Saturday, January 30, 2010

Heirloom Rebuttal: Part 3

The following is a critique of the contents found in the article cited below:  Article name: How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes

By Brendan Borrell in Scientific American, March 30, 2009

Article in quotes and italic. My responses follow in standard type and in red-brown.
The other parts of this series can be found here:  Part I  Part II
"So breeders feel confident that getting germ-beating genes back into heirlooms won't harm the desirable aspects of the fruit. Modern breeding has resuscitated grocery store tomatoes with an influx of wild genes; in the past 50 years, researchers have bred back some 40 disease-resistance genes into commercial crops.
Restoring Heirloom's Health
Now, Monsanto wants to do the same for the heirloom. In 1996 a tomato breeder and former Tanksley student named Doug Heath began a pet project at Seminis VegetableSeeds, a Monsanto subsidiary. After 12 years of traditional breeding with the help of molecular markers, he has created a new rainbow-streaked tomato less prone to cracking and also endowed with 12 disease-resistant genes. The original plant, Heath explains, had defective flowers, which is one reason why it set only two fruits compared with the 30 he gets from his new variety. He claims he is also able to maintain a comparable flavor and sugar profile even on productive plants. It turns out that the heirloom's defects are neither quirky nor cute, just an accident of a single-pronged breeding strategy left over from the dawn of genetics."
[The article goes on to point out that these seeds being created will produce plants that will NOT be able to produce viable seed]

I'm going to cut to the chase right now.

Explain to me how these will be genetically superior if they cannot reproduce without proprietary methods/hybridization?

You can't tell me out of one side of your proverbial mouth that natural selection has taken care of the Andes forebears of tomatoes and how wonderful that is. AND, tell me that stupid humans have done a nice job of hybridizing genetic disease resistance out of them. Then, out of the other side of your mouth, you tell me that humans, using only genetics in a profit making framework, are going to save the day? And, you'll do that by removing the natural reproductive method for these plants that will allow for natural selection to take place. You also can't tell me that more fruit per plant = less taste and then herald more fruit per plant as solving a problem.

Ok, maybe you can. But, it just makes me angry that things are misrepresented to make the point. I only hope that I've done a better job of trying to make my point without taking this approach!

The motivations are consistent, but the claims are not. The motivation is to produce more marketable fruit - period. If there is growing demand for heirlooms, then commercially one tends to look for ways to grow more of them.

I want to avoid sounding too much like I'm irrational in defense of heirlooms. There are issues with them. In fact, if I wanted to maximize my tomato production to simply meet demand for that product, I might look for different answers. But, I don't - and I'll tell people why every so often when I get on the soapbox.

So, why am I rabid enough about the topic to place a three-part response in a blog no one reads? It's because I think the focus on this area is, perhaps, attacking the WRONG PROBLEMS.

  • We need to focus on the health of the soil and environs in which these things grow. Regardless of seed stock, it will improve long term reliable production.
  • We need to get away from monoculture cropping methods and improve our rotation and inter cropping methods. Plants need more disease resistance if we keep making conditions better for diseases to inoculate in the crops. But, if we work on improving conditions... Think of it this way - this logic has some similarity to taking antibiotics every day because we want to protect ourselves from the pathogens in the sewer backup that we refuse to take care of in our basement. If you do nothing to build a healthy environment, then - of course - you may have to rely on the medicine.
  • We need to work on building local food systems that use sustainable methods in agriculture.
  • We need to improve "everyperson's" understanding of how to prepare food using fresh vegetables. Increasing disease resistance for mass-production of product does nothing to help people figure out how to use produce. And, until we increase our collective IQ (or return it to what it once was) the problem will persist.
Monsanto (or someone else) will figure out how to manipulate genes to grow heirloom look-alikes. They will likely produce more marketable tomatoes per plant in large-scale, monocrop systems. But, they WILL market them as heirlooms and MANY WILL buy them because of the label. But, this does not remove or address the issues of soil health, monocropping issues, unripe picking for long distance shipping nor does it address our collective inability to pay attention to our food.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mmmmm. Food

Just a reminder that there are plenty of vegetables that can be stored for winter use. And, as a result, you can continue to create colorful and tasty dishes.

This pan of veg was created in January and includes sweet potatoes, potatoes (blue and yellow), rutabagas, turnips, beets and maybe other things I can't remember. We roasted this slowly in the oven for a fairly long period of time (until things were appropriately softened - not mushy). T can tell you what spicing she may have included, but I cannot. I can, however, tell you that this was delicious.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Farm in Winter

The farm undergoes interesting transformations during the winter. And, a recent walk around the farm with a camera yielded a couple of pictures that might give everyone a feel for how things stand at this time.

Yes, we have low tunnels. What is a low tunnel, you ask? Look at the picture below and you will see (sort of). If you can't see at this size, click on the picture and it will open a window with a larger image.

Essentially, a low tunnel is a series of hoops covered by plastic. The plastic is anchored along the edges by ground staples (U shaped heavy gauge wire) and metal stakes. In winters when we don't have snow cover, we often have problems with the plastic blowing loose in the wind. Thus, there will be multiple trips to attempt to re-anchor the low tunnel plastic. So far this year, the snow is keeping things down and insulated. Inside of these covers are lettuce plants. They are probably still only a couple of inches high. I say 'probably' because I am not about to dig in there to check. The target is to have lettuce in March and early April.

The picture below may be too small to see the detail, so you may want to click on this one as well. This is the view into our eastern plots. The tomato cages are nicely corralled and collecting snow. After last year's experience of crushed cages (due to snow weight) we decided to leave them upright this year. The cages were moved with the help of a helpful class from Wartburg taking a day at the farm - thanks to all of you!

You might notice the sunflowers (and maybe some popcorn) still standing. We don't clean everything out of our gardens in the fall. We prefer to have ground cover to catch some snow and to prevent erosion of the soil. If you've ever seen the 'snirt' at the edges of fields that have been fall tilled, you can appreciate how the soil can move with no cover. The birds are still pecking away at the seeds and we can handle a few volunteer sunflowers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jack Frost, Part II

We see hoar frost every year. But, we don't usually have four days of fog. After a couple days, we thought the frost on the trees (and other things) was as thick as it could get.

So, we took this photo.

Then, we noticed that the frost got even thicker. The picture below is the same tree, taken two days later. Note the center of the tree. Think things might be getting a bit heavy?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

PFI Conference

We attended the recent Practical Farmers of Iowa conference in Marshalltown (Jan 8 & 9), but were only able to be there for Saturday. Once again, we were reminded of the value PFI and this conference has for us, and it's all about the "networking" with others who have similar interests and labors. Of course, there were sessions that had interesting and useful information. There were posters and vendors with various resources. There were keynote speakers and business meetings. All of this is useful, important and a part of the package.

But, the real winner, in our minds, was the opportunity to sit down with a group of peers who grow vegetables and raise poultry in small-scale operations. Of course, it helps to have someone else you can commiserate with. For example, it was interesting to hear from three other people that their backs get sore in exactly the same place at about the same time during the season. You can decide whether this should be a comforting or disturbing thought. It is also good to hear that everyone else who does what we do are looking for better approaches to handle the common problems: weeds, pests, seed selection, harvest, distribution, marketing and bookkeeping (ya, there's more - but this is enough to make a point).

But, the best part is that we finally have connected with peers in a way where we do not feel like we are the novices - nor do we feel as if we must be the mentors. This is not to say that we don't appreciate getting feedback or information from those who have more experience or knowledge. It is also not indicating that we mind sharing with others who are trying to get into these things. But, there is something special about feeling like the members in the group are exploring together - without any hierarchy, implied or not. We left the conference feeling like we might have given as much as we received. And that's what collaborative learning is all about.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Seed Catalog Season

Welcome to the pre-Spring season known as 'Seed Catalog Season.'

Any person who does any amount of gardening can relate to the combination of anticipation and agony that comes with the flood of seed catalogs that begin arriving in mid-December and peak in early January. Obviously, the opportunity to dream about warmer weather with green and growing things is welcomed by many. This is especially true if the temperatures are below zero and the wind is howling.

But, why do I say 'anticipation AND agony?'

I'm going to guess that most people get the anticipation part. But, you are a clearly an addicted gardener if you get the agony part without further explanation. The root of the pain comes from the necessity of eliminating a significant number of the varieties and plants that you initially circled in each of the catalogs you received. Generally speaking, none of us has unlimited time, money or space.

As a result, you simply cannot plant every one of those thirteen dry bean varieties you think would be cool to try. Four might be more reasonable. And so, the elimination process begins. Usually, the first six or seven are fairly easily eliminated. These were interesting, but not really intriguing. But, figuring out the last two to be removed from the list can be a struggle. There are almost always two or three that are tried and true by you - so they HAVE to stay. Then, there is another you've tried before, but you were certain you made some mistakes with it - so another year would probably only be fair. But, you want to try new things too....

Eh.... five isn't that much more than four. We'll do five this year.

Well, maybe six.......

Friday, January 22, 2010

Boidy Boids

We finally got around to getting some pictures off of the camera and compressing them to semi-reasonable sizes for the web. And, one of our favorite subjects for photographs would be birds. Why? There weren't any hippos and butterflies don't sit still long enough.

We are trying to get used to a new digital camera AND to the idea that we can take a bunch of shots expecting to 'throw away' the majority of them. With our old film camera, we would pass up numerous opportunities because we didn't want the privilege of paying to see that we missed the shot (or it wasn't as good as we dreamed).

So, that means, we could take several shots of this pelican - and select the one where we actually managed to catch the gull flying in the background.

And, every year, there is at least one great blue heron that decides it will stand still long enough for us to get fairly close to it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jack Frost, Esquire

It's been foggy several days in a row. The resulting hoar frost makes for some excellent opportunities to look at things in new ways. And, of course, each day we had the fog, the frost got thicker - an amazing thing.

The following was taken on Tuesday after several days of fog and accumulated hoar frost. The fog was thicker nearer the tree line.

Taken on Monday. A look up towards the limbs of oaks (left) and maple (right)

Then we tried to get a bit more artsy with the photo op given to us by Mr. Frost. Which is your favorite? We'll put the favorite on the left of our blog.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Mon, Jan 11


I'm in the car, driving home and there is a box in the back seat.
The four flaps are interwoven in the traditional way.
But, I know interweaving the flaps isn't necessary.
I know what is in the box - and it makes me think of other boxes.

Nineteen years ago, I was driving a different car and I was driving home.
There was a box in the car.
The four flaps were interwoven in the traditional way.
And, I knew what was in the box - so I knew the reason for this precaution.

There were two kittens in that box.
One black and white, the other tortie.
It had been difficult putting them in the box.
When one was put in, the other would try to leap out.
It reminded me a little of those silly "bop'em gopher" games.
Every time you pushed one little feline head down
The other would pop up.

Boxes became the equivalent of fun time.
This was especially true for the tortie.
Make scratching noises on the inside.
She would jump in.
Make scratching noises on the outside.
She would bat at the source of the sound.

Boxes became the base of operations.
Play sessions with the nerf ball
would always start with the tortie in a box.
Until she couldn't stand it and would dart out,
and do her best to chase the ball,
as it was rolled from human to human.

Boxes became the place to lick perceived wounds.
While she was named Eowyn,
We nicknamed her "Bat" (or acrobat)
Due to her amazing leaps as she played with us.
She would get wound up
Until she landed on a human or otherwise lost control.
Soon after, she would be back in the box.
For a cat's time out.

Boxes were a way to pretend
that everything on the inside was mysterious
and everything on the outside was spooky.
We would tip the box over the cat,
and she would creep around.
Paws occasionally darting out to defend
against an unseen adversary.

As time went by, boxes became a place of safety.
Any time life became too much
she would go to a box and sit in
or on
until things settled to her liking.

Boxes were the booster seat
to sit closer to the level of her humans at the dinner table.
Boxes were the perfect place to nap,
Especially with her head propped on a corner like a pillow.
Boxes were the place to be in winter,
when the box was placed next to a radiator for heat.
And boxes were sometimes the place to do things,
that the humans didn't really want her to do.

But now, the box serves a different purpose.
I know what is in this box.
It is one nineteen year old, tortie cat.
It was difficult putting her in the box.
And it will be difficult taking her out again.
For one last time.


It has been said that people can be stupid about their pets. And, perhaps we are. However, any creature that lives as a part of the family for nineteen years will result in grieving for those left behind. We miss the brother and sister cats that were our companions for much of our married lives. Stryder died in February two years ago. Eowyn was with us for nearly two more years.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Traveling with T

One of the reasons taking a driving trip with T is so much fun (other than the fact that I like her) is that we both enjoy taking a look around as we drive through the country side. Our recent drive to/from St Pete, FL had its share of moments. And, at the risk of ...well... everyone figuring out exactly how odd we can be...

Winner of the "That's a GREAT name" Award:
HERCULENEUM, MO - we liked it so much, we stopped there to eat. Even better, it is located just south of Festus. Absolute heaven for those who love to look at maps and be amused by odd names and name combinations.

Runner up has to be Lumpkin in Alabama. Although, Eufalla was pretty good too.

Winner of the "Navigational Creativity" Award:
This belongs to the traffic circle-ish town square that had a sign at each corner telling us the highway continued if we TURNED LEFT (after the initial right turn to get into the circle). Think about it. (yes, there was a sign that showed a right turn to exit on the highway...but it wasn't very prominent)

Now, ask us - "how many times did you go around the circle?"

Runner up - the scenic back road guess to get to US 78 in Birmingham...ok outer suburbs in NE Birmingham. Hey, we found it without any backtracking.

I'm NOT turning left - how about you?
Our last day on the road on the way down was a long one. The most disturbing fact about that day had to be the sheer number of accidents we passed on the road. The majority of which had something to do with failures to yield on a left turn. If not that, it was failure to note the vehicle ahead of you was going to turn. This doesn't seem to explain the accident on the Interstate.

Mmmmm Citrus.
An advantage of driving is the fact that we can easily stop at roadside or other local vendors to peruse their wares. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes it doesn't. We particularly enjoy the oranges from Hancock Groves in Dade City, FL. And, because we were driving and not flying, we could carry a couple of nice big bags of fruit home! Hey, we purchased local! It was the two of us who weren't local.

License Plate Bingo and Raptor Rapture.
Yes, we play the license plate game and try to see how many different state/province names we can collect on the trip. Forty-two different plates is pretty good, but not our best. We have also been known to keep an eye out for hawks, osprey, eagles and other birds of prey. The stretch through Arkansas and Missouri yielded the most birds this year. Hey - we were on the road a LONG time - we didn't say everything we did or noticed would totally captivate your interest!

The "Felt Most At Home" Award:
Hellooooo southwest Georgia. Granted, we were visiting in January with mild temperatures. We might have felt a bit differently in July. Nonetheless, we had an opportunity to stop in Adel, GA. And, because we had one of our navigation snafus - we stopped at a gas station that was not directly off of an interstate exit. The result? Lots of pleasant people and lots of OLD pickups. cool.

Scenery Surprise of the Trip/Geography Lesson:
Yes, the Appalachians DO go into northeastern Alabama. No, the roads were not terribly steep, but there was plenty of hill to satisfy an Iowan in search of a mountain. But, seriously, we enjoyed the non-interstate, cross-country trek through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thanks, Santa!

Santa was very kind and mailed us a card postmarked December 24, just prior to midnight. Inside the card were two gift certificates - each for a one hour massage. Wherever you are now Santa, we are grateful.

A Tough Egg to Crack

In case you hadn't noticed. It's been on the chilly side lately. Ok. Maybe it's actually been downright cold. And, as a reminder - temperatures on the farm can be lower than those in town. So, that means we are tougher than everyone else. Or - at the least - we can pretend to be tougher than everyone else. The reality is that we just use it for license to make more comments about it.

A very interesting phenomenon of the cold weather is what happens if a chicken egg is exposed to the cold for too long.

We tend to 'pick' eggs twice a day. Usually, the eggs are in the laying boxes and there are often birds in those boxes. As a result, most eggs are kept warm enough until we get to them. However, if exposed too long, the eggs will freeze. In many cases, the shell cracks and the egg is clearly not going to be sold to anyone. But, whether the shell cracks or not, a frozen egg is VERY HARD.

We recently attempted to break a frozen egg by throwing it as hard as we could against the cement floor of the barn. The result? The egg bounced, the cement was chipped and there was only a small dent in the egg. It took three throws at the cement before the egg was broken.

The moral to this story? If Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on a wall - he should have done it in January, in the Midwest.