Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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We like more than 90 percent of small farmers across the nation have full time jobs. We've been working every weekend since March 21st, non-stop. We've had some good times, great successes and huge failures. We are physically and mentally tired and looking forward to the colder days and slower pace.
Yet there is melancholy to the coming days. Putting the green grass covers on the gardens, getting the chickens on next years production beds and covering the strawberries. We are exhausted yet we do these choirs with a heavy heart. We need and want the break but there is something sad to the fact that we won't be outside for long periods of time tending to growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and watching the chickens frolic.
We'll get into canning mode so we have vegetables over the winter. The irrigation will be pulled and plants mowed from this years production fields I'll do a shallow till and cover the fields with winter rye and hairy vetch. Once that is done the place has been put to bed for the winter.
We then turn our attention to making Italian and French breads, the Italian cooking classes and keeping the chickens comfortable if the weather gets to extreme. I do lament the passing of summer, as hard as the work is, the sun hot and atmosphere moist, I like eating fresh vegetables out of the garden. I eat more vegetables now knowing there the freshest, safest money can buy and they are from our hands and our efforts. I'll miss the weekly interactions with our customers and talking about how to prepare a vegetable or certain dish. Our customers have been supportive, rejuvenating, focused, motivating and most importantly there.
Keep eating fresh and local, David did beat Goliath and we will again this time. Eat local, find a farmer that is growing healthy food. Tell your friends, your family and your colleagues about him or her. The more we speak out the safer our food supply should become.
Don't be complacent, there are some people like my wife and I who do extraordinary things in order to bring safe fresh foods to our community and there are people in your community doing the same thing for you. We all know of parents that have a child or children that have food allergies? Let me ask, how many friends did you have growing up with food allergies? I didn't have any; except for me I hated Brussels sprouts. Proportionally more humans are suffering from food born illnesses now then ever before, despite taking into account the increase in surface population. Haven't enough people given their lives just because they wanted a simple meal with maybe spinach or a hamburger with lettuce, or peanut butter treat?
Please don't underestimate the fight that we are in. Food is our energy, our fuel and a life sustaining force. Don't let the big Agra-businesses jam GMO foods down our throats, they've been killing us for profit and will continue to do so unless we the consumer stand up and say "I'm mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more" (from the movie "Network"). Demand more with your dollars, choose with your wallet. Money and the lack there of will make them notice. Choose to live healthy. Choose to stop playing Russian roulette with your food choices. Pass the word on it is too important to leave to the media and our officials. Start with your family and work out from there.
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain advertising "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 09:07 AM EDT
We have been at this farmer's market for about six weeks. There is a mix of vegetable growers and other stands that make up the total market. Foot traffic is good, not great but good. There is a grower a couple of stalls down that is young and sells mainly corn, tomatoes and melons. I don't pay much attention to the other vendors because I read my insect book or am taking care of customers.
The day was beautiful, sunshine, light breeze, low humidity and we were seeing more and more repeat customers. One told us that the jam she purchased last week was the best she had ever tasted. At the same time another repeat customer was buying two more jars of jam based on his last purchase. We said thank you and I slowly patted my wife on her back. It was her idea. labor and her mom's recipe. It was turning out to be a good day.
We were selling organic eggs, our carrots had started to come in, the string beans bounced back and our raspberry plants started producing. So our offerings were diversified and plentiful. At one point in time I spotted a customer coming back to us with a box of our eggs. My stomach dropped because the look on her face was not pleasant. I was dealing with a customer so I got my wife’s attention and motioned for her to check out and see what the customer wanted. She had gone home, went to put the eggs away and realized she had only received nine. Of all the mistakes we make and have made, this one was the most embarrassing. Once I realized what had happened I excused myself from the other customer and immediately started asking her what she liked that we had. At the same time my wife was getting her more eggs. I asked about a couple vegetables and got to the potatoes. She said she didn't have potatoes so I gave her a pound of the German Butter Ball and apologized profusely. She left, hopefully satisfied and maybe to return.
Then at closing the young farmer from a couple stalls down came up to look at what we had. He asked about the German Queen tomatoes, we were selling. These things are huge weighing between 1.25-1.75 lbs each. They are by far the biggest we've grown. The skin is thin, seed pod small and flesh is sweet. As I'm telling him this I'm looking into his eyes and seeing sadness. We all look tired and worn down, that is part of the job. It is physically and mentally challenging. Your mind is always ready to give up before your body is but you know this and go on to the next chore.
I use the term heart-wrenching a lot when describing things on the farm because those words invoke a visceral reaction. We all know what heart break is in all its forms. But to use those words makes one understand the physical and emotional toll taking place within the person. What I was seeing and hearing from this young man was heart-wrenching.
He is at his cross roads. He works full time on a dairy farm; he grows five acres of vegetables in his spare time. He is having trouble making ends meet. He doesn't know if he'll be able to pay off all his bills by the end of the growing season. As he was standing there telling me his young wife came up and put her arm around him. I asked, "How’d it go today?" He started to grouse but his wife pulled his arm and he shifted some and kicked the dirt and said "not that bad". A customer came up to their stand and his wife went to take care of them.
I had stopped tearing down and was just talking to him. I could tell he was in despair and was looking for some sort of guidance or a kind word or words of encouragement. He told me that other people he talked to told him to stay in it that things would change. I didn't tell him they were right or wrong. I just said that this is an incredibly hard thing to do and not many people really understand the sacrifice and toll it takes on us. That he wasn't alone in his doubt and his struggles. The last time I stopped breaking down and talked to someone my wife got livid, at least at that time we had help. This time it was just her and I was torn. Should I cut him off and help her or should I do what many have done for me in the past and that was to lend a sympathetic ear and maybe some advice and encouragement.
She could hear the conversation and knew the plight of the young vegetable farmer. I empathized with him and told him about the MD Small Farm Co-op. I told him by joining he would meet people like us who pull our resources and are able to buy in bulk thus cutting down on overall costs. I gave him my name and number and told him if he had any questions to call. This all seemed woefully inadequate but it was the best I could do. For my wife's part she continued breaking down and when he left I helped finish up. She didn't say a word. We packed up and headed home. What should have been a pleasant trip after a good day selling was just silent. It seemed both of us were thinking about the young man and his wife.
It was a good day for us but when you see the pain, self-doubt and struggle that someone like you is going through you can't help but question why is this so hard and why doesn't everyone else know?
PLEASE-buy local, find a farmer around you, go visit them, try what they have for sale. If you don't like what you got tell them that and tell them why. Vegetable farmers live on feedback. If there is something you'd like them to grow, tell them. It can only help with their future plans. The more sustainable farmers we keep in business the healthier the environment and all of us will be in the long run.
Posted by Brian
@ 10:33 AM EDT
We have a hen that has taken to, let me see, how to say this so I keep a "G" rating. We have a hen that has taken to being the rooster. I kid you not. She has taken on the roll of the fertilizer or pretend fertilizer. I've said before we've only been raisng hens for three years going on four. So I might think I've seen it all, but apperantly that's not true. My wife read a book that said hens can change gender but we never took it seriously.
We thought it was one of those things, except we have this chicken that doesn't really fight the other hens as much as she gets on their backs. A rooster when he is in procreation mode will grab a hen by the back of her neck holding her down so he can do what a rooster does. My wife said she thought she saw this behavior in one of our hens, but me being me, I wouldn't believe it until I saw the event for myself.
We were all eating lunch one day sitting outside in the shade and enjoying a slight breeze. I was facing the pen of the second generation hens. Their numbers have dwindled due to a neighbor's errent dog, but the ones that survived have rebounded and they are pretty good layers. It was a Saturday and we had picked corn for taste testing. We feed our help most times and its always a good time when breaking bread with them. No matter what I cook they always seem to like it. Of course when you work on an organic vegetable farm you tend to work up a big appetite. Male or female they can all put food away. So I cooked the corn for everyone and we were sitting there enjoying the sweet taste and the respite.
If the hens start fighting or going crazy I usually yell at them which startles them and is enought to return the flock to some sort of harmony. I heard a commotion and looked up to see a hen on top of another hen biting and holding her down while seemingly girating like the rooster does. I looked at my wife; she gave me a look and just shrugged. I yelled, then got up to get closer and yelled again. That broke the hovering hen's concentration and her captive scurried away. So, once again I think I've seen it all.
We kid ourselves by thinking we've got a handle on things. Then we discover that the learning curve just seems to keep bending upward. But, these are things that nature brings.
Buy Local - from a farmer, not from a chain that advertises "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 08:30 AM EDT
It’s the third week of August and flock three of our Rhode Island Reds have just started to lay eggs. They are so small you can hold half a dozen in your hand. This is a big day for us, a day we've been looking forward to ever since March 19th, 2009. They have made it this far healthy, happy and vigorous. The one rooster we got (by accident) has grown to be quite the leader. His problem is he is too big and the hens are smaller, thinner and faster.
Here they are at a day old.
You spend a lot of time with them making sure they are ok, that they don't get Coccidiosis, that their pen is clean and water free of foreign objects. If you look closely at this picture you will notice that the feed trough does not have bird droppings in it. That was an anomaly; as soon as they got enough strength the crap hit the fan.
They are energetic, inquisitive and love tomatoes. We have them outside and they can't resist flying the coop and raiding the garden. We know this not because we caught them but we started noticing peck marks on the reddest tomatoes. We have these huge German Queen heirlooms. They weigh in about 1.5 to 1.75 pounds each. These are bigger than the Mortgage Buster we had a couple of years ago and they are tasty. So the new chickens have found out too.
We finally figured it out when we saw an egg sitting in one of the rows between tomatoes plants. We packed up the electric fence and moved the house out behind the barn so they wouldn't be tempted, for all the hard work seeing a picture of them at a day old and seeing them now full grown you can't help but feel a sort of elation at the accomplishment. .
I am by nature a pessimist with a type A personality, I'm ok with that. But it is times like these that make me a laid back optimist. To have nurtured them to this point is time to celebrate the good fortune. But being a farm you don't want to crow too much because good times are not always around the corner.
Buy Local - from a farmer not from a chain that advertises "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 08:34 AM EDT
For the first three years of selling we were at a farmers market that was trying to rebound. It was located in a stayed community of old houses and income levels. We didn't learn this until later but it didn't matter. I liked being part of nostalgia by trying to bring back the old farmers market.
We were learning how to grow organic on a large scale and also learning about farmers markets. Each market has its own personality, procedures and clientel. Our enthusiasm and drive were not lacking, but week after week foot traffic was minimal and we often wondered if we were in the right place. It certainly was not making copious amounts of money. Slowly we started to build up a clientel and we were bringing in fruits and vegetables that were coming into season.
For six years my wife and I were the only ones doing the work. As with most small farmers we too had full-time jobs. We both gave up our weekends and evenings. In the off season we would plow through insect, plant identification, pasture management and animal husbandry books. We attended lectures and classes on small farming and other specialties. We belong to the Maryland Small Farm Co-op, the Pastured Poultry Association, CASA-Future Harvest and the Maryland Organic Food and Farmers Association.
Each of these groups have specific functions but all are setup to gather, trade and disseminate information with most of the emphasis on providing education to there members. These groups are great for getting started and networking. It doesn't matter who you are or what you know, or if you've been farming for years there is value to joining and participating in the events.
It is in these groups were you find kindred spirits, market stories, working knowledge and moral support. The first three years selling was hard for us, we were putting in maximum effort but were getting little if any return on our investment and time.
We kept hearing one phrase over and over again at the market. There was a point where we could identify the person that was going to say it. We heard the phrase in English, Spanish and German. We couldn't tell what they were saying but the body language of some of the Asian customers spoke loud enough.
It was always the same thing, different languages but the same facial expressions, "Is this all there is?". We tried not to take it personally but weekend after weekend it did wear on us. I would often engage the people and ask sincerely what they would like to see. Mostly the answer was more vendors. We would pass this information on to the market manager.
What struck me as odd was we had plenty of a variety of fruits and vegetables, we were transitional organic and our prices were a dollar. We joked that we were the other dollar store. Cucumbers 4 for a dollar, tomatoes dollar a pound, onions same thing, berries they sold at a premium. Everything else went for a buck. Because there wasn't a big vendor presence most people just turned and left. There were days when we ended up giving more food to our local soup kitchen then what we sold. Giving to the soup kitchen had its own intrinsic reward and helped us gain perspective with the days events.
It was hard but we made the best of it and made some really good friends that we still have to this day. The market provided us with a way to sell our vegetables and have fun. Besides, without the market how would we learn?
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain advertising "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 08:15 PM EDT
We are learning, we have learned and we will continue to learn. Our knowledge comes from reading, talking to others, working and observing. Like on Saturday we observed that Broody was back sitting in her nesting box. Then we observed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the same thing.
This is a natural occurance for chickens sometimes they go broody. We've only been raising hens for three years so we don't have a lot of experience. However, we have faced broodiness before so we sorta know what we are doing. In all the books that we've read I don't remember if they talked about a broody hen going broody twice in the same year.
I did observe something I hadn't noticed before. When a chicken is broody the last thing you want to do is let her sit on an egg. Everything that we've read says to take eggs from her. You don't want to encourage the behavior so taking the eggs gives her nothing to hatch.
Chickens will lay one egg every 25 hours, give or take, on Sunday we took the egg from under her. Monday when we checked she was in the same nesting box but there were two eggs. I took them, my glimer of hope was the two eggs in the box. She had laid one (broody chickens do not) and she was out of the box long enough for another chicken to lay her egg.
Getting a broody chicken out of our nesting box is pretty hard due to the design of the nest and access to it. So, we put off getting her out until we were sure she really was broody. Tuesday when we checked she had three eggs under her and we took them. She was still in the same box though. Wednesday morning I looked in the box for eggs and saw two under Broody and one in the middle box. Broody was still nesting in the third box farthest from the opening. I thought once again she had laid, gotten out of the box and another hen laid her own egg. I went about the day's chores and kept the chicken pen within site. The day progressed with no sight of Broody. By late afternoon I had decided to check the nesting boxes again.
I looked in and Broody was still in the third nest facing the back. Yet, she had another two eggs under her and it dawned on me. She wasn't laying and she wasn't getting out of the nest. The other chickens must know she is broody. They are nesting in her box and laying their eggs for her to hatch. Four eggs on Wednesday and three the day before that. She hadn't left the nest at all and she wasn't laying. There is no way a chicken can move an egg in our nesting boxes. The floor is on a decline from front to back, with a back wall high enough to let the egg roll underneath and in a holding area. These were all under her front wings.
We decided that it was time to get her out of the nesting box and into the barn. This is not a stress free process for the bird or us. I eventualy got her out and headed for the barn. While we were walking I took the liberty to feel her abdomen and lower fluff by the vent. No hard object or abnormal feeling of the large intenstines. She was just broody again. Broody is in he barn digging holes for nests and sitting on non-existant eggs. She's got plenty of fresh water and mash to eat. So far she's still in the barn, day seven and counting. We'll let you know how it goes.
Buy Local - From a farmer not a chain that advertises "local"
Posted by Brian
@ 10:15 AM EDT
We are a humane farm; our animals almost run the place. However, sometimes there is mortality. With each loss we've had on the farm it has been hard on me and I take them all personally even though I know I shouldn't. You don't take responsibility for the health and welfare of an animal and not take it personally when it dies. At least I don't. We learn and make sure if it’s controllable it doesn't happen again, we try our best to be good stewards and shepherds. This is one thing that coming from the city actually works against me. If I grew up on a farm my bet is I'd have a better handle on the whole mortality thing. I have to get over this though; if we are going to succeed I am going to have to get over this hurdle. Think and say what you will about my manliness and machismo, it’s just how I'm wired. If you are going to raise an animal organically you are going to spend a lot of time looking out for its well being. This equates to spending a lot of time with the animal, observing them and watching for signs of illness, distress, infestation, injury and overall environmental health.
As we thought over twenty years ago death on a farm is inevitable and it is a hard burden for us to bare. I guess that’s why it took us so long before we added chickens to the mix. I'm ok with vegetables passing away; it seems natural to me. This is the first time that I found growing up in the city was an impediment to what we do here. I'm not naive I saw horrible violent things by accident living in the city. I worked in a hospital for over ten years; I saw the grief people went through. I saw more than one person die in front of my eyes. Within the last two years both of my parents have passed. I've had more loved ones than I care to count leave this earth. I am just not good with death, as natural as it is and as much as it is part of the whole life cycle I am not good with mortality.
I have no problem going to the local butcher and getting my meat and pork. I see the cows, pigs and chickens in the field. I know where my meat comes from, how it is raised and processed. I've had numerous blind taste tests with family, friends, clients and students. More than 90 percent pick the local product, whether it is eggs, bacon, steak, hamburger, cucumbers, tomatoes or whatever. I know that we are getting the safest, tastiest, freshest products anywhere.
Does this mean I will be vegetarian or vegan? No, this is the paradox that is my life. I love to cook and grow vegetables. Now, we have our potential role in providing fresh poultry to our community as part of the sustainability model. It is one of the more profitable functions on a farm.
Free range, organic poultry is in great demand and it is a low cost, low maintenance activity. You get day old chicks, raise them for sixteen weeks and process them. Raise them humanely, free of stress and in an open environment and you’ve given them the best life that can be hoped for. Add to that we would use Rhode Island Reds because they are a recovering species and we are furthering sustainable agriculture.
Seven years we've been talking about this, 2555 days. Seven years we've been deciding not to raise poultry for meat. We are not making enough money to be profitable. Five out of the seven years we have shown a loss and this is with out expensing our time as labor. Meat chickens add a degree of stability and profitability that we have not achieved yet from vegetables, berries, jams, bread and cooking classes. It is that simple, yet for us there has been nothing simple about the decision. As natural as death is on a farm it is still creates a paradox for me.
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain that advertises "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 06:25 PM EDT
When we first started to talk to our family and friends about buying a farm the reactions were mixed but predominately quizzical. Why? As if something was wrong with us. How come? As if there was some force pushing us into something we weren't ready for. Are you sure? As if we hadn't spent enough time debating and talking about the move. Then there was the big one. What are you going to do with a farm? As if the question didn't already have the answer in it, FARM.
We are city folks, my family is third generation urbanites. Our friends were of the same ilk. So it wasn't too surprising that we were met with their concerns, doubts and skepticisms. I guess all of them thought that gardening was fine but large scale gardening was border line psychotic. I know they liked our tomatoes, peppers and herbs but we wanted to try other things, lots of other things.
Besides, I never told anyone what my childhood dreams were. To do that would jeopardize the possibility of achieving them. So no one knew that I wanted land, horses, a big garden and a pool and they probably thought that it was something that we just started talking about. But when word got around that we had placed a contract on a farm everyone weighed in with thoughtful words of caution, limited encouragement and counseling referrals.
When you come from the city, gardening on a large scale is for people established in the farming community. In the city you're supposed to grow a couple vegetables as a hobby, you certainly don't make a living at it and you'll live in relative obscurity if you try. They all made perfect sense- farms have been on the decline ever since we've been alive. Farm-Aide started when we were teens, and the scenes depicted of families losing everything, having to stand by at auctions and watch their possessions sold off was heart-breaking. It was real and it was tragic. People don't choose to be farmers; they are born into it, at least that was the prevailing feeling we got. You don't invest money and time in a declining industry. Yet we were on the precipice of doing just that.
So while all the concern was being directed at us we were slowly moving towards purchasing the farm house and the property. The house was built in 1837 on land once owned by a historic figure. As part of the purchase we had the house inspected by a family friend.
Before he was done he took both of us aside and flat out said you don't want this house. It would cost us more to fix it up than the structure was worth. We'd be better off tearing it down and building from scratch. When he was done he had over eighteen pages of notes and things wrong with the house, barn and milking shed.
We had twenty four hours to decide to back out or continue forward. My wife and I are very deliberate logical people, fiscally and environmentally conservative and socially liberal. We are not the fix-it-up types. There were so many factors telling us not to buy and move on that it seemed like a no brainer to anyone looking at all the facts.
There was just something about the place, I think had we'd known we would pull 68 black snakes out of the house maybe we would have went in the opposite direction. As it turned out we didn't and there has been something akin to a spiritual journey taking place ever since. We are religious people, we believe in a higher calling and that we are on this earth to help make a difference no matter how insignificant it may be.
The first six months in the house were arduous and filled with snake encounters. My wife called it luxury camping. We added living in the house as part of our prayer routine. During that time we had what I call our fetal position moments: we cried, we had great doubts and we had buyers' remorse. But we kept praying not really asking for anything but the strength to continue. One day a cat showed up at our door, I scared it away but we'd see it again and again. We found that it was living in our barn which was fine with me but my wife wanted to bring it inside. I resisted and gave a cogent argument as to why not. "It's feral," I said, it turned out not to be and was already spayed. After a two foot snow fall the barn cat was introduced to her new home. She was aptly named BC and she was the first cat to adopt us.
The snow thawed and with spring came snakes. Except these snakes were showing up dead. We were finding them all over the place. It didn't take long for us to realize that BC was the one killing the snakes. She was the answer to our prayers. BC could care less for mice. I saw her once watch a mouse eating out of her food bowl. She was sitting by the woodstove and just watched as the mouse ate away. She didn't flinch, but if it was a snake that was a different story. We could tell when she had spotted one as she never moved but waited for her chance at the slithery creature.
That was the start of the turn-around for us. We are now part of something bigger than what we had expected. There was a time when it was just meat making people sick and being recalled. Recently, more stories of vegetables like spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and even peanut butter have been contaminated. We are part of a greater community of people that are providing safe, fresh and tasty food to our neighbors and friends. As bad as the past has been moving here,doing what we have been doing seems right.
Before every game legendary coach Marv Levy, of the Buffalo Bills, said to his team "At this moment in time, where else would you rather be, than right here, right now?" I would not want it any other way.
Posted by Brian
@ 02:40 PM EDT
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Did you know that you are not suppose to shuck corn at a farmers market? It's one of those unwritten rules. As soon as an ear is even partially opened, it begins to go to starch. As a child I remember the Arraber coming around and he would pick the corn for you. Depending upon where you were on his route you either got thirteen good ears of corn or a mix.
That's another thing - whatever happened to a baker's dozen? People seem actually surprised when we give them another ear of corn or put 13 into the bag. That use to be standard operating procedure. When the industrial food complex came into the picture you bought the corn pre-packaged or by the ear. Please don't get me wrong. We are a capitalistic society which is built around the principle of making money. I think it's a wonderful idea but my frustration comes in when I see people cutting corners, ignoring safety, using techniques and tactics that are harmful under the guise of the bottom line. Besides I'm also jealous that I don't make tons of money or even pounds for that matter.
I know that when twelve people buy a dozen we lose a dozen. But we also sell by the ear and I learned long ago the smaller the quantity for sale the greater revenue. Meaning, if 72 people each baught two ears of corn revenue would be greater because the per ear cost is higher. So we look at it as a wash. The goodwill it generates for our customers and then back to us surpases the pain of losing a dozen. In the past six years we've lost more than 90 percent of each year's corn crop due to multiple factors. So we're kind of use to losing corn.
Seven years ago we were selling at a farmers market, and we had corn that was raised organically but was not from organic seed. It wasn't being sold as organic but it was local and it was picked hours before. I was working with a customer when I saw an elderly lady go over to the corn and start to shuck the ears. I looked right and saw my wife looking at her. I kept talking to and taking care of my customer, but I noticed my wife's body language and non-verbal cues change. She was getting agitated.
A minute goes by, I'm trying to finish with my customer but he has questions about cooking. Every so often I take a right peripheral view to see how my wife is doing. At that time, I don't know why, I can't put my finger on it but my wife's reactions are catching my attention. I follow her gaze and see the woman is still shucking her way through the corn.
My customer asked about making a zuchinni recipe, we have adapted from "Chef's Illustrated," and I'm telling him about it and describing the nuances. I feel my wife walking behind me towards the woman shucking corn.
My wife is one of the most intelligent, kindest, caring, level-headed people I've ever met. She is the conotation of grace under fire and who you'd want to be with when trouble strikes. But don't shuck the corn at a famer's market in front of her.
Buy Local- from a farmer not from a chain that advertises "local"
p.s. no one was hurt in the actual events or the retelling of events.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:51 PM EDT