Alfred Reed Bishop and Doris William Butler

The picture above is the very tap root of Bishop's Homegrown/Face Of The Earth Seed. My grandparents shortly after moving to Pekin Indiana from Greensburg KY in 1947 where they purchased the farm that is now Bishop's Homegrown. This picture was taken in Pekin in front of the old co-op next to the old railroad depot, neither of which exist today.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Smashing the glass box....continued.

A prime example: The Washington County “Farmers and Merchants” fair.

This year we entered several varieties into our county fair, only secondarily glancing at the many “rules” and “standards”, without much thought we proceeded in the false assumption that there was some sort of standard by which varieties were judged, surely it was on more than size or what it publicly “accepted”.


They don’t even taste the produce. They just judge on size and preconceived notions of what a crop “should” look like.

As an example, while I didn’t enter any tomatoes, there were only three real tomato entries. A plate of ripe romas, a plate of unripe romas, and great white tomato.

Guess what got 1’st place? Ripe Romas.

2’nd place you ask? Unripe Romas.

3’d was the great white. What a joke. These were beauties in their own right, fully ripe, beautiful white and globe shaped and they got third place? Not only that, but unripe romas beat them?

I will admit it was amusing to watch the judges, some of which I know and comprise the group of master gardeners who toured the farm a couple years ago, try to figure out how to classify the Face Of The Earth products. Those who had been to the farm had a good understanding of our breeding work, those who hadn’t couldn’t quite figure out the idea that such diverse crops could comprise one “variety”. Apparently they don’t teach the Master Gardeners about breeding or seed saving, none the less making mass crosses, gene pools, grexes, or landraces.

The “Farm Product” category was quite possibly the most exhausting for me to wrap my head around however. You see for years on end one single family, nay, one man, has won every sub-category under “farm product” heading. This heading is comprised of the following: categories:

Peck of shelled corn
Peck of wheat
Peck of oats
Peck of soybeans
3 ears field corn
3 ears pop corn
Largest ear corn
Largest plant corn
Larges plant soybean

He, or a family member, wins every category, every year, for as long as I can possibly remember. Of course he relies on the “latest and greatest” from one of the conglomerated seed companies, GMO monstrosities I am sure. This year I decided to challenge him in the category of 3 ears of corn as well as largest ear of corn, as well as challenge my community to rethink what makes “field corn” in terms of color and type and not “Indian Corn” (a name which I might denote does have some racist connotations associated with it).

Obviously the local farmers all use products from the previous growing season (minus the largest plant categories), but considering I had fed or used for seed all of my crop from last season, I took a trip to my breeding plots in a search for the earliest maturing of my “Amanda Palmer” gene pool. What I found was astounding, it turns out that I have several variations, mostly of Tuxpeno influence, that are already drying down. More amazing is the fact that Tuxpeno tends to be 120 DTM and was originally from a lowland, sub-tropical population, later adapted to the mid Kentucky region and I got a nearly 100% stand with planting on April 1’st (suck that Monsanto! Done without a single gene from an Octopus!).

Anyhow, back to the story at hand, I picked six excellent ears, mostly Tuxpeno germ plasm but also a few ears with obvious genetic influence coming from Bloody Butcher and Reids Yellow Dent. I entered three in my name and three in Kim’s name. Now, bear in mind, that at the time of picking these ears they still aren’t completely dry, but I am figuring that judgment will be made on type, variety, size of cob, size of kernels, number of kernels, earliness, animal preference, digestibility, protein content, or at least some kind of agronomic trait. WRONG.

I noticed the bias immediately when I got to the open class building at the fair, as I entered the corn into the competition, the fellow accepting the entries immediately commented on the corn not being all yellow, as well as the semi-dent/semi-flint state of the Tuxpeno. I went in Naïve I might add, telling him about my breeding projects and how this was this year’s crop, not last years, he obviously didn’t care, his only real comment was “It’s hard to compete with Monsanto and Pioneer.” What followed was “Righteous Indignation” on my behalf; “Not if you have half a brain and can see through the shit we are sold in this nation it’s not.” Blank Stare, crickets, definitely not converting anybody at this table.

None the less, neither I nor Kim won the 3 ears contest, but we did take 1’st and 3’d in largest ear. Small victory. Worth it. And next year I will win.

What amazes me the most about all of this is the amount of culture our county has based around agriculture, a culture which it appears the judges at the county fair don’t understand or embrace. When you go back and you read the literature from the 1700’s and the 1800’s you quickly to begin to realize what a big deal it was to win one of these “blue ribbons” with a new variety, you quickly realize that the fairs weren’t for people to just enter something they grew, but instead you see that the fairs existed as the publics first introduction to newly bred and newly discovered varieties, that the fairs were PR for up and coming breeders, and that winning in a category with a new variety got your name out to the public, took you to the state fair, and if you won there, it was on to possibly the worlds fair or straight into a seed catalog, not now though. Thanks to Disney World and the Green Revolution those days are over and the world and rural culture is worse off for it!

Hell, way back in the day they even had “Corn Shows”, that’s right, entire fairs based on open pollinated corn genetics and breeding. If you won one of those, that was it, you were the man for the year and every seed company within 1,000 miles was trying to get hold of your “award winning seed.”

This brings me to poultry. I thought about entering some turkeys in the open class poultry show, but after taking one look at some of the birds in that building I wouldn’t house mine next to them for any amount of prize money. Here is the kicker, they don’t even judge by a book of standards! Period, there is no way they do. That said, guess what got 1’st, 2’nd, and 3’d place in regards to the “turkey” division? Nicholas Whites, yeah, those broad breasted monstrosities grown out by the thousands in production houses. And why? Because they were the only thing entered. I can’t even begin to explain how terrible they looked, discounting completely the fact that they are what they are and have leg, weight, and heart issues, the also had clipped beaks, and were covered with fecal matter. Discarding the fact that Nicholas whites aren’t even in the “standard”, if I were the people accepting entries into the fair, I would have turned those monstrosities away on the basis of their health and well-being alone, fearing just what “factory farmed” disease they brought with them.

Guess what else they had way back in the day? Yeah, Turkey Shows, once again, if you won you were “the man”. Where do you think the Mammoth or Standard/Wishard bronze got its name from?

Entering these Face Of The Earth genetics was most certainly an experience I won’t soon forget or give up on, as a matter of fact it gave me even more resolve in accomplishing my mission, in smashing that glass box previously mentioned, in that now I have a public platform that with time I think I can transform into something useful. You see, I got to looking at the rules in the “fair book” and noticed a loophole. Whoever wrote that fair book though all the bases were covered in regards to assuring that only round red tomatoes and forty pound red watermelons could be accepted as fair standards, must have overlooked the fact that “Other” as a category can include a lot of variables, even so far as being catered specifically to describing certain FOE genetics, and for me it’s not a matter of “wining”, it’s a matter of catching the public interest in “odd” varieties and more specifically plant breeding, seed saving, and locally adapted landraces. Not only because it will cause others to seek out my work, but because I think it will inspire others to enter some “different” varieties, or to breed their own, and perhaps force the judges to rethink their “standards” and actually test the agronomics and taste of the varieties themselves. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years it might even reinvigorate and reorientate the fair in such a way that it actually represents the type of sustainable agriculture, genetics, stewardship and farming that gave birth to county fairs in the first place.

Using my new found “other” loophole I did find some success, even with only the small handful of varieties I did enter, I managed to win first place on Chromatica Acorn, Red Okra, 1’st and 2’nd on icebox watermelon with some white fleshed variations, 2’nd place on flower arrangement with Saucerful of Secrets Sunflower, 1’st place on “other” squash with a different Chromatica Acorn genotype, and even got a 3’d place on 3 ears corn! This also gave us a bit of “research money” to put back into the breeding projects.

Next year we enter everything! With each passing year perhaps more and more people will decide to enter those things which a few years earlier they would have thought too "odd" or "antique" to entere in the previos 30 or so years, only time will tell but I am willing to give it a go in an attempt to inspire such entries. Our short time and public exposure at the fair has already paid off in spades judging by the number of people who commented on the red corn and on the odly striped watermelons, red okra, and odd colored acorn squash, from that bit of exposure we have already allowed a certain number of people to come into the right headspace to examine the possibilities given to us adventerous gardeners. My former high school agriculture/animal science/soil science/forestry teach and his wife and I have spoken about entering some heritage turkeys next season, where there is competition others will come and perhaps in time the enigmas of seing a Nicholas White turkey with 1'st, 2'nd, and 3'd at our county fair will come to an end!

To be continued……..

1 comment:

Name: Johno said...

As a youth, my family and I were active participants in the county fair, though mostly with livestock. We saw the same mindset here back then, and it hasn't changed. The time my father really blew a fuse was when his perfect Arkansas Black apples were judged poorly for not being red... I gave up eventually in the face of what you are describing, but you give me gumption to think of change as a long-term goal. Maybe I'll enter some "weird" things this year knowing what the reaction will be, and spend some time educating instead of complaining as I've done the last quarter-century.