Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Spring has come and gone, which for us means strawberries season ended. We have over one-thousand plants in the ground and they produced fruit. Last year we had four hundred plants in the ground and opened up an organic pick your own strawberry patch. We did not advertise because this was our first time. We needed to get our feet wet to figure out what we were doing right and wrong. As is the only constant on the farm, we were doing more wrong then right, but we knew that might happen. We wanted a soft open so we would not disappoint too many people and get past our learning curve.
In order to have strawberries for a couple of weeks, we planted two-hundred early and two hundred late season varieties. We have been having weird weather, last year, was hotter than normal, and both types of strawberries came in at the same time, which turned out to be good because demand was overwhelming. Turnout was from word of mouth and our email list but we quickly learned we did not have enough to meet demand. That is why we planted another six-hundred bring this years total to one thousand plus.
We did a lot of research to find out if Maryland ever had a strawberry organic pick your own. We talked to the people at the Department of Agriculture, some of the older organic farmers and scoured news articles. It seemed that we were going to be the first farm in the state to do that. Most of our colleagues said that we should sell them for a premium and not as a pick your own. My thought was as the people make their way out to the berries they would see the chickens and other things growing and come back for them.
Sounded like a good idea but it did not really materialize. Probably because we opened and before we knew it, we had to turn people away. It was the classic mistake of under estimating demand and consumers not being happy with being mislead. Although that was not our intention, as I said we did not even advertise but word spread.
We have worked the kinks out and once again tried a limited pick your own, while at the same time selling berries at the farmers market. We love strawberries and have grown them every year since we moved in. Strawberries are one of those future plants, like asparagus or grapes, apples or any fruit tree for that matter. Which means you put all this labor upfront but you do not get anything until the mature plant is capable of producing its fruit.
For our grapes, it is seven years and counting. I know some of you are reading this and turning a skeptical eye. I would question it too, however, I live it and I can tell you the plant struggles to maintain existence and if you have as steep of a learning curve as we tend to have it might even be extended still. I think our first bunch of edible grapes came in the sixth year, by that time we had experimented with every organic fungicide and insecticide there was. We still do not produce a sell-able amount but I do get a few every time I mow the land around them. Grapes are very temperamental; we picked the ones best suited for our area and climate. We missed the part about virus and bacterial resistance but that has now become a lessoned learned.
As for the other long-term fruits and vegetables, they are slowly filling in and growing. Weeding is always a problem but we use and reuse landscape fabric and straw. Problem is sometimes the straw itself is not put down thick enough and its seeds grow. Talk about adding insult to injury. As I have heard thousands of times, “nothing good ever came from something easy” however, it sure would be nice just occasionally.
Buy Local: Monsanto may have the upper hand but you have the choice!
Posted by Brian
@ 07:40 AM EDT
Strawberries have come in fast and heavy and as quickly come to a halt in less then three weeks. However, the work and care done the other 49 weeks is what makes those three weeks possible. People do not see the toil and hard labor that it takes to bring organic berries to the market. However, when you find people that really get it their appreciation is humbling and empowering.
I do not always talk about the human interaction that goes on at the farm and farmers markets. Most all of it is positive; I still do not like the whole haggle thing, mainly because there is no haggling on an organic farm. You follow the tenets, you do not haggle on whether you do or do not meet minimum space requirements for birds, you give them more then they need. You do not cut corners, or fudge when growing fruits and vegetables organically. The guidelines are mostly clear, but if you follow how farmers grew before WWII chances are you are organic. If you mimic Mother Nature, you will be successful in growing. I wish I could point to the road of riches in the industry, but we have yet to find it ourselves. Nevertheless, what I experienced this weekend at the market was magical, heart warming and intrinsically gratifying.
A mom stopped by with her two-year-old daughter, we had strawberries and serviceberries for sale and the mom let her two year old eat a serviceberry then a strawberry. The look on that child’s face enjoying the berries was pure delight with an emotion that was honest and pristine, one that only the purity of adolescences brings. Her smile was large and she was not stopping at just eating one. Her mom quickly bought some strawberries to let her eat them. Her daughter was having none of that; she was going back to where she knew the berries were good.
Eventually, the mom distracted her enough to start eating the ones she had purchased at the same time apologizing profusely about her daughter eating too many berries. “Truth is,” I said, “I could stand here all day and watch her eat those berries”. I looked the mom in the eyes and said, “We do what we do because of you, your daughter and her children and everyone that will come after us. Seeing her joy is payment enough, you do not have to apologize,” I said. The mom may not have understood my statement but I saw why our struggles matter, defined in the simple smile of a child enjoying a piece of natural unadulterated fruit. It was fruit that had no amendments whatsoever, no sprays, GMO’s, nothing, just raw berries at their best.
It was a heartwarming experience for me, a simple reminder of why we took on this job in the first place. It was also a sign that we are doing something correct, that our food is tasty, healthier, safer and fresher then the industrial food complex could ever chemically engineer. It doesn't hurt that we have gotten off to the best start in ten years, something, which we really needed from a confidence standpoint.
Later, when I got back to the farm, I told my wife the story and she said, “Well, you know it is good when a two year old keeps going back and I could not have agreed more.
Buy Local: Stop GMO and you will stop the poisoning of our earth and our bodies.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:06 PM EDT
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A rooster hit me the other morning. For some that would sound like the start of a joke. However, for me that was just the start of my morning. It was a morning that included an exercise replete with spring fever, the drive for procreation, layers and of course roosters. I will explain later.
When we began raising free-range organic eggs, we started slowly. The first flock was seventeen weeks old when we got them (which knocked them out of the organic category) and there were six of them, all layers. One of the first things we learned was that you did not need a rooster in order to get eggs from a hen. After reading and then hearing stories about insane, violent behaviors of attacking roosters, having hens was just fine by us. We had gotten comfortable with cover cropping, field rotation and mixing grasses and legumes for the chickens to forage. Family and friends truly liked the taste of the eggs so we felt we were ready to expand.
In order to sell eggs as “Certified Organic” you need to get hens when they are less then two days old. Because we did not know any better we expected that we would get layers when we ordered fifteen one-day-old peeps. I had seen how they sex chicks (i.e., determine male or female) and some chicks are known to be hens based on their color (they are called sexlinks). We have Rhode Island Reds, because they are a Heritage Breed and a recovering species, and apparently, they are not as easy to sex as one thinks.
When you get day old layers, it is inevitable that you will get a male. It has happened every time we have gotten day olds. The number of chicks does not matter, we have gotten 15, got a rooster, got 100, ended up with four roosters that time. We purchased 50 this last time two are roosters. The very last purchase was for 100 and we ordered a “straight run”. There are three categories of peeps, cockerels, straight run and layers. Cockerels are all males and least expensive, straight run is a mix with no sexing (if you order 50 you may get 10 layers and 40 roosters), that is the chance you take with a straight run. Then there are layers, which are the most expensive but at least 90+ percentages of all of them are layers.
I am a shining example of why city people are made fun of in rural areas. After our first purchase of day olds, I called the farm store and asked about our recent chicken order. "Did we get a rooster with the hens"? I asked. "No, probably not" was the answer then followed by "but we can't guarantee all hens at sale but probably not". So I described the chicken that was more developed then the rest and said that it sounds like it is trying to crow. "Yep," she said, “you got a rooster.” Without even thinking when I heard the word rooster I blurted out a question that, as the words were forming in my mind and my lips were audiblizing the errant thought, I knew it was the dumbest question a supposed farmer could ask.
You can do two things with a rooster on a farm. One is to eat him. The other is to let him fertilize the eggs. That is it; they also protect the hens but those are the only things roosters can do on a farm. Anybody having heard the birds and bees speech knows this.
Of course, I knew this, once the words were ringing in my ears, but as I was forming the question, and the sales clerk on the other end was hearing it, I couldn't stop myself. When she told me it was a rooster I was dumb founded "What am I going to do with a rooster," I blurted out mindlessly. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line or maybe muffled laughter I do not remember. What I do remember is questioning why I had just asked such a simple question. She composed herself enough to say that indeed we could eat it or we could you use it for its reproductive capability. Neither of which were planned nor wanted, so I ended the conversation quickly. So the damage was done, at least I hadn't given her my name
We never wanted a rooster, we were not at the processing stage and we did not want to hatch chicks or deal with crazy violent birds. With our luck if we hatched chicks we would get more males then females. Roosters were not a thought until we started seeing and hearing the signs. By that time it is too late, it is yours. We tried to sell it, then offered to give it away but had no takers. Over time, we have found a fourth function a rooster can serve on a farm and that is ambience. We love to hear them crow as do our customers. Our customers see a beautiful Rhode Island Red in all his plumage and in full throat. We still keep roosters around to have a run of the yard, hens to keep them company, and protect.
I have learned when it is spring and you open the chicken house door the last thing you want to do is be between an amorous rooster and a flock of hens. The rooster leaped from his high perch and flew out the door way. My head was down as I was looking at the hens and my body was in the door way. The rest they say is history, the rooster is okay, I got scracthed a little bit. So far their have been no signs of insanity, violent behavior, or unprovoked attacks. Oh, and the roosters have been fine too.
Buy Local - From a farmer not from a chain hard selling the words
Posted by Brian
@ 12:04 PM EDT