You are what you eat
Organic vegetable gardening in northern Nevada
The place is Stagecoach Valley, just east of Dayton. It’s not one of those verdant valleys from the ‘60s western TV reruns. It’s more the kind of valley with thousands of acres of gray, dusty dirt, rock and feeble sagebrush. It’s marred by a few dirt roads, Highway 50 and a breeding infestation of mobile homes. There’s also the parched lakebed, desiccated since long before 1961, when Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift filmed the horrific horse-roping scene of The Misfits there.
It’s not a place that brings to mind words like bountiful, alive or prolific. More like flat, wearisome, beige. We used to drive through it on the way to my grandparents’ farm in Yerington. “Comatose” best expresses the way I felt staring out the windows of Grandma’s Cadillac.
But, as I gaze out the window of Steve Litsinger’s pick-up truck, pulling into the driveway of his and his wife’s sustainable organic farm (my own car had to be parked about a mile back at the beginning of a bumpy, boulder-thick road), I realize Stagecoach Valley has more to offer its inhabitants than meets the Reno girl’s eye. You come around a rise and suddenly arrive in a patch of green in the desert’s gray quilt.
The Litsingers make home produce deliveries to about 20 households on a weekly basis. They are at the very edge of their production and actually have a waiting list for people desiring their organic delicacies. They provide their clients, who live in Gardnerville and Reno and all the areas to the east and the west and in between, with whatever veggies and fruits happen to be in season.
The Litsingers moved into the hills above Stagecoach more than 20 years ago. The land they prized had the attraction of close-to-the-surface groundwater. You can tell by the size of the sagebrush, the cottonwood and the willow trees growing in the gully at the edge of their farm that water is hidden there.
“We dug out our first well with a shovel,” Marcia Litsinger says.
After years of steady improvements, Marcia and Steve have produced a sustainable oasis—more properly named, Churchill Butte Horticulture—in the middle of an unforgiving desert wilderness. Sustainable means that, if the economy were to crash, the nation’s food sources were to be poisoned and clean water and energy were to become luxuries, the Litsingers could live out their days fully nourished, fully thirst-free and fully happy at their homestead, with nary a reason to leave.
They started out living on their property in a 20-foot travel trailer. Eleven years ago, they built a house, after having amassed enough money and enough salvaged material to do so. Their home has been carefully designed to trap heat in the wintertime and keep it out in the summer. It requires little electricity.
“The house is functional,” Steve says. He has long, gray-streaked, auburn hair and wears army-green cargo pants and a sharp-looking white, green and blue Hawaiian shirt. “It doesn’t have a whole lot of bells and whistles. We haven’t finished trimming.”
And from the very beginning, they used alternate sources of power.
“We figured it would take $30,000-$50,000 to run power out here,” Marcia says. “And we already had the information about alternate energy.” They had one solar panel and eventually found others. Marcia guesses that they put a total of $5,000 into the solar energy system in the first few years, and it’s all still there.
“I like solar because it’s expandable, and there are no moving parts,” Steve says. “And it’s against a power bill and against being hooked up to the grid, hooked up to the power system or the power company.”
Aside from being against traditional sources of power, Steve and Marcia—particularly Marcia, a trained horticulturalist—are passionately opposed to growing their produce using what could be called traditional cultivation techniques such as fertilizers, pesticides, row-cropping—even genetic modification could now be considered traditional.
The Litsingers give me the comprehensive tour of their USDA-certified organic farm. We walk through a couple of plastic-covered hoop houses—they have seven all told—that are really just simplified greenhouses. The covers come off in the spring when the weather is warm enough.
Marcia picks a sweet pea pod and hands it to me. “Try it,” she says. “Isn’t it delicious?” I eat it in two bites, and it’s sweeter than I ever knew peas could be … and warm and crisp. She points out beets, chard, romaine lettuce, dinosaur kale, arugula, radicchio and mustard; instead of putting processed mustard on their sandwiches, the Litsingers always use the spicy green leaves from the mustard plant.
There are oregano, cilantro, fennel—that gentle licorice flavor is, again, sweeter than I ever expected—onion, garlic, dill, asparagus—so tender, no stringiness, and almost more like a fruit the further you nibble your way down to the bottom of the stalk—thyme, parsley, shallots, potatoes, chicory and chervil. They deliver chervil, an herb, to a local restaurant chef, who uses it in his clam chowder on Fridays. There are clover, figs, strawberries, apples, plums, although not all in the fruit stage yet, and a broccoli called purple sprouting broccoli. Marcia pulls off a broccoli head, not the same full-topped variety you’d find at the grocery store, but smaller, deeper in color. She scans it for aphids and other bugs and hands it to me for my palate’s enjoyment. My palate is pleased.
Marcia worked as a bartender in Virginia City for 20 years. She knows a lot of people. She looks to be in her early 50s and fits wholly into the environment she’s created. The farm’s her baby. Her skin is slightly tanned and weathered from the abrasive winds of the desert. Her hair is white and shoulder length, and she shelters her face from the sun with a straw hat and sunglasses. Marcia’s a certified inspector for organic farms and is on the state advisory board at the Department of Agriculture. A loose, light turquoise button-up shirt, khaki capris, Birkenstock clogs and a gold pendant around her neck give off a Mother Earth-hippie aura. Her wrinkles are furrows burned deep from years of living under the sun, intensively gardening and laboring over the earth.
Marcia says she spends about six hours, seven days a week tending her gardens. Steve and their helper and organic-enthusiast friend, A’me Rankin, also work full-time at the farm. When she’s not doing hands-on gardening, Marcia collects seeds that she will save for selling or sowing the following year (harvesting and planting your own seeds are all part of sustainability) and tending to the compost heap. She also raises cacti as a personal hobby and experiments with different seeds, tossing them on various areas of the property, seeing how they grow here and there.
After showing me through a few of the hoop houses and after my flood of questions regarding their solar-power set-up, Marcia begins to explain why organic farming is so crucial in this day and age. And a lot of it revolves around the potentially devastating “terminator” gene.
“I save seed because that’s all part of the sustainable theme,” she says. “You have to save seed. They’re taking our seed away from us with the terminator gene. Dupont and the United States Department of Agriculture are all in a program to develop, through genetic engineering—and they already have developed—a terminator gene. They put it in the seed in the embryo, and the seed will not germinate.”
Marcia appears to know her stuff. Terminator technology is a genetically engineered multi-patented technique that encodes a plant’s DNA to destroy its own embryos—essentially, it creates suicidal flora. The results are sterile seeds, and farmers have to go back to the industrial seed distributors year after year to buy more of them, since they are unable to keep harvesting their own. It is the exact opposite of sustainability.
As of 2001, the USDA and Delta & Pine Land, working conjointly, had three patents on terminator genes. And other companies in the world of agriculture had their share as well. All told, in 2001, eight different entities owned a total of 13 different variants of terminator technology.
Marcia tells me her biggest fear regarding terminator engineering, a fear that other organic farmers share: When these self-destructing seeds seep out into areas where they can’t be controlled, which is inevitable since seeds are designed to be carried distant locations by the wind, they could create an epidemic of wrist-slitting plant life. Transgenic plants, or plants that have chromosomes into which an unnatural gene has been inserted, i.e. genetically modified, have been known to transmit their genes to similar wild species.
No researchers deny that this is a possibility. In fact, evidence has shown that transgenic plants share—or leak—their traits with other plants much more readily than your average non-genetically modified plant. GM plants have actually been described by scientists as being more “promiscuous” than your upstanding, moral and normal seeds.
“What happens if that terminator gene really does get out into the wild and cross pollinates?” Marcia says. “They don’t even know. That’s scary; it’s so, so scary.”
After making our rounds of the farm, Marcia and Rankin explain other concerns about where agriculture is headed. We eat pinwheel cookies and drink iced mint tea. Rankin made the tea earlier from dried and fresh mint, alfalfa and mullein. It’s the perfect remedy to an hour or so in the sun—sun that will shortly turn my face and arms crimson.
Rankin looks like she grew straight out of the earth between a patch of carrots and a bed of strawberries. She worked on an organic farm in upstate New York and Oregon not long ago. She also lived in San Francisco for a while and worked at Greenpeace—"I was the, ‘Hello, you called Greenpeace’ person"—before meeting Marcia and Steve.
As Marcia and Rankin talk about what they see as the sorry state of mass agriculture, they become increasingly impassioned and feverishly talk over one another, vying to be heard, interrupting each other to tell me what awful things are going on. They tell me there’s a GM strain of canola, among other food plants, that resists the harmful effects of the pesticide Roundup. Roundup kills bugs and, unfortunately, it also kills canola, unless the canola has been genetically altered. Marcia says that if you’re not buying non-GMO, canola oil, chances are you’re getting the variety of canola that even the bugs won’t touch.
Farmers like Marcia and Rankin see it as a compliment that bugs want to eat their food. And instead of using chemical methods to annihilate the little aphids and other critters, organic farmers rely on the timeless, circle-of-life technique of predator vs. prey. Ladybugs and spiders will converge in masses and stuff themselves silly at a garden that is ripe with aphids.
“With this new genetic modification, they can dump pure Roundup on a plant and it won’t kill it,” Marcia says, “but it’ll kill everything else around it, and yet [people] want to eat it. And people say, ‘Well, what harm does a little Roundup do?’ Well, it’s systemic—you know that Roundup’s in the soil, it’s in the water, it gets brought up into the fruits and the vegetables, and it’s all up into everything that you eat.”
“God did not make Roundup for us to eat,” Rankin interjects.
“I don’t understand why people don’t know that’s going on,” Marcia says. “Did you know that was going on?”
I’ve always had an inkling that I should eat organic foods, I tell her. I don’t like the idea that the natural genetic structure of my food is being tampered with—that extraneous genes are being spliced into it. If the food I put in my body has been changed, what’s to prevent it from changing me?
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and I think I’ve figured it out,” Rankin says. “People do not want to think that their government or the big corporations that run the government are doing any harm to them.”
The latest thing that Marcia and Rankin are really worked up about is the use of hazardous waste in fertilizers.
“The fertilizer they put on the food is made up of nuclear waste, the most awful stuff, waste from the mining industry, industry waste,” Marcia says. “It’s hazardous waste when it leaves the industry, and fertilizer companies pay them so much per ton for it. This way industry doesn’t have to take care of it. Then it gets trucked to the fertilizer companies. As soon as it gets there it quits being hazardous waste and starts being fertilizer. Then they’re putting this hazardous waste on the soil, duping farmers. So, the farmers don’t even know. It’s so sick.”
Marcia and Rankin insist I read a book called Fateful Harvest by a Seattle Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Duff Wilson. He writes about the then-mayor of Quincy, Wash., Patty Martin, and her quest to uncover a surprising and nauseating secret: Waste from chemical plants, foundries, steel mills, and even radioactive cleanup sites containing everything from cadmium to arsenic to lead was being spread and sprayed upon farms across America. A successful trade industry was developed between the companies that produce hazardous wastes, the fertilizer companies and the farmers.
Because toxic waste is so expensive to dispose of properly, Wilson and the folks in his book claim, and because it often does contain a few growth-inducing, bug-killing metals and chemicals amid all the other noxious waste, it is being turned around and sold as something nutritious and beneficial. It’s all done under the guise of the term “recycling.” Wilson goes into thorough detail in his book, the research of which is also backed up by the Environmental Working Group. (You can check out their Web site at www.ewg.org and then type in the search phrase, “factory farming.")
“Basically they’re taking toxic waste and instead of calling it waste, they just say, ‘Oh, look, it’s fertilizer now,'” Rankin says. “So there’s lead, mercury, titanium by-products, all these things that are known carcinogens.”
There are many reasons Marcia and Rankin say not to trust the non-organic foods and produce you buy at the grocery store—there’s no way of knowing where they’ve been or to what extent they’ve been tainted by commercial chemicals, fertilizers and waste.
“Make sure you eat organic,” Marcia says. “The only way to be sure that you’re eating food that hasn’t been genetically modified or that hasn’t been treated with fertilizers and hazardous waste is to buy non-GMO, organic food.”
The Litsingers and Rankin send me on my way with a tummy full of organic vegetables picked straight from the plants, hugs and an invitation to come back to their diamond refuge in the desert rough.
I hop into Steve’s truck for a ride back to my car. Before closing my door, Marcia abruptly exclaims, “I’m a real shit-stirrer. If you don’t disturb it, nobody’s going to know anything.”
Raw powerMost of the attendees at the monthly raw-food potlucks here in Reno—they’re the first Fridays of every month at the Meadow Ridge Clubhouse in southwest Reno—buy only organic produce. They’re pretty worried about the toxins in our food these days. Aside from sticking with the organic variety of fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetables, the raw-foodists take their health-oriented lifestyle one step further and refrain from cooking their food.
Claire Riendeau is a doctor of naturopathy and has been adhering to the raw-food lifestyle for about a year and a half. Bill and Vicky Holbrook have been hooked for four years and feel more healthy and alive than they ever have. Vicky is a nutritionist and understands first-hand the benefits that raw foods have to offer.
“Most people don’t realize when they start to cook over 118 degrees, enzymes are dead, and it’s those enzymes that keep us young,” she says. “It’s an addiction. Food is the biggest addiction, bigger than anything, because we’ve been doing it longer than anything else.”
The Holbrooks, like many other people living the raw way, started out as vegetarians, moved on to being vegans—no animal products whatsoever—and finally made the transition to whole, fresh, organic, raw fruits, vegetables and nuts.
“The more I researched, and the more I read, the more it grabbed me,” Riendeau says. “I just really resonated with everything I heard. When you eat a raw meal, you feel good afterward, you’re energetic, you don’t have that tired, heavy feeling. You don’t have to sleep as much. Your skin is better, your eyesight better. It’s a very cleansing diet. It’s like you’re on this little cleanse all the time. All the little quirks you might have had slowly start to clear out.”
Reindeau and the Holbrooks attribute part of that cleansed feeling to the increased intake of fruits and vegetables that have not been treated with chemicals.
Vicki mentions a story she recently saw that looked at monkeys who were being fed organic bananas. One version of the story was published in Reno’s holistic health, free seasonal magazine Connect. A keeper at the Copenhagen Zoo, Niels Melchiorsen, told the magazine Oekologisk Jordbrug (Ecological Agriculture), “For one reason or another, the tapirs and chimpanzees are choosing organically grown bananas over the others. … The chimpanzees are able to tell the difference between the organic and the regular fruit. If we give them organic and traditional bananas, they systematically choose the organic bananas, which they eat with the skin on. But they peel the traditional bananas before eating them.”
This is no surprise to Riendeau, who says she can easily taste the difference between organic and non-organic foodstuffs, as can her 15-year-old son.
“Once you’ve eaten only organic, and say they run out of a particular item at the store and you buy non-organic, it doesn’t taste good,” she says. “I had bought [two pints] of strawberries, one was organic and that other wasn’t. I wasn’t really thinking about separating them, and I had mixed them together, and my son told me this morning, he said, ‘There were some that were non-organic in there, weren’t there?’ He said, ‘I could taste the chemicals.'”
“People are so de-sensitized to chemicals,” Vicki agrees. “They are so much a part of their life that they’ve lost the ability to detect chemicals.” Both Vicky and Riendeau can admit that after three or four months of eating only organic, they became much more attuned with how differently organic and non-organic produce could taste. Organic food had more flavor. In the non-organics, that flavor was either masked by the chemical flavor or was hardly there at all.
“It’s amazing to see, when you’ve got a choice at a place like Raley’s where you’ve got organic and then the regular, the amount of people who go to the regular,” Vicky’s husband Bill says. “People just don’t even realize what’s going on.”
For more information on the raw-food lifestyle and monthly potlucks visit www.rawsierralifestyle.com or call Sherrie at 827-3298.
Health homegrownJeb Bateman wants to be part of the organic solution. When he’s not designing Web sites or tending to his infant son, Bateman spends his time planting, composting and harvesting at his home a couple blocks from the University of Nevada, Reno. On a bright, hot, spring afternoon, he’s crouched next to a water-filled cooler, in which floats freshly picked spinach. He’s harvesting the leafy greens for his own use and also to distribute to friends and neighbors, partly out of the joy of growing and sharing, but also in the hope that he can make a few organic farmers out of a few fresh spinach lovers.
Bateman’s front lawn is not green with water-consuming grass, but rather organic alfalfa. The alfalfa grows tall—one foot in many places—lush and green and hasn’t been watered once this year. Bateman grows the alfalfa for his compost. The plants love it. It contains loads of nitrogen and decomposes into a fragrant, chocolaty brown soil that makes for an all-natural, sustainable, nourishing fertilizer.
Bateman eats predominantly raw foods and gets his fresh veggie fix from his own garden, from local farmers, like Steve and Marcia Litsinger, or from the store. But he’s trying to make it so local folk don’t have to look to farmers or to their local grocery stores for organic produce. He wants people to see they can grow organically in their own backyard. He wants to provide people with the information and the means to produce their own sustainable organic gardens, gardens that will yield enough food to keep their growers in organic produce paradise all year long.
Bateman charges $25 per month for organic garden consultation and support, which also includes a gift of seeds, seedlings or produce from his own organic plot. Or he charges $79 per month for more comprehensive support, meaning actual physical labor on your property, composting, planting, weeding, harvesting and weekly gifts. He is also in the process of helping to start a community garden. People in apartments or condos who have an interest in growing their own organic foods can sign up for a plot of land in the area of East Fourth Street and garden away from home. You can get in touch with Bateman through his Web site earth.ocha.net, through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 352-5552.
Bateman’s laid back for someone with a degree in mechanical engineering. He wears Birkenstocks—it seems to be gardener’s shoe of choice—jeans, a khaki button-up, glasses and a well-pruned beard and mustache. The engineer’s precision, though, can be seen in his neatly organized rows of produce and in the underground irrigation systems he is trying to perfect.
“Organic farming is more interesting to me than the hard science background,” he says. “There is no math, and there are no equations when it comes to growing. It’s definitely more challenging and interesting than engineering. There’s never-ending room for improvements.”
Bateman is resolute when it comes to the organic lifestyle. He frequently phones Marcia Litsinger, (see main story) a horticulturalist who has been growing food in the desert for about 20 years, to develop his own horticultural prowess. She offers a wealth of information, secrets and tricks, regarding everything from creating choice compost and rotating crops to covering potato plants with dried alfalfa and planting onions at the base of your fruit trees that the inexperienced farmer is probably unaware of. There are also growing techniques, Bateman says, that are very specific to Nevada. In most places, for example, seeds are planted at the top of small mounds to allow for proper water drainage. But, he has found that seeds grow much better in Reno if planted in a trench. He figures if a person can learn to grow food in Nevada, they can probably farm anywhere.
“I have been reading and experimenting for six years," Bateman says. "I have figured out some tricks, and I want to help people grow food, not grass. It can be done here [in Reno] with relatively little pain and minimal amounts of effort."