Out West Part Three

August 7, 2008 by archiesmith

NEWS FLASH: I am very pleased, – no THRILLED and HONORED to tell you that my work won the BEST IN SHOW FOR WOOD Award

I feel great honor, but am truly humbled, by all the GREAT WOOD artists and their work at the show.  It was an honor for me to be included among such a talented group of artists at the Kimball Art Festival in Park City.

Today I left Utah and headed north into Idaho on my way to Sun Valley.  While I was exhibiting at this show I camped at the Jordanelle State Park, not far from Park City.  This is an absolutely beautiful lake and park and I highly recommend it if you are in the area.  As I headed north into the Snake River area, I encountered more beautiful farmland.  The beautiful lush dark green of the irrigated Alfalfa fields lie in such stark contrast to the brown sparsely vegetated surrounding land.  (I talked about such fields in a previous blog.)   As I drove along on I84 looking at the fields, the questions that I had been pondering over regarding this western irrigated agriculture became more intense.  At one point I pulled off of the interstate at a nondescript exit offering nothing but a small road running off into the countryside.  I took this small road – which quickly became gravel/dirt- between two huge fields. (I was getting “up close and personal” with the land.)  The field on the left was planted in – you guessed it – Idaho Potatoes.  A man and a boy were near the edge of the field digging for “new potatoes.”  (For those who may be somewhat uninformed in matters agricultural, growing potatoes works like this – you start with “seed” potatoes and cut out the “eyes”. –  If you have ever kept potatoes too long and they start to sprout; the spots where the sprouts start to grow out of the potato are called the “eyes.”  Anyway, you plant the “eyes” and a potato plant grows from it.  Potatoes, as you know, are a “root crop” meaning that they actually grow underground as “nodules” on the root – somewhat like peanuts.  When they have finished growing, the plant dies and the nodules lie in the soil awaiting harvesting.  If you dig some of the plants and nodules up BEFORE the potatoes have matured and the plant dies, these are called “new potatoes.”  “New potatoes” are generally round and small and are usually boiled.  Sometimes they are “red skinned,” but they are all absolutely delicious!   They do not, however, keep as well as the matured, cured potatoes – like baking potatoes.)

Well, my blog seems to be getting “far afield” {pun intended} and distant from Bowed Psalteries but, “what the heck,”- maybe “stream of conscientiousness” literature will make a come-back. Anyway, on with the story; — on the other side of the gravel road from the potatoes was a huge field of green beans.  I, of course, have seen green beans in gardens but have NEVER seen huge fields of them.  (For some reason it never occurred to me to ponder the question of where the “Jolly Green Giant” got all of those green beans.)  These plants were far from mature, but I would really like to see how they are harvested.  (How did the mechanical engineers figure out how to build a machine that would pick green beans in the quantity need to supply the tables of America and other places?  –  Have you never awakened in the middle of the night, sat up in bed to ponder the burning question of – “How DO they pick ALL of those green beans”?)-

I was still contemplating this question as I traveled down the gravel road, somewhere in the general vicinity of the Snake River in South Central Idaho when I came upon a field of vegetation that was unfamiliar with me.  As I could see no indication of a fruit I came to the conclusion that it must me a root crop or perhaps a broad leaf crop like kale or greens, but it did not look like any greens that I had seen before.  From the dark recesses of my mind came a certain sense of familiarity with this plant.  I had seen something similar a long time ago.  As I looked at the plants, they reminded me of —-a beet. AH HA- Eureka, it must be a Sugar Beet!  I was vaguely familiar with the Red Beet, but recalled from college geography classes that some of the western states grew sugar beets.  (This, of course, was many years ago as the earth was cooling, I was taking notes on a slate tablet, and was still in mourning at the unexpected death of my pet “T-Rex” —{ “Sorry ‘bout that!}).

Before long I turned around and headed back (giving in to the insistent pleas of my van’s air filter).  As I got back on I84 headed toward Boise the pleas from my curiosity regarding aspects of this agriculture became unbearable.  I pulled off of the interstate again at an intersection inhabited solely by a small gas station/café thinking that I might find a farmer taking a break to whom I could assault with a barrage of agricultural questions. This foolish idea arose, no doubt, as a result of my being away from agriculture lo these many years.  Farmers simply do not have time to take breaks during harvest time.  I stopped at the café and, while I drank an iced tea, talked to two very friendly electricians who were there.  They were able to answer some of my questions about the irrigation systems in use in the area.

As I pulled out of the café parking lot, trying to figure out how I could find a farmer to talk to, I noticed some dust in the air down the road to my right away from the interstate.  I turned right and soon saw a self-propelled combine harvesting grain which I thought, mistakenly as it turned out, to be bearded wheat.  I pulled over to the side of the road and just watched as this combine harvested the grain with a cutting head at least 20 feet wide.  This particular field was rather small so soon the combine returned and augured the harvested grain into a heavy truck.  As a boy in the mid 1950s I used to “tie sacks” on my father’s combine when he harvested grain.  The combine had a small gasoline engine to power it while it was being pulled by my father’s 2 cylinder, model “A” John Deer Tractor.  (I loved that tractor and, while I have no desire to emulate the great French writer, Proust and his “Remberences of Things Past”, someday I might write a blog about that tractor.  You, dear reader, have a great advantage over students in Literature classes in that you can simply hit the ‘Delete’ button and you don’t have to read it.—Isn’t that great?  I might also have to tell you the famous tale (in our family) of my grandfather and the newfangled manure spreader.)  Anyway, my Dad’s old combine had two nozzles for the grain to come out of.  It would be filling up one burlap sack while you were tying the other shut and dropping it into the field.  This had to be done quickly and get a sack on the other nozzle before the second sack was full.  Today’s combines pour the harvested grain into a large bin where it is augured into a waiting truck with no sacks to tie or pick up and load on trucks.

But, I digress — As the combine was auguring the grain into the truck, a man climbed out of the cab and walked over toward me.  I went to meet him and, feeling very awkward, introduced myself and told him that I was an old farm boy from North Carolina whose mind was just blown away by this large scale farming and said that, while I certainly did not want to disturb him in the midst of harvesting, I would love to ask him some questions about the local agriculture.  He, most graciously, asked if I would like to ride in the cab of the combine while they harvested another bin of grain.  I was astounded at his generosity and replied that I would love to.  He took me over to the massive combine and introduced me to his brother who was driving it.  There were two seats in the cab of this huge machine so I climbed up the ladder to the cab and sat down.  We started and I was amazed at the efficiency of this machine as compared to the one that I knew as a boy.  I told the young man of some of my old experiences and asked many questions as the massive combine devoured a huge swath of stalks and grain.  The grain was separated from the husk and poured into the bin as the straw was ejected into a neat row to be baled and sold to local dairy farmers for litter.  This was “not my Dad’s combine.”  No more standing in the blazing sun whose heat was augmented by the exhaust system of the gasoline engine under the seat, tying sacks.  The cab of this combine was air conditioned with banks of digital gauges feeding all manners of information to the driver.  It even had a place for a stereo system as well as a CB radio.

As we were harvesting the grain, he told me that it was not the wheat that I had thought, but was barley that had been grown for and was going to the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO.  The barley would be germinated, sprouted and fermented to produce malt for the beer.  It was a most pleasant thought to me that I might be able to enjoy this barley again later.  I asked all sorts of questions about the agriculture of the area and found out that, unlike many farmers in North Carolina, the farmers here do NOT use sod planting.  Sod planting is a process whereby the soil is not plowed or disked after harvesting but is replanted as is (most likely with a different crop).  In the western region, according to my gracious host, after harvesting, the soil is disked with a disc harrow and then irrigated.  This allows any kernels of grain left on the ground to germinate and grow.  Once these “volunteer grains” grow, they are then plowed under.  This process turns the soil over and buries the new vegetation, thereby creating humus that enriches the soil.  The soil is then smoothed and a new crop planted for harvest the next year.  This process of disking and plowing the soil is very time consuming as well as expensive considering the cost of diesel fuel, but the soil out west apparently does not have as much organic substance in the soil as does the soil in the east and, therefore, needs the humus that plowing provides.

I also asked about various irrigation methods.  I have been fascinated by the pivotal irrigation method.  If you have travelled in the Midwest and the West, you have seen this method.  My host on the combine told me that many of these pivotal systems were up to ¼ of a mile long.  This means that you will have a circle, or semi-circle of irrigated land with a ¼ of a mile radius.  In terms of acreage, this translates to about 120 acres of irrigated land if you have a whole circle.  This is more land than the whole farm that I grew up on in Piedmont North Carolina. He also told me how many thousands of gallons of water per minute these rigs used (I do not recall the exact figures for this, but he told me that it took a 350 horsepower engine to pump the water for one of these ¼ mile radius rigs.  Can you imagine the energy costs involved with this?  Herein lies yet another reason for the rising costs of food and other products.)  This is just for one of these rigs, and, as you drive along, you see many, many of these rigs.

Much of this irrigated land is used to produce hay for cattle and horses.  Here one can see these huge irrigated fields of Alfalfa hay.  In the east, almost all Alfalfa hay that is grown is used to feed horses.  The digestive tracts of horses are much more sensitive than are those of cattle and so the very best hay (alfalfa) is used to feed horses while the lesser expensive orchard grass, etc hay is used to feed cattle.  I also saw some “Red Top Clover” in the hay fields.  (I am certainly no expert, but horses could probably eat this and cattle certainly would with relish.)  ( Errrr.  – the term “relish” is being used here as an object of a preposition in an adverb phrase, and NOT a noun – there are no pickles in the hay.)

My host told me that much, if not most, of the alfalfa hay was being sold to dairy farmers for their cows, although some of the very best was pressed into cubes and sent to Kentucky to feed the race horses. He said that, with the increased cost of fuel, alfalfa hay was being sold now for about $200. Per ton.  This is but ONE reason why the price if milk and other dairy products is increasing.

Speaking of dairy farmers – I saw a number of large dairy farms with large piles of compost beside them.  This is being very ecologically sound.  They feed their cows hay.  The cows produce milk, from which comes ice cream, cheese, etc, and, of necessity, manure.  This manure is composted and is used to fertilize the fields which produce the hay – such are the cycles of nature.

To the most thoughtful, generous and gracious brothers who gave me a ride on their combine and shared their thoughts and agricultural knowledge with me, I am most appreciative and thankful.  These men are examples of human beings at their fundamental best (which most farmers are).

I continued on the interstate to Boise and then took a 2 lane scenic route (Idaho 21) up through the mountains to the tiny, but charming town of Stanley.  Stanley is located on the Salmon River and is a center for fishing, hunting, rafting, etc.  I didn’t realize that salmon come from the Pacific Ocean, enter fresh water rivers and swim as much as 400 MILES upstream to spawn at the place where they hatched.  Can you imagine catching Salmon in Idaho, and it doesn’t even border on the ocean. In the little general store in Stanley, I say a sign on the wall that advertised “Fishing Equipment by the 6 pack, case, keg or barrel.”  I had a good chuckle at that.

I then turned south onto Idaho 75 and headed for Ketchem.  On the way I passed through the Sawtooth Mountains.  This mountain range is aptly named because their sharp peaks resemble the teeth of the old two-man crosscut saws – an absolutely vital tool in this region until the advent of the chain saw.  These mountains, sometimes referred to as the “American Alps”, are truly awe inspiring and the drive from Stanley to Ketchem and Sun Valley is truly beautiful.

I am now in Ketchum with my booth set up ready for the Sun Valley Art Festival.  ‘Tis time to get some rest, so more later.

Dear Readers, please forgive me if I have bored you with my ramblings and, diplomatically put, my eccentricities.  Simply put, I am who I am and you have the wonderful option of clicking the “delete button” or responding to my ramblings as you see fit.  I have not been reticent in expressing my views and opinions and you, most assuredly, have the same right.  I welcome and, indeed, encourage your response.

Until later…

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