Saturday, February 21, 2009

Turnip Diaries, Part VII: WWPD (What Would Pliny Do)?

Gaius Plinius Secundus (Ad 23 - 79), or Pliny the Elder (never Old Guy) as he is known among the fields and vineyards of the Gaston agricultural district, wrote one of the first comprehensive guides to agriculture, Book 18 of his "Historia Naturalis." The book is full of good information from diverse sources. For example, in the section on purchasing a farm (vi. 26), Pliny cites Cato's advice that the most important considerations are water, roads and neighbors (aquam, viam, vicinum).

Pliny the Elder.

Solid advice two millennia later. His turnip sower's prayer "sibi et vicinis serere se," or "for me and my neighbors I sow" is a gentle, humble incantation. Agronomists today are taught to discount the power their own observations, relying instead on statistical theories to overcome "bias." You draw inferences from null hypotheses, never conclusions. Reading Pliny, you realize what a pity that is. All farmers, whether they have a deity on not, realize somedays a good prayer is needed, and good observations are far more useful than statistics with their nihilistic emphasis on the null.

Pliny ranks the turnip second after wheat in terms of its importance as a crop of his time. He notes that turnips were grown for human consumption and as livestock food. Some of the types grew as large as 40 pounds each. Norcia, famous for the quality of its swine, also commanded the highest price for its turnips. Pliny also remarks on the excellent flavor turnip shoots that have been blanched while stored in the dark. A bonus for those storing them as livestock feed.

The agriculturist Jethro Tull.

The next bloom of agricultural literature occurred in the 17th century. Robert Worlidge's "Systemae Agriculturae" published in 1669 and Jethro Tull's "Horse-hoeing Husbandry," John Evelyn's "Terra," are good examples. Similar writings were published in Germany, Holland and France, often translated with imperfect attribution. During this time, turnips played an increasingly important role in British agriculture as the "Norfolk rotation" took hold, probably abetted by Tull's seed drill. This four crop rotation started with wheat, followed by turnips, then barley and finally clover. Turnips are an excellent winter feed for livestock as they are high in vitamins and minerals. Two of the varieties we grew this year were the Norfolk red top and green top. Across Europe, turnips, chicory and beets served the dual purpose of human and livestock food. In the Norfolk rotation, you can also discern the ingredients of the northern latitude diet: a tankard of beer, bread, bangers and mash.

In the 20th century, ensilage made from maize displaced the use of roots as winter forage. Easier to harvest, investments in mechanization favored maize over the root crops. Ensilage, a lacto-fermented food for livestock, was developed in the late 19th century. Like packing a crock, filling the silo was an agrarian art. Today, it is a highly processed food with added sugar in the form of molasses to make it more palatable, urea to increase the nitrogen, gypsum and/or a slew of preservatives lest it go foul. It is the convenience food for dairies. As the cost of feed and fertilizers spiral upward, we expect the forage roots will see a resurgence.

We had a conversation with our neighbor about crops for their farm, and we mentioned forage roots as a possible crop. Cato would have appreciated Nellie McAdams. Nellie noted that her grandfather intercropped their young hazelnut orchards with turnips. Another member of the family raised cattle and dairy cows nearby, and that may have been the destination for the turnips. Feed is a huge obstacle to success for small organic livestock producers. Forage roots are a way for them to shake off dependence on corn and soybean-based feeds.

Fortunately, good advice lies in older references, such as "Our Farm Crops" by John Wilson, published in 1859, also celebrating its sesquicentennial. Written by a farmer and over 900 pages in length, it is a good map to Michael Pollan's call for re-solarizing the farm. Long live the earthy roots, and the sun.

Exeunt Turnips.

Read the other posts in the Turnip Diaries series: Part I: The Wapato Valley, Part II: Chestnuts, Persimmons and Turnips, Part III: Misery Loves Company, Part IV: We're In This Pickle Together, Part V: The Spicy Turnip and Part VI: The Turnip Also Rises

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