Fresh & Local
The Dangers of Mental Autopilot
Column #33, Published May 4th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

Mark Twain once said, “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world.” The fact of the matter is that we all often do things for no better reason than it is the way we have always done them. I call this “mental autopilot.”

It is understandable. If we always had to think through every implication of every decision we make, we would never have the time or energy left to actually do anything. Autopilot saves time and mental energy. On the other hand, mental autopilot can result in some really bad decisions.

We grow greens year-around, which is unusual. One of the really nice things about wholesalers and retailers is that they are year-around distribution channels. Demand for produce does not stop in November, so we don’t either.

Our biggest crop is normally winter spinach. The winter of 2010 – 2011 was a bumper crop. This past winter was much milder than normal, so we were expecting an even bigger crop. But that is not what happened.

Instead, the leaves developed large white splotches with extensive tip burn and edge burn. We ended up throwing out more spinach than we sold. We checked many references and could not find a match with what we were seeing. So we called our Cooperative Extension agent who took samples and sent them to the plant pathology lab at Virginia Tech.

At first glance, the lab had no idea what the problem was. I was initially a little relieved that it was not obvious. But then I realized that meant that we have a very unusual problem. That is not a comforting thought.

My guess was a fungal or bacterial disease. The lab took tissue cultures, and eliminated disease as a possibility. This root cause is what they call “abiotic,” or non-living. By process of elimination, the preliminary diagnosis is drought damage. The symptoms in winter can be very different than summer drought damage. That is why it wasn’t obvious.

But a drought in winter? It turns out that a drought is every bit as likely to happen in winter as any other time. What is different is that few people care about a drought in winter, so most people never notice it. Can a lack of precipitation be called a drought if nothing is growing?

The lab asked us if we have an irrigation system. Yes we do, but we picked it up and put it away late last fall. When the lab asked why we did that, the only answer I could come up with is, “That’s what we did last year.” Ah, the dangers of autopilot.

Spinach may be a cold-season crop, but it requires a lot of water. This past winter and spring were both unusually dry.

This is actually a little more complicated. In addition to providing moisture, natural precipitation washes soluble soil salts out of the root zone. High concentrations of salts can make it difficult for plants to take up water, particularly when they are young. It is possible for plants to become water stressed even when the soil is damp. That is why drought symptoms can be very different.

If you are going to grow year-around, you need to irrigate year-around.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at