Farm To Farm

by Spec MacQuayde, September 23, 2010

They tell me the north coast is supposed to get fog­gier and wetter as a side effect of global warming, at least for a while. I don't put too much stock in any weather predictions beyond a couple days, but it's pretty safe to say that summer slid by in Anderson Valley with barely a week of what most people would call “summer.” This might explain the relatively puny giant pumpkins and the sparse shelves of produce displayed at the Apple Hall for the county fair, the other excuse being that a big chunk of the prolific gardeners in these parts are also stoners who typically miss the registration deadline. The latter is part of my excuse, in addition to the fact that I can't stand paperwork.

Next year, I always say. I did venture into the Apple Hall to see what other local farmers and homesteaders have been up to, where immediately at the apple tasting booth I ran into Tim Bates from the Apple Farm in Philo. This was Saturday night as I recall.

“What's going on?” he asked.

“Well, I've got a splitting headache because this morning I wasn't able to get into town for some coffee. It's a long story.”

“Caffeine is a cruel mistress.”

“You said it. I can't drink enough beer to get rid of it. I stayed home all day and finally started reading The Jungle.”

“That's funny. I'm reading the USA Trilogy by Dos Passos.”

“Same era.”

“Same crap. They're doing everything the same now as then. It's come full circle.”

“Yeah, the slaughterhouses are basically back to where they were then. I mean what? They hired the German immigrants to build the first ones. Then they fired them and hired the Polish, cheaper. Then they brought in the Lithuanians, the Czechs or Slovaks or whatever. Now you got the same big boys closing shop in the '90's and opening new ones, displacing entire towns and hiring people from Mexico who don't have their papers, holding them by the balls…”

“You want some cider?”

Next to the apple tasting booth was a display featur­ing samples of wheat, barley, and lentils that were grown in Anderson or Ukiah Valley and harvested by my old farming partner, Doug Mosel. I'd just called him up ear­lier in the week to see if he had any barley for sale, fol­lowing an afternoon of contemplation over the price of every can of beer I was putting away, an epiphany whereby I realized now that I'm temporarily not preoc­cupied with crops and livestock maybe there's time to start brewing my own, save the dough, so to speak. Yeah, he had several kinds of malting barley, “two row” and “six row.”

I wanted enough barley to brew for the winter, and an additional hundred pounds or so to plant out in this field up Lambert Lane that was the site of our first grain crop. If a piece of ground could tell stories, that little three acre rectangle could sing. Earlier in the week I'd ventured out there at dawn with my 13-year-old son, ostensibly to shoot jackrabbits, but we'd encountered a flock of tur­keys, instead. The turkeys were there to pick the oats and peas from the heavy windrows that I'd never baled this spring — the worn hay baler pooped out before we got to it.

The boy got a clear case of buck fever at the sight of the turkeys and missed, so once the turkeys had flown off we hiked over the windrows to make sure he hadn't hit one. On the way I spotted a white bra sort of resem­bling two eggs in the nest of oat straw and tried to pick it up without his noticing.

“What's that, Dad?”

That had been the first and only big hurrah of a doomed romance with a brief intern at the farm, Ashley Summer, and the last time she called she asked if I'd bothered to go out and retrieve it. Nope. I'd been too depressed about the unharvested hay and the thought that I was going to quit farming at Boont Berry and maybe move off to Indiana or Kansas or Texas where my family and friends own land, sadly abandoning this field after several years of applying tons of manure and lime. Walking over the straw stubble, though, sifting through the windrows, I noticed that the hay underneath was still fairly green perhaps due to our mild and overcast sum­mer, and realized I could work it all back into the ground and plant carrots, potatoes, grain — the gears in my brain turning again. “Son, we're not leaving Anderson Valley. We'd be fools! This field is in fine shape!”

That first experiment growing wheat in the winter of 2007-08, I initially fertilized the ground with about 20,000 gallons of yeast from the bottoms of the tanks at the Anderson Valley brewery, but the wheat had still been scraggly in June, when Mosel had ventured forth with his John Deere “combine,” aka grain harverster, that was assembled prior to the fall of Saigon. He purchased the thing from somewhere in Oregon where they used it to harvest grass seeds, and the readjustments were a real bitch, impossible to do in such a small field with the machine running and guzzling biodiesel at something like four bucks a gallon that year. We were afraid to shut the motor off because there was a short somewhere in the starter system.

I rode on the railing alongside the cab where Doug was manning the controls, stopping every few feet while he and I tried to make the necessary corrections on the cylinder and concaves and other stuff that he understood better than I, and periodically waved at the camera crew taking photos from the field's fringe, for the local foods movement. It must have been gorgeous from a distance where they couldn't hear us yelling at each other over the roar of the clattering contraption.

“You got to lower the cutter,” I said. “We're missing half of it.”

“What do you want, straw or grain?”

We were glancing back to the hopper which was being filled by a combination of golden straw shafts and wheatberries. Most of the wheat was cracked, practically milled.

“Goddammit, there's no hurry. Let's get this thing to function.”

We exchanged other words and phrases you can just imagine for yourself.

There they were, snapping photos of us, so we waved like being in the parade at the fair, and I had to surmise that the great moments of history had always been like this, that the Wright brothers had been shitting in their pants throughout the whole Kitty Hawk thing. Two years later, though, and not only is the big green machine working (mostly at the Nelson ranch in Ukiah), but they've acquired a much smaller harvester that is only five feet wide so they can grow grain between the grape rows in vineyards. The wheat or whatever is planted in the fall, just like a normal cover crop, and then harvested in May or June, the straw either thrown down to act as mulch or worked into the soil, allowing for the produc­tion of bread to go with our wine. The Mendocino Grain Project is up and running, now filling out the bags that people prepaid for in their CSA format. It was good to finally see the grain displayed in the Apple Hall, evi­dence that the local foods movement is going some­where.

It was also a pleasant surprise to run into good old Ashley Summer in line for the $6 Boonville beers at the chamber of commerce booth. There she was unmistaka­bly albino and proud of it with the waves of ghostly white hair, the squinted eyes and pink cheeks glowing in the night lights, and I was lucky my beer cup was empty or I would have spilled six bucks. “Ashley! Hey, I finally found your—”

“This is my boyfriend,” she said, quickly, firmly squeezing a strapping fellow who was “Dave.”

“Hey, Dave,” I said, extending a hand to shake.

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