As ancient farmers sowed, modern farmers reap
Open any seed catalog and you may come to the conclusion that there are too many varieties and too little time. As a farmer relying on as many as ten different catalogs to choose what to grow in any given year, it’s not a task for the indecisive.
Humans depend on about 150 different plants for their sustenance. Though about 90 percent of human food is derived from just 15 plants, we have grown accustomed to enjoying a remarkable diversity of fruits and vegetables.
The resurgence of small farms and farmers’ markets, and their responsiveness to local customers, has fueled a return to varieties of produce grown for taste instead of shelf life or shipping durability. Adapted from a world of microclimates and cultural practices and fostered by more than 600 years of global trade in food, it’s what we’re quickly coming to expect.
These early summer days at Riverhill Farm are intense, and it’s hard to keep one’s head above (in this case) soil. We’re planting five acres by hand, methodically tilling, fertilizing, laying out lines, raking, seeding or transplanting, providing irrigation and then weeding and thinning, all while we reacquaint ourselves with 90-degree heat.
Farming is difficult yet, as humans, we have accumulated more than 10,000 years of evolutionary history as agriculturalists.
Compare that to other common activities – driving a car, flying in a plane, speaking on the phone, typing on a computer. It’s natural that we farmers feel a certain familiarity and comfort with holding a handful of seed and dropping it into a furrow that much of modern life can’t match.
At times, I stand apart from all the activity on the farm and simply look. I can see past the poorly germinated cucumbers or the gopher mounds in the radishes and – if I squint my eyes a bit – imagine that there’s little difference between those of us working here and the Mesopotamian wheat farmer or the Incan potato planter.
I imagine they cared deeply, as we do, for the fertility of the soil and the cycles of the seasons. I’m sure we share an awareness spanning all those thousands of years of the connection between our well-being and the well-being of our fields.
We also share a deep appreciation for the beauty of what we cultivate. Sure, we grow food, but we also grow history.
Each seed of a fruit or vegetable is the result of hundreds of years of human agricultural history. Go to the origins of any fruit or vegetable and you’ll find that the wild source of that food bears little resemblance to its cultivated cousin. It’s not just a matter of providing fertile soil and water.
Over time we humans have selected for attributes we like – sweetness, flavor, acidity, color, shape, size – and the resulting food is beautiful to behold.
One of my favorite catalogs specializes in heirloom fruits and vegetables. These are varieties that have been in continuous cultivation for at least 50 years, and many of them have been cultivated for hundreds. In this catalog you’ll find 1,446 varieties of beans, 61 of carrots, 209 of corn, 338 of garlic, 273 of lettuce, 657 of potatoes.
Each one has a name as poetic as a love letter. Try these names for beans: Painted Pony, Dragon’s Tongue, Good Mother Stallard, Lazy Housewife. Or these names for peppers: Aurora, Beaver Dam, Chervena Chuska, Chocolate Beauty, Jimmy Nardello’s, Lemon Drop, Sheepnose.
A fruit or vegetable may seem commonplace, and some you may not like. But take a close look at an eggplant coming out of our fields in August and you’ll appreciate what I mean. Everything about it is gorgeous. The skin is nearly black and shines with a polished luster. The shape is sensual, and it sits in the hand as well as any fine tool.
We humans appreciate something that tastes good, but we always seem to go the extra distance to create something beautiful.
And so, these days of early summer are all about seeds and the human activities that have caused them to survive for generations through war, famine, pestilence and drought. Most of these seeds are no more capable of surviving in the wild than your cat or dog is.
And therein lies the beauty and the challenge: Only through the wise care of humans will the diversity of nature and of human culture persist on this planet.
Alan Haight farms with his wife, Jo McProud, at Riverhill Farm in Nevada City. For more information about Riverhill Farm, go to riverhillfarm.com. For more about Nevada County agriculture, go to localfoodcoalition.org.
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