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Tuesday, August 31, 2010
We hosted a paid tour for several interested customers and had a great time. Lots of good questions, everyone seemed to really enjoy exploring the farm and learning about our setting and methods. This kind of thing is a great answer to food safety concerns; know your farmer means more than a face at the market. Customers will be better off if they actually have seen and inspected the operation for themselves, and had a chance to ask tougher questions.
We've been in the peak of harvest season, with 36-48 hour harvest schedules for cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, tomatillos, and more. Edamame is picked every 4 days or so, 3-4 times for each planting.
This is also when lots of fall planting happens; all the later-season items like mustard, kale, collards, lettuce, radishes, beets, carrots, and so on are seeded or transplanted through later summer to allow them to mature for fall sales. Thus we have to graft that work onto the already hectic harvest & sales schedule for highly-productive summer items.
Adding to the craziness this time of year, it's the peak season for food preservation. Pickling, canning tomatoes, freezing beans & more, making cheese, drying tomatoes, etc.... at times we've had to spend many afternoons in a row in the house doing food preservation. This keeps us out of the fields and lowers our farm income, but it's very important to us to feed ourselves through the winter, and saves us from having to earn all the extra money it would take to buy all that food from some other source. Overall I think we're better off spending time to save money, but still, it really stretches the schedule.
We have several on-farm events coming up in September. On the 12th, we're hosting an open house/tour for everyone who participated in our garlic tasting challenge at market (and turned in one of the surveys). If you're interested in coming out, ask us quick about taking a tasting survey, or make sure you get that completed survey back to us. On the 29th, we're hosting our second annual Whole Farm Dinner with Slow Food Katy Trail; consider joining us for a great evening of farm-fresh food.
I cut the dairy goats' grain ration in half while they're on good brushy pasture. A month later, we're getting about the same milk yield but they're eating through pasture paddocks a lot faster. As long as we keep them moving, it's a successful experiment so far. More work but less spending; our farm's business model in a nutshell. More on this tomorrow.
We're getting our first pig pretty soon, a just-weaned one from JJR Farm, who raises certified organic pork for the market. We'll raise it through the fall on produce 2nds, whey, pasture, and the same whole organic grains we feed our goats and chickens. Won't be real big when we butcher in early winter, but enough to give us a taste of pig-raising and a small supply of nice pork for the winter. If this goes well, we may start more next spring. Pork is good, and a full season of raising it on farm byproducts could almost be cost-effective.
We've decided to cut back on our fall planting plans, as we're somewhat burned out and realizing that we need more time in the fall and early winter to move forward on other on-farm projects that will set us up for a more successful year in 2011. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses and move forward, and we'll be happier getting other work done for next year than dragging out the serious time-sink of market for income totals that aren't really worth it. So expect us at market through at least September, probably stopping sometime in October.
Monday, August 30, 2010
In the past, Patric has used only beans from Madagascar, giving a consistent flavor to even the various grades of chocolate (67%, 70%, and so on). This weekend, though, we discovered that they're now using beans from Venezuela as well, and so picked up a bar of each for comparison (the Columbia Farmers Market is the best place to get Patric Chocolate).
We taste-tested a bar of Venezuelan Rio Caribe 70%, and one of Madagascar Sambirano Valley 70%, first as a blind test and then knowing what we were trying. Both of us agreed there were significant differences in flavor.
While I lack the proper vocabulary for chocolate subtleties, the "traditional" Madagascar bar was sweeter, maybe richer; as the label implies, it did remind me of fruit. The newer Venezuelan bar was darker and almost bitter to my tastes (in a good way, though, and Joanna doesn't agree with that word). I can see why its label mentions a coffee flavor; it has a "bite" to it. The flavors of both are rich, complex, and delicious.
In any case, tastes are pretty subjective. The core point is, for those who like chocolate or subtle taste-tests of any kind, it's well worth picking up a bar of each and exploring the intriguing differences for yourself. Just like our gourmet garlic or any other ingredient, cacao is not all the same and these two sources from Patric are a great way to experience that.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Sauce tomatoes: We grow many varieties of these, which are typically meatier than slicers, with less juice and more flesh. Often the raw flavor of paste tomatoes isn't as rich, though our Opalka variety has an excellent flavor that we consider to be as good as any slicer. The purpose of these is to make sauce or salsa, since they make a thicker product much faster than a juicy, all-water slicer, and the additions of other flavors in sauces or salsas balances the somewhat milder tomato flavor.
This is a great time of year to make some tomato products and freeze them for later; consider buying a larger batch of mixed sauce tomatoes and putting some sauce up for winter. Our tomatoes are at their peak right now and probably will start slowly dropping in yield again through September.
Cherry tomatoes continue to yield nicely, even though we've had to sort out quite a few split ones after last week's rain. Flavor is still good.
Also be sure to try some Striped Cavern stuffing tomatoes.
NEW THIS WEEK
Leek scallions: We grew a small trial bed of leek scallions, intending to harvest them quite young. They've taken longer to reach a reasonable size than we anticipated, but we ate a few with lunch and they taste nice. We'll bring a small batch this week.
Summer squash: Excellent for late-summer grilling.
Okra: Small or large, all tender, still excellent for frying or adding to soups. Try some Indian dishes with okra added.
Edamame: We'll start harvesting from our final planting this coming week, so expect edamame at market until around mid-September, though the quantities will slowly decrease as older plantings finish up.
Garlic: The last few weeks have been the peak of availability, and we're going to start running out of a few varieties this week or the next. Overall we should have enough garlic to supply all needs for the rest of our market season, but we'll start to drop below a dozen varieties.
Sweet peppers: A nice mix of colors and shapes; enjoy these on salads, sauteed, or grilled. I made an easy lunch on Thursday of sauteed fall greens with garlic and sweet peppers.
Herbs: Probably thyme, parsley, & sage.
Cucumbers are done for now; the current planting is old, diseased, and yielding only odd cukes. We have another planting growing which will hopefully supply some mid/late September cukes.
Tomatillos have fallen off a cliff; the plants have just stopped producing meaningful quantities of fruits. We hope production will pick up again; the plants themselves seem healthy and there are more tomatillos forming.
We'll probably have the first cuttings of fall greens (mustard, collards, kale) in early September. Fall radishes, lettuces, saute mix, and more are on the way as well.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Here's a recipe for a cooked version that worked well for a quick after-market dinner on Saturday evening. This is based on Deborah Madison's recipe "Tomatoes Stuffed with Herbed Grains" in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Mix the stuffing together in a bowl. The specific ingredients are infinitely adaptable based on what's on hand. This is a general guide, with the actual ingredients that I used this time in parentheses. I had enough stuffing for about 5 tomatoes.
--a cup or two of cooked grain (leftover brown rice)
--a couple of cloves of minced garlic or a small onion (2 cloves Samarkand garlic)
--a hanful of finely chopped veggies (a Doe Hill Golden Bell pepper & a small Opalka tomato)
--several tablespoons or so of minced herbs (parsley, thyme, oregano)
--a few chopped nuts (almonds)
--cheese, amount to taste (~1/2 cup of ricotta from our goats)
--salt & pepper, to taste
Cut around the stem of the Striped Cavern tomatoes and scoop out any innards. Stuff the tomatoes with the filling. Put in an oiled baking dish. Brush the outside of the tomatoes with oil. Bake at 375º for about 25 minutes, until the filling is hot.
The Striped Cavern tomatoes are prolific right now, but were hard to convince customers of at market. I got a lot of "Oh, wow, that's really interesting!" followed by a slow backing away from the crazy man. Give them a try this weekend while they're ripe and ready.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Friday, August 20, 2010
If it rains/storms in the morning I am going to be VERY put out.
Tomatoes! Our big heirlooms are finally yielding and we'll have some piles of the big, juicy, odd-looking heirlooms everyone loves at farmers markets. In addition, the cherry tomatoes are plentiful and there are several varieties of cooking/sauce tomatoes which are ideal for roasting or making sauces and salsas. Get some to preserve, or just eat fresh tomatoes all week.
Cherry tomatoes & tomatillos
NEW THIS WEEK
Summer squash: After a few-week hiatus between old and new plantings, they're really coming on again and will be ready for any grilling, sauteing, soup-making, or more. Try our zucchini soup & other recipes.
Okra: still going strong, and from what I've heard, enjoyed by those who tried it. Also getting good reviews from Sycamore and Uprise Bakery on these varieties.
Garlic: same 12 varieties to explore. The interest and demand has been great.
Edamame: There may be a bit less this week, as we're between plantings and delivered a lot to restaurants on Tuesday. Plenty more to come, though.
Cucumbers: Still available, but these are on their way out for now, as the plants are old and succumbing to disease. Another planting is growing and will hopefully yield in September.
Tomatillos: As good as always for salsas & soups.
Peppers: A variety of sweet and hot peppers to enjoy in salads, stir fries, and more.
Herbs: Basil is done for now, as it's turning bitter and we don't want to sell it. Possibly parsley, thyme, mint, sage, and epazote.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Another bird build a nest in the pole beans, a rather more precarious affair that relied on holding tight to a couple bean vines. Also a site visited regularly by humans, this lasted until another strong storm shook the nest up too much.
A new nest showed up shortly thereafter, this time in the okra. Nestled snugly in the crook of a strong okra plant, it seemed to be the best choice of location yet. I'm pretty sure this was an Indigo Bunting, as I've had a female scolding me regularly whenever I harvest every few days (I think it's the same bird as the beans, since the eggs and nest look exactly alike). However, it's become clear that the bird made one big mistake. Take a look:
See that large green thing in the lower left? Yeah, that's an okra forming. The nest was built right on a flower, and sure enough a developing okra has shoved right through the base of the nest and up into the pocket, almost displacing the eggs. It's also begun to deform the nest upward as it grows, elongating it from a nice cup into a tall, stretched stack. I took pity and cut the okra off at the base, then gradually worked it out from underneath before resettling the next back down into its original crook of the plant.
We weren't sure it would stay put, since it lost much of its binding in the stretching and subsequent replacement, but it's still there. And the female Bunting is still hanging around scolding me whenever I harvest okra.
These are the fun things we see, spending every day on the farm. Of course, if the food-safety policies California has been enforcing take effect nationwide, the presence of such nests would be deemed a major health risk and we'd have to declare a good-sized radius around this location unfit for harvest and sale. You know, bird crap and all, which is pretty much what I think of such rules.
We'll enjoy the birds nesting in our vegetables while we still can.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Not everyone knows or believes this. Most market-related comment threads on the Tribune eventually feature someone claiming this isn't so, and I occasionally get customers who don't realize or don't believe that the products are really local.
It's a good rule but difficult to enforce perfectly, and it's fair to keep an eye out for possible violations. Last winter the market amended its rules to clarify that CSAs distributing shares at market were also covered by producer-only; several CSAs that were offering purchased non-farm items in their shares had to stop or change their practices as a result. The market also conducts inspections to help verify whether a given operation is legitimate; I took part in several during the two years I served on the market board.
The penalty for obvious violations of either producer-only or the radius is expulsion. This happened in the past week to one of the fruit vendors, which I learned about when they didn't show up to the spot they've occupied next to us lately. This vendor had had an orchard in Missouri for years, but when I asked, I was told that the vendor had apparently moved to a new orchard in Illinois but hadn't told anyone, and had started bringing peaches and fruits from Illinois. And thus they were asked to leave the market.
This isn't just second-hand; the next day I found a listing in the Columbia-area Craiglist Farm & Garden section that spelled out the story from the vendor's point of view:
We were previously selling from our orchard at the Columbia Farmers Market; however, because we are Illinois growers, we have been asked to not participate
I liked them; they were the only vendor offering limited amounts of no-spray peaches, along with excellent grapes. But rules are rules, and are there for a reason. I thought this story would be of interest to market shoppers who often don't get much of a view of how things operate behind the scenes.
Friday, August 13, 2010
After a break, we expect the first few summer squash from our next planting to be ready. These ought to be yielding nicely again soon.
Okra is really coming on; read more about it and give it a try this week. We'd like to sell all that we're producing, and it's quite tasty.
Garlic: All 12 varieties again. Keep exploring and enjoying the diversity. Come early for maximum selection; some varieties are limited in quantity, and we're bringing just a couple of bundles per week of those varieties.
Edamame: About twice the quantity of last week (which was 3x the week before); maybe THIS time it'll last past 8:30.
Cherry tomatoes: Excellent mix of colors, flavors, and varieties. We're dropping the yellow pears from this mix because their flavor isn't good enough, but the others are doing great in this heat and are very sweet and tasty.
Slicer tomatoes: Several early heirloom types, good for sauces and fresh eating.
Cucumbers: More picklers and slicers, including the tasty white-yellow varieties. These are starting to fade, so enjoy them while you can.
Tomatillos: Coming on strong; enjoy and preserve salsa verde or various soups.
Peppers: Various sweet & hot peppers, also enjoying the recent blast of heat.
Herbs: Parsley, limited quantities of sage and thyme, and maybe basil from the younger planting if it hasn't turned bitter with the heat as our older planting has; we're planning to taste test at breakfast Friday.
DONE FOR NOW
Green beans are toast. This has been a really bad year for beans, and after a brief window of good production most of our plantings are dying or producing unsellable beans. The pole beans aren't setting flowers in this heat. They were nice while they lasted. A fall planting of Fin de Bagnol filet beans is currently growing, and we might have a smallish quantity of shelling beans sometime in the coming weeks.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
We grow two varieties, a standard Clemson Spineless and a more unique Burmese. The latter is paler than other okra, and can grow much larger than usual while still being tender and flavorful. These can be 8-10" long and still taste great, not hard or nasty like other okras get at that stage. This claim is backed up by both our employees' raves, and reviews from Sycamore Restaurant and Uprise Bakery, who have been buying and approving of it. To the several customers who have argued with me about Burmese's size: everyone who tries it understands that it's not the same as others' overgrown okra that looks similar. Give it a try.
Okra is best used within a few days of purchase, partly because it is hard to give okra perfect storage conditions at home. Okra is subject to chilling injury if stored in too cold of a spot in the refrigerator, but room temperature is definitely too warm. It is best stored at temperatures of 45-50 degrees, and we come close to those conditions by storing okra between harvest and market in our walk-in cooler, which we maintain at about 55 degrees (a compromise between ideal temperatures for tomatoes, okra, zucchini, and cucumbers).
We like okra best when it's sauteed or fried. Just heat some oil or butter in a skillet, chop the okra into 1/2" rounds, maybe coat it with some cornmeal & salt, then fry or saute it until the "goo" is gone but the okra is still tender. These have a great flavor on their own and make a nice side dish or main meal. Okra freezes well & easily; just throw them whole into a Ziploc-type bag and chuck in the freezer (don't blanch or they'll turn really slimy). The texture won't be as good on its own, but it adds great flavor and structure to soups and stews throughout the winter.
Our okra is really producing now, so we'd like more people to try it. This week we'll have two pricing structures, a higher price for small "normal" okra and a lower price for the larger Burmese. This is our attempt to convince customers the Burmese is in fact edible and not just the result of a lazy or uneducated farmer, and to reflect the basic economics in which picking small okra lowers our yields per area and thus needs to cost more. We can let Burmese grow longer, getting more yield with less picking, and thus we can charge less for it. If you really want little okra, you'll have to pay for the extra work it takes. Our prices also reflect the fact that we're not bringing the entire week's harvest to market, only the few days before.
If you've ever picked okra, you understand. The plants are tall, leafy, and prickly. There's something in the plants which really irritates the skin; after picking long rows, my arms & hands feel like acid has been poured on them. We're moving toward using gloves and long shirts, but it's often so danged hot during okra season that those have their own problems. Hunting for the one or two fruits in a tall, jungly plant takes time, and care in order to cut them off without damaging the plant.
But oh, is good okra good.
I'm a little concerned about this coming Saturday's market; the NWS models are showing a strong cold front pushing into central Missouri overnight through Saturday morning. Any system that drops the temperature 10+ degrees in passing has the chance to produce real storms, and the current NWS forecast predicts that:
THESE STORMS MAY BE SEVERE WITH DAMAGING WINDS THE PRIMARY THREAT. WITH HIGH FREEZING LEVELS...THESE STORMS WILL BE EFFICIENT RAIN PRODUCERS WHICH MAY RESULT IN FLASH FLOODING AS WELL.
We'll see, but it's been a long time since a strong cold front was pegged to move through central Missouri on a Friday night/Saturday morning schedule, the worst possible for market. Beyond the considerations for sales losses if customers stay home during bad weather, what happens if/when lightning starts striking nearby and winds pick up? You can only weight your tent down so much, and I'm not likely to want to stand there holding down a metal tent with lightning going off around me. So I face the very ugly choice of seeking safety in a vehicle and letting the storm play havoc with my carefully arranged and very valuable market setup, or staying out there and taking personal risks.
This may not happen this weekend, as things still have to come together just right for storms to develop during market hours, but this is the closest chance for it I've seen in some time. And we personally know that sooner or later something like this will hit on a Friday night, with the potential for flash flooding, and force us into a really difficult decision about how to handle a potential flood on the stream which blocks our road.
So I offer this up, not as a doom&gloom forecast, but just as a case study of another variable we need to consider as market farmers. And, frankly, the value of some form of permanent shelter for farmers markets.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
When we're not harvesting this time of year, there is still abundant weeding & maintenance work to do, trying to keep up with the lush growth from months of rain. In theory we should also be in the throes of seeding/transplanting all our fall sale crops like carrots, beets, radishes, greens, and so on. Some of this hasn't happened, some has struggled under intense pest pressure, and some we're cutting back on to try and stay sane this fall. But it's still a task that takes significant time during this busy month.
Animal chores are ongoing as always; I'm still spending the hour or so a day dealing with milking, watering, egg collection, hoof trimming, and myriad other tasks related to keeping animals. We move the goats' shed to fresh ground once a month and their fences to fresh browse once a week or so. This helps manage worms and keeps the pastures & brush from being overgrazed.
Marketing takes significant time. Preparing for market, attending market, and cleaning up after market is a significant time investment, taking most of Friday and Saturday (we often end up finishing washing all the harvest & market containers on Sunday). Writing our weekly restaurant email containing quantities and prices for the coming week takes an hour or so, generally late Saturday evening, then I usually end up making follow-up phone calls to most places on Monday afternoons to nail down orders. Much of Tuesday is consumed in harvesting & packing restaurant orders along with the actual afternoon delivery route.
August is also when we need to make significant time free for food preservation, as much of our winter and spring food supply comes from the production during August and September. Pickling, canning, and freezing everything we need for the rest of the year takes time, but is necessary for our personal budget and personal ethics. This is a good chore to do on hot afternoons when we don't want to work outdoors.
This extra-hot week, we've been setting alarms for 5:30 so we can get outside before dawn and do work in the coolest part of the day. We finish by noon and then spend the afternoons doing office work, housework, cooking & preservation, myriad minor tasks, container washing, and so on. Then we can try to get back out in the late afternoon/evening for more field work and harvesting before it gets dark around 9. We try to be showered and in bed by 10, to allow for a somewhat healthy night's sleep.
Something like this will be our life through August, as the hottest part of the summer balances with the slowly shrinking daylight hours that force us to get a little more rest.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
...subsidizes farmers who set aside land for conservation. With roots that extend back to the 1950s, the Conservation Reserve Program encourages highly erodible land to be taken out of farm production and set aside for conservation. Instead of planting row crops, farmers are reimbursed for planting grasses and wildflowers that reduce erosion, protect water quality and enhance wildlife habitat. In exchange, the Farm Service Agency provides participants with rental payments and cost-sharing assistance. Funding for the program was approved by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill, and contracts typically last 10 to 15 years.I'll get a curmudgeon award for sure if I criticize this too deeply, though I think the role of taxpayer money in screwing around with the economics of farming has gone way too far regardless of how well-meaning the project. But I have a more specific concern to raise, related to this clause:
To be eligible, the land parcel must have been sown with crops during four of the past six years.In other words, only farmers who were doing something "wrong" by the USDA's definition get the reward. Farmers who chose NOT to plant crops in marginal acreage, through environmental or other principles, are left out. This reminds me of the mortgage bailouts in which people who bought or borrowed more than they could afford were shovelled taxpayer money, while those who kept their heads down and acted responsibly were left out.
This is not an argument specifically against programs like these; a case can be made for government intervention in problems that will cause larger problems if left alone. But it does demonstrate that our system as a whole needs serious work, when government is primarily in the business of attempting to bribe people away from bad behavior after the fact.
I don't want to receive government payouts for managing my land responsibly; I want to be rewarded in the marketplace from customers who value that. But as a businessperson, I also don't want to see my competitors receiving subsidies for doing or not doing something equivalent to my actions, for which I'm not eligible, just because I got it right in the first place.
The overblown system of subsidies, tax breaks, and other regulatory-financial sticks and carrots our government currently uses in agriculture (and elsewhere) is one of the prime reasons we have such a screwed up food system. Well-meaning efforts like this one have local benefits, but cause larger problems.
Friday, August 6, 2010
We'll be adding a few more garlic varieties to the selection. There should be higher quantities of almost everything available last week, though.
Garlic: at least 11 varieties to explore, including two Slow Food Ark of Taste varieties (Inchelium Red and Lorz Italian)
Edamame: 3x the quantity of last week, now harvesting the main season variety (our favorite)
Cherry tomatoes: mix of many different colors & flavors, with the sweetest and best flavor we've had in three years. These are delicious.
Slicer tomatoes: several heirloom varieties
Green beans: more green & less colored than last week
Cucumbers: plenty of picklers & mixed heirlooms, including Poona Kheera, Boothby Blond (a Slow Food Ark of Taste variety), and Miniature White
Tomatillos: enjoy fresh or preserve salsa verde
Peppers: variety of hot and sweet peppers, including Jimmy Nardello's Sweet Italian Frying pepper (yet another Slow Food Ark of Taste variety)
Okra: try the big ones; they're a variety still tender when large. Two of our employees raved about these this past week.
Herbs: Genovese & Thai basil, parsley, maybe others
After a gap in summer squash production, our new planting will be producing for market within another week or two.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
For those who enjoyed the piece and found their way here, but aren't already customers, we intend to have at least 11 varieties at this Saturday's Columbia Farmers Market. If you like the idea of taste-testing garlic, we're running an ongoing customer taste-test challenge in which you buy two or more heads of different varieties, take them home, and explore using them in different preparations to see if you can tease out differences. We have an official data sheet we send home with participants, and the results are tabulated and used to prepare our weekly garlic recommendations signboard at market. In return, you'll be entered on an invitation list for an on-farm event later in the year and a chance to win some free garlic in a drawing.
We had also hoped to have a complete tabulation of tasting data so far, first in time for Marcia to use in this piece, then in time to post when the piece came out....no such luck. Just too busy. We'll get to it sooner or later, but in the meantime enjoy the article, and come out to the Columbia Farmers Market to enjoy some interesting garlic.
And thanks again to Marcia for a great piece.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Also, while our milk and meat are NOT certified organic, I do consider their value roughly comparable because we're using higher-priced organic feeds that affect the caluclations. A truly certified producer would have even higher costs than this due to other red tape & costs that we aren't dealing with for the animals.
From kidding through the end of fall, the goats live on pasture with a portable shelter that is moved once a month and grazing areas changed weekly. So they have access to lots of fresh, diverse browse that limits the amount of purchased feed we need to use. During the winter they live in a more established structure in a set paddock, with higher needs for purchased feed, though we try to get them out onto another pasture when the weather is practical.
We feed our dairy goats a grain mix as well as alfalfa and grass hay. The amounts vary during the year, with very little hay being fed out during the grazing season and far more during the depth of winter when little else is available. Does who are pregnant or lactating get a daily ration of mixed grains to ensure good nutrition for gestation and milking. Kids are left on their mothers until fall butchering, taking away some of our milk supply but producing a tastier meat and reducing our milking schedule to once a day, thus saving a lot of time and bother.
We purchase our hay from several local growers who sign our organic certification paperwork that no herbicides or other such things have been applied to the hay. (The organic paperwork ultimately relates to the produce, since hay ends up in our compost piles and is therefore an input to vegetable fields.) We custom-mix our own grain, buying certified organic grain in bulk through Littrell Feed & Seed in Audrain County.
Buying in bulk, our organic grain mix ends up costing around $.32/lb. This is roughly twice the cost of a conventional goat premix, such as this one from a dealer in Chillicothe which costs around $.15/lb. We feed up to 3lb/day in winter and early spring, reducing that to around 1lb/day when grazing conditions are good. So at an average of 2lb/day year-round, that's $233 or so per goat.
Hay ranges from 1-2 bales a week per goat in winter to very little in summer. Last year we went through approximately 35 bales per goat (grass & alfalfa), so at $4/bale that works out to another $140.
Then there's the cost of driving around to get this feed. Assuming two trips to fetch hay of around 30 miles round trip each, that's 60 miles x $.50/mile (for time, wear, gas) = $30. Also include a visit to the feed dealer at 66 miles round trip, two times a year, for another $66. (We actually pick up feed more often than that, but these trips are not exculsively for just one goat. For the sake of this calculation, we'll consider two trips per year.)
So overall our feed costs are $233+$140+$66=$439. Plus, there are a number of other expenses including water, the occasional vet bill, milk filters, power for the electric fence, and so on that collectively bring the annual expenses closer to at least $500, probably closer to $600.
Milk production varies significantly over the course of the year. Because we leave kids on the doe through the season, we get about half her true production, balancing that loss with better meat and easier management (milking once vs. twice a day, plus the option to leave the kids on and skip milking for a day if we're extra busy). So from May through December we'll estimate an average of 1 quart per day per goat, accounting for the natural drop in production going into the winter. So for a milking season of 240 days, that's 60 gallons (closer to 100 if we weaned the kids). This is a conservative estimate; many goats can give far more than this.
COST PER GALLON
Considering just the actual money spent per year (not time or infrastructure), we spend $600 to produce 60 gallons of milk, for a cost of roughly $10/gallon. For comparison, organic cow milk at one local grocery store goes for $6-$8/gallon depending on brand, and non-organic local goat milk is higher than that.
Of course, if we weren't keeping the kids on, we'd be producing 100+ gallons/year for a cost of $6/gallon or less, which is at least competitive. But the kids each yield around 30lb of meat (deboned), so in a good year we're also getting 60lb of meat from two kids. I actually have no idea what meat costs overall, since we almost never buy it, but a search on Localharvest.org turned up a general range of goat kid meat prices of $5-$15/lb depending on cut (not organic). So the value of two very good, milk-fed, ranged kids, could easily exceed $300.
So for an outlay of approximately $500, we're getting $480 of milk at average prices, but also maybe $300 of meat. So we're making/saving maybe $300 for doing this ourselves, more if you consider our products equivalent to top-of-the-line ranged organic products. I think we need to judge relative to organic prices, since our feed costs are double that of conventional feeds; if we just fed out cheap GMO corn & beans, this would be a lot more lucrative. As it is, we're getting a positive return on the monetary investment, if we were to buy all the equivalent organic or comparable products at retail.
Of course, all of that doesn't count any of the time spent doing this, or the infrastructure needed. I spend an average of 30-45 minutes/day doing chores including milking, feeding out hay, changing water, checking fences, etc. Then there are the occasional tasks like moving grazing paddocks, trimming hooves, and so on. Vet bills for the occasional problem take a toll. It takes a fair amount of time to handle the milk. And all this time we could be spending growing more vegetables for sale in order to pay for others' cheaper milk & meat. Plus it takes a fair amount of money to get started in goat-raising and milking; we had no fencing, structures, or equipment when we started.
On the other hand, we don't drink our milk, but turn almost all of it into value-added products such as yogurt and cheese. Depending on how you calculate the time budget for that, we're almost certainly saving ourselves money there. Let's say we turn 2/3 of our milk into cheese. 40 gallons will produce about 40lb of cheese. Locally, Goatsbeard Farm charges around $5 for a 5oz round of chevre; that's roughly $15/lb. So we're producing $600 worth of cheese as opposed to $240-$400 worth of raw milk. Again, the time budget to do this makes a big difference, but the numbers at least set the context.
MANURE & LAND MANAGEMENT
Goats produce another highly prized product that is difficult to attach a value to: manure. Much of the manure goes directly into the paddocks, adding fertility to the soil and improving the value of the land. Some of the manure is deposited in the mobile goat shelter, and this is what we collect for our compost piles. As far as we're concerned, this manure is priceless. We know what went into the animals, we know that the animals are healthy, the goat bedding makes hot composting relatively easy, and thus we're happy to use this on our vegetable plantings. In addition, the goats help to manage brushy land that's not good for much else. They love plants such as poison ivy and multiflora rose, and they help to turn overgrown brushy land into better pasture. Again, an improvement in the value of the land.
Although the numbers work reasonably well for home production, if we wanted to sell raw milk, we'd have to charge a lot to account for the time investment, potential for losses, marketing costs sales tax, and more. So while it makes sense to do all this for ourselves, it's not at all clear that the numbers make sense to do this commercially. With enough goats, certain economies of scale would start to kick in. More goats might mean that we could justify the time to move the goat paddocks more often, meaning even less need for hay and grain.
Part of what makes all the work & cost worthwhile is the pride in independence, the value of truly fresh food, and the confidence in its sourcing, treatment, and quality. Those are all ethical judgements with no clear price, though we value them highly.
Coming some other time, a similar calculation for chickens and eggs.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Frogs and toads are as common as ever, encountered nearly every day within our beds. Their abundance is a nice seal of organic quality for us, as are the racers and other snakes which we see a few times a week, helping control the rodent population.
Every year we discover a few new species on the farm, such as the small rough green snake we found last month. The soil-life diversity is incredible; it seems that every week we find a new beetle, spider, or insect that we've never seen before and that for all we know is barely studied. Scientists like to study the rare populations in remote places, but often it's hard to find reliable information on the diversity right in our own backyard.
Little pleasures like these are one of the unquantifiable benefits to running this kind of farm. They don't pay the bills, but they probably do keep us healthier and saner in some small way. We often see things it might take others years or even a lifetime, if their only time spent outdoors is weekends in a park. We can't promise a specific visitor anything neat, but start spending regular time here and you're virtually guaranteed to see something fascinating and different. I think our employees are finding this, too, as in the case last week where I was able to gently catch a dragonfly and take a moment for all of us to study it closely and feel wonder. If only a camera had been available...but maybe it's something worth just as much for the memory of those who shared it.