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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Friday afternoon, we headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River bottoms southwest of Columbia and were rewarded by watching clouds of geese landing continuously for as long as we could stay. It's an amazing sight and sound, as the birds descend in a wide swirl like a slow-motion reverse tornado, covering the ground in a shimmering mass of white feathers and honking. With the clear weather, the late setting sun makes the limestone bluffs along the river glow, giving excellent lighting to the birds, especially as the access roads tend to be to the west of the main overnighting areas. Just a beautiful experience.
We also were able to observe some Greater White-Fronted Geese from fairly close range, a new bird for both of us, and one only present in Missouri during migration. A few scaups and mallards were present as well, though the geese took most of our attention. This was my first chance to really use a nice spotting scope I snagged at an auction for $10, and it was an excellent compliment to our binoculars.
This weekend, with clear skies and warm temperatures forecast, would be a great time for any locals to go watch this event. Eagle Bluffs is easy to get to; once you're there, just keep following the gravel roads deeper and deeper into the bottomland and pull off anywhere you see interesting birds, and view from the vehicle to avoid startling anything. If you go, let us know what you saw and what you thought.
Friday, February 26, 2010
He admitted his role in a bribery scheme that has laid bare a startling vein of corruption in the food industry. And because the scheme also involved millions of pounds of tomato products with high levels of mold or other defects, the case has raised serious questions about how well food manufacturers safeguard the quality of their ingredients. Over the last 14 months, Mr. Watson and three other purchasing managers, at Frito-Lay, Safeway and B&G Foods, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Five people connected to one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, SK Foods, have also admitted taking part in the scheme.
Remind me why we're targeting small, direct-market producers with food safety laws?
Thursday, February 25, 2010
We don't have TV service. We've never felt there's enough good stuff on to justify the cost of cable in a tight budget, and our geographical location blocks even local TV stations. We almost never notice the loss, except in special circumstances.
We've been enjoying using NBC's online Olympic videos, which run nicely on our computer and let us watch highlights of figure skating, skiing, curling, and so on, with less ads and no annoying commentators. For most things, that works well. But hockey should be watched live.
NBC does offer live online broadcasts. Except your internet service provider has to have a pre-arranged deal with NBC, which of course CenturyLink does not, despite all sorts of obscure regional providers around the country which DO have that deal. NBC doesn't even have an option to PAY for an online broadcast if your provider doesn't cooperate; how ludicrous is that?
I've muttered through so far, watching highlights a day late, but really wanted to watch at least one of the final games, like US/Finland Friday and the gold medal game Sunday. We planned to go into Columbia one of those days, have a beer at Broadway or Flat Branch, and enjoy the game in a decent setting.
Then my dreams were crushed by the realization that this weekend is the huge True/False Film Festival in Columbia, and that every venue in downtown will be packed with people. T/F is not our thing, and we normally stay far away from Columbia during those days. AARGH.
Someday the internet will live up to its potential and allow people to watch what they want, when they want, however they want, without stupid exlusive licensing deals making arbitrary decisions about where content is available. I'd happily pay NBC $5 to stream this game to my home, but no such luck. Anyone know of alternative content providers streaming such things that can be accessed in the US?
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
The process of transitioning a farm into organic certification raises some difficult questions. In many cases the transitional farm has used materials or methods that will be banned once under certification. Obviously, annual inputs like most pesticides and herbicides are on this list, but there are other, trickier questions. A barn or fence might have been built ten years before using treated lumber, which is prohibited. A dairy herd might have been given medications no longer allowed. An orchard or other perennial plantation may have been established with non-organic planting stock.
In general, transitional farms follow the 3-year rule for forbidden inputs like herbicides and pesticides. But what to do about more permanent things like treated lumber? Such things are usually grandfathered in; don't do it anymore, but you don't have to rip out your barn or fence and replace it with non-treated wood. The same is true for planting stock. No one expects you to rip out your orchard and start over, but any new trees are supposed to come from organic sources. The idea is to allow people to change their minds and become organic, while still upholding the cleaner standards.
Of course, in the real world, even this is not that simple. There aren't that many sources for organic planting stock when it comes to fruit trees, and it may be more sustainable to get non-certified trees from a local source than organic trees from far away, because the local trees may be more adapted to your climate conditions and thus be healthier and less susceptible to pests and disease, thus requiring fewer inputs. This choice better fulfils the spirit of organic, if not the letter. Of course, that local grower may still be raising their stock using various chemicals and forbidden inputs. There's no one answer; my impression is that most certifiers and farmers just look for the sensible middle ground. So the easy answer to my reader was to get the fruit trees they want, organic if they can, and ask for forgiveness once they certify down the road.
There is one problem however, that concerns me. This grandfathering system also lends itself to abuses by transitional farmers. I've been told of one case where a transitional farmer intentionally built lots of new fencing with treated lumber just before applying for certification, in order to take advantage of the grandfather rules, even though that very much violates the spirit of organic and what customers think they're getting. In another case, a greenhouse was built with treated wood just before certification, again avoiding the ban on such materials post-certification. To me, this is cheating, though others might disagree. I don't know how to fix it, other than maybe making the 3-year rule apply to everything (i.e. you can't certify anything with treated lumber until it's 3 years old). The point, though, is that organic is far from perfect and so are organic farmers, and it's all these gray areas that sometimes frustrate us and take lots of time trying to properly understand.
Going back to fruit trees, if you can justify non-organic stock for reasons of variety or local source, you still have to be careful (or are supposed to be). For example, when we ordered our non-organic blueberry plants, which had been approved by our certifier, they came with a packet of “root gel” that was supposed to be applied to the roots before planting. This was very much not organic and our certifier agreed we shouldn’t use it (it was basically just a chemical fertilizer). Using anything like that gets into the realm of management, not source, and is not allowed at all. So it’s worth asking such things from the supplier, though I suspect many growers are not so conscientious.
This has rambled a bit, but I hope it makes two points: (1) organic is not an easy or clean-cut system, and it is only as good as the morals and practices of those involved, and (2) trying to regulate "the right thing" is quite difficult in the real world and is partly why organic is a pain to comply with. But it also serves as a constant influence on the farmer to consider what they're doing and why, and push practices in a cleaner direction.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Then there's the related question of insurance, not just against liability issues, but hazards. Insurance for farm equipment and supplies, insurance for harvested products in storage, insurance for crops in the field, etc. In theory, and as we're taught in this culture, we need insurance for every possible danger that could happen or that we could be sued for. Except that the more we interact with the insurance system, and ask questions, the more we're convinced it's at best flawed and unreliable, and at worst an outright scam. Let me elaborate:
First, insurance has to be the only business in which a consumer isn't allowed to read or evaluate what they're buying. Every insurance agent/company we've worked with refuses to let us read the actual wording of the policy they want to sell us, instead simply assuring us to take their word for it. Only by paying for a policy can you read a policy. The only exception was an agent who agreed to let us "borrow" a copy of the policy, if we promised to bring it back soon and not tell anyone or he'd get in trouble. It's not like these are proprietary or customized; in most cases the policies are old boilerplate. In one case, the highly protected policy we paid to see was written in 1988 and not even by the company selling it.
Second, the wording is nearly impossible to understand even for graduate-educated scientists, and offers enough vaguely-worded phrases to allow any underwriter more than enough room to wiggle out if desired. So far, most agents we've worked with haven't even read some of the policies, and just rely on calls to an underwriter to answer questions. They don't even know what they're selling, much less be able to offer a concrete promise that the policy will do what it says it does. Multiple times, we've received an assurance from an agent (or their underwriter) that a policy does or doesn't do something, and then had to correct them with the text from their own policy.
For example, two farm policies we've reviewed include specific exemptions that they do not cover liability issues related to pollutants, which are defined as any potential irritant or waste product used or produced on a farm, even if necessary for the operation of a farm. This is meant to include things like diesel, but is written broadly enough to include manure. Does this mean our product liability won't cover any potential accusation of illness from the use of manure as fertilizer, even if used in accordance with NOP standards? This is not a hypothetical case, given the current national hysteria over food safety. Why would we pay thousands of dollars for a policy written to give an underwriter more than enough room to dump us for "contaminating" our fields with manure six months before harvesting anything?
Then there are the outdated definitions of "farming". We run a modern diversified farm, whose real and potential income streams include sales of produce, wood products, crafts, processed food products, agritourism educational offerings, and more. Of these, all of which are reliant on the overall existence and operation of our farm, only raw produce is described and defined as covered under farm insurance policies, which specifically say that any other "business" not defined as farming (in the sense of growing crops) is not covered in any way by the policy. So when visitors pay for a farm tour, or buy a cornhusk doll, or eat our cornmeal, we may have no liability coverage. So much for opening a farm up for customer inspection, if the tour isn't covered by our insurance because it's a separate "business". Insurance companies still think "farming" means growing a single crop and taking it to the elevator.
From a liability perspective, we're better off shutting the gates and never letting anyone in here, even though that's completely against the rational model of direct-market farms being open for customer inspection. And let's not forget the outdated sense of what constitutes "marketing". If a farm policy even considers marketing as something other than taking grain to an elevator or cattle to a sale barn, it only describes it as "operating a farm stand on the premises". No concept of farmers markets, CSAs, or other modern farming models. So again, even the farm policies available don't actually cover the kind of business we run.
I could keep going, but this is long enough. The point is that we're trapped. Either pay thousands of dollars of hard-earned money every year to an insurance company for a policy that may or may not actually protect us from anything, and is worded to allow the company to define terms any way they want and weasel out of an issue, or go it alone and do our best to remove chances of liability in the first place by being extra-careful in produce handling, holding tours, and so on. That last bit is sensible, of course, but leaves us wide open to frivolous or even potentially accurate suits. We debate this constantly among ourselves, as farming is not lucrative enough to make the costs of insurance remotely comfortable, yet it's frightening to go alone in a society where even friends can be forced to sue one another by insurance companies seeking to avoid liability.
Finally, there are the companies that just don't cover some things, period. A certain large insurance company, whose name implies they used to cover people like us, informs us that they (a) don't cover any farm that engages in sales of poultry of any sort (eggs, meat, etc.), even if that's a tiny portion of the overall business, and (b) don't offer workers comp insurance to any type of farm. Lovely.
As I've said before, we've concluded that going into business on one's own is one of the riskiest decisions anyone could make. It's sad that a choice which carries so much econonic and social benefit is the choice most impaired by every aspect of our culture and politics. We'd be far safer sticking to being salaried employees in an office, with a nice garden at home. And until that changes, a lot of other factors in America will stay the same.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
This consistently cold and cloudy winter has kept us somewhat behind on our outdoor projects, but it has allowed us to make good progress on the indoor tasks. Here’s what we’re working on (and finished with) as of mid-February.
Orchard clearing: This has been completed; every tree within the defined boundary of the future orchard has been removed. In future years we’ll continue to push the tree line back to provide more sun and air movement, but the actual intended growing area is now open for business. When the soil thaws, we’ll start developing the growing areas there and getting some fencing up.
Pasture clearing: We’ve made good progress removing excess trees and brush from our top-priority pasture of about 2 acres, with similar work to go on several other areas. We’re clearing the land until there are scattered good shade trees remaining, and will burn some off the areas to encourage native plants to return.
Water line extension: Probably the most important project, we’re intending to extend our water line out to the main vegetable field, with hydrants to serve the pastures as well. We’ve gotten away with long hoses for the past two years, in part because of consistently wet weather, but we can’t rely on that in the future. So we’re clearing a road from the ridgeline where our main water line runs, and will hire out the trenching work when the weather and ground conditions are cooperative.
Seed order: This is done, and we have most of what we need for the growing season.
Organic certification: We need to complete and send off our 2010 certification paperwork. This includes all our records from 2009, digitized and in proper format, as well as planting plans and other information for 2010. Putting all this together takes forever, and really sucks time from other projects.
Tax prep & other business needs: We insist on doing all our own accounting and tax work. and this takes time as well. We had no idea how complicated and annoying it was to run a small business until we started doing it; simply trying to understand our own tax code is a full-time job during the winter. We’re slowly plowing through all the tax work and other paperwork/regulation/red tape we need to have in order before the growing season gets busy. At least we know that everything we learn only has to be learned once, and every winter will get a little easier.
Cleaning & organizing: We try to clean & organize things before the season starts. This includes a thorough washing of all our seed-starting flats, harvest containers, market containers, etc.; doing any tool and equipment maintenance as needed; organizing our storage areas; and more.
Friday, February 12, 2010
We’re undertaking an experiment with our seed starting approach this year in an effort to move towards more sustainable methods. The approach that we’ve used for the past few years has been to grow transplants in a commercial, certified organic potting mix in reusable plastic flats under grow lights in the house. We’ve known all along that this has been an interim method, and within the next few years we hope to be growing our transplants in a passive solar greenhouse with a custom potting soil mix composed mostly, if not entirely, of on-farm ingredients. The passive solar greenhouse isn’t in the picture for this year, but testing some alternative potting mix options certainly is.
Moving away from commercial potting mixes is desirable for several reasons: 1) They violate the ethic of on-farm closed loops. 2) They’re expensive. 3) They may be sold out or otherwise unavailable when needed. 4) Quality may be inconsistent. 5) Many of the components are not as sustainable, local, and/or ethical as we’d like. For example, peat moss is a major component of most potting mixes, but it is non-renewable in the long run. Vermiculite, another common component of potting mixes, is a mined mineral that is often geologically associated with asbestos. Furthermore, these and other ingredients must be shipped a long distance if we are to use them.
So, to wean ourselves off of commercial potting mixes, we started with some research regarding the potting mixes that other people use. This publication from ATTRA was especially useful. The appendix has a list of recipes for potting mixes based on a wide range of ingredients. Joanna spent a couple of hours compiling these in a spreadsheet and doing unit conversions to get an overall picture of the breakdown of various components (organic matter, mineral matter, fertility amendments) by percent. Using this information as a guide, we came up with nine initial test mixes that currently reside in the flats with the onion seeds. They range from fully off-farm to fully on-farm. It would be nice to do have full analyses from a soil testing lab for each mix, but that’s beyond the means of the farm budget, so we’ll let the onions tell us what works and what doesn’t.
Watching how this experiment plays out will be interesting and informative. Some initial results are already coming in: As expected, the water retention for the on-farm mix isn’t as good as the commercial mix. But it remains to be seen whether that helps or hurts in the long run, given that damping off tends to strike when conditions are too consistently wet. One certainty is that the on-farm mix will require more regular attentiveness from us to keep the plants from drying out too much. A couple of months from now, hopefully will have a good population of healthy onion seedlings and a better sense of potting mix performance to guide our future management.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Friday, February 5, 2010
Our “harvest-of-the-month” sessions have introduced the children to a locally raised or crafted food each month. Not only do these sessions enlighten and delight the children, but they strengthen the connection between local farmers and the community. Slow Food Katy Trail pays local farmers to bring their tomatoes, sweet potatoes, popcorn, honey, eggs, wheat, cheese and so forth to the school every month. The farmers discuss life on the farm with the children and how they grow or produce their products. The children study the various foods in different areas of the curricula such as history, art and science.
Last Friday, it was our turn to take part at Slow Food's invitation. This wasn't the first time we had worked with the group (we hosted an on-farm dinner last fall) but it was our first time taking part in the Lee School program. It can be hard coordinating farms and schools, as their schedules are so opposed. The peak of most farm activity, at least with relation to fruits and vegetables, is when schools are out. So we all agreed that featuring our heirloom dent corn and cornbread would be something new for the kids, and easily done in the middle of winter.
We had two 40-minute sessions with two classes, and divided the time between ourselves and several Slow Food volunteers. One class spent a period talking with us about how we manage the farm and the fascinating biology of corn and its pests. Meanwhile, the other class worked with volunteers and teachers to make fresh cornbread from our recipe, baking and eating it in one session. Then we switched, and did it again.
It sounds like the baking went great, and the kids certainly liked their cornbread. Meanwhile, we had a blast showing photos and fielding lots of questions from inquisitive 3rd graders. We made the "mistake" of including a photo of a raccoon, to prompt discussion of how we manage pests and other things that like to eat corn, and the kids just latched onto the coon problem. Every few minutes through the rest of the time, another hand would pop up with a new suggestion for how to handle the coons and keep them out of the corn. It was the kind of basic problem-solving that's really good for kids to engage in.
Overall, we covered how we prepare the soil, plant the corn, protect it from weeds and predators, how it's pollinated, and how we harvest and use it. Many of the kids had never seen or heard of corn other than sweet corn or popcorn, and were dazzled by the array of colors, sizes, and shapes we brought to show. My favorite quote, after we displayed some ears of popcorn: "Wow, I never thought to look in the bag before it popped!". Many got a chance to turn the hand-grinder, and they all saw how corn goes from a kernel to a plant back to a kernel and then directly into food. We had some good discussions about topics like using manure to fertilize plants ("But doesn't that mean that when you're eating corn, you're, like, eating poop?") and how plants need and use different resources than people.
These are the kinds of connections we all need to make with our food and its sources, and I think everyone involved had a great and worthwhile time. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of all the homes that night, to hear what the kids told their parents that night. All in all, a great and worthwhile time. We're grateful to Slow Food Katy Trail for arranging programs like this, and for all the people who take part in their fundraisers like the Sycamore Whole Hog Dinner to make these programs possible and to be able to pay farmers for their products. We're looking forward to our next chance to do this.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
This whole saga raises a question in my mind which I have not seen addressed in any article. In the situation in which a vehicle's gas pedal sticks, or seems to stick, why can't the driver simply shift into neutral, thus mechanically negating anything the engine is trying to do? My truck is a standard, which I've driven all my adult life. My instant reaction on an engine revving out of control would be to mash down on the clutch and let it do so, then shift into neutral.
I'm not as used to automatics; in fact when I do drive them I've caught myself nearly grabbing the shift column mid-drive. They have a neutral gear, but can you shift into it while driving? It would seem to me that you could, even if it's counter-intuitive. Obviously this doesn't help the actual problem, and wouldn't help in short-span situations like the woman quoted in the WaPo article who claims her car accelerated into a tree from a parking-lot stop with no time to react. But I'm haunted by the story of the California cop and his family who drove ever-faster for eight miles with a runaway gas pedal, having time to call 911; is there an automotive reason they couldn't have force-shifted into neutral?
Anyone know the answer? If that would work, why isn't it all over the news as the most practical immediate advice to people in situations where that would at least help prevent death or serious injury though an accident may be inevitable?
Monday, February 1, 2010
Diversity on a farm can be measured in many ways. Particularly on market farms that like to grow heirloom varieties, the word is often taken to mean a wide selection of varieties, such as our 10+ kinds of garlic. This kind of diversity is primarily culinary and economic, allowing cooks to explore and use just the right kind of item, and farmers to reach niche markets. For example, customers can choose among our garlics to get varieties better suited for roasting, using raw, or making spicy food, a selection not possible at a grocery store. By exploring this kind of diversity, we can reach niche ethnic markets like the Russian customers who love to buy our big, black, hot radishes although no one else does, and thus improve our business.
However, it's important not to confuse culinary diversity with biological diversity, as many customers and even farmers do. A stand offering, say, 30 kinds of tomatoes, 20 kinds of peppers, and 10 kinds of potatoes is culinarily diverse and thoroughly attractive, but all three of those items belong to the same biological family, Solanaceae. This means they are susceptible to the same pests, draw similar nutrients from the soil, and are otherwise comparable in the farm's ecosystem. For organic and sustainable growers, who (should) rely on crop rotation to help break pest cycles and keep their soil & plants healthier, it's very important not to rely too heavily on any one biological family. Farms who don't pay close enough attention to these relationships may wonder why they have so many pest problems year after year despite how "diverse" their stands may look.
Managing this diversity, and an effective crop rotation, is one of the key aspects to developing our planting plants and seed order every year. The chart below presents a breakdown of our 2010 seed order by biological family:
The total varieties represented here number 181, not including other varieties for which we save seed ourselves or which are perrenial (coming back every year, like rhubarb).
We make a point of keeping these ratios balanced, even where a specific variety or family might be lucrative if we did more of it. There are three reasons for this: first, it reduces our need for pest control and soil management, a hidden benefit which is hard to quantify but is very important for true organic management. Second, it is not safe to assume that an item which is lucrative at one scale will remain lucrative at another. Making a good profit on 1,000 heads of garlic doesn't mean we'll make the same on 3,000, and we're better off balancing a known quantity with something else. Third, maintaining this true diversity is a basic form of insurance. If we overplant just a few families (such as the ever-popular Solanaceae), we're deeply reliant on proper weather and growing conditions for those families. A farm of mostly tomatoes and peppers will be wiped out by a bad year, though it may do better than us in a perfect year. We feel that maintaining a rational, conservative balance is better than a binge-or-bust farm plan.
Often, biological families are not intuitive. Tomatoes and potatoes do not, on the surface, seem to have anything in common. But nature works by very different rules than the visual spectrum, and a good gardener or farmer pays attention to how the world actually works. Growers who don't consider this properly can end up having more pest problems than necessary, and feeling the need to correct this with methods they shouldn't have to use. So the next time you're planning a garden, or browsing a farm stand, take a moment to consider all the different ways diversity can be measured and considered.