News and blog
So I will dive right back in from where I left off last week, which was stressing the need for diversity for a farm to be truly sustainable. When we think of sustainability we not only consider the idea of having a profitable business model that allows us to be good stewards of the environment. But we also think of part of sustainability as being as self-sufficient as possible. In the long term it means coming as close as we can to creating a closed farm system meaning that we can bring all off-farm inputs to a minimum. To do this the farm must be in near perfect balance. I say ‘near perfect’ because all ecosystems and individual organisms are inherently dynamic, being constantly in flux things are in need of constant adjustment to be kept near to balanced. Our dream farm we think would make a near perfect CSA with the ultimate goal of having a full diet CSA, going far beyond just vegetables and chicken. Doing this will take our lifetimes but here is what we imagine, approximately in the order we imagine rolling them our after we get our own land. Vegetables of course, basically as you are accustomed to by now but adding more crops and varieties along the way. This includes the construction of hoop houses that will allow us to extend the season for a full complement of greens and other crops almost year-round availability. We will also continue to raise chickens and as early as next year I think we will add a few pigs to our farm. Adding bees will be a high priority allowing us to keep our own pollinators while offering honey to our members. When we have our own land we will also be able to move beyond annuals and plant perennials. This means a much better selection of herbs to start, and over time adding things like asparagus and rhubarb. One thing that really excites me is adding a full complement of fruit to our farm and offering a fruit share. I would love to have a small orchard with apples, peaches, pears, nectarines (my favorite fruit) and plums and of course a press to make fresh cider. Obviously this wouldn’t be available for several years but we would want to put in the orchard as soon as possible when we are on our own land.
Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries would be available much earlier. After the vegetable ground is ready and the orchard is in we will invest in pasture and hayfields. We hope to get laying hens in either a permanent or mobile henhouse but with plenty of access to the outdoors either way. We would introduce cows to our farm. At first we would likely buy in steer to finish on the farm and butcher in the fall. Maintaining a cow-calf herd or dairy animals requires a lot of infrastructure and equipment to care for animals through the winter and isn’t likely possible for some years down the road. As we are developing these systems we will be improving our vegetable systems all the while. We will improve our storage facilities significantly allowing us to distribute winter shares at least once a month and perhaps every other week from December through April. We imagine this phase of our farms growth taking at least 10 years. If you are still members in 2021 you could have access to 35-40 weeks of vegetables, 15 weeks of fruit, a dozen eggs every other week as well as chicken, pork and beef. The next 10 years will see a whole new evolution in our farm. We imagine investing heavily in our animals in order to maintain our own herds. This means a proper barn for the cows and pigs, fencing, hay fields and hay equipment. Chickens and pigs tend to be pretty hungry and I would much rather grow grain for our animals which requires yet more infrastructure and equipment. This phase though will set us up for what we think will be the farms true maturation. At this point we have the basic infrastructure to make the leap into a true full diet CSA. First, this would mean producing milk and eventually processing the milk into other products like, butter, cream, yogurt and cheese. We would
also expand into dry beans and small grains eventually moving towards actually baking bread. We are not sure exactly how long it would take to get us to this point but it makes me a bit giddy to romanticize about it. I absolutely love the idea of eating tomatoes fertilized by the same animal that made my cheese, or having bacon with hints of the orchard that the pig helped clean up or an herbed bread with herbs, honey, flour and oats from our own fields. I could go on forever but there are few things more gratifying than having a meal where you produced everything but the salt. This is ambitious and it will take a lot more talent and dedication that just Lidia and I alone to make our dream into our reality. It will take dedicated workers, well-trained apprentices and the employ of artisans to help make the finer things like cheese and bread. But most importantly it will be you, our CSA members present and future that will build this farm. By you alone will we have the income, support, involvement and help to make Fazenda Boa Terra true to its mission.
With everything that has been going on with Lidia and I over the past five weeks or so we have gotten sidetracked in a few ways. August is already a hard month on any vegetable farm. You can go to any vegetable farm, particularly one with apprentices who might be trying their hand at farming for the first time and you will hear all about ‘August burnout.’ Add the emotional load that we have been carrying and some of the romance of farming slips out from between your fingers. Luckily the fall always comes to reinvigorate the spirit and help us reclaim the romance of the farm-life. We have had a lot of conversations about our mistakes this year, and how to work them out for next year. We talk a lot about where the real shortfalls in our production system are and what we need to do to be more efficient. This brings me back to the conversation that we never finished about what our ultimate end goal is for the farm. There is a lot of short-term stuff we need to discuss impending for next year and the next few after that but this week I want to talk about the big picture, the grand vision. Our primary objective is ultimately to create a model farm and become mentors and teachers to the next generation of family farmers. Diversity is a necessity on a farm that hopes to be an educational model for several reasons. The first is that agriculture is much more diverse than just vegetables for CSA. To be a well-rounded farmer you need experience in a broad array of farming systems. Second and perhaps most important is that we firmly believe that for a farm system (or ecosystem) to be sustainable financially, socially and most important, environmentally, it must be diversified. We like to think of CSA vegetable farms as diverse because of all the different crops we grow. On the surface this may be true but when you dig deeper you will find that with regards to the impact on the soil and general soil management. Vegetables are basically a monocrop and like any other monocrop they are hard on the soil. The first step in diversifying a vegetable system is to develop robust cover and green manure cropping systems (as I write this I am
fuming a bit over my bid that didn’t go through at a farm auction for a Brillion seeder that I could have had for a song). These systems not only allow the vegetable land to get more frequent periods of rest but build broader crop rotations. Rotating the kinds of crops we put on each field is our best way for controlling pest and disease issue and maintaining healthy soil life. Ideally we would like to have half of our land in and half out of production. For example, say we had 20 acres of good vegetable ground; only 10 of those acres would be in vegetables each year. You will sometimes hear opponents of organic farming say that it will take twice as much land for organic farmers to feed the world. They parrot this response like obedient party lapdogs, but never once have I read a study to back this up. It is simply wrong, but my assumption is that they use this idea of half of your land being in production and have out to base this argument. This is baseless for several reasons. First, farming all of your land non-stop is not financially or environmentally sustainable in the long run. Eventually you will lose your soil life increasing dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are financially unsound as applications become more concentrated and more frequent only to maintain the status quo. Not to mention the environmental implications of increasing wildlife, soil, water and human exposure to such things. The other reason this is not true is because they are assuming that land in soil building rather that vegetable production has no agricultural use. Animals, animals are a critical component to a sustainable farm with special attention to ruminants such as sheep, goats and especially cows. There is no doubt that vegetables provide the income that will
float the farm, but it is animals and their ability to help move nutrients and energy through the farm that will keep it healthy. So animals are the response to criticism with regards to taking land out of vegetable production. It doesn’t really have to be removed from production at all, only shifted to a different production system. When you take vegetable land out of production for a year or two let is recover there are so many things you can still do with it. Clovers, alfalfa, Sudan grass, soybeans or peas mixed with a cereal can all make fantastic forage for livestock. It may be more management intensive but just as you rotate vegetable crops out, you can rotate your animals onto those same fields. Leaving their stinky treasure behind as they go. Not only does it make great pasture, but this land can also be put into hay or straw as the rotation permits, which can be bailed and used as food, bedding pack or mulch. So to say that land is unproductive just because it doesn’t have vegetables on it is pure fallacy, it just needs to be managed better. This I suppose has been more a lesson in our personal farm philosophy than our dream for the farm but it helps to establish the foundation on which we will build out farm. Its implication on the CSA I will go into further next week.
This is one of those scary times in vegetable farming that you know is impending all season. The inevitability of the first frost is here. You never know whether it will be an early frost or a late frost or whether it will be light or heavy. What we do know is that it will most definitely have and impact on the rest of the season, some good and some bad. We have been counting on a light frost especially looking at the weather ahead. After Wednesday night we know that we are heading back into a nice warming trend with very mild whether. I was up at the neighbors to pick up some mild steel for a project and the weather came up. A farmer for most of his life right here in Farmington he assured me that the full moon in September is the coldest stretch in the month. If we can get through this without a killing frost then we should be safe for close to another month. On matters such as these I tend to give credence to the wisdom of an old farmer. When someone has more years farming than I have had life, I think it reasonable to assume they know a thing or two about what kind of weather to expect. The question then becomes, will it be a light frost or the killing kind? A few days ago I would have been certain it was going to be light. But then the forecast began its precipitous decline. On Sunday the Wednesday overnight low was to be about 36° then it began dropping every ten to twelve hours from there one degree at a time; 35° then 34°. At 34° the frost seems a bit more inevitable but probably light. Then comes 33°, we figure some things will need to be covered up mostly worried about the tomatoes. At 32° we know frost is inevitable, goodbye basil. When the forecast says 31° we realize the peppers and eggplant could be kaput. As of right now we are expecting an overnight low of 30°. Not a hard frost by any stretch of the imagination. A rude but likely awakening Thursday morning can be expected. It is hard to know exactly what to expect, the wind speed should die down which is unfortunate as air circulation helps keep the frost from settling. It is only a forecast after all and it might not get that cold out at all, or perhaps it will be colder. At these temperatures we aren’t too worried about most crops. Though we aren’t quite ready to give up on the tomatoes, peppers
and eggplant. Especially as all three of them have a fresh fruit set and flowers on them. Keeping them going for a few more weeks would be really great as we could keep getting some really nice fruit. Our first defense is to cover the plants with row cover to keep the frost off of them. We had been trying but it was a bit futile as we had swirling winds this afternoon, which kept pulling the cover off as fast as we could tack it down. This is especially problematic with the tomatoes, mostly since they are all staked and trellised with t-posts and rebar which just love to shred up row covers. Late Wednesday night as the winds calm I imagine you would be able to find me out it the field getting the covers on. With a little protection the few sensitive crops should pull though just fine. While we are hoping to put off the frost for just a little while longer, we always look forward to the fall. We really love everything about the fall. The cool nights, the crisp daytime air, the changing colors. There is a distinct smell that a cool fall morning part of me looks forward to all summer. 40°-50° is the perfect temperature for vigorous outdoor work; cleaning brush and splitting wood are two of my personal favorite fall workouts. The pace begins to slow as the days grow shorter and we can see respite on the horizon. We can reflect on the year and begin to think in earnest about the next. People often ask why we wouldn’t go to Brazil or California where we could farm and make money all year. To which we reply ‘never’. We love the changing seasons, we need them. Like the soil we farm and the wilds around it, it needs time to rest, to slow down and time to gather its strength to flourish once more. Tomatoes are great, but not for 30, 40 or 50 weeks and who would ever want a squash in a land of eternal summer. We don’t grow broccoli, kale, cauliflower or cabbage in the summer because we believe it needs the cold.
Sure it grows OK in the heat but what it really needs is some nice cold nights. It’s the cold that forces it to produce sugars, as antifreeze to protect itself from the cold, which is what makes it so sweet and delicious. Without the cold we would miss out on the best that many crops have to offer. I can’t imagine a world without the fall bounty anymore than I can imagine Halloween without orange, red and brown leaves or Christmas without snow.
It was nice to come home after an emotionally grueling weekend away preceded by a physically grueling week allowing us to leave for a few days. It isn’t usual for us both to be away from the farm at the same time for more than 12 hours or so. That makes 3 nights a bit nerve wracking. Farmers get nervous when they leave their farm for any period of time. Did the seedlings dry out? What about the transplants? Are the chickens OK? Did the dog get himself in trouble? Are the flea beetles all over the arugula and other brassicas that were left uncovered? It is easy to expect the worst, particularly if you are already on edge. As it turns out the farm didn’t need us that bad and we left it in good hands. Julio kept the dog happy and the chickens full, Mike and Susan got our CSA boxes out and staffed the farmers market, Allen kept our plants watered and Linda got us to and from the airport with no hang-ups. It can actually be nice to step away for a little while and then step back in. It helps provide some perspective and in this case optimism moving into the fall. There will be a lot going on in the coming week or two. We will begin with our fall compost application to our fields just before working them a final time and putting them to rest for the year with a winter/spring cover crop. The fields that we need earlier in the year will receive singly or in combination, buckwheat, oats or barley. These crops will ‘winter kill’ or be killed by the cold, forming a nice protective mat over the soil to see it through the winter and spring. When it is ready to be plowed in it can generally be worked in relatively easily and can be transplanted into (broccoli, bok choy, cabbage etc.) almost immediately or directed seeded (lettuce, radishes, raab etc.) within 10-14 days. For soil that won’t come into production until later in the spring or summer we will plant cover crops that will survive the winter like rye and vetch, singly or in combination. Vetch is a legume, like peas, beans, clovers, alfalfa and locust. Legumes are unique in that they are able form symbiotic relationships with soil microorganisms and pull or ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen from the air and put into their plant tissue and ultimately the soil. When the crop is plowed in it will provide natural nitrogen fertilizer and organic matter for the next cash crop. Rye is a staple cover crop in that it can be sown late into the year and still grows, providing winter and spring cover. On early ground it can be worked in small or in the ‘pre-boot stage’. On slightly later ground it can be plowed down in the ‘boot
stage’, which describes the time period just prior to forming a seed head, but the plant has taken energy from leaf and stem growth and siphoned it to flower production. This is a good time to take the crop down because the plant tissue is soft and will break down with relative ease along with the roots but it will add considerable organic matter to the soil. Sometime we take down rye in the ‘milk stage’, which is when it is forming seeds, but they are not yet mature. Dealing with milk stage rye requires good planning as it can cut with both sides of the blade. Mature rye forms lignin which is a secondary cell wall surrounding the soft cellulosic tissue underneath (think wood). The specific pathways for lignin decomposition are not well understood but the outcome is. Specific soil microorganisms will decompose lignins through enzymatic hydrolysis; a process where enzymes with help from a catalyst use water to break apart a molecule in order to free the atoms it wants. At the end of the line we are left with humic and fulvic acids which are critical components in humus production. If you have ever been in the forest, swept aside some leaves and dug into the soil a little, you were likely holding pure humus. It is a stable form of organic matter; actually it’s not really organic matter at all. Organic matter is plant and/or animal tissue that is in the process of decomposition. Humus is what you have when the organic matter has finished decomposing. Humus production should be a critical goal of any serious earthly steward. When soil is has humus, it will have better water retention when dry and drainage when wet. It will help break up clay particles improving tilth, root zone and drainage. It will also greatly improve the colloidal capacity of the soil, think of it as a storage unit for minerals that are easily found by plants and soil microorganisms. It will buffer against other minerals like magnesium and potassium, which are often found at excessive concentrations in the soil, preventing the plant from getting other minerals it needs.
On the other hand you can create problems for yourself with mature rye, or any grass or cereal grain you use as a cover. If it gets too mature it will produce viable seed creating weed problems down the road. The greater concern though is the timing. Lignin breakdown takes time and you must consider that a mature plant has and immense root system beneath. You will not be able to plant into this soil for several weeks after plow down. It will take time for this much organic matter to breakdown, and while the soil microorganisms are busy working on the rye they will be by tying up vital nutrients effectively starving any cash crop planted too soon afterwards. Another issue is that the rye will leaves large clumps that are impossible to seed into not to mentions the allelopathic effect of rye. Rye can also be very difficult to kill in a wet spring (like this one, 4-6 weeks) that can keep you from planting when you need to plant. Considering all of this is why we always leave a little ground open. We don’t like leaving exposed soil in the winter but it is prudent when you need to seed parsnips, carrots, radishes and other early crops in March, when bare ground can be hard enough to work without having to think about cover crop residue management. Fall is also (as you can tell) farm geek time. We need to be thinking about next year and planning well in advance of the end of the season. For any organic farm to be successful and sustainable we have to always be thinking about our soil first and foremost which the summer frenzy doesn’t always allow.
I think that in most any profession the show must go on. Particularly in farming. Crops can’t wait to be harvested, weeds don’t stop growing and chickens don’t fill water buckets. Nor do people stop eating just because one experiences turmoil. It isn’t always easy to carry on, to get up and make coffee (or at least whine until Lidia makes it) but that’s what we do. That is what farmers have always done. I have seen acres of vegetables under water, livestock drown, buildings collapse and brutal injuries. One old man I greatly admired, Don Larson was one of the sweetest, gentlest souls I have ever known. After over 70 years of dairy farming he was gored to death by a bull one morning. His savage death didn’t stop the cows from being milked that morning. Farmers don’t quit because they can’t, their work can’t wait a few days. They can’t quit because their work is the only thing that feels right when everything else feels so wrong. We go on because we love what we do. Maybe it isn’t the proper motivation but we get through hard times because we are proud. We are too proud to be beaten by anything, to proud to miss a market or a delivery. We can often be a proud, stubborn and uncompromising breed and I think that billions of people who eat everyday are thankful for that. Luckily though, we aren’t too proud to ask for help when we need it.
We have received an outpouring of support this past week from our members, and many others. To be in your thoughts and prayers means a great deal to us. We also need to thank the crew from Gardens of Eagan whose support and help is allowing us to maintain our commitment to our members and other customers while we are away.
In the coming weeks as things get a little more back to normal we promise to be a bit more upbeat. We have so many more nice things we want to tell you about from beyond the doldrums.
This afternoon I received a phone call from my mom that I prayed wouldn’t come. At 2:35PM EST on Wednesday August 24th my big brother Eric lost his battle with cancer and died. To say my brother died is the most difficult thing I have ever had to say. But right now as I write and look over pictures it is just beginning to become real to me. My brother sisters and I have always been incredibly close. Growing up we faced many difficulties but found strength and joy in one another. We bonded in ways that I am sad to say, I think many siblings never feel. Even if I had the space I don’t think I could muster the words to tell our tale. That might be because I was always the quiet one. It was my brother who was the storyteller. Growing up and as adults reminiscing in childhood stories, no one could tell it like Eric. He had a natural off the cuff way of fusing his brilliant, unabashed mind and photographic memory together having us all in stitches even with a story we had heard a hundred times before. Hilarious impersonations and detailed recollections could make you feel like you were right there with him on deployment or on a trip to the store. All of our lives will be much more empty without him in them. For 20 months he battled like a true hero against a disease that had been lurking for years prior. He never gave up hope, he never gave up his spirit, he never gave up love and he never gave up his sense of humor. Right down to the end he had everyone from his friends and family to his doctors and hospice nurses laughing all around him. He was my hero, he was my best friend, and will always be my Bub.
Until his first round of chemo in February of last year my brother seemed fit, healthy and active. He fought so hard to survive. In only a little over a year he was taken from us. He was only 35 years old. Our time is short in this world; never take that for granted. Always let those that you care about know how much you love them. You will never regret saying or hearing ‘I love you.'
I know I was supposed to be telling you more about our dream farm but decided to change the subject a little bit. It seems to be time for an update on the farm. It is hard to believe but we are already to week 11. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were meeting for the very first time and now we are already past the halfway point this season. July and August have been pretty crazy months here at the farm but we are feeling really good about the fall. We took a few casualties in the storage beets and carrots but thanks to the many hours of hard work our volunteers put in we saved them from he weeds and expect to have plenty available this fall and in your root boxes if you ordered one. Some of our fall bunching beets have been doing so well that we are adding a couple of seedings that will hopefully carry the fresh beets deeper into the season and relieve some of the pressure on the storage beets. Believe it or not we will be harvesting winter squash very soon. Our kabocha squash is actually already all ready and you can expect to be seeing it in your shares very soon. Unlike most varieties of winter squash, the kabochas do not store well, and short of the ability to freeze them we will be distributing them at a time you may not be ready to turn your oven back on. But with overnight lows getting back into the 50’s some tasty squash soup might start sounding pretty good real soon. The other squashes are slower to develop and require more curing to store well. We grow nine varieties of winter squash so you can expect to see squash of all shapes sizes and colors in the coming weeks. Our potatoes have suffered many hardships this season but we are still optimistic about a good yield. Our ground just wasn’t workable in mid April when we would have preferred to plant. We
waited and waited and waited and it just rained and rained and rained. In some of our fields it took over six weeks to kill the winter rye cover crop, something we usually expect to take about a week or two. Eventually we just had to plant, we changed fields and it was still too wet but had no choice by mid-May. The soil worked up terribly but nevertheless they managed to get off to a good start. Then our custom operator who spread compost and OrganiCal (lime) ignored the map and drove over the potatoes, twice. It was one of those really big spreaders you see in the spring and fall on many big corn and bean fields. It pretty well wiped out 6 rows of potatoes, which considering our small acreage is almost a third of the total crop. Then came the Colorado potato beetles, in numbers like I have never seen. Twice I went through the field, visiting each individual plant squishing, adults, larvae and eggs. I may have reduced their numbers by many thousands but it wasn’t even close to enough. Eventually faced with the possibility of losing the whole crop I had to spray organic pesticides to kill the larvae. I hated to do this but it was that or no potatoes after my squishing efforts proved futile. Getting them under control saved the crop but they have been set back significantly We would normally have harvested them by now. Instead, we have been trying to nurse them along with foliar feeds to allow them to size up a bit more. Looking at the field when they first came up I anticipated a yield of about 3200 pounds. Now I expect the yield to be between
2250 and 2500 pounds this year. Meaning there will still be plenty for everyone but not much for the farmer’s markets and retail sales. By next week you can expect to start seeing potatoes in your shares and they should be in most of your shares for the rest of the season. This coming week we will be harvesting our storage onions and getting them into the greenhouse for a few weeks to cure. Once that happens, good hard onions will be in your shares for the last third of the season. The other fall crops are looking really great and have for the most part been pretty trouble free. Looking back at the massive push for weed control we put forward, we feel confident that the fall will prove to be just as bountiful as the spring and summer. Don’t get out the jacket just yet though; we still have a few weeks of summer left.
Last week before I got off on another subject (like I do) I was talking about our dream and where we want to be in 20 years. Sometimes when I think about what we want our farm to become I feel a little bit like the boy who believes he will be a spaceman, a spy or the president. When I think about all the things we want to do, it seems so far away from where we are now but dreaming big is the only way we know how to dream. We have both accomplished many things throughout our lives by the shear will power to do so and I fully believe that we can and will realize our dream farm. In short we want to do everything, and to get there our farm will change continually as we progress towards our end goal There are many steps to take, but our first is to get started (check that) and the second is to become self sufficient. This means getting to at least 5 acres of vegetables. From our number crunching we figure that a certified organic mixed veggie farm should be able to gross between $85-$90 thousand per year. After covering operating expenses and investment into the business we should be able to draw a modest salary of $20-$25 thousand per year. While not much it should be enough to cover our obligations and allow us to be comfortable while the business continues to grow and capitalize. It might be fine for us, but to have a family we will need to add more acreage (as we understand it, kids are kind of expensive). We think at 7-10 acres we can provide the life we want for our kids. If a family comes upon us before that, say at 3 or 4 acres then we will just have to adapt and keep moving. At this point we there
are two important things to consider. First, we are fast approaching 30 and want to start a family while we are still fit enough to keep up with them, at least for awhile. Second, we assume everything up to this point is on rented land. This leads to the convergence of two not wholly unrelated things, at least not in our context (refer to the newsletter on the power of self delusion). One, we would like to have all the kids we will have within the next five or six years. Two, if history is any teacher, we are in the midst of a classic farmland property boom or bubble if you will. The last farmland bubble triggered the farm crisis of the 1980’s. Right now the farmland boom is mostly driven by record prices in conventional corn and bean commodity growing. Just consider those markets for a minute; the average conventional corn and bean farm will yield 160bu. per acre of corn and 45bu. per acre of soybean. At current prices of $6.90 and $13.10 per bushel respectively this will gross $1104/acre corn and $576/acre soy. The net would be about $445 per acre for corn and $200 per acre for beans. Recently there have been reports of agland selling for over $10,000 per acre! There are a few saving graces such as there is a much better debt-asset ratio for farmers right now than there was in the 80’s though farm debt level are on the rise again. The Fed’s announcement that they are holding interest rates to near 0% for the next 2 years should shelter farmers and everyone else from massive interest spikes for at least a little while.
There is also the fact that much of the land is being bought with large down payments reducing the total amount borrowed. Even with that under consideration is barely possible to cash flow a loan of $5-8 thousand with only $2-5 hundred dollars a year to cover it. A few bad growing years, a spike in interest rates, rapid inflation of fuel and material costs or most importantly a rapid deflation of land values could overnight, send countless farms into the red or underwater to borrow a more recent term with regards to the housing market. I am no economist but I suspect we will see the bubble burst within the next three to five years. Realizing the central cynicism to the thought, the timetable of when Lidia and I will be looking to buy land will likely coincide with a massive crash in land prices resulting in the loss of many farms. While I hate the thought of being people who swoop in and snatch up what is lost by someone else, especially a fellow farmer it is what we have to consider. We are not people who came into farming with personal savings, a benefactor, wealthy families or trust funds. We come only with our experience, work ethic, wits and wiles. The money to start this year came largely from buying things last year at auction fixing them up, selling them on craigslist and putting the difference in the farm bank account. We are pragmatists above all, and the bottom line is that we know we will never have our own farm if we have to buy it at $10,000/acre and still need to build a home, greenhouses, pack shed, shop, roads and all the other infrastructure. Our business plan included having a profitable and successful business that would be ready to purchase land in 2015 or 2016. We planned this before we were even really aware of a possible farmland bubble. While we hope we don’t see a loss of farms like we had in the 80’s. I do hope that land prices reenter the stratosphere and come a little closer to Earth where Lidia and I along with all of those other fine young farmers I mentioned last week even stand a chance of getting onto land. Well I’ve gone of and been tangential again, but land access is one of the largest barriers to entry for young farmers and we wouldn’t be good business owners if not a bit obsessed with facts and figures. Now that you know how and when we plan to get a farm maybe next week I will get around to telling you what we want to do with it once we have got it.
Writing this newsletter each week is an interesting task to undertake. Some weeks aren’t very good and it can be difficult to be positive, other weeks I am just really worn out and it can be really hard to come up with something to write about. Sometimes I have lots of things to say and decide to save it for another day, or even year for that matter. Having been around CSA for as many years I have seen the tendency for content to repeat itself year after year, though sometimes this is necessary as new members are welcomed to the farm and need a bit of orientation. This is one of those weeks where there are about ten things I want to talk about. I will try to touch on a few of them if possible (I prefer to write living letters so I don’t know exactly where they will go and what they will say, but I generally don’t like to go back and change them all that much). I think this week I want to focus on where we are going. You hear lot about what is going on now or what will come in a few weeks. But when does that leave time to talk about our vision for the future? Sometimes we can feel so overwhelmed with what we need to do today, tomorrow and should have done yesterday, that we lose sight of the long view. This being our first year we fully expected to be overwhelmed, to work ridiculous hours and to struggle with the challenges that come with being a business owner. Whether a farm, a tech company or a fast food franchise it doesn’t matter. All nascent businesses will have the same risks, emotional and financial investment, worries concerns and hopes. Generally in this phase
the quality of life goes out the window, no more date nights, movies, concerts or bars, no more hiking, biking, reading or napping. I don’t mention this to elicit any empathy, sympathy or any other something-athy. Going in we knew that starting up meant going all in and we have no regrets. We also know that we are not alone. This past weekend we went to a young farmer mixer at Spring Wind Farm in Northfield, which was sponsored by the Greenhorns. The Greenhorns are a really great organization, which has been active on the coasts for a few years now and are now trying to become more active here in the Midwest. Their only mission is to advocate for, educate, connect, guide and support young farmers. If you would like to learn more about them please visit their site at www.thegreenhorns.net. On Saturday they brought a large group of young people just like Lidia and I together to network share ideas, share the fruits of our labor at a potluck dinner. It gave us a real pickup to chat, laugh and commiserate with people that can relate so closely to us. It was a lot of fun listen to music; we even got to do some square dancing. It has been almost two year since Lidia and I went out dancing, which is something we had done at least a few times a month in the past.
It made us really think about our quality of life. Listening to some music and dancing made us realize that we need to take some of it back. Not much, but we agreed that we are going to carve a little bit of life out for us. We have a dream of where we want to be in 20 years, and we will get there. But when we get there we don’t want to look back at the path we took and realize that we blew by the little things that make life truly rich, never having made the propitious memories we want to carry with us into our old age. Well, it looks like I never got to the point of where we see the farm going. I guess that will have to wait until next week. For now, I am going to think about taking my girl dancing.
Seasonal eating is all about transitions. At some points in the season they are very subtle though they can sometimes be quite abrupt. It is one of the greatest challenges of the CSA farmer to manage seasonal transitions as smoothly as possible. We spend weeks and weeks in the winter putting together a production plan for the season. Even though we have just two little acres, our plan is over one hundred pages. It details each greenhouse seeding, field seeding and planting date and well as a harvest and distribution schedule. We do this planning knowing full well that it will prove to be full of holes when we put it into action. This is inevitable unless you know of any telepathic farmers, or at least ones with really good psychics. Our head lettuce bolted last week and though we salvaged enough for you, we had very little for the farmers market. While we know heat waves happen its impossible to know exactly when to expect them when we sit down in December and January. But we do know that heat sensitive crops such as leafy greens will likely go down at some point in July and August. This is why we do things like start our summer crops in the greenhouse in the early spring. In the field they are planted into plastic mulch to help keep them warm and give us control of the moisture and fertility in the root zone. We also keep them covered under what amount to a little greenhouse in the field until they begin to push it off. This is a lot of extra work but it has allowed us to have crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in your shares when the legs give out on other crops. It also allows us to manage the real climatic transition from spring to summer and from summer to fall. You may have already forgotten about your turnips and radishes as we transitioned them into beets and carrots
and the scallions yielded to onions. We also try to back off on the greens for a while as well. Not only because they are more difficult to grow in the heat but also because we know that in the early weeks you get lots and lots on greens and we don’t want members to start to get overloaded with the same things every week. Obviously our members have diverse palettes; some may want Swiss chard every week while for others, once is enough. The best we can do is make the best judgment we can to create bountiful yet varied shares. Without intent to be supercilious I can say that we are really proud of the shares we have put together this year. This being our first year as independent farmers there were a lot of unknowns. Our experience having a hand in putting together over 100,000 individual share boxes over the past six or seven years has been critical in our understanding of the challenges and rewards of CSA farming. But the real test is what happens when you are the ones juggling all the balls at the end of the day. I can say we continue to learn new lessons each day and being on our own quickly makes you realize what your shortcomings are as a manager and businessperson. It also proves to reveal strengths you didn’t know you had. We have had failures this year (sorry you didn’t get any peas or spinach and the seemingly empty promises about green beans) but we think the failures have been outdone by our successes. You can rest assured that we will continue to strive ceaselessly to bring you simply delightful shares each week, we think the best is yet to come.