Thursday, July 19, 2012


Purple peppers, one of this year's experiments.
I think I mentioned before that my Santangelo granddad was a farmer. He was also did shoe repair and, at the end of his life, owned a little neighborhood grocery store, but he still kept a vegetable patch in his backyard and considered himself, first and foremost, a farmer.

Most of grandpop's children also grew food of some sort in their yards, though only one son became a farmer. Two of that uncle's sons also followed the family vocation. One of them became a professor of agriculture.

About 90 square feet of my small yard is devoted to growing vegetables each year, with another 15 reserved for herbs. Each year as I till the soil, I wonder how many more years I'll be able to handle the physical torture involved. I wonder if it's worth it. A month or so later, I taste the first lettuce, then around July 1st, the string beans. This past week, I've had the first bell peppers and tomatoes. It's worth it.

But beyond the obvious gastronomic rewards, I enjoy a kind of scientific fascination with the process of growing. I experiment with different soil additives, different growing techniques (like putting screens over my lettuce to keep the plants cooler), different seeds. I'll plant more than one variety of tomatoes and peppers, observing which grows better in my conditions and which produces more. If I find great tasting veggies or herbs, I try to dry the seeds for next year. Sometimes my experiments work, sometimes not, but the learning process is fun. Farming is never boring.

All good farmers do likewise. You can't farm exactly the same way each year. It's not good for the earth or the food supply. You have to constantly adjust. For centuries farmers have been sharing what works and what doesn't, and even sharing plants and seeds. In my family alone, many of the plants in my garden originated as cuttings from the gardens of my aunts and uncles.

I heard yesterday that Monsanto is now trying to patent seeds. They claim that they've genetically modified them, so they've therefore "invented" them.

Consumers hear the words "genetically modified" and panic, but that's not what's scary here. Mankind has been genetically modifying crops since we switched from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. That's why there are 7500 varieties of apples worldwide instead of only the wild apple that originated in west Asia (the Garden of Eden, whichever you prefer).

The scary part is the thought of seeds as intellectual property, that any one entity can claim ownership to the very root (so to speak) of our food supply. Monsanto isn't about to share what they've learned, plus, if you dry the next generation of seeds produced, they could sue you (despite the fact that the next generation would again be genetically modified, simply because pollinators like bees aren't fussy about what pollen is stuck to their butts, and because natural mutations occur).

The thing is, the genetic makeup must keep changing for healthy crops. Adaptability is how life works.

If you want a writing analogy, free seeds, flowing among writers without restriction, is also necessary for the creative process. Imagine if someone had slapped a copyright on "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" back when it was first used as a plot.

So, I'm going to keep farming as long as I can, and supporting my local farmers. I don't want corporations owning my food supply and saying what I can and can't grow.


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