The Pesticide Was Me

Growing up in rural Fresno was an important life reference for me, especially when I became older. My father was born in the San Joaquin Valley and lived his entire life in this longitude of California. Despite his full time career in a law office, he chose to live a very elaborate home life on a 5-acre ranch. Fully occupied by a family of 9, including my grandmother, the ranch had every animal you could imagine, a garden with flowers, vegetables, fruit and nut trees. We ate from our land. Each family member was obligated to tend to every bit of it, while learning useful skills. My father was a creative land owner and passed many of his ideas to me.

Being resourceful simply means that we work with what we have. In my father’s case, it was his children. In the summer, my father had the most tasks for us to do. Our large fruit and vegetable garden had watermelon, cucumber, tomato, squash, corn, cactus and sometimes exotic vegetables. I have a distinct memory of my father handing me a small pail and telling me to find the tomato hornworms and collect all of them. Because they were green, they were camouflaged by the tomato foliage. No one wants to spend too much time in the 100 degree heat of Fresno, California, so I was good at finding them quickly. With my pail of fat hornworms I knew to go straight to the pigeon coop. As soon as the spring door creaked open, I was greeted by 20 whirling pigeons fanning me cool with their pretty wings. I would laugh and toss the worms on the ground where they were ravaged instantly. Other times, we had to catch and herd chickens in the garden to do the same task, mostly when the plants were still young and the fruit not yet visible. Their droppings helped too.

One can’t be squeamish on a ranch. There are rats, ravens, black widows and rattlesnakes. Surprisingly, none of us children had a dramatic injury due to this environment. On the contrary, my father had set safety protocols that were understood by everyone on the ranch. If ravens or hawks were stealing the chicks of our chickens, we were on slingshot duty. We never really hurt them, but it was enough to train wildlife that humans were claiming what they wanted. The mere sight of us created a fleeing response. This meant that we spent a lot of time with ranch and garden work. We learned that the ladybugs hiding under the shade of the Yarrow blooms were protecting the neighboring roses from aphids. We were given an important education.

Before it was called “organic,” we were simply just tending to plants. It was straightforward: dirt, water, seeds and homemade fertilizer from our cattle. Our small herd of cattle were doted over like pets and even given names. The goats mowed down the tall wild mallow at the end of spring. The chickens provided a portion of their eggs for cakes and breakfasts. The cats chased the rats and the dogs warned us of trouble. I am amazed that my father had a complete system worked out, given that he was not raised on a ranch. Over the years, he became an expert. We were a self-sufficient farming family. Today, there are numerous publications that guide a prospective self-sufficient farmer to create a system in an urban, suburban or rural parcel of land. With the pandemic causing shortages, I’ve noticed many of my neighbors have explored vegetable gardening. This is an intelligent response.

That being said, for backyard gardening, it seems like an overreaction to use pesticides for a relatively small space. There is plenty of innovation from organic, commercial micro farmers, and publications to support a safe gardening model. It’s a matter of consciously choosing. Last year when someone in the neighborhood used rat poison, many beautiful bobcat contracted mange or perished in various gardens in Soquel. A sickly bobcat even ended up in my driveway. It was terrible to watch it lose weight and suffer. If I have learned anything, it is that educating myself about the impact I have on an ecosystem supports many organisms and keeps me out of the role of pest.

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