The Empty Table


Last week, I set up at the farmers market–not with vegetables, but with information and petitions on the Food Safety Enhancement Act.  I think it was disappointing to some of my regular customers that my table held books, papers, and a clipboard rather than veggies.

I can understand that.

Truth is, I don’t have a lot ready in the gardens right now–I planted heavily for the early spring, so that I’d have lots of greens and spring veggies for the first few weeks of the market, when the bigger truck farmers are generally just starting to do their heavy planting.

My spring harvest tapered off right about the time that the other farmers started bringing their produce in–pretty decent timing, though I am constantly encouraging others to plant “early and often,” so I’m not the only one with produce during the first few weeks.

Too, in keeping with my research and development goals this year, I planted some of my summer crops–beans, cucumbers, melons, squash–a little later than usual, so I could avoid the plague of cuke beetles and squash bugs that can really take over and destroy crops if the pests find the crops when they (or the crop) first emerge.

That has worked really well so far.  Coupling a later planting with moving the main squash and melon patch to a completely different area of the farm has drastically reduced the pest problem–I’ve only seen (and squished) three squash bugs and two of their egg clusters so far, and I haven’t seen a single cucumber beetle (or potato bug) so far.

I had to put the cucumbers in one of the main garden areas though–there just isn’t enough room yet on the far hill for all the cucurbits–but I planted them late, and under the row cover I’d had on the spring cabbage, and left the cabbage stumps there to rot.  I finally uncovered that row yesterday and set up some supports for the cukes–they’re doing great!

The beans I planted earliest of all were the shell/drying beans.  I’m really not sure how many of those I’ll sell–the point of that crop is to fill my own pantry with good organically grown dried beans–and to see if a couple of 45′ trellises will produce an adequate crop to do so.

The heirloom snap beans just got in a couple of weeks ago and are growing fast–but there’s not quite so much space devoted to those this year–most of them will go in the freezer after being roasted together with summer squash and sage.

I’d also like to reserve a fair number of sweet peppers on the plants this year to get them red and ripe before roasting and pickling strips of them in jars–I can’t get enough of those for sandwiches and salads, and at $4-5 a jar in the store, I think I can do it better and cheaper.

Tomatoes will go in the canner and freezer as usual–as many as I preserve, there’s never enough of them to last until the next year’s crop. What broccoli side-shoots I can get (after the plants developed hollow stems from the heavy rainfall and started rotting away) will also find their way to the freezer.

Does it sound like I’m being stingy with my harvest?  Does it seem like I ought to be bringing more to the market instead of squirreling it away in my own pantry?

Let me bring this post back full circle, then, to what I had on my table at the market last week: petitions calling for small/local producer exceptions in the Food Safety Enhancement Act and information about the Farm Beginnings sustainable farmer-training program starting this fall.

Then let me refer back to what I’ve been blogging about in the past couple of weeks: Monsanto, SDSU, and GMO wheat; farmland speculation by foreign countries and big investors; and again, the food safety legislation.

I spend a lot of my time doing research–thinking, learning, and writing about local food, small producer, and food security issues.  While there is a lot of positive and exciting news in those areas, there is also a lot of troubling news.

Without sounding too much like a “Repent-the-End-is-Near” nutjob, let me just say that I think more people and more small communities at the end of the supply lines should be more concerned about how (and how well) they are going to eat in the coming hard times.

Yes, I do think they are coming, and on a global scale.  You can point at a stock market rally to say things are getting better, but as far as I can see, those rallies tend to mean that someone cut a deal that made some rich people richer by costing other people their jobs, their livelihoods, their food supply, their lives.

No one likes to talk about doom and gloom stuff (OK, some people do), but we in South Dakota are living in a food desert at the end of a very long and complex supply network.  Even if, at the worst, food continues to come through that supply chain, it could get impossibly expensive.

And here we are, sitting on top of some of the most gorgeous farmland in the world, and we’re shipping off the bounty of that land to the ethanol plant, the corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated soy oil manufacturer.

I don’t have anything against the people who work the land growing corn and soy for a living, but I think we as individuals and as a community ought to seriously consider carving out some of that land to ensure a steady and adequate food supply (planting early and often), as well as a facility or two for the processing and storage of that food.

So, that’s pretty much what I do in my spare time–what I’m doing when I’m not teaching classes or puttering about in my own humble gardens.  I’m trying to encourage others to take up a fork and a spade, and fighting against those who would regulate or restrict  that fork and spade in the name of land speculation or food “safety” or a swanky new development.

But I know having a table full of petitions isn’t as fun as having a table full of shiny young summer squashes, glossy peppers, and bazillions of tender beans.

The most fun I had at last week’s market was this: I got some of those tender yellow beans from another vendor.  And I got a cherry pie, two sacks of new red potatoes, a bag of the best homemade laundry detergent ever, and some tiny little white onions because all I’m growing are yellow and red ones.

Then I went home and made a big salad of those beans and potatoes and onions, roasted in the oven, plus cherry pie for dessert. And then (with my mouth occasionally full of my dinner), I got on a hour-long conference call with other activists and organizers from five western states.

The call was a Western Organization of Resource Councils meeting about how we will approach our legislators with the best Food Safety Act amendments so that the beans and potatoes and onions–and yeah–the cherry pie, too–will not only still be there in the coming years, but hopefully there’ll be more for everyone.

So, without being too righteous about it (after all, I really don’t have that much ready in the gardens right now)–let me say that the empty table is a sort of subtle reminder about what can happen without people working behind the scenes for the rights and freedoms of small farmers and those who want a fresh, secure, and sustainable local food supply.

See you at the market!

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