Legislative Report: Take Action on Canola Contamination, Housing and Hunger

There are just two weeks left in this legislative session and three pieces of legislation need your help.

Canola is a low-value crop that can cross-pollinate with valuable food crops,
wreaking havoc on local agriculture if it is not tightly controlled.

Protect the Willamette Valley from Canola Contamination

Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Protected District (HB 4059) needs to be passed before the current proposal "sunsets" this year. The Willamette Valley is one of the most important regions in the world for large-scale vegetable seed production. Prior to 2015, growing canola was prohibited in the Valley due to its ability to cross-pollinate with crops in the brassica family like broccoli, kale, cabbage and others, risking the livelihoods of vegetable farmers and seed producers. In 2015 a law was passed allowing a very limited amount of canola to be grown with strict rules requiring distancing from brassica growers.

In order to protect farmers and growers of vegetable seeds in the brassica family from fear of crop contamination or rejection of contaminated seed by national and international markets, strong protections and compliance tools must be developed. Maintaining the Willamette Valley Protected District and limiting canola production is crucial to preserving the state's specialty seed growing industry. More information here.

ACTION NEEDED: Submit your testimony by e-mailing Senator Jeff Golden, Chair of the committee and entering "HB 4059_A" in the Subject line, then copy and paste the text below into the message, filling in the brackets as needed.

To Chair Golden, Vice Chair Girod and members of the committee:

My name is [name] and I am writing in support of HB 4059-A. I am a community member in [town]. The Willamette Valley Specialty Brassica seed industry is vital to the agricultural landscape of Oregon and we are so lucky to have the land, expertise and conditions to support this unique industry. We should protect these farmers’ ability to grow the seeds that produce millions of pounds of food across the world. 

Because a reasonable agreement could not be reached after the work group process, extending the current regulations is the only viable option. This topic means so much to me because [insert your reason here, such as "I want to be able to buy locally produced organic seeds for my garden that are adapted to our climate" or "I want to buy organic crops from local farmers to put on my table," etc.].

We know that HB 4059-A is not the end of the road and we will have to find a more permanent solution in the next few years. I urge legislators to listen to the specialty seed growers in this process. Just because they are not the biggest, most industrialized farms does not mean that they have any less value in the system. Please respect their knowledge of the plant biology, industry standards and best practices that have made this a thriving industry here in our state. In particular, we need future policy to address the issues outlined in scientific studies that threaten organic production in the Willamette Valley.

Thank you,

[your name]
[your address and town]


Choosing sprawling subdivisions and strip malls won't solve our housing crisis—
it will only destroy valuable farmland and create new problems for Oregonians.

Support Smart Housing Policy

Governor Kotek’s 2024 housing bill, Senate Bill 1537, offers Oregon much-needed infrastructure funding and climate-smart housing incentives but it also allows cities to override long-established land use laws and processes to expand their urban growth boundaries (UGBs) by at least 75 or 150 net residential acres, depending on population size. This could lead to municipalities open to influence from developers eager to enrich themselves at the expense of our rich agricultural  lands near population centers.

Though there are many crucial components in this bill that address the existing housing crisis, advocates are stressing the need to prioritize affordable housing within the existing UGBs first and foremost. Oregon’s land use laws and the concept of Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) has protected valuable farmland, they argue, saying that once farmland is lost, we can't get it back. Farmland with close proximity to urban markets supports a robust local food system, benefitting urban residents who gain access to locally grown products and farmers who have ready access to a large customer base.

ACTION NEEDED: Ask your legislator to support smart housing policy by adding your name to this letter from 1000 Friends of Oregon.


The Double Up Food Bucks program gives hungry families access to local food.

Fresh Local Food for Hungry Families

Double Up Food Bucks help those who currently receive food assistance through the SNAP program to afford additional fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet is a crucial part of building a healthy lifestyle and that is why it's critical this program receives continued funding. There are federal matching dollars available, but only if legislators allocate more state dollars.

ACTION NEEDED: Message your state lawmakers today and ask them to support the $1 million funding request for this important program.

Legislative Report: 2024 Session Short but Critical for Oregon Farmers and Ranchers

The Oregon Legislature convened for its 82nd session this week. They'll have 35 days to complete their work—by law they cannot extend the session beyond that in even-numbered years (160 days in odd-numbered years)—with several bills requiring action that will affect our food system. Some of those are:

Oregon Agricultural Heritage Fund (HB 4060). This bill is requesting $10.8M for the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (OAHP) for the next biennium. OAHP has four components: technical assistance, succession planning, conservation management plans, and easements. This program is crucial not only for the preservation of Oregon's farmland, but the incorporation of environmental stewardship into working lands management.

Two of those components are particularly critical:

  • Conservation management plans help farmers and ranchers develop plans for the long term viability of their farm ecosystems along with a plan to pay for improvements with matched federal funds.
  • Conservation easement is a vital tool to protect farmland for agricultural use in perpetuity and lower the price of farmland for the next generation of producers.  

If passed, this bill will broaden the tools available to lower land prices for people wanting to start farming or grow their existing farms; preserve farmland for production; and keep farms close to city centers. Advocates say we must take steps to preserve our high value soils and farmland permanently or we risk losing land accessible to the community food system in the future.


Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Protected District (HB 4059). This bill directs the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to study issues around the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Protected District, and whether to allow expanded growing of canola within the district. The ODA is directed to report back with recommendations in September of 2025.

The Willamette Valley is one of the most important regions in the world for large-scale vegetable seed production. Prior to 2015, growing canola was prohibited in the Valley due to its ability to cross-pollinate with crops in the brassica family like broccoli, kale, cabbage and others, risking the livelihoods of vegetable farmers and seed producers. In 2015 a law was passed allowing a very limited amount of canola to be grown with strict rules requiring distancing from brassica growers.

In order to protect farmers and growers of vegetable seeds in the brassica family from fear of contamination or rejection of contaminated seed by national and international markets, strong protections and compliance tools must be developed. Maintaining the Willamette Valley Protected District and limiting canola production is crucial to preserving the state's specialty seed growing industry.


Housing, Land Use and UGB Expansion (SB 1537). This bill is aimed at adding much-needed affordable housing through infrastructure investment, developing climate-smart practices and instituting accountability systems. However, a dangerous loophole was added that allows for the governor to unilaterally decide to expand the current Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), sidestepping current laws and processes that limit urban sprawl, allowing it to expand into valuable agricultural land.

Though there are many crucial components that address the existing housing crisis, advocates are stressing the need to prioritize affordable housing within the existing UGBs first and foremost. Oregon’s land use laws and the concept of Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) has protected valuable farmland, they argue, saying that once farmland is lost, we can't get it back. Farmland with close proximity to urban markets supports a robust local food system, benefitting urban residents who gain access to locally grown products and farmers who have ready access to a large customer base.


Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT). Part of Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) budget, this program would help nearly 300,000 Oregon children by providing additional money for families during the summer break. While this is not a bill before the legislature, legislative approval of the portion of the ODHS budget for administering half the cost of this program is required in order to unlock the federal dollars that will fund it.

An article in the Oregon Capital Chronicle quoted Jake Sunderland, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, who said, “The Oregon Food Bank reports that one in five people in the state face hunger. During the summer months, many children in families with food insecurity do not have easy access to the healthy breakfasts and lunches they get at school during the school year.”

Jacki Ward Kehrwald, spokesperson for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, was quoted in the same article. "We really believe this is a no-brainer since the program expenses are all provided federally, and Oregon just needs to invest in half of the setup and administrative costs," she said.

Take action by letting your legislator know you want Oregon to reduce child hunger this summer.


Thanks to Friends of Family Farmers and Oregon Food Bank for their help with information for this post. Top photo from Friends of Family Farmers; UGB photo from Metro; photo of children from Oregon Food Bank.

Guest Essay: A Soil Nerd Walks Into a Roomful of Futurists

If you saw headlines about a recent gathering in Dubai with the indecipherable acronym of COP and, like me, wondered what the heck it was and if you should care, then read this personal report from Portland's self-described "soil nerd," Kristin Ohlson, author of "The Soil Will Save Us" and "Sweet in Tooth and Claw."

Over 97,000 people convened in Dubai this December for the twenty-eighth Congress of Parties (COP)—the United Nations’ annual conference on climate change. A much smaller segment of the world’s eyes were on Dubai for a gathering which preceded the COP by a few days and involved at least a handful of the same people: the Dubai Future Forum, billed as “the world’s largest gathering of futurists.”

Amazingly—or at least, amazing to me—I was invited to speak at the forum. I had received a request to connect on LinkedIn from someone with the Dubai Future Foundation months ago, and even though this seemed like yet another request from someone whose interests seemed so different from mine that I hesitated to make the connection, I accepted. Further communication led to a phone call.

The forum would have four themes: Empowering Generations, Transcending Collaboration, Transforming Humanity, and Regenerating Nature. The director of the Dubai Museum of the Future had read my book, "The Soil Will Save Us," and the committee putting the gathering together wanted me to speak on one of the regeneration panels. I’m not exactly a Luddite but I certainly don’t consider myself a futurist—unless one who alternately hopes and panics about the future is a futurist, which probably describes all of us—but I’ll go anywhere to talk about regeneration and healthy ecosystems. They had told me that around 2,500 people would come, many from that region and that they were also flying in thinkers and doers from around the world.

And indeed they did! I’ve never been at a gathering as truly diverse as this one—people young and older, from just about every part of the world, of every hue, and dozens of nationalities. Lucky for me, all speaking English albeit with the chiaroscuro of both their first language and the accent of whoever schooled them in English.

The reality of a conference like this is that you can’t get to everything, especially if you’re a speaker who’s a little nervous about being there to begin with. I managed to get to several of the regeneration panels, which were held in a dimly gorgeous room inside the Museum of the Future with walls that glowed with images of various life forms. In one panel, people talked about tapping indigenous wisdom to prepare for the future; in another, panelists talked about what might lie beyond Net Zero carbon emissions; in another, they talked about city planning that centers nature.

On my own panel, my co-panelists, Nithiya Laila, who works on biodiverse diets and equitable food systems in Singapore;  Christine Gould, who supports science-and-technology-based startups through Thought for Food based in Switzerland; and our moderator, Dionysia Angeliki Lyra from the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai and I spent an animated 45 minutes talking about soil, seeds, native plants and feeding the world’s people.

I certainly wasn’t the only person among the 2,500 futurists who centers on healthy ecosystems—including healthy, prosperous humans, of course—but it’s also true that many of the panels and discussions at the conference were about shiny new things. Shiny new tools, shiny new technologies, shiny new approaches to problems. I told anyone who would listen that I’m not opposed to the new and shiny—unless those innovations are aimed at hacking the natural world for the convenience of humans.

Yes, new technology for benign sources of energy, please! New technology to turn my gas-powered car into an electric one! New technology for mining the mountains of garbage we’ve created to obtain the resources for future products! New ideas for our homes and cities! New science to parse the dazzling and essential complexity of the natural world and—this is the issue for me--to help us figure out how we can hack our own behavior so that both we and the rest of nature thrive.

Because life is so precious and—given what we know so far—unique. One of the early presentations at the Dubai Future Forum was a panel of astronauts talking about life on the space station. They talked about how they dealt with the conundrums of ordinary life while living in space—eating, getting enough exercise, staying in touch with loved ones—and agreed, sweetly, that one of the best things about the experience was the brotherly bond they now have with each other.

I couldn’t help but think of our marvelous planet as I listened to them. Scientists have searched through the samples brought back from space, hoping to find evidence of life. It’s not there. I have more life under my little fingernail after digging in the soil than has been found in all our extraplanetary explorations. We have to treasure life on Earth, respect that life, and change ourselves so that those coming next will also experience its beauty and abundance. Imagine if our collective aspiration for the future was to be good ancestors.

Watch a video of the presentation here.

Top photo: The Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (l); presenters (left to right) Christine Gould, Nithiya Laila, Kristin Ohlson and Dionysia Angeliki Lyra. This essay was originally published at SoilCentric.

Drink Beer, Do Good: Cheers to the Land Campaign Benefits Oregon Farmland

What could be better than quaffing a cold pint of beautifully crafted beer made with local ingredients? Only one thing: knowing that beer was directly keeping the fields and farms that grew those ingredients in production in perpetuity.

How?

Cheers to the Land is a collaboration between Oregon’s great breweries, its farmers and the Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) that will help keep our farms and ranch lands in production for the benefit of Oregon’s economy, communities and landscapes.

Nine breweries across the state are making new beers with Oregon-sourced ingredients and supporting the work of OAT to permanently protect Oregon’s bountiful farm and ranch lands from development. Beginning October 12, participating  breweries will release the beers on draft, with six of the nine beers packaged in limited-edition Cheers to the Land 16-ounce, 4-pack cans.

A statewide nonprofit land trust, OAT works with farmers and ranchers to protect their land through direct donation of the property or by conveying a working land easement to remove development rights that interfere with farming. In exchange, landowners can receive a charitable tax credit and/or cash, which can be particularly useful in succession planning or business expansion. With 25 percent of Oregon’s land in farms and ranches and 64 percent of that land set to change hands in the next twenty years, only 19 percent of farmers and ranchers have a succession plan in place. Which means that much of Oregon's existing agricultural land could be vulnerable to development.

As part of the campaign, OAT will also be hosting special events at each brewery during October, as well as Cheers to the Land Tap Takeovers, with all nine beers at Loyal Legion in both Portland and Beaverton on Oct. 14 and 15, respectively. And it's no token effort on the part of the brewers: Each participating brewery is supporting Oregon farmers in the creation of their beers, and also supports the work of OAT through a donation of the beer’s proceeds.

“One of the major reasons we have some of the best beer in the world is because Oregon has such fertile farmland,” said Oregon Agricultural Trust Executive Director Nellie McAdams. “Our farmers grow five percent of all the hops in the world and we have some of the best soil on the planet. But you can’t unpave farmland; once it’s gone it’s gone. So Cheers to the Land both celebrates our farmland and raises awareness about the importance of protecting it for agriculture, forever.”

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.