A word on weeds

Soft and fuzzy common mullein (Verbascum thapsus).

A couple of years ago, a film titled The Biggest Little Farm was released in the U.S. It received quite a lot of publicity, especially unusual for a farm documentary, and was shown at film festivals and charity screenings across the country. The film opened shortly after we purchased Quiet Farm and was mentioned to us by scores of friends and acquaintances, so of course we had to watch it. The story follows John and Molly Chester as they attempt to regenerate an abandoned farm outside of Los Angeles.

Kochia (Bassia scoparia) is technically an invasive weed but is also used as a forage crop.

Look, I’ll just cut right to the chase: the film is gorgeous. Truly spectacular. The Chesters’ property, rechristened Apricot Lane Farms, is over two hundred magnificent acres; they “grow more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and humanely raise sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks on pastures and within our orchards.” While we and the Chesters might all technically consider ourselves ‘farmers,’ our experience (and our farm!) differ considerably from Apricot Lane. And if guests visit Quiet Farm expecting the iconic Apricot Lane visuals (only $150 for the VIP tour!), they’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is troublesome for us; the sharp, poky seedheads are stuck in our socks all summer.

The carefully-curated golden hour drone shots of Apricot Lane show hillside after hillside, swale after swale, meticulously planted and beautifully managed and without a single seedling out of place. And certainly no weeds to be seen! Some very casual Internet research indicates that the Apricot Lane farmland alone is likely worth about three million dollars, if not more; maintaining a property like this is a staggering amount of work, and one that cannot be accomplished without a large crew and plenty of specialized machinery. Quiet Farm is less than a tenth the size of Apricot Lane, with neither a crew nor much machinery.

Its remarkably strong taproot makes common mallow (Malva neglecta) challenging to eliminate by hand.

Quiet Farm is, perhaps, a bit wilder than Apricot Lane. A bit less manicured, maybe. Or you could say with brutal honesty: “entirely overrun by weeds.” And it would be easy for us to watch The Biggest Little Farm and feel more than a little disappointed in what we’ve accomplished in our three years on Quiet Farm. It would be easy for us to think that we’re failing at farming and failing at managing our land, and I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into this trap. I try to remember, however, that my limited time and energy is best spent focused on our property, not on what others are doing. And I know for a fact that our land is in better shape now than when we bought it, and that’s always our ultimate goal.

Please don’t spray your dandelions; they’re an important food source for pollinators.

Here’s the truth of it all: we are rich in weeds here at Quiet Farm. We are farming in a harsh, arid high-plains desert, not the verdant agricultural paradise known as southern California. We are subject to wildly fluctuating temperatures, severe lack of moisture and desiccating winds, and any plants (or people!) that survive here must be tough. Anyone who has read about the Dust Bowl knows that the main cause of that needlessly tragic period was basically the tilling of the Great Prairie – essentially, with the advent of mechanization, farmers removed all of the plants holding down that valuable topsoil. We are determined not to repeat that mistake here on our land, so unless the weeds are directly impacting a plant we’re growing, they stay. We’d rather have any plant in the soil – even if it’s technically a weed – than bare ground. And of course, a weed is merely a plant growing where you don’t want it. (There are a few exceptions that we will always remove, namely Mexican puncturevine, also known as sandbur or goatheads, and any thistle, only because they hurt like hell when you cross them.)

Usually we have lovely fields of blue mustard, but not in this drought year.

Ironically, many of the weeds and other plants now classified as noxious or invasive were intentionally introduced as “fast-growing ground cover” and sold at garden centers here for decades (Russian olive trees and the spurge family are two great examples). Others are highly nutritious and would have likely been prized by settlers and homesteaders, including purslane, mustard and lamb’s quarters. There’s a valid argument that we’d all be much healthier if we occasionally foraged for native wild greens, only because their nutrition content is dramatically higher than our cultivated greens (which we don’t eat enough of, anyway). Weeds, of course, aren’t necessarily weeds to everyone: at the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Manhattan, purslane is often sold for upwards of $20 a pound. Because of the exceptional drought that we’re experiencing we found that our purslane and mustard didn’t make much of an appearance this spring, but we’re hoping to see them again in future years.

Our spiky, dangerous nemesis: cotton or Scotch thistle.

We have a stack of booklets and pamphlets, mostly produced by our favorite local land-grant university, that provide information about noxious weeds and how to manage them. The solution, invariably, is heavy, intense spraying with broadleaf poisons like 2,4D and glyphosate. These delightful (and expensive!) Big Ag products are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, toxic to birds, wildlife and aquatic life and likely destroy bee populations, as well. Why would we uproot our entire lives to move to a small farm and focus on growing our own food so that we could then douse ourselves and our animals in Agent Orange? All weeds will eventually adapt and gain resistance to any herbicide, no matter how much we use. And once the weeds are thoroughly eradicated, which will never happen, what are we supposed to plant in their place – a thirsty monocrop of Kentucky bluegrass? We barely have enough water to keep our edible plants alive, much less pointless turfgrass. So we pull weeds by hand when they’re interfering with our crops and throw them to the chickens; otherwise, we live peacefully with the plants on our land (except for the goatheads, which destroy our shoes and our bike tires).

Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) are prolific and incredibly nutritious.

I sound jealous and disgruntled, of course, because Apricot Lane Farms is really just so unbelievably gorgeous, and some days all I can see here are the unkempt, straggly weeds that seem to be everywhere. We are genuinely happy that a film like The Biggest Little Farm garnered lots of attention – any media that addresses our deeply compromised food supply is a net positive, in our opinion. But nothing in that film bears any relation to our little farm, and I’d argue that two hundred acres outside of Los Angeles – while certainly not a ten-thousand-acre monocrop corn/soy operation in Iowa – isn’t exactly a “little” farm, but more like a multimillion dollar farm theme park, complete with gift shop. Just like anything else on social media, it’s important to remember that there is quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work that isn’t mentioned, and two people can’t manage that property on their own, though the film implies that the Chesters do just that. I’d like to know a lot more about their weed eradication practices.

Likely something in the dock family? Feel free to weigh in with a plant ID.

We’ll never successfully hand-weed our entire acreage. And no matter how long we’re here, Quiet Farm will simply never be Hollywood-ready, and it won’t ever look like Apricot Lane. That’s just how it is. So if you should ever visit us, remember not to make comparisons with any heavily-edited farm documentaries you might have seen. Don’t forget to browse our gift shop, where you can buy a fair-trade logo tote bag handwoven from bindweed, mallow and cheatgrass (careful, it’s a bit sharp). Goatheads are always a free gift with every purchase because they’re already stuck in the soles of your shoes.

5 thoughts on “A word on weeds

  1. So much of what is classified as farms here is insulting. Agriculture used to be very important in what has become urban areas of California. I can still remember the last remnants of orchards in the Santa Clara Valley. Nowadays, those with suburban parcels of an acre or so might get a few llamas on their property and call it a farm. Llamas have been a fad for quite a while, but I still have no idea what they actually do. (People who have handlers ‘raise’ them on their property happily remind me that they produce wool in Peru and Bolivia and such, but I know of now one who actually got wool from the llamas on their property. If they did, no one would know what to do with it.) Vineyards used to be respectable farms here, but have become weirdly pretentious. I just want to live here like my ancestors did, but it just does not work anymore. Where I lived in town, neighbors complained about the vegetables and fruits, claiming that they attracted rodents. I can not afford property in the Santa Clara Valley, where a small suburban house on a city lot might cost two million dollars.

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    • Tony, we hear you. We’d like to live quietly and peacefully too but every minute we’re certain they’re going to put in a golf course or housing development next door. It’s tough to live in “the old ways” today – too many people and not enough land.

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      • and too many people trying to outlaw the old ways. So much of what I want in a home violates building codes. Fireplaces and wood stoves are illegal. Elaborate electrical systems are required. Even building materials that I am allergic to are required. The only way that I can get the simple sort of home that I want is to buy an old one. However, the old ones have been replaced by monster homes. It is rather disgusting. I am regularly reminded that I can always move to someplace else, but this is my home! Anyway, enough of that rant.

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