Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Feeding the Wildlife

You never stop learning, I guess that's the good thing, but why does the learning process have to be so expensive?  For instance, it took six years of different mistakes before we got great corn, the one quote we got was from a repeat customer. The quote was "This is the best corn we've ever eaten".  My first thought was "Damn, they are old as dirt, they've had to of eaten a ton of corn in their life time!"   Then a wave of heat flushed my skin, and I was embarrassed.  Not for the thought, that was pretty funny, but for how that comment made me feel emotionally.  I was stunned, I felt victory, I felt sick to my stomach, but then it all led to a deep humbleness.  All this happened in a few seconds, but I managed to say, "Thank you, that was very kind."  We actually heard that a couple times, each time humbling and reaffirming.  

The corn happened because we strengthened our defenses.  We had chicken wire all round the bed and it was buried.  Then we had problems with birds, ground hogs, raccoon and deer.  After years of fighting the flora and the fauna we opted for a couple of high tech approaches and low tech as well.

For the birds, we used what's called a Bird-X eye scare.  Hang a couple up and they will help scare the birds away.  Something we found to work at night was a little solar powered flashing red light.  Deer see it and think it is the eyes of a predator.  It needs to be moved so the deer don't get used to it, but it does work in the dark.  Deer, however, graze in the morning and early evening as well as night. Then there is deer netting.  We've used it in various ways with great success in keeping the rest of the deer and other critters out.  When used with wire hoops you can keep a wide space to protect the crop. We will on occasion lay two or three layers in an area to make sure the vegetable is secure.  I think "an ounce of prevention is more things to sell at the market" or something close to that (it is hot and I can't be held accountable for every quote....).

Buy Local: If you don't then who will?  



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.



Why doesn't everyone else know?

We have been at this farmer's market for about six weeks.  There is a mix of vegetable growers and other stands that make up the total market.  Foot traffic is good, not great but good.  There is a grower a couple of stalls down that is young and sells mainly corn, tomatoes and melons.  I don't pay much attention to the other vendors because I read my insect book or am taking care of customers.

The day was beautiful, sunshine, light breeze, low humidity and we were seeing more and more repeat customers.  One told us that the jam she purchased last week was the best she had ever tasted.  At the same time another repeat customer was buying two more jars of jam based on his last purchase.  We said thank you and I slowly patted my wife on her back.  It was her idea. labor and her mom's recipe.  It was turning out to be a good day. 

We were selling organic eggs, our carrots had started to come in, the string beans bounced back and our raspberry plants started producing.  So our offerings were diversified and plentiful.  At one point in time I spotted a customer coming back to us with a box of our eggs.  My stomach dropped because the look on her face was not pleasant.  I was dealing with a customer so I got my wife’s attention and motioned for her to check out and see what the customer wanted.  She had gone home, went to put the eggs away and realized she had only received nine.  Of all the mistakes we make and have made, this one was the most embarrassing.  Once I realized what had happened I excused myself from the other customer and immediately started asking her what she liked that we had.  At the same time my wife was getting her more eggs.  I asked about a couple vegetables and got to the potatoes.  She said she didn't have potatoes so I gave her a pound of the German Butter Ball and apologized profusely.  She left, hopefully satisfied and maybe to return.

Then at closing the young farmer from a couple stalls down came up to look at what we had.  He asked about the German Queen tomatoes, we were selling.  These things are huge weighing between 1.25-1.75 lbs each.  They are by far the biggest we've grown.  The skin is thin, seed pod small and flesh is sweet.  As I'm telling him this I'm looking into his eyes and seeing sadness.  We all look tired and worn down, that is part of the job.  It is physically and mentally challenging.  Your mind is always ready to give up before your body is but you know this and go on to the next chore.

I use the term heart-wrenching a lot when describing things on the farm because those words invoke a visceral reaction.  We all know what heart break is in all its forms.  But to use those words makes one understand the physical and emotional toll taking place within the person.  What I was seeing and hearing from this young man was heart-wrenching.

He is at his cross roads.  He works full time on a dairy farm; he grows five acres of vegetables in his spare time.  He is having trouble making ends meet.  He doesn't know if he'll be able to pay off all his bills by the end of the growing season.  As he was standing there telling me his young wife came up and put her arm around him.  I asked, "How’d it go today?" He started to grouse but his wife pulled his arm and he shifted some and kicked the dirt and said "not that bad".  A customer came up to their stand and his wife went to take care of them.

I had stopped tearing down and was just talking to him.  I could tell he was in despair and was looking for some sort of guidance or a kind word or words of encouragement.  He told me that other people he talked to told him to stay in it that things would change.  I didn't tell him they were right or wrong.  I just said that this is an incredibly hard thing to do and not many people really understand the sacrifice and toll it takes on us.  That he wasn't alone in his doubt and his struggles.  The last time I stopped breaking down and talked to someone my wife got livid, at least at that time we had help.  This time it was just her and I was torn.  Should I cut him off and help her or should I do what many have done for me in the past and that was to lend a sympathetic ear and maybe some advice and encouragement.

She could hear the conversation and knew the plight of the young vegetable farmer.  I empathized with him and told him about the MD Small Farm Co-op.  I told him by joining he would meet people like us who pull our resources and are able to buy in bulk thus cutting down on overall costs.  I gave him my name and number and told him if he had any questions to call.  This all seemed woefully inadequate but it was the best I could do.  For my wife's part she continued breaking down and when he left I helped finish up.  She didn't say a word.  We packed up and headed home.  What should have been a pleasant trip after a good day selling was just silent.  It seemed both of us were thinking about the young man and his wife.  

It was a good day for us but when you see the pain, self-doubt and struggle that someone like you is going through you can't help but question why is this so hard and why doesn't everyone else know?

PLEASE-buy local, find a farmer around you, go visit them, try what they have for sale.  If you don't like what you got tell them that and tell them why. Vegetable farmers live on feedback.   If there is something you'd like them to grow, tell them.  It can only help with their future plans.  The more sustainable farmers we keep in business the healthier the environment and all of us will be in the long run.


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