F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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New Potatoes

We had our first new potatoes for supper last night, June 6th! This was a week earlier than last year, when the first potato arrived on our plates on June 12th. Our Red Thumb fingerlings had just started to flower, so I thought I would "tickle out" some spuds (so as to preserve the plant). I was quite surprised at the size of some of them. Red Thumbs grow fast and big anyway, but it is only 57 days since planting. I have been putting langbeinite (sul-po-mag), as well as greensand, in my fertilizer mix for the last two years and the spuds really respond to the quick shot of potassium and probably also to the trace minerals. I also notice that my potatoes don't even need salt, which I assume is because I am feeding the soil properly. Another thing I noticed last year is that the plants haven't even used much of the "drop" or "chit" when I dig up the plants. Evidently, they start grabbing nutrients from the surrounding soil as soon as they can, eschewing the stored carbohydrates from the drop. Anyway, we had a wonderful supper as usual, with fresh salad greens, sauteed Chinese cabbage with shallots, and fagioli. Toni had a mojito with spearmint from her herb garden and I opted for some of my homemade beer. We don't make much money from the farm, but we sure eat good.

French and Red Thumb Fingerlings

Last night we got some rain, which we needed for germination. This morning, I noticed my French fingerlings are up. They were planted on April 11th and are a 65 day potato. I am tres pleased. My Red Thumb fingerlings have been up for some time (planted April 10th), which is what I expected. Red Thumbs are a nearly perfect fingerling - red inside and out, 65 day maturity, excellent as new potatoes, excellent keepers, with fantastic taste. The French fingerlings are getting quite a lot of press in the last couple of years and they have a romantic history. Supposedly, they were smuggled into this country in a feedbag of a horse, in the early part of the 20th century. They are also a 65 day potato, have a red skin and are buff-colored inside, often with a hint of a red blush or a red ring. They are quite tasty and store well.

Another early riser are my Bintjes. This is a Dutch potato that I tried last year for the first time and it is quite delicious and both yields and stores well. It has a yellow skin and is another 65 day potato. Last year, I started planting on April 6th and harvested my first new potatoes on June 12th. This year I started planting April 10th, so I anticipate potatoes in around mid-June again. As I say, I am tres pleased.


Potato Experiment

Back in 2006, I did a Ruth Stout-type potato experiment that worked quite well. [Ruth Stout was a cheery old gardener from New Jersey who developed a permanent mulch method. Her books are fun to read.] I got some extra potatoes from another farmer, laid them down on top of the ground and covered them with hay. The planting date was June 13th, which would normally be quite late to plant around here. The potatoes sprouted up through the mulch and grew fast. In mid-September, I just pulled the mulch away and harvested a bumper crop. There were also quite a few slug eggs as well, which is one of the downsides of this method. Here in NW Washington, we have a tremendous amount of slugs and they love mulch. However, exposing them to the air and the predators cuts down their propagation. The yield on these potatoes was up to 2.95# per row foot, but I did put quite a lot of potatoes down in the row and didn't weigh them first, so that is a kinked statistic.

In 2007, I tried this method again, but in two parts. The first part was laying some potatoes down under mulch in January and February. My thinking was that the potatoes would just sit dormant until the weather warmed them up. Well, the slugs ate most of them and the rest rotted. So much for that idea. The second part was to wait until April, when I normally plant potatoes. This worked better, but the yield was quite low. My conclusion was that the mulch keeps the soil too cool early on in this climate, which is why the June planting did so well. Another aspect of this experiment was that the labor for laying down the hay is greater than tilling and planting in bare soil. Thus, I went back to conventional methods.

This year I have some new ground opened up, with winter wheat growing on it. In one section, the ground is so wet and low the winter wheat did not germinate, so there is a bare spot. I also had a whole bunch of Banana fingerlings left over that had sprouted quite lengthy sprouts, some about 8-10 inches long. In addition, I have a bunch of hay from cleaning out the neighbor's barn, so I decided to try the experiment again. I marked out a 12' x 48' area and dumped 32# of fingerlings on the ground, trying to spread them around as much as possible. I then laid two pickup loads of loose hay on the potatoes. They are covered by about 6-8 inches. Hopefully, the sprouts will get enough soil moisture to continue growing up through the hay. We shall see how this works. I won't be able to cultivate, but the mulch should suppress the weeds well enough that I can just pick the ones that come up and the potatoes should crowd them out. Since it is almost May and we are getting an extended run of good weather this year, I am hoping the experiment is fruitful. I will report back on this later.


Economies of Small Scale

Modern agriculture is oriented towards economies of scale. This is usually presented as a one-way street - get big or get out. However, there is a flawed assumption here that needs to be addressed. Economies of scale are based on a price per unit that does not fall, while the cost per unit does fall. Pretty simple. Produce more widgets in your factory and you spread the cost of your rent or mortgage payment over a wider base and the cost of each unit goes down (total cost includes cost to produce plus your overhead). You can also reduce your cost per unit by getting more production out of each worker. If we translate this into a farming scenario, we can get our chickens to produce more eggs or use our acreage to produce more crops and decrease our cost per unit by choosing better breeds, keeping our chickens healthier and happier, feeding the soil so our plants are healthier and happier, etc.The point here is that economies of scale are not based on increasing the size of the operation - building a bigger factory or buying up more land to farm. Economies of scale are based on utilizing what we already have to the fullest extent. I suspect that what is usually touted as the economies of scale is simply a marketing scheme to grow the economy in a somewhat strait-jacketed manner. Build more factories! Sell more products! Export grain to the world! Export the American way of life to everybody in the Third World! It ain't necessarily the same thing. Perhaps real economies of scale do not depend on getting bigger.

Let's look at one of my favorite sound bites: the subjective trumps the objective. Example: Back in 1965 I used to run my hogs so they would be easier to handle in the show ring. On the farm, I would just pick out one of my show animals and run her until she was tired enough that I could touch her. (I did this at twilight after chores, so she wouldn't be exhausted in the heat of the day.) Then I would pat her and scratch her ears and she really didn't have any choice but to tolerate it. This made her more used to me and other humans and easier to load into the truck and more maneuverable in the show ring. My reward was Reserve Champion gilt at the state fair and a higher price when I sold her for breeding stock. Another example: I sell fingerling potatoes at $3.00 per pound and regular potatoes for $1.50 per pound. My labor for growing fingerlings is only a little bit greater than for the larger normal potatoes, and really only in the washing and sorting. I do get more fingerlings per pound of seed planted and yield is comparable to regular potatoes, so the production costs for the two are roughly the same (I save my own seed potatoes, so seed cost is the same.) I can sell the fingerlings for twice what I get for regular potatoes because people love them. So do I and I even made my lefse the last two Christmases with fingerlings instead of regular potatoes. De var bare bra! (They were very good!) So, the subjective taste and cachet of the little fingerlings trumps the higher objective cost to the consumer per pound. Some of the more rigid academic types may quibble that I am misusing the term, but am I really? If we focus on utilization of what we have, rather than building something newer and bigger (or buying more acreage), we may find that we increase our efficiency through economies of scale. Another blogger on this site, Re Rustica, has touched on something similar that they call "efficiencies of small run production" and they made a good point. We don't have to keep increasing the size of our farms. Perhaps we can just be content to stay small and just get better at what we do.

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