Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wheat harvest

The combine - a 50 year old International
The wheat field - NuEast hard winter wheat - bread type wheat - ready to harvest

Consult the owners manual
Get neighbor's opinions

The audience


The harvest!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Vegetable flowers - saving seed in the garden









Avoiding the real GMO's

    There seem to be several common misconceptions about GMO's (genetically modified organisms) that lead people to suspect GMO's where there aren't any and in the process to distract them from where there really are GMO's.  You may not know that there are currently "only" 8 GMO crops in commercial production: corn, soybeans, canola (rapeseed), cotton, papaya, summer squash, sugar beets, and alfalfa.  And despite all the talk about disease and drought resistance and nutrition... the superficially noble causes GMO proponents tout, in actuality the single GMO trait that defines most of these crops is merely herbicide resistance, meaning these crops have been genetically modified such that they can be sprayed with more chemicals -- there are good reasons that the companies selling the agricultural chemicals are the same ones genetically modifying crops to go with them -- specifically chemical herbicides (weed killers) that would normally kill the crop, too.  Of course, new GMO's are in the works -- GMO salmon will be available in stores soon, and it will be the first GMO animal you can eat -- so simply avoiding the GMO list is going to get more and more limiting, and we don't mean to recommend that as a path forward. But before we talk about alternatives we want to deal with some of the misconceptions of where we are now.
   The first big misconception is that GMO's have much to do with produce (yet).  The 8 GMO crops are mostly major field (as opposed to garden/horticultural) crops and they take up a huge percentage of crop acreage, but when it comes to the fruit and vegetables you might buy locally, there's not much on that list except for sweet corn (which is just a tiny percentage of all the corn grown for animal feed, corn syrup, fuel ethanol, etc.) and summer squash. Seeking out or supporting a farmer that sells non-GMO tomatoes or green beans or cucumbers or watermelons or apples is (at least for now) like seeking out and supporting a brand of bottled water that advertizes that it's low carb, which is to say it's technically true but it accomplishes nothing except to distract you from why you're really getting fat.
   If you really want to get the GMO's out of your diet -- we'll ignore GMO non-food products like biofuels for now -- you should look first to the animal products you consume.  Meat and poultry and dairy and eggs and farm-raised fish account for the lion's share of GMO food.  If it's not either (1) wild caught (as in fish), (2) all-grass-fed (which as far as what's presently on the market is limited almost entirely to beef), or (3) one of the very few actually USDA organic-fed animal products, then it's almost always made of GMO feed.  Supermarkets like Whole Foods seem especially prone to mislead customers on this point.  Even the employees at the meat counters of supermarkets like Whole Foods don't seem to understand that most of what's in their cases is made of GMO's.  If an animal product isn't specifically labeled (1) wild caught, (2) all-grass-fed, or (3) USDA certified organic (even assuming the whole supply chain has dealt honestly and the product is labeled accurately), it's almost certainly made of GMO feed, and all the anti-GMO public relations material and all those non-GMO labels all over the rest of the store are serving to distract you (like non-GMO labels on bottled water) and give you a completely false sense of the GMO reality.
   Animal products from farmers' markets and other local, direct-market sources, unless they fall into one of those same three exceptions, are likewise mostly made of GMO feed.  Direct-market farmers that have or express any kind of organic leanings almost never grow GMO crops of any sort, whether as food or feed, but these same farmers often do buy GMO feed and other products grown on other farms to use on their farms and to feed their animals.  These farmers don't use GMO's in these ways because they're any less opposed to GMO's than you probably are; they use GMO's for the same reasons you'd probably use GMO's if you were trying to produce the same products: because it's mostly impossible to be vertically integrated (i.e. to grow everything your animals eat) and make a living at the same time, especially when hardly any customers are prepared to pay significantly more for comprehensive integrity than for superficial window dressing and misleading advertising.
   For a grain farmer it actually wouldn't be that much harder to grow non-GMO crops, but the trouble is that we've abandoned local control of all grain farming.  The grain farmer's trouble wouldn't so much be growing the crop as finding buyers for eleven million pounds of grain grown any other way than the absolute cheapest way possible, and in today's context that means GMO's.  In other words, all the remaining grain farmers -- unless you count our attempt to resurrect local markets beginning with cornmeal and grits, which, frankly, haven't been very popular -- are completely dependent on selling to global markets, and it's those global markets instead of local farmers or consumers that effectively decide how grain is grown here.  Abandoning local control of grain farming might not have seemed so bad at first, but now that we've lost sight and understanding of where our food is coming from the collateral damage and abuses (like GMO's) are really stacking up.  So the only option that's left and what is so much harder (and getting harder yet as we get further and further from the working knowledge and the small farms and locally suitable seeds for grain crops, etc.) is simply farming outside of the mainstream at a marginal scale.  However, farming at a marginal scale is the only real answer to food sovereignty (which means being able to choose what we eat instead of letting global markets directed by ag-chemical-pharma-biotech companies make all those choices for us.)  To the extent that it exists at all, the market for homegrown alternatives is much too small (and getting smaller the longer we wait) for farmers to employ the labor-saving machinery for growing and harvesting and processing the grain crops that generally make animal products so historically cheap.  Even the biggest farmers at local farmers' markets selling GMO-fed chicken and eggs from GMO-fed hens and pork from GMO-fed swine and cheese from GMO-fed cattle or goats... even these farmers aren't coming close to the scale (the millions of pounds of grain) that even the smallest end of today's grain production machinery dictates.  The same challenges apply to the major GMO non-animal products: granulated sugar (from GMO sugar beets), corn syrup, fats (vegetable oil, cottonseed oil, shortening, etc.), and other soybean products.  There's no simple, homegrown alternative to these foods for the consumer buying them or the farmer wanting to produce them, but there are solutions to these dilemmas beyond just avoiding the pervasive and growing number of GMO's.  The real solutions demand a level of consumer involvement and commitment that mostly just hasn't come together.
   We're not trying to single anyone out as the guilty party.  We think the problem is simply that even the local food system is much too fractured.  The solution we're hopeful for is for farmers and their customers to form much deeper partnerships where customers trust farmers to grow like they would if they were growing for themselves, not just vegetables, and not just vegetables and superficially local animal products (made of purchased, commodity feeds), but replacements and substitutes for the foods that farmers' market customers (and most farmers) currently take for granted they're going to buy from the corporate food system: grain products and other dry goods, everyday sweeteners (including pre-sweetened prepared foods like ice cream or chocolate), canned, frozen, dried, and stored produce, fruit like apples and bananas and oranges, etc. Of course, farmers can only grow for customers the way they grow for themselves if farmers actually do grow for themselves and if customers are willing to choose and eat and preserve and prepare foods the way farmers do for themselves, accepting limitations and letting those limitations lead, among other things, to new ways of eating, etc.  The way things are now, consumers pay farmers to do things (like producing GMO products) they don't want, and farmers do things they don't believe in and would rather not do, and the reason is that farmers are selling to the marketplace instead of specific consumers.  As long as farmers are forced to compete in a marketplace where consumers aren't invested enough in any farm to understand and support real alternatives consumers will find very little in the way of real alternatives.  In other words, farmers can't make a living doing things that inevitably add to their costs (whether that be growing without GMO's, etc. or simply growing on a locally accessible scale at all) when the market can't recognize and appreciate the differences.  The path we'd like to recommend is to connect deeply enough with specific local farmers that share your core food/farming values and that you can get to know well enough to trust to transform your food choices.  If that sounds really challenging and complex, and you need an easy answer, here's your alternative: go to the supermarket, buy whatever the ag-chemical-biotech-pharma companies and their servants in the government teach you to want (including, prominently of late, GMO's), and trust that that system is the best guardian of your interests and values.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What has been happening on the farm this winter?

The newly laid foundation for our cold frame.

Next crop of shitake mushroom logs drilled, filled and waxed.

The hay mow hen with the first hatch of the year - a brood of 11 chicks.
We're just now back from the mill with a fresh batch of cornmeal and grits from our heirloom corn.

Digging a trench to lay a drain tile through the usually too wet house garden.  Thanks Dyana!

Monday, March 3, 2014


We're taking sign-ups for the 2014 CSA now.  A CSA is the next best thing to growing your own food, so if you'd like to eat the kind of food you'd grow for yourself but you aren't in a position to do so, consider joining our CSA!  The details, outlined below, are pretty much the same as last year.  Weekly CSA pick-ups can be made at the farm after 1pm on Tuesdays. Come see us at the farm!

   We want the CSA to be especially for those customers that want to move toward getting nearly all of their food dollars out of the global/corporate/commodity food system (and all the harmful and risky inputs on which that system depends.)  Our CSA isn't intended to enrich your corporate diet; it's intended to begin the process of replacing it.  We believe small diversified farms can offer a thoroughly homegrown alternative to the whole system of supermarket agriculture.  That's how we want to eat; it's mostly how we do eat; and our CSA is how we want to bring customers into that whole system of farming and eating with us.  By partnering together more closely, we see the long-term potential to regain local control of pretty much everything we eat. If that isn't a goal you share, as we expect it won't be for most of our customers, we hope we can still find lots of common ground at the farmers' market or through farm pick-ups without the special partnership involved in the CSA.  If, on the other hand, it is a goal you share, read on!

   2014 will be our 10th year offering CSA shares.  Our CSA plan consists of 23 weekly boxes with a value of $21 each, for a total of $483.  If you pay in full by March 31 we'll give you the last box as a bonus, so the total cost to you would be $462.  (Or talk to us about payment options.)  We're also offering half season shares at $231 for 11 weekly boxes (covering the first 12 weeks of the season with one bye week and renewable for the second half) for first-time members to try out the CSA without making a full-season commitment. You have the option to e-mail us specific requests for your box in response to our weekly e-mail.  If you want more than $21 worth of farm products any given week, we'll have you pay for the extra in cash that week.  In addition to the regular produce items, you can also request things that we wouldn't automatically include as part of your box (plants, eggs, flowers, soap, candles, bread, beef...anything we sell from our farm.)  For things that don't fit into the weekly box (like shares of beef, honey by the case, etc.), we'll give you first dibs as CSA members.

   As an optional addition to the regular full-season CSA share, we also offer a "preserving share."  For an average of $10 we'll give you an additional share of all one item suitable for preserving for the off-season (things that might be frozen or dehydrated or pickled or canned or simply stored in a cool closet.)  The preserving share will be deeply discounted off the regular price (typically about half price.)  It may include "seconds" with cosmetic or other flaws (e.g. odd shaped cucumbers or cracked tomatoes or misshapen carrots or onions with soft spots or strawberries with little bug bites.) Other times it will simply be an item of which we have an over-abundance that week (things like beets, cabbages, eggplant, field peas, cooking greens, okra, green peppers, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, summer squash...)  The price is an additional $160 for 16 boxes (with possibilities for continuing past the 16th box.) We'll choose from the 23 weeks when you're receiving a regular CSA box to give you your preserving shares.  We'll make sure you get at least 12 different items by your 23rd week.  If you're looking for an economical way to enjoy the same food we sell in-season during the off-season, and if you're flexible enough to deal with preserving a larger quantity of a different crop each week (occasionally with a very short shelf life), then the preserving share might be just the thing for you.  We're only offering a very limited number of preserving shares, however.

   If you'd like to build a deeper relationship with a particular farm like ours but you're more interested in things like freezer shares of meat, eggs, honey by the case, other bulk purchases, hand-harvested grains and dry beans, maybe even cooperative milking arrangements... (perhaps because you grow your own year-round supply of vegetables already), then we don't have a prepared plan to present to you, but please come visit.  If you're serious about going beyond the farmers' market basics but don't have enough land or time to do it all yourself, there are lots of options to discuss that are too complicated or specialized for any kind of standardized offering.  Special arrangements would likely require a more serious level of commitment to local food, including notably items with much cheaper supermarket counterparts.

   If you don't e-mail us an order we'll pack your box (or if you order less than $21 we'll make up the difference ) with a full assortment of vegetables, strawberries and any other fruit we have, mushrooms, other garden and field crops (like peanuts, popcorn...), etc.  You have the option of placing an order that will cover the whole box, but there are several reasons to minimize your particular requests.  One reason is that it's a good way to discover things you might not otherwise have enjoyed.  Another reason is that we'll choose the crops that are at their peak of quality each week. Letting us choose also frees you from having to e-mail us if e-mail isn't convenient for you.  And if you let us choose, that allows us to include things that we don't have in enough quantity to offer to everyone or that didn't make the e-mail list for other reasons. Often that means extending the season for crops: for example, we may have a limited quantity of early tomatoes for a couple weeks before and a limited quantity of late tomatoes for a few weeks after the main tomato season.  It also means that we can include items that we grow in smaller quantities or perennial crops (especially the many types of fruit we're growing) that haven't reached full production yet (e.g. Asian pears, blueberries, tame blackberries, figs, sour cherries...) These are all marginal things -- the bulk of what we'd pack for you would be the same as what we list in the e-mail, centered on vegetables -- but we enjoy being able to treat our CSA members to these kinds of extras.

   Our CSA season should run at least 26 weeks, so you should have at least 3 bye weeks (4 if you don't count the bonus week.)  If you don't want to get a box one week, just let us know by the order deadline on the day before pick-up.  If we don't hear from you by the order deadline, we'll pack you a box like we described in the paragraph above.  If you reach your 23rd box before the end of the season and would like to continue, you'll have the option of paying $21 each week to continue to receive a CSA share for any remaining weeks to the season.

   If you haven't ever been to our farm before, we require a visit to the farm before the start of the CSA.  (Anyone is welcome to make plans to visit or pick up an order at the farm.)  If you have any questions call (704-546-5074) or e-mail us.  If you think you're ready to sign up, contact us, and we'll send you a sign-up form. We're taking CSA members on a first come first serve basis until we're full.  To hold your spot, we ask for at least a $100 deposit. If you were a CSA member last year, we'll save a spot for you if you (1) e-mail us by February 15 to say you'll be sending a deposit and (2) send us the minimum deposit by February 28.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Thoughts on the "full diet CSA" model

   We know some of you all are already familiar with the most prominent "full diet CSA" farm from the book The Dirty Life.  Essex Farm is near the Canadian border across Lake Champlain from Burlington, VT, in New York State.  We thought it could be helpful to introduce more of you, our customers, to the Essex Farm CSA model and to share some of our thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages, particularly as that model might apply to our farm.
   So far as we know Essex Farm was the first farm to offer all-you-can-eat CSA shares including most major food groups.  Their CSA members pay a fixed amount per year depending on the ages and number of people in the household, and then they come to the farm once each week, throughout the whole year, and pick out as much as they can use.  Their farm seems to be based mainly around their full selection of seasonal garden crops (at least as full as their far northern location allows) and all the standard animal products (dairy, eggs, beef, pork, chicken.)  Quoting from their website, "The all-you-can-eat membership price for 2013 is $3700 per year for the first adult in a household, and $3300 for the second adult, with a $400 discount for each additional adult. Children over 3 are $120 per year of age (e.g., a five-year-old is $600 for the year, a seven-year-old is $840, etc.)"  They farm a lot more acreage than we do, and they employ about 8 or 9 full-time employees.  They have 222 members, which we guess means they have around 100 families as CSA members.  They have 9 draft horses that they use for a lot of their farm work, but they also use tractors, and they purchase hay and grain from off the farm.
   We suspect what at first stands out the most for many of you is the price.  For a married couple the cost would be $7000/year or about $135/week.  For a family of 4 with two intermediate age children the cost would be $9160/year or about $176/week.  (For comparison, the 2013 price for our basic CSA was $462 for 23 weeks, and was based on a $21 weekly box.)  $10,000/year may sound incredibly expensive at first.  Then again, some of you may spend $176 on a single trip to the supermarket without buying even commodity organic.  If Essex Farm's customers were to actually eat almost all their food from the farm, they wouldn't be paying much more than average Americans, and they're eating worlds better and not only supporting a local organic farm, but they're even supporting the use of "organic tractors" (horses), and that's one of the most striking parts of their model to us.  It's not that we're anywhere near ready to rely on draft animals, but it's remarkable that Essex Farm's CSA model has enabled the farmers to lead their customers with their understanding of good agriculture and what makes sense for their place.  That general idea of being able to farm the way we would if we were growing just for ourselves but on a larger scale together with customers that share our values and want to support and share in the fruits of that style of farming... a CSA model that enables its members to choose a model of farming instead of making thousands of isolated food purchases is admirable.  (Those thousands of isolated food purchases are a big part of how supermarkets divide and conquer small farms.)
   And that CSA model clearly changes how the members eat. Obviously it makes it possible for them to eat foods grown in ways that don't conform to existing broad market categories, but it also empowers the members to make choices they wouldn't have made otherwise. Instead of the way supermarkets have over the last several decades led consumers to redefine their food choices and diets to conform to corporate-industrial agriculture, the all-you-can-eat model leads the members to conform their shopping and eating habits to what makes sense locally and seasonally and according to the way of farming the members have chosen by buying into that particular farm.  As farmers, we know how much richer our diet has become by following the seasons and the logic of a small farm to a richness we never would have found as simple consumers.
   The Essex Farm CSA model also must make it easier for the farm to sell products that to sell in stores or to the general public would require additional licenses and special processing equipment, things like fresh dairy or meat that they butcher on the farm.  And so the members enjoy a lot of food items for which they likely wouldn't be able to find local options at all apart from the full diet CSA model because the traditional local options were squeezed out of business decades ago.  As both state and federal regulations and paperwork burdens continue to mount, threatening even this year to start killing off local farmers' markets and in the very immediate future to altogether put an end to local farmers' markets as we've known them, we're increasingly drawn to a marketing model that like Essex Farm's avoids much of the tension with opposing value systems by cooperating more closely with customers with shared values.
   But there are also aspects of their model that we'd prefer not to imitate.  We'd have to get a lot bigger, particularly in terms of acreage and employees, in order to be able to offer a near continuous supply of all the animal products they offer.  We probably couldn't get big enough if we wanted to, but we're not at all ready to give up on family farms, farms that have the potential continuity of families and that are limited in scale by the limits of the people with long-term bonds to that particular farm in that particular community.  The family farm model (by which we mean not just family-owned but predominantly family-worked and therefore family-scaled farm) has a history of land stewardship and quality food production that spans continents and centuries, and we're not ready to dismiss those benefits as purely coincidental.  Remaining a family-scaled farm would mean, however, that we wouldn't be able to offer a regular supply of everything we produce to all of our CSA members,
   And we see compromises we'd have to make in the integrity of our farm if we did scale up to regularly supply something like their "full diet."  (There are, on the other hand, foods like honey and increasingly orchard crops that we offer our CSA members that, so far as we can tell, are largely left out of the Essex Farm "full diet.")  We know, for example, we could sell plenty of chicken and lots more eggs if we scaled up our flock, but we can't see how to scale up without sacrificing our present low-tech, free range, and heavily forage-based system.  Freely available forage only goes so far for so many chickens in any one flock.  The amount of scratching and pecking that any given area can sustainably tolerate is likewise limited.  Mother hens can only effectively raise a very limited number of clutches in the same area at the same time.  If we scaled up we'd probably have to trade in our mother hens for purchased biddies from conventional hatcheries.  Scaling up would generally seem to require sacrificing our low-tech and more thoroughly homegrown/local model for a model that would depend more on purchased inputs from corporate-industrial farms, and it would increase the price of our eggs in the process.
   We generally hope to find ways to keep the dollar cost of a "full diet" somewhat lower than the Essex Farm model.  We wonder how much the all-you-can-eat model adds to the cost of their CSA by not providing an incentive for their customers to choose the foods that their farm can produce most economically.  We can also see that some people might want to pay more to eat high on the hog and other people might want to save money and eat pig's feet.  Similarly, we can see that some people might want to buy tortillas and other people might just want whole kernel corn to make their own tortillas.  There would be a lot of those kind of choices, and we wouldn't want to limit options at the low cost end of the spectrum. We also hope that as a family farm we might be able to keep overall costs down better than a farm with regular employees and the larger scale that might tend to demand more purchased solutions.
   We're not sure what the best way is to get there, but we do want to keep moving toward a variation of a "full diet CSA":  In addition to the beef, eggs, vegetables, cornmeal and grits, honey, mushrooms, peanuts, strawberries, etc. that we've been offering our CSA members, we're already working to greatly increase our selection of perennial fruits and nuts, and we'd like to find ways for our CSA members to share in dairy from our goats and cows... we'd similarly like to find ways for our CSA members to eat all of the grains and dry beans/peas that we've grown for ourselves... and goat meat and some kind of poultry...  There are good reasons that these additional crops aren't very much sold to the general public, and those reasons mostly apply to us, too, but we hope that moving toward something like Essex Farm's "full diet CSA" model can help us together realize a lot more potential with these additional foods.