Good Weeds

My church bought an eighty acre Thompson Seedless vineyard to produce raisins for welfare and disaster relief throughout the world. It’s surprising how many lives can be changed, and in some cases even saved, by such a small piece of ground.

As members we are regularly asked to work in the vineyard. Every year we do the harvest–hard, dirty work in the peak of the summer heat. In winter we prune and tie the vines. And we replace broken posts and repair the trellises. Most of us have no farming background. Most of us don’t even know the basics of how grapevines grow and produce. A farm manager trains us and our children, and we go to work. For charity.

A few weeks ago as we raked weeds off of the vine rows a ten-year old noticed young weeds sprouting between the vine rows in neat rows about four inches apart from each other. It didn’t make sense to her that we were pulling weeds from the vine rows and leaving the weeds between the rows. She was even more surprised when I told her those weeds had been planted there.

They were actually a mix of peas and clovers–all legumes. Legumes are plants that grab nitrogen from the air (71% of the air we breathe is pure nitrogen) and store it in their roots. Eventually, when the plants die, they release this nitrogen into the soil in a form that acts as a sort of slow release fertilizer. This way the farmer doesn’t have to use as much chemical fertilizer to grow the food. He spends less money on fertilizer and still gets good crop yields.

Most food producers do something like this to grow their crops. Some have even discovered that the water they irrigate with has nitrogen in it, and they reduce the amount of fertilizer they use accordingly. Growing food requires water and nitrogen. There’s no getting around it. The trick is to waste as little as possible making sure the plants or animals get it instead of the ground below them.

When I hear people accuse those who grow our food of contaminating groundwater with excess nitrates I have to wonder. Most farmers I know don’t want any of it getting past their crops. They pay for it and want to be able to sell it back to us in the form of food (your leafy greens are chock full of the stuff).

There are more credible sources of groundwater contamination, but I don’t think we really want to address them. The first to come to mind is my neighbor who insists on having the greenest lawn in the neighborhood and fertilizes it to the max. The result is his gardener gets to mow like crazy and haul it off to the landfill every week. Real smart. And you know those world-class gardeners we hear about on the radio? You don’t get maximum results without reaching the saturation point and beyond.

Maybe the difference here is that farmers grow things to make a profit and a living for themselves. We city-dwellers grow things to satisfy our egos. This might be one case where the profit motive actually is better for the environment. It definitely reduces waste. When it comes to groundwater contamination I believe we are all proof of that saying, “When you point your finger at someone there are still three fingers pointing back at yourself.”

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