Sunday, August 9, 2009

The birds and the bees

After 4 1/2 days of intense biking across hilly northeastern New York, Ollie and I made our way to the Cazenovia farmers market, where we met up with Alison and her son Jason who gave us a ride back to Frosty Morning Farm in nearby Truxton, NY. Their farm, on the site of the Common Place Land Trust, was quite the model of sustainability -- from solar panels to a composting toilet to organic farming to homemade yoghurt. In everything they do, Alison and Karl reaffirm their dedication to living in a way that celebrates everything and wastes nothing. The final evening of my stay, Karl whipped up something of a kitchen sink pasta sauce that included some ground meat in the freezer, a couple jars of homemade pasta sauce, and whatever vegetables were around, including fennel, zucchini, and onions.

Karl is quite the wine, cheese, and yoghurt maker. (Needless to say, we all ate and drank well.) One of Alison's passions, it turns out, is herbal medicine. Another is plant breeding, especially using open pollinating varieties. She'd worked with some programs that bred and field tested varieties of vegetables now and again and had developed quite a knack for hand pollinating squashes and zucchinis. As we finished up our barbecue on my first evening on the farm and sipped beers while admiring the fading sunset, a head-lamped Alison excitedly waved me over to see the blossoms she was flagging for the next morning's hand pollinating: male and female flowers tied with reflective tape to keep bees (aka would-be errant pollen carriers) out. The next morning after breakfast, and for the subsequent 5 days on the farm, I worked with her to meticulously pollinate a variety of gourds. Alison was an engaging and patient instructor, and we chatted away as we worked -- well, at least when we didn't have flower parts in our mouths. (Alison's solution to holding multiple stamen securely while preparing a series of them to pollinate the pistils was to hold them in her mouth, a technique I have not heard of elsewhere, but then few things are done traditionally here, and it worked so I did it, too.)

Now, there is something to be said about the birds and the bees here. No wonder parents use those euphemisms: the process of hand-pollinating, for example, was very...intimate. This was way different than I'd imagined while studying my genetics textbook in college. There I sat amid the leafy tendrils and sunshine colored blooms, gently untying the slipknots and peeling back the delicate petals to reveal the bright yellow stamens and pistils which I was then instructed to rub gently but thoroughly against each other. For hours I couldn't get Marvin Gaye out of my head (except for the occasional Al Green reprieve -- not much better) and at times I actually found myself blushing. Must be that Catholic upbringing. It didn't help that the scent of nectar was mildly intoxicating....

By the time my friend Rob arrived to whisk Ollie and I away to Ithaca on Thursday afternoon, Alison and I had weeded a long row of onions, baked 3 dozen giant wild raspberry-blackberry scones (I must get that recipe!), and I was deemed by Alison to be practically an old hand at pollinating. I'm looking forward to learning more about plant breeding, seed saving, and heirloom vegetables along the bikeable feast. But first I need to get Love Train out of my head....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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