Farmers market vendors, gardeners show growing struggle

This time of year many of us spend our Saturday mornings wandering through the neighborhood farmers market. We develop an affinity for a certain produce vendor and rejoice each year when he or she returns.

Like Jenny Kurzweil, author of 'Fields That Dream,' we may wonder about our favorite small-time farmers. How do they grow such succulent vegetables and berries? Have they been farming all their lives?

Kurzweil subtitled her book 'A Journey to the Roots of Our Food' after she interviewed several small-scale farmers from the University District Farmers Market in Seattle. She profiled farmers like Gretchen Hoyt, who agonized over the question of becoming 'certified organic' versus 'potentially losing crops because we are limited in our resources.'

And John Huschle, who after farming for wholesale with a partner, decided to go small-scale on his own: 'I really want to sell my produce directly. In order to go direct you have to have an emphasis on quality.'

Many of the interviews are followed up by discussions or debates over issues such as genetically modified foods or corporate-backed farms versus individual operations.

While the stories of the farmers themselves are interesting and informative, often Kurzweil spends too much time on her soapbox when she shifts her focus to political and ethical questions. There is a sense that she should have let her human subjects act as the mouthpiece, thus rendering this a more readable book.

Still, 'Fields That Dream' is a must-read for anyone who has ever imagined taking backyard farming to the next level. An added feature is a recommended-reading syllabus and other resources at the end of the book.

Jenny Kurzweil will read 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20, at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

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William Alexander bit off a lot more than he expected when he decided to build his dream backyard garden. For a humorous look at his earthy trials and tribulations, pick up 'The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.'

Alexander started big by planting not two or three but 22 beds in the back of his Hudson Valley home. Visions of the ideal kitchen garden were quickly squelched amid attacks from pests, weather and animals. One hilarious chapter on the author's battle with deer and groundhogs is called 'You May Be Smarter, but He's Got More Time.'

His commitment to organic gardening faced challenges early on thanks to an infestation of caterpillars in his beloved apple trees. 'I am a natural-fibers, NPR-supporting, recycling, compost-making left-of-center environmentalist … with a problem: I wanted to grow apples.'

His struggle to serve two masters is exasperating, funny and enlightening. His frustration is one that many would-be organic gardeners can relate to, especially as he struggles with IPM - integrated pest management designed to reduce environmental hazards.

'The flaw in IPM for the home orchardist, it seems to me, is that unless you have the luxury of being able to inspect your trees … every twelve hours, by the time you see a symptom or a pest, it is too late to treat it,' Alexander writes.

At one point Alexander attempted to grow roses, only to find that doing so cost him his lawn. The experience led him to again recognize how interrelated all of nature is - and that, for him, 'gardening more often resembles blood sport, a never-ending battle with the weather, insects, deer, groundhogs … and the limitations of my own middle-aged body.'

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