Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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The journey they have chosen

We are two-thirds into our growing season.  The spring salad and greens did well.  The organic strawberry pick-your-own was an overwhelming success, the corn came in for the first time in two years and potato harvests have been good.  String beans are coming in at about eighty pounds a week and we finally got our first “word of mouth” sale on the organic chickens.  Just to even out all the good things. I found out I have to start a five-year inoculation protocol because I am dangerously allergic to bee and wasp stings.  I guess being stung as many times as I have (at least 50 since moving here) has not helped.

We started at a new farmers market, located in the city, that is truly a producer’s only market.  I know you are thinking, “aren’t all farmers' markets producers only” and no, they are not.  Always be weary of the huckster, ask your farmer questions about his or her sustainable practices, the names of their vegetables (is it a Diva cucumber? an heirloom tomato?) and where their farm is located. 

Caveat Emptor is the way you should approach farmers markets.  There are more posers trying to make a fast buck by not growing but buying in bulk and re-selling.  Do not be afraid to ask questions, they will only serve to help you.  Your farmer is there because he or she is proud of what they have to offer.  To do what they do is truly amazing.  Think about that, before they even plant a seed great care has been taken to make sure the soil is ready and at its optimum.  It takes time and energy to keep weeds and insects down and virul and bacterial outbreaks minimized. 

The latter issue is important and makes soil and crop rotation so vital to the operational health of the soil.  Not only does resting soils and planting nitrogen fixing grasses and other biomass greens help to maintain soil health it reduces the potential for major infestations.  Your farmer will know about this, they will know about integrated pest management and management intensive grazing, if they have animals.  Most will speak to the trials and failures that they face and how hard it is to get fresh, safe produce to you.  Farmers are not perfect they are human but the ones that take great care of the environment and their animals are the ones that truly deserve to succeed. 

Your farmer will know intimate details about the products they sell, be it animal, vegetable or mineral.  I always thought farmers talked so much because of the solitude of the job.  Now, I think, it is just shear knowledge gained from the struggle of providing food for their community.  There is a plethora of experience and knowledge obtained each growing season.  No one season is ever the same, I go back through years of our daily notes and the only constant is problems.

Problems in the form of insects, drought, disease, and predator attacks, infrastructure breakdowns, equipment failure, bee stings and so the list goes.  I have nothing but admiration for anyone that chooses to grow.  When asked to help educate, I give of my time and knowledge willingly in hopes that these people have an easier time then we have.  Yes, I joke about the sanity of making the choice to grow but, food never tasted so good.  Small family farms struggle, the life is difficult.  However hard, they should be respected because it is the journey they have chosen. 

Buy Local: Why support the IFC when they are the ones placing the environment in peril?

 
 

Full time work

It is unique how we use euphemisms to describe the human condition.  Like "No good deed goes unpunished", means usually you sacrifice time by helping someone or thing and you get dumped on for your sacrifice.  There is, "Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out," meaning you are no longer welcome and cannot leave fast enough.  Another lesser-known one is "Off farm income,” that's the euphemism for “works two to four jobs in order to pay all the bills associated with small farming and living”. 

Off farm income is a category tracked by the USDA.  When you look at those numbers, in the small farm catagory, it is appallinb.  As of 2010, 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?  Why did we compromise the small family farm?  What dove tails with the demise of the small family farm is manufacturing.  As consumers, why have we left ourselves so vulnerable to other countries.  We buy American as much as we can, it is almost as hard as growing.  Try it, see for yourself.    

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

 

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Superordinate Goals

In group dynamics there is a term that describes how you can get the group to be a cohesive entity.  Sometimes in groups you have a “them” versus “us” mentality not a “we are all in this together”.  If that occurred, the reason the group is together in the first place gets lost and productivity suffers greatly.

I know you are asking yourself what does this have to do with farming.  What we have read is that you cannot integrate an old flock of layers with a new flock of layers without taking certain precautions.  One method is to make sure you have a greater number of new hens to old.  That way the old hens are somewhat intimidated by the shear number of new birds and not as likely to attack.

That turns out not to be as true as logic dictates.  There is a pecking order in the flock.  The alpha hen literally pecks at the “perceived” offender until the offender runs away.  Every so often, one will stand her ground and feathers are ruffled.  If I am around I yell with a deep timber and loud tone and that usually settles things.

Recently, we introduced our newest flock to the hens in the horse trailer.  Coadee and I spent the day off and on policing the transition.  The older hens did not take kindly to the intruders and made it quite clear.  Coadee for her part has learned to identify the sounds of aggression versus egg laying.  She does not like when harmony is not balanced.  When needed Coadee polices and keeps the peace.  Once she jumps into the pen the only thing the chickens do is hide.

Still as one day turned into two the behavior was about the same.  The group was distinctly divided with the old layers occupying the trailer and surrounding area and the new hens were off in the trees far away from them.  A peculiar phenomenon, we found early on, was hens like drinking water out of bowls.  It is not due to thirst, they have plenty of water in drip buckets all day but when my wife fills the bowls with water it is a stampede.  It is an animal activity that brings a smile to your face.

The new hens saw this and slowly came over to see what was happening.  One by one, the older hens would drive them away, until I had had enough and went in to scatter the old hens and let the new ones get a drink.  Day two turned into three and four and behavior was slowly changing.  Not much but I saw some integration.  Day five was the turning point.

A superordinate goal is a technique used to bring two opposite groups together in order to achieve a common goal.  Common goals take on many forms basically boiling down to the groups uniting because they both face the same issue.  As an example, take that of an office environment divided.  Both parties are working against each other.  Suddenly a new boss is brought in, one that is terrible.  Both sides of the office face the same situation now, a terrible boss.  Not soon after, the groups unite to fight the terrible boss.  A kinship develops and the whole office works toward a common goal, getting rid of the terrible boss.  How does this apply to hens?

Friday night, the end of day five there was a terrible, wind, thunder, lightning and rain storm.  We had at least twenty trees come down.  Some trees came close to the trailer others in the corn, string beans and driveway.  The storm lasted for several hours and knocked out power all around the region.  It took us two days to clear things and we are still cleaning up a week after.  I wonder what it was like in that trailer with all this noise, lightning and trees breaking and falling around the hens.  Did this storm give them a sense that they all survived something together?

This is merely observation on my part but when I turned my attention to the hens, they no longer separated into old and new.  They were co-mingling, scratching and pecking and when the water was poured in the bowl, there was much less pecking and more of a mix drinking at the same time.  The other thing that changed was that the new hens were getting into the trailer sooner; some were even on the top rung of the roost with the older women.  I observed a stark behavioral difference with the flock.  It is not Shangri-La but there is a lot less pecking and more intermingling.

I thought maybe having lived through such a terrible night that might have brought them closer together.  Yes, I am anthropomorphizing but over the years, I have had flocks that have taken weeks to acclimate.  Yet here they are together within two weeks of introduction.  Besides, I have learned that nothing brings unity quicker than superordinate goals.  

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