Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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We closed last year’s books and, as was documented here, it was brutal. Just like investment portfolio’s we have to diversify further. I do not think the average American understands how difficult being a small farm can be. However, I cannot help but think agriculture is in everyone’s blood. We were an agrarian society not too long ago. How else can you explain a billion dollar home gardening industry? Whether you are planting annuals and perennials around your house or plant a vegetable garden you are working the soil. For the longest time I introduced myself as a large gardener. I still have reservations about the moniker of farmer because I have too much deference for those that do it full-time.
When you have invasive species, (BMSB) that destroy crops being small makes losses greater,. You need to diversify in order to protect overall income if you are a small farm. However, being small can magnify your losses when you suffer damage in those diversified crops too. We thought by adding fruits, jams, honey and cooking classes that we were diversified enough to avoid the devastation of this past year. We have learned we were not.
There is a tremendous unmet demand for humanely raised, free range, organic chicken in our area. Given that demand, we have decided to get into the meat bird market. We will start with about fifty total. We tried to diversify with fruits, vegetables and eggs but last year taught us that true diversification is not just different fruits and vegetables. It is animals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, honey, cooking classes and agra-tainment. Using the financial portfolio analogy it is mixing risky and non-risky activities to offset down turns in one or the other sectors.
Humanely raised free range, organic chickens seem to be one of the ways to augment the fruit and vegetable side. It has taken us nine years to get to this point. It has been an arduous journey and emotional roller coaster. I am not proud of this decision; I make it knowing that we need to survive economically. I know what I have written before and I do feel like a hypocrite. However, I did put my money, energy and time where my mouth was but we have no options left if we are going to be economically sustainable.
We grow the best we can, and price so that we get a small profit after expenses. If we had 100 acres of corn and the BSMB attacked the outside perimeter closest to the tree line (according to current research), we would have harvested more than sixty percent. However, because we had less land, the bugs overwhelmed what we did plant and left us with nothing. Sales in spring crops and late fall crops helped us lessen the loss but we ended up with a net loss for the season.
Polling took place of our customer base asking if humanely raised free range organic chickens would be something they would consider purchasing from us. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The cost/revenue analysis looks promising once we reach the break-even point on startup costs. We are not going to process them we are taking them to a humane processing facility. I do not know what to say or what to expect. I told my wife I would try this one and see how it goes. I look upon this next step as part of my own maturation process as a small farmer. Nevertheless, there is this small voice still inside me screaming to fight to remain a viable vegetable operation and leave animals out. Given what we have learned of the BMSB they are here to stay and either, we fold or role with what we are given.
In order to sell to markets and restaurants, we need certification for on farm processing. We have to submit, plans, process flows, contamination points, process controls and measurement frequency rates and other actions. Then during the day of processing do everything you said you would do in the documentation. There is great demand for free-range chicken and rabbit meat. Each will meet certified organic status. Our processing certification covers both animals. It is a fundamental change but one that will keep us sustainable. In the mean time:
Buy Local: Support your community farmer or start a garden, even if it is two vegetables, it will be worth the satisfaction.
Posted by Brian
@ 09:32 PM EDT
Part of our plan all along was to get a working dog when we went to farming full-time. My wife, being a dog person, did the research to find the right breed and personality for chickens. The reason for waiting is that dogs, especially working dogs, need training and attention during their first year of apprenticeship. This is the critical time in development when the dog learns what is and is not acceptable behavior, where its boundaries are and what its jobs are.
If we got a dog now, our fear was that we would end up with a wild animal because we were not able to spend enough time with it upfront. Working dogs are a special breed unto themselves. Because of the decline of small farms, some working class dogs are almost near extinction. The English Sheppard is one of those rare breeds and is known as America's farm dog. Given that all of our losses have come during the day, it made sense to have a working dog to protect and keep the chickens in their individual pens. Locked away at night, the chickens are protected and do not need tending.
We found two breeders in our state. The one breeder is three miles from our farm. Small world or not, it is just another one of those links in a chain of events that you had know idea you were even forging.
We went to the breeder’s house and looked at what was left of the litter. You know how things just fall into place and you find yourself making a decision that (up until that instant) you believed otherwise? A decision already made but with the exception of a series of events; one after another then another until you realize one link follows the next. At times, I believe it is created by divine intervention. We were walking the farm with Carol (the breeder) and I conveyed my concern for the dog and not having the time really needed to train due to my work demands.
We continued to walk the property and watch the mother and father work the farm animals and teach the pups. They were very impressive working dogs, quite intuitive, aware and communicative. The parents would frolic with the pups, but kept an eye on the farm animals. I explained to Carol that I could take two weeks off to train the pup but after that, I would have to go back to work. I explained that I would spend two hours a day (at night) with her during the week and all day on weekends.
However, I still did not think that was sufficient time for a working dog, so young. Telling her I really wanted her approval or better to be wrong and her tell me that. I know what it takes to train a working dog, especially a young one and I was concerned. At one point, I stated directly, “So, you do not think we should buy a dog?” Her answer was what I had expected. She said “No”.
The tour continued. Watching the parents was amazing. We have been to dog trials before so we know what working dogs are capable of, given proper training. This was not our first time around working dogs. At one point in time, she said, “You know, because you are so close, why not drop the dog off during the week for a few days and come back and pick it up for the weekend”. She went on to say we should spend the first two weeks with the dog bonding. After the two weeks, she was willing to take the dog back and continue to train her during the week. We would then pick her up on Friday and work with her over the weekend.
We finished the tour, which in and of it self, was impressive. Carol is strongly entrenched in bringing back nearly extinct heritage breeds. You name the animal type she had a heritage breed she is raising. Her farm and animal husbandry was just amazing to us. We thanked her and went home to think about the decision; we still had some apprehension about being able to meet the dog's needs. Then this past Saturday I twisted a knee trying to catch an arrant chicken.
See what I mean about things taking place in the right sequence and at the right time, linked one after the other? Before you know it you have a complete chain and the last link is whether you decide to accept these signs or you stick with the original plan. A friend reminded me of a saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. Well, we decided to purchase a female English Sheppard and we named her fer Coadee. This is her stretching before morning workout.
fer Coadee is Scottish for protector, which is fitting because her main job will be just that. English and Scottish sheppards brought these dogs to the new world. An animal as noble and hardworking as an English Sheppard deserves a dignified name.
She will end up being called Coadee but she will always be introduced as fer coadee "the protector".
Buy Local: The more you source your food the healthier you will eat.
p.s. today we found one of the 15 lost layers, from two weeks ago, a live. Coadee has paid her first dividend.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:25 PM EDT
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We have to tear down the high tunnel and get four hundred strawberry plants in the ground, then fifty plus blue berry bushes and then half-acre of lettuces and another half-acre of potatoes planted. We had hoped to have half of the lettuces and some tomatoes already planted in the tunnel but when the tunnel came down everything stopped. We were getting ready to plant inside the following week. The Tuesday before planting it snowed, which in and of itself was not bad. The fact that it caved the roof in was.
We now have a four ton twisted mess of steel to safely disassemble and pack into a roll-off trailer. The operative word is “safe” given the different stress and tension points in the structure. The high-tunnel was put together like an erector set. There are thousands of bolts, nuts and screws to un-tighten. However, there is the inherent danger of someone getting hurt if we are not careful when working around steal that has stress pressure.
Much like bucking a tree and cutting it up, you have to be aware of what part of the tree is under tension and where that tension is coming from. Is tension coming from the top or tension pushing up from the bottom? The way to cut each type depends on knowledge and the will to live a long life. While cutting you can bind the saw or worse have the force of the wood under tension released towards you. Basically, hurting or killing you, I do not know of any other options when that occurs.
Given the fact that we have to plant spring crops, we will have to split the crews with two planting and three tearing down. I need to till the area for planting, at night, draw up the plant location and turn our most senior worker loose with her own help, while the rest of us safely bring down four ton of twisted metal and cut it up to fit in the roll-off bin. The goal is to minimize air space and fill the bin, as tightly as possible with metal.
At this time, you are probably thinking about insurance and if it was covered or not. Yes, it is covered, they sent out the adjuster, and then a structural engineer and now the go-ahead to start de-construction has come. No matter, we will suffer a loss because we insured the thing for less then it cost us to put up. Do not ask I would just come out looking bad in the end if I answered.
If you have read our exploits, you know deconstruction is my forte. Nevertheless, to do this crushes dreams we had. I mean we were really looking forward to using the high tunnel to get the first tomatoes, or corn, strawberries and other crops earlier. We were eating fresh Maryland tomatoes in December so, we know what is was like to extend the growing season. When the structure came down it brought with it a lot of plans and things we wanted to test. Tomatoe for instance and rain.
My hypothesis is that acid rain would leave chemical residues on tomatoes and leaves outside (duh!), while tomatoes, using drip irrigation in the high tunnel would not. The true evaluation for me would have been what is in the tomato itself. What I really wanted to know is when compared do the tomatoes themselves have any levels of chemicals in them. If so, what kind and how do the levels compare from the control group to the experimental group.
The control group gets overhead watering naturally (outside) while drip irrigation at the base of the experimental plant (inside), comes from one of our four three-thousand gallon rain collection barrels. At least that was the original test plan. For now, we will table the idea and get to it at another time. In the mean time:
Buy Local: Food is life sustaining and growing is sustaining life.
Posted by Brian
@ 05:18 PM EDT