One of the first things you may notice on our farm (and on many organic farms) is the weeds. We have a lot of them! The four of us spend a large portion of our time weeding, or trying to ignore the weeds, and then compulsively pulling a weed out when we’re supposed to be walking by. Today, however, I wanted to write a short ode to these silent and plentiful participants on our farm.
Our farm is infinitely more weedy than our neighbor’s, who uses this nifty tool called RoundUp. When we compare our barley/mustard field to his wheat fields, we see why organic grains cost so much at the store. We put a massive amount of work into keeping weeds at bay so our crops can grow to full size.
However, I also like to look at those weeds as the most biodiverse part of our farm. While a neighboring field will have likely 99.99% of one plant genotype, I would estimate that our field (in addition to the 40+ crops) has at least 15 dominant weeds and some 20+ rarer ones. After a recent day of weeding, our farm is likely comprised of 60% crops and 40% weeds. We do the majority of our weeding by hand, so we’re in close contact with both our crops and some unexpected gifts. While weeding a recent bed, we realized that okra and zinnias had reseeded themselves from last year and are now flourishing. Rather than pulling them and calling them ‘weeds’ for being out of place, we just extended our drip lines so these now get plenty of water to keep growing. We would never have noticed this had we been eradicating every weed from the farm.
This isn’t to say that we aren’t hoping to do some tractor weeding sometime very soon (really, really soon). Many long-term farmers buy bigger and more powerful tractor equipment every year that they farm specifically to make weeding an easier task. It’s pure economics. But what are the real costs and benefits of both? You hear a lot of talk from scientists saying things like, “we need appreciation of biodiversity as a public good with economic and societal value.” So, can we find some of this value in our weeds?
We think so. For one, you can eat them! We have a couple very tasty weeds on the farm: right now lambs-quarters and purslane are the main ones. This winter we had chickweed, miner’s lettuce and of course the ever-present dandelions. Mustard raab is quite tasty if you get the right variety when it’s tender and well watered.
This winter I met a farmer and scientist from Italy, Adolpho Rosati, who asked if we sold our weeds. I explained that I would feel ashamed to put these out at market – it would feel like hoodwinking our customers with a crop we hadn’t paid for or intended to grow. He exploded with a list of reasons why I should proudly offer weeds to customers. Adolpho runs a bed and breakfast in Italy where he shows visitors how to make entire meals out of weeds. He explains to the visitors how they can increase their nutritional value of their diet by eating more biodiverse foods. They also end up eating foods that are supremely well suited to grow with minimal inputs in their climate and location.
We currently have a lush bed of lambs-quarters growing on the farm. When I mentioned the idea of putting these weeds in our CSA baskets, Aubrey immediately said “No way!” However, when I brought up the idea a second time, she agreed to cook a bunch of them and see if they met her standards for tasty greens. And guess what? They are really tasty, even for a greens connoisseur! Aubrey tried them both in a salad and as sauteed greens and enjoyed their texture and nutty (but mild) flavor in both dishes.
We included lambs-quarters in the CSA baskets this week and we hope that our members have a new sense of appreciation of what they mean for our farm. And if they like them, we’ll continue to include an occasional taste of the wild side of the farm in the baskets.