A tale of two farms

It isn’t just agricultural biodiversity that needs looking after; sometimes it is the agriculture itself. In my in-basket today two stories of farms saved for the future. Coincidence, I’m sure, but it is not hard to glean a single message of nostalgia combined with urban alienation from the rescue of College Farm in north London and Gellatly Nut Farm in British Columbia. I’ve often thought that we should make more of the commonalities between developed and developing countries than we do. Maybe these stories will help.

New medicinal plants

Speaking of medicinal plants, a remarkable study in Peru traces the traditional use of plants for all kinds of curative purposes from colonial times to the present. There’s an article on the work on SciDev.Net here but it is in Spanish. Although many plants used in colonial times have disappeared from the area of the study, traditional healers have replaced them with other species and have thus maintained their pharmacopeia. This is very much a living, evolving tradition.

Virgil on orthodox seed storage

Whether it was really about growing crops, rearing livestock and keeping bees or not, Virgil’s Georgics has some wonderfully evocative – and didactic, of course – passages about agriculture. Here’s what lines 197-204 have to say about genebanks (at least in this translation):

I have observed that seeds stored away for a long time, however thoroughly they are looked after still deteriorate, unless the greatest possible human effort is used in selecting the best individually by hand each year. In the same way all things go to the bad, lose their power and slip backwards – it is nature’s law. It’s exactly like when a sculler is trying his utmost to propel his boat up a river with his oars. If he happens to relax his arms for a moment, the current sweeps him away headlong downstream.

Whazup with wasabi?

A visit to Suva’s only Japanese restaurant prompted some googling. First, there was the name of the place: Daikoku. Daiwhat? Turns out this is the name of the Japanese Buddhist god of wealth, farmers, agriculture, rice and the kitchen. Which would have been cool enough. But then I asked myself, what is this wasabi anyway? Sure, the Japanese version of horseradish. But the same as “normal” horseradish, or what? I’m ashamed to have to report that I simply didn’t know.

So, to summarize. The horseradish is Armoracia rusticana, in the Brassicaceae. It probably originated in western Asia. Cultivation for its pungent root goes back to antiquity. But the “Horseradish Capital of the World” is apparently Collinsville, Illinois, from a small region around which comes over one third of the United States’ production and/or 60% of the world’s supply depending on who you read. Which actually brings me to the serious point that I wasn’t able to get hold of global production statistics, and not for want of trying. FAOSTAT doesn’t have anything on horseradish, for example. Anyway, you can go to an International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville every May to find out more. Wasabi, on the other hand, is Wasabia japonica (there’s a couple of other species as well, though). Also in the Brassicaceae, but again I wasn’t able to find out if Wasabia and Armoracia are much related, though I doubt it. The pungent flavour in both cases — as generally in crucifers — is due to glucosinolates. Wasabia is native to Japan, where it has been cultivated for its rhizome since the 10th century. Traditionally, it is prepared using a sharkskin grater. The plant requires flowing water and a small number of districts in Japan specialize in its cultivation (e.g. the Izu peninsula), although it is also grown in other parts of the world. But there is imitation wasabi on the market which is apparently made of Western (let’s call it) horseradish, mustard and green colouring. Pass the sushi. And make mine the shark-grated stuff.

“Oreo cookie cows” getting dunked?

Dutch Belted cows are also called “Oreo cookie cows” because of their three stripes. Introduced to the United States from Holland in 1840 by P.T. Barnum for use in his circus, they are now endangered, with a global herd of less than 1,000. So the SVF Foundation is collecting sperm, fertilized embryos, blood and tissue. You can read about it here: “Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance Hamilton established the foundation in 1998 on a property in Newport that includes the Swiss Village, a restored turn-of-the-century dairy farm, and part of Hammersmith Farm, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ childhood home.”