It's a lovely Spring here in the Missouri Ozarks - just enough warmth, but not too much, with just enough rain. And all of our grazing areas for the pigs and sows are a riot of glorious, golden yellow. The stalks are tall enough so that the plants sway gracefully in the wind. The scent of the flowers is subtle, and it is a joyous sight to spy our gold-filled hills from the highway on the way home.
To diverge a bit: I will tell you that originally I had planned to name the farm Meadowsweet Farm of the Ozarks, after the herb, meadowsweet. It is a beautiful plant, more subtle and regal than the plants you see in our fields right now. It is also named Queen of the Meadow. It eases pain and soothes the spirit. But when we got here, it just didn't feel like a Meadowsweet Farm, and I opted for the more sturdy name we use now.
This plant is a workhorse. No one would confuse it with royalty. But it thrives here, and the land and the pigs benefit from it mightily. And, as you can, so do the pollinators. Most are honey bees, but there are also bees so tiny you have to squint to see them. And the fields hum with industry if you pause and still yourself long enough to hear it. The honey bees are thick on the flowers, which just seem to keep blooming and blooming. These winged workers have 'britches' so loaded up with pollen for their hives that they look like bloomers. They will take the pollen home to their hives and feed the next generation of honey bees. And the bees will return the favor by pollinating these plants.
This magnificent, generous plant is ....a turnip. Sown last summer, they provided fodder with their leaves, and when the frost had made them sweet, they fed the pigs through the winter. In January and February they still endured, often growing back from a partially eaten root, and they were the only green things in the field, and the hogs enjoyed them.
Now Spring is here, and the plants shot up, began their everlasting blooming in order to make seeds. At this point, most farmers would have tilled them under or cut them back. The pigs won't eat a plant that has grown so bitter. But we are letting the turnips have their full cycle, and here is why. The roots have loosened the soil, and for the first time since moving here, we are seeing lots of fat earthworms. The long roots also bring much needed minerals from deep in the soil into the upper root zone. They shade and cool the legumes, and the cow peas use the stalks as a trellis. As the seeds set and ripen, the hogs will eat the mature seed heads, which are rich in healthy oils. The hog will only digest about 20% of these seeds, resulting in the other 80% being distributed all over the grazing areas by the hogs in the form of pre-fertilized seed bombs. I won't have to buy turnip seed this year, and the seeds will sprout and continue their generous cycle for another year. The hogs will trample the old stalks and those will rot and add to the tilth of the soil. The turnips make a year long and vital contribution to the system that sustains the land, the plants, and the pigs, and, eventually, those that eat our pork.
And these are the reasons why the humble turnip, a hard-working peasant of a plant, has become the true queen of our meadows. Hail and welcome, dear queen. Long may you reign.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.