Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hop Harvest

The hop yards of southwestern Idaho are growing quiet and empty. The walls of hops are falling as workers cut and gather the lanky plants. Unpaved roads wave dust plumes behind the trucks that carry the plants to the hop-pickers and -driers that rattle and hum day and night in the farm fields around Wilder, ID.

Wrangling the tall plants takes special equipment. This short video shows how the Obendorf Hop Farm first clips the bottoms of the plants and then pulls them down and gathers them into a truck.
My story in last fall’s Edible Idaho describes the action at the picker/drier and shows how the hop fields of Wilder have changed with the popularity of hoppy craft beers. An earlier blog post shows how workers install twine for the young hop plants to climb in spring.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do Sagebrush Steppe Grasses Need to Be Grazed?

A rancher in southwestern Idaho and I have been having the same conversation for years. We both enjoy it and we always have something to talk about. My friend, the rancher/cow whisperer, thinks our native perennial grasses are better off when they’re grazed. By better off, he means greener and more vigorous, without old, dead leaves.

Rancher/Cow Whisperer told me about perennial grasses growing in a steep canyon, where his cattle can’t reach them. The grasses are choked with dead leaves and their centers have died. Grazing would have kept the grasses trim, green, and vigorous.

I haven’t scrambled into the canyon to see the ungrazed grasses, but I’ve kept my eye on some non-native landscaping plants in Boise. These grasses haven’t been grazed and the inside of each plant has died. I got a photo of the dead centers after the grasses’ annual hair cut in late spring. The plants' outside leaves will soon be tall enough to hide the dead centers.
I tell Rancher/Cow Whisperer that I also prefer green plants to dormant or dead ones. I’d rather see lush green lawns, pastures, and alfalfa fields than dry, brown ones. When I see big, thick summer grasses bucking and waving in the wind of the Dakotas or the Great Plains, I want to roll in them.

But, are sagebrush steppe grasses embarrassed by their old leaves? Do they worry about their dead centers?

I remembered my on-going conversation with Rancher/Cow Whisperer when I saw a piece by a writing rancher. Rancher/Writer had visited one of my favorite places on the Sagebrush Sea, where management includes restrictions on grazing. She wondered if there wasn’t too much bare ground and if appropriate grazing could help fill in between the plants. As a plant ecologist, I see bare ground and I’m reminded of the admirable tenacity of our native perennial grasses.

Bare ground reminds me that sagebrush steppe grasses grow in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. The plants have to do all their growing in the limited time between the “too cold” of winter and “too dry” of summer. They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

Our native bunchgrasses aren't altruistic. They won't cut consumption so other plants can grow around them. If they left water and nutrients for others, the other might be cheatgrass, which would increase the chance of fire. Cheatgrass is fuel for fires; bare ground is a firebreak that helps protect bunchgrasses.

Rancher/Writer noticed dead grass leaves and wondered if appropriate grazing could rejuvenate the plants. I see dead leaves and dead grass centers and I’m reminded of how well the plants are protecting the soil.

Dead leaves remind me that the material will decay and release nutrients into the soil for the plant to use. When the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material goes on protecting the soil, its water, its nutrients. The plant cries, “It’s just a flesh wound!” and keeps growing out around its edges--finding more water and nutrients.

Do our native sagebrush steppe grasses need to be grazed? If we look at it from the plants’ and the soil’s point of view, I don’t think so.

I’ll slow down to enjoy the sight of green irrigated pastures and breathe in the fragrance of a just-cut alfalfa field. Someday, I might stop to roll in the lush summer grasses on the plains. I'll also be amazed by our native perennial grasses. These bunchgrasses grow in challenging country and can do an exemplar job protecting our soil and keeping cheatgrass out of the Sagebrush Sea.

Instead of focusing on their unkempt appearance, let's thank our sagebrush steppe grasses for all the work they do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Should Monitor Federal Rangelands?

“The fox guarding the henhouse.” That's what Linda Price expects some to say about a new rangeland monitoring program. I quoted the manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Salmon, Idaho, in a recent article.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) saw the need for more information on the condition of BLM rangelands in the state and came up with a solution. Brooke Jacobson, ISDA’s coordinator for the project, helps ranchers get start collecting vegetation data on land they lease for livestock grazing. Meanwhile, the BLM’s vegetation specialists are stuck at their desks doing paperwork. A steady stream of time-sucking lawsuits provides job security, but keeps agency employees away from their monitoring duties.
Brooke shows ranchers how to take annual photos at BLM monitoring sites and send their data to the agency. Ranchers can also attend one of the University of Idaho’s monitoring workshops. In this pilot program, ranchers will monitor only upland rangelands, not sensitive riparian areas. They won’t be measuring, or even counting, vegetation; they’ll be collecting photographic data.

Even with training and help from Brooke, some people might not think ranchers are up to the task. The skeptics must never have worked on a veg crew.

When I hired crews to collect vegetation data at the U.S. Geological Survey, I didn’t ask if applicants knew how to count plants. I asked the hard question: “Can you handle a summer living out on the Sagebrush Sea?” Anyone who can tolerate boring, repetitive tasks can learn to collect data; only a few hardy souls can sleep in a tent, haul water, and build a toilet with a shovel all summer. Data collection ain’t rocket surgery.
Nonscientists collecting data is nothing new. Amateur and professional scientists work together on the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They receive the same training and their data go into the same valuable dataset on bird numbers and distribution. Citizen scientists also record the seasonal changes in plants and animals for the National Phenology Network. This information helps scientists identify patterns of global climate change, which helps planners address the social and economic stresses that result.

You could argue that ranchers might fudge the data when monitoring their grazing lands. If you did, I’d point out that anyone could be tempted to blink at the wrong time while reading data. Every BLM employee has an opinion on livestock. Researchers have their favorite hypotheses. Even universities listen to their supporters, legislators, and alumni, all of whom have biases.

Software developers are making data collection easier and more accurate for both citizen and career scientists. Before Amazon ever heard of drones, Terry Booth, at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Cheyenne, WY, was photographing rangelands from light aircraft. The photos were clear enough to count plants and measure bare ground. In other words, they were detailed enough to monitor rangelands.

It’s been years since I saw a rancher with a flip phone (four months since I gave up mine). Smart phone cameras take excellent pictures and a University of Nebraska app makes photographing the same spot every year...a snap.

Ranchers and BLM employees look through the same viewfinder, but they see different things. Most agency workers move several times during their career. Most ranchers stay put for decades; their families often stay rooted for generations. Ranchers experience many El Niño and La Niña years on the same land. They see swings in precipitation and note the effects on plants and livestock. Ranchers are on the land 24/7/365 and they see things.
When my friends Jake Weltzin and Steve Archer investigated why mesquite trees were invading Texas grasslands, they asked the local ranchers. Guy and G. D. London told my friends that mesquite moved in after they killed the prairie dogs. Jake and Steve tested the ranchers' hypothesis and found that prairie dogs keep mesquite out of grasslands by clearing away seedpods and stripping bark from seedlings.
Rumor has it that ranchers remember three years: this year, last year, the best year. Researchers know memories fade and insist on written data. In the words of Adam Savage, one of Discovery channel’s MythBusters,“The only difference between screwing around and science, is writing it down.”

Ranchers will go one better when they monitor their rangeland: they’ll take pictures. Then they're write down when and where they took them.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Three Degrees, No Garlic Scapes

In three agriculture degrees, several botany classes, and decades as a plant ecologist, I never ran into garlic scapes. I know and use terms such as “homoploid hybrid species” and “Pseudotsuga menziesii.” But, until last Saturday, I’d never met a garlic scape.

Jessica and Jeremy of Swift River Farm introduced me to the curvy, green flower shoots at their booth at the Lemhi County Farmers Market in Salmon, Idaho. The couple, who also sell subscription shares in their farm’s produce, spun an improbable tale of sex and scapes.

Long before humans began sautéing cloves or warding off vampires with the heads, garlic dispensed with seed. The plants gave up sex. Each of these Shakers of the plant world eschewed others of its kind and simply produced garlic heads that grew into plants that produced garlic heads.

Jeremy and Jessica embrace garlic’s celibacy and plant individual cloves, which grow into plants that produce full heads. Each plant is genetically identical to its single parent, which is identical to its single parent, and so on back through time.

Oddly, some kinds of garlic still produce flowers, as if trying to blend in with the rest of the plant world. While other plants produce flowers with male and female parts that swap genes with the opposite flower parts to form seeds, garlic flowers form bulbils. Bulbils look like tiny cloves and grow into plants identical to their parent.

The scapes I discovered at the market are garlic flower stalks with developing bulbils. I cut open one of the largest developing flower clusters.


I’ve also learned there are two kinds of garlic: soft neck and hard neck. The garlic in grocery stores is the former, as it stores well enough to keep the produce bins stocked all year. I might be excused my garlic-scape ignorance, as they are only produced by hard neck garlic. These types are grown in cooler climates and usually consumed locally, as they don’t store well.

My new friends, the garlic scapes, gave me the perfect excuse to skip my usual toast-and-yogurt breakfast and linger over an omelet-and-garlic-scape-potato Sunday brunch.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Smooth Brome in Full Glorious Bloom

In Salmon, Idaho, the springtime blues of lilac and larkspur are fading to yellow sunflower, mullein, and mum. Their colors echo the intensifying sun, as it pauses to catch its breath before marching south again. The gardens bursting with blooms catch our eye and make it easy to overlook the grasses. Although many people don’t think of them as “flowering plants,” bromes and bluegrasses bust out with intricate, usually overlooked, flowers.

A pickup truck stopped while I was photographing smooth brome flowers on a late spring morning. The passenger-side window motored down and the designated questioner asked if I had found a fawn. “No,” I said, “I’m photographing the bromegrass in full, glorious bloom. Who could resist?” DQ smiled through his snort. “I could.” The designated driver drove on.


Each grass flower's yellow anthers are full of pollen and easy to see. The feathery stigmas, which catch the pollen, are tiny white flecks. Here's a detailed photo of johnsongrass flowers.

The beauty of grasses is subtle, but their gifts to people are not: grasses feed the world. Corn, plus wheat and its cousins oats, rye, and barley dominate agriculture in the U.S. Rice is the staple food of more of the world's people than any other. Millet and sorghum are the main food crops in West Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Grasses even provide dessert: sugar cane is a grass.

Grasses have even earned their own field of study. My friend Matt Lavin teaches agrostology at the University of Montana. He shares his artful images of grasses, and other plants, on Flickr. No telling how many DQs have stopped to wonder about Matt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stringing Hops

While Midwest corn and soybean farmers waited for April’s muddy fields to dry for planting, southwest Idaho hop growers were already helping their crop reach for the sun. Corn and soybeans grow from tiny seeds each spring. Hop plants get a jump on the season by resprouting from sturdy roots.
As the first lobed and toothed leaves appear, sticky hairs on the stems attach to anything they can find to stretch toward the sky. Commercial hop growers in the Greenleaf-Wilder area of Idaho provide trellises and twine nearly 20 feet tall.

This is one of only four places in the U.S. where the crop is grown commercially. You might be tempted to call these champion climbers, “vines,” but botanists call them “bines.” Vines grip with curling tendrils; bines use stiff hairs.

This April, workers at Jackson Hop Farm rode across the hop yards while standing on a platform a dozen feet above the ground. A tractor pulled the contraption perpendicular to overhead wires that stretch among sturdy posts. As the tractor passed under a wire, five men on the platform each picked up a 20-foot long piece of twine from a supply hanging over the partition in front of him. Then five thickly-gloved hands executed a flip and a twist with a tuck and the end of the twine was tied to the wire.
Occasionally, one of the men missed his dally. A shout from the platform would stop the tractor and back it up for another loop.

The platform cowboys weren’t the only ones wrangling hops. A ground team flowed in the wake of the tractor and tacked the other end of the twine to the ground.
As a left hand caught a swaying twine, a right hand aimed a driver loaded with an M-shaped metal clip.
Catch-point-set-step-push and another family of glossy new leaves had a home to grow on.
(This is a brand new hop yard, established just this past winter. Red straws marked the spot where each cluster of roots was to be buried.)
The crew will be back during May to teach the bines to climb, clockwise, to the top of the trellis. Hop plants only make right turns and always follow the clock.

By mid-June the plants will be nearing the tops of the trellises.
At harvest, long hallways of broad green leaves will be festooned with lighter green cones oozing with hoppy goodness.

I wrote about the fragrant harvest in the Fall issue of Edible Idaho.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Red, not Golden, Walnuts

California, home to fruits, nuts, and the world’s largest artichoke, lays claim to walnuts. The claim is based on the state's rank as the world’s largest producer of the golden nuts. California exports millions of pounds of shelled and in-the-shell walnuts each year, perhaps even to the forests of southwestern Asia where the trees are native.

Idaho, home to sagebrush, spuds, and the world’s largest beagle, boasts two trees that produce red walnuts. Inside normal-looking walnut shells nestle red-seed coated nutmeats that are creamier and milder than their golden-coated cousins.

When I visited the two trees late last summer, their unusual nuts were cleverly disguised as regular green walnut fruits.

Idaho’s red walnuts are descendants of a single tree in Europe, where the unusual nuts have been rediscovered and renamed many times. Recent converts rave about the nuts in online discussion boards and ask others for more information on the trees. Others respond with reminiscences and reminders on the virtues of sharing.

A researcher in Austria is an admirer of the ruddy-skinned nuts. His Flicker photostream show a range of colors, from pink to burgundy to deep violet. He has a red-seeded walnut tree in his garden and research into the genetics of the rare nuts on his bucket list.

I wrote about Idaho’s red walnut trees in the Winter issue of Edible Idaho.