By Jennifer Wholey
Jackie and Ian Merwin didn't intend to start a commercial orchard when they moved from California to Trumansburg in 1985. On the west coast, the Merwins had always grown fruit in their backyard, and they continued to do so on their one-acre plot in the village when Ian began his graduate degree in pomology. Ian went on to become a horticulture professor at Cornell University, and the Merwins purchased additional land for recreational use.
"We'd come here and have cookouts, and campouts, and hike, but very soon thereafter, Ian started planting a couple of trees. A little bit was okay ... but then I said, 'What are you going to do with all of these?'" confessed Jackie.
Ian planted the first trees of what would become Black Diamond Farm in 1993. By 1998, the unintentional orchard was producing enough apples for the Merwins to sell at the Ithaca Farmers Market, along with pears, peaches, cherries, blueberries, grapes, and apricots.
The farm now has two main orchards, bisected by the old Black Diamond Express railroad tracks and a pond, which irrigates the lower orchard. (A nascent third orchard grows closer to the Merwins' house, built on the farm in 2012, near their storage and cider press.) They grow more than 135 varieties of apples, the majority of which are heirloom apple varieties, Ian's specialty in research and in practice.
By Joe Romano,
Like the seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
— Kahlil Gibran
It's spring, in Ithaca, the time when a local person's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of planting. The frost of winter has grudgingly trundled off to the mountaintops, and the soil has warmed and softened, ready to yield to the hands and tools of the farmer and gardener. Now has also begun the planting of starts and seeds. Saved from previous bounties or obtained from reputable sources, seeds have been stored, protected, and sown since time immemorial.
Right this minute, a secure storage vault sits silently, buried deep beneath the permafrost in a man-made cave inside a frozen mountain on a remote Arctic archipelago near the North Pole. Equipped with ventilators designed to maintain subzero temperatures, the vault was designed to house millions of boxes of dormant seeds. Though it sounds like the lair of a James Bond villain, the vault is very real and was created to protect the security of food plants from all manner of assault, including nuclear winter. Called the Global Crop Diversity Trust, according to its executive secretary, Cary Fowler, "It [has] the capacity to store samples of every crop variety we think exists now, plus [has] room to add new collections."
Designed as a sort of Noah's Ark for seeds, the trust is "the ultimate backup for plant material." Though it is functionally little more than cold storage to protect plant varieties, the lengths to which scientists will go to protect species is actually quite dramatic, as this story related by SciDev.net relates:
As an increasingly bloody civil war raged around them, a team of scientists in the Syrian capital Aleppo quietly packaged and shipped a series of nondescript cardboard boxes to an island not far from the North Pole. The boxes bore no sign of the conflict that had surrounded them or the precious material they contained ... "It was extraordinary," says Ola Westengen, one of the scientists' Norwegian colleagues who received the seeds. ... "These seeds are extremely valuable." The samples from Syria now sit alongside hundreds of thousands of others — sent by teams in countries from Burundi to Uzbekistan. Westengen, who was until recently coordinator of operations at the Vault and now works at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, describes his colleagues' work shipping seeds from Syria as "heroic."
By Joe Romano,
The goldenrod is yellow, The corn is turning brown, The trees in apple orchards, With fruit are bending down.
— Helen Hunt Jackson
Eve ate one. Teachers love them, too. They keep doctors away, and they are as American as baseball, at least when baked in a pie. Long lauded as a panacea for health, good looks, and longevity, it has, sadly, come time to ask, "Is the American apple safe to eat?"
In a major step toward bringing genetically modified (GM) apples to market, the US Department of Agriculture announced a decision on Friday, the 13th of February to allow "Arctic" GM apples to be grown in the wild with no further oversight. The USDA claimed that "the GE [genetically engineered] apples are unlikely to pose a plant pest risk to agriculture and other plants in the United States." Arctic apples won't become available in most produce aisles until 2017 at the earliest. The reason behind the genetic modification of one of our most familiar foods? To keep it from getting brown when it is no longer fresh.
So, what does the USDA mean when they say "unlikely to pose a risk"? For years, those concerned about GMOs have been told that they are "safe" and that there is a "scientific consensus" to back that up. A quick look at the literature confirms that story. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a group that stands by both evolution and human-caused climate change, states uncategorically,
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe ... The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
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New in Produce
Autumn's bounty is here — apples, apples, apples, along with greens, winter squash, and other produce.
Autumn is here, and the local offerings abound. Indian Creek Farm brings apples, pumpkins, and a consistent shopper favorite: Brussels sprouts! Black Diamond Farm provides a variety of premium quality apples, including a personal favorite, the Zabergau Reinette. The Good Life Farm adds to the apple deluge with their organic Liberty, Enterprise, Hudson's Golden Gem, and King. Blue Heron brings their fantastic winter squash (acorn, jester, honeynut, butternut, autumn crown, and kabocha), while Stick and Stone holds down the greens with kales, collards, baby bok choy, and tatsoi. I'd like to pause to remember Robin Ostfeld, who passed from this world on Aug. 26. Robin was the matriarch of Blue Heron Farm and a leader in this area's organic agricultural movement. We'd like to send our love and support and deepest condolences to Lou Johns and the entire Blue Heron Farm family.