What’s Happening on Thornapple’s Farm

December 6, 2009

We have finally had some cold weather in Michigan over the last week. Cold weather means frost and dormancy on the farm. The harvest is over and no food is coming in to the household. Well, almost none. Weekly deliveries have been over for almost six weeks now, yet the Thompson household has been the recipient of late-harvested green tomatoes from several hoop houses (not just Thornapple’s) in the region. We have had enough of these treats, which must be left to ripen for weeks by the windowsill, that I am cooking chili with the last remnants of them here in the twelfth month of the year. That’s going on downstairs in the kitchen as I write this, but my main focus is what’s happening out on the farm itself.

Diane’s conversation has turned mostly to sheep. Yesterday she and Jane Bush rigged up a metal hut and some hay bales to serve as shelter when the icy winds blow snow across the fields. Sheep don’t actually mind the cold itself (or so we’re told), but may seek respite from the bluster of inclement weather. They were apparently sheepish about actually going in to the makeshift structure yesterday, but we will see what happens when some serious weather finally comes our way. The other big news is that a ram is “visiting” the eight ewes that call Appleschram home. I leave the rest of this story to the reader’s imagination.

As for the fields that furnish weekly deliveries for Thornapple CSA, they have now been sown in a cover crop of winter rye. Cover crops are forms of “green manure” viewed as essential components of a sustainable agriculture. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, “A winter cover crop is planted in late summer or fall to provide soil cover during the winter. Often a legume is chosen for the added benefit of nitrogen fixation. In northern states, the plant selected needs to possess enough cold tolerance to survive hard winters. Hairy vetch and rye are among the few selections that meet this need.”

Clovers are used as cover crops in warmer climes, and their ability to fix free nitrogen in the soil helps build fertility for the succeeding spring farming season. But how does rye figure in this mix? Now you’ve hit my limits of technical farming expertise. I have no idea. I do know that rye will continue to grow throughout the winter, despite the cold. Rye has an admirable ability to convert even mid-Michigan’s meager amounts of winter sunshine into photosynthetic activity. It can grow while the plant tops stick up above the snow. In larger fields, rye can be harvested as a winter crop, but I don’t think that’s in the works at Thornapple. The output from our fields would hardly make a single bottle of good rye whiskey.

The idea at Appleschram is that a cover crop of rye will deter the growth of winter hardy weeds, which would become a problem in the spring. What’s more, the organic matter from the crop itself can be turned into the soil in the springtime. The theory is that this stimulates a spike in the activity of soil micro-organisms, and decomposing plant matter from the rye becomes available as nutrients for the stuff we’ll eat next spring and summer. The National Center for Appropriate Technology is somewhat unimpressed with the prospects for using this strategy as a way to build humus (the magic bullet of organic farming), but they do endorse it as a way to improve soil structure and to allow better penetration of water.

And here’s this week’s philosophy bit. According to Wikipedia, Pliny the Elder is dismissive of rye, writing that it “is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation” and wheat is mixed into it “to mitigate its bitter taste, and even then is most unpleasant to the stomach”. I guess Pliny never bit into a good Reuben sandwich. And then there’s ergot. Ergot is a rye fungus that can cause hallucinations. Scholars have speculated that ergot was the cause of dancing manias that occurred during the late Middle Ages. According to Robert Bartholomew, “During outbreaks many immodestly tore off their clothing and pranced naked through the streets. Some screamed and beckoned to be tossed into the air; others danced furiously in what observers described as strange, colorful attire. A few reportedly laughed or weeped to the point of death. Women howled and made obscene gestures while others squealed like animals. Some rolled themselves in the dirt or relished being struck on the soles of their feet.”

We expect this kind of behavior to be occurring at Thornapple by mid-March at the latest. Actually, Bartholomew disputes the view that ergot was the cause of these spectacles, so I guess we will have to look elsewhere for our fun.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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