The Farmer Diaries
Sooner or later, we all have years we can't wait to put behind us. For me, 2014 has been wrought with challenges, not the least of which was a retinal tear in April followed by months of uncertainty about whether the stopgap laser procedure I received would be a sufficient solution.
Afterward, I reduced the fervor that I usually throw into my attempt to grow my own food for fear of undoing the laser weld that was keeping my retina in place. My garden and field crops, which I had only just begun to establish for the year, suffered neglect, and their yield was disappointing.
To top it all off, my retina did indeed detach. On December 7, I underwent an emergency vitrectomy, which kept me off my feet and face down nonstop for more than a week afterward as I recovered. During such an extended time away from work, leisure or any normal activities whatsoever, I've had plenty of time to ponder on what I'm doing right in my attempt to opt out of industrial agriculture — and what needs changing.
About to start my transplants for the 2015 growing season, I've come up with a list of five resolutions I wish to make for the new year so that I can work less, reap more and continue to enjoy farming for everything it has to offer.
Scale back and focus
Year after year, I've tried to expand the crops I grow, partly because I fail to assess my own limitations. Starting in January, when I begin sowing transplants in starter trays, I plant more than I'll need in case some plants don't make it to March.
This year, I will scale back the volume I plant and focus on the quality of each crop.
Each year I get better at keeping those transplants thriving, and by the time spring arrives, I have more than I could ever tend. Still, for some reason I can't back off, and I plant them all — sometimes hundreds of tomato plants when I only planned to plant a dozen or two.
Furthermore, when I plant beans, corn or okra, I sow seed in a few rows, and then it seems too easy to plant a few more rows. Little by little in the spring when the soil is moist and the climate is comfortable, I plant more than I can reasonably take care of.
The result of my springtime ambitiousness is a summer of discouragement as I spend far too much time just trying to keep crops barely alive in my hours of watering each day. By June, weeds take over. By July, my raised bed garden looks like an eyesore with plants that never reach their potential. I always feel like I've failed.
This year, I will scale back the volume I plant and focus on the quality of each crop. I will remember that it's better to have just a few healthy and robust crops that I can easily tend rather than covering acres in plants doomed to suffer from neglect.
Break out of crop ruts
If I were a superhero, my power would be my uncanny ability to never venture outside of what's safe and familiar. Year after year, I plant the same varieties. Sure, I get excited about new things I see in seed catalogs, but when it comes time to plant, I stick with what I know works well for me.
Because of this, there's no telling what I'm missing out on. I only know about the outstanding flavor of Israeli melons and how well they grow in Texas because my father was given a few seeds to try out by a friend. I was stuck on Hale's Best cantaloupes because that's what I grew when I was in junior high — even though they were no longer working well for me more than 20 years later. Yet my father tried them, and I discovered their superiority and now no longer trifle with Hale's Best.
To enjoy more of the thousands of crop varieties available, I need to break free from my ruts.
As for tomatoes, I only came to know about the drought-tolerant and tireless producers known as Punta Banda because Native Seeds/SEARCH sent them to me as a substitute for the variety I had always ordered from them, which was out of stock by the time my order was fulfilled. And if not for wanting to avoid disappointing my wife who bought Costoluto tomato seed for a Christmas present last year, I'd have never found out that I can grow an heirloom tomato big enough to top a burger with one slice.
There are thousands of crop varieties available, all with traits of flavor variations, pest resistance and drought tolerance. To enjoy them, I will simply need to break free from the ruts I get into and pick a few new varieties to try out each year.
When I took a one-day class in plant propagation a couple of years ago, I for the first time was able to root cuttings of trees and rose bushes. All previous attempts I made at rooting plants had failed, but because I learned a few pointers from an experienced botanist, I was finally able to cut small sections away from established trees or antique roses that I found here and there and bring them back to grow at home.
In 2015, I plan to seek out similar classes and keep my skills growing.
Build a water feature
I've witnessed often how skunks, possums, frogs and birds help me keep pests under control in my raised garden beds. But these coworkers tend to come and go. To keep them as a reliable resource, I think that I'll need to make sure that they have all the accommodations they require, and sorely lacking among my crops is a plentiful supply of water.
For the upcoming growing season, I intend to have a water feature in place that's big enough to really draw these creatures into my garden and let them know they're safe to make it their home.
Plant more wildflowers
As recently as 2013, I could take bumblebees and butterflies for granted. I knew that pollinators were in peril in other parts of the country, but all seemed fine where I was.
In 2015, I will increase the native flora near my crops so pollinating insects stand a better chance of surviving.
But in 2014, I think I saw maybe one bumblebee the whole year, and not even honeybees were common visitors to the flowering crops that needed them. As a result, I found far too many melons and cucumbers misshapen from poor pollination.
Coincidentally, I saw a yellow and brown crop-dusting plane off in the distance, spraying one field and then another daily for the first month of summer. The grain farmers and cattle ranchers in my vicinity need no pollinators for their production, so they give little to no thought about whet their use of insecticides means to the health of bees and butterflies.
If there's any hope of reversing the decline of pollinators in rural farmland, it will be because a few conscientious growers take it upon themselves to plant the bluebonnets, milkweed, Indian blanket, native sunflowers and every other wildflower that industrial farmers are bent on eradicating. These food sources keep pollinators nourished throughout the year so that when a crop blooms, there are plenty of bees and butterflies ready to dine on their nectar too.
I've planted stands of wildflowers on the land I farm, but I obviously must do more. In 2015, I will increase the native flora near my crops so that the pollinating insects stand a better chance of foraging on land that's pesticide-free, thereby increasing their chances of surviving, perhaps even thriving.