July is upon us! The veggies are rolling out of the fields onto our tables, the tractors are rolling around the fields, the lightning bugs are giving us an evening show, and the salads are amazing!
The days are long, and the sweating starts before 8am and doesn't stop till the sun goes down.
It's about this time when I start thinking that growing vegetables is kind of a battle. So much is invested in each plant, from planting the tiny seed, preparing the soil, keeping it watered, weeding, pruning, thinning, hoeing, cultivating. I begin to feel motherly tendencies, and I want to protect these plants with all of my might.
But vegetables, especially the kinds that have been bred to be most sweet and tender, are delicious. And word gets out, among the non-human population. Critters on four legs, critters on six legs, critters that fly, critters that slide on their own slime. Critters that metamorphasize. They all approach the buffet table and ready themselves for a nice meal, on someone else's tab. It's hard to fend them all off!
Times like these, it's easy to see how some farmers who find themselves feeling vulnerable against all of these "pests" choose to use chemicals as an effective tool for vegetable warfare.
Even the nutsedge, velvetleaf, purslane, and quackgrass seem to march into the territory with bloody axes swinging, ready to push out our tender helpless cucumber seedlings. Having the easy option of herbicide might be a sizable axe to swing back at them.
But here at Mud Creek Farm, we recognize that chemically-created death potions are not the answer, because of long-term negative effects on both us and the environment.
So our tools for battle? We have to be creative.
For weeds we use a variety of techniques, which we are still honing and perfecting. When it comes down to it, we hand-pull. But this is a last resort! We have a cultivating tractor just for weeding. And different kinds of hoes. We are even experimenting with flame-weeding! And timing cover crops correctly help us lower the overall weed seed-bank.
For bugs, we mostly use rotation. This means that cabbage doesn't get planted in the same field where cabbage was last year. Certain insects require special consideration. For Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB), we have to hand-pick the larvae off the plants a few times. We are experimenting with interplanting buckwheat in our potato field to attract the "good bugs" that will parasitize the CPB's. We let the ladybugs and lacewings keep other bugs in check. Usually a big outbreak of a pest will be quickly dealt with by a food web that is healthy and diverse.
Larger, furrier pests, can be more difficult because the food web that keeps them in check is partially broken by the strain of Victor's over-development. We do have a few resident hawks and foxes that prey on meadow voles, rabbits, and woodchucks. Our job is to keep the area thirty feet around the fields mowed low, so the predators can do their hunting. Occasionally we set traps, when severe nibbling is occuring. For the deer, we have the electric fence, which works about 80% or so. We still see hoof prints in the field, but it is only the brave souls. I am hoping my neighbor's soybean field down the road will distract them soon from our green beans! We also do enjoy our venison steaks. We might also try spraying hot sauce on some of their favorite plants, and spreading dog hair around the edges to dissuade them.
On these cloudless, really HOT days, sometimes the sun seems like a pest. Slowly drying the soil out to the point where the plants get stressed and will produce less, or fail to produce an edible harvest. Lettuce bolts (check out our "Christmas tree lettuce") -- it turns bitter before it makes a big harvestable head. Broccoli gets weird, staggered crowns. Arugula and bok choi make flowers. Forget those crops, let's save the rest of the farm-- and then the farmers get stressed! Hours are spent under that blazing sun, fixing and moving irrigation lines, turning on and off valves, and trying to get the pump started. Wouldn't it be so much nicer if it just rained?
For this battle, we have no chance of victory at all really. We just have to make do with what we are given. Half an inch of rain? I'll take it! Three inches of rain? Okay, I'll take that too! No rain? Sure. The ground has survived worse.
Farming-- what a profession to be in! Experiencing a direct connection with the climate and the natural ecosystem have their benefits: we get to work outdoors and have nature all around us! But the realities are that vegetables are just really pretty vulnerable. It takes all our might to protect them.