Ruth Bass: The question is - `Do you need a brown cow for chocolate milk?'

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RICHMOND — If you're tired of politics, accusations, scandal and gunfire, you may want to think about agricultural illiteracy, the subject of an inside pages story in The Berkshire Eagle last week. It's not really upbeat, since it indicates that more than 16 million Americans actually think that chocolate milk comes not from Nestle but from brown cows. But it's a lot lighter than the rest of the news.

According to the Washington Post, a survey some years ago showed that one in five American adults didn't know hamburgers were made with beef. These days, of course, some are far from beef. Burgers may be ground turkey, chicken or even vegetables, all of them plants. Lots of people apparently never realized that cheese is made from milk or that pickles started life as cucumbers.

This latest indication of agricultural illiteracy brought back the memory of a favorite New Yorker taking her 12-year-old son to our garden to show him corn on the stalk. He was quite fond of corn on the cob but was openly surprised to see the tall stalks and fat ears — and to find out that he now knew people who actually grew such from small seeds.

But that is not the best. A Florida visitor one year was puzzled over our concern with rain while our apple trees bloomed. He figured they probably needed the water, and that was true. But we explained that the bees might stay snug in their hives. He was still puzzled. Pollination, we said. If the bees don't go after the nectar and move everything around out there, we'll have no apples. He was astonished.

He was the same person, a man who knew thousands of things, who watched me wash lettuce in a bowl of water and then use the water on some plants. He wondered what benefit lettuce was to plants, and we explained it was a matter of not wasting water. His immediate answer was that he was sorry we had to worry about water and that he was fortunate that Florida had no water problem. We bit our tongues and didn't get into that.

One can only hope that the growing numbers of vegetarians and the burgeoning of farmers markets may make the numbers in the survey go up. The Berkshires' year-round residents probably include only a handful of those millions who supposedly don't know chocolate milk is created from sugar, milk and cocoa. Certainly many environmentalists and nutritionists put tremendous energy into educating the public on the negative aspects of red meat and the use of pesticides. And school gardens cultivate food knowledge.

At our Richmond Consolidated School, kids plant a garden, and their produce gets used in the school kitchen. In the future, they may decide to grow tomatoes in a big pot or have a larger garden of their own. At least they'll know that squashes start with yellow blossoms and require bees.

Sometimes a little knowledge, as many philosophers have mentioned, is not a good thing. And so, the very best farming illiteracy story came from the person who announced to us that she had given up eating eggs after she found out where they came from. She didn't say how she had previously thought chickens produced eggs, but she was dismayed to find that those pretty ovals came out of a chicken's rear end.

And it's true. But to reassure those who still think an egg is a great treat, the chicken's anatomy is a thing of beauty. The layout means that while egg and waste use the same exit, they are separated by a little partition that means they never touch each other. Like other feathered creatures, they are instinctively fastidious. Fowl, but not foul.

Ruth Bass grows future pickles in Richmond. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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