Farm Focus: Getting In The Weeds
One thing all farmers seem to have is a tendency to “get in the weed” literally and figuratively. To be a successful farmer one must be willing to dive deep into a subject to learn it inside and out. Sometimes this flurries of self education are in reaction to a crisis where expertise is lacking but must be learned to avoid catastrophe. Other times it is out of pure curiosity which expands their depth of knowledge which is an asset down the road. These nerdy sessions of learning and in depth conversations with experts get stored away for a rainy day when that knowledge that just might come in handy.
This last week a group of us from the farm went to see The Biggest Little Farm, a film made by and about the folks at Apricot Lane Farms. Like us they are a diversified farm and share the same Agronomist, Gregg Young, who helps manage pests and fertility needs at both farms. Apricot Lane is located about an hour outside LA and their practices are rooted in biodynamic farming, which strives to establish plants, animals, insects and microorganisms in a healthy ecosystem can self regulate and regenerate. The film beautifully shows how challenging it is to help weave this complicated interdependent web of life and highlights the many challenges Apricot Lane has faced in their first few years.
At one point early in the film their mama pig, Emma’s condition takes a turn for the worse after giving birth and she won’t eat. In the film we see one of the owners, John, spend a night pouring over books on pigs and scouring the internet to learn everything he can to save her life (which he does). If every farmer tried to learn EVERYTHING about farming before they started they would never get around to growing anything. Learning on the fly, reacting to situations and trying to figure out what you don’t know is part of the job.
Sometimes gaps in knowledge get filled out of curiosity, rather than crisis. Recently, our farming assistant Rachel was out checking our young Pakastani Mulberry trees. Looking at their unique flowers got Rachel thinking: how do they differ from our other fruit trees? Mulberries, if you haven’t had them, kind of look like a long blackberry and come from a quick growing tree. They have an earthy berry flavor at peak ripeness along with a beautiful deep red almost purple color. Mulberries are one of our newest crops, so we are still learning about their unique needs and characteristics.
As you know from last week’s Farm Focus most of our fruit comes from a singular flower that has a singular ovary. Mulberries, it turns out, are what's called a Multiple Fruit: they have many individual flowers, each with their own ovary. As the flowers are pollinated each ovary ripens and then they join together into one mass that makes up one large fruit like a mulberry. The differences between mulberries and stone fruit don’t end at their flower type. We’ve also learned that they need to be pruned differently than our stone fruit: pruning should take place immediately after harvest when their tall vertical branches should be clipped. This process, called “heading”, will keep them from getting too tall to harvest efficiently and encourage lateral branches, which produce the most fruit, to grow more vigorously.
Choosing to have a diverse farm is an uphill battle because you need to know so much about so many things to help make sure they grow well. Diversity is also a strength, especially in a changing world, where the old patterns don’t hold true the way they used to. By diversifying, working with natural systems and always having a healthy appetite for learning new things we will be ready for whatever new challenges and opportunities head our way.