Saturday, September 18, 2010

Harvest Heaven

I was invited by LouInda and Budd Churchward to join their annual wine bottling at Birch Bay, which involved an ingenious tank and valve setup assembled by Budd, which allows one to fill three bottles at a time and (mostly) shuts off automatically when each bottle reaches the right corking level, a tank of argon gas (to blanket the exposed wine and keep it from oxidizing), a $1000 Hungarian oak barrel, and several old friends who have done this many times before. My main contributions were to set one of the bottles in the corking contraption at the wrong angle so it slipped out and broke, and to mislabel several cases so that “08 Merlot Reserve” will appear upside down in storage. So it’s not surprising that before long I found myself over at the picnic table, sampling a glass of last year’s bottling and eating LouInda’s divine crab pizza while the more experienced crew members finished up.

We chatted about gardens—LouInda’s friend Laurel’s challenges include one I’d never heard before—her chocolate lab is a green bean fanatic, knocking down the vines to eat them.

On the way home—already provided with a bottle of the new wine and two Dungeness crabs from the Churchward pots—I treated myself to a drive down Kickerville Road where I got some sweet corn and $1 a pound bags of cherry tomatoes and new potatoes from a no-name farm stand, and then some blue potatoes and a half-round of Mutschli cheese from Pleasant Valley Dairy. The potatoes were fresh-dug. The cheese is four years old, crumbly, and so sharp it makes your tongue tingle. By then I was in a food trance, so I doubled back and stopped at Twisted S Ranch for a package of bison osso bucco and a chat with Jim Sanford. He told me about the butcher he admires at Silvana Meats, who after some trial and error has figured out the proportions for the perfect bison/pork bratwurst.

I got home in time to mow the grass, pull some weeds, and stir a couple bags of coffee grounds into the compost. In the evening I took Hailey to the Urban Barn Dance, to raise funds for a village water project in Ethiopia. Hailey and I polished off a late dinner of injera, potatoes, lentils and cabbage.

Tomorrow I’m thinking corn fritters and roasted blue and white potatoes. The crab already is gone—one shared with friends and one given to my son-in-law, who is as besotted with good fresh food as I am, and the wine is set aside for Thanksgiving. Life is good!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer's end

I was out in the garden yesterday, picking a few dinner vegetables: twilight, rain, tangles of late summer vines and a few doomed squash blossoms. I got tomatoes and chard, noted the slightly spooky feel of a warm rain in the near dark, and was surprised by a soft golden glow on the deck. Despite a gray day, my little solar Japanese lantern had managed to pick up enough rays to gleam its way into early evening.

I wish we would get another extended summer like last year, but that misty, murky, transitional scene was beautiful.

I braised the veggies with some lemon-marinated tempeh, and they were very, very good.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

No good deed, part 2: damage control

Damage control for gardeners and farmers affected by tainted compost is slow and labor intensive. They can dig up and dispose of (how??) all their contaminated soil, or they can wait a year, or two, or three, until the chemical biodegrades and is no longer active. Chemical testing is expensive, so the recommendation is a bioassay, which is a fancy term for planting some seedlings and seeing if they curl up and die.

Damage control for the industry takes a different form. Smit Compost's website makes absolutely no mention of the problem. However, the word from other sources is that he is working to "rebuild trust," which of course he'll have to in order to stay in business. Everything I've heard indicates this is a good guy who is now in a real bind. Some of the commercial growers with crop losses up to six figures may be coming after him for restitution at a time when his own sales have probably dropped off substantially.

Dow Chemical has a whole lot more experience with this kind of dilemma, and has perfected the trick of passing the buck while wearing an expression of deepest sympathy and concern. Check it out at:

a few highlights, show how the pros do it:

We're the good guys:
"Aminopyralid is also used to control invasive weeds and some brush that threaten our native plant communities and wildlife habitat."

It's not our fault:
"How could aminopyralid have gotten into the manure or compost I used?"

"The short answer is that it shouldn't have. Product labeling contains warnings and detailed instructions about the use of aminopyralid-containing herbicides. If these instructions are followed, aminopyralid residues should not reach your garden."

Note the careful use of "should." Well of course the stuff should not have reached our gardens. But this has zero to do with following application directions. The folks who sprayed it on Eastern Washington hayfields may or may not have followed instructions, but they aren't the ones who fed it to Whatcom County dairy cows. Unless that label says "be sure and tell anyone who buys your hay that they mustn't sell manure to a composter," and the hay farmer then labels every single bale, the stuff is going to get into our soil. It's another illustration of John Muir's quote: "Everything you pick up, you find the whole universe is attached."

Things will be fine in no time
"How long does it take for aminopyralid to break down?"

"Aminopyralid breaks down through the action of soil microorganisms over the growing season and in many cases dissipates by the following year. However, you can only be sure that the product has completely degraded to a level that won’t injure susceptible plants by conducting the bioassay method."

Once again, note the wording "in many cases dissipates by the following year." The implication is that we can take a summer off from that pesky weeding and harvesting and be good to go next year. Not so fast. To use the same syntax, the molecule does its damage at very low concentrations and in many cases does not dissipate within one or even two years.

Friday, September 3, 2010

No good deed goes unpunished

If this were an emerging fiddlehead fern, it would look OK, but it's a tomato plant affected by aminopyralid.

I think every social occasion I've been to in the last couple of months has included talk about the local compost disaster. More and more local vegetable growers and home gardeners had been turning to Smit's Compost out on Meridian north of Lynden. Nice guy, reasonably priced local product, and a win-win solution to the problem of dairy manure--the problem being that there is just so much of it. Now that most farms keep their cows confined rather than grazing on pasture throughout the year, the ratio of cows (and cowshit) to farm acreage has risen dramatically. That means fewer places on-site to safely dispose of manure.

A solution is to take the manure and bedding mixture, compost it, and sell it to the community as an organic soil amendment. Several of my gardening friends have been delighted with their product, until this season when it all went bad. Nathan Smit, no doubt unknowingly, got manure from a dairy that had gotten feed from a grower who used an herbicide containing aminopyralid.

Aminopyralid, manufactured by Dow Chemical, and marketed as Milestone and Forefront among other brand names, is in some ways a breakthrough: it's very potent, working with low application rates; it persists in the soil, so it doesn't need to be used often, unlike, say Roundup; and best of all, it seems to be a relatively low risk to humans and animals either through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion. Dow's website says "aminopyralid is practically nontoxic to birds, fish, honeybees, earthworms, and aquatic invertebrates," and the EPA agrees.

But that same persistence and lack of reactivity--it passes through a cow's digestive tract essentially unchanged--is bad, bad news for composters. Local dairy cows ate hay containing aminopyralid, Smit collected the manure and composted it, and his customers put a potent and persistent broadleaf herbicide in the soil for their tomatoes, peppers, and peas.

One of my friends, after her first sowings came up stunted in her newly composted soil, figured maybe she hadn't fertilized enough, so she applied more. Those crops are gone and the soil is contaminated, maybe for years.

My garden hasn't been affected because I make my own compost and don't use manure, but it got me wondering. I use a lot of coffee grounds in my compost bins. Should I be worried about where those beans have been before I pick up the grounds from the neighborhood espresso stand? I've been checking around on garden and agricultural sites and so far I haven't found any red flags. But one little safe garden is not the point. We need safe agriculture, and to achieve that we need transparency about what's in fertilizers.

In 2001, my friend Duff Wilson published Fateful Harvest, a good and scary book about the massive use of toxic industrial waste in commercial fertilizers, and the doublespeak process used to hide that fact from the public. Basically, once an industrial waste product is sold to a fertilizer manufacturer its label changes...from waste to ingredient. And with that new identity comes a new legal status. It no longer needs to be monitored and tracked as a waste product. As Duff established in his research, ingredients that, as waste, would need to be stored in a special toxics facility, can be simply renamed and spread on our lawns and farmers' fields.
Here's a quote from his original Seattle Times story:

"Any material that has fertilizing qualities can be labeled and used as a fertilizer, even if it contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.

The wastes come from iron, zinc, and aluminum smelting, mining, cement kilns, the burning of medical and municipal wastes, wood-product slurries and a variety of other heavy industries."

It turns out manufacturers could pay a fertilizer maker to haul away their mess for half what it would have cost them for their other option, taking it to a hazardous waste facility. The theory was "dilution is the solution," meaning that we could deal with our toxics by spreading them, thinly, over our lawns, golf-courses, hayfields, gardens and farms. Or sometimes not so thinly. Duff bought a box of Ironite fertilizer at a garden store that promised "Will not burn. Even if you apply 2 or 3 times the prescribed amount." It contained 0.5 percent arsenic and 0.25 percent lead, residue from an Arizona silver mine. It is legal under U.S. law. On the other hand, my mom's old standby MiracleGro turned out to be less toxic than the background level found in untreated soil.