Planting cover crop in an orchard isn’t exciting work.
Fill the seeder and drive. Refill the seeder and drive more. Sometimes a stick might jam in the seeder’s mechanism and need clearing. Then it is time to refill and drive on. It’s tedious work, but it is often one of my favorite days of the year.
Seeding the cover crop is a deliberate act of soil building for the future. I don’t plant the cover crop until a good rainstorm is imminent. There are few days when a farmer is more optimistic than the day before the first good rainstorm of the season. This is a day filled with potential.
Mostly I enjoy the otherwise monotonous work because it gives me a chance to reflect. I might find myself thinking about the year just ending or the year soon to come. Sometimes I consider broader themes. As I sowed seeds in the waning days of 2016, I found myself thinking about the word “nature.”
I am often told that I am lucky to work with nature. I am indeed fortunate to work outside in a beautiful tree-filled place. But the truth is that I don’t work in nature, even though I am surrounded by natural processes. I work in the field of applied natural science, and to me that is even more rewarding.
Farmers carefully tend the plants, animals, and soil in our care. That’s a given. We are also among the custodians of knowledge that has been nurtured over decades, centuries, and even millennia. The wonder of a farm isn’t that nature provides for our needs; it doesn’t. The wonder is that we have learned enough about nature to make its processes work for us.
The farmers and farmworkers in the field are not alone in this work. Through the ages they have been assisted by an endless procession of scientists, engineers, monks, scribes, toolmakers, and kings. This has been the work of humankind from our inception. Agriculture and settled civilizations arose together just a hundred centuries ago, but we have began nurturing this knowledge far earlier. We arose from a lineage that had been using tools and fire to process their food for more than a million years.
When it comes to the cultivation and processing of our food supply, it seems that “natural” is an unnatural concept for a Homo Sapien. Our species has never depended on nature for sustenance… even as hunter-gatherers we processed our food as no other species ever has.
As I scattered seeds meant to mimic the biodiversity of nature, I could see the work of previous generations all around me. My seed mix included hybrid grains like triticale, a rye/wheat mix; and “biomaster” peas, selected for their ability to generate organic matter. I traveled past grafted fruit trees with strong root systems and identical fruiting scions, a practice that goes back to antiquity.
A few million Aphytis Melinus and Cryptolaemus Montrouzieri, beneficial insects raised and released to overwhelm citrus pests, remained unseen around me in the foliage. I progressed block by block through the orchard populated with fruit varieties that are the result selective breeding and discovery like Meyer lemons, Lamb-Hass and GEM avocados. [All University of California!]
I paused for a moment or two to clean the solar panel of a station that delivers real-time soil moisture and salinity data to my smart phone. All the while, I appraised the soil that now boasts twice the organic matter content that it had before my ancestors started farming this piece of ground 130 years ago. Everywhere I looked traditional knowledge soldiered on side by side with more recent discoveries. Every row of trees brought a new reminder of the knowledge that humankind has nurtured, and which has nurtured and fed us in return.
With plenty to keep my mind busy, the day went quickly. Soon the equipment was in the barn, the empty sacks were in the recycle bin, and it was time to turn my attention to another year-end tradition as old as writing about agriculture: crop reporting and tax preparation. (It seems written language was not originally intended for blogs.)
Farming is not nature. It is technology. Not all of us are fifth generation farmers, but we are all heirs and beneficiaries to an ancient and yet dynamic body of knowledge.
That’s where I work.
You may also enjoy:
Agricultural/food literacy: from orchard to classroom
Q&A with Ben Faber, UC farm advisor