Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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As Pleased As Punch!

The morning of our Farm Open House found the children and I scurrying about preparing for visitors. Janet had gotten called in to work on short notice and my well-planned preparations took a tailspin as I found myself shorthanded. After a brief panic, I made a list, marshaled the children together and passed out tasks to be done.

The day was bright and relatively warm. That realization came as a relief because our little house would likely be swamped if a large crowd appeared and needed refuge from the cold. I made another round to check how the children were getting along with their tasks. Freya tidied the interior while Sean organized the construction materials from the never ending coop project into neat piles. To Aidan fell the unenviable task of checking the yard for any messes left behind by the dogs.

After a quick change of clothes, I fired up the tractor and drove it to the little rise overlooking the entrance to our driveway. A few days before, I had purchased a big "Welcome" flag which I now fastened so it would hang from the bucket of the front-end loader. I raised the bucket as high as it would go while the boys gave me approving thumbs-up signs from the driveway.

Our property is not well marked. OK, it really isn't marked at all! We had made a little poster board sign and were nailing it to a pole when the first car slowed and turned into our driveway. By the time I had completed the task and had walked back to the house, three more cars appeared and made their way to parking spots. The children and I strolled out to welcome our guests as yet more cars arrived.

It was an exciting time. Some of the people who emerged were old friends of ours while others were completely new. We hugged some, shook hands with many, made introductions again and again while trying hard to remember every one's names. Eventually Janet arrived and the rounds of hugs and greetings began again as we put out snacks and got everyone seated in the living room.

I had been preparing a little slide show and talking points for the past couple of weeks. Showing my stripes as a nerdy engineer-historian-activist-farmer, I launched into my talk that covered the history of agriculture from before World War II, through the Green Revolution, the founding of the CSA movement and an overview of Organic Farming practices. Finally I got around to our little farm and our plans for the CSA.

Everything seemed to be going very well. People made lots of comments and asked questions to elicit more details about us and our intentions. When things finally wound down, we moved everyone outside for a tour of the farm. Once we were outside, I was amazed at the number of people who were present. Many had not come inside at all because the house had been too full and were patiently waiting for a second round of the presentation.

I led everyone around as best I could and showed them the features of our little farm and where we planned to do various things. They lined up along the fencing to the chicken enclosure as I gave a little talk about our chickens, answered questions about the coop and held a hen out for them to pet. We toured the edge of the field that had been plowed for spring planting, showed them our beehive and the bonfire circle where we plan to hold parties.

I invited those who had not heard the talk to join me in the house as the rest of our guests made their way back to their cars. We had planned for the Open House to end at 4, but I found myself still answering questions to a fairly large crowd as the clock edged toward 6pm. Once the last of them had departed, we were tired but elated at how well the day had gone.

The real surprise came when we checked the sign-up sheets that were on the dining room table. Nearly everyone who had come signed up on the spot. Two families had even paid their memberships two months early! With few exceptions, the remaining people had left saying that they just needed to talk it over with their families and would call us back. That is exactly what they did. Before three more days had passed, we had sold all twenty shares that we planned to offer for 2010.

The group of people that have joined are amazing and I couldn't be happier. They come from many walks of life and bring a wide range of strengths and levels of experience to the effort. They have already begun to pull together behind the idea of forming a community around this farming adventure. More than half have signed up to be more actively involved in planning and working together with us on the farm. All of that involvement from such a great group of reliable friends and impressive new ones, has given us the confidence to increase the number of shares that we will plant for this first year. As of today we still have a couple of openings left.

I am excited and not at all intimidated by the year ahead of us. It feels very much like a group effort and everyone is charged up to build something great together. That enthusiasm fuels my drive to do my very best. It may sound corny, but it makes me feel like my life has taken an important turn for the better.

Getting The Word Out

We are very excited about starting our CSA farm this coming spring and are trying to get the word out to folks who might be interested in participating. We have decided to hold a Farm Open House and CSA Formation Meeting on Saturday, November 21st. You can read more of the details here. We want to hold the meeting now so I can figure out how many members to plan for and get a jump on preparing for ordering seeds and sowing seedlings in January.

We want to start small and grow slowly, but we also want to find enough people interested in joining us to make it economically worth the effort. I emailed the announcement to some of my coworkers who have purchased eggs and vegetables from us in the past and am now fretting over how to get enough people involved. Janet is also planning to distribute the information to her network of friends and I've got my fingers crossed that some of them will decide to come. I have heard back from one coworker who indicated strong interest which calmed my fears a little.

By scheduling an open house, I have now created a deadline for myself to get a bunch of things done around here! Most evenings this week have been spent at the sewing machine making a Halloween costume for our son Aidan. He headed off to school this morning in a flowing green wizard's robe and pointy hat. Now that it is done, I need to really focus in finishing up my projects and making things look presentable for our guests. It's going to be a busy weekend!


Taking The CSA Plunge!

I had thought that it would take a few more years before I would be ready to announce this, but we have decided to take the plunge and open our farm as a commercial operation beginning in January 2010. We had been discussing the idea of turning the farm into a "CSA" for some time now and I have done a fair amount of research. On a recent weekend retreat, a bunch of Janet's friends tipped the scales by saying that they were all willing to sign up as our first customers and things have been falling into place ever since.

"CSA" stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is a relative newcomer on the American agriculture scene since being imported from Europe to two east coast farms in the mid-1980's. This system of operation involves a partnership between customers and farmers wherein the land's produce is sold in advance to CSA members or shareholders. In return for prepaying for their share at the beginning of the year, each customer is entitled to a weekly share of produce.

What I find particularly appealing about the CSA concept is the need to produce a wide variety of different foodstuffs. A typical operation will plant over 100 varieties of vegetables and fruit to ensure that each week's food share will contain at least 7 or 8 different items. It also requires careful planning to provide a steady stream of produce from early spring to late fall. This type of farming seems to me to be merely an expansion of what I have already done this year and is far more appealing to me than producing a single crop such as soybeans or feed corn.

When thinking of taking on this commitment in the past, I had been intimidated by the fear of a crop failure leaving me in a position of disappointing customers who have already pre-paid. After quite a bit of reading, I now understand that the risk of such problems isn't merely on the back of the farmer but is instead shared by the whole community. From the start everyone will be aware of the vagaries of extreme weather and crop losses and share in the risks and benefits together.

Another of the benefits to the customer of this approach is the sense of being more intimately involved in the production of their food. Philosophically, the farm becomes the community farm and they can be directly involved to the degree that they wish by participating in community decision-making and on-farm volunteer activities. As well, the CSA provides social events such as harvest celebrations and social gatherings to the benefit of farmer and consumer alike.

Janet and I are very excited about this idea and are looking forward to setting it all in motion. We are planning a farm open-house and organization meeting for the CSA sometime in the next month (contact us if you are interested in attending through
www.portageriverfarm.com). We hope to encourage many of our current customers and friends to come see the farm and learn about the CSA. Our intention is to start out small and build things up over time but the only way to get started is to roll up our sleeves, take our courage in both hands and...get started!




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