Friday, January 15, 2010

How dry I am

No, this isn't a posting to mourn my 10-day stint on antibiotics on my way through the heart of California wine country. I'm talking about dry farming.

I'd first heard of the concept while at a wine tasting that my friend Rei invited me to during my time in Seattle. The wines I sampled at The Truffle Cafe weren't "local" -- the grapes were grown and fermented in Spain by a charming older Italian gentleman -- but the farming principles were very much in line with my research on sustainable agriculture more generally, so I happily attended. As we sampled a bevy of delicious wines, the Parmi vintner showed a small group of us photographs of the vineyard, with grapes growing quite literally on top of a shale cliff. Right out of the rock! No chemicals or watering. Ever. Water conservation, land stewardship, no synthetic pesticides or other chemicals... these are a given in France, Spain, Italy, but only practiced by a few grape growers here in the States. It turns out that the rare organic American wines (or, more accurately, wines made with organic grapes) have a lot to learn from many generations of European winemakers.

[Aside: I recently read that grapes are among the "dirty dozen" of fresh produce: items most commonly laden with chemicals that, especially if you have young kiddos, you should either buy organic or avoid altogether. What? No, I don't anticipate having kids soon, but so many of my friends are cranking out offspring these days that coming across "meal planning for toddler" books and articles seems a more common occurrence these days.]

The way dry farming works is that plants are forced to develop deep roots that tap into the aquifers (or water table). The plants are intentionally stressed, so a smaller number of them survive, but those that do are pretty hardy. (Darwin would be proud. The principle also applies to some of the house plants under my mother's care, it seems.) Okay, so it works for grapes in Spain. But can the methods apply to other fruit and vegetable crops? I wondered....

On my way through California, I'd heard rumors of dry farming other crops. It turns out, I learned from Suzie and Seth as we chatted one morning at their farm in Half Moon Bay, that dry farmed tomatoes are something of a rage here in west central California. (What! How had I never heard of this food fad?? I love food. Maybe it's a west coast thing.) "The tomatoes are smaller," Suzie explained, "But the flavor is more concentrated. People rave about them." There are generally fewer tomatoes as well, which makes the price per pound more than their larger, juicier counterparts. But local aficionados are willing to pay a pretty penny for them. There's some talk of trying out a few dry farmed crops at Potrero Nuevo Farm, I learned from Seth, for the 25-share CSA starting up this spring. After all, not just fancy pants chefs should have access to the tastiest tomatoes. (And not only west coasters, I say, if I have to start dry farming them myself in my parents' back yard. Come to think of it, I think they have the right kind of soil for it....)

I hope my travels bring me to a farm or two that have been doing some dry farming so I can learn more about some of the practical challenges and tips for successful dry farming. And I'm not going to lie, I'm dying to try some of the tomatoes. You know, for purely educational purposes.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. It's funny how your blog can be life changing. I had never heard about the dirty dozen (aside from the Steve McQueen movie) but although I'm currently agnostic on buying organic--I will make it a point to buy those 12 organic-only. However I also learned that Googling "dirty dozen" returns the 13 (not 12 mind you) nasty biking hills in Pittsburgh.


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