Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Follow-up on food waste

   A few weeks ago we wrote about the things we do to avoid food waste on our farm.  We discussed several things we do with unsellable and surplus food, things that even most small, organic farms don't do or don't do to a significant extent.  By far the most important of those things is preserving food for our own family's later use, but all of the things we do to avoid food waste take time.  The question we aim to address this week is why you as a consumer might (or might not) want to deal with a farmer that takes the time to do these things, especially preserving food for his own family.
  And we think the most important answer to that question is that if you believe in pursuing a real alternative to supermarket ways of farming then we think it makes sense to look for a farmer that wants to eat his own food year-round.  We think the inverse is also true: a farmer that would rather focus more on making money during the busy season (instead of preserving food for his own family) and is content to take that money to the supermarket in the off-season is more likely a farmer that isn't so committed to a way of farming that's so distinct from the supermarket. 
  This begs the question of whether the products of any local farms really are preferable to the supermarket to begin with, especially when it comes to comparing something like home canned local tomatoes with fresh tomatoes from Florida or California.  Perhaps you'd rather eat fresh tomatoes from the supermarket when they're out of season instead of eating home-canned tomatoes or doing without.  And perhaps you'd prefer a farmer that shared and followed those same priorities, concentrating on bringing the best of everything he can to the market during the market season instead of getting distracted with things you wouldn't even really care about for yourself.
  In theory those fresh tomatoes from the supermarket in the middle of winter could even be certified USDA organic, but in practice shopping at the supermarket almost always means substantial compromises to even the USDA organic label, to say nothing of all that the USDA organic label leaves to be desired.  But one could trust in and patiently wait for the USDA organic system to improve and offer more and better options, focusing in the meantime on the certified organic things one can buy, and taking comfort in mostly meaningless alternative labels ("all natural," "non-GMO" olive oil, "hormone-free" chicken, etc.) for all those things for which there aren't certified organic options or for which the certified organic options seem like a rip-off.  One could trust that ultimately it's going to be supermarkets, the far-away farms that supply them, and government programs that fix the problems with our food and agriculture.  Lots of people don't believe that abandoning responsibility for our food and farms to unaccountable corporations and government programs was at all to blame for how we wound up with so many problems in the first place.  Pretty obviously, we believe consumer disconnectedness is at the root of our food and agricultural problems, but if you'd just as soon buy what you want to buy when you want to and leave it to corporate and government specialists to think about and take care of all the details, with or without an organic label to help that process, then you'd surely think (if you took the time to think about it) that how we farm is generally a pointless and inefficient waste of our time and your money.
  Even in that case, if we happen to have something on the farmers' market table that looks good for a price that looks good, you might still want to buy it, but that might just not happen very often.  We would probably have compromised too much of what you'd be looking for for the sake of things you don't really care about at all.  And you almost certainly wouldn't want to make any commitment to our way of farming (like a CSA involves.)  Fair enough.  Thanks for looking.  On the other hand, if you'd rather not trust the supermarket or the USDA organic label to answer all your food and underlying farming questions for you (present and future), and if you'd like to support and eat from a source that's a lot more than just a nearby version of that same system, and especially if you'd like to build and grow a comprehensive alternative to the supermarket system such that the homegrown alternative amounts to more than just token supplements to your diet, then we'd encourage you to consider getting to know and partnering with a farm like ours.  If you share that perspective, you might actually prefer that we spend significant time preserving tomatoes (and all sorts of other things) for ourselves when we might otherwise be putting more on the farmers' market table for you, precisely because there's no better guarantee of good farming than what a farmer would choose for his own family.  And if you get to know us and decide to partner with us, you may come to find that we're actually providing you with good things you didn't even know you were missing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Food Waste on the Farm

  The reality is not every cucumber is perfect.  Neither is every tomato or potato.  And there is no doubt about the carrots: so many of them grow extra legs or twist around each other, you start to think they want to look funny.  In the vegetable garden, and in fact, all over the farm, perfection is rare.  Over-sized, under-sized, bug bitten, rotten spots - there are endless opportunities for something to fall off the perfection pedestal.  So what is a farm to do?  The most common option on farms in America, even small organic farms, is to  leave it in the field, pick it and drop it.   If it doesn't meet market expectations, it's often not worth the time to do any more with it.  But for us, leaving it in the field is the last resort.  Waste is painful to the bottom line and to the morale of the farmers.  So we farm in a way where things rarely go to waste.
  One option is to sell it anyway.  While we want to give our customers really good food, the truth is many imperfections have little effect on the quality of the product.  In a blind taste test, people probably couldn't taste the difference between a crooked cucumber and a straight one.  So while we put out the prettiest produce at the market first, if we run out of those, then we may bring out the others.  It's always reassuring to us at the end of the tomato season when the tomatoes are small and full of character, how eagerly you all still buy them, quickly dismissing our apologies and saying "at least they are homegrown."  How it was grown outweighs how it looks, especially when other homegrown options are scarce.  So sometimes we bring ugly things to market. 
  We also sell seconds through the preserving share option of the Full Farm CSA.  Through the season, members receive preserving quantities of produce, typically at a reduced price.  These are often second quality, most often for cosmetic issues.  But sometimes we pass along preserving shares of things just because we have too much of them.  On farms abundance can lead to even more waste than blemishes.  Even with the most careful planning, you just can't sell everything you grow. 
  Another outlet, for both seconds and simple surplus, is our neighbors without whom we wouldn't hardly be able to farm.  A bag of cucumbers at peak season seems a poor offering to say thank you for countless favors, but that's the way of neighborliness. 
  But sometimes, things aren't second rate; they are third or fourth rate, i.e. animal quality.  This is where the beauty of diversity on the farm comes into play.  The cobs of poor quality field corn get fed to the chickens for them to turn into eggs -- if there are a bunch of bad kernels on a cob we're not going to peck out the good ones one by one, but the chickens don't mind in the least -- the pumpkins with bad spots get fed to the hog to be turned into bacon (and also provide balance to acorns, which could otherwise be constipating), and the sweet potatoes that are too small get fed to the goats for them to turn into milk.
  But more than any of these other uses, imperfect produce becomes what we call "farmer grade," meaning it goes to our kitchen for our use and especially for us to preserve for later.  We ambitiously eat in season: meal times right now feature some kind of squash and some variation of cucumber salad on the side, with other fresh-from-the-garden vegetables as well.  And once on the table, no one notices/remembers that we're eating less than the best quality.  Even our four year old, looking for a snack, knows to ask for an "ugly" cucumber.  And then when we've eaten our share and know there's more to come from the garden, we heat up the kitchen and get things preserved!  These days, the odd yellow squash have been canned for later squash casseroles, the pointy-end cucumbers are in a crock fermenting, the slug punctured cabbage has been carved and is turning into sauerkraut, and the tiny beets were perfect for pickled beets.  If it weren't for odd things such as these, we might be tempted to sell everything we grow.  And that is the opposite of what we're trying to do.  First and foremost, we farm to feed ourselves, both in season and out of season.  We feast on what would otherwise be waste.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Farm update

  In terms of soil moisture we've more than caught up from an extremely dry April in the last week.  Now we're itching for it to dry out enough for at least a little bit so we can get the next round of crops planted.  We're super busy these days between building up nucleus colonies for next year's honey crop, finishing spring time manipulations with this year's honey producers, moving fences for the livestock, milking two cows, grafting fruit trees, and all the work in the fields of working up ground, planting, weeding, and harvesting.  Strawberries are especially time-consuming to harvest (and sort and process the ones with bad spots, etc.), but we're very happy to be doing that work, especially after a couple years of poor strawberry harvests.  Besides moving hoses and watering, etc., it seems like we spent most of April covering and uncovering the strawberries and other things from the couple freezes and all the light frosts we had (as well as the frosts that the forecast threatened that we didn't have), and we're glad to have made it through that with hardly any losses to the strawberries and minimal losses to other things and to now be able to turn to work that seems more forward-moving.  We've had an early start to strawberry season this year, so we're hopeful for a long harvest season, but the strawberry season is especially unpredictable. 
  The first planting of field corn (for cornmeal, hominy, etc.) is up and growing well.  Our wheat crop -- we grow two varieties, a hard wheat (mainly for yeast bread) and a soft wheat (for biscuits and pie crusts...) -- are noticeably short (in height) this year, presumably because of the dry weather in April, but the heads of grain still look pretty good, so we're still hopeful for a decent wheat harvest.  We weren't able to get any oats planted last year because it stayed too wet at the time we needed to plant, but the oats look pretty good this year, despite the weather delaying planting fairly late and then turning so dry.  This will be our third oat crop.  We're growing a "naked oat," meaning the grain mostly threshes free of the papery hull, making it feasible for us (without industrial-scale processing equipment) to use the oats for human food.  We've basically just been multiplying out our seed so far, but we have enough planted this year to hopefully plant all we want next year and be able to start eating the oats, too.  Best case scenario, we may be able to offer shares of oats to Full Farm CSA members for 2018.
  The Irish potatoes are off to a good start already.  The overwintered garlic crop looks very good.  The spring peas/garden peas haven't done well this year, between poor conditions for germination and the very dry weather that followed.  Our attempts at direct seeding mustard and turnip greens completely failed in the dry weather, but we have a smaller area of transplanted greens that are doing very nicely.
  We have about 8 additional, new-to-us sweet potato varieties to grow this year.  We're excited to try them, especially in hopes of finding new types to enjoy for unique flavors or in different ways.  Another new crop for us this year is pumpkin seeds/pepitas.  If any of you have experience (or know someone with experience) growing any Mexican/central American variety of squash (as opposed particularly to the Austrian/cooler climate varieties) selected and grown particularly for the seeds, we'd love to learn from another grower (particularly about post-harvest processing, especially relating to the hulls), but in the meantime we're going to try to move ahead and figure things out on our own.  We're also excited to have discovered chayote by the recommendation of the same gardening friend that introduced us to roselle, yacons, and a bunch of our sweet potato varieties.  Chayote is a squash, especially unique in terms of how it grows.  It's very roughly similar to summer squash in flavor but comes much later in the year.  These new and experimental crops are a fun part of what we do.
  After two extremely cold winters ('13-'14 and '14-'15) that killed our figs back to the ground, we're happy to have had a milder winter with hopes of plenty of figs again.  We were able to cover a couple figs -- we built a 20' wide "fortress" around one fig with a light bulb (the kind you can't buy any more) in the middle for heat -- to protect them (particularly the early "breba" crop) from the late freeze in April, and we wrapped a couple other figs in Christmas lights to give off that little bit of heat.  The new growth on a couple other figs was killed back, but the wood is still fine, and they're leafing out again and should still make a good main crop.  We love figs, especially after two years almost without!  The blueberry crop is also looking good, even on most of the bushes that we weren't able to do anything to protect from the freezing nights in April.  Even mid-bloom, blueberries seem to be able to take a lot more cold than other things.  Persimmons and mulberries are mainly what Eric has been grafting this grafting season.  We're especially drawn to persimmons lately: selected native persimmon varieties, including some seedless varieties, as well as Asian varieties, including non-astringent types that are good to eat firm and the astringent-until-ripe types for eating jelly-soft and that are best for drying, plus unique/distinct Asian-American crosses.
  Our little herd of Jersey cattle is growing.  A second cow just freshened a couple weeks ago, so we're milking two cows now.  She was bred to an Angus bull, so we have a Jersey-Angus cross calf to raise up for beef.  We also have a heifer due to calve late this summer and a Jersey-Texas longhorn cross heifer not quite old enough to breed yet.  We sold our billy goat, so we just have two nannies now, but they both appear to be pregnant and should have their kids around the end of June/early July.  The kids will probably take all the milk for the first five or six weeks, and then we'll start milking them.
  We had very minimal winter losses with the bees, and they've done well all spring.  We've made up more nucleus colonies ("nucs") this spring than we have in a long time.  We use our nucs especially to draw new comb, so building up a more generous supply of drawn combs is a big part of our goal with the nucs.  Of course, a generous supply of combs is relative to how many hives we have, but we're not looking too far ahead.  The bees have already started making honey in earnest.  If the weather clears for good flying there's hope for another two or three or more weeks of nectar from the tulip-poplar and holly trees and the blackberry brambles -- the April freeze may have gotten the flower buds on the blackgums -- which could make for a very nice honey crop.  If the weather and the trees cooperate, the bees seem to be in good shape to take advantage of it.
  And on the family front, we're expecting an addition, number 5, to our family in early June.  That's probably not the best timing on a farm, but we're all excited about the new baby.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to eat like a farmer

  The basic concept of our Full Farm CSA (and the Vegetable CSA as a smaller step in the same direction) is that we grow and provide as complete an assortment of as many food groups as possible, including things that wouldn't be practical or economical to sell to the general public, and our CSA members make a comprehensive commitment to our farm in return, making significant changes to their food habits for the sake of eating from our way of farming.  The idea is that we grow first for them, and their food choices begin with us.  That frees us from catering to less informed customers and allows us to farm in the way we believe best, and it enables those that share our beliefs to obtain and to eat food grown in ways that largely wouldn't be available otherwise.  (See here for a discussion of food groups that have been completely left out of the local-organic food movement.)  Basically our CSA means you eat more like you would eat if you were growing your own food, and that's how we farm.  These are things we've said before, but we want to explain what we mean in a little more depth here.
  So how does growing our own food shape how we farm?  Perhaps most significantly, diversifying instead of specializing -- our farm provides us with fruits, vegetables, nuts, sweeteners, fats, dairy, meat, poultry, eggs, grains, pulses, herbs and teas... really everything besides fish -- means that we are our own most significant customer.  Our own family eats a significant percentage of almost every crop we produce.  If we were selling 99.9+% of each crop, like most full-time farmers in America, then we wouldn't have any real incentive to do anything besides what made the most money, but since we're farming for our own food as much as we're farming for money we don't, for example, just grow the highest yielding sweet potato variety, but we grow an assortment of the best tasting varieties... every issue from taste to diversity to affordability to organic integrity to food safety to the deeper questions of sustainability concern us personally and affect our personal food supply as much as anything, so instead of being forced to compromise everything possible to compete for fractions of a penny with thousands of other farmers serving millions of customers, most of whom are in a position to judge only the most superficial questions of price and cosmetics (swayed by advertisements, misleading product labels, etc.), we're in a position to weigh all the questions in the balance.  We farm the way we want to eat, because we're eating so much of what we farm.  And the extent of the differences between even USDA-organic food, on one hand, and how people eat and the ways they choose to farm when they're farming for themselves, on the other hand, is dramatic, all the more if you consider not just what people growing for themselves eat but also how it was processed, what chemicals and other inputs went into producing it, etc.  (See here or here for more discussion of what our homegrown style of farming does and doesn't mean.)
  But lots of obstacles stand in the way of customers being able to join in eating from a homegrown system of farming like ours.  Our farm can't offer the same crops, processed into the same foods, available at the same times and in the same kind of places as what almost all of our customers are currently in the habit of eating (including how we ate before how we believed in farming reshaped how we eat.)  We don't sell prepared tomato sauce, which the supermarket does sell, but we do offer bulk discounts for processing grade tomatoes, and that's something the supermarket doesn't sell, and certainly not from heirloom tomatoes picked ripe the day before and grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, etc.  Similarly we don't sell ice cream, but we sell exceptional honey from unmedicated hives that you could use to make your own ice cream for a homegrown quality like nothing you could buy in the store.  And that gets at a difference beyond just processing: honey is generally a substitute for sugar, but it tastes different, it requires adjustments in preparation/cooking methods, etc.  While we can grow foods to cover nearly every food group besides seafood, we can't grow all the same foods, especially not pre-processed foods, you're used to buying if you're used to getting most of your food from the supermarket system of farming, and especially not the same produce items if you're used to buying the same items fresh year-round.  Even our beef is seasonal based on the grass and based on our preferred meat processor that won't kill beef cattle when they're busy with deer hunting season.  And the logistics of selling our beef by the package are complicated enough that, going forward, we plan to only sell it on quarters, which pretty much means we can only sell to customers with stand-alone freezers (or to customers willing to buy a quarter cooperatively and divide it.)  Our point in all of these examples is that eating from a homegrown system of farming like ours requires lots of adjustments from normal supermarket habits.
  So the trouble is that if you come to us with a shopping list based on normal supermarket habits, we're not going to be able to offer you much.  The idea of the Full Farm CSA is that, instead of beginning with a shopping list, you'll begin, like a farmer, with what your farm has to offer.  Having already decided what kind of farming we want to eat from as much as we can, a lot of food questions are pretty well answered for us as farming questions before they ever become food questions.  For example, we haven't seen any reasonable way to try to grow rice in our location, so instead of eating rice and beans, we often eat grits and beans.  Having already grown it, heirloom corn is a given for us, and so we find ways to use it and to enjoy it.  Similarly, because we already have corn, we don't buy tortillas or tortilla chips at the store, but we'll cook whole kernel corn into hominy, grind it in a cheap hand mill and roll it into tortillas, and for chips, fry tortilla pieces into chips.  Of course, that means that tortilla chips aren't a quick and easy thing to decide to eat (unless perhaps we have leftover tortillas from the day before), and it means we don't eat tortilla chips all the time (but how much better are warm homegrown tortilla chips when we do make them!)  Letting our small farm direct how we eat, means that a lot of "fast food" options like tortilla chips are still possible, but they're no longer fast, and they require significant kitchen time and planning.  But that also leads us to a different kind of "fast food."  Vegetables are mostly fairly quick and easy to cut up and saute, so we eat lots of fresh vegetables.  Vegetables that we already cut up and froze or canned are even easier to pull out.  And how good are homegrown spring garden peas hand picked at just the right stage, shelled, and briefly boiled out of the freezer!  Of course, raw vegetables as in fresh tomato sandwiches or ripe pepper pieces filled with goat cheese or lettuce salad are even easier than cooking vegetables.  Yogurt is another "fast food," sweetened just with honey or with added fresh berries, when they're in season, or out of the freezer, or with roselle sauce, or as a dressing for a cucumber salad.  Meat out of the freezer is potentially easier than going to the store to buy it.  Overall letting a farm like ours lead how you eat will almost certainly mean more time spent in the kitchen, more skills to learn and employ, but the bigger point is that our CSA will turn a lot of normal supermarket food culture upside down so that you shop and cook and eat more like farmers that grow their own food.