Saturday, March 31, 2007

Where Food Comes From

Why does real food cost more, you ask? Take a look at the man on the left, down on his kness planting onions by hand. That's Mike Klein, a farmer friend from Bandywine, MD, who is planting crops for his summer subscription service.

I paid a visit to Mike and his wife Michelle yesterday to see what they were up to. This is a busy time for farmers, preparing fields and planting. The Klein's spread comprises about 11 acres 35 miles south of Washington, DC. They bought the place a few years ago to fulfill a longtime ambition of getting closer to the earth. Originally, they had studied aqua-culture in California.

Well, Mike is very close to the earth these days. In fact, he has his hands in it most of the time. When he's not out in the fields, he's working in his germination room or in the greenhouse, starting tomato plants and eggplants, peppers and a variety of herbs.

I told Mike he could have me for a couple of hours and he put me right to work planting onions. That's what you see him doing here with a bag of Stuttgarter onion sets. The field we're planting is about 50 yards long and consists of three rows that Mike has "disced" with his tractor. The tractor pulls a set of eight saucer-shaped discs that turn the soil, breaking the crusty top layer and creating eight shallow groves or furrows to plant the onions in.

"How's your back?" Mike asks me.

I'm not sure exactly why he asks. But I soon find out. Shortly I am on my knees as well, reaching into the bag of small onion sets and pressing them, one at a time, into the narrow furrows about three inches--or "three fingers"--apart. Reaching across all eight grooves is too much, so Mike advises working down one side of the row, then tackling the other side, planting four grooves with each pass.

It's reach into the bag for a handful of onion sets, turn, stretch to plant one groove, pressing each small onion into the soil just far enough for the root end to make good contact. Then turn, reach into the bag again, start with another groove and repeat the process. You have to position your feet so they don't disturb the onions already planted in the neighboring row. Twisting, turning, reaching, bending. No wonder Mike asked about my back.

My wife has been threatening to sign me up for yoga. All I have to say is, Honey, yoga ain't got nothin' on planting onions.

I ask Mike if there aren't machines to do this kind of work. "There probably are," he says. But his onion crop isn't big enough to justify the investment.

After 30 minutes or so, I'm starting to feel the pain in my back. I shift positions, leaning more to one side, then another. I try sitting on my butt. I find that I can plant the two farthest grooves perched on my knees, then gain some relief by sitting back on my hindquarters to plant the closer two grooves. I look up: After an hour's work, I've planted about a 2o-foot length. Only about 130 feet more to go.

Mike, who's been working on another project in the barn, comes over to check my progress. He grabs a few onions and starts planting opposite me, on the other side of the row. I can't help noticing that his planting is about three times faster than mine. "I have a vested interest," he says.

Later he will cover the rows of onion sets with hay to hold down weeds and retain moisture in the soil.

We chat about the price of fuel, about how urban sprawl is sucking up so much farmland. New homes, what we call "McMansions," are popping up just down the road from Mike's farm. The cost of land makes farming close to the city an expensive proposition. The last farm inside Washington's famous beltway recently gave up the ghost. Mike and Michelle are lucky they bought their land when they did. They might not be able to afford it now.

To save our backs, we call it quits on onion planting for the day. Mike has another project for me, helping remove the black plastic from another field. Last year the plastic was serving as mulch for several rows of tomato plants. The plastic sheets are about four feet wide. Grass has grown over the edges so densely that there's no removing the plastic by hand.

Mike switches out appliances on the back of his old International tractor, replacing the furrowing discs with what looks like a pair of huge fishing hooks. Mike's plan is to run the tractor straddling the rows of black plastic. The hooks will dig into the soil, cutting through the grass and loosening the outside edges of the plastic.

My job is to come behind Mike and pull the plastic free of the soil.

The plastic runs in long, continues sheets. So I am pulling and shaking off clods of soil and hunks of sod and pieces of dessicated tomato vine. Tug a little, shake a little. Most of the plastic comes loose. Sometimes it tears into ungainly pieces. It's dirty work. Dust and sod fly everywhere.

We finally remove most of the plastic. It lies in big piles next to the planting rows. Mike hands me some empty chicken feed bags and I walk to each pile, stuffing the plastic into the bags. Fortunately, this plastic is pretty lightweight and stuffs easily.

We had planned to get a bite for lunch. But already the day is slipping away. Mike has a long list of chores. And I want to get home before rush-hour starts.

"Maybe next time," Mike says.

He hands me a small paper bag of onion sets. It seems Mike always has a bag of something to share. Now I can show my 7-year-old daughter how to plant onions in our garden at home.

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