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December, 2011

Produce Industry Dirt

By Dennis Linden

Be it from a field in Bakersfield or Bangkok, fresh produce is arranged for us on display shelves...

Melissa's Fruits

While this feature is being published as a part of a beautifully designed website that promotes the Melissa’s brand of fresh produce, our business is positioned near the end of a distribution chain that always starts with a seed or seedling in the hands of a hardworking grower. Today’s commercial farmer must be an agriculturist, who is well versed in the art and science of growing a particular crop or crops. That knowledge base might have been acquired by a college degree or, oftentimes, passed down through generations of farming lore. The seed is planted, watered, tended, harvested, cleaned, packed in a container of some sort and then shipped to the market, which can be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the plot it was grown on. Be it from a field in Bakersfield or Bangkok, fresh produce is arranged for us on display shelves that have been strategically arranged in pleasing color schemes statistically proven to attract the most consumer attention. The soil that nurtured these perishables has long been removed, as it should be. The modern retail produce department is armed with lighting that flatters and racks designed to preserve freshness as well as a staff that continuously rotates inventory to maintain appearance. While this attention to presentation certainly sells more produce, it also contributes to fruits and vegetables being seen as almost manufactured goods in the eyes of the consumer.

Recently, I was reminded firsthand that it all starts with dirt and of the role that farmers have played in the history of most all civilizations by domesticating that dirt into plots that attract and support the population that grows up around their food source. Since the first pilgrim landed on, coincidentally, a rock called Plymouth, growers have been clearing them (rocks) as the first step in turning a wild piece of land into a field and that field into food. The simple act of moving a rock and then planting a seed is really what eventually turned 13 colonies huddled on the eastern seaboard of this continent into the coast-to-coast country it is today. A lone farm on a prairie was the beginning of many a new town and some of those towns have grown into sprawling metropolitan communities that are now, ironically, quite far removed from the many farms, large and small, that it takes to feed it. At least those are the kinds of thoughts that I had the luxury of musing over for several hours each day for the better part of two weeks as I repeated the history of many early settlers doing the not-so-romantic task of clearing rocks off a small, virgin plot of land in order to plant a crop on it. They call it mindless labor, though it actually becomes quite an intellectual pursuit. Once muscle memory takes over, the robotic movements involved in transferring rock material from field A to rock pile B, the mind was free to wander. So, while hand-clearing literally a ton of rocks from a fallow field, I managed to think up an equitable solutions to the current debt crisis as well as several international issues currently troubling the world – at least in my own mind, just in case anyone should ask. Who says that men cannot multitask?

Organic Garlic

I last wrote about my burgeoning crop of heirloom garlic varieties as I planted the third season of a five-year crop plan that is necessary before entering the fresh marketplace. Though these varieties are extremely labor-intensive to harvest, they are relatively easy to grow. Garlic is an ancient, very hearty crop that can survive in poor soil conditions; plus, there are no four-legged critters that are attracted by its pungent aroma to nibble on it.

Garlic also depletes soil of most vital nutrients; a cover crop must be planted every other year to replenish the ground before it can support another crop. Because each clove in a head of garlic is a seed for a new plant that will produce one new head, this next planting not only had to be on a different plot of land than the last, it also needed to be about five times as large. Having plenty of property to accommodate, I chose a small meadow pasture amongst a stand of trees, with good sun exposure, that had never been tilled and mowed out the area of vegetation for the new crop.

I must admit to a little new frontier romanticism knowing that I would be the first to put hoe to ground on this spot. That is, until the machinery I was steering informed me loudly that we had encountered a large enough boulder to halt our progress some 6 feet from where we had started. Then, after inspecting the newly mown area foot-by-foot, dare I say that I made a groundbreaking discovery that the terrain was sprinkled with assorted sizes of granite boulders just below the top soil. Actually, I happen to know that they are the leavings of a receding glacier that had formed this landscape some 11,000 years ago. Unfortunately, the region’s very interesting geological history comes to life all too clearly when you are behind a rototiller and trying to move in a forward direction! The area needed to be cleared more carefully or risk expensive equipment damage i.e. use, a hand-pick, shovel and wheel barrel.

And so it went for almost two whole weeks. When I had finished, there were several piles of stones surrounding the plot and, all kidding aside, I had changed the history and the plan for this field for at least a few seasons into the future. After next fall’s garlic harvest, it will be planted in clover and given a year off. The following season it will again support another garlic crop and who knows after that. Certainly, now that it has been “de-rocked”, tilled and planted, its days as a pastoral meadow are done for at least a time. While I do not expect a town to grow up around this small parcel, it still feels like I have had a hand in shaping the future of one piece of this planet and it started with a seed in my hand.

My body ached for another week after doing the most rudimentary of jobs, though pondering all the while. Still, I can say that a month later the pain is a distant memory and that ex-meadow is looking pretty good as a proportionally-correct rectangle, with an overwinter mulch spread thick to protect the seeds underneath from the harsh winter ahead. Now it is just a matter of waiting for someone at the White House to call me for all those answers to the world’s problems that I managed to solve along the way!