A major cause of marital discord, right behind financial differences, is a mismatch in the level of orderliness the partners prefer and/or require. One spouse leaves pistachio shells (or cigarette butts) on the coffee table, the other removes the oven knobs to clean behind them, and the two viewpoints, just like two objects, can’t occupy the same space.
Order and chaos—you can reduce many of life’s sticky quandaries to these two categories and the flower farmer steps into the same clumsy morass. Your ideas of an orderly shop, a clean cooler, a well-tended field most likely won’t mesh with those of partners and fellow workers, so prepare for some uncomfortable discussions or even divorce papers.
Others might be more fastidious (and thus, slower) than you, or they may be such slobs that you find yourself cleaning up behind them, checking and correcting their work, trying to teach them the standards you pay them to meet. Since they won’t want to change, they’ll fall back on the defense of opinions being just different and therefore equal, neither right nor wrong, while you, not wanting to change, may resort to the defense of the powerful: “It’s my farm.” Though both attitudes make for great drama, there’s a way to bypass the theatre if you just want to get things done.
Results of different methods are measurable in ways besides “right” and “wrong” or “yours” and “mine”. You might use profitability as a measure, or efficiency, or ease, or even just “pleasurable”. Submit to one or all of the above, or create your own standard of judgment, then submit not just others’ ways but your own to the measure. You might find just how self-centered your ideas are, or you might find you weren’t so dumb, after all. But don’t just assume order is always better and chaos is always worse, or that one always leads in one direction and the other heads the opposite way, as both order and chaos can result in the same thing.
You’ve probably been in a hoarder’s home, unable to find a place to sit (hesitant to use it if indeed you do spy one), barely able to negotiate a path between piles of magazines, clothes and the knickknacks of choice. It’s a nightmare! On the other hand, maybe your aunt keeps her house so precious that you fear breaking or even smudging that thousand dollar vase or dropping a crumb on the Persian rug (forget that glass of red wine you might spill—and which she probably wouldn’t offer you). Too much order can result, just as does too much chaos, in an uninhabitable home. But somewhere between the two extremes livability increases for all parties.
On a farm, where nature finds comfort in untidiness, how do you keep the chaos at bay to maintain a functioning business? And, on the other hand, how do you not get obsessed with categorizing, measuring, and perfection so tasks can be performed seamlessly, quickly, without thinking about how and why, without methods and rules getting in the way? Well, for starters, you need to realize the farm has different arenas and each may require a different approach. The field, the processing area, the shop, the delivery vans, all have their own context, while the most sensitive arenas of the flower farm, the intangible and difficult ones of on-the-farm personal relationships, off-the-farm business connections, and financial bookwork exist in an entirely different miasma where small mistakes can quickly morph into ones with long term repercussions.
Chaos in the field and chaos in the shop may be alike in one sense, but the field sloppiness creates more chaos in future years whereas a chaotic shop, since its objects don’t grow and go to seed, remains static, as reparable in a month as it is today. Leaving weeds, failing to prune and pinch, or using lackadaisical practices can result in exponential growth in chaos for years to come. As much as you might despise the old wisdom of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” it does hold here as a good rule of thumb to decide the importance of your methods.
A poorly maintained cooler space sets the stage for troubles in the future, troubles visited as disease problems from accumulated detritus or frost damage from poor maintenance, while a poorly organized cooler results in problems for those managing sales and delivery. Likewise, an improperly loaded delivery van makes trouble for sales today and quite possibly damaged relationships with buyers.
As the flower farmer you decide how clean your cooler will be, how weed-free your field is, how many insects you tolerate, and in a thousand different ways and places the degree of haphazardness you accept. Understand the results of your ideas and their implementation and act accordingly—if you’re willing to accept the consequences, by all means keep doing things improperly, even happily so, but don’t do so unwittingly by overcommitting to your ideas just because you want your way to be right.
Most people tend to stay in a particular spot of the chaos-order spectrum, treating all aspects of their lives from that position, but you can appear orderly without being so—we know people who dress pristinely but live in pigsties—and you can appear chaotic yet be quite orderly—a car salesman we know luckily helped a man his fellow salesmen ignored, a man who appeared nearly destitute, grizzle-faced and clad in a sweaty white t-shirt, and sold him a fleet of pickups. A farm likewise might express pristine cleanliness in some aspects, half-hearted efforts in others—ours does.
It’s not appearance that drives our philosophy (if you do agritourism, use a different template than ours)—we just want the farm to run more smoothly and take less work, so we make our decisions accordingly. Without rebar, duct tape, and zip ties our whole enterprise might fall apart, a habit that might drive the meticulous insane. On the other hand, we sell nearly perfect product, and don’t skimp on essential items like coolers, vans and tractors that, if broken, disrupt the entire business. We keep the cooler relatively, not overly, clean to avoid disease problems, and perhaps most importantly, demand a weed-free environment not because it looks better but because weeds impede harvest and, when not dealt with, create more work down the road. They’re like dirty dishes—it’s easier to clean them immediately after supper than to let food dry on them and wash them “when you feel like it.” It’s a problem that doesn’t go away, that delay just makes more difficult.
On the other hand, our irrigation system, having been added on to and changed several times over the last fifteen years, might be a mystery even to us. But while it appears haphazard it works perfectly well, though had we started knowing how large the farm would be we would have designed it differently. We limit leaks, attend to screens, always check to make sure it’s operating correctly. Leaks equal weeds, dirty screens equal decreases performance, and not taking care of problems as they occur just kicks the can down the road, creating more work.
Our greenhouse construction—well, it won’t appear on the cover of any DIY magazines, but those homemade doors still work after fifteen years, and though the walls aren’t straight they hold no matter how embarrassed Jeriann might be by their rough manner. The plants, it turns out, don’t mind, care not at all about aesthetics.
You can get away with imposing your philosophy on your farm since you reap the results your orderliness or chaos, but anywhere you meet the world outside the farm requires you to conform to others’ norms. Particularly in your financial dealings, perfect orderliness may be necessary. Accurate billing, timely payments, good records mean others can trust you, depend on you, and over time relationships build upon that trust. At business and relationship levels, others can’t tell the difference between slovenliness, indifference, and outright dishonesty—the results of innocent mistakes often don’t differ from the results of intentionally evil ones. To others, it’s a matter of the outcome—you don’t get points for meaning, but failing, to do right by them. And while we’re on financial dealings, just guess how the Internal Revenue Service reacts to a lack of proper documentation—be careful as you do your math, make legible, understandable notes, and you’ll not have to face chaos down the road.
Too much order can create disorder—in fact, one of the rules of entropy is that any order in a system merely expels disorder into another. The gas in our car makes our travel easier, but creates disorder in the atmosphere, and one employee often makes his task easier by exporting the problem to other workers. The story goes that an effective boss, when an employee enters his domain intending to put a monkey (a request, a problem) on his desk, somehow evades collecting that monkey and at the same time burdens the employee with more monkeys on his departure. But if an employee’s not bringing you monkeys, don’t feel you have to send him some—it’s not a zero sum game of one winner and one loser, so the fewer monkeys running around the better for all of you.
After hiring a bricklayer and having to show him how to lay brick for his fireplace, my German immigrant-cum-farmer friend lamented that when you hired a workman or artisan in Germany you knew he was what he said he was since he had to apprentice and be licensed, whereas here anyone can call himself anything regardless of his ability.
“Local” flowers face a similar stigma. Because anyone who grows flowers can be a grower, a buyer has no idea what the quality of the product will be—will it last, will it be conditioned, will it be uniform, will it be insect-free, will it be delivered regularly and priced properly? While “local” means all good things to us as growers trying to win back the marketplace, “local” doesn’t necessarily mean that to others. It doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical-free”, doesn’t even mean the same in one place as it does in another—we drive flowers 120 miles, yet our product is local when compared to flowers flown in from California or Ecuador. We share meaning, it’s a social construct, so as growers we don’t have the monopoly on what people think when they hear “local”.
While some treat the local flower movement like a religion others have yet to drink the Koolaid. As growers we have to rebrand “local” by cultivating trust. Trust is earned, not freely given, accreted like snow layers in the arctic, like sheets of filo and butter in that baklava your nearby bakery made, like the layers of steel annealed in a samurai sword. When we sell flowers we’re developing layers of trust with every dependable action, every predictable delivery, every flawless product, and every misstep develops mistrust. Actions, not words, create relationships with clients, and while “local” is the big concept we operate under, specific actions matter far more than the word—in fact, one shyster hiding behind the word “local” can do a great deal of damage, just as a wayward Christian can make all Christians look bad or a misguided patriot can make patriotism distasteful.
“Local” has had a bad reputation in the US at least since Mark Twain sarcastically remarked that an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town.” Local often means untrained, lackluster service and uneven quality—here, anyone who eats seems to think he can run a restaurant (with predictable results), and anyone who uses a wrench calls himself a mechanic (with similar outcomes). While some eaters actually can cook and some home mechanics are brilliant, their less able competitors have destroyed the reputation of independent restaurants and mechanic shops, thus making it more difficult for even those with expertise to establish new businesses. That’s why people go to chain stores that have consistent quality and back up their product. You know what you’ll get when you stop at McDonald’s, be it in Poughkeepsie or Spokane, whereas a restaurant of uncertain heritage presents a risk. It’s up to each grower to develop the same trust a chain store or wholesaler inspires, and none of us should expect buyers to accept our product just because we’re local.
We’ve been facing the “local” stigma for thirty years. Sometimes designers are just stuck in old habits, accustomed to doing business as a hardware store might, checking off each item on the wholesaler’s list as they have for decades, then going off for a break. Some would love to try new things from local growers, but their clients prefer flowers they’re familiar with—a local florist here, though trained in California at a high-end shop and having gone to design school, has only managed to score a single “wild” wedding suitable for local flowers in the six years she’s been in business. Early on in our business, we tried to sell our “weird” flowers locally with very little success, though we sold the same flowers to wholesalers who sold to the same clients who rejected them when we offered them. The designers didn’t trust us but trusted the wholesalers.
Trust earns you increased business over time. Your customers begin to rely on you when they have a history, an accrued series of events and actions that tell them you’re the real deal. When you first meet a client, likely they’ve established a trusting relationship with their customers. They have regular suppliers they trust and you’re an intrusion into the normal state of affairs. Don’t demand their trust, earn it. Make the intrusion a good one, a pleasant unexpected surprise.
Don’t overpromise, instead over-deliver. Show up at the same time every week, send out your availability list at the same time, complete every order, alert clients about changes, don’t make mistakes but correct them when you do, leave imperfect flowers at home, have sufficient amounts of product to satisfy those you serve. Make “local” a universally good thing.
We started out as dried flower suppliers, growing varieties we knew were easy, that held shape and color and didn’t require a lot of fuss. In the late 1980s and early 90s, drieds commanded sales good enough to inspire other grower-foragers locally (hardly the flower mecca of the US) to purchase $40,000 freeze driers, $15,000 rice harvesters and glycerin in fifty gallon barrels. Unlike our competitors, we kept it simple, just hanging flowers and grasses in an attic for a few days—in our hot, dry climate the danger in storing came less from mold than from overdrying and shattering.
Growing for drieds allowed a much less frenzied pace than growing for fresh sales. You can cut any time of day, so long as it’s not wet, at any speed you want, and you can sell whenever you feel like it rather than being at the beck and call of frantic customers. It’s more like selling nuts and bolts with a very long shelf life rather than the plutonium-like fresh flower that has a half-life seemingly of minutes.
A potato shipper here always claimed perishability to be the marketer’s friend, as any purchaser who held spuds too long and threw them away was taking that many spuds off the market, lowering the supply and raising the price. A perishable product is one that needs to be replaced, a non-perishable is often a one-time purchase. A dried flower buyer, unlike a fresh consumer, has only so much room, so many walls, so many baskets to fill before the need for flowers ends. It may take a couple of years, when the drieds have accumulated enough dust to be noticed, before replenishment occurs. Thus, there was bound to be an end to the dried flower boom, and when we started seeing drieds in the major chains we knew it was time to change to fresh flowers.
The marketing process for drieds fits into local networking well. Craft fairs, farmer’s markets, and your own workshops to teach how to use product creatively (and simultaneously selling attendees flowers) brings in a much vaster clientele than fresh avenues. Consumers who never buy fresh flowers, primarily because of their short use life, often perceive drieds as a bargain because they last. Small craft stores and even small chains may be amenable to purchasing drieds, while larger ones tend to have their own supply chain—if you can work with headquarters of larger stores, you will get increased sales, though with a smaller markup, of course.
If you think you can take product after it gets too old to market as fresh and just hang it and dry it think again. Drying doesn’t improve bad product, and hydrating flowers works against the drying process. Flowers generally open after being hung to dry just as they generally open in the cooler, so most species (not all) should be cut as the flowers are opening, not when they’re blown. Ammobium, Acrolinium, Centaureas, Xeranthemum, strawflowers—all should be picked before fully open, as they’ll continue to unfold as they dry. Pods can be fully formed—nigella, poppies—but should be picked slightly before they’re ready to throw their seeds. Grasses shouldn’t be completely seeded, as they’ll ripen further as they hang, making them more fragile. Drieds tend to fade in color, so be prepared. The only flower we know that becomes more intensely colored is lemon bee balm, pink in the field but purple after being dried.
Drying flowers requires dry air, of course, so if you live in a wet climate your costs will be higher in terms of drying time and fans. Storing requires correct temperature and humidity, as too wet inspires mold and too dry creates easily shattered product. A designer gave us her technique to resurrect very dry product—she actually dunked it in a bucket of water to reconstitute the flowers, made her wreaths, let them dry again. She was a wizard with dried designs, operating an entire storefront on a busy street in a city of 50 thousand when drieds were a big thing.
The more massive the flower material, the more difficult it will be to dry. Sunflower heads, laid out on racks, may take well over a week, and amaranth needs considerable time to desiccate the thick stalks.
Moths were a bane to stored dry flowers. Other pests like carpet beetles add to the problems. Many growers placed a pesticide-laced bar, like those in fly-strip boxes, in boxed material to prevent problems. Mice can also be troublesome, particularly with grains and grasses.
Glycerin acts as a preservative for many drieds, but must be used with fresh product so that the still living stems will draw the oily substance up and distribute it through the entire material. Bells of Ireland work particularly well using glycerin, and by adding dye during the preserving process can take on whatever hue you desire. Without dye, Bells will preserve into a wheat-like shade. Silica can be used to dry roses and other flowers to retain a better shape, and can even be quick-dried by pulsing in a microwave—be careful not to get the material so hot you overheat and ruin the flowers. We avoided using glycerin and silica, since any extra labor generally didn’t increase revenue that much.
Lepidium species sold best for us, though statice was close behind. A wild, perennial Lepidium, on the noxious weed list here, was a prime dried area designers used, preserving with glycerin. We raised Attraxa and Sativa, harvesting both when the uppermost flower was gone and the lower pods were forming, then hanging in an unused greenhouse to let the sun bleach the bunches to a wheat hue. We often dip dyed Sativa into blues, burgundies and greens, but Attraxa has a waxy covering that resisted dip dyes. Both of these varieties sold extremely well at all sales levels, and craft stores proved to be a great outlet for large numbers of bunches. Statice and grasses tended to go well, too, but just as “focal” flowers command more money at the fresh level, larger flowers sold better at the dried—a twenty stem bunch of ammobium looks pretty puny aside a bunch of statice or lepidium. Poppy pods were a great seller, too, and you could bet on any Middle Easterner stopping at your booth—without fail, they could spot a poppy from twenty yards.
Drieds gave the business an almost festive feel in the fall and winter months—when you’re not busy out in the fields weeding, planting, harvesting and irrigating dealing with customers becomes a much more pleasant experience. Give them a shot if you need some winter chores and aren’t completely spent by work through the rest of the flower growing year.
Note: If any of you out there in cyberland have a copy of Alberta Supernaturals by Buck Godwin, please contact Olds College in Canada—given the resurgence of drieds, the information in that book would be invaluable to growers. The photos wouldn’t be usable, since they were bad even in the days before Iphones, but the research is without equal elsewhere.
A Zen sage said “choosing is a sickness of the mind”, and certainly dithering over things, when it’s not one’s choice of entertainment (AKA “shopping”), can be a debilitating habit, but DECIDING is not a sickness but moving forward.
Nonetheless, decisions can be catastrophic or they can be fortunate and not knowing which they’ll be can be intimidating enough to freeze the soul.
There may be no sure way to foresee where a decision will lead, but often you can see if you’re heading toward a dead end or onto a path with more forks in the road.
My father made a permanent decision while in the Army, when he had a large likeness of a woman’s face tattooed on his arm with the name “Helen” beneath it. My mother, Margarete, got to share it with him for forty-five years. Let’s call this sort of choice, an irreversible one, a tattoo decision, and its companion on the other end of the spectrum a henna decision—one that holds for a few days, but eventually can be replaced. As you make farm decisions you should have this spectrum in the back of your mind—tattoo or henna? Does the choice at hand increase possibilities or limit them, expand or diminish freedom to make other choices?
If I plant just one crop, then one ill-timed hailstorm, one insect outbreak, one fungal or disease problem can wipe my entire year out (a hard frost on the peonies, a bad spider mite year on dahlias, or, recall the Irish Potato Famine, so devastating because the entire population planted a single cultivar, one susceptible to the blight). Planting one thing makes for fewer decisions—it’s easier to grow eighty acres of nigella than one acre of 80 different species—but the danger of total catastrophe is always there.
Devoting your product to just one market is a tattoo decision. Setting up your business for commerce with a large wholesaler or supermarket chain certainly eases things in one sense, but also means you may not be able to recover when policy changes occur or managers change their minds. You can easily be left with a field of unsold flowers, scrambling for buyers who may not exist.
You can make decisions that seem to simplify things but which complicate them in other ways. Every time I buy a small item at a store these days I’m reminded of the rural grocery store where I bought penny candy as a child, when the aged owner could make change and complete the transaction much more quickly than the cashier with a computer does now—never mind if the power goes out, making the store unable to operate. Easy as the computer system has made some things, in other ways it’s presence defies common sense, making some simple transactions not only difficult but impossible.
It’s not just computers—any piece of technology can simultaneously ease and confound. When I worked on a large commercial farm in the 1980s, for instance, potato harvest took the general form of a two row harvester, a two row side-digger (also called a windrower) that added to the harvester’s rows, and a host of trucks to move product from field to cellar, where a dozen more employees sorted rocks and clods from spuds. For our six hundred acres we had two side-diggers and two harvesters to keep six trucks running back and forth, so if one machine broke down the others could keep the harvest process going, the trucks busy, the cellar crew working. A harvester could dig two rows if a windrower broke down, a side-digger could work doubly hard to keep both harvesters going, or two side-diggers could make six rows if one harvester was down.
As is the way of capitalism and technology, “better” and “bigger” came along in the form of a four-row side-diggers (even wider combines and windrowers exist now, loading trucks in a couple minutes—it used to take us twenty). The boss decided to eliminate two tractors and two operators by buying one four-row to take the place of the two old school windrowers, run one combine to pick up six rows at a time. When everything worked smoothly, that turned out just fine.
But breakage occurred—chains broke, rollers wore out, dirt clogged the machine, a truck or tractor got stuck and held up the entire process. The cellar crew stood around and did nothing, the six truck drivers sat waiting, the sorters on the combine took an extra lunch, and the threat of a hard, crop-ruining frost seemed ever closer. Becoming more efficient became less efficient because there was no slack in the operation where quick changes could be made.
The computer can be a tattoo, that four row windrower can be a tattoo. Anything that deprives you of possibility, that makes you more dependent, may make your life easier on one hand and more difficult on the other. Take evolution’s lesson from the
Panda’s cul-de-sac—its diet is exclusively bamboo (somewhere along the line it eliminated pecan pie and shrimp gumbo from its table, a drastic mistake), making its existence dependent on that plant. If bamboo goes extinct, so does the panda. Make decisions that instead take you down widening paths with multiple opportunities, as the coyote and cockroach have, eating anything, living anywhere, adapting along with the environment—and surviving, against all odds.
If you make your operation dependent on doing things a single way, on selling a single product, on selling to a single buyer, then any small hiccup can shut the entire process down. Keep alternative avenues open.
A couple decades ago we were bicycling through our hometown and passed by the old high school drive-in haunt, where an old man sat smoking a cigar alongside his wife. He hailed us, waved us in, and gregariously began telling us of his new restaurant plans. “Mama Mia’s” would be Italian, of course, and as if reading our questioning minds went on to tell us that he knew it was a terrible location, not only because it was off the beaten path but because it was in a town of diner-food and chain restaurant lovers, but because the price was right, a fraction—a small fraction--of what an equivalent place would be either north or south twenty miles in towns five to ten times as large where foodies might actually appreciate his fare.
He had never had a restaurant, was a retired opera singer. His wife had been a professional figure skater, and both came from New York—we never learned why they picked Idaho as a retirement place. He said he knew they were going to “take it in the shorts” for awhile, but they intended to give it three years before they gave up from failure or continued because of success.
It took a couple years to take off. He quickly realized trying to serve the nearby high-schoolers conflicted with serving high end customers, that cooking fast food and slow food simultaneously was just too hard, so he dropped the young crowd in favor of the older. They ironed out their service problems—juggling time and customers doesn’t come easy to the untrained. Little by little, through word of mouth, the place started filling up, and on any given night you’d see a parking lot of cars with license plates from counties twenty miles away or more—and every once in awhile one with a plate from our county (local clientele never did catch on).
If you’re a new grower in his or her first three or four years, you’d be ahead to take a page from the DiStefanos at Mama Mia’s. Just as very few restaurants succeed initially, few flower farms are likely to make it. If a flower farm was like Ikea furniture, coming with an instruction sheet and instant success for those with rudimentary skills, everyone would have one—and no one would consequently need one. It takes time to find one’s market, time to iron out the bugs, and still you might easily fail. Be patient, take feedback, keep nosing around like a rat into every dark hole.
Each state has a Land Grant College that focuses on agricultural topics, and ours has a research facility in Aberdeen, Idaho, near where I worked on a commercial farm for fifteen years. As in most rural areas, it’s great sport at coffee shops to make fun of academics and bureaucrats like those who worked at the University Experiment Station, and I recall a tale that made for great fun for many years as a point of anti-intellectual ridicule.
It seems that a worker at the facility was weeding the area one day, using a method unlike that undertaken by most anyone who gardens. He first went through the area pulling one species, then again pulling another, until the area was clean. It was an example of inefficiency to the local farmers, showing just how dumb those smart PhDs really were in comparison to them, the salt of the earth. I repeated the story myself a number of times when I wanted to be “one of the boys”.
It wasn’t until years later, after a graduate level Research Methods class, that the penny dropped for me, when I realized the dumb weeder was probably measuring the biomass of each species so he could calculate which was most noxious, which was requiring the most time to eradicate, which was stealing the most nutrients—among other possible findings. It turns out that those of us ridiculing those “dumb intellectuals” were the real idiots, our minds stuck in one context as we were observing quite another.
Academics typically get a bad rap in the hands-on sector. “Those who can’t do, teach,” is a common refrain used to denigrate intellectuals, almost always by those who were taught everything they know—their knowledge came from somewhere, they conveniently forget. Trained to be precise and accurate, academic researchers do experiments in controlled situations to make sure their data jibes and that their work can be replicated and thus verified or disproven by others. Sometimes their efforts seem trivial because the rest of us don’t understand the entire paradigm they operate in, but closer looks usually reveal a broader picture of more importance. I’d challenge anyone who pokes fun at researchers to give it a try, see how hard it is to summon the talents to carefully plan and complete a project that bears the close scrutiny of peer review.
While academics can make mistakes, too (after all, they’re human) you can depend on information coming out of land grant universities because it’s stringently vetted. You may have to alter their findings to fit your soil and climate, change them to work with your philosophy, but they come about via hard work—they’re not just opinions. The same can’t be said for those of us out in the field, where we rely on immediate impressions in a constantly changing milieu where no two occasions and two settings are exactly alike. We can perhaps be forgiven for making premature conjectures, making off-the-cuff judgments, accepting anecdotal evidence, and fudging our perceptions to meet our beliefs, but there’s no forgiveness for not understanding that our findings are tentative and incomplete. A good scientist knows that science is only as good as the information already derived and that new findings can change accepted conclusions, and the rest of us should follow suit, keep experimenting and making conclusions but taking our findings with a grain of salt—actually, for most of us, a tablespoon or the entire shaker might be more appropriate.
The internet gives the impression of all information being equal. It’s all just words on a screen, so information derived lazily can’t be sorted from hard-earned information that’s been tested. Hence, magic potions and methods for insect control, planting times, disease inhibition, take hold and spread much like gossip—sometimes intentionally, the purveyor out to get your money or support, more often carelessly, without thought as to veracity or the damage done by passing on falsehoods. Not infrequently, Internet information comes from people who try to make up for their minimal experience with an excess of certainty. Consequently, the amount of misinformation and disinformation on flower growing far exceeds the amount of accurate information available. Beware.
If academics reside in an ivory tower insulated from the real world—and some, no doubt, do—laypeople dwell in cloud cuckooland, unconstrained by fact (most, I hope, don’t—though the final tally hasn’t yet come in). We imagine connections, sometimes outlandish, between substances, methods and the real world that seem more appropriate in the sandbox than in an adult setting. We surmise without really thinking, not realizing that events temporally joined, that objects spatially connected, don’t entail a cause and effect relationship—instead, they may just happen to exist side by side. We don’t consider that even cause-effect relationships that have occurred in the past may not in the future, since conditions change in the ongoing world. The list of possible misjudgments reaches to the infinite, the number of logical fallacies isn’t far behind, and the truths we desire are few—we need to cultivate our minds like we do our fields, with a constant process of care and feeding, not to mention a good deal of weeding out the unwanted and unnecessary detractors that get in the way.
One of the biggest time sucks for growers comes at the processing area, the last stop for flowers before they reach the delivery van. For some, as much time goes into preparing field cuts for sale as the actual harvesting. Grading, measuring, separating and stripping stems take time, and the more of it you use the less profitable your farm.
Depending on your market, you may be overprocessing. While large wholesalers demand exact sizes, identical bloom or bud harvest, and stripped stems, local flower buyers may not. Ours don’t, thank God, or we simply wouldn’t have stayed in business—it’s just too much work and I’m too sloppy and anti-authoritarian, every bunch of flowers would be harvested under protest to the rules of order. Our clients even prefer flowers cut at multiple stages, since they don’t look as if a cookie cutter has punched them out—they make a design look real, giving it movement instead of a finished, stale look.
If you move flowers very quickly from field to buyer, stripping becomes less necessary. Taking leaves and detritus off the lower part of stems keep them from attracting diseases, deteriorating under water, and plugging water uptake for the flowers, but if your flowers aren’t underwater for days and days the risks of problems lowers. You may have to strip if you have fussy buyers, but our last complaint about it came over two decades ago from the wholesaler we sold to—and he was only bothered by larkspur’s easily deteriorating leaves.
Some operations bring all the flowers into the processing area and have a person grade what comes in, stem by stem, but if you have well-trained harvesters this should be unnecessary. We call multitasking “the art of doing two or more things badly at the same time”, but judging length and bloom stage as you cut is doing one thing—you just have to do it right the first time. By separating harvest into cutting and processing stages, you’re making one task two, doubling the time you use.
I cut almost all of our flowers, and as owner, admittedly, it’s a different animal for me than for employees who worry if they’re doing it right. I can make quick judgments and change standards if the crop is worse or demand heightens, cut longer or shorter if needed, more open or closed if necessary, where an employee doesn’t have the understanding of the operation that tells him or her what I already know. But unless you harvest more than 150 bunches a day, you can do the cutting yourself—let employees do the more tedious, more simple tasks like weeding.
Jeriann processes the flowers, and her work consists mostly of a quick once-over regarding quality (yes, even I slip up and make mistakes, missing an aphid infestation here, misaligning stems there, among other things), recutting stems so they’re more even (if you even up stems in the field, it takes way too much time, though the stem ends should be within and inch or two of each other just by holding the bunch and pressing the stems against your body—leaving some very nice stem stains on your shirt that will tell you which clothing to wear for the farm, which for town), and sleeving.
We sleeve any flower that will be damaged by pulling in and out of buckets. Composites, like black-eyed susans, will break unless you and the clients are careful, and care takes time—which costs. Sleeves also delineate the size of bunches for buyers, necessary because people won’t buy what they don’t know they’re buying—we discovered this when we had a bucket of unsleeved quaking grass and sold none, then sleeved them up and sold them all the next trip. Customers don’t like to ask, generally, they want buying to be easy.
Sleeving allows you to pull bunches in and out of water, because the sleeves slide against each other rather than stems tangling up with each other. It also allows you to pack flowers more tightly in a bucket, since tangling isn’t a problem. We don’t sleeve too far ahead of time, however, as condensation can occur on plastic and cause quick deterioration of flower petals that touch it. Foxglove in particular, with its tissuelike flower, will brown quickly from absorbing the condensation.
We are unacquainted with paper sleeves, as they weren’t available when we began farming, but I assume they have a set of problems different than their plastic counterparts. No doubt they absorb water, where plastic doesn’t, limiting their use for longterm storage (longterm in relation to the 3-4 days of plastic sleeves).
Part of processing doesn’t go with harvest time, but with reconditioning older flowers in the cooler. You should have an idea how long you can store most of your species, and if you’ve been growing them a while you know which dirty the water more quickly so need to be recut and put in fresh water. Those with “slick” stems don’t deteriorate as rapidly as mushy stemmed species like lamb’s ears, so can sit a couple days longer without refreshing. If your flowers are packed tightly—not too tight—it’s easy to hug a whole bucket and pull the contents out in one go, lay it on the table and cut away, then get them back in fresh water. This is a good time to sleeve for the next sale.
Streamline your harvest to client process—don’t split harvest and sizing into two tasks, do both as you cut; sleeve to ease the movement of flowers in the processing area, on the delivery vehicle, for the client; strip only if you need to, as you may be doing A+ work and being paid for A- when the customer only wants the latter.
Adding a step is almost never saving a step, and saving a step is often adding a step. When a new idea comes along, I’m skeptical. Since I grow flowers so I don’t have to have a job I don’t like, I have to make money, so any technique or technology has to make my life easier and more profitable. Being “cool”, being “innovative”, being “clever”, just isn’t enough for me, I want something to work better, operate more cheaply, make things simpler. Hence, a lot of techniques other growers utilize fall away for me, because one more thing for our farm, where we work hard and leanly, is one too many more things—we’ve maxed out in regards to our ability to do more and still enjoy life. We don’t mind being exhausted at the end of the day—in fact, when exhaustion hits me and my body warns me it’s going to fail (tear, break, collapse) I usually work another fifteen minutes, knowing that’s the end of the tank, the fumes.
Admittedly, I have a knee-jerk bias against “new” techniques, methods, machines and equipment of all sorts. You live long enough and the list of things that were supposed to work but which didn’t, the things promised as making things easier that instead made them more complicated, grows so much longer than the list of the things that did work, were better, that you just start saying no the minute you see the next item coming down the new-and-better chute—I hold up the cross and wear the garlic, just like when I see the missionaries heading down my sidewalk. As you age, you really have to train yourself to remain open to the new, just as when you’re young it’s a tough go to imagine anything that already is not being old and outdated.
A few of the things we don’t do on our farm, sometimes because we don’t believe they work, sometimes because we’re sure they won’t work on our scale, and sometimes because they don’t quite make the cut in terms of work-saving or costs. Others may find any of these doable on their farm, at their scale, in their scheme, and many do.
Occultation. Without having tried “occultation”, I dismiss it as unworkable on a multi-acre farm. How much tarp can I afford to cover my land, how many hours to put it down, take it back up, how much area to store it—and how do I even know it works? I do know it doesn’t work in situations where rhizomatous plants grow, because those species send out roots to continue their existence, roots that return to the smothered area once tarps are removed. And, unless you practice no-till along with occultation, disturbing the soil will bring up more seeds to the surface to replace those killed by the heat of a smothering tarp.
No-till. Without trying no-till farming I’m skeptical, again, as to its efficacy on the scale we operate. We definitely believe in low-till—why do more than you need to?—but in our native soil that’s between 1 and 2 percent organic matter, the cost of necessary soil amendments to make planting possible without tilling exceeds the national debt. A case of great in theory, not so great in practice if I can’t make a living. In our arid climate, my extension agent tells me, there is no biodegrading going on in the winter or even on summer nights, when our temperatures get too cold for natural composting to occur, so leaving plant matter as it is, without turning it into the soil, makes for a slow process. Having witnessed how slowly sunflowers and sorghum deteriorate, I believe him. How does one no-till in such a situation without bringing in compost? And the compost comes from any distance, requires factory-style production, is the carbon footprint from that action not as detrimental to the environment as tilling? And, do the extra hours of applying compost and other techniques make up for the hours saved by not weeding?
Low tunnels. Before I launch into why we DON’T use low tunnels, let me give you a couple links to some good advice should you want to build your own:
The Bare Mountain videos on YouTube, while tedious, really display the best way to make low tunnels—we’ve seen them in person and were very impressed. They’ve made them easy to operate, sturdier than the rinky-dink structures you might try to make if you’re like me, and they actually get TIGHTER in the wind, rather than loosening up as most tunnels do. If you’re handy (I’m not), you can make a topnotch structure using their techniques—you really can’t do any better. Pay attention, because with low tunnels, more than any other infrastructure on the farm, you get what you pay for: if you want to cut corners, weather, be it as snow, rain or wind, will find those missed corners, and if you’re meticulous about building them, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of security and a smugness that your tunnels withstood that sudden snow onslaught where your competitors’ didn’t.
We don’t use low tunnels. Neither the narrow, single or double row structures (3-4 foot wide) nor those you can stand in (various widths 10-12 foot). Thought about it. Thought about it again. And again. It’s enticing, expanding the season when you only have 120 frost-free days. But there were too many strikes against them and we never adopted their use. Subjectively, we find even the larger ones too claustrophobic and tight to work in—our twenty foot wide tunnels can be stifling, space-wise, unless you’re a smaller person (6 foot tall here)—and the constant attention needed for the smaller ones is just too annoying (having to work around them when weeding, harvesting, putting them up and taking them down). Just covering and uncovering our small garden patch of tomatoes taught us we didn’t have the stomach or manpower needed to roll down and secure plastic or other covering when it got cold (always a windy situation, at dusk), nor to raise it as it got sunny and hot so plants wouldn’t fry, Even after a couple years of having a rollup hoophouse, I gave up trying to keep up with the up and down business required to take advantage of the sun and protect from the cold—the weather changes so rapidly here that I was out rolling the sides up and down three and four times a day, each time doing damage, however minuscule, to the plastic, so now we leave the sides up except on extremely cold nights.
These are just personal preferences, but objectively a couple things hold us back from using low tunnels. Our marketing season ends just after Labor Day, when our resort customers head back to real lives, so we discovered early on in our careers that extending the autumn end of the year was just a waste of time. Using low tunnels to protect from that one hard frost, a frost that prevents a grower from taking advantage of Indian summers that might last several weeks, doesn’t help us at all, because even if we had product we couldn’t sell it.
But on the front end of our sales season, it’s a different story. Our big push starts just after Memorial Day, though we have some clientele as early as March—mostly supermarkets that buy our tulips—so tunnels would be a great boon to start early crops to hit the June bride season, when we generally have only peonies, a few perennials, and whatever we can scare up from our two greenhouses. A few extra weeks of heat and we could probably knock up our June sales by a third or even a half.
Unfortunately, our climate has severe frosts even into mid-May—it’s pretty common to see low twenties even then, and while low tunnels can protect some hardier species at those temperatures, the narrower tunnels (3 feet) won’t give necessary help to the more tender annuals—lilies and sunflowers come to mind, a couple crops that take cool weather just fine but which even a light frost will ruin. A second feature of our climate: about one in ten years we get a heavy snow storm in mid-April, a foot or more of wet snow that is just too much for low tunnels to bear unless you’re willing to give constant vigilance—we’re not, since we generally are too exhausted by noon to consider one more thing to do.
The cost of low tunnels is generally considered to be about half that of space under unheated rollup hoophouse, so while they’re cheaper, we figure we just as well have something secure, easy to manage, that doesn’t require constant attention—and pay the extra for larger, roomier structures. I put low tunnels in a category with CoolBots—both are cheaper than their alternatives, but neither have any recoverable cost, meaning they have no value as resale. It’s not really fair to compare the alternatives costwise without comparing the value you might get out of them should you either fail, enlarge the operation, or choose to go a different route. Once you compare costs this way, the difference between the two might be negligible, but you gain reliability with “normal” refrigeration units or properly designed hoophouse structures that withstand wind and snowload—and the more expensive versions keep some value, in our case as much or more than half their original costs.
Low tunnels work best for those who don’t own their land, since they can be dismantled and moved, or for those with hilly acreages where more standard houses can’t be built unless excavation is undertaken. They can be built as rudimentarily as you want—two pieces of rebar with an old piece of hose across the top to support a chintzy covering—or as sturdily as you wish: conduit or PVC shaped to fit your rows, with pointed “roofs” being better at shedding snow that rounded ones. You can use light row cover fabric, which only gains a couple degrees but can also provide shade or protection against insects, heavy fabric, thin plastic, thick plastic, and slotted plastic that breathes—a necessary attribute if you don’t intend to babysit the tunnel, because temperatures raise very quickly under plastic and can easily ruin crops in an hour or less.
Pitfalls of the low tunnel: increased difficulty in weeding; limited to shorter species; worries about contact of fabric on blooms on frosty nights that mar the flowers; drip tape movement from heat/cold changes.
Pluses include: the obvious extra days of heat; protection from hail damage (we did trial some heavy agribon on some sunflowers to bring them early, and a hailstorm that destroyed most of the May perennials didn’t break the fabric in a single place); protects from sun scorch (if you have dewy mornings, then sudden sunlight that makes white flowers brown, using low tunnels with agribon protects from that damage); protection from wind damage; shade (from agribon) lengthens stems, particularly in high light areas.
Questions to ask yourself: do you have a market for early or late blooms? Do you have market for species normally you can’t grow? Will you be around to constantly monitor temperatures, raise and lower? Do you have help to secure during wind, particularly if you choose to go the flimsy route? Do you have storage space for covers and stakes, the energy and time to take them down and put them up?
In terms of holding covering material down, growers use different methods. Some use sandbags—that would be a reason for me NOT to use tunnels, some use heavy water-filled buckets or larger poly piping filled with water, some use rocks, but we, on the rare times we’ve covered with fabric, shoveled soil along the edges since it gwear what you gain in ease.
Species we would grow:
Those for season extension in spring: ranunculus, anemone, dianthus, larkspur, nigella, lisianthus, snaps, orlaya, Bupleurum, Bells of Ireland,
Those for season ext. in fall: leucantha sage, tuberose, kale, late umbel producers like parsley and fennel, celosia, mums, snaps gomphrena, lisianthus;
Those for flower protection: Hellebore, white flowers that damage from dew/sun combination, Bleeding Hearts, Red Hot Pokers, True Hyacinths (all these have buds easily damaged by hard, early frosts);
Those species needing longer stems (agribon, not plastic, helps); varies according to climate.
Perennials that continually bloom which you want to force early, like Veronica;
Bulb crops: tulips, ornithogalums (look closely at culture sheets, as some of these have narrow growing windows).
Well, that’s basically a synopsis of a presentation I gave at the Nevada Small Farms Conference—you saved your entry fee, but you missed staying in a casino (‘nuff said about that!)
Every beginning may be naïve and stumbling, I suppose, but none seems moreso than ours (though many of you may feel otherwise, your embarrassment doubtless the maximum one can experience). We’d planted small amounts of a hundred species of dryable flowers, many unsuited to our soil and climate, just to see what might happen, and when an article in the local paper featured a company just 90 miles away that specialized in foraged and cultivated drieds to ship across the nation we thought we were in luck to have an instant market. How fortuitious and easy!
Jeriann went to the business with a few bundles of statice, some acrolinium, some xeranthemum—bunches about one-fourth the size they should have been, unbeknownst to us—to forge a deal. The owner asked our price (imagine that!) but inexperienced as we were, we hadn’t thought that far ahead. Jeriann’s response was “how much will you give me?” The owner told her to come back when we had a suitable amount of product and a price and Jeriann returned home mortified, never to return. We licked our wounds and began selling drieds at the farmer’s market, slowly figuring out through trial and error just what our product might be worth, what might sell, what we could grow, and in a decade or so we had a pretty good idea.
The cold call ices the heart of all of us not born with the sales gene. Making and marketing almost never come in the same package, as any artist (and probably, farmer) will tell you—it’s said that eighty percent of a successful artist’s time goes to schmoozing and selling, meaning most artists aren’t successful, being either unable or unwilling to put that much effort into promoting themselves—it just seems, for lack of better, more G-rated words, “icky”. That’s why artists have agents and almost any business has a marketing department, even if it’s just the mother-in-law.
Luckily, some products need less marketing legwork than paintings, books, and songs—flowers being one of them. Growing flowers isn’t as difficult as creating works of art, and marketing them generally requires less effort, too. Certainly, though, selling them is more difficult than Jeriann’s claim that “the flowers sell themselves.” According to her, she just opens up the van and the product wows the customer with olfactory and visual appeal. If your product’s good enough, if your market’s open enough, she may be right.
If you’re competing with flowers brought in from thousands of miles away, packed in a box and sometimes days old, then freshly cut and properly conditioned flowers may indeed sell themselves. We often see sunflowers shipped in that look more like blackeyed susans, so when our suns of a size too large to ship profitably show up at our customers’ doors, shippers can’t compete. Our snaps and sweet peas exude fragrance often lost in shipping, and foliages aren’t flattened by a thousand mile ride in a box so appear to be of far greater quality. But you, as a salesperson, still provide the last touch to the sales transaction, may make the difference between a yes and a no, so you have to be personable, dress properly, say the right things (and don’t say the wrong ones), smile, be service-oriented, and not only possess but use those often unspoken skills required in any relationship: listening and being attentive.
Likely, you feel yourself lacking in the salesmanship category, and having been on the receiving end of a high pressure pitch, whether from barkers at carnivals or missionaries and insurance salesmen forcing their foot in the door, you may have installed an instant “delete” or “ignore” in your behavior. You don’t want to be “that person” pushing product on someone—and yet, here you are, thrust into that position!
A great deal of modern philosophy deals with the relationship between self and other, teasing apart the same angst most of us feel when confronting a possible customer. If you want to find out just how uneducated you are, try reading Jean Paul Sartre’s effort to do so, “Being and Nothingness”--I tried and failed, but a professor held my hand through part of it and explained it thusly: we can either be the subject or the object, never both, so when we deal with others we can perceive of ourselves as one or the other and we experience each differently, as being acted upon or acting upon someone else. If you’ve taken a speech class, you probably were told to treat the people as objects to make speaking easier (a common piece of advice: look at the audience and picture them as being naked), since if you pay attention to yourself you’ll probably lose track of your notes, your speech, and end up as a trembling, stuttering pool of emotion. Sartre referred to the “gaze”, which the subject imposes on the object: the physician on the patient, the banker on the loan applicant, the employer on the potential worker, and we can throw in the buyer on the seller—if you’re unprepared and reticent.
I don’t believe philosophers ever found a satisfactorily logical route around “the gaze”, but many, if not most, humans have found a way to circumvent the more painful part of it by, for instance, having distracting games at parties, something to bounce one’s attention off of so we’re not picking each other apart. When we have a meal, see a movie, go to an event with another, we may not be completely sharing a moment in the same way, but we are reflecting off the same surface, and by doing so can know the other better, accumulate history, build a relationship. A sales experience can be much the same if the seller and buyer don’t make it a war of selves, a competition between who gazes and who is gazed upon.
This third thing—a game at a party, a meal, a movie—turns out to be the flowers for us farmers. Jeriann claims selling flowers is easy because she “believes in them,” knows the quality is good, knows the color is right, knows our prices are competitive, so she doesn’t have to promote or lie (are those two words redundant? Hmm…) to sell them. By making the sale about the flowers, she avoids the inevitable power clash between salesman and buyer, that wrestling match defining what for many of us is the worst part of being involved in commerce, whether as a customer or a producer. By making the discussion about a third thing, the interaction becomes less about power of one over the other. And though the two people involved may color the discussion with their peccadillos, abilities and intents, the event becomes less confrontational and more cooperative.
I once heard a novelist describe his religious affiliation as Jack-Taoist. He studied all the world’s major religions to find the one most easily adhered to—Taoism, in his mind—and then he practiced it badly (you may not know the term “jack”, a prefix used in predominantly Mormon areas to label those who are followers in name only—Jack-Mormons, who swear, smoke, drink coffee and alcohol, but perhaps still attend church).
Well, in farming terms, we’re Jack-Sustainables, Jack-Organicists, Jack-No-Tills, because we believe in sustainable farming, consider organic farming to be the most ideal practice, and agree that no-till beats getting on the tractor for recreation at every chance, but in practice we not only think of sustainable as including our financial health, but also use chemicals when alternative means don’t exist (though we’ve abandoned plenty of crops over the years rather than use chemicals). We also think of tilling more as having a drink or two socially rather than something to be banned by the Tilling Temperance Union.
Earlier in “jack”’s history, it was used as a prefix sort of as “not” is now—as in “that’s so cute (not)”. So a jack-gentleman was a person of low birth pretending to be a gentleman, a jack-sauce was a poor substitute for the real thing (think Velveeta, instead of cheese). In any case, with the kinder, newer version of the term or the older, more contemptuous variation, at our farm we’re essentially pretenders. .We started out with good intentions, but as need arose, we drifted away from the church. We’ve gone so far as once hiring a crop duster on a year aphids plagued the entirety of Southeast Idaho, rather than facing a complete loss of our livelihood.
That’s why we admire dyed-in-the-wool adherents—we know we’re “sinners”, having opted for survival over beliefs. It’s true the faithful may never face the same difficulties we do—the aphid population explosions that occur in high temperatures that don’t in mild climates, for instance, or soils that hover at one percent organic matter, limiting the use of no-till—but it’s also true we probably haven’t tried as hard as we could have. Though we used every organic method and substance we ever came across (and found them to be failures) in our early years, more efficacious products have no doubt since developed, but because the overtouted claims surrounding the organic movement became so numerous we gave up, unable to summon the energy to sort through fiction to find fact. No one garners more of our respect than those who held steadfast amidst the chaos of misinformation, particularly researchers who did real studies to sort our what truly works from fantasy. Integrated Pest Management is an art form, in our minds, and we’re just scrawlers barely able to scratch out stick figures—scouting for pests and diseases should be the first item on any farmer’s list, and admittedly it was always the last on ours.
As deserving of respect and admiration those at the forefront of farming may be, not every farmer should join the nunnery or priesthood—they just don’t know what they’re getting into, and those spreading the gospel tend not to display the backsides of their offerings. Those methods—both the new and the repurposed ones—that hit the farming circuit really should be rated and rewarded like Olympic diving or figure skating. I can see it now: In Lane One, Big Bloom Farms, using no fungicides in a wet climate, a 7.1 difficulty; In Lane Two, Half “S” Acres will try no-till on intermountain soil of 1 percent organic matter in an arid climate, using no miticide, a 7.3 difficulty; In Lane Three, Bag O’Blossoms Place, growing organically and sustainably on six acres amidst hundreds of thousands of acres of commercially grown tomatoes, a 7.9 difficulty. The ideal reward would be prices that raised along with the difficulty of the grower’s methods, but sorry, it doesn’t work that way. While some clients might pay slightly more for flowers grown using specialty methods, mostly the rewards are intrinsic, the sense of having done things right.
But it would be nice if the methods being bandied about had a rating so growers could calculate whether they wanted to adopt them, a way to see if the necessary skill sets to use them matched one’s own, what the success rate of a method was as you moved through climate zones, latitude, rainfall amounts, soil types, production amounts, profit return. Because growing in a commercial farming area entails different problems than growing in an isolated area where pests and diseases have yet to invade. Growing in a wet climate has pros and cons much different than growing in an arid one. Growing in acid soils requires different methods than doing so in alkaline ones. Growing in loamy soils of high organic matter allows leeway not present in sandy or clayish ones of low matter. Cold climates versus warm ones, long season versus short, shallow soils and deep, small square footages versus large acreages—the list of differences extends almost infinitely, and the central core ideals of the proposed methods can’t match up with all of them. Reading about “new” or “long-forgotten and secret” methods is like looking at a pointillist painting: from a distance the representation seems clear, elegant and beautiful, but up close only dots of color appear, making no “sense” at all. Ideals often appear to be very clean in one’s mind as we read or think, but when they hit reality they dirty very fast.
It would be equally beneficial if the success stories of innovations included financial statements so we knew just how “success” was being defined, so we could make our own judgments by comparing their use of the word to our own before we began our religious pilgrimages. Marketers of methods often never made what you might call a living from actual farming: perhaps they had off-farm income, perhaps they only became successful after gathering a “following” who began buying their products, perhaps they inherited land (which you didn’t) or had a boost from outside investors. There’s no way to know, and trust should never be the default mode (nor should distrust, by the way)—it’s something to be earned, one act at a time.
There are decisions to make as we farm, one at a time, and they can’t be made by assuming our sources’ “success” is either real or can be easily replicated. Before adopting new methods, we have to do thought experiments, imagine what would happen on our farm with our abilities, before undertaking them. We happen to be skeptical so doubt not just others but ourselves—are we (or they) too excited about undertaking a new method? Too resistant (or eager) to trying something new? We understand our own belief systems (and theirs), know that ideologies sometimes work against each other, are even contradictory, as in measuring the value of eating organic asparagus shipped from Argentina (organic=good, but a carbon load exceeding beef’s=bad). Is “organic” important for our own health or the world’s? Is a carbon footprint really important to us, or are we picking and choosing in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves—applying stringent rules to plastic use, for instance, but not so stringent ones toward our personal travel and entertainment, our phone and the hidden technological network needed to build it and make it work, our Amazon Prime purchases and the delivery system necessary to bring them to our home?
So, occultation is touted as weed control, but if I have just two acres infested with quackgrass I need roughly 86,000 square foot of tarp or plastic, a way to secure it, the manpower to put it down and take it up a few months for the method to work—or I can use two ounces of glyphosate, after which, with proper practices, I can farm away without herbicides for the rest of my life. Which method is more sustainable? Which the biggest carbon footprint? Which the most negative impact on the health of the planet? On mine? Can I really say one way is right, the other wrong, or can I just say that, given particular premises, one method has better results, a lower impact, while with different premises, the other reigns supreme?
I see no-till resurrected (a few local grain farmers tried it here in the 1970s) as a low-impact, nigh miraculous method, look at my farm, my soil, how slowly sunflower or sorghum stalks deteriorate in a cold, arid climate, and doubt its efficacy for me. I would have to cover my existing beds with composted medium—about three miles, three foot wide, six inches deep—revamp my subsurface irrigation, figure out how to keep new plants wet in a porous soil in a climate where ten percent humidity’s not unusual. I have to assume it’s not for us, while wondering just who it’s for and in what conditions. In our context, tilling seems more sustainable than collecting plant matter, consistently moistening (a necessity in our climate) and turning it repeatedly until it becomes usable as compost, and applying it. And, we’d never have enough material at the farm, we’d have to bring it in, and there’s no telling how far the medium would travel—a local landscape material producer often sends semi-loads to Florida, three thousand miles away, earning a carbon load that would defy any advantage it otherwise might have. The work involved, calculated honestly, has a cost that certainly exceeds simple tillage.
Applying cardboard or newspaper as a weed barrier? Four acres, a third of it walk rows, worth of material? In our wind? At what size of farm does such a technique work? We’ve seen gardeners use carpet remnants in such a way, but not to the extent necessary to make a living—unless you were the brother-in-law of a carpet business owner and got all the free material, delivered that you wanted.
Despite our skepticism, we’re not afraid of different and new. We plant marginal species and we’re occasionally successful. We use subsurface irrigation, a common practice in some areas of the world but one that hasn’t caught on in the American mainstream. We use biosolids, which would freak out organic purists—but where better, than a flower farming acreage, to distribute the inevitable and unwanted discards of human existence? In addition to those 70 ten wheeler loads of sludge we’ve applied, we’ve brought in two or three hundred loads of wood shavings with a bit of horse manure to use as mulch and soil amendments, but our soil is still a long way off from the organic matter present in areas where the weather is warmer and wetter and the ecosystem is more active.
“Sustainable” and “organic” have become religious words, the latter defined by law to give consumers a way to verify their purchases, the former having a meaning more in flux, depending on the organization verifying it and the grower touting it. Any term tends to deteriorate at its conceptual edges, and over many years slight misuse of a word can become continual mishandling, completely altering its original understanding until it might even turn into its opposite. Imagine the organic ideal of the 1960’s applied to an megafarm organic greens producer today, who moves an entire factory as the year progresses, from winter in Mexico, late winter in the southern US, early spring in California—what meant organic then, the back-to-nature, local and small entity, doesn’t mean organic now.
Say “I love you” too many times, in the wrong contexts, and it loses its value. Call enough things “cute” and make the word so trite a listener has no idea what you really mean. Sustainable? Organic? Who can argue against the good intentions behind them, the same light touch, low impact philosophy Lao-Tse expressed a couple millennia ago—but who can argue that adhering to the notions outside the contexts they’re suited to is little more than zealotry?
We define sustainable as staying in business, making a living, because an ideal that doesn’t include a continued livelihood isn’t workable—witness the Shakers, who didn’t believe in procreation and hence died out as a religion. Underlying this definition, of course, is “what is a living?” and this you have to decide on your own.
And we put organic on the end of a spectrum, right there with “Christ-like”, a way of being to aim at, knowing we’re bound to fail. And then somewhere along that spectrum, we put no-till, lasagna farming, French double-digging, occultation and innumerable other ways of farming until we reach the opposite end, where any nuclear option fits. Just as we respect those on the “good” end of the spectrum, we envy those on the “bad”, because nothing would make our life simpler than flying a plane over the farm once a year to solve all our insect and fungal issues. Why we refrain, I can’t say, other than we want to say we’re still members of the fold, if not in good standing.