Heritage Foods: The Importance of Biodiversity
(Page 6 of 9)
Determining what grows successfully in any given place, and what will be a commercial success, is the primary challenge for any grower. Throw in a desire to collect and experiment with unusual foods, and this can lead at times in conflicting directions. How much should we bend to the market and winnow out underperforming plants, at the expense of greater diversity in the field? To what extent should we emphasize efficiency and uniformity over anything odd, quirky, regional, niche? Commercial growers willing to work with rare plants and animals need to discover some kind of middle ground, and make enough profit to justify the time. What will this compromise look like?
Seven miles, a fifteen-minute drive, separate my leased fields from our house. Although it’s a good bike ride, half an hour on roads with wide shoulders and moderate hills, most of the time I jump in the car. There’s all the gear to consider, plus our dog Tica. And then riding a bike home after a long day in the fields isn’t very appealing. Today I load a few stray boxes from a vegetable delivery, pack my lunch, persuade Tica to leave her bed on the porch, and drive over the Casco Bay Bridge, the roughly half-mile span that separates Portland from its neighbors to the east and south. Its highest point offers sweeping views of Portland’s working waterfront and skyline, Casco Bay, the Fore River, and whatever weather hangs over nearby Cape Elizabeth.
The weather isn’t looking very promising on this late-summer day. Clouds are gathering on the horizon, the flag raised over the bridge is whipping in the wind, and as I reach the turnoff from Route 77 toward my fields, it’s starting to rain. A storm isn’t unwelcome after last month’s heat and drought, but the unexpected change kills plans to start bud-grafting fruit trees this morning. Although a quick search online doesn’t turn up much information to discourage me, opening the bark on young trees in the rain, potentially exposing them to fungal infections, doesn’t seem like a bright idea.
The road off Route 77 passes the first of my fields. This is a new site for me, roughly a third of an acre of newly tilled and cover-cropped ground behind a grand old barn and beautiful nineteenth-century farmhouse. Its owners are letting me grow here without charge, hoping to see the space better used, and understanding that organic fruit trees suit the character of their land better than a large expanse of lawn. Last month I hired a nearby farmer to till the sod, then raked in a buckwheat cover crop to build organic matter and provide forage for Karla’s two beehives. In two years I’ll start planting trees.
My other fields are located a few doors from each other another mile or so down the road, but they occupy very different worlds. The first, more than an acre of vegetables and fruit trees, sits behind another imposing old farmhouse and large barn, surrounded by seven acres of lawns and gardens immaculately tended by the owner and hired gardeners. The second, twenty-five acres of fields and woods, privately owned but conserved as open space by the local land trust, is more like a giant community garden, its space shared by a children’s camp, a nonprofit educational group, my third-of-an-acre nursery and gardens, the farmhouse tenant, several beekeepers, and an Ethiopian immigrant who gardens there with his family. It gets very busy, and although this is one of the prettiest little farms in the Portland area, it suffers from a lack of general upkeep.
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