There’s an old joke in rural areas: “What do you call a basement full of farmers? — A whine cellar.” There’s always something to complain about when you’re a farmer, and sometimes it’s hard for me not to use this newsletter as forum for that. But with spring just a few days away, I’m going to focus on a few positive things I’ve heard about this week.
“Locally grown” is all the rage in the media and in certain circles, so much so that you might wonder if it’s just a bunch of hype. Quite the opposite it turns out. A survey by one of the largest agricultural lenders in the country has found that nationwide, buying patterns have shifted to favor local producers — at least during the summer. Farmers across the U.S. have responded to local demand by expanding their acreage of diverse crops (rather than commodities) or changing the way they market the ones they do grow.
Most of this growth has come at the expense of large farmers in California, who have dominated national markets for fresh produce for more than fifty years. Clearly these growers are very aware of their loss of market share and are not pleased. (One of the ways they are responding is by pushing the federal government to make food safety regulations for produce growers so strict that only the largest farms can comply, but that’s a story for a less positive column.)
“I think the government needs to do more to help organic farmers” is a sentiment I often hear from subscribers and other members of the general public. Well, this week I found out about something that the USDA is doing to help. Scientists there have discovered a way facilitate the production of naturally occurring insect-eating fungi. These fungi have always seemed like an obvious solution to organic pest control problems, but no one had figured out how to produce them on a large scale economically.
As I have written in the past, nature’s vast biological diversity holds the keys to ending the use of toxic synthetic chemicals in agriculture. Organic farmers now have a dozen or more such biopesticides available for use, but they often cost ten times what their more toxic substitutes do. This keeps the cost of organic food high, while also keeping conventional farmers from adopting safer pesticides. Because these materials cannot be patented, there is little motivation for private industry to invest in their R&D. So it’s good that government is stepping up to the task.
And last but not least, some good news from right here on the farm. December and January might have gotten a little too cold for some of the crops we were harvesting, but it has brought about a vigorous bloom of apricots, cherries and peaches. And thanks to the dry February and March (let’s not say “drought”), there have been no cold wet storms to knock the blossoms down or rot them with fungus. There’s a very good chance for a bumper crop, and if the warm weather stays with us, it will start ripening earlier than usual.
Meanwhile, our first planting of tomatoes has gotten off to a nice start. We had a couple of cold nights after planting them last Monday and Tuesday, but they will be very happy this week with temperatures in the mid-80s every day.