Sweet corn

Faithful readers will remember that our first round of sweet corn was a learning experience for us. Although the first ears we picked were fine, we let them go for another ten days, then proudly served some to the Scotts when they visited—and they were terrible, starchy and doughy and not at all sweet. So we asked around to find out what we had done wrong, and determined to do better with our second planting.

The most important thing we learned was that the corn would be ripe about three weeks after it tassled, so we watched it and marked the calendar when it tassled. The other thing we knew was that the corn is ready when you puncture a kernel with a fingernail and the juice is milky, not clear. So three weeks later we began to check the corn more or less daily, sometimes pulling back the husk on an ear and puncturing a kernel, sometimes pulling a whole ear and passing it around to sample (raw sweet corn tastes pretty good even before it is completely ripe).

It has rained heavily since Saturday and was looking pretty gloomy this morning, so I thought about putting things off until tomorrow when it would be drier. But finally I went down to the garden and tested an ear; milky juice flowed out, and so it was time. Chris and I picked it all after lunch, pulling out the stalks at the same time (easy because of the rains), then began to husk it.

Meanwhile Debbie and Maggie began processing it into creamed corn, meaning only that the kernels are cut and then the ear is scraped to get all the milky juice from it. Bad parts were cut off the ears (mostly the tip), the ears were washed and then boiled for seven minutes, then cooled in ice water. After cooling Debbie would take the ears and, using a specialized cutter, scrape the kernels and then the cob. It took awhile, but in the end we had 19 quarts of creamed corn put up, along with fifteen ears set aside for supper tonight.

The corn itself was beautiful. Maybe 5% was not ripe enough, and only a couple of the ears were at all bug-eaten. All but a few of the ears did have earworms, which had munched a couple of inches at the tip. After husking awhile we got pretty adept at pulling back the husk and shaking out the earworm in one motion. It wasn’t a major problem to cut away the worm-eaten parts, but I’d like to find out if there is any non-poisonous way to control them.

The corn at supper was perfect, the best corn I’d ever tasted—sweet and juicy, not a bit starchy. I’m looking forward to trying the creamed corn. All in all it was worth the effort, and we will be a lot smarter about it next year, staggering a number of plantings so that we can have some ready every week during the season.

Beans

We harvested 150lbs of beans from our first planting, which is probably more than we’ll be able to use between now and next year’s harvest. But we wanted to see how a second planting would do, so we planted 36 feet of white half runners, plus nine feet of Jacob’s cattle beans and nine feet of asparagus beans. They’re all bearing now.

The leaves on the white half runners were much more bug-eaten than with the first planting. Since this was a sort of experiment, we didn’t bother with the bugs so we could see whether they would also mess with the beans. It turns out that the beans are more often bug-bit than with the first planting, where nearly all the beans were perfect, but they are still pretty clean.

The runners on the Jacob’s cattle beans were apparently a delicacy to some critter; one day we came out to find that they had all been eaten clean. The leaves on the bushy part of the bean are very much bug-eaten, much more than the white half runners. There are beans on the plant, though not too many. We’ll pick what we get and then dry and shell them.

The asparagus beans are doing spectacularly well. I’m not a very adventurous gardener yet—I leave it to others to decide what variety to plant. But when I saw the description of these on the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange website, I couldn’t pass them up. After all, three foot long beans! What surprised us, though, is that these plants have been totally ignored by both bugs and critters; the leaves are beautiful, and so are the beans. As to taste, I liked them a lot; they have more of a dried bean taste than a fresh green bean taste, starchy and meaty. They are said to be common in Asian cooking.

The asparagus beans don’t need to be strung and snapped, but the white half runners do, and so that is how we spent our evening.

Agrarianism as an alternative to capitalism

Most people these days think that there is only one alternative to capitalism, namely socialism. But both capitalism and socialism came into their own in the nineteenth century, so obviously there are other ways to economically structure a society. In my current readings, one of the questions I want to answer for myself is this: exactly how does agrarianiasm differ economically from capitalism?

I’ve started reading Work and Labor in Early America, a collection of essays by academic historians. It’s dense, but it reads more easily than I expected. I’ve finished the fifty-page introduction, which sets the stage and summarizes each paper, and it looks like the right book for learning exactly how pre-industrial America conducted itself economically.

One thing that puzzled me as I read the introduction is that the American colonists seemed to be both self-sufficient and highly dependent on trade. Agrarian or not, I wondered? Here’s a excerpt from the introduction that I found helpful:

What do we call a market-oriented society in an era without a reliable currency, banks, and general incorporation laws, and with relative scarcities of both capital and wage labor? One fruitful approach may involve a return to the distinction made some years ago by Karl Polanyi between a “market society,” which early America surely was not, and a “society with markets,” which it surely was. […] In Polanyi’s view, a market society came into being only in the nineteenth century when regulatory restrictions were eliminated and land, labor, and money were fully commoditized. And in an observation that could be applied without distortion to colonial British America, Polanyi believed, “The issue is not the existence of markets, but the way in which markets are inserted into the social whole.”

And this:

Market orientation did not connote a fully competetive, maximizing ethic. Free men and women in early America did “accumulate,” but they did not “maximize,” particularly at the expense of their neighbors. Far from being Weberian “rational calculators,” most colonists, especially in New England, worked in part to “entertain each other in brotherly affection.” … Early Americans, it is clear, understood that work and its products benefited the community as well as the individual household.

And this:

Home consumption used up no more than one-half to two-thirds of the total produce of most northern farms. The only thing to be done with this surplus was to exhange it with one’s neighbors or local traders. Hence, there was no obvious line of demarcation between local and external trade, or between self-sufficiency and commercialization.

As to the ongoing question of whether in an agrarian society everyone is a farmer, here’s a different way of looking at it, a quote from a contemporary, New York Governor Sir Henry Moore:

The genius of the People in a Country where every one can have Land to work upon leads them so naturally into Agriculture, that it prevails over every other occupation. There can be no stronger Instances of this, than in the servants Imported from Europe of different Trades; as soon as the Time stipulated in their Indentures is expired, they immediately quit their Masters, and get a small tract of Land, in settling which for the first three or four years they lead miserable lives, and in the most abject Poverty; but all this is patiently bourne and submitted to with the greatest cheerfulness, the Satisfaction of being Land holders smooths every difficulty.

A stack of books

Although it often costs me a lot of money, I really like the site abebooks.com, an online clearinghouse for used booksellers around the country (and the world, I think). A vast number of the used booksellers list their inventory through this site, making it trivial to locate just about every copy for sale of a given book. And one pleasant surprise is that many folks are willing to ship books that only cost a dollar or two; even after postage of three to four dollars, you end up with a nice bargain.

Last week I ordered quite a few books about various aspects of the history of agriculture. The Amazon books already came, and today most of the used books arrived in the mail. Aside from the books I’ve already mentioned, here is what I will be reading in the next few weeks:

  • History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, by William Cobbett. I discovered this book by accident, looking through the books on Art Mize’s coffee table while he gave Chris a fiddle lesson. Cobbett thinks that the Reformation was the worst thing to ever happen to Britain, and spends a lot of time describing the havoc wreaked on the peasant class when the Protestants appropriated lands belonging to the Roman Catholic Church
  • The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, edited by Andrew Kimbrell. A collection of anti-agribusiness essays by folks associated with the modern-day agrarianism and populism, including Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Jim Hightower.
  • Work and Labor in Early America, edited by Stephen Innes. A collection of essays by modern historians about the reality of everyday work in America from the early colonies to just after the Revolutionary War.
  • Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, by Henry Nash Smith. This 1950 history was referenced often enough that I thought I ought to read it.
  • Notes on the State of Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson.
  • Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin.
  • Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry 1966-1988, by Warren Belasco. This looks like a fun read, even though blurbs by Jim Hightower and Todd Gitlin indicate that it comes from a leftward perspective.
  • Field Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea. Hanson is fairly well known among conservatives these days, an elegant and persuasive writer who also happens to be a professor of classics and a raisin farmer. This book is both a memoir and an apologetic for family farms.
  • The Land that Feeds Us, by John Fraser Hart. An examination of how life changed for small family farmers over the last half of the twentieth century.
  • Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, by Marion Nestle. A remarkable book by an academic nutritionist who says, among other things, that absolutely no one would talk for the record when they found out she was writing a book about how food companies worked to influence public policy.
  • The Origins of the Organic Movement, by Philip Confort. An account of the efforts by thinkers, farmers, and activists to create an alternative to the conventional food chain.
  • The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism, by Allan Kulikoff. A collection of essays that Kulikoff wrote as he prepared for From British Peasant to Colonial American Farmer. (I’ve now returned the second copy of the latter book to Amazon, since it had the same pages missing as the first one. Amazon apologizes and says all they can do now is return my money. I’ll try ordering a copy through abebooks, and ask the seller to check the copy before sending it.)
  • Why Cows Learn Dutch, and Other Secrets of the Amish Farm, by Randy James. This was recommended to me by my friend D.J. Hammond. It was written by an agricultural extension agent who spent many years working with Amish farmers in one of the largest Amish settlements in Ohio.
  • Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal, by David Kline. We have Kline’s other book Scratching the Woodchuck, which Debbie read and liked.
  • Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America, by Steven Stoll. (Hasn’t arrived yet.)
  • The Medieval Village and The Medieval Scene, both by G.G. Coulton. (Haven’t arrived yet.)
  • The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life, by Scott Savage. (Hasn’t arrived yet.)

Agrarian Dreams

I’m mostly done with Julie Guthman’s book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. I still have to read Chapter 7, a detailed examination of the current organic regulations. I skipped ahead to Chapter 8, called “The Agrarian Answer?”, which concludes the book and considers whether a truly agrarian approach to agriculture is a viable alternative to industrial organic and conventional. Unfortunately, Guthman is very much the modern academic, and she views the family farm as a place where the labor of women and children was exploited by evil patriarchs. Her proposed solutions are very modern, trying to fix the problems of a full-bore capitalistic agriculture by injecting social justice concerns here and there.

Overall, the book is fairly dry reading, mostly because of the challenge Guthman has taken on—this sort of detailed history of business practices just isn’t likely to excite most people. But there is a lot of valuable detail, and Guthman’s interpretation of the historical developments seems largely sound to me. Her writing is relatively jargon-free, although it helps to be familiar with some of the more common academic buzzwords she occasionally employs.

Here are some blurbs for the book from the publisher’s website. The first chapter of the book is available online, and for most people that will be a sufficient summary.

“a meticulous academic study of the institutional dynamics of the state’s organic agriculture.”–Stephen Shapin, New Yorker

Agrarian Dreams throws a cold shower of reality over the dream of organic agriculture in California, demonstrating all that is lost when organic farming goes industrial. This is a challenging book, and until we can answer the hard questions Julie Guthman poses, a genuinely sustainable agriculture will elude us.”–Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Agrarian Dreams puts organic agriculture in a broad intellectual, social, and theoretical context in a readable way. Nobody has written at this scale and scope about organics. The availability of this basic data and interpretation will open discussion to a broad range of citizens, scholars, and decision makers. This is an outstanding work.”–Sally K. Fairfax, Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy, University of California, Berkeley

“Guthman takes on the sacred cow of organic agriculture: that farmers and consumers can transform our food system simply through by adopting new philosophies of eating, farming and nature. With an analysis that is at the forefront of agrarian theory today, she shows that organic farmers, no matter what their philosophy, have to work under the economic gun of markets and land prices. As a result, organic growers in California are forced to become increasingly industrialized, unjust and unhealthy. Her analysis is proof that it will take more than new kinds of thinking to create sustainability in our food system.”–Melanie DuPuis, author of Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink

Cash crops

I’m in the middle of writing a long essay (long for me, anyway) about some wrong turns taken in the nineteenth century as America replaced its agrarian culture with an industrial one. One of these wrong turns was the shift from subsistence farming to a dependence on cash crops. Not that cash crops were a new thing, but until the mid-nineenth century they were an additional thing; if the cash crop failed, the farm still provided a family’s basic needs. Andrew Lytle’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand describes how farmers were encouraged to modernize by focusing solely on the cash crop, using the cash to supply all their needs; Lytle also shows how this change eventually destroyed the family farm.

I thought about this yesterday as I finished up On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Given how much I sing the praises of the Little House series you would think I’d read and studied them all, but in fact until yesterday I’d only read the first three. Perhaps I was afraid of discovering that the rest of the series didn’t live up to Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy. But curiosity, along with a renewed interest in the history of farming, got the better of me and I’ve decided I need to read through the rest of them.

On the Banks of Plum Creek is not the major achievement of Little House on the Prairie or Farmer Boy, but it is still very good, and filled with helpful historical detail. I especially love these books because the writing is artless in the best sense. Laura portrays her younger self neither moralistically nor confessionally, simply reporting what she thought and how she felt at the time.

Her frankness has often given us something to talk about as a family. Last night at supper we talked about the episode where Ma and Pa had gone to town, leaving Laura and Mary to watch baby Carrie. Before leaving they had talked about the uncertain Minnesota winter weather, and Pa told a story about some parents who had been caught in town by a blizzard, and during the many days it took them to get home again the children had had to burn all the furniture and still ended up freezing to death. So in the late afternoon when a blizzard began to move in, Laura and Mary were frantic to get wood into the house—even though they knew they were disobeying their parents’ orders to stay inside if a storm moved in.

Ma and Pa got home just as the blizzard hit.

Pa was holding Ma’s hand and pulling to help her run. They burst into the house and slammed the door and stood panting, covered with snow. No one said anything while Pa and Ma looked at Laura and Mary, who stood all snowy in shawls and mittens.

At last Mary said in a small voice, “We did go out in the storm, Ma. We forgot.”

Laura’s head bowed down and she said, “We didn’t want to burn up the furniture, Pa, and freeze stark stiff.”

“Well, I’ll be darned!” said Pa. “If they didn’t move the whole woodpile in. All the wood I cut to last a couple of weeks.”

There, piled up in the house, was the whole woodpile. Melted snow was leaking out of it and spreading in puddles. A wet path went to the door, where snow lay unmelted.

Then Pa’s great laugh rang out, and Ma’s gentle smile shone warm on Mary and Laura. They knew they were forgiven for disobeying, because they had been wise bring in wood, though perhaps not quite so much wood.

Sometime soon they would be old enough not to make any mistakes, and then they could always decide what to do. They would not have to obey Pa and Ma any more.

It was that very last paragraph we talked about, of course.

The center of the story in this book is a cash crop. My hero, Pa Ingalls, has already shown himself to have a weakness for modern ways in Little House in the Big Woods when he enthused about having his grain threshed in a day by a machine (as opposed to Pa Wilder in Farmer Boy, who spent three weeks with Almanzo doing the same job because, as he put it, what exactly would they be saving their time for?). Here Pa Ingalls invests all his hope in the wheat crop, going so far as to build a new house with materials obtained on credit. But just as the wheat was to be harvested, grasshoppers move in to destroy it and every other green thing in the area.

The Ingalls are not destroyed by this turn of events, but it makes life very difficult for them. For two years running Pa has to walk three hundred miles east and spend months working as a field hand, to generate the money they need to survive. Ma is apparently able to feed the family from the farm, but each time Pa returns home a good portion of the money he has made must go to pay for the house materials he borrowed. How much better would their circumstances had been if Pa had kept his family in the dugout house another year or two, not building the new house until he had the money in hand from his wheat crop to pay for it? We can only guess.

Compost

We had a small adventure this afternoon. Chris and I were out working in the garden while Debbie and the rest ran a few errands. Shortly after they got back Debbie walked down to the garden to tell us that the compost company had called and, rather than delivering next week the driver would be here in a couple of hours.

Around the time I expected the driver to arrive I went out onto the porch to put my boots on. As I did I heard a really big truck coming up the hollow; Chris, who was tilling in the garden, heard it too. But then we heard it continue on past the turn to our house and up the hill, a common mistake people make when coming to our house. I jumped in the car and chased him up the hill, catching him at the top.

The truck was big, about 50 feet of trailer and 25 feet of tractor. It was also heavy, about 85,000 pounds. When I talked to the driver, I found out that it wasn’t that he had missed the turn but that he didn’t want to drive over the small bridge that crosses the creek just before our house. I had no idea whether the bridge would take the weight, and he was skeptical. The other two ways to our house involve steep stretches of gravel road, out of the question for this truck.

Finally, I said that we could go back down the road to the highway, where I would ask a friend of mine if he knew of some place we could dump the compost and then move it with our pickup. And if he didn’t, he could take the compost over to Jerome’s farm, where he had already taken several loads for Jerome.

As I drove to the highway I was kind of grumpy about the whole thing. Originally I had been told that the driver would probably stop by earlier to see if his truck could make it to our house. But when I talked to him on the phone, he only asked me if I thought the truck could make it and if there was room to turn around, then decided he would come ahead. I hadn’t thought to warn him about the bridge. Now it looked like we would have to make about twenty-five trips in the pickup to bring the compost in, either from a few miles away or, in the worst case, about fifteen miles away.

I got to my friend’s house at the corner, where he was talking with three other guys. I told him about the situation, and immediately all four of them assured me that the truck would have no problem getting across the bridge; after all, concrete trucks have been crossing it all the time lately (a house is being built further down the road) and they were at least as heavy. The driver finally arrived, and after hearing what the men had to say he agreed to give it a try.

He made it without obvious trouble, but when I asked him if he’d be willing to do it in the future he said he’d rather not. Fair enough. Once across the bridge he didn’t have any trouble backing into our field and dropping the load of compost.

(Pictures follow.)

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