The other night, our friends Frank and Judi had us over for dinner. They’re getting chickens this year, and discussions of hen breeds and coop designs have had us spending time with them. They’ve been to our house to scope out our operation, and they wanted to show us the progress they were making. We like Frank and Judi a lot, and were delighted to go spend an evening with them.
They’re planning a coop that’s similar to ours, and it was well underway. After we looked at their site, and talked a bit about predator-proofing, they showed us around their gardens.
We know Frank and Judi because they’re card-carrying members of the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, an organization that tolerates our membership even though we’re pretty quick to resort to non-organic amendments or pesticides if we think they’ll help. Frank and Judi, on the other hand, could be the club’s poster children. Their organic garden is a thing to behold.
May is very early in the season for Cape Cod – the water all around us tends to delay the spring well into June. Despite a cold, damp season, Frank and Judi’s garden was pretty far along. Their beets are already five inches tall. They have lettuces and arugula and catalogna that are almost harvestable. Their mint looks like my mint looks in August.
And then there’s the garlic. Row after row of it. Strong and green, over a foot tall.
Frank, it seems, is a garlic geek. He’s experimented with many different varieties over the years, and he’s used his own garlic as seed, so it acclimates to his conditions. Over a dish of several heads, roasted, in olive oil, spread on Judi’s homemade bread (don’t you wish you had friends like that?), Frank explained the pros and cons of the various kinds.
Then he went into the basement and came up with a handful of Phillips and Sicilian Silver Skin. For us. Not enough that they were feeding us dinner, giving us a couple of catalogna plants, and letting us raid their mint patch. They had to send us home with garlic.
I marveled at the difference between Frank’s garlic and our garlic. Ours is tiny and stunted, with cloves the size of, well, cloves. His is big and full, with large, regular cloves.
“How do you dry it?” Kevin asked him.
“It’s easy,” Frank said. “I just set up a screen about the size of this table,” the one we were sitting at, maybe eight feet by three, “and a fan. I leave the tops on until they’re dry.”
Frank said this in an offhand, do-it-in-my-sleep kind of way, but I wasn’t fooled. Frank is an engineer, and although I’m in no position to assess engineering expertise, the fact that, before he retired, he ran the Cape Cod Canal for the Army Corps of Engineers, indicates to me that he has skills to be reckoned with.
I pictured his basement garlic operation as a system of screens, with a network of fans, all operated by a nuclear power plant.
Whatever it looks like, though, one thing is certain: Frank’s garlic operation is better than ours. It is better than ours ever will be.
You know those all-in-one office machines that copy, scan, print, and fax? And you know how they don’t do anything as well as machines that do only one or two of those things? Kevin and I are the all-in-one machine. We do so many things that it’s difficult for us to excel at any of them.
We’re okay with that – we like the variety, the novelty, and the endless learning curve. But there’s nothing like being a generalist to teach you the value of specialization.
Our little enterprise has given me a new appreciation for the economies of scale of large-scale agriculture, and a better understanding of how much better you get at growing things when you focus on it. Commercial agriculture began back in the Pleistocene Era when Oog visited Moog’s vastly superior garlic operation, and the lightbulb went on. Instead of thinking about growing his own, he started wondering what he had that Moog might want, and would be willing to trade garlic for. Turns out Oog smoked a mean bluefish, and a deal was struck.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Cargill.
I’m as critical as the next guy of Big Agriculture’s excesses (unless, maybe, the next guy is Mark Bittman), but I never lose sight of the fact that it makes a great deal of sense to encourage people who are good at growing garlic, and doing it in a hospitable climate, to grow a lot of garlic. That way, people who don’t have the time, the skill, or the land to grow them at home have an affordable option.
There you have it. Big Agriculture is what happens when you follow skill and specialization to its logical conclusion, and that doesn’t have to be bad thing. If conditions were right, you might end up with someone like Frank growing vast quantities of high-quality garlic prudently and sustainably. I don’t think Frank himself is going to go that route, but you never can tell about a guy who’s got a nuclear power plant in his basement.