Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chamber of Commerce weather

Chamber of Commerce Weather
Ellen Birrell

I had no idea about Chamber of Commerce weather until we bought the farm. Today is April fool’s day, 2007, and the land around me as I write this is lush and lustrous with radiant light, fragrant with orange blossom and jasmine. Spring, here in the rural hinterlands north of Los Angeles, is a feeling every morning that the world is created brand new, filled with the positive presence of being-here-now. There is no memory in this, just a busy happy energy. It is Chamber of Commerce weather, good for picnics, postcards and realtor’s open houses, not great for farming if it goes on too long.

Last winter was, by any local account, exceedingly odd. It featured the lowest rainfall on record and the worst freeze in over twenty years. January, usually a wet month, just brought bitter cold: five nights of temperatures well below freezing. On our farm, the lemon orchard on the west end got hit worst. It is a leaf shaped plain, some of our lowest lying land.

When I moved out here, the layout of the west end orchard immediately struck me as eccentric. Orchards are planted in efficient parallel lines overlaying whatever terrain is arable. In that they are like planned communities: order uber alles. Here, almost all of our orchard acreage is laid out parallel to the river that marks our northwest boundary. But on the west end, the orchard lines have been rotated to a jaunty and seemingly arbitrary diagonal across the plain. Now, if you’re going to the trouble of imposing some sort of parallel order on an organic landscape, why would you rotate the rows in one area differently? Some past steward of this land exercised plumb line logic only to a point, and then decided that she liked the straight lines of the orchard better turned just so? How very odd. At least that’s what I thought until the freeze.

Liking it just so. That’s the kind of landscape thinking I associate with Saturday afternoon garden design. Keeping a garden in the city was always about the fantasy of a nature tailored directly to me, especially in Los Angeles where the “Mediterranean climate” has permitted many years of plant importation at the expense of the scrubby chaparral native to this land. In LA you can create a horticultural masquerade of any corner of the temperate globe, or, even better, the many parallel universes of temperate globes possible in the marriage of the individual imagination and the Home Depot plant section. You like roses and I like cacti, or maybe both, as a former neighbor of mine in town does, creating a previously unknown eco-niche where cacti and roses intermingle, thorns revealed as their true communion. It is a familiar story about LA, usually told in architecture or film history, but equally true in gardens. I played this game with pleasure as an urban farmer--the summer tomatoes I planted in town, preferably exotic heirlooms, were always both earthy and flavorful but also about the fantasy of the earthy and flavorful, the fantasy of “farm fresh” and natural.

The real farm has a much more austere logic. At a very base level, it is mercenary. Even a small farm like ours requires a huge amount of labor and patience and luck. A successful orchard is result of daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, ruthless diligence, and a rather spectacular arrogance that says: I will optimize this plant’s condition at the expense of all other life on this square of earth. Why? Because the farm’s productivity is what pays me to do this, and from that first principle come all other benefits, the romance that brought us to the country—the earthy yearning for the pastoral, clean air, quiet, privacy, a slow stewardship of the earth that feels ancient and familiar, a kind of visceral home coming.

We grow Eureka lemons, one of those many plants imported to California in the last 200 years. Eurekas are very strange plants indeed, for if you plant the seeds of one of our lemons, you will not get a Eureka lemon tree. You might get something more or less like one, but most likely, it would be very much less like one than you would want. Since commercial farming is built on the assumption that the lemon you find on the shelf today will be the same as the one you will need tomorrow, and so on, all year round, you can’t be allowing for a plant’s idea of creative reproduction! The ruthlessness of the farmer to cultivate just this plant at the expense of all others is only the final step for a plant that is, actually, a frankenfruit, and all the plumb line logic and the ramrod straight control of the farm starts way before we get anywhere near that plant in this ground. Someone--maybe wearing an immaculate white lab coat, or more likely, dirty bib overalls--figured out that in order to get a consistent market lemon, you must take the roots of one kind of plant , and graft on to them the bud wood of a different kind of plant, a very different kind of plant indeed: not simply a specific variety of lemon, but a clone of someone’s ideal commercial lemon, guaranteed to produce exactly the same kind of lemon over and over and over and over again.

In the history of agriculture, ends always justify means. After all, there is no need for empathy with a tomato. Played out in bodies, the methods and permissions common in agriculture rain horror on human history. I think of race purity and anti-miscegenation laws, gas chambers, closed borders and ethnic cleansing—all symptoms of a paranoid and terrified human resistance to change and hybridity. Agricultural history is the mirror image of this sanguinary trail of tears, just upside down and backwards, for agriculture has embraced any and all of these repressions in the service of its twinned practical and mercenary ends: food and commerce. Genetically modified foods, corn fed beef, Dolly the cloned sheep, and yes--even the dependence on migrant farm workers who have no legal sanction--are all excessive symptoms of agriculture’s pragmatic ends justifying whatever means.

You know the story of Chicken Little: its central figure a chicken that runs around yelling, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” After living on a farm for two years, I can tell you that Chicken Little is a farmer. The sky is always falling for farmers because there is so much they can’t control, not the least of which is the weather. Excesses of any kind are bad: too much rain, too little; too much fruit, not enough; too many bugs but no bees; too much wind or not enough when the temperatures drop. The margins of profitability for the California lemon crop are now so narrow that the only hope of substantial cash flow is at the expense of someone else’s fallen sky. A blight in Florida, a freeze in Spain, a bug in Central America, a killing frost in the Central Valley--farmers survive on each other’s disasters, and anxiously await their turn. Five nights in January below 25 degrees was ours, or nearly so.

Cold air is heavier than warm air and therefore pools on your lowest land—here, the west end orchard. In the old days, farmers would burn tires or smudge pots on cold nights, but because of air pollution, there are now only two legal methods of dealing with a freeze: run your irrigation system or install wind turbines. There are turbines in some of the orchards here, but there is no evidence that they have been used in the last 40 years, nor are there any in the west end block where they would be most useful. So we run our irrigation for five nights. Sprinklers help because ice forms at 32 degrees, protecting the plants by maintaining the temperature at just that point. Walking the west end every morning that week was to visit some fantasy ice palace, all glassy buttresses embalming yellow fruit and fresh green leaves.

In the week after the freeze, our packinghouse rep came to inspect the damage. My love commented gratefully on the balmy weather that had succeeded the frost, but our rep snarled “chamber of commerce weather—we need rain!” He left us with dire predictions about the west end, and said it would take some time to really tell. But when he returned a few weeks later to do an official analysis, he was much more encouraging. In fact, he got downright sunny talking about how badly the Central Valley and Santa Barbara County lemons had done. He scheduled a pick and said we would do well this year, because the price of lemons would surely rise with supply so tight. As he left, he remarked that who ever laid out the west end orchard really knew what they were doing. He explained that the odd diagonal orientation of the orchard--what I had dismissed as eccentric—was exactly calculated to funnel the cold air draining down from the canyon above, moving it efficiently across the plain and off into the river below, keeping that orchard just slightly warmer.

As I finish this, it is another Chamber of Commerce day. Sunny blue sky with just a few decorative puffy clouds; sun warm, shade cool: in short, another perfect day to sit out in the garden and encourage the heirloom tomatoes. Even so, I admit I am worried; we had less than 3 inches of rain this winter and there is none in the forecast. The hills are summer dry and the cattle have already overgrazed whole sections of the upper range. The irrigation in the groves is running all the time. Our foreman who has tended this land for many years just shakes his head when asked about the summer ahead.

You know the sky is falling.

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