Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rodeo Clowns: No Joke

I spent two days in the bleachers with the parents, grandparents, and siblings of high school rodeo contestants in Salmon, Idaho. The snack bar served beef, but no beer.

Both days ended with bull riding. The contestants were high school students, but the rodeo clowns, or bullfighters, were the real deal. Big time fighter-clowns, the ones on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, are celebrities. Flint Rasmussen has been immortalized in plastic. The fighter-clowns at Salmon’s high school rodeo might never reach those dizzying heights, but they were pros.

Some fighter-clowns entertain the crowds between bulls. Flint tells jokes and dances. Those at my first rodeo, in Preston, MN, provided bathroom humor. My aunt, who’d brought me to the rodeo, didn’t approve. Decades later, she didn’t approve of my line dancing class; it was “too worldly.”

Salmon’s high school bull riders wore headgear and padded vests. Some pro riders wear brain buckets, too. I couldn’t see what kind of protection the fighter-clowns wore under their baggy clothes, but I could see that only cowboy hats protected their noggins. They weren't shod with matching cowboy boots at the other end: they wore cleated shoes for traction.

Cleated shoes suggest the need to dodge feedback from the crowd, but that wasn’t the case. Salmon's fighter-clowns were the non-entertaining variety. The real job of these rodeo professionals is protecting the cowboys from the bulls. Here’s an example of how they do that, from the Salmon high school rodeo.

This cowboy looks good out of the chute. The fighter-clown in red and black is watching from the right.

Then the rider starts to tip.

He's too far forward now.

A bull rider's nightmare: his hand is hung up. Riders stay on by wedging one hand under their rope, which is wrapped around the bull. If a rider comes off frontwards, their hand can get caught. Red-and-black is putting his cleats to the arena sand.

Both clowns are there to free the rider and distract the bull from attacking him.

Red-and-black fighter-clown jumps over the bull; his hands hit where the rider's hand was trapped. The second fighter-clown, in blue, is nearly hidden behind the bull. The rider hits the ground with his hand still attached to his arm.

Red-and-black slips on landing; Blue sprints to distract the bull from the fallen fighter-clown. The rider gets up and out of the way so the fighter-clowns don't have to protect him, too.

The bull kicks off the rope as the two mounted pickup riders move in with their ropes. Pickup riders can get close enough to bucking horses for bronc riders to grab on for a graceful exit, but this doesn't work with bulls. Bulls charge horses. In bull riding, pickup riders can only watch the drama and then escort the bull out of the arena.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Three Degrees, No Garlic Scapes

In three agriculture degrees, several botany classes, and decades as a plant ecologist, I never ran into garlic scapes. I know and use terms such as “homoploid hybrid species” and “Pseudotsuga menziesii.” But, until last Saturday, I’d never met a garlic scape.

Jessica and Jeremy of Swift River Farm introduced me to the curvy, green flower shoots at their booth at the Lemhi County Farmers Market in Salmon, Idaho. The couple, who also sell subscription shares in their farm’s produce, spun an improbable tale of sex and scapes.

Long before humans began sautéing cloves or warding off vampires with the heads, garlic dispensed with seed. The plants gave up sex. Each of these Shakers of the plant world eschewed others of its kind and simply produced garlic heads that grew into plants that produced garlic heads.

Jeremy and Jessica embrace garlic’s celibacy and plant individual cloves, which grow into plants that produce full heads. Each plant is genetically identical to its single parent, which is identical to its single parent, and so on back through time.

Oddly, some kinds of garlic still produce flowers, as if trying to blend in with the rest of the plant world. While other plants produce flowers with male and female parts that swap genes with the opposite flower parts to form seeds, garlic flowers form bulbils. Bulbils look like tiny cloves and grow into plants identical to their parent.

The scapes I discovered at the market are garlic flower stalks with developing bulbils. I cut open one of the largest developing flower clusters.

I’ve also learned there are two kinds of garlic: soft neck and hard neck. The garlic in grocery stores is the former, as it stores well enough to keep the produce bins stocked all year. I might be excused my garlic-scape ignorance, as they are only produced by hard neck garlic. These types are grown in cooler climates and usually consumed locally, as they don’t store well.

My new friends, the garlic scapes, gave me the perfect excuse to skip my usual toast-and-yogurt breakfast and linger over an omelet-and-garlic-scape-potato Sunday brunch.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Smooth Brome in Full Glorious Bloom

In Salmon, Idaho, the springtime blues of lilac and larkspur are fading to yellow sunflower, mullein, and mum. Their colors echo the intensifying sun, as it pauses to catch its breath before marching south again. The gardens bursting with blooms catch our eye and make it easy to overlook the grasses. Although many people don’t think of them as “flowering plants,” bromes and bluegrasses bust out with intricate, usually overlooked, flowers.

A pickup truck stopped while I was photographing smooth brome flowers on a spring morning. The passenger-side window motored down and the designated questioner asked if I had found a fawn. “No,” I said, “I’m photographing the bromegrass in full, glorious bloom. Who could resist?” DQ smiled through his snort. “I could.” The designated driver drove on.

Each grass flower's yellow anthers are full of pollen and easy to see. The feathery stigmas, which catch the pollen, are tiny white flecks. Here's a detailed photo of johnsongrass flowers.

The beauty of grasses is subtle, but their gifts to people are not: grasses feed the world. Corn, plus wheat and its cousins oats, rye, and barley dominate agriculture in the U.S. Rice is the staple food of more of the world's people than any other. Millet and sorghum are the main food crops in West Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Grasses even provide dessert: sugar cane is a grass.

Grasses have even earned their own field of study. My friend Matt Lavin teaches agrostology at the University of Montana. He shares his artful images of grasses, and other plants, on Flickr. No telling how many DQs have stopped to quiz Matt.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Stringing Hops

While Midwest corn and soybean farmers waited for April’s muddy fields to dry for planting, southwest Idaho hop growers were already helping their crop reach for the sun. Corn and soybeans grow from tiny seeds each spring. Hop plants get a jump on the season by resprouting from sturdy roots.
As the first lobed and toothed leaves appear, sticky hairs on the stems attach to anything they can find to stretch toward the sky. Commercial hop growers in the Greenleaf-Wilder area of Idaho provide trellises and twine nearly 20 feet tall.

This is one of only four places in the U.S. where the crop is grown commercially. You might be tempted to call these champion climbers, “vines,” but botanists call them “bines.” Vines grip with curling tendrils; bines ascend using stiff hairs.

This April, workers at Jackson Hop Farm rode across the hop yards while standing on a platform a dozen feet above the ground. A tractor pulled the contraption perpendicular to overhead wires that stretch among sturdy posts. As the tractor passed under a wire, five men on the platform each picked up a 20-foot long piece of twine from a supply hanging over the partition in front of him. Then five thickly-gloved hands executed a flip and a twist with a tuck and the end of the twine was tied to the wire.
Occasionally, one of the men missed his dally. A shout from the platform stopped the tractor and backed it up for another loop.

The platform cowboys weren’t the only ones wrangling hops. A ground team flowed in the wake of the tractor and tacked the other end of the twine to the ground.
As a left hand caught a swaying twine, a right hand aimed a driver loaded with an M-shaped metal clip.
Catch-point-set-step-push and another family of glossy new leaves had a home to grow on.
(This is a brand new hop yard, established just this past winter. Red straws marked the spot where each cluster of roots was to be buried.)
The crew will be back during May to teach the bines to climb, clockwise, to the top of the trellis. Hop plants only make right turns and always follow the clock.

By mid-June the plants will be nearing the tops of the trellises.
At harvest, long hallways of broad green leaves will be festooned with lighter green cones oozing with hoppy goodness. I wrote about the fragrant hop harvest for last fall's issue of Edible Idaho.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

All it Takes is a Clothespin

I spent much of last winter in Cochise County, Arizona, where friends and I have failed for several decades to make money raising cattle. We’ve been more successful caring for the land and building a strong community along the San Pedro. I focus on the latter two on our Facebook page.

The San Pedro River Valley taught me new skills: turning large pieces of wood into small pieces of wood with a pruning saw, running a gas generator without a functioning starter cord, securing propane cylinders in the back of a station wagon, and removing mice from my car's ventilation system. (Tomcat mouse traps rock, but peanut butter still rules. Cochise County mice ignore Tomcat brand bait.)

I peppered my neighbors with questions as I settled in to my off-grid cabin. “How can I tell if the solar storage battery is charging or discharging?” “Can I use your wifi?” “Do your chickens eat onion peels, or should I put them in the trash?”, and “Where’s the transfer station?”

After I had water, heat, electricity, wifi, and trash sorted out, I moved on to a mystery. “What are the clothespins on the mailboxes?” My neighbor said, “That’s so people can deliver notices of community events.” “Really?” I said, “If I put a clothespin on my mailbox I’ll know what’s going on?” "Yes," she said. “All it takes is a clothespin.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Red, not Golden, Walnuts

California, home to fruits, nuts, and the world’s largest artichoke, lays claim to walnuts. The claim is based on the state's rank as the world’s largest producer of the golden nuts. California exports millions of pounds of shelled and in-the-shell walnuts each year, perhaps even to the forests of southwestern Asia where the trees are native.

Idaho, home to sagebrush, spuds, and the world’s largest beagle, boasts two trees that produce red walnuts. Inside normal-looking walnut shells nestle red-seed coated nutmeats that are creamier and milder than their golden-coated cousins.

When I visited the two trees late last summer, their unusual nuts were cleverly disguised as regular green walnut fruits.
Idaho’s red walnuts are descendants of a single tree in Europe, where the unusual nuts have been rediscovered and renamed many times. Recent converts rave about the nuts in online discussion boards and ask others for more information on the trees. Others respond with reminiscences and reminders on the virtues of sharing.

A researcher in Austria is an admirer of the ruddy-skinned nuts. His Flicker photostream show a range of colors, from pink to burgundy to deep violet. He has a red-seeded walnut tree in his garden and research into the genetics of the rare nuts on his bucket list.

I wrote about Idaho’s red walnut trees in a recent issue of Edible Idaho. Read the online version of my story here or download the entire issue.