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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Monday, September 28, 2015


   The reasons why local-organic grains have been so terribly neglected are fairly straightforward.  First, compared to most other foods, grains are relatively non-perishable, so they're relatively cheap to ship, and there aren't hardly any issues like with tomatoes or peaches of sacrificing flavor by harvesting under-ripe to withstand long-distance transport.  Secondly, from a gastronomic perspective, grains are that essential part of a meal that you normally just take for granted and don't pay any particular thought to.  Pasta dishes are defined by the sauce (or at most the shape of the pasta, which has nothing to do with the grain farming); a sandwich by what's inside; rice is just a side dish or a "bed" for what defines the meal; and oatmeal is just oatmeal.  And if grains don't get attention when they're actually on the plate, how much less attention do they get when they only made it as far as the feed trough?  From meat to dairy to eggs to farm-raised fish, there isn't a single farm animal that isn't commonly fed grain, often exclusively, and even as the great bulk of the calories in the diets of most pastured livestock and poultry.  But if you think about the farms you depend on for your eggs, do you think all about chickens or do you think at least as much about the grain fields that fed the chickens?  Grains are hugely important, but whether as feed or food they're easily overlooked by the consumer.  Thirdly, grain farming is especially highly mechanized.  Most acres of grain in America probably aren't stepped on once by the farmer's feet over the course of the whole year: only tires and steel and chemicals need to touch the ground, and that means that large scale, heavily mechanized farmers have bigger cost advantages in grain farming than in any other major farming category.  It takes a huge scaling down of modern farm equipment to meet the tiny market potential that currently exists for local-organic grains.  And finally, grains lend themselves especially well to pre-processed convenience foods. Using local-organic grains requires kitchen time.  It's much easier to slice a local-organic tomato for a tomato sandwich than it is to bake the bread for a local-organic tomato sandwich.  Local-organic grain options will require consumers to look beyond the easy habits of boxed pasta, instant rice, frozen pizza, corn flakes, etc.
  So why not just be content leaving grains out of the local-organic food movement?  Here are 7 reasons we believe local-organic grains are at least as important to local-organic food as anything else, reasons that if understood should provide ample motivation to meet the challenges:

  Grain crops like field corn (which is corn that is harvested when the kernels are hard-dry), wheat, barley, rice, etc. account for far more acreage than fruits and vegetables.  We'd guess the difference in our county and general area is at least 100:1 if not 1000:1.  If we want to support a healthy ecosystem around us, if we want healthy soils, healthy rivers and aquifers, and if we want to foster the local food economy and build sustainable farming communities, then we can't leave grain farming out of the equation; the land impact is just far too significant.

  Directly and indirectly (by feeding to farm animals), grains account for most of the calories the average American (besides about any other country) consumes.  If you're concerned about what you're eating and how it was grown (and what went into growing it), grain farming is hugely significant to your diet.

  We don't see any realistic path to local-organic pork or poultry (including eggs) that doesn't begin with local-organic grain for human consumption.  If local farms can find support for local-organic grains (as cornmeal, grits, corn for hominy/tortillas, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, and whatever other grains can be relatively efficiently grown organically and processed on a small scale in our region), then there will be various byproducts (milling byproducts and parts of crops that for various reasons wind up unfit for human consumption and sporadic damaged crops that can't be harvested but can be fenced in for animals to harvest directly) that will go a long way to making local-organic pork and poultry feasible and economical.

  The present alternative to feeding farm animals local-organic feed is to raise pork and poultry and other farm animals on grain shipped in from far away organic farms or more often from farms that aren't organic at all.  That leaves problems on both ends, for both the grain farm and the livestock operation.  The grain farmer is left with a nutrient deficit from shipping away the nutrients in his grain, and the manure can become a waste liability or pollutant on the other end.  When the grain farmer replaces the manure with synthetic fertilizers highly susceptible to run-off and leaching, that can further exacerbate the pollution liability.  The natural solution to the problem is to use animal manure to fertilize grain crops, but that can only practically happen when farm animals are being raised on the same farm as the grain that feeds them (or at least in the same farming community and as part of the same farming system), and that's realistically only going to happen as consumers that value local-organic farming begin by supporting local-organic grain products for human consumption.

  The equipment and facilities for growing and processing grains like field corn, barley, wheat, etc. share a lot in common with other field crops like oil seeds (seeds that are pressed for salad/cooking oil) and pulses (dry peas and beans, soybeans, etc.) and seed crops like cover crop and forage plant seed.  Growing and finding markets for true grains and grain products (like flour, cornmeal, etc.) will likely prove to be a necessary first step to local-organic farms and communities once again growing and offering and stewarding these other foods and field crops.

  Diversified farms that grow produce crops together with grain crops and forage/hay crops and animals are in the best position to practice the kind of crop rotations that improve soil health, cycle nutrients, and break pest and disease cycles.

  Before produce farms were all covered in plastic, straw was the natural mulch for crops like straw-berries and many other produce crops.  Straw is a byproduct of grain farming (the leftover stalk of grains like wheat or barley or oats.)  Unlike plastic, which just adds to landfills, straw naturally decomposes, improving the soil in the process.  If your vision of an organic produce farm isn't one covered in plastic, that's one more reason to support local-organic grain farming.