Sunday, July 26, 2015

Heirloom vs. Commercial Vegetables (aka Thank a Farmer)

Last week, I got to work in the garden for the first time this year. I have been finishing my last semester at school and applying for jobs, but the volunteers have kept the garden running nicely. There was plenty of work to be done, though, and since the plants we're growing are mainly heirloom varieties that could have actually been grown for sustenance within Caroline's lifetime, it's been a great insight into what it really took to feed a family back then. To summarize, the heirloom varieties are less productive and less reliable than modern, commercial varieties, and what yield they do produce is easily sabotaged by pests without pesticides or protection. 

As a prime example of how different the producing capacities of heirloom varieties are from the commercial varieties, the corn ears that developed were noticeably smaller than the ones you'd find in a grocery store, and only about half of the kernels developed. I would guess that each ear of corn yielded about a quarter of a cup of edible kernels.

An ear of heirloom corn.

The mesh fence we erected has proven effective against larger pests like rabbits and deer, but fencing like that is a newer innovation and it would not be possible to keep an entire farm fenced even if it was available centuries ago. While the fence broke a while ago, and something ate all of the broccoli and surrounding vegetables (I'm not even sure what they were; they're unrecognizable). These crops have never recovered. There’s no way to protect the crops against insects, which means that many crops are damaged to the point of being rather unappetizing.

Crop damage that occurred without pesticides and when
the fence was damaged.

 Additionally, a lot of the plants either died or never grew, resulting in a much lower yield than we expected given our understanding of agricultural production today. In one bed in particular, our tomatoes grew (though they were small) but nothing else we planted grew.

Small tomato plants. Other crops had been planted between
the tomatoes, but they didn't grow.

 All in all, our vegetable garden - which looks effectively large to us - produced only a small basket full of produce this week. We're happy to know that what we're collecting will help someone, but it's far from a continuously sustaining plot.

One week's yield from heirloom plants and rudimentary insect control.

Additionally, it takes a lot of physical labor to care for and harvest plants without using machinery or chemicals. For example, many of the bean plants had died, and living and dead plants were stuck in a tangled heap. To allow the living plants more space to grow, the dead plants had to be cleared out. Additionally, all of the tomato plants had to be staked up to prevent plants from buckling under the weight of their fruits and encroaching grasses had to be ripped out of the plots and surrounding areas. It's really a wonder how much work goes into cultivating such little food; be thankful that farmers do all the work so you don't have to and that modern varieties make their efforts more fruitful!

A wheelbarrow full of weeds and dead plants
collected during one day of weeding.

Also, on a relatively unrelated note, Erika joined us in the garden this week. She shared some of her Italian heritage with us, identifying ripe zucchini and sharing recipes.