March of the Nematodes

Brad Baughman
Apr 28, 2020 · Unlisted
A typical Eastern region juice grape vineyard

(Note: names in this story were changed at the request of the individuals)

I was uncomfortable in Jim Bosch’s pickup because I was witnessing mass destruction out the open window.

Anytime I saw Jim interact with anyone, he would always ask about their family. “How is your husband?” “How has your daughter been doing?” “I haven’t seen your brother in a while, I hope he’s well.” It took me maybe two years of knowing him to recognize what that meant about him. Family is Jim’s focus.

This particular drive in Mr. Bosch’s pickup was on a sunny Tuesday or something, in June. We had met at his shop (the old one behind his Dad’s house, not the new one behind his son-in-law’s house), I pulled my car into the gravel driveway around back, and hopped into his truck. He drove us around different parts of his sprawling acreage.

All around us there were juice grapes — Concord and Niagara — which were in the buckshot stage at the time. Jim keeps his ground “clean” under the canopy. In other words, denuded dead sand where once was a complex soil-plant-fungal community of mutual thriving. I was witnessing lonely plants of a single species, stuck in this sterilized medium, no ability to communicate with even each other, their mycorrhizae butchered along with all other beings. I witnessed them, enslaved to single purpose, their children stolen from them, the partnership and cooperation which is their inheritance only a distant memory, if that, each of them blind and utterly alone — in long beautiful rows. Like those rows of human pods in the matrix. A fucking factory farm.

We talked about the help, how it’s tough to find good people, and tougher to keep them. He told me about the eight guys who work for him full-time — Chiapan in origin — and how he considers it his job to keep everybody’s family fed, not just his own. Jim disagrees, on Christian principles, with how most people in production agriculture interact with their help. In Jim’s book, if you work here, that makes you part of the family, which means that now we have a responsibility to each other.

Jim gestured at the bare sand and gravel, 100% nutrient-permeable and therefore pollutive in its very suffocated nature, a once-lively world gassed into blank mineral background material (the stones, the grandmothers, cried out for their biotic children, who were gone). He chuckled as we came over the rise — “We’ve sort of become the soil erosion poster child for the county,” pointing towards a wash of sand running downhill through the stand of Concord. I look, and I see the mass murdered bodies of the soil people, stacked so high that they flow downhill in avalanches of the macabre.

I ask him about ground management, pretending to be casual in the midst of my horror. He tells me that their vineyards are too big to mow — that they used to keep a strip of grass down the row middles, but they couldn’t afford the multiple tractor passes it took to keep them from growing up among the grapes and interfering with disease and nutrient management. So now they just drench the whole thing in herbicide once a year, and spot-spray weeds once or twice. Much more affordable.

The price of Concords isn’t what it used to be, so you have to cut costs everywhere you can. Or, more to the point, the price of Concords is exactly what it used to be. Like, since the ‘80’s. The price has floated between $150 and $200 per ton since then. Think about that for a minute. 2000 pounds of grapes. For a hundred and fifty bucks. That is what Jim’s getting paid, decade after decade.

Meanwhile the cost of living for farm owners and employees has risen with inflation, and so have production costs. While inflation has increased the price of every component needed for producing juice grapes — tractors, cultivators, mowers, sprayers, parts for all of the above — meanwhile more inputs have become necessary. The EPA has taken tools off the table, year after year, in its continual environmental review process of pesticides. As a result, more frequent and more expensive sprays are required to make it to October with a saleable crop still hanging.

These circumstances and others have conspired to make grape farming a less-than-attractive prospect for young people growing up in farm country. Meanwhile, the one proven way to adapt to these increasing costs of production and stagnant price has been to introduce the efficiencies of scale. There are probably some years when the juice crop is going to be large enough on a 40-acre vineyard for it to pay for itself. But there are none when it can do that and pay for the man-hours required to maintain and harvest it. But on 400 acres of grapes, the numbers pencil out to profit more often.

It’s also because of the ingenuity of the growers, and the crop advisors who are still engaged, caring, and ingenious enough to come up with ways to push the thing forward, year after year. Largely via automation: rough pruning machines; shoot positioners; multi-row sprayers; over-the-row harvesters. Imagine multiple spinning prongs and blades on tractor-driven rube goldberg devices, inching slowly down the vinerows, and you’re in the right ballpark. These strange beasts are mesmerizing to witness in the field.

All of this is to say that — fewer farmers, necessary economies of scale — the farms have gotten bigger and bigger. Nitz, Totzke, Hinkelman, Oxley — a few names now own and manage most of the juice grape acreage in the State. Those who have developed an obsession with reducing costs without compromising the quality of the end product have continued — barely — to succeed. And the rest have gotten bought out. Thus the victors — the Jim Bosches of the world. The people who have figured out a way to make one fewer tractor pass.

There is an intact soil ecosystem on the edge of the vineyard — that vineyard which is an imposed desert; on sterile medium; rich with rain and NPK, and robbed of all other components of life; a blank slate with weedy vines stuck in it, alone and afraid, dogs in orbital spacecrafts — and the intact edge sees and knows enough of its neighboring environment to respond appropriately.

Seeing bare mineral soil with only one source of organic material — Vitis labruscana, the American domesticated grape — the soil-mind (the tiny Gaia, the god of that narrow wooded field-edge) dispatches shock troops to begin converting the monocrop environment into a biodiverse one. It knows that it must kill — kill! — most of the individuals of the monocrop species, in order to bring the fire of their life back into the circle. Back into the upward spiral of vivaciousness and chemistry enacted by the thousands of cooperating species — bacteria by the billions, fungi, soil insects, centipedes, slime molds, mycorrhizae, ground cover plants, fuckin’ springtails — to create more and more life for themselves and each other. Seeing the relative deadness and uniformity of the bare-ground vineyard, the collective consciousness of the soil-mind makes a bold, aggressive, and highly-calculated move to break up the frozen static environment, and get things moving.

Its brilliant servants, sent forth armed and hungry? — Nematodes. In this case, a couple species of root-feeding nematodes that are deadly only to the offending plant (again being Vitis labruscana) and to no other.

Slowly at first, they march out of the woods edge — or wriggle, as they are but microscopic roundworms — advancing through the soil water every time it rains. A few feet at a time, a few yards at most in a downpour. Some are washed through the bare sand, along with the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium from the most recent fertilizer application, and are never seen again, lost in the infinite darkness of the water table.

Others cling with tenacity to dear life and to their sacred mission. Finding their target in abundance, they latch onto root hairs and draw out the life force of their enemy. Drinking it, they wax fat, and lay eggs by the million, and are the great seed of many nations. Life is feast, life is plunder. Life is decadent parthenogenesis. All in service to a future of richness and diversity (there is no resurrection, said the preacher, without first death).

And lo! Behold! On the edge of the territory of the plant-criminals, the leaves of the offenders go red, and then brown, and fall to the ground to nourish the starving soil. The fruits shrivel, and excise from the vines, and add to the beginnings of abundance. The growth of the enemy ceases. The first battles are won.

Jim doesn’t want to go down to the chemical dealer — it’s his second trip this week. But that leaf symptom at the edge of the vineyard was unmistakable. He’s seen it before enough times, and the only thing putting it off will get him is more crop loss that will show up in his tonnage at harvest. No, better to get it done today and ask Ben to apply it before tomorrow afternoon’s rain. Margins are too tight to get hung up in this kind of nonsense.

At the counter, he asks Matt about the kids. Matt manages to convince him to stock up, in order to get the bulk price. Good salesman, and Jim knows he’ll need it again soon enough.

He calls Isaac on his cell, who was on his way home. He’s not happy about having to wash out the spray tank at 6:00 at night and start another few passes, but he does as he’s asked. Not just out of obedience — Isaac sees it too, that you have to stay on top of these things, even though he’s only been at it for a couple years. Really is the ideal son-in-law in a lot of ways — sure, they argue, but Jim’s glad that his daughter picked a guy with such a good head on his shoulders.

In the space of a day, all the work of the grand nematode army is undone. The rain that day brings not refreshment, not advancement, but chemical warfare. Death. In a single afternoon, great billows of dissolved poison flow through the soil water matrix. It chokes them, it chokes them all. Millions of nematode soldiers, and the babies they were bringing up to continue their holy mission, all squirm. And struggle. And finally breathe their last. The hope of restoration is gone, all that work for nothing. The bad guys win again, and the small god retreats to the windrow to fight again another day.


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