Guest Essay: Where is GTF?

This essay by Patrick Merscher, Assistant Manager at the Hillsdale Farmers'‚Äč Market in Portland, was published in the market's newsletter when Gathering Together Farm was not able to attend the market due to flooding from a January storm. The farm, located on the banks of the Marys River in Philomath, and its neighbors are still feeling the effects of that storm, and April’s heavy dose of rain, hail and snow hasn’t helped. Merscher's essay explains what such heavy flooding means for farmers and crops.

Around the New Year, you may remember the Pacific Northwest receiving a heavy amount of precipitation in a relatively short amount of time, which is not unusual for the area, although these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. You may also recall the news stories about flooding all around the region, especially in low-lying areas like the Willamette Valley, and about the effects it had on the many farmers that call these places home.

One of the market’s largest vendors, Gathering Together Farm (GTF), was heavily impacted by the floods, and they spent months away from the market. Every week shoppers would ask, “Where is Gathering Together? The flood was weeks ago—why aren’t they back?” These are brilliant questions, and one of our roles at the market is to act as a conduit between our local community and local farmers. So, here are some insights on what happens when a farm floods, and why it takes so long for them to return— and no, it’s not just because absence makes the heart grow fonder, although we certainly missed them.

Slow Winter Growth: The fresh winter vegetables you find at market (think radicchio, cauliflower, leeks, etc.) are actually started in late summer and early fall. Before winter starts, plants need to be about three-quarters mature in order to survive the cold temperatures. Growth during the wintertime is exceptionally slow here in the Northwest because of cold weather, short days and low-intensity sunlight. Plants are more holding in the field than they are growing. When a flood damages these winter crops, they actually have a lot of growth to catch up on and less-than-ideal conditions to do it in.

Oxygen Depletion: Plants respire just like humans. Standing water smothers the plant’s breathing pores (called stomates) essentially suffocating the plant. The extent of damage done by oxygen depletion is made worse by warmer waters (a symptom of climate change), stagnant water, younger plants, and the amount of time plants stay submerged.

Nitrogen Loss: Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy plant growth and the health of the plant’s immune system. Forms of nitrogen that can be taken up by plants are also very water soluble, so much of the nitrogen can run off the field as flood waters recede. Anaerobic conditions (i.e. a lack of oxygen) also promote certain microbes that consume the nitrogen for their growth. Lack of nitrogen further slows plant recovery, reduces yields, and increases plant disease. Nitrogen can be replaced, but options are limited on certified organic farms like GTF. Often these organic sources of nitrogen require a mineralization process done in the soil to become available for plants, so it’s not a quick fix. Winter conditions also slow the mineralization process. The farm is also concerned about costs of production like fertilizer and labor, both on the farm and to work the market.

Erosion: Flooding not only removes soil nutrients, but it can physically remove organic matter or even the soil itself. The organic matter is responsible for holding onto nutrients and serving as a substrate that plants can root into. Sand, gravel and rocks can also be moved during flooding, physically damaging the plants. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farms and farmers spend years developing it. This cannot be easily replaced.

Weed and Disease Growth: Floodwaters bring in weed seeds and plant pathogens. Since crops are damaged, weeds have an easier time growing and competing for sunlight and soil nutrients. Damaged crop plants are virtually sitting ducks for plant pathogens like fungi that love damp, cool conditions and can outgrow the plants easily. Of course, manual or mechanical weed control is the first line of defense on organic farms like GTF, but digging, tilling or otherwise working waterlogged soil, even just walking on it, destroys the structure of the soil and can cause compaction. This will have longterm effects that could be seen for years to come because, again, soil health is something farmers spend years building, but nature can take it away in an instant.

While none of this is pleasant to talk or think about, hopefully you have a better understanding of the plight our local farmers are facing. When one of them experiences a catastrophe like this, please be patient as the farm and the workers recover. They may not be able to come to the market for a few weeks, but your patience is one way you can support them and the market.

Read a profile of founder John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm. Top photo of January's flooding at GTF from their Instagram account.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Time to Take Action!

With just a few weeks left in the 2019 session of the Legislature, it's time to get in gear and let your legislators know where you stand. Type your address into the box at the top of the directory and write or e-mail your own letter (addresses are included in the listings for each legislator), or copy and paste the sample letter below each bill. If you want to take an extra step, click on the "Current Committee" in the listings under the explanation and send a copy to each member of the committee.

HB 2619 would ban the use of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, a dangerous neurotoxin that affects brain development in young children. Here's a sample letter:

Dear [legislator],

I am writing to urge you to support HB 2619 and ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in Oregon so that children living in our state may have a permanent reprieve from exposure to the highly toxic pesticide.

Current exposure levels to this developmental neurotoxicant, by children ages one to two, exceed the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own allowable threshold by a staggering 140 times.

Even at low levels of exposure by women during pregnancy, chlorpyrifos has been shown to alter brain functions and impair the learning ability of children into adulthood. Researchers at Columbia University have demonstrated that the presence of chlorpyrifos in the umbilical cord of developing fetuses is correlated with a decrease in psychomotor and mental development in three-year-olds. At high levels of childhood exposure, chlorpyrifos has been found to cause attention deficit, hyperactivity, slow cognitive development, a significant reduction in IQ scores and a host of other neurodevelopment problems. Children who live near farm fields experience the highest risks and impacts. A University of California Davis study found that women who resided within a mile of farms where chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides were applied had a 60 percent higher chance of giving birth to children with autism spectrum disorder.

Two states, Hawaii and California, have already passed bills banning this dangerous pesticide. I can only hope that the Oregon Legislature follows suit and declares our children are more important than corporations that profit from exposing them (and us) to toxic chemicals.

Thank you,

[your name]

[address]

* * *

HB 2882 protects farmers by making the patent-holders of genetically engineered crops financially liable when their products contaminate neighboring farmers' fields. Sample text:

Dear [legislator],

I am writing to urge your support for HB 2882, which would protect Oregon farmers by holding the patent-holders of genetically engineered crops financially accountable when their products cause economic harm to farmers who experience unwanted contamination.

Contamination from genetically engineered crops can make organic and conventional crops unable to be sold. When these genetically engineered crops escape their fields, the contamination can cost farmers not just the value of that season's crops, but can can take years to eradicate, with the potential that the farmer would be deprived of a livelihood.

Oregon's family farmers and the integrity of our food supply should not be at the mercy of corporate agribusiness giants.

Thank you,

[your name]

[address]


SB 727 supports the Double Up Food Bucks program that gives food assistance (SNAP) recipients assistance in purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program. Note that very SNAP dollar spent at farmers market can generate $1.79 in local economic activity!

Dear [legislator],

I am writing to urge your support for SB 727, which supports the expansion of Double Up Food Bucks Oregon, a SNAP incentive program with a proven record of success.

For every dollar spent on SNAP-eligible foods at participating farmers markets, farm share programs, and grocery stores across the state, shoppers will receive a dollar to spend on Oregon-grown fruits and vegetables. State appropriations have successfully funded similar statewide SNAP incentive programs in CA, MA, MI, MN and NM. 

Passage of this bill would:

  • Allow 250,0000 low-income Oregon families will be able to expand their buying power and consume more fruits and vegetables 
  • Connect family farmers with new customers, giving them a financial boost 
  • Encourage our local economies will grow: every SNAP dollar spent at farmers market can generate $1.79 in local economic activity 
  • Enable all farmers markets in Oregon to accept SNAP, by providing technical assistance: currently 25% of Oregon’s farmers markets are not currently accepting SNAP
  • Enable all farmers markets in Oregon to offer SNAP matching programs: currently they exist at only 60 of Oregon’s 120 farmers markets. This leaves many rural markets without any SNAP matching program. 
  • Leverage future federal, other public and private matching dollars to ensure the long-term sustainability of the program.

Voting for this bill helps Oregonians in need to increase their access to fresh, local food, but it will also support family farmers and boost our economy.

Thank you,

[your name]

[your address]

* * *

HB 2020, the Clean Energy Jobs bill, would cap greenhouse gas emissions from most large industrial sources—those that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) per year—and effectively put a price on carbon. Currently large industrial farms are excluded from this cap, though one of the largest emitters of ammonia gas in the country is Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman.

Dear [legislator],

I am writing to urge that HB 2020, the Clean Energy Jobs bill, include large industrial farms in its cap on greenhouse gases.

Climate change is a growing threat to Oregon agriculture. From extreme, unpredictable weather and drought, to declining water supplies, our rural communities, farms, and ranches are experiencing dramatic changes to the climate. While we need to stabilize the climate by reducing industrial and other large sources of greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to invest in climate-friendly agricultural practices. Oregon needs to offer a framework for Oregon’s farmers and ranchers to be a part of the solution by providing grants to engage in climate-friendly agricultural practices.

Under HB 2020, emissions from agriculture are generally exempted from the cap on emissions, even for individual large sources that exceed 25,000 metric tons per year in CO2 equivalent like mega-dairies and feedlots with more than approximately 10,000 cows. Because they are exempt from the cap, these very large operations may also qualify for "offset" funding under the bill, which are for emissions reduction projects that most smaller farms are unlikely to qualify for.

I am requesting that:

  • A minimum of 20% of the Climate Investment Fund allocated for activities on natural and working lands.
  • Applying the cap on emissions to large agricultural sources that exceed 25,000 metric tons CO2 equivalent emissions per year (for example, mega-dairies or large feedlots with at least 10,000 cows).
  • The creation of a Healthy Soils Program and an Alternative Manure Management Program like those in California which have generated millions of dollars in grants for farmers to engage in climate friendly practices.
  • Sustainable agriculture or small farm representation on the Climate Investment Fund advisory committee.

Thank you,

[your name]

[your address]

Farm Bulletin: Musings on the Arch Cape Chicory Harvest

The farm in winter is often portrayed as a dormant time, with barren fields devoid of activity but for the stalks and dead detritus of the previous year's crops. Nothing could be further from the truth, as elucidated by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm.

As we work our way down the row, it is clear the farmers are not the only organisms harvesting the chicory. We share the field with three different rodents: pocket gophers, voles and mice. We all have our own harvesting methods and challenges.

ayers_creek_chicory_tools.jpg
Our field knives: 6” and 5" produce (green, brown, white), lettuce and an 18” machete type.

Farmers use several different harvest knives. We maintain a fleet of ten six-inch produce knives and eight five-inch produce knives. These have straight blades and a square tip, the sort produce staff have in their holster at the grocery store. These knives are cheap (~$14) and rugged. The six-inch knife is safe and easy to use in the field. The curved blades and sharp points of a chef’s knife are fine in the kitchen but a dangerous menace in the field. A lettuce knife is a more specialized tool, having two cutting edges. Carol and Linda use these to liberate the head from the ground, and shift to the produce knife for trimming. The five-inch knives, a bit too small for the field, are useful for the final trimming at the sink. For other tasks, the heft of the machete-style knives is useful.

Because the knives are used in the abrasive environment of the soil, after a couple of hours the edge is lost, and the knife is swapped out for a sharp one. We go through three or four knives in short order. Back at the shed, we put a fresh edge on the knives with an electric sharpener. A few years ago, a farm magazine had an absurd article telling farmers how sharpen their knives with an oil stone. Even with the mechanical sharpener, the effort takes  30 to 45 minutes. I sharpen my wood block tools with a series of Japanese water stones, but for a knife that will return to soil the next day it is a stupid waste of time. Staff prefer to use a mill bastard file which is a bit coarse for my tastes, but I always defer to them on the matter of tools they use.

Waterproof gloves round out the harvest tools. One hazard with field gloves is that it is easy to wind up with a community of left hand specimens. The cure is to name each pair and write the name on both gloves. For example, we have pairs named Jasper, Maine, Moscow and Olive. Once named, the left and right gloves hang together, a bit of magic I can’t explain.

Field vole.

Our most common companions in the field are voles. In literature, subterranean creatures shunning the sun invariably lack a sense of humor. Dwarfs and trolls, whether in Wagner, the Norse legends or Tolkien, are difficult characters. And so it is with the voles and gophers. During the winter, the gophers are lethargic and consume very little. They are a summertime menace. In contrast, voles become hyperactive in the winter.

Voles are aggressive hoarders, relentlessly caching food. In the chicories, they start with the root, working their way to the crown. Then they pull the leaves into their tunnel. (Top photo: A fine chicory hollowed out by a vole, a beautiful remnant.) Plant materials are masticated and then cached in hollowed out areas where the vegetation ferments, similar to ensilage. They aspire to no leisure activities, never ceasing in building their cache accounts. Voles excavate miles of tunnels, keeping them away from the eyes of predators. The voles have a short tail, small, beady eyes and their ears sit close to the head. They seldom leave the safety of their tunnels. In the winter they live communally in a hole lined with dry grass, conserving their energy. Even during the wettest weather, the underground nest stays dry.

Mice leave the hole (right, near the snow) for a meal and chew on the chicory leaves.

We also encounter mice in the field. They don’t cache vegetation. Mice cache and consume seeds, and they seek out insect larvae and pupae. They eat some foliage to round out their diet. During the winter they also rest communally in grass-lined nests, with one or two sallying forth to feed while the others keep the nest warm. The live in underground burrows, or in hollow logs, irrigation pipes, bird houses, cars or any place providing shelter. They have long tails for balance, large ears to hear advancing predators and bulging eyes that give them a range of view, all valuable for an animal that forages above ground. They are adept climbers, and they have a more beguiling presence than their subterranean-dwelling kin.

The mouse seed caches are visible in both the cultivated and uncultivated areas of the farm. Not every store of seeds is consumed, and those left uneaten sprout. In the photo above, tufts of native grass betray an unused granary. In the field, clumps of chickpeas, wheat, corn and favas in a similar pattern are common.

Clumps of grass emerge from unused granaries.

What eats get eaten. A healthy population of rodents is the base for a healthy population of predators. We have barn and great-horned owls, kestrels, red-tail hawks, great blue herons and weasels all partaking of the fine rodent riches. The barn owls hunt in the open fields and the great-horned owls tend to stay in the cover of the oak savannah. No, predators do not control the rodent populations; it is exactly the reverse, rodent populations drive survival of the predator young. Without adequate food, the young languish and die.

Both owls currently have chicks in the nest, and a good rodent year means more of these chicks will become adults. The owls tear apart the rodents, regurgitate a cast or pellet of fir and bones. The herons gulp down their prey whole. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels tear apart their prey. The kestrels don’t like the stomachs, so they eviscerate their prey, leaving a pile of guts near the feeding perch. The kestrels are more resilient than owls and other raptors because they feed happily on larger insects such as grasshoppers, frogs, worms and small snakes. As an aside, owls are more closely related to parrots than the hawks and falcons.

Vole guts left on top of a birdhouse by a kestrel.

Aside from poison, which we would never use, there is no means of controlling these small rodents. Even poison baits are a stop gap measure of dubious efficacy, just a damaging outlet of the farmer’s anger. The gophers, mice and voles are part of the endeavor and, in their own right, remarkable creatures. A heathy ecosystem self-corrects. Rodent populations are cyclical. In 2013, we had intense rodent pressure and lost the entire chicory crop. As a concession prize, a young bobcat took up residence for several months. Tito was not happy about the matter, though. The following year, voles were scarce.

We are on a wildlife corridor, so various creatures, elk, deer and mink move through the farm. Thursday night, Abel saw a cougar and her kits near the barn. They are probably moving to the ridge dominated by Bald Peak in search of prey, deer in particular, but quite possibly small livestock as well.

Read more of Anthony's Farm Bulletins. Photo of vole from Wikipedia. All other photos by Anthony Boutard.