Sunday, November 22, 2015

Farm Bulletin: 2. Vivace—Lively

If you shop at the farmers' market, you may notice a difference in the taste of the same crop grown on different farms. In winemaking this difference is known as "terroir," defined as "the taste of the place." For instance, carrots from DeNoble Farms on the Oregon coast might taste different from those grown at Gathering Together Farm in the Willamette Valley. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm gives us an insight into some of the factors that might affect this difference in flavor from farm to farm.

Liveliness in vegetables is often elusive, a flatness in flavor that you can't quite put your finger on. It is easy to blame shipping distance, time on the shelf or variety. True, all of these can have a deleterious effect. Equally important is a good array of nutrients made available to the growing plant.

Castroville sign.

Many of us were introduced to artichokes grown in the coastal area around Castroville, California. In 1980, we visited Carol's sister Sylvia, then living in San Francisco, and she brought us down to Castroville where we saw the artichokes and enjoyed a perfect artichoke soup at a restaurant in the town. We'd fallen in love with artichokes as children, at that time  an expensive and seasonal treat, so we were eager to see them growing.

About two decades ago, in the mid-90s, the flavor of California artichokes struck us as flat as a cardboard carton, and we stopped eating them. We shrugged off our disappointment, thinking it was a decline due to the newer types which are treated as annuals. A symptom of the yield-over-flavor mentality.

Horseradish benefits from sodium added as a soil amendment.

Both of our fathers told us stories about the quality of food grown near the sea and the importance of salt in their flavor. Cecil Boutard told us that certain crops benefitted from salt applications, especially those that originated in coastal environments like asparagus and seakale. Peter Black, Carol's father, told us about the lamb he ate at Mont St. Michele where they graze on land inundated by the tide. From then onwards, every other meal of lamb was, as he recounted, a mere shadow of that perfection. We took their observations to heart, and over the past decade we have applied over 20 tons of sea salt to our soil or as foliar spray.

Early authors recommended the use of sea salt as a manure for certain crops, underscoring the observations of our late fathers. John Wilson in Our Farm Crops (1859), recommended its use if crops of maritime origin are grown more than 20 miles from the sea. His advice was based on carefully quantified yield trials. Still, most farmers we know recoil at our use of salt, grimace and usually mutter something about the salting of Carthage. That story never made sense to us given the fact that salt was too valuable to waste, even as a matter of revenge. Anyway, the proof is in the pudding: tons of salt later and we are still growing crops with no Carthaginian devastation. Even the crop that receives the most heavy applications of salt, horseradish, still needs weeding and the soil is still full of worms and other organisms.

Lycopene content is increased in tomatoes.

Last January, the journal Science (243:472-473) published an article titled "Ecosystems say 'pass the salt!'" The gist of the article, which opened with the standard reference about the destruction of Carthage, is that sodium is a limiting nutrient in non-coastal ecosystems, and additions of salt stimulate the soil's flora and fauna. The work was done in the tropics, but has application in our wet ecosystem. The investigation of sodium was initiated by the observation that ants offered both salt water and sugar water were attracted to both pretty much equally. Interestingly, sodium is simply never discussed when discussing plant nutrition or soil health. Soil and foliar tests do not include sodium, or a host of other important functional elements for plants. An essential but ignored element in agronomy.

For organic farmers, especially in the Willamette Valley where the rain washes the sodium and many other elements out of the soil, the advice to use salt is sensible. Non-organic farms rely on salt-based fertilizers and have to be very concerned about the salinization of their soil, which is probably why salt disappeared as a soil amendment in the early 20th century. Soil amendments used for organic agriculture are typically very gentle and do not pose the same risk of salinization. It must also be stressed that the use of salt as a soil amendment is crop specific. Chicories, turnips, radishes, kale, celery, tomatoes and artichokes are examples of crops that benefit. Crops such as cane berries, melons and grapes do not tolerate the chloride ion in salt well, so we never apply it directly to these crops, though the annuals benefit in the rotation plan. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research on the subject of sodium and plant health, and we are left to follow our hunches. Sea salt is also a source of dozens of trace minerals needed by animals and plants.

Turnips from Ayers Creek Farm.

Based on the work of an Israeli researcher at Ben Gurian University and their own test plots, Rutgers published a couple of bulletins on the use of salt in growing better-flavored tomatoes. Their observations mirror our work. It must be stressed that adding salt as a sodium supplement does not make the food salty, it amplifies certain flavor components, otherwise produced at lower levels by the plant because they are not essential to reproduction. In the case of tomatoes, the result is a significant increase in lycopene content. The expansion of artichoke production inland, away from the coastal areas, affected the flavor. Fortunately, you can buy coastal artichokes here in Oregon, and for a brief time from the fields of Castroville. We always ask the produce manager if we can look at the box.

Coaxing flavor and liveliness from vegetables has an element of alchemy where you are working with unseen elements, as well as a chess game where you need to understand how the board will change several moves ahead. Farmers are working from their own observations. The needs of individual crops vary. The crop may be a seed, fruit, root or leaf. Our farm is a mosaic of soil types and sometimes we misstep. Our use of sea salt is just one element of nudging the flavor and quality of our crops higher. Albert Howard's Agricultural Testament is an elegant work that places emphasis on the health of the entire farm unit, including its people, and not on individual problems. In one chapter, Howard warned against the fragmentation of the agricultural sciences. The farm is an ecosystem as well as place of production, and learning about the processes in unmanaged systems is useful, even if the author propagates that old slur against the Romans.

Read the first installment in this series, Allegretto—Sprightly Cheerfulness.

Castroville sign from Wikipedia.

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