Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Lingering Doubts

Henry Ford once said "if you believe you can or believe you cannot you are right".  If there is doubt, self-fulfilling proficiency is likely to occur.  If you believe you can you have a greater chance of success.  I have to keep reminding myself that as doubt creeps in while we grow food.  We expand a little bit each year but we really are at critical mass with land use.  We need to incorporate conventional land into the total organic acreage in order to rotate chickens, crops and fallow land accordingly.

It takes three years to certify land as organic.  After three years, we can use it to plant and free range our chickens.  That land then becomes part of the total rotation of our farm model.  This idea was brought fourth by Joel Salatin and what we have seen is nothing but positive.  Fertilizer costs are down, we use annual grasses and legumes, which add biomass, and boosts soil fertility.  The chickens take care of bugs, eat the grasses and legumes and leave the ground covered in healthy organic manure.  Okay maybe healthy is not a good adjective to describe manure, it is though when you talk about the soil. 

We are trying to get a National Resource Conservation Service grant in order to help manage the weeds and nutrition for the conventional land.  We are in the process of filling out the paper work and getting it in before the deadline comes or we wait another year, and somehow, keep weed pressure down.

The amount of paper work grows each year, as we are now GAP certified.  Good Agricultural Practices is worthwhile knowledge but the paper work on top of the organic documentation is substantial.  We put off getting GAP certified because I thought it was something that we are already doing.  However, we are dealing with a vendor that requires GAP and if we can sell to them, that will help us turn the corner this year.  In order to get into the black we are going to concentrate on growing black and yellow squash in a big way.

Our farm manager is now working five days a week, four-hour days so we can keep up with harvest and delivery.  We are planning to deliver seven hundred pounds total each week.  Last year squash harvest started in June and ended in September.  When we worked out the numbers, we needed to get a certain price in order to end up in the black.  At least that is the plan.

Weather on the other hand will really dictate the outcome.  Our integrated pest management strategy includes crop rotation and chickens eating enough insect larvae to take some pressure off the crops and of course, we had the artic vortex.  What I learned about insects, especially BMSB, is that prolonged temperatures below freezing kill hibernating bugs.  We also found that the vortex brought a HUGE heating bill, not only for the house but for the layers as well.  Our collection tanks are filling with the spring rains we just need about six thousand more gallons of rain and we will be at capacity. 

The corn has been planted so the anticipation starts, my record of accomplishment with organic sweet corn is dismal.  However, for me fried tomatoes and corn on the cob is summer and represents a lot of what was good in my childhood.  Beside, the Sugar Pearl corn that we plant is as close to Silver Queen as we will ever get.  The work is hard, sometimes painful, and definitely dangerous but if you keep the big picture in mind the end result benefits more then we can wrap our hands around. 

Buy Local: It does not have to be organic but at least it should be local. 



Find Something You Love

"Find something you love and you will never work a day in your life".  Whoever said that lied right through their teeth.  I work at something I love, but it is the hardest thing I have ever done, with the exception of having my wife go through open-heart surgery.  I am not saying that what I do does not bring me joy, satisfaction, self-reliance, resilience, and the ability to feed those that can afford it and those unable.

However, growing food, raising animals, fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts is at times overwhelming.  That said, I would encourage anyone that has a passion for putting a seed in a pot, nurture it until it is ready to be transplanted, and then care for it while it reaches maturity, only to harvest and savior that devotion is a feeling I cannot adequately describe with words, but encourage anyone to try.  The feelings and emotions surrounding the small act of pulling a tomato off the vine and eating it out in the field brings months of dedication into focus.  The intrinsic value of such an act does make you forget the hardships as much as bring into focus the result of that energy and sacrifice.

The grueling days spent out in the heat, weeding, tying tomato or bean plants, weeding or keeping watch over the plants for signs of distress or weeding again, are all after thoughts as the juice from the tomato passes over your taste buds and a little trickle runs down the side of your lip.  The taste, firmness and freshness are unmatched by anything you have had before, save last year’s, crop.  That bite places me in a different mental state and emotion.  For me, none of the hard work matters, it is cerebral and the taste, texture and smell have all the attention.

We started growing organic in 1990, before there were organic standards in the United States.  I was trying to lose weight and I was not a vegetable eater.  For me during the summer, fried tomatoes and corn on the cob slathered in butter covered in salt was a meal.  I was not very good at eating vegetables, peas, string beans, spinach or any other for that matter.  Then I started to research what vegetables gave you the most vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.  My reasoning was if I eat those foods, then I could at least not have to eat many vegetables just these powerhouses and go from there.

That is when I learned that chemicals banned in the US where sold to other countries and shipped back to us on fruits and vegetables in “trace amounts”.  To me trace amounts means the existence of; if it exists, you are ingesting carcinogenic materials.  Say what you want about trace amounts, but in my lifetime, there have been more chemicals proven toxic and cancer causing and profit has always been the driving force for its use and longevity.  I grew up during the great tobacco wars of misinformation, junk science and the greed of the manufacturers.  While at the same time, watching family members who were smokers get cancer and suffer until their demise.

Like anything, there was a learning curve or vertical incline as I experienced, now I am in the learning curve.  Back then, I just wanted to eat healthy; we supported our local farmer to supplement our own food.  We bought local meats and chickens and continued our own education into growing.  Thirteen years later, we took the leap and started to grow professionally.  There have been hard times and then there have been hard times.  Nevertheless, after seven years, we see the light at the end of the tunnel and we know it is not a train.  This year is our tipping point; the momentum from this year will carry us into the next.  We already have products sold and we are not even at the planning stages.

You have to have a passion, resilience to failure, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, patience, fortitude and if you have animals the ability to be the first line veterinarian.  Then there is that need to kill, which is hardly talked about.  At some point in time it will happen, might be a mousetrap or bait, it might be a groundhog or snake, but there is going to be a time when fending off a nuisance will lead to lethal methods.  That part we were not prepared for and had to adjust.

It is just something we love, eating a meal (protein, vegetable, starch and homemade dessert) and know it is our labor and our love that have brought this bounty to our table.

Buy Local: It is what is for dinner.


Walk the Walk

It is farmer’s market time.  From the beginning of our foray into growing professionally, eventually you hear someone say “So and so grows using organic methods but they are not certified”.  Then it is usually followed up with "They say it is too expensive," or "The paper work is too much".  Oh, really, I am sorry I just do not buy it.  As a consumer if you hear that walk away.  If they are going to talk the talk then they should walk the walk.

These folks usually are wannabe’s and are in it for the money.  If they were true to the principles, they could register as "Organic Exempt".  It is the minor leagues of certified organic and costs a whopping thirty-five dollars to register and you do not get audited, you do have to submit the appropriate paperwork but it is no where never the volume the certified folks have.  What they are really telling you is they follow organic practices until something goes wrong then they pull out conventional herbicides, insecticides and fungicides to save their crops.

The first excuse “It is too expensive”.  What are they talking about?  Is it the certification fee or the cost of inputs for use in the growing practice?  If it is the former, it is simply not true.  There is a five hundred dollar certification fee; however, if you pass you get four hundred dollars back.  Therefore, they cannot be referring to the certification fee.  Now if it is the latter then they are not using organic methods.  The reason organics is more expensive is that you are using basic organic ingredients.  Ingredients that if it rains are washed off and you have to reapply or have a very limited shelf life.  Again, if they are referring to the inputs as being too expensive they are not using true organic methods and they are in violation of the National Organic Program and undercutting everything that hundreds of thousands of us do on a daily basis and demeaning the integrity of the organic label.

If they say they are natural, what does that mean.  We use plants that are indigenous to our area.  That way they grew up and evolved to cohabitate in our growing area.  Meaning they can defend themselves from viruses, insects, weather conditions and other environmental factors.  But I can tell you we still have to help the plants out every now and then.  More often then not really but it is because our environment is changing faster then the plants can evolve.  BMSB is just one of many factors that would lend credence.

Let us face it; they use those words to draw you in, to give you a false sense of comfort.  They know you are not going to get a tissue sample or evaluate their soil for chemicals.  We have to though.  At any point, the MDA or USDA can come onto our farm and take samples of plant tissue or our soils.  Then they will do a chemical analysis and determine if in fact there are non-organic substances.  The people that say they use organic methods do not face that scrutiny.  Nor do they face an audit each year.  This brings us to the second excuse. 

“There is too much paper work,” Once again hundreds of thousands of us in the United States and the rest of the world can do it.  We both work full time jobs and we are able to keep up with the paper work.  I know that there are some that truly think they are adhering to organic principles but if you are not certified or exempt you have no business advertising your food as organic, organically grown, or using organic methods.  Actually if you are not certified or exempt you are not allowed to use the word “Organic” at all, period.  Unless you want to pay a ten thousand dollar fine.  All natural, aqua-ponic, perma culture any of these terms replace organic, but no, the word that conjures money in their mind is organic and that is why they say, “We grow using organic methods”.  Just say thanks and walk away.  The better educated you are the worst chance they have of ripping you off and providing you something lesser then true organics.

As a consumer, we are always under attack by charlatans, a huckster posing as growers trying to cash in on what they think is a lucrative market niche, without really having to do the work, the research or spend the money that it takes to handle outbreaks.  Instead, they pretend and take the easy way out, when honestly they are just con artists.

If you are going to talk the talk, walk the walk.  If it was easy everyone would do it but growing organic is not easy, it is mentally taxing, hard physical labor on the hottest days of the year, inputs are expensive and outcomes heartbreaking at times.  The longer you do it the more you learn, the more audits you go through the stronger you become.  Then you hear someone say so and so grows using organic methods, yeah and I am good looking.  Unfortunately, just because I say it, does not make it so.  

Buy Local: Ask questions, if they say they, use organic methods ask for their certification.  Otherwise, walk away feeling proud you were not duped.     



Next to Love

Work on a small farm primarily consists of manual labor and is a grueling proposition.  James Carville stated, “Next to Love, the greatest gift someone can give is their labor”.  Never has such a statement hit closer to home then what we experienced during strawberry season. 

We were close to getting into a major retailer, but we had to have our “Good Agricultural Practice,” GAP certificate.  We did not get it in time so the berries destined for the store sent us hustling to find buyers.  Before that, we had to harvest the strawberries.  I was on Agrication last week and was picking strawberries everyday.  I can tell you, first hand that harvesting strawberries six hours a day is back breaking work, eight to ten is down right unfair.  Yet there are migrant workers that do just that.

By Tuesday evening, I was whining like a tired two year old.  My wife being the sympathetic person she is, told me to suck it up and get back out there.  Okay, maybe she did not say it like that, but I know what she meant.  By the end of the day, my feet, ankles and lower back were killing me.  Sleeping did not bring much relief, every time I moved some part of body reminded me of the days work.  I would get up the next morning gingerly putting on my clothes and work my muscles loose.

Then unexpectedly we get a call from a local woman that home schools her kids.  She wanted to know if she and her kids could volunteer to pick strawberries for us.  She is big into the local movement and had seen other organic strawberry growers go under.  She wanted to make sure to help in order to keep us afloat.  Then the Carville statement came to my mind.  Thanks, Kate, the intrinsic rewards we felt and gratitude was overwhelming.  

I have said this before growing and raising food is a humbling experience I just did not know in how many ways it could happen.  The mom and her four kinds came out on two separate days and helped pick over fifty pounds each time.  It was incredible to meet her and talk to her kids.  I cannot help myself I am a natural born teacher, so I took the opportunity to ask them questions.  Like “What is a good bug versus a bad bug?” and others questions about nature.  I have to show them the new layers that were on grass and the meat birds we are raising.

As the week progressed, it was not looking good for sales.  We had about one hundred and twenty pounds in the refrigerator and my wife was contacting every restaurant in town and any other potential bulk buyers.  Being a small farm, you are all things and when there are just three of you, things fall behind quickly.  However, we managed to get them into the Orchard in Frederick City and sales increased on the farm.

Then a group of three adults and four kids came up to pick.  They were repeat customers but I did not recognize them and I asked, “How did you find us,” of course the reply was “We were here last year,” so I made a joke about my mental capacity and took them out to the berries.  They came back with fifty-six pounds of strawberries.  We made a game out of weighing all the different baskets and flats with people guessing the weights before the total displayed.  One family picked 6.66 pounds of strawberries, the display was facing away from me and when I heard them say that I quickly picked up one of their berries and ate.  “Thanks," was their response.  Strawberry season is over for us, but there is still work to do with them.  They produce fruit for about three weeks, then you must renovate, weed, feed, keep them healthy, cover for winter, uncover in the spring.  Then whine like a baby in June of the next year.

It is people like Kate and everyone else that came out to pick that give us hope, finding kindred spirits and people willing to help knowing you are trying to make a difference in an indifferent world and they see that an get to be part of that.


Buy Local: Find a grower by you and give it a try.  Now is the best time.



Farm Love

Farm Love Is... 

  The anticipation of working the soil after a long hard winter.

Feeling the excitement and hope that spring brings with the change of season.

When you lose chickens and you feel pangs of guilt, stomach upset and heartbreak.

Knowing what you do makes an impact on people that purchase your product and the generations that will benefit from our sustainable practices.


Teaching kids about chickens, let them harvest eggs, wash, weigh, label and package them for sale.  Even though the broken egg count rises by 75 percent.

You find a wounded chicken, clean its wounds and place her in the hospital pen.  Watching and cleaning her wounds, then she recovers and starts laying eggs.

  The flock of layers spot you and start to run towards you, knowing they are about to get food, water or just some attention.

A one hundred degree day so you decide to take it easy, and only weed for three hours.

  Seeing the mothers bringing their kids to the fields to pick organic strawberries and witnessing the joy the family has.

You get a call from a total stranger to praise your efforts after tasting our eggs.

Something that less then one percent of our population gets to experience.  However, more people are joining the local movement in larger numbers.

What keeps us going and looking for that niche that will finally be our cash cow.

Coming home and Fer Coadee comes up to lick my face, out of pure love and joy and I let her, even though I know she has eaten chicken poo.


Buy Local: Your effort and dollars support more then you know


It is nice to be important

Growing food is a humbling experience; it is also, physically demanding, intellectually challenging and incredibly stressful.  Above all else there needs to be an abundance of patience and perseverance.  Along with the work there is waiting, waiting to see if seeds germinate, if the weather holds or will bring much needed water.  Waiting for the right time to release beneficial bugs to attack during the detrimental insect various stages of development is a critical for our integrated pest management plan.  Waiting for signs, deviations or changes. Which creates the need for contingency planning.  And then a new, one of a kind, problem occurs, one of those once in a lifetime events like when farms were first invaded  by Japanese beetles, ours is BMSB.

The brown marmarated stinkbugs die with insecticidal soap as long as they are in the first four stages (instars) of life.  We have to get the trap crops in the ground early to catch the over wintering adults as they mate and leave their larvae.  We use an early rising crop like radishes and surround that with sunflowers, which take longer to reach maturity.  At maturity, the bright yellow sunflowers attract the adult BMSB and that allows us to use a mix of Pyganic and Surround.  This is a lethal combination and can kill beneficial insects as well creating a negative environmental impact.

There is waiting for the actual fruit or vegetable to appear and then nurturing them to maturation.  You wait for the first signs of things that will reduce the yield or destroy the crop.  Growing is filled with hope, anticipation, failure and joy.  Pulling a tomato off the vine and biting it wakes up most of your senses, first you will taste, then smell the inside, see the red flesh and get the real taste of Umami, the elusive 5th taste that we as humans experience.  Those sensations go with all the fruits and vegetables you grow.

This is an incredibly hard job not just physical, emotional, intellectual and dangerous, but expensive too.  The big picture can be overwhelming that is why we have chosen to be part of a farmer-mentoring program.  The farming community is unlike any other that I have had association.  I have written a lot about calling asking for advice and visiting farms (field walks) to find out ways to do things.  The older farmers have plenty of knowledge, experience and information at their fingertips as well as generations of friends and colleagues.  Without these people and their wisdom there is so much more room for error and failure.  You could say that it is nice for these people to be so important to the rest of us.  However, passing on their knowledge to others they see it as, it is more important to be nice.

Buy Local: Support sustainable, healthy, humane farming.


Loosing one of your own

I had a rather embarrassing experience at the farmers market this past summer and unfortunately, it was of my own doing.  When we first started out farming, we had a lot of knowledge about growing on a small scale.  If it was not for the more experienced people around us, I cannot image how steep the learning curve would have been during the transition from small to bigger than small.

Asking questions about growing, farm operations, animals, grants, programs, resources the list is endless.  It always amazed me how you could call someone and they would give you their time to answer your questions and give knowledge gained from experience.  We do this ourselves today.  When asked we give our time and extensive failure experiences we have had.  We do have success but that is not what most want to hear.  They want to know what mistakes not to make.

 Sure, I can say what tomato or sweet corn grows best for us, but I can also tell them what to do about detrimental bugs and when to introduce beneficial insects to counteract the thieves.  Being prepared for the bad is what makes it possible to succeed.  I might always have a negative to impart but it is a way of making sure they do not fall into the same trap.  We all make mistakes no matter our level of experience and learn from any given season from one to the next.  When someone is generous enough to answer my call and give me insight, it is greatly appreciated and warmly accepted.

Of all the farmers that have helped me, I looked up to every one.  I treat them with the respect they deserve.  They are working and doing an incredible job and for them to spare me the precious time they have is a testament to the type of people they are.  I still look up to them and try to pass on what was given to me. 

This past weekend I learned that one of those people turned to the dark side.  It was by their choice and their plan.  However when I say "turned to the dark side" I mean an ex-organic farmer falsely advertised their products as organic, even though we had asked him to remove his sign the previous week.  We (the other organic) folks were given what we now know was a lame excuse to cover up his deceptive practice.  What is worse he sends his help to the market and blames them for the deceptive advertising. 

People are and can be disappointing, but when someone takes up the organic mantle that is a commitment akin to devotion.  What organic farmers do is for the benefit of all, family, friends, community, animals, dirt, grasses, water and air.  What he has done is the complete opposite; it is one thing to make the change, it is another to mislead and perpetrate fraud.  He feeds his chickens with non-organic feed (which has GMO’s) and lets his customers think they are still getting healthy non-gmo chickens and eggs.  If there is fraud in one part of a business as with his chickens, it makes you question other aspects of the operation.

When it first happened I went over to his stall and talked to the interns, and told them about the regulations and the use of the word organic, and asked that the sign be taken down I also called the owner to talk to him but had to leave a message. I left and went back to the farm, my wife stayed at the stand.  Later the owner came to the market and came over and aggressively inquired about WHO COMPLAINED.  The aggressive part is how my wife and others described his behavior.  Odd, I thought he is wrong, he knows it and he put us in an untenable situation.  Bottom line is the sign came down and he apologized blaming his staff.  Which none of us believed but let it go just the same.

The next weekend came, we put the stand up, and I left to go back to the farm.  When I came back to tear down and leave I was informed that not only was the sign back up, but they had doubled down by writing the following; “formally organic, using organic inputs”.  When I learned that things went south instantly and the next thing I know I am yelling at the market master, I am pointing out the vendor is lying to the market master’s neighbors, that his actions this week is a blatant F-U to those of us who asked to have sign taken down and he is putting the integrity of the market in jeopardy..

I have made a list of all those I needed to apologize to, because of my outburst, I approached each one, and asked forgiveness with the utmost sincerity.  The other list, if those people are honest enough to approach me, I have other things to say.  It was not my proudest moment as a farmer and as I said, I am very embarrassed about how I delivered my message.  The ex-organic person wrote everyone apologizing saying his staff made a mistake.  Only problem was I talked to his staff, I went over to apologize to them that day because they are interns and it was not there doing.  I also wanted to educate then on the regulation at issue and to make sure they understood when you could use the word organic.  They were obviously not getting that education from their employer and they are there to learn.

What they told me was that the owner had changed the sign and told them to put it up.  I could not help but respond back to his written apology pointing out the conversation I had with is staff.  I was not interested in his feeble, disingenuous apology. 

If someone uses the word organic, ask for his or her certification.  They will be organic exempt or certified organic.  That way you will avoid the people that mimic the industrial food complex.  It is tough to see someone you looked up to turn to the dark side and now become the poster child for all that is bad with the charlatans at farmers markets.  When I quit, we will just stop and grow for ourselves.  I tell people we have two things going for us, one is integrity the other is taste, and sometimes we do not have taste but we will at least tell you that. 

Buy Local but be smart ask questions and look for certifications



Winding Down

We are coming to the end of another growing season and we have had mixed results.  I did not order a cultivator in time so weeds ate up the half acre of corn I planted.  We got very little corn because of that, which means we spent money on seed and overhead only to get no return on the investment. 

Lessons learned, from this year, included having the tools ready for the season before the season begins.  Our newest flock of Rhode Island Reds is laying, so we opened up the nesting boxes and placed golf balls in each one.  This helps the bird to know where to lay their egg.  I know it sounds strange but I read that is what you are supposed to do.  That or place a wooden egg in the nest.  All I can say is that it works; now we do find eggs outside the nest sometimes but I have not been able to figure out why.  The largest stash I found had thirty eggs and they were inside Coadee’s igloo doghouse.  I really need to research laying out of the nest and make sure it is not a management issue. 

Strawberries started strong and ended strong, a much-needed boost for us.  We were flush in squash, so much so we could not sell it all.  A note of caution, we had arranged to sell our produce to a local market, they were a startup so we expected some problems, but we did not expect to be taken advantage of and gouged on our prices.  We were lowering our prices by fifty percent and the store was jacking up the cost to the customer fifty percent.  Their making a fifty percent return and we were losing money.  On top of that, when we took a load down it was rejected for being too small.  The small ones are the ones that sell out first at the farmers markets.  You learn these things as you go along.  When dealing with markets, sometimes you get people that get it and sometimes you get people that are there for a paycheck.

I was taught to keep the intermediary (the middleman) out as much as possible and that is advice I pass on to other folks.  The best markets we deal with pay us what we need to make a small profit.  They then turn around and only charge five percent more to their customer.  Therefore, they talk about helping local farmers and they do by paying a higher rate.  When you find someone or an entity that gets it, hold them close and pay special attention to their needs.  They will help you succeed.  You will have to kiss many frogs; but when you find the one that gets it, be grateful, responsive and flexible.  There will always be rough spots but patience will smooth the course.

We have given squash to the food banks, there is a restaurant in town that has a monthly “Pay as You Can” dinner on the third Sunday of the month and we gave them forty pounds along with herbs.  However, the lion’s share of leftovers (one thousand pounds and counting) has gone to a local dairy farmer for his pigs.  These are the biggest of the big, we could not keep up with harvesting and these things were huge.  It is just amazing how fast squash goes from being a flower to four-pound behemoth.  Our estimate is that it takes less then five days to get to the point of “to big”.  Because we do not have the ability to harvest, everyday we were put in the glut we are in now.

We met three new farmers who are starting out growing.  That was exciting to see, young growers getting into producing healthy fresh vegetables.  Some we will help get certified others we have pointed to state and federal resources.  To hear them speak they have the right attitude and understanding of the path they chose.  Pretty much the first thing out of everyone’s mouth is “this is hard,” but it is rewarding.  Making it economically sustainable is another function that needs conquering.



Organic Pick Your Own Strawberries

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!



You know it is good when......

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.



Damn learning curve

Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron?  Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger.  At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, I ask can there be true economic sustainability in small farming. 

This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on only high dollar produce and fruits.  We are still selling mainly on farm but have joined a market in the city.  We are hoping that by cutting back on different varieties and concentrating on a few things we can turn profitable.  Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety.  I want to be a successful grower, but we need to make a profit.  Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables, so variety is not going to be our strong point.  

What we will have this year is strawberries, blueberries and sweet corn.  These crops sell for a premium and there is great demand.  We will be able to conserve the 12,000 gallons of collected rainwater because we will not have so many different plants to water.  Our organic chicken meat has not taken off as we hoped but this is only the third year.  We have increased our layer flock to 120 layers.  We are selling most of our eggs directly to Dawson's Market in Rockville.  Dawson's does not put them out on the shelves.  Instead, they call customers to let them know the eggs have been delivered.  We continue to expand the layers (we have 50 more day olds started) striving to get to where we deliver more dozens so we can make it onto the store's shelves.

Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations.  We did not take on this farm without knowing the physical, mental, emotional and economic sacrifice and that failure was more likely then success.  We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by growing a few things and concentrating on value added products.   

We knew going into this that it was not going to be easy.  What we were not prepared for was all the different ways your heart breaks.  We lost another layer last night.  It was stuck under the trailer.  I had moved the house in the morning before I let the layers out.  I was tilling and I noticed the trailer looked low in the back.  I knew I did not crank the front back down after I moved the tractor away from the ball.  I saw it and made a mental note to lower the front of the trailer when I was done tilling.

Well the day got away and I did not lower the front.  Sunset comes and I go out to put the layers away for the night and that is when I found one under the backend of the trailer.  I can only surmise that it was stuck and died of a heart attack.  I took her over to the compost pile and as we have done with every other body, returned her to the earth that helped nourish her in her brief existence. 

I take it personally, you are not supposed to, you are supposed to let it roll off but I don't.  I know I am too attached at times to see the forest for the trees but that will not change.  As long as they are in my care, I will always take my mistakes hard and demand a greater awareness.  Five years we have been working with layers.  I thought I had been exposed to all the perils of layer life, yet here I am still in this damn learning curve.

BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right.  If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.  



Organic is cheaper when you take Pollution into account

Recently there was as a study published by a Stanford researcher about the merits of organic versus conventional food.  Specifically the study looked at the vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables and the cost difference between organic and conventional food.  Although there are studies that refute these findings: University of Washington,  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012346 , http://www.bioneers.org/programs/food-farming-1/articles-interviews/organic-food-has-a-higher-nutrient-content-an-interview-with-charles-benbrook  and http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/06/16/best.organic.produce/index.html I tend to stay away from all of the back and fourth and look at the undisputed facts.

First, conventional food contains trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/172223 .  Trace amounts that are allowed per FDA, USDA and EPA standards.  Yet every year we find that what was once approved is now harming us.  Diactyl and Bisphenal-A (BPA) are the most recent that come to mind.  Diactyl causes lung cancer, which is a fact.  However, for years it was allowed in the food supply particularly in butter-flavored popcorn and other foodstuffs.  That is until people started getting lung cancer due to build up of Diactyl in the body.  Then there is BPA.  BPA is an endocrine disrupter and is shown to cause birth defects in children and hinder their mental development.  Recently studies have shown that BPA is narrowing arteries in adults.  The list of approved then disapproved fungicides, insecticides, additives and preservatives just keeps growing.   

Second, there is the environmental detriment big industrial farms create while they produce all of the meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables.  One example is Atrazine, an herbicide.  Atrazine has been linked to castrating bullfrogs and feminizing bass http://www.sfgate.com/green/article/Study-says-herbicide-causes-frogs-sex-change-3197878.php .  Yet it is still in use. 

I would like to point out that there is a distinction between local conventional farmers and the big industrial corporate farms and imports.  Our local farmers feed their family with the products they grow and produce.  Their children and grandchildren play in the fields and water on the property.  I know these farmers are much more judicious when it comes to using fungicides, insecticides and herbicides.  I feel comfortable buying my sweet corn from Mayne’s Tree Farm or fruit from Bob Black at Catoctin Mountain Orchard.    

Then there is the cost argument.  What consumers do not take into account with conventional costs is that they pay for cleaning up the environment through their taxes not through the price of conventional food.  With organic and sustainable farm practises, the cost of environmental protection and rejuvenation is built into the price of the product. 

Your tax dollars go to environmental protection, clean up and rejuvination of our waterways and fields because of industrial farming practises.  Environmental degradation from industrial farms have been well documented.  So when they say conventional food is cheaper they are not telling you about these hidden costs.  Ultimately, sustainable organic food is cheaper, safer and an environmentally sound agricultural practice.

Organic food does not have trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals, steroids, hormones or anti-biotic's.  That is fact.  Conventional food does contain trace amounts of most synthetic substances used in the production process and these trace amounts are not being processed out of the body like we are told.  "Canadian researchers this year reported that the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their umbilical cord blood samples contained a pesticide implanted in GMO corn by the biotech company Monsanto, though digestion is supposed to remove it from the body.  "Given the potential toxicity of these environmental pollutants and the fragility of the fetus, more studies are needed," they wrote in Reproductive Toxicology".  http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-gmo-food-labeling--20110524,0,5841902.story.

Whether they are carcinogenic or not, to me, trace amounts means the existence of a substance.  You would no more stick your finger in an insecticide, wipe it off on your pants then lick your finger with your tongue.  Yet in essence, that is what you do when you eat conventional food from the industrial food complex. 

If you think washing the food off before eating it protects you, think about rain.  These chemicals are designed to stay on the vegetables when it rains.  The effectiveness of the chemical would be useless to the industrial farmer if rain did wash them off.  Organic sprays are water soluble, that is why each time it rains we need to retreat those plants that are in distress (raising operational costs).

If we know anything from the use of chemicals, it is that history proves that what was once considered safe is no longer the case, Thalidomide, Agent Orange, Benzene's, DDT, Diethylstilbestrol, Cyclamates, Bisphenal A, Diactyl, and Phthalates (cosmetics) are some.  So what, if from a vitamin standpoint both conventional and organic are the same.  From a health, safety, cost and environmental standpoint there is no comparison.

 Buy Local: The earth will be a better place,


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?


What is Organic?

We are often asked to explain the difference between organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables.  It is hard to sum up, such that the person that inquired does not regret asking the question. 

It is such a basic question yet, the answer can go from the scientific to the metaphysical and everything in between.  Sometimes, I will give a one-word answer, TASTE, then there are the studies that point to the twenty-five percent increase in vitamins and minerals when compared to their conventional counterparts (see University of California-Davis study).  Nevertheless, you will find counter arguments to those studies and then cost comparisons are tossed into the discussion.  "Why is organic so much more expensive and is it worth it?”  Depending on the view, you get different answers but CNN answered the question succinctly.

Not everything was right in the article, especially about the start of Organics.  The father of modern day organic techniques comes from a man named J.I. Rodale and the Rodale Institute that was founded in Kutztown Pennsylvania in 1947.  Most people look at organic as the result but it is just one variable in the whole sustainability model. 

We have been saying we are beyond organics for a while, because organics speaks to how vegetables, fruits and poultry are grown and handled.  It does not address all aspects of sustainability on a farm.  When we first started growing professionally, I looked at sustainability as making enough money to be able to live and produce in the next year.  Until you start to make money, you cannot support the operation unless you have capital or some sort of financial backing, which is why 90+ percent of all small farms have income from off farm activities, i.e. another job.  This is from the 2002 USDA census.  However, large or small, money is not the only variable, the other parts not to ignore is environmental which entails water, soil quality and treatment of animals.  The whole sustainability model as professed and proven by Joel Salatin of "Polyface Farm." in Swoop, Virginia looks at the farm as a whole with intricate parts woven together in concert mimicking what Mother Nature does on her own.  

Because of farm practices that emphasize environmental consciousness, soil and nutrient replenishments, water resource conservation and protection of scarce resources the sustainable model re-enforces what is right and wrong with today's farming practices.  In Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivores Dilemma," Joel Salatin points out the difference between a farm that does one thing only, like growing corn or just beef and that of a farm that uses the sustainable model.  Paraphrasing Joel, he said look at a cornfield and look at a field that has been left alone to Mother Nature.  What do you see in a conventional cornfield?  You will find one species of plant life, the corn and maybe an insect if it was away when the insecticide was sprayed.  Looking at the other field you see Mother Nature’s diversity, you will see thousands of insects and plant varieties in that field and that is what the sustainable model is designed to accomplish.  How do these plants in the field get nutrition from year to year as opposed to the cornfield that is sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides?

Simplistically stated, plants, trees, insects and animals get nutrients through a complex dance of decay, rejuvenation and replacement  Much like rotating and resting fields planted with green manure and nitrogen rich grasses and legumes, then letting your animals graze on those grasses to keep it down.  You do not let the animals eat the grasses until the grass cannot replenish itself, you let them eat enough to maintain the stability of the soil in the field and then you move them to the next grazing ground.  Management intensive grazing is a sustainable practice that uses the grass but not enough to abuse the grass.  An example would be to bring cows onto land, let them eat some and move them off to the next section of field.  Next, you would move chickens in the grass that the cows have left behind.  Cows like higher grass heights while chickens prefer short grass.  When all is said and done what is left behind is incorporated into the composition of the field replenishing nutrients and minerals naturally, you get to see the complete cycle of life in this field.  Grass is eaten, the cow gets nutrients and gains weight, it leaves behind manure, enough to attract bugs, which lay eggs and then the chickens, get a crack at the grass and bugs that helps them lay eggs high in Omega-3's.  

The chickens through pecking and scratching have aerated the soil leaving enough manure behind to feed the flora and fauna.  This dance takes place such that a cow and chicken are never on a previous field until that field has fully become reestablished (usually in 8-12 months).  Our production gardens are rested and fertilized this way.  Although we do not have, cows we keep moving the chickens from space to space in order to evenly fertilize the whole garden. 

What is organic?  It is a way to protect our environment for future generations.   

Buy Local:  Become part of the sustainability model.



Natures curve ball

We have a hen that has taken to, let me see, how to say this so I keep a "G" rating.  We have a hen that has taken to being the rooster.  I kid you not.  She has taken on the roll of the fertilizer or pretend fertilizer.  I've said before we've only been raisng hens for three years going on four.  So I might think I've seen it all, but apperantly that's not true.   My wife read a book that said hens can change gender but we never took it seriously.

We thought it was one of those things, except we have this chicken that doesn't really fight the other hens as much as she gets on their backs.  A rooster when he is in procreation mode will grab a hen by the back of her neck holding her down so he can do what a rooster does.  My wife said she thought she saw this behavior in one of our hens, but me being me, I wouldn't believe it until I saw the event for myself.

We were all eating lunch one day sitting outside in the shade and enjoying a slight breeze.  I was facing the pen of the second generation hens.  Their numbers have dwindled due to a neighbor's errent dog, but the ones that survived have rebounded and they are pretty good layers.  It was a Saturday and we had picked corn for taste testing.  We feed our help most times and its always a good time when breaking bread with them.  No matter what I cook they always seem to like it.  Of course when you work on an organic vegetable farm you tend to work up a big appetite.  Male or female they can all put food away.  So I cooked the corn for everyone and we were sitting there enjoying the sweet taste and the respite.  

If the hens start fighting or going crazy I usually yell at them which startles them and is enought to return the flock to some sort of harmony.  I heard a commotion and looked up to see a hen on top of another hen biting and holding her down while seemingly girating like the rooster does.  I looked at my wife; she gave me a look and just shrugged.  I yelled, then got up to get closer and yelled again.  That broke the hovering hen's concentration and her captive scurried away.  So, once again I think I've seen it all.

We kid ourselves by thinking we've got a handle on things.  Then we discover that the learning curve just seems to keep bending upward. WE learn sometimes nature throws a curve ball..

Buy Local - from a farmer, not from a chain that advertises "Local" 


Why our eggs cost so much

At first. some people flinch when they hear the price of our eggs. Even when compaired to local organic eggs the price is still high.  However, it cost us four dollars and fifty-four cents to produce one dozen eggs.  We are small and do not have the economies of scale that would help keep cost down and allow us to be price competative.  How we raise and treat our layers is not conventional but more in synergy with a balanced eco-system for soil health, pest management, fruit and vegetable production and environmental sustainability.

Organic Hairy Vetch seed, when we first started buying it in fifty-pound bags, cost twenty-eight dollars.  That was four years ago, today that same fifty-pound bag costs one hundred and twenty dollars.  Organic winter rye has gone up about forty percent.  Organic chicken feed cost fifteen dollars for fifty pounds, now it is twenty dollars for the same fifty pounds.  Diesel prices went up and never came down as well as, everything else that we need that is delivered to us, via freight or is made from petrol derivatives.

Add insurance costs, fees for certification and licenses, egg cartons, labels, boxes for bulk delivery and more.  You need a license to sell eggs; the eggs must be weighed, dated, and graded.  The scale you use to weigh the eggs needs a license and is inspected.  We need to document how many eggs are layed each day, any bird losses or gains per year and we are suffering losses again.  We think it is a neighbor's dog.  Under State and County law I am allowed to shoot the dog and still go after the owner for economic losses.  Here is one of those philisophical mores being tested against the almighty dollar. I will have to explore this one later.  

Each chicken cost about one dollar as a day old peep.  Because they will be organic, you need to spend the first three weeks of their life keeping them from getting Coccidiosis.  Until that time, their immune system is under-developed and cannot protect themselves from their own fecal matter.  This labor and all labor associated with their daily and long term maintenance is charged at eight dollars an hour.  

Next is tilling and preparing plots of land for the chickens’ new home.  This is a year round function, below is a piece of land that was used to grow corn in 2009.  We tilled and what you are seeing is hairy vetch, some winter rye and some brown leaves. 

We will move the chickens onto this field eight feet at a time.  The electric fence gets moved, then the chicken house winter set up and all goes with it.  This brings me to another cost, electricity for heating the water buckets and a heat lamp when temperatures drop below freezing.  Another interesting note is that the land that has hairy vetch and rye freezes last.  When we move the fence, each post has a spike to go into the ground.  If you are outside the perimeter of the seed mix, the ground is frozen solid and impenetrable.  A few inches into the mix and the spike goes in no problem.  Eventually even the best grass is frozen solid but until it does, we use the fence when moving the pens.

What you see below is the soil after the chickens have been on and moved off.  It looks bad to the untrained eye, but what you are seeing is some of the greatest naturally developed soil a farm could ask to have.  The layers eat the vetch, a legume, and the rye, which in turn affects the taste of the egg.  At least that is what we think our customers are talking about when they say, "These are the best eggs we've ever had".  A humbling statement that makes me blush but the fact they are repeat customers is what really confinced us to stick with this particular production model. 

The ground is fertile, devoid of weeds, most subterranean and low flying insects, good and bad are gone, and there is a natural tilth and humus.  The ground is soft and on relatively flat land.  Other parts of the farm we change the model a little bit in order to stop soil erosion.  

The layers eat all the grasses, scratch up the soil and leave nutrients behind.  At the top right of the picture is our Rooster and two-three of his companions. In the spring I will come again, surface till and lay down hairy vetch. red clover and rye.  If need be we can put chickens back on it but we have other areas that need attention too.

This is a cyclical process; we plant vegetables, and then let the soil rest by planting nitrogen fixing grasses and winter rye that develops a deep taproot making the soil expand.  The layers are moved on, and then off to another plot of lush fresh green garden.  We then use the land that has been resting the longest to grow the season's vegetables.  While the other three pieces of land are naturally recouperaring the nutrients and minerals helps us reduce our fertilizer needs.

Then there are the costs associated with medical supplies to take care of wounds and do examinations.  It is not much but it is a cost.

After most all of the costs are added up for the month we then take the total dozen count and come up with our revenue.  Our last calculation came out to $4.54 a dozen.  When laying production drops, there are fewer eggs to sell and that cost number rises.  You still have the same amount of layers eating the same amount of food; you just have less revenue potential that makes the loss greater.  Did I mention that I graduated from business school?  I have said we are in it for the health but I even wonder if I need to get a check up from the neck up.


By Local:  It is not just a fad anymore.



Nothing Good Ever Came Easy

I wake up at six in the morning.  If it is a weekday, I get up, let the chickens out, and go to the profession that pays for the ability to grow vegetables, fruits, eggs, grasses, implement soil rejuvenation techniques and integrated pest and nutrient management practices.  When we get home, we put in about two and half hours on farm related activity.  This ranges from hand watering to using the drip tape, weeding, assessing the environment, looking for signs of anything that is not right with the animals, vegetables and high tunnel.  Then address whatever the situation, pests, weeds, watering, feeding, isolating sick chickens and then evaluating them, you get the idea.  If it is the weekend, I get an hour to rest and relax before the work starts at seven.

The weekend workday starts with doing the most physical task right away before the days heat kicks in.  Then the next hardest task and then the next hardest physical task, interspersed with breaks for hydration and back to the next most physical task.  As you are doing the tasks, the temperature is rising and the humidity is reaching into the eighties and nineties.  Your body is fighting the heat by perspiring, which leads to your eyes stinging from the salty water.  You stay hydrated in order to maintain fluid levels and maintain stamina. 

Because we grow mainly vegetables and fruits all work is done outdoors and during some of the hottest parts of the day.  It is a grind but work takes place in order for the plants to produce.  If we are not hand weeding an acre and a half of gardens, we are moving the chickens and their fences, or collecting eggs, we are tracking insects, and trying to protect what is in the ground from the flora and fauna.  We are planting or watering, or cleaning out the chicken trailer and checking for lice and any indication of an anomaly, or watering and feeding the chickens, laying drip tape, setting up new irrigation, or mowing the fields and the grass, or harvesting produce, or checking on broody chickens or sick chickens.  Saturdays we harvest early because we are delivering to our retail markets.  We give tours so some days I have to turn the staff lose to work on their own chores while I walk groups around explaining what and why sustainable farming practices are needed and justified.

Sunday we attend the one farmers market we can make.  The day starts with harvesting everything that is ready to sell and feed the chickens the ugly stuff not good enough for sale.  This farmers market happens to be on asphalt and starts at twelve noon.  By the time, you get there and setup the tarmac has had a couple hours to heat up so you have to take precautions with your produce, the same produce picked that morning.  You are always outside and at the mercy of the weather, rain or shine, you are sweating, you need sun/rain protection and at times bug protection.  You work until you no longer have the stamina or the sunlight whichever comes first.  You eat, sleep and repeat.

Along with the physical aspects of growing, you have educational pursuits in order to learn what bugs are beneficial and which are detrimental, what viruses and bacteria are present and what combats them.  You learn about different soil types; reading soil analysis charts for nutrient levels, familiarize yourself with the Ph levels for different fruits and vegetables grown and that nitrogen-fixers help the soil fertility.  You find out about crop rotation, green manures, nematodes, and rhizomes and cover cropping.  There is the learning curve that has spanned generations in farming families, but you have to pick them up in an extraordinarily short period in order to be successful.  You will spend years reading and learning from every mistake you make and you will make mistakes, they will be innocent at first and may be overlooked until they take crops from you and you find there is no hope of recouping even basic expenses associated with the crop, forget profit.  This year it was using “Winter Rye” as a cover crop for our corn.  We found out why Winter Rye is such a good green manure too.  Winter Rye when it gets to a certain stage sends out particles that stop the germination of other plants, thus helping itself propagate and survive.  Another problem or benefit, depending on how you use it, is its capacity to get to water.  This is great if you are trying to rid the field of weeds.  It is not so great when the sweet corn you planted is not pollinating properly and you are facing drought situations.  If you cannot harvest it, you are not going to be able to generate revenue.

I think the people with animals have it worse, we are still learning how to take care of chickens and we are in our fourth year.  Animal husbandry is a discipline unto itself.  Each animal has its own problems and although some might be the same between species, most animals have specific issues to deal with.  Chickens have Coccidiosis when they are day-olds and H1:N5 (avian flu),  cows have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) goats and sheep have Johnnie’s (pronounced Yonies), they all have some virus or bacteria that is prevalent in their species that they are susceptible to.  You have to know this in order to keep everything healthy, growing and vigorous.  Feeding animals is another issue that needs attention.  In the chicken world layers, get a different feed than broilers (meat birds).  One major difference is the calcium requirement, layers get it broilers do not.  Then there is first level medical care.  You need to learn how to assess the condition of the animal and what precautions or protocols to administer.  Is it something a vet should address?  You have to decide to cull the animal or choose to nurse the animal back to health.  If you choose, the latter you will need more in depth knowledge.

What we love most about all this are the people that cheer you on, caringly give you their time and expertise and champion your actions.  We do optimistic planning based in reality, so we plan contingencies.  It seems daunting when you read all that needs accomplishing in a day, a week, a month and a year.  It is doable, remember not to long ago we were an agrarian society it was not the easiest life and it still is not, then again nothing good ever came from something easy.

Buy Local:  Feed yourself safely and support your community





We need rain

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.


In many ways, looks are deceiving

We got our first complaint this week.  Actually, from the sound of it, it was at least three complaints.  We have had things rejected before by retailers because they were expecting heads of lettuce and we brought bunches.  Never have we had vegetables returned or complaints after purchase.  We did have one person complain about worms in her corn the first year we grew corn.  I explained that we did not use sprays or chemicals and gave her six free ears that week.  In four years of growing certified organic veggies and fruits, we have not had a complaint.  Being organic there is a procedure to follow and documentation to create when we do get a complaint.  It is something that needs to be recorded and produced during the organic audit.  Even if that requirement were not in place, we would still address the situation and make it right.

Therefore, it was a surprise to us when we got notice that there were too many holes and slugs in our mesclun mix.  We do not wash our mix because it hurts more than it helps.  After a rain, it is too dirty and we do wash it but the tender leaves can break, washing adds time and expenses to the process. 

When it comes to amendments, referred to as organic herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, in liquid and powder forms, we tend to shy away from their application.  First off, they are not that effective unless you spray often and almost daily.  Secondly, it is expensive to do it that way.  We rely on integrated pest management techniques like trap crops, purchasing beneficial bugs and nematodes, physical barriers such as floating row covers and glue traps.  Sometimes they do not stop infestations but they do work better when compared to doing nothing.

Take for instance our Mesclun mix.  It has gotten a lot of holes, pinholes, but holes no matter.  Funny thing is I think it actually helps hold more dressing but that is a different point.  Most importantly, the taste is not affected and the safety of the vegetable is unsurpassed.  I would stand tissue samples of our mix up against any other for comparative analysis of foreign substances.  However, looks count and we were on the losing end of that equation.    

From a culinary standpoint the Chinese learned thousands of years ago that we eat with our eyes first.  That is why classically trained Chinese chefs prepare the most fantastic looking dishes.  Some of the dishes, I have seen, could pass as art they are so beautiful.  From garnishes to actual dishes, Chinese cuisine is just stunning, which brings me to our dilemma.

Organic fruits and vegetables sometimes are not pretty.  Look at some heirloom tomatoes, they have some funky looking shapes and sizes, but the taste of those ugly things are unequalled.  Our mix had tiny holes in them but they had nothing sprayed on them and they tasted good.  As consumers’ we have learned that if, the fruit or vegetable does not look aesthetically pleasing we pass it by. 

Look at tomatoes, the IFC (Industrial Food Complex) has engineered tomatoes such that they grow almost perfectly round, withstand shipping long distances and have longer shelf lives.  I do not know of a single person that would pick a store bought tomato over a home grown or local one when it is identified as such.  Of all the people, we meet and talk to when you ask that one question, no one has ever said they prefer the store bought tomato.  Yet, if you let that same person chose between the two tomatoes without them knowing which one is local, most times they will pick the one that looks better.  It is how we have been conditioned.

It is a hard sell when the look of the fruit or vegetable is not perfect.  When we give tours, whatever is in season we usually stop there and I will let people eat what it is.  The first thing I do is pick it and eat it.  Then I explain why I can do that here as opposed to doing the same thing in the clean environment of a grocery store.  Most people would never eat something directly out of the ground (I would not have in the past).  This too has been drilled into us, that we must wash our food before eating.  Moreover, given the illnesses and worse, which occur, from the IFC, this is a good safe practice.  You just cannot wash off the trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals used in its production.  Now if there has been a recent rain we do need to wash the soil off, but for the most part we eat it right out of the ground.  I want people to learn that our food has nothing on it, that you can pull it out of the ground and eat it there with no ill affect, short or long term

Besides, the taste of what they are eating usually blows them away.  It is the freshest vegetables most of them have ever tasted.  They learn that yes, there are imperfections but the look quickly is dismissed by the flavor their palates are experiencing.  Looks will be an uphill battle for us however, it is more important that the vegetables and fruits we sell are the safest, freshest and tastiest then the prettiest.     

Our goal is not looks but health.  The health of our customers, ourselves, our animals, the precious resources we use and the environment we inhabit.  Besides, in  many ways looks are deceiving.

Buy Local: Try ugly sometime, remember you cannot judge a book by its cover.



Atrazine and other Endocrine Disruptors

There was a study recently linking Atrazine to the castration and feminization of frogs in test labs.  Atrazine is used primarially in weed control applications by industrial farms and other large operations.  The San Fransico Chronicle wrote about the affects that Atrizine is having on the environment.  The study was conducted at UC Berkley and is being published in the "Proceddings of the National Academy of Sciences".

As you would expect the maker of the weed suprresant is fighting the study and pointing to every flaw they can find.  Interestingly, the author of the study worked for the maker years before but was dismissed when his findings showed Atrazine to be a possible endocrine disruptor.  Remember our feminized bass, they are a prime example of what an endocrine disruptor can do. 

The endocrine system regulates hormones like testostorone and estrogen.  Any wonder the frogs are becoming feminized and worse castrated by levels of Atrazine?  I can't make this stuff up, yet we sit blindly by while trace amounts of chemicals are allowed in our food supply.  Relying on scientific data that at best is funded from special interests.

Am I missing something, is it that we'll die off and be replaced by other spenders and that is why killing us to make a profit is okay.  I know the Supreme Court rules for the Corporations not for the individuals.  Look at their decisions over years.  The majority of decisions are against the common man.  Why would we expect the FDA to crack down on the use of endocrine disruptors.  Things have to get out of control like Thalidimide, DDT, Bisphenol A (plastsic containers) and Phthalates(cosmetics),  before we are protected from those that seek profit no matter the outcome.

If this is happening to the frogs then what is happening to the humans that have to work around the stuff and ingest trace amounts.  Besides that what is the shelf life of this stuff?  My bet is you just can't wash it away.  If you could then it wouldn't be affective in the rain and you can't have that.  It has to be able to withstand water in order to be affective in the field right?.

Twenty years ago we started growing organic because I didn't like all the chemicals being used.  Relatively speaking it was benign back then compared to what todays consumers are facing.  God help us all, because no one in charge seems to care enough to stop the chemical jugrnuat.


Buy Local- Save a frog, a bass and your own environment by doing so

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