Tuesday, September 16, 2008


At this latitude the sun moves far to the south by September so my backyard is shadowed by my garage when I get up. The slanted light is already tarnished somehow. Usually this time of year there are forest fires and the sky is pale, but now it is darkly saturated blue. So far the trees are only flagged with yellow, but soon they’ll turn and drop. A couple of days ago someone’s escapee bird dogs, springer spaniels or brittanies, went joyfully shooting through the yards, scattering cats and provoking homeowners behind them, but it’s not bird season yet. Bow season now. The elk are bugling. There is no wilder nor more yearning sound -- at least until the geese begin to fly in V’s. The grain trains are whistling in the night.

The little ag newspaper called “The Prairie Star” has done me two favors. The first is that it was on the strength of working for them that I moved here -- even though the paper was soon sold and moved away, leaving me stranded. But because I worked there, I seem to have a perpetual subscription. Thus, I keep up with the farmers. Right now some of them are planting again and appreciate a spate of rain we had recently. Winter wheat has become rather famous because of the novel by that name by Mildred Walker, but also some are planting winter lentils. I didn’t know there was such a thing. The seed lentils must be cleaned, which means having the weeds blown or screened out, so part of the planting means trucking the lentils somewhere and back.

Another wheat farmer saw the forecast and decided to marathon 740 acres of “poor durum” (that’s wheat) to get it out of the field before rain made it worse. So they parked a camper on the field and went at it as though combining were calving. Two or three hours of sleep, then combining, relaying roles. They began at 9AM one morning and got done at 8PM the next night. On the last field he was getting two bushels an acre. (That’s low.) Every little bit counts. This guy, a handsome young grandpa with a mustache, is working around a trip to Washington DC and his bowling night, catching the political conventions on the fly via the radio. Also his son is moving into a new home and expecting the birth of their first child.

Another one of these politically alert fellows with mustaches is an organic farmer. He says he’s fighting the sawflies by varying the kind of seeds he plants. They get into the grain by infesting the hollow stems, so for winter he grows Genou, a solid-stem variety plus Quantum which makes a lot of stems per stand. He says philosophically, “I will plant a little for us, a little for the sawfly, and a little for the birds -- or cutworms, I guess. There’s a saying in organic lines that says ‘plant a little for everybody , then you’ll make sure and get some for yourself.’ Plus, planting extra helps choke out the weeds.” He’s also headed to Washington DC to confer with the Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer about the 2008 Farm Bill, climate change, alternative fuels, trade agreements and rural healthcare. It is not an accident that two of Montana’s most effective politicians are farmers: Brian Schwietzer the governor and John Tester our Representative.

Sawfly had a great year for felling wheat, which is called “lodging.” The upshot is the same: fallen-over grain, which can’t be harvested and may begin sprouting on the ground. The perfect combination of events for the sawflies was a cool spring so that everything was slow-growing (harvest was very late this year). Female flies laid eggs over a greater area and had an easier time overwintering in the stubble. (Early heat dries them dead.) With cool weather, even the pith-filled-stem varieties made less pith. Then, contradictorily, the previous few years of the main sawfly parasite, a kind of wasp that normally manages two cycles per summer, the second one perfectly timed to eat sawflies -- got out of sync. Besides that, dry-year wheat tends to have shorter stems, less stubble for the wasps to live in. This year was great for the fewer wasps as well as the sawflies, so next year is likely to be better.

Another sneaky little strategy is to use a “trap crop” off to the side of the better field, so the sawflies will all go over there where they don’t matter so much and then will be disappointed to be blocked by pith. The point is that a farmer must always strategize over every tiny thing, many of them uncontrollable, like weather. Farming is the perfect example of how success (fitness) is half heredity and half environment, because as combines travel through the fields the bushel-weight varies by so many factors: mineral quality of the soil, fertilizer distribution, depth of tillage (less is better), moisture retention, tilt of the ground towards the sun. The more the farmer is able to document and record all this stuff, the better he is able to market. Even after it’s in out of the field, barley is tested for “protein, weight, thins, plumps, and falling numbers” which is a milling quality measurement. All recorded, all subtly changing the strategy for the next year.

Today’s computer-dependent farmer is a far cry from the guy back in Egypt making little marks on a block of clay. Ten thousand years of cultural pressure has changed us all, but maybe we aren’t evolving as fast as would be better. A beer (barley) and bread (wheat) based diet is still pressing those of us whose bodies are attuned to meat and veggies from hunter/gatherer days, especially now that so many rogue molecules hang around in everything we eat, wear and sit on. Another article says that traces of hydrocarbons are showing up in the 250 water wells around the Pinedale Anticline natural gas wells in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, lasers and magnets isolate, analyze, and record the phenotype data. (That is, the physical characteristics of the seed as dictated by the genotype.) The seeds are blister-packed for future growth research. The scientists speak of “millions of phenotypic points of data” collected over 82 years of analysis, indicating molecular markers for disease-resistance.

Of course, then those seeds are sold to a lot of randomly selected variations of genotype called farmers. Just observing from the photos, it looks to me as though a nice mustache is a good phenotype to select for -- as well as an ability to get along without much sleep and a mind that retains minutia. Skip the blister pack.

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