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August in the garden

Today I played with the harvest from my garden in Malibu, California, roasting succulent, rich heirloom tomatoes and fresh red and yellow onions, their long green stalks intact. I caramelied the most delicious eggplants /aubergines I’ve ever tasted! I don’t even like eggplants /aubergines very much, but these long Japanese ones and round Italian Black Beauties were insanely delectable.

Currently baking in the oven are corn, beans and squash, that classic combination of native edible plants held sacred by Native American people. The pleasure of cutting the little golden and red corns from their husk, slicing the purple and green beans, and pulling out the squash seeds from the flesh was just lovely.

I’m sauteing greens with garlic, and when I say greens, it’s an understatement. My heavy cast-iron pot contains Swiss and rhubarb chard, black kale, mustard greens, beet greens, turnip tops and celery leaves, all tossed with olive oil and sea salt, the only ingredients that didn’t come from the plot of earth I look after.

And of course, the beets themselves are about to be pickled, the golden and blood red ones, and the chioggia beets with their red and creamy white concentric circles. The radishes I’ll probably just munch as they are this week, but next week there will be a new crop ready to pickle. Likewise the cucumbers, carrots and bell peppers.

The herbs are all doing well in the garden, so I’m starting to think ahead about making a big batch of pesto and freezing little ice cubes of the other herbs, as well as drying stalks of lemon grass and fronds of lemon verbena.

Tomorrow, I’ll make a start on the apples. There’s a huge bag of them waiting to be cored and sliced into discs ready to be dried into apple rings for the months ahead. The oranges will keep pretty well for a while, but if they’re not eaten before they start to soften, I’ll juice them and freeze it. Same goes from the rest of the citrus, except the lemons, which I may preserve Persian-style with salt. And the Buddha’s Hands, those completely bizarre fruit that are basically all peel and no flesh, but what magnificent peel, what incredibly beautiful fruit!

The figs are simply stunning this year, all four varieties. The stripey variegated green and yellow ones are the prettiest, the black mission figs coming close second, but the sweet, tender Kadota figs are the juiciest of the crop this year. They’re so good, they’re highly unlikely to last long enough to be canned. Munching one right now as I type!

The strawberries are so sweet and perfect that they never make it out of the garden. They are best eaten straight off the plant, shared with whoever else is lucky enough to be in the garden. Visitors routinely say they’re the best strawberries they’ve ever had, and if the truth be told, it’s partly because they are really good in my garden, grown in partnership with their best friends, the alyssum flower and carefully tucked into their beds with a layer of straw bedding to keep them warm at night. But the real reason they’re fantastic is because strawberries don’t like leaving their beds. They want to be eaten e x t r e m e l y fresh! And so if you’ve never eaten one straight off the vine, you haven’t really experienced their true glory.

A few peaches are ready, all of them donut peaches, which means they’re a variety that are round and flat, a bit like donuts. Most of the peaches still have a way to go until they’re ready to pick, but a few made it into my tummy straight from the tree, and they are extremely welcome there.

And the melons! Oh wow, they are so big and beautiful! Watermelons, honeydew, canteloupe, all so juicy they run down your chin!

GM companies get blowback

Oluf Johnson’s 1,500-acre farm in Stearns County is an organic island in a sea of chemically treated corn and soybeans.

Improperly applied pesticides repeatedly drift over from neighboring farms, often with dire consequences for Johnson. But now, thanks to a new court ruling, he and other farmers can sue to recover their losses.

Letting damaging chemicals cross property lines is trespassing, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Monday. Moreover, since those pesticides made his crop unsalable in the organic market, Johnson is entitled to damages from the company that applied it, the Paynesville Farmers Union Cooperative Oil Co., the court said.

“Whenever this happens it will give people with overspray a legal avenue to pursue,” said Doug Spanier, an attorney with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which administers pesticide enforcement regulations in the state. And that could go for any farmer whose crop is made inedible by someone else’s chemical spray and even homeowners whose property has been damaged by a neighbor’s overuse of RoundUp, legal experts said.

It’s one case among many across the country that illustrate how the fight over pesticide use is becoming increasingly contentious. Consumers and health experts are worried about the consequences of pesticides and herbicides in the food chain, and the demand for organically grown food is rising in lockstep.

Courts are responding

Recently, an organic farmer in California won $1 million in damages when pesticides were carried by fog from faraway fields to his own. He had to throw away a season’s worth of herbs destined for organic markets.

The Minnesota court’s decision on Monday “puts it in line with how other jurisdictions have dealt with this,” said Alexandra Klass, a professor of environmental law at the University of Minnesota. “The vast majority of jurisdictions find that pesticide drift is a trespass.”

The state Agriculture Department said it fields 100 to 150 complaints a year from farmers about overspraying. But only about 35 a year result in some kind of financial penalty, state agriculture officials said.

For Johnson and his wife, Debra, it’s been a long, hard fight. Their attorney, Arlo Vande Vegte of Long Lake, said they would not comment on the decision because talking about it publicly could jeopardize their case. It will get another hearing in Stearns County District Court, where it was originally dismissed, he said.

But their story was detailed by the appeals court.

The Johnsons made the decision to become organic farmers in the 1990s, an arduous process that takes at least three years of careful planning and scrupulous record keeping. They asked the local pesticide cooperative, Paynesville Farmers Union, to take precautions with spraying around the farm.

Nonetheless, the cooperative repeatedly sprayed pesticide and herbicide on neighboring fields in a way that violated Minnesota law, the court said in its decision.

The attorney representing the cooperative did not return phone calls on Monday.

The first time it happened in 1998, the cooperative apologized but refused to pay the Johnsons for the damage caused by the overspraying. When it happened again in 2002, Johnson complained to the Agriculture Department, which determined the chemicals had been sprayed illegally, tainting Johnson’s crop.

He sold it at lower, nonorganic prices, and, following federal rules, removed the contaminated field from production for three years. That time the cooperative settled out of court with the Johnsons.

But it happened again in 2005, 2007 and 2008. In all, the state cited the cooperative four times for violating pesticide laws by applying the chemicals on windy days.

But the Johnsons also paid a price each time it happened. They had to burn fields and plow under soybeans and take their fields out of production. In 2009 they sued the co-op, charging negligence and trespassing.

But the district court threw out the suit, saying Minnesota does not recognize trespassing “by particulate matter,” and that the Johnsons could not prove damages. The Appeals Court disagreed. It said that thrown objects and even bullets constitute trespass, and that the state Supreme Court has ruled that beekeepers can collect damages for pesticide-contaminated bees that destroyed their hives.

Perhaps even more significant for other organic farmers, the Johnsons’ attorney said, they are entitled to damages because they couldn’t sell their tainted crops in the organic market.

by Josephine Marcotty for the Star Tribune

Sowing Pumpkins in the Big Apple

I’m currently in New York, a sweltering hot and humid mass of concrete and steel, glass spikes rising from black top to kiss the turquoise sky heavy with cumulus clouds.

On streets graced with maples, English oaks and city plain trees, there’s an occasional square of brown where the uniform tree pattern is abruptly missing a member. Small patches of curbside earth, dotted between slabs of grey.

Whenever I spot one, a pair of heirloom seeds appear from my pocket and before you can say “What if someone sees?” I am on one knee, two fingers wiggling into the dirt, then the seeds are inserted into the brown and covered up snugly an inch below. Water from my bottle darkens the soil, the dampness activating enzymes in their shells as I pat them fondly from above. And now, they are on their alchemical way to new lives as pumpkins.

It’s a small step, but one that’s deftly taken, greening the streets of Gotham City with fairy-tale beauty and delicious, abundant fruits available for all to admire and for all to enjoy as they grow, and then for a lucky few, to eat freshly cut from curly, twisting vines of Cinderella delight.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to sow seeds between the cracks in your city?

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