Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Drinking From A Firehose!

Yesterday morning, the boys and I got up early and drove to Battle Creek to attend the Michigan Family Farms Conference. It was hosted by an organization called Michigan Food & Farm Systems. It was pretty well attended despite the cold and snow.

I attended three classes. The first was on effective selling at Farmer's Markets. The second was all about the Organic Certification program of the USDA. The last was all about soil science and the use of cover crops to improve soil and reduce weeds, pests and plant diseases. I absorbed as much as I could and feel it was definitely worth the trip and the cost. It helped me to figure out a few first steps that I need to take.

More than anything, it made me aware of just how little I know about all of this. I learned that organic farming isn't really about finding clever ways to do without certain pesticides. It's about an entire system of stewardship and improvement of the health of the soil and the overall farm. It seems to me that it is probably a method of farming that would be more familiar to old-time farmers who really knew all of the tricks to boosting their yields long before we had the convenience of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

I learned that there is a great deal to understanding how to assess the health of the soil and figuring out a plan of action to build it back up. My sister (who has had a long successful career in agricultural education in Florida) had mentioned crop rotation and the use of cover crops. It just went over my head. Now I'm starting to understand a little.

The main hallway was lined with booths from organizations and agencies that were all basically there to help. They have all sorts of programs and were all talking excitedly about the 2008 farm bill. I mostly was trying to understand what they do. I had an especially nice talk with a professor from Michigan State University who had tons of resources to offer from within the University. I picked up a whole bag of literature to puzzle my way through.

It was a little like having a whole bunch of people lined up saying "we're here to help, you just have to ask". To which I would have to say, "I have no idea what I'm doing! I don't know where to begin! I'm not sure what I need or how I'll ever get to the point of comprehending all of the programs and certifications available."

I did make one connection with a really nice guy who has a farm near us. About ten years ago he quit his job as a machinist (that makes three ex-machinists that I have met in the past week!) and started farming on their 30-something acre property. They now have a successful business raising cattle, sheep and selling hay. Probably the largest part of their income is from their 400 beehives. That's some serious beekeeping! I can't imagine how much time it takes to keep up with that many. They have a really nice line of honey products and sell beekeeping supplies as well.

Now that I'm back home and a teeny bit wiser, I plan to continue my work on the market survey of area farms. I also want to put more information on the website on the property and my fledgling plans for it. Stay tuned and feel free to offer advice. Just don't be surprised if I don't understand what you are talking about!
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Pokin' Around And Takin' Notes

In the past week I have begun gathering information on what other farming families in this region are doing. There are probably better resources for this, but I have been using the web. I got a listing of all of the farms, orchards and farm markets in the lower peninsula and have been browsing their sites one by one.

I have to say that I have really enjoyed this exercise and have learned quite a bit. The websites range from very professional business sites that are little more than sales brochures to quirky, chaotic and personal glimpses into the lives and philosophies of the families. The best sites have left me charmed, feeling that I actually had a brief visit, kicked the tractor tires, patted the horses and peered behind the barn. There are a couple of families that I am going to have to find an excuse to meet and at least one that I plan to approach to discuss a potential business arrangement.

True to my own tendencies, I have created a number of files for compiling the information that I ran across on these sites. I have recorded all of the particular varieties of each vegetable and fruit that they mention growing. I also have been adding lots of items to my listing of potential products that I could produce and have noted all of the prices that I saw advertised for them.

It will take me a while longer to get through this task and even longer to actually turn the effort into some useful decisions on which of the thousand directions that I would like to go are wise choices.
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