which we and all the creatures have come, by which we are sustained, and through which God continues to act for our salvation. If water is the blood of creation, then earth is its flesh and air is its breath, and all things are purified by the fiery love of God.

“For the earth to bring forth fruit there must be water and air and light and heat of the sun. Every gardener knows this, and so recognizes that the right combination of these elements lies beyond the control of science or contrivance. That is the wisdom and agony of gardening.”

–Vigen Guroian, in Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening

Exotic fruits of his labors.

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macadamia nut

I remember when I first learned in a practical way about microclimates, from my friend Rhonda who had a lovely cactus garden in our county. I also tried to grow a few cacti, but they all got waterlogged from rain and then froze to death in their first winter. Rhonda lived on a small mountain, where the cold air descending  would usually keep rolling right on downhill so that the plants barely noticed it going by. That was her microclimate, so different from my back yard where the damp and freezing air would settle on my cactus and turn all their juices to ice crystals.

My friend Dick lives on a smaller hill in a generally more extreme climate zone, but a similar weather pattern holds sway so that frosts are often averted. There may be other factors involved in his microclimate that we didn’t discuss, but in any case, starting about 50 years ago, but more intensely in the last decade, he has been enjoying his freedom to experiment widely.

In a previous post I mentioned how before that, he was one of the friends with whom I would ride bicycles all around the country roads and through the orchards connecting our little Central Valley communities. Many of them weren’t actually towns, and the primary one in my life was a shrinking town, even then. I think its population peaked at 100, which was the figure embossed on the town limit sign as long as I can remember.

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Delta sunflowers along the driveway.

We had a fire station with a volunteer fire department, but I can imagine that when an alarm sounded, it might have taken an hour for the firefighters to get to the station from out in the groves or fields, if they were close enough to hear it in the first place. In any case, it seemed that every year or two some old building would burn down. None was ever rebuilt. The gas station where we pumped up our bike tires and bought 8-oz. sodas didn’t burn, but when it went out of business, there it sat, to rust.

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It makes me sad, all this decay of the man-made things, and the lack of prosperity that once was, in former times when people concentrated their energies and money in the local businesses and organizations instead of driving 20 miles to shop and go out to dinner. But I myself wouldn’t dream of investing there, and if I were like my brother and sister who do still live on surrounding farm property, I would be working hard just to keep my own family and property alive. Given the pervasive vandalism and theft, it would take a good deal of optimism to try to renovate anything.

But I do like to visit, and to smell the particular flavor of dusty air that was soft and mild when I was there earlier this week. October is a good month, between the scorching summer and the winter dampness that seeps into your bones, or manifests in tule fog, a driver’s torture to navigate through. But let me try again to stop describing the cons, and get back to all the things I like about my childhood home.

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Goji berries

I’m sure I mostly appreciate it because of its nostalgic value, and because of my people living there still. One of them is my friend on the hill, who had gone away for decades and all over the world before he returned and was able to take over the ranch that had belonged to his parents. At least three generations of farmer-gardeners have been farming this particular property, cultivating citrus for commercial markets, and gardens of ornamentals and edibles for home use.

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Dick is trying to grow every kind of mandarin orange that exists. These are mostly in the areas close to the house, where he does what he calls the “fun stuff.” Lower down in the flatter areas are the oranges and blood oranges he will send to the packing house. I think he is about ready to plant a section of mandarins for market, too.

He also grows at least three varieties of lemons, I know, because he sent me home with Eureka, Lisbon, and these striped Pink Lemonade varieties. If you count Meyer lemons, well, he has those, too. I just now cut into a Pink Lemonade to see if it is in fact pink inside, as its name would lead you to believe, and yes, it is:

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No one in my family knows what variety of lemon my father raised, but from reading online I had guessed Eureka. Dick says that Lisbon is now the most common lemon grown commercially, but he also said with certainty that my father’s would have been Eureka. Did I tell you that both of our fathers were citrus farmers? Having Dick for a friend is like having another brother. I feel so lucky that both my real brother and my old friend-like-a-brother (not to mention my sister, who is the on-the-ground farmer in her household) are deeply planted in the world of citrus, and that through them I can grow this part of my connection to my father and to those trees that densely enveloped our house and put food on our table.

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It was the movie “Ushpizin” that gave me any knowledge or appreciation for citrons. If you haven’t seen this wonderful film please consider my hearty recommendation. Apart from the ritual use of citrons, the interwoven stories of forgiveness, redemption and hospitality make it one of the few movies I wanted to buy for myself, and I did.

It is about Hasidic Jews in Israel preparing for and celebrating the Feast of Booths (in real life Jews are in the middle of this feast right now!), and every household wants to invest in the most beautiful citron they can afford. At the time of Sukkot, a truly perfect specimen – their word for citron is etrog – might cost you hundreds of dollars! This article tells about the history of that tradition, and addresses the question of what is to be done with them after the feast when they are no longer useful ceremonially.

But what is a citron, a fruit that seems to have little to recommend it as a fruit? It is believed to be “one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization.” It does appear to me that it might be an ancestor of the lemon….

Part of the loot that I brought home from the fertile hill in the Valley I arranged on a platter:

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And there in the middle are the two strangest fruits that I was introduced to: A Buddha’s Hand Citron, holding a Finger Lime. The Buddha’s Hand has been around for a long time in the Far East, where it has symbolic value as well; it is valued primarily for its perfume, and typically doesn’t contain any pulp or juice, but can nonetheless be eaten in various ways. I guess I will leave mine out on the kitchen counter so that sometimes when I pass by I can pick it up and inhale its romantic and complicated scent. In that aspect I agree that it is more excellent than the lemon.

That wrinkly green fruit on the platter is a Kaffir Lime. I had been pronouncing it “keefer,” and its etymology is not simple. It came with a separate branch of Kaffir Lime leaves, which it seems are often used whole as a flavoring or aromatic, in a pot of rice or Thai stew, or in a hot bath, one leaf at a time. I’m still reading about them.

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The little thing sitting in the place where the palm of Buddha’s hand would be, and still on the plant in Dick’s hand directly above, is an Australian Finger Lime, Citrus australasica. When we were standing next to the tree Dick picked one and slit it open with his knife — there were the tiny translucent pearls of juice popping out, ready to spglt-finger-lime-webrinkle on one’s tongue or bowl of ice cream — I wished we had brought a scoop at least down from the house. And then I wished that I had put him on Pause so as to snap that photo, with his scuffed leather work gloves as the backdrop. The culinary possibilities of finger limes in a world of Food Art are vast, as one can see with a quick search online, where I found my photo. I’m not ready to slice into my own little lime yet.

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Some things I don’t have good pictures of are a 20′ tall wisteria shaped like a Christmas Tree, 40 avocado trees of eight varieties, and Sacred Datura, a plant in the nightshade family that is certainly exotic. Datura wrightii is sometimes used as a hallucinogen, but since it is not edible, and all parts are highly poisonous, I personally do not hold it in very high esteem.

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Does anyone know this yellow-flowering tree?

I was amazed at how many shrubs and trees were in bloom in the fall, and at all the bees buzzing on the hill. But then, the nights are still mild in that area, and the daytime high was 80° every day I was there. Delta sunflowers such as I plan to plant in my front yard next spring are blooming enthusiastically – those plants grow without a drop of water all summer long along the highways in the Central Valley, so when they get even a few tablespoons of moisture in the heat they respond beautifully, as can be seen in the second photo above. Dick threw a dead sunflower plant over the wall and next thing you know, he had them growing in the grove below as well. He says that birds planted his original ones.

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This photo reveals the rock I referred to when I said that the hill is a hunk of granite. The soil around the house is therefore very shallow, but obviously it has been lovingly built up over the last century so that the plants have the benefit of living organic material above and rich minerals below, in which to sink their roots. The kind of dirt found naturally in the area is called San Joaquin Valley Loam, and it is rich in granite but low in organic material.

Soil-building is a project that can never be neglected; even if you have a richer loam naturally, it will in time wear out. Dick raises earthworms whose castings contribute to the health of the system, and he is always adding organic materials of various kinds to his groves and to the gardens. He doesn’t want to be one of the farmers who thinks that “dirt is a place you park your tractor.” I don’t personally know any farmers like that, but he says they are too common.

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dogwood

Gardeners like me don’t have to make a living from our land. If we fail at growing something because we were too cheap to amend the soil, or we forgot to irrigate, or were too lazy to dig weeds, it won’t affect our lives much. The farmers who make a living by horticulture and agriculture have to be sure they are giving the plants what they need, and that means caring for the soil and the whole environment, which is not a simple task; but the rewards include a connection to the land and the weather and the changing seasons that so many people never get.

I am inspired by my farming friends and family to be a better gardener, and to pay closer attention to my work and the natural world around me. Then I will be true to the impulses that were bred into me as a child, and my closeness to the earth and also to my fellow farmers will grow.

This last picture I took as I was driving back from Dick’s house. I wanted to save the image of that golden hill behind the tiny town, one that we kids used to climb so we could enjoy the view. It doesn’t look very tall, especially from this distance, but it’s to the scale of the orange trees that also aren’t very tall. You can see a lot of sky in this country – Let’s hope and pray that those skies drop some rain on all our fruit trees really soon!

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