From the Farmer

Week 9 – 7/15/2014

Well, I searched for a recent Washington Post article today using “washington post insect” as my search command, and came up with a series of articles on eating insects.  Actually pretty interesting: nutritious, can be raised on what are otherwise waste streams of other processes, can help reduce environmental contamination.  According to the UN, in raising them they also emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than common livestock, and don’t require nearly as much water or land to raise.  Sweet, right?  Well, since they taste good, we’ve decided to add a new Bug Share to the list of CSA options.  Sign up today.

The article I was looking for, “Can plants hear? In a study, vibrations prompt some to boost their defenses” describes a recent study demonstrating that plants perceive and respond to sounds.  There’s an interesting angle on how and to what degree plants sense and might have intelligence in the way that animals seem to.  The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird is a “plant intelligence” classic in some circles, and Michael Pollan revisited the book in a December article in the New Yorker.  A very good read.

Chocolate Chirp Cookies Anyone?

(Since we’re throwing around citations today, it’s worth mentioning that The Guardian a few days ago reported on a meta-analysis indicating that not only is organic food on the whole significantly more nutritious than conventional food, but that the difference can impact human health.  The second conclusion can be quite controversial.)

What went unexamined in the Post piece was the concept that plants respond to stress – cold, wind, insects – by producing certain bio-chemicals.  These are the same chemicals that give the plant their distinctive flavors and also their health benefits.  So there’s something to not coddling a plant too much, to making them work out in the open with the winds, insects, all the vibrations and whims of the universe that they’ve evolved with.  This brings us to hydroponics, which is an unexpected detour in today’s note.  But here we are, Mike’s opinion of hydroponically grown produce: looks great less filling. 

Lucky for us hydroponics takes us the same place I thought we were going.  The Post article reminds me of a botanical dilemma I consider as a farmer.  There is a school of thought that a plant that gets all the nutrition it needs is immune to insect or disease.  This is because a plant grows up the way we learned organisms should in biology class: all its enzymes unlock their enzymatic processes, all its proteins are synthesized completely, and everything is robust and impregnable.  This line or reasoning suggests that insects are attracted to incomplete proteins and feed on weak plants so they will not live to reproduce.  We do everything we can to make that nutrition available. 

On the other side is the “what don’t kill you makes you stronger” approach.  Here, a plant might get munched a little but the plant will respond and grow stronger, or tastier.  I’ll admit I have not reconciled these ideas yet.  I like a healthy plant because it feels right to me, because we get better yields, and because they do taste good.  On the other hand, we do withhold water from some crops and while we see lower yields and smaller fruit, they usually taste better, as if the same amount of flavor is concentrated in a smaller package.  I think there must be some middle ground and most farmers will find that middle ground right around the economic threshold of damage: where the damage means lost sales.  Is that where it really is?  If there are any biologists out there I’d love to hear from you.

Be great,

Mike

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