As you can tell from looking in your share bag each week, the season so far has been unusual in its pace and general fecundity – cabbages, beets and currants have shown up weeks ahead of schedule; potatoes and carrots (July 4 share) are as early as they've ever been; and virtually all remaining crops (cross your fingers) look to be vigorous and likely to produce at, or ahead of, schedule. We can thank June's heat and restrained but adequate rains for much the largesse.
One possible exception is cucumbers. Cucumber beetles – 1/4-inch long yellow- and black-striped sap-sucking insects – have descended on our little patch and begun chewing holes in the leaves. Their damage is not excessive in itself since the insects are so small. But they tend to spread viruses and other pathogens as evidenced by the yellowing and drying of a noticeable fraction of leaves even at this early stage.
From talking to other farmers, it seems there is a particular plague of these insects this year, at least in Sauk County. I've never used any sort of pest control beyond hand-picking, even the naturally-derived substances allowed under the national organic program. These compounds are typically broad-spectrum agents that are toxic to a variety of insects, both beneficial and pernicious, so I've generally streered clear of them. But pickles make up a significant component of what we can and sell as value-added products each year, so we took up a fellow-farmer's offer to share a little bit of her “Pyganic” with us, one of a number of products that appear in the lengthy “allowed substances” list under the USDA's organic statutes.
Pyganic comes in the form of a liquid that one mixes down with water into a dilute spray that is applied to the leaves of a plant. The instructions for dilution are written on a per-acre basis, which I suppose is not surprising. But it is also slightly unnerving. There were also recommendations for aerial application. This suddenly gave me a vision of the lands where my wintertime broccoli and onions come from (after we've exhausted our farm supplies) -- vast monocropped acreages somewhere west and south where industrial-scale and “organic” practices uneasily conjoin. Neither was I soothed by the precautions for suiting-up head to toe in appropriate clothing, which one was to wash as soon as possible after application. At least no respirator was mentioned.
The episode was a jarring reminder of how even what I would call “acceptable” agriculture is generally carried-out. Organic practices or no, the current economic system is not geared to accommodate hand-scale or animal-scale cropping practices and the efficiencies they allow on farms such as Hilltop. It is impossible that machine-driven, row-cropped carrots or beets or lettuces or peppers could produce the sorts of calories-per-square foot achievable on our farm or in a backyard garden, nor (to put it in terms the market can better understand) the $.70 to $.90 per sf return we achieve, in all likelihood. The externalities (read: costs) that come with industrial scale farming of soil-degradation, carbon emissions / climate reclamation, and pests evolving resistance to organic pesticides via mass-sprayings of substances like Pyganic, do not yet appear on balance sheets.
By happenstance, Erin and I are currently involved in a series of discussions on the future of agriculture and rural life in America, and a number of these same issues are frequent topics. Of centrality is this issue of scale. The “feed the world” discourse that so dominates the public discussion and acceptance of industrial ag has become an entrenched dialectical pole which divides a rural landscape increasingly filling with newer farmers of a different vision. I will touch on a number of the fascinating and provocative questions that have come up in the sessions in future newsletters.
As for this summer's cucumbers: they're still at the mercy of the beetles. Though we only needed a scant 1/3 of a teaspoon to mist our few dozen plants, it turned out that we needed to acidify the solution to a particular PH before application and did not have a way to test for proper acidity.
We'll let you know whether nature or big ag ends up solving this problem. But if you don't see cucumbers in your bag in a few weeks, you'll know the answer.