Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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I count myself fortunate to be able to experience the change in seasons. Not that there is anything wrong with living in a mono-climate but, a change in seasons thrusts you into changing or makes a difference that has you either looking forward to the coming weather or mourning the passing of your favorite season. I love to grow fruits and vegetables but my window of growing is limited. Now we may be able to keep growing through the fall and winter. Thanks to a research grant funded by the USDA through the National Conservation Resource Services (NRCS). That is the good news.
The fact that the High Tunnel cost us three times more to install (we had to pick up that tab) but it was built on top of some of the worst ground on the property making that factoid icing on the cake.
We got the soil test back and it just confirmed what we had guessed. Even having come from the city I could still tell what good soil looked like. I played baseball on many of the city's fields. There were some that where lush and green with soft spongy soil, while others would be hardpan, infield and out. The soil in the high tunnel is bad and lacking in minerals and what is known as tilth (in essence fluffiness of the soil), it is low in PH and micronutrients and it is mostly sand and clay on probably fifty percent of the entire inside of the 96x35 foot print.
In July, we had planted some of the cherry tomatoes inside the tunnel once it was finished. They have turned out to be hardy plants. We had to feed them organic fertilizer because the soil was so bad and then watered them periodically. Periodically, in this case, meant that the plants where forgotten and watered incidentally.
To my surprise, after forgetting about them longer than usual, I walked inside the tunnel expecting crispy critters and found them alive but stunted. They were about a foot and a half-tall, straight stem with small leaves. Two plants actually had small cherry tomatoes on them. We have since watered them more frequently and gave them another side dressing of fertilizer. They are still growing but growing slowly. In the mean time, we are hauling in topsoil from around the farm and will take the compost pile and spread that throughout the tunnel.
Next comes planting seventy-five percent of the high-tunnel footprint in Hairy-Vetch and Winter Rye and then setting up the irrigation (we have decided on overhead sprinkler for this year). Once the grasses are established, we would turn the chickens loose and let them work their magic on the soil. We had to get a special exemption for this but the Natural Resources agent actually liked the idea, especially after showing him the sandstone that was in the south-west end of the tunnel. The cherry tomatoes are not growing like any tomato that I have ever grown. They are all one stalk towering straight up.
We planted the same kind outside and they grew nothing like these are growing. I know neglect, bad soil and lack of moisture has everything to do with it and is interesting to see how the plant is adapting to such a bad environment. It is going to be interesting watching these things grow into the winter and see how far they get before the chill really gets to them. We will also get a feel for how efficient the high tunnel is at keeping the tomatoes living late into the season. We have since planted spinach to also keep track off and experiment with.
In the mean time, we have some serious work to do before we can plant anything of substance in the tunnel. The PH needs will be raised to get it to at least 6.0 if not 6.5 and to do that we have to add lime and in this case water. The micronutrients concern me more and that is where we need to focus our efforts. Being organic has its limitations and it takes time to bring soils back to a healthy state, naturally, so we know that we will be using fertilizer in the short term. We need to meet the requirements of the program so there is some pressures to do something other than grow grass.
For nutrient rich soil we have found that we really need at least two years of planting cover crops, chickens, tilling, planting cover crops, chickens and so on, for at least four times in those two years. Our chickens are moved to new rye and vetch when their occupied ground has been devastated. Really, devastated, has the wrong connotation in this case. What the flock leaves is a fluffy, nutrient rich little specimen of Mother Earth; the soil is aerated and devoid of insects, weeds and grasses. There is this cyclical event with putting on nitrogen fixing grasses and keeping chickens concentrated in order to maximize their own nutrient potential. At least two out of three flocks stay inside their fences, which helps us with our nutrient calculations.
I am hoping that we can take flock three inside the high tunnel and keep them there in a feeble attempt at breaking their free roaming ways. So I get to grow into the winter. After this terrible season with the drought, marmarated brown stink bugs and high heat level it might actually be enjoyable to see how things turn out. We will have to see. In the mean time,
Buy Local: Emeril does.
Posted by Brian
@ 12:05 PM EDT
Growing up in the city in early summer we had what was called carnivals. There were rides like the swinging chairs (a wooden chair suspended from a disk by chains, that then rotated), ponies (get on and walk around in a circle, a small circle at that) and "stands of chance" where you could win dolls or toys by throwing something or knocking something down or popping a balloon. I remember the State Fair being advertised, but we never went, so I had no frame of reference of what a “Fair” was compared to a carnival.
My first visit to a county fair was not until I was nineteen; it was a sensory experience that is hard for me to describe; the smells, sounds, sights and feel was new and exhilarating. The main feeling I had at the time was that I was in a new world but an environment that I felt comfortable with a world of vitality, of aspirations and anticipation simple in its basic form and premise. Only later would I learn of the true complexities associated with the different facets of farming.
Everything was in sections. All the farm animals that the 4H’s were showing, the cows, goats, horses, pigs, poultry and sheep, all had their own houses. Children had sleeping bags in the stalls with their animals or next to their animals. Then there were different crafts that people made: furniture, picture frames, pictures, art, clothing, the baking section, canning section, jams, jellies and preserves. Anything that a person could make from hand was displayed and judged against others.
Our County Fair is going full tilt and I live in a household where one of us enters things into the fair's competitions. Late summer, early fall I go through the same ritual. My wife and I go to the fair and she enters her jams. This has been going on for a little over four years. She has never placed in all of her attempts but, God love her she keeps trying. This year was no different; we took the entries to the fairgrounds and entered them.
A few days later, we will attend our fair the Great Frederick Fair and see if any of her entries received any ribbons. What makes this situation worse is that our nieces and nephews have won various Blue ribbons for their cakes, cookies and other items at the Howard County Fair so the bar has been set.
Each year we go ready to take a picture of my wife near her winning entry. It has never worked out to be that way but it is still fun and exciting to go and see if she got a ribbon. She has been making jams and jellies with her mom for a bit and her jams sell well at the farmers market.
This year she decided to go to the Fair on Sunday with some of her family. The farmers market is still taking place so I went to the market Sunday instead of to the fair. As I was driving to the market, I had a fleeting thought, “Watch, she’ll win a Blue Ribbon this year,”. The farmers market went well, we had Mesclun mix that had come in looking beautiful and presented very well.
I got home, unpacked, put everything away and headed upstairs to clean the days grime off. My wife came home exhausted but elated. She did not get a Blue Ribbon but four of her six jams placed third. After the year we had with so many downs and a few ups’, it was poetic justice or maybe karma or divine intervention you be the judge. All I know is that it is the small things like family, friends, and little ribbons that make all the difference in the world once you come through the other end of a very challenging season.
Buy Local: You will find that your decision does make a difference to the environment
Posted by Brian
@ 10:09 AM EDT
This is the first year and time that we have created a farmer’s market. "We," are four producers who met each other last year at a Farmer's Market run by a profiteer. The market board consists of one fruit grower, two vegetable people, one baker and a beef person. We added a fifth producer in order to avoid ties when voting on issues, procedures and so forth.
Born out of frustration and our mistreatment at the benefit of the first market owner, our market took shape. As I said, the peasant farmers rose up against the wealthy landowner and started our own market on public property. For being the first year of the market, we have done some remarkable things. In our State, it usually takes two years to get a Farmer’s Market certified by our Department of Agriculture. Because of our diligence, organizational structure, consistency and promotion the market was granted certified status as of August 16. All of us that organized this market are thrilled, not only does it allow us to accept Women, Infant and Children (WIC) coupons but senior coupons as well. It is a coveted prize because the State markets and advertises certified farmer's markets in all of its publications and we are allowed to submit grant proposals and marketing proposals for funding requests
This journey has not been without some bumpy spots, bad feelings and controversy. When our small group setout finding a place for the new market, we also discussed being a producers only market and what that meant. Knowing what we all were growing and how some of us are still getting various fruit trees going we would not be able to meet all the needs of the buying public. As a board, we decided to allow vendors to bring in local fruits and vegetables sourced by local farms in the area. As long as local farmers supplied those fruits and vegetables brought in, it was allowed. Meaning someone could bring peaches, apples and other things that take years too establish on your farm, from local farms already established. The caveat was that the public would be notified and you had to source the food by farm name and contact. All we wanted was a sign that said these peaches came from X local orchard or farm.
What we started getting was vendors going to vegetable and fruit auctions and bringing them in and selling them at reduced prices, the infamous Huckster that I have mentioned before. When you have a growing year like we have had in Western Maryland it tries your patience, resolve, energy, financial stability, sanity and confidence. We had infestations of the Marmarated Stink Bug and the Rough Stink Bug. We had the greatest number of days over 95 degrees, the longest periods of no rain and some of the warmest temperatures at night that one can not help but question the validity of anti-global warming arguments.
We have been growing tomatoes and peppers organically for twenty-two years. In all that time, we have never faced what we have this year with the bugs, blossom end rot and just plain looks of the tomatoes. We planted four varieties totaling one hundred and twenty plants. We have had four customers for the last five years that have bought bushels of Roma’s for canning. We had to call them and tell them that we would not be able to fill their orders. We pointed them elsewhere but I do not think the people we sent them to have had any better success.
So, it has been a hard growing season, even the big organic people in our area were having problems but, that is farming. Some years are good, some are bad and then some are very bad. We all take that risk going into this business. I have said it before, I heard once that there is no mercy on a farm; I think that there is there is just no mercy for the farmer.
Week after week, we go to the market with the things that have survived the onslaught of nature and try to put on a good face, despite our dismay. When you look across the isle and you see that there are hucksters passing themselves and there wares off as a local farmer a primal instinct emerges from within me and I find that my wife is talking me back off of the nuclear reaction I am about to have. The WIC program specifically states that you can only accept WIC for what you produce, period, yet the same hucksters do not follow that regulation either. Okay, I am Polly-Anna but integrity is part of the program.
We want this to be a producer’s only market because the community deserves to have fresh, healthy, safe, locally sourced food. That is how the market is advertised and that is how the by-laws were written. We are addressing the situation and we will take care of the hucksters. There are plenty of farmer's markets to attend if you are a huckster, not all of the markets are certified and most are not "producers only". It is really too late in the season now but next year the hammer is coming down on those that do not meet the standards that the rest of us locals hold ourselves to.
In the mean time, we continue to encourage each other, discuss the latest news on stink bugs, irrigation techniques and other issues we face as producers. The market foot traffic has increased, our landlord, if you will, has requested that we commit to a long term agreement, coupled that with certified status and we really have nothing to complain about.
Buy Local: If the fruit and vegetables look too perfect then chances are you are dealing with a huckster or are in a grocery store.
Posted by Brian
@ 08:01 PM EDT
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There are things we grow that are not the best looking when compared to local conventional farms and definitely not the Industrial Food Complex. So when we take our heirloom tomatoes to the market we have to really sell them (convince the consumer that the taste is better then the look).
Then something magical happens, we get a repeat customer that by-pass all the beautiful looking, perfectly round, no blemish tomatoes and stops at the stand to not only buy ours but proceed to tell us how wonderful the tomato tasted. I cannot help but say, “Thank you,” and then tell them, “That is the taste your grandparents had when they were growing up”.
Sometimes, I get a quizzical look so I will explain genetic engineering and chemical usage and adulterations, which conspired to make the common tomato transportable and last longer. I will explain how they pick green tomatoes to ship across the country and while in transit spray the tomatoes with ethylene to turn them from green to red. Notice I did not say ripen them. I said it turns the tomato from green to red. Pick one of those tomatoes up and give it a gentle squeeze, oh heck squeeze hard. You will not hurt it. Pick up a tomato out of your garden and try the same thing. You will see, feel and smell the difference. Then there are the trace amounts of ethylene that stay on the tomato and you got a green hard sphere that is perfectly red.
I know I should not, but I do take it personally when I hear how ugly the tomato looks and the person does not stay long enough for me to sell the tomatoe's virtues. I will watch the consumer go over to a huckster and by the perfect looking tomato they can get their hands on. Some one said, “There is no accounting for taste,” at the time I thought it was because the pink house was painted pink. However, then again the same applies to the human palette.
We just keep hoping that more people learn so we can make enough money to cover our expenses. We will still treat the land as the precious resource it is and relish our chance to nurture it back to health and make a little dent in reversing the Industrial Food Complex (IFC) deplorable use of all of our scarce resources.
I know all that has been written about the egg recall, the one thing that struck me was a picture I saw. I wanted to use the photograph, that a news agency published, of the man behind the egg farms . There he was coming out of his office with his crisp white shirt, smartly tied necktie, sharp lines on his pants, shinny shoes and clean hands and fingernails. Then I wanted to put a picture of myself or any other local farmer against his. The caption would capture what I have been writing about the IFC for years. From whom would you want to buy your food? The man in the suit or the man or woman holding food raised for the family and community.
In the mean time we will keep growing healthy, organic fruits, vegetables, eggs and maybe chicken meat.
Buy Local: You are the ones that can make a difference
Posted by Brian
@ 12:05 PM EDT