Nothing really. And everything.
As I’ve previously mentioned I’m in an all out war with meadow voles. If you have no idea what a meadow vole is, congratulations on your blissful ignorance. Check out an image randomly found online here. Awwwww, isn’t he cute? FYI, if you’re ever standing near me in person and you say something like that about meadow voles you should be prepared to be backhanded instantly. I’m not kidding. Meadow voles are NOT cute. They are NOT adorable, or cuddly or in any way nice. And that’s not just my now decade long hatred of them talking. They actually aren’t nice. They’re vicious little things who aren’t afraid to face down a six foot two, angry human. Don’t believe me? Here’s another image, this one chosen not so randomly. It looks doctored but I’ve actually seen them turn around and rear up like that. But all that aside, why do I hate them so much?
Meadow voles are incredibly destructive in the garden. They do this to carrots, beets, chard and other root crops, potatoes and sometimes softer squash. They also girdle young fruit trees in the nursery (eat away the bark all around the tree until it dies because it can’t pas nutrients up its now destroyed cambium layer). Meadow voles can easily do hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of damage to a market gardener’s crops. Trust me, it’s true. Don’t believe me? Consider the above photo of a carrot with a meadow vole’s telltale bite marks carved from the shoulder. Now check this out.
I harvested several row feet of carrots just as the last big snowstorm hit us back in November. In the above photo the bulb crate in the background is full of non damaged carrots from which I’ve just removed the tops. In the foreground is all the carrots that were damaged by meadow voles. It’s nearly half a crate. In my root cellar I have another two crates of good carrots and an additional full crate of vole damaged carrots that were harvested and cleaned before the big storm at the end of October. One and a half full bulb crates of carrots is probably a loss of between two and four hundred dollars. And that’s just the carrots that I dug in the fall. This happens all season long.
So let’s get back to the original question. What’s wrong with that carrot? Well, if you’re a meadow vole, nothing. And that should tell you something. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s look at it from the human perspective.
If you think the carrots pictured above are disgusting, unhealthy, not worth purchasing, undesirable, insert any number of synonymous adjectives, then you are once again due congratulations…and a bit of damnation.
Congratulations on your luck for being born into, or having migrated successfully to, one of a small handful of rich countries where you have the option of disregarding these carrots. The damnation comes from the fact that you disregard these carrots and they end up rotting, either in the ground, on the ground, in a farmer’s compost heap or on a loading dock somewhere.
The reality here is that there is nothing wrong with these carrots. In the photo above all of the carrot sticks came from carrots that were damaged by voles. This time of year in our house all the carrots we eat are damaged carrots. I’ve got more than a crate full for goodness sake. We could eat them all winter, not run out and be super happy about it. Why do I eat these carrots and feed them to my children? Because I know what the voles know. Not only is there nothing wrong with them, they may be superior to their undamaged neighbors.
Meadow voles are highly selective. I’ve witnessed this truth over the past decade during which I’ve farmed. You can find a vole damaged carrot (or beet or whatever the case may be) in the middle of a sea of undamaged carrots. And knowing what I know about nature, there must be reason.
The voles could just as easily (in fact more easily) choose the carrots at the edge of the row. Those ones are closer to the grass and therefore safer for the voles who take a huge risk every time they cross open ground. (Think birds of prey…and cats.) But they don’t. They’re selective.
In a blind taste test you and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between vole damaged carrots and non damaged carrots. But the voles choose for a reason.
So what? Why should you care? Lot’s of reasons. Here are just a few.
First, since I’m fairly self-centered, let’s look at it from the farmer’s (read MY) point of view. It didn’t cost me a single cent less the grow a damaged carrot compared to a non vole damaged carrot. It came from the same seeds from the same packet purchased from the same seed company at a set price. I can’t go back to the seed company later and get a refund for a certain percentage of the carrots that were for some reason more desirable to meadow voles. I didn’t have to weed (or pay my help to weed) the damaged carrots any less than the undamaged ones. It didn’t cost me any less to pay someone to harvest the damaged ones. This season my superstar (that’s not sarcastic she really was amazing) helper went off to college at the end of August which means I harvested the majority of our carrots myself. Do you think that saves on labor? My time is the most valuable asset I have. The reality is that damaged carrots actually take longer and are harder to harvest than undamaged carrots because the damage is at the shoulder, from whence the tops sprout. You can’t grab the leafy top of a damaged carrot and yank it out of the ground. It breaks off. That means they have to be dug and pulled carefully, which cost more, whether in terms of money for labor or personal time I can’t be doing something else.
It takes no less water or time to wash vole damaged carrots. Indeed it takes more because all those unique bite marks harbor a lot of soil that’s harder to remove than that which just rests on the undamaged skin of a ‘perfectly good’ carrot. But let’s assume you don’t give a vole’s…you know, about the farmer’s out there trying to make a living while battling this surprisingly prolific and effective, albeit minuscule, force of nature. Fair enough. But what about the children?
One out of six children in this country is hungry right now. I’ll type that again. At this very moment one out of every six children is undernourished and hungry in the United States. This says nothing of the millions of kids around the rest of the world. That’s definitely an all important part of the story but let’s keep this blog about local food relatively local. One out of six kids in the US. How much food do we simply throw away in this country? And I’m not talking about food we throw away after everybody at our cozy dinner tables has had their fill (which is in and of itself a tragedy of epic proportions). I’m talking about food that’s thrown away before it even reaches the point of sale! I’ve seen estimates as high as 90%. I don’t necessarily believe it’s that high. You can do the math on my half a crate vs. a full crate example from above…and I’m just one dude. But even if it’s not 90% the real number is high enough that it makes little difference Why? Are you going to buy these carrots?
Doubtful. So lots and lots and lots of farmers just throw them away before they’re washed or they don’t even harvest the damaged ones. Every action on a farm costs money. And a farm is a business. If you can’t recoup at least an equal amount of money from a sale you go under. We’re living in a system in which it makes economic sense for hundreds of thousands of farmers to leave perfectly good food to rot in the ground, or in the compost heap because of an unsightly blemish, while 15.8 million children lived in food insecure households (2012).
Frankly, that’s way more disgusting than a damaged carrot. Well you should sell them at a discount! I can hear the cries for a way out now. Guess what. Experience has shown, you won’t buy them…even if it saves you money. This carrot was about seven inches long from the pointy tip to the base of the greens pictured in the lower right. I cut off less than an inch. I sell my ‘seconds’ at market for $2 per pound while my ‘firsts’ are $3 per pound. I should say…I don’t sell my seconds. They sit there and sit there and sit there some more. This despite the fact that I’m offering nearly 100% of the carrot at 66% of the price. I honestly don’t get it. It’s not a laziness thing like so many other problems with the food system. Even with our ‘firsts’ carrots you have to get out a knife and cut off a bit of the top when you get home. It’s the same amount of work.
So what again. So what about the farmers and so what about all the hungry kids. It ain’t me…right? So far. But those ‘carrots’ at the grocery store, the ones that are all exactly the same diameter, exactly 10.368573 inches long, a sickly pale orange color and so dry that they actual absorb moisture from your mouth if you’re unfortunate enough to put one in there…to say nothing of the taste…you know the ones, may not always be there. If you’re old enough you may remember the major trucker’s strike from the mid 1980s. During that strike it became apparent that most grocery stores have only enough inventory to keep the shelves stocked for three days. Nothing changed after the strike. In April 1994 there was another massive trucking strike which highlighted the fact that most industries (including grocery) had actually continued to move toward ‘just in time’ inventory policies. (And the 90’s strike only affected 18% of the nation’s shipping.) But let’s put aside doomsday reality for a minute.
Those ‘carrots’ you see in the grocery store don’t have vole damage. The voles won’t eat them. I wonder why that is. Maybe they’ve figured out something we haven’t…at least some of us.
Yes, the fact remains that there is something wrong with this carrot. Walking out to the garden and moving aside a lush carpet of carrot tops to find that the d@#! voles have once again outsmarted me makes me clench up and may eventually lead to a brain hemorrhage. Yeah…it’s infuriating. For all my talk in this blog post I really, really, really want to grow carrots for a season and not have so many damaged by voles. Notice I didn’t say ‘no damaged carrots’. Hey, I’ll share. Maybe they could finish an entire carrot before moving on rather than taking small bites out of so many, thus making them ‘unsaleable’. But as I swear and stomp my feet and throw garden implements across the yard while harvesting and then swear and stomp my feet some more while washing damaged carrots with bare hands in sub-freezing weather all the while saddled with the knowledge that I won’t sell a single one, maybe I should step back and, just this once, take my hat off to the vole. Because it occurs to me that asking a vole, ‘what’s wrong with this carrot’, might yield an answer we don’t collectively like. Maybe the carrot isn’t the one with the problem. Local food. Eat well – be well.