Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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We applied for a USDA research grant through NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) to evaluate high tunnels. The research entails reporting to the USDA what and how much we plant, amendments used on the soil and what our yields are, each year for three years. We have read about high tunnels, their limitations as well as benefits so this gives us a leg up. Because we are new farmers (under ten years of farming), we qualified for a 90/10 split on costs.
We received word that our application was accepted and that we would be in the first round of funding. Theoretically, it was a 90/10 split in costs. Actually after everything is said and done, it will be about a 70/30 split which still isn't bad but we are absorbing the greater of the two numbers. What is bad is that these things are sold as being easy to set up. I swear, we were told it could go up in a week and just about, anybody could build them.
Now, I have documented on these pages what skills I have when it comes to building (see, Why I Should Stick to Growing). Nevertheless, this was an opportunity that seemed to good to pass up. First great thing we did was call the general contractor that worked on our house. In order to budget we had to find out his costs. He gave us a period where he would have a window to fit the project in. He said he needed to add another person and that would be an additional cost to the one already quoted.
Here is where the first major mistake took place. I decided that I had the ability to follow orders and could quickly learn what needed to be done in order to a.) Help, b.) Not be a hindrance and c.) Learn how this thing was constructed for future reference. The second major mistake was when Bob, the contractor, decided to use me as his help.
From the beginning, things were hard, starting right out of the gate with the delivery. I knew it was coming in a tractor-trailer and that eighteen-wheelers cannot make it up to our barn. Fortunately, there is an area in front of the driveway were we can accept deliveries like 3,000 gallon black water tanks and high tunnels the size of a football field. The day the tunnel arrived, I was prepared to take delivery. The driver gets out of his truck looks at my tractor with pallet forks and says, "You going to use that to carry this thing?” "Well, yes I do or thought I was". He asks, "Do you know what this thing is?” I wondered, does he often have customers that order things without knowing what they are getting, sort of the adult version of grab bags?
"Yes," I answered "Of course", while my anxiety is hitting new highs; he is opening the back door. I guess I forgot to mention the high tunnel is 12x35x96. I do have a small tractor, a John Deere, and it is a workhorse. Slowly but surely we got the thing off the truck, piece by piece. Now the tractor almost tipped over a couple of times but it was brief seconds of terror interspersed with sighs of relief.
It took me all of three hours to unload the truck and move the pieces up to the staging area. Add another four hours to unpack and inventory everything except for the missing parts. They would come later on after a phone call to the company. Bob told me when he would be available and I took off work for that week. The company told us, it would take about a week to put up. I forgot to ask if that estimate was metric or decimal, I remember a NASA mistake like that once.
We were basing the work estimate and people needed on the information from the company. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. IT IS NOT EASY TO PUT UP AND YOU NEED MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE. I will not go into details mainly because of heat stress related reasons and I forgot allot of what went on that first week. Temperatures ranged from 85-96 degrees with heat indexes rising as high as 110 degrees.
I do remember drinking a gallon and a half of water each day, being too tired at the end of the day to do anything other then shower, drink water and sit in front of a running fan. I remember day four, it was 96 degrees and we were drinking water every half hour. We were digging wholes were the motorized post whole digger would not sink into the ground. In that, 35x96 foot print the soil ranged the whole spectrum of grades. You name it we ran into it, sand, clay, loam, silt. We hit sand stone. When you would hit the sand stone with the digging bar, it had the timber of hitting cement.
We quit at 2:30 that day. I went in the house and sat in the shade on the front porch. I had a big jug of water and I started noticing that my vision was getting hazy and I had stopped sweating. I realized these to be signs of heat stress so I headed up to the shower to get a nice cold drenching. I took a prolonged shower and started feeling refreshed. I got dressed and went down stairs to sit in front of a fan. The house is air-conditioned but that was not enough. Before I got down the stairs, my muscles started cramping all over my body, my legs, my fingers, my stomach muscles and back. Because of various reasons, we have a bunch of those blue ice packs in the freezer. I was placing ice packs and ice jugs all over my body and forcing water down my gullet.
I kept ice on my body and kept drinking water. Had I gone to the emergency room that was all they were going to do so I saved my self the trip. Slowly the muscle spasms abated, my vision got better and I started going to the bathroom. All good signs, so I just kept up with what I was doing. When my wife got home, she asked how things went and as I was explaining, she asked, "What is wrong with your voice?" I was tired, my energy was at a low point, and I told her so. Last thing I needed was for her to know I was suffering heat stress. There probably would have been an over-reaction and she would not have let me out to play the next day.
"What are all the ice packs for?" She is observant, "muscle ache.” I said. She was okay with that answer and she went on to change clothes and take care of the chickens. I was no good, usually I work two hours a day on farm related activities, after getting off work but I could not do it. Once I was inside that was it, I was getting ready to go to bed. Time of day did not matter getting my energy back for the next’s day work was the point. My wife said that she has never seen me sleep as I did that first week. I do not know that for real I was sleeping, so I could not tell.
Well, one week stretched into two. I worked the weekend to catch up on the farm stuff. By the second week I had to go back to work on Thursday. Monday was Memorial Day, so I had that off and did more farm work. I worked with Bob on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was never so glad to get back to my real job, as I was in my entire life. I do not see how people in the construction trade do it. I thought for as hard as I work growing for six months and during the cold months cutting down dead trees and splitting them for firewood that I could keep up. I was close but I was wrong. I have always had respect for people in the trades especially those craftsmen that take pride in their work, like Bob. It was great working for him and I did not want to let him down but in the end, I had to give it to him. I was ready to go back to work and glad for it.
The high tunnel is completed and we have planted tomatoes in it to see how far into the winter they last. We are going to try to grow throughout the winter so it should be interesting. I know this thing is going to be great! How do I know this? Because, nothing good ever came from something easy and this was no easy project!
Buy Local - From a farmer you know, it's better for you and your community
Posted by Brian
@ 05:02 PM EDT
It is unique how we use euphemisms to describe the human condition. Like "No good deed goes unpunished", means usually you sacrifice your good time for being dumped on and spend more time working even though you were trying to help. There is, "Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out," meaning you cannot get out of here fast enough for my comfort. Another lesser-known one is "Off farm income,” that's the euphemism for “works two jobs in order to pay all the bills associated with small farming and living”.
Off farm income is a category tracked by the USDA along with tons of other data associated with agriculture. However, when you look at the numbers in small farm income it screams anemia. As of 2009, small farm income as a percentage of total farm-household income is projected to be a whopping 8.7 percent. Down from the 11.1 percent it was in 2008. That means that for every dollar of income a farm brings in, 91 cents is from "off farm income". As in "farms and works another job to earn enough in order to sustain an existence".
Okay, so I am late to the party, but is this normal? I mean, I know it is reality but is this normal for any industry. Let alone an industry whose main function is to provide a basic form of human sustainability. Maslow's paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" points out the hierarchical needs of humans. The paper was accepted in academia in the forties and is still being taught today. After air and water, food is at the level that everything else in human life builds upon.
Food, water and air are what sustain human life. Would not small farmers producing food for human consumption be allowed to focus all their energies on producing that food in an environmentally sustainable way, be healthier then forcing them to use practices that are detrimental to the environment and humans because it saves time? Should not the person growing your food be able to spend the time learning new technology and methods in order to use and preserve scarce resources like soil and water? If the economics of the medical profession were such that outside employment was necessary in order to pay all living expenses our society would not stand for it. As a doctor, In order to ply your trade, you must earn ninety-one percent of your income doing something else besides the practice of medicine. That would never fly these days.
You can very easily be mired in the economics of this argument but my point is to explain yet another hurdle that small farms face as part of being a sustainable, safe and eco-friendly operation. Small farms, as defined by the USDA, are those farms with net-income of $1,000 to $250,000 in gross sales. Small farms represent about ninety percent of all farms in the United States but make up only twenty percent of all gross farm sales.
Within the small farm category, there are two sub-categories, those that make fewer than 10,000 dollars and those making 10,000 to 250,000 dollars in gross sales. Sixty plus percent of small farms makes less than 10,000 dollars in gross annual sales. Thirty percent of small farms fall into the other category of gross sales over 10,000 dollars.
I am not saying that farming is the only profession in which people have to work two jobs in order to maintain some standard of living. The term “standard of living” is very subjective when it comes to the individual consumer. Economic compensation has always been disproportionate when you look at the value added to society from a particular profession. Teaching comes to mind, for instance. We put the weight of the world on our future generations but the people that are there to teach and prepare them for that burden are grossly under-paid.
The men and women that risk their lives whether in the military, law enforcement or other hazardous jobs face the same inequities. On the other side are those people that can put together complex derivatives and manipulate hedge funds such that they topple the economic stability of an entire country and they are valued economically at grossly astounding figures. Money does not feed a nation food does.
There is no wonder small farming is so incredibly hard when you see those numbers. The deck is stacked against you from the start; it is an uphill battle that most people would not think of taking on. As I tell our staff, “you all are very unique people, first off very few people choose to work such a physically demanding job and of those that try most cannot do it". We have a great staff of hardworking conscientious people. They never cease to amaze me with their eagerness to learn, there ability to understand, ask deeper questions and how they carry themselves.
We also have a business plan, one portion is strategic the other dynamic. Our long-term goals quite simply are to be sustainable both environmentally and economically. Our dynamic goals are geared more towards revenue generation and expenditure controls. The two are symbiotic but it is the strategic plan that we have the greater concerns about. Without the ability to be totally, sustainable we are not going to be in business long. At least ninety percent of small farms face this dilemma. When you find out that only nine cents out of every dollar is earned from farm activities you start to question the sanity of why anyone would get into a business like this (see Who in Their Right Mind).
We work full-time and I can attest to those numbers about outside income. We are a small farm and the total income from farm related activities, in a given year, has not been enough to cover just farm expenses, let alone what living expenses there are. Yet we persist, because each year we do a fraction better in terms of revenue, knowledge, our customer base, our reputation and our ability to expand yet keep the food safe and tasty. For us, it is important to do the right thing, to not shy away from hard work or impossible tasks and to help those that need help because that was instilled in me when I grew up. Growing safe, fresh food is as much a part of me as “off farm income”.
Buy Local: From a farmer that grows it not hucksters claiming they do
Posted by Brian
@ 06:58 PM EDT
We need water. When we moved on to the farm in August of 2002, the eastern seaboard was in the midst of a drought. One similar to the one we are under now and our crops are showing wear. It makes sense that we are in a drought, because I just added (this spring) the capacity to collect six thousand more gallons of rainwater. This brings our ability to collect a total of twelve thousand gallons.
This year we connected the tanks earlier than normal to collect water. I had the tanks hooked up by March ready for the first rain or snowmelt. In previous years, the tanks would be over flowing by July, which is why we bought more tanks. There have been years past when we had to dump thousands of gallons of collected rainwater at the end of the season to winterize the tanks.
We are also using drip tape with the openings spaced every twelve inches, which is how far we spaced our plants. Give or take an additional twelve inches. We have been able to conserve water use and precisely apply water to the vegetables. Yet, we still need water. We never did get a full twelve thousand gallons. As of the last precipitation, the total collected for this spring was six thousand gallons. Since then we have been watering weekly in an attempt to conserve water.
We need the corn to get deep taproots so we have to water them slowly and for long periods. Corn is a heavy feeder on the soil and the water table; the deeper their roots go the better the corn. Our backup plan has always been to pump water out of the stream that runs through our property. This increases our carbon footprint but is something that will need consideration if we do not get rain soon. With drip irrigation at least we can almost micro-manage water distribution.
Nothing on a farm is easy and that includes irrigation systems. Ours’ uses drip tape, which is a vast improvement over soaker hoses or overhead watering. Not only does it conserve water, you lose less water to evaporation and those plants that need pollination stand a better chance of getting pollen when it is dry and a breeze comes along.
It is not easy running drip tape thousands of feet and having three different zones to keep track of, but collected rainwater is a precious commodity and we treat it as such.
No surprise, watering has great affects on the look of the fruit and vegetable. Just like humans, plants can go for a time without food, but without water, they expire. With tomatoes if you water inconsistently it will develop cat facing and blossom end rot. Too much water and you can split the tomato. Therefore, being steady and consistent with all tomatoes gets them into a pattern they can live with. Trimming them has also been a way for us to increase yields and help the plant through drier then normal times. Less leaves means water intake can be reserved for the important parts, the tomato.
Our theory is to get rid of most of the leaf structure that does not support fruit bearing branches. This way the plant has more nutrients available to send to the fruits instead of feeding unnecessary branches and leaves. There is a point of no return so trimming needs the utmost care and discretion. I guess we could have spent thousands getting a well put in but it seemed like a better idea to capture free water falling from the sky. I have not regretted the decision but we do need rain.
We ran totally out of water and ordered four thousand gallons of water Friday. I told the farmer who went in on buying this year’s tanks and he thanked me profusely. “Why?” I asked, “Because we will get rain now.” “Oh wise one,” I said, “That is why I only purchased four thousand so I would have space to collect the rain that I was bringing”. Moreover, yes he was right, Saturday morning it rained and we got four tenths of an inch. Not much, but when you need rain you will take what ever you can get.
Buy Local: Support your local farmer, your community and your health.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:43 PM EDT
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You never stop learning, I guess that's the good thing, but why does the learning process have to be so expensive? For instance, it took six years of different mistakes before we got great corn, the one quote we got was from a repeat customer. The quote was "This is the best corn we've ever eaten". My first thought was "Damn, they are old as dirt, they've had to of eaten a ton of corn in their life time!" Then a wave of heat flushed my skin, and I was embarrassed. Not for the thought, that was pretty funny, but for how that comment made me feel emotionally. I was stunned, I felt victory, I felt sick to my stomach, but then it all led to a deep humbleness. All this happened in a few seconds, but I managed to say, "Thank you, that was very kind." We actually heard that a couple times, each time humbling and reaffirming.
The corn happened because we strengthened our defenses. We had chicken wire all round the bed and it was buried. Then we had problems with birds, ground hogs, raccoon and deer. After years of fighting the flora and the fauna we opted for a couple of high tech approaches and low tech as well.
For the birds, we used what's called a Bird-X eye scare. Hang a couple up and they will help scare the birds away. Something we found to work at night was a little solar powered flashing red light. Deer see it and think it is the eyes of a predator. It needs to be moved so the deer don't get used to it, but it does work in the dark. Deer, however, graze in the morning and early evening as well as night. Then there is deer netting. We've used it in various ways with great success in keeping the rest of the deer and other critters out. When used with wire hoops you can keep a wide space to protect the crop. We will on occasion lay two or three layers in an area to make sure the vegetable is secure. I think "an ounce of prevention is more things to sell at the market" or something close to that (it is hot and I can't be held accountable for every quote....).
Buy Local: If you don't then who will?
Posted by Brian
@ 07:49 PM EDT