Monday, October 25, 2010

What's Happening on the Farm

Breaking apart garlic heads for garlic planting
   With the sweet potatoes all out of the ground, we're now starting to sort them.  First we set some aside for "seed" for next year.  When planted in our cold frames in early spring, the sweet potatoes will send up lots of "slips" which we then plant.  Even though we have many bushels of sellable potatoes, there are also plenty of tiny, cracked, etc. potatoes that have us thinking we ought to finally get started with a couple pigs.
  We've also been working on pulling the peanuts off the vines.  After digging the vines we brought them (peanuts still attached) to one of our buildings where we pull the peanuts off.  The peanuts are then put on trays to dry.  We then feed the vines to Elsea our cow.
  We finished planting strawberries a couple weeks ago, expanding a bit from last year.  The neighbor farmer brought over some straw for us to mulch them.  This is especially important for keeping strawberries clean.  The mulch is also great for weed control and eventually organic matter for the soil.  Now going on to our fourth season here, we are starting to see the regular additions of mulch and manure, along with cover crops, making a difference.  We also finished planting the garlic, shallots and multiplier onions.  We expanded this patch too!  We're hopeful the multiplier onions will give us plenty of spring onions come early spring.  We've also been planting the fields that don't have fall or over-wintered crops to cover crops.
  During this recent warm weather we've seen a good bit of bee activity on asters, small white or purple wildflowers.  We were hopeful the bees were getting some winter honey stored for themselves from it, but it seems it has barely helped them hold their own.  It's definitely time now to feed the colonies that didn't maintain sufficient stores to make it through the winter.  Although we had a very good honey crop, it came early and was very short, so it's been a good five months since the bees had any opportunity to get ahead.  Summers are very typically discouraging, trying just to limit losses from queen problems, starvation, disease, robbing, etc., and knowing that the next real opportunity to make honey isn't until next May.  At this point we're hoping just to hold on to as many hives as we had this year for next year.
  We ended up with only one goat in milk this summer.  Now that we have a bit more time, we've been milking her once a day and making a simple cheese for ourselves.  Our other cow, Mary May, is due at Thanksgiving.
  We're certainly looking forward to winter.  But to keep ourselves disciplined we have a few projects we hope to get done, including hooking up a wood stove, building fences, shoveling out and spreading manure, building grape and kiwi trellises, reconfiguring the chicken fences around the gardens, assembling and cleaning up bee equipment, sorting and shelling and winnowing corn for cornmeal, planting trees, pruning, maybe building a greenhouse, building/setting up some basic infrastructure for a couple pigs...

The Harvest

Look what I found in the garden

What's that in your hair Nora?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Wet Pockets

Paul  said the grass got his pants wet.  Upon further inspection, we found them filled with muscadine grapes!


Nora and Paul milking Elsea

Skimming the cream

Churning the cream into butter
4 pounds of butter!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


It's almost too late to be sharing an okra recipe, but maybe you stocked up your freezers with enough okra to keep trying new okra recipes all through the winter. We've certainly had a bounty of okra this year. Maybe we shouldn't have planted that extra little row in the triangle garden. Now that the okra plants need to be bent over to be picked and are still growing strong, Melissa might confess -- Eric never! -- that she's gotten a bit tired of okra. We've sauted it, stewed it, roasted it, and fried it. Then a week ago we discovered a new way to cook it. Okra fritters! Suddenly, we weren't sure we'd frozen enough okra to keep us in fritters for the winter. We're nearing the end of the okra season, so enjoy some now and make sure you are stocked up for the winter, too.

Okra Fritters (adapted from Everyday Food)

2 cups oil or lard
1/2 cup cornmeal or flour
salt and pepper
2 cups coarsely chopped okra
1/2 small onion diced small (1/2 cup)
1 egg
1/4 cup buttermilk

1. In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil over medium. In a medium bowl, combine flour, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Add okra and onion and toss to coat. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and buttermilk. Add to okra mixture and stir just until combined.

2. In two batches, drop batter in 2-tablespoonful mounds into oil. With a small spatula or butter knife, gently flatten each mound and fry until golden, about 4 minutes per side, flipping once (adjust heat if browning too quickly). Drain on paper towels. Season with salt and serve warm.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Big News

The Statesville Record and Landmark recently wrote a story about our farm:


   We heard a couple interesting statistics and stories recently that spawned some thoughts on global commodity markets. The first story had nothing directly to do with agriculture. An economist was talking about what impact proposals that would increase domestic oil drilling would have on oil prices. The economist made the point that no matter which course we took oil would remain a global commodity product dominated by OPEC. In other words, talking about increasing domestic production by 5 or 10% of domestic consumption missed the reality that there is no domestic oil market; rather, the U.S. is just one piece of a global market. Americans would make an impact on domestic prices only insofar as we could make an impact on global production, because domestic prices are determined by and are a part of a globalized market. Of course, that's just one small part of the story of American oil use, but it got us thinking about parallels in agriculture. Corn and soybeans and wheat and cotton are similarly global commodities nowadays. Of course, not all corn and wheat are part of that global market -- the wheat we grow for ourselves or the heirloom cornmeal we've sold at the farmers' market are anything but global commodity products -- but the overwhelming majority of corn and soybeans and wheat grown in America are bought and sold into the same global market that China and France and Zambia and Brazil belong to. Wheat prices are high in America right now in part because of wildfires in Russia. That's true even if you're buying commodity wheat from a farmer half a mile down the road, because that transaction still takes place in the context of a global market. With all that in mind various stories and tidbits we've heard recently about Brazil particularly intrigued us. One story was about the low cost of production for an Irishman farming commodity crops on several thousand acres in Brazil. Eric hadn't even realized that soybeans could be grown in Brazil's climate, and then we find out that Brazil recently overtook the United States as the world's leader in soybean exports (and was already the world's largest beef exporter.) We remember ten or twenty years ago when saving the rain forests was as prominent an issue as global warming is today -- the kind of thing elementary school children everywhere were teaching their parents -- but while the rain forest issue lost our attention, Brazil doubled the amount of land planted to soy in the last decade. The global soybean market that's propelling these dramatic changes on the Amazonian frontier is the same market that we give a little push to every time we buy a tub of Crisco, a gallon of biodiesel, a book printed with soy ink, a bar of soap made from soybean oil, chickens raised on a standard diet of corn and soybean meal, soy-based pharmaceuticals, soy-based candles, crops grown with soy-based pesticides and fungicides, farm raised fish, etc., etc. Our response is to echo Wendell Berry when he wrote: "We can't go on too much longer, maybe, without considering the likelihood that we humans are not intelligent enough to work on the scale to which we have been tempted by our technological abilities." On smaller scale farms with free range chickens soybean meal was entirely unnecessary: chickens could find their protein in the form of grubs and worms. Instead of field crops, hogs used to be raised largely on diets of acorns and table scraps and crop residues that now go unused or contribute to landfills. Soybean meal has proven significantly cheaper, at least in the short-term and if we don't account for any of the indirect costs (like costs to our health, loss of rain forests, loss of community self-sufficiency, etc.) We see a tremendous value in maintaining and rediscovering and developing alternatives to our broad dependency on commodity soybeans.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Helping Hands


We just signed up as a host WWOOF Farm a few months ago but have been blessed with "willing workers" since.  Shane and Sarah spent two weeks with us, the start of a series of WWOOF farm visits for them.  We are grateful for their help!

Farm Update

    We're at another small turning point this week with the first of the fall greens ready to harvest. Despite the first taste of fall crops, we haven't really had much fall weather yet, certainly not if you look at the daytime high temperatures. That's making for a slow start for fall crops that germinate and grow better in more moderate temperatures. If the hard winter weather holds off long enough, there's still time for a lot of the fall crops to make, but we surely won't have as much as early as we would in a more average year. There are still several of the summer crops that are maturing meanwhile. We started enjoying this year's crop of popcorn this week. Our first batch of creamed honey was ready last week. Some of the earlier maturing sweet potatoes are sizing up already, but we're still looking forward to some of our favorite baking varieties. (We think some of these early varieties make great sweet potato chips, though.) The peanuts are looking pretty good, and we plan to harvest those sometime next month. The growing season is definitely nearing its end, though.
     The last two and a half weeks have made for the longest dry stretch we've had all year. For now, we're holding off on planting strawberries until we can see a break in that pattern coming. All in all, we've had more regular rainfall through this growing season than we can remember in any of the last few years, though.
Last year we started talking about the years as the year of the beans and bell peppers (2008), the year of the tomatoes and sweet potatoes (2009), etc. This year will have to be the year of the strawberries and the Mexican bean beetles. (Not a good bean year!) We probably had more strawberries and more bean beetles than we had in all the previous years (since we started selling in 2004) combined. Besides the strawberries, we were also well pleased with the garden peas and lettuces this spring. The onions -- which we're about to the end of -- also held out to produce a surprisingly nice crop this year. Although only a minor crop for us, the pumpkins and winter squash did quite well this year. We need to find more ways to use these pumpkins than just desserts and soup! We're excited about all the different varieties of winter squash there are to grow and want to grow more next year.
     Although our number of bee hives was a little down this spring, things went very well in the bee yard, and we had what was probably our best per hive average yet. The honey flow was early, short, and intense, but fortunately we were able to build last year's nucleus colonies up in time to make an excellent crop. There wasn't any summer crop to speak of this year, but the bees seem to have held their own through the summer pretty well, and we feel pretty good about the way things look heading into winter, even though we never much know what to expect: there are just so many variables when it comes to bees.
If you've asked for eggs the last few weeks, you know that our supply of eggs has been very limited lately. That's mainly due to the normal seasonal cycle. We actually reduced the size of our laying flock this spring, because we were having trouble selling all our eggs, and now it's quite the opposite. It will probably be January or February before we see egg surpluses again, but we hope you'll remember our eggs then.
     We're continuing to learn and improve on our management of the pasture and our cattle and dairy goats. One of our Jersey cows is bred to a Jersey bull and due to calve Thanksgiving Day. The other is maybe too old to successfully breed again, but we hope she'll keep milking for a long time anyway and maybe provide an opportunity for some more veal early next year. Our little herd of Saanen dairy goats is up to four now, although just one of those kidded and is in milk this year. We're slowly trying to increase there.
     We're increasingly optimistic about the prospects for selling a full variety of local, organic fruit. We were able to pick most of our blueberries off our own bushes this year, and the bushes are still just getting going. Our little orchard that we planted in the fall of 2007 when we first moved to Iredell has already yielded its first apples and pears. We've especially been enjoying figs and Asian pears lately, and we found our first ripe persimmon (from a delicious wild tree) this week.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Local Milk

  We want to continue this week sharing our thoughts on how to get away from the conventional, corporate food system and how to develop a dependable, community-based food system free especially of chemical and pharmaceutical dependency. This week our focus is dairy. Increasingly, dairy cows are being kept (like poultry and hogs) without any access to forage or any fresh feed at all. Fortunately (unlike poultry and hogs), real, significant fresh feed is a part of the USDA organic requirements for dairy cattle. Of course, as with all rule-based programs, there are producers that seek to meet the minimal letter of those rules without following the spirit of the rules in order to gain cost advantages and increase their market share. However, there is one fairly big organic cooperative with farms in Iredell and Rowan Counties (and all over the country) that has really impressed us with their integrity, and that's Organic Valley. If we had to buy milk and butter, etc., in the grocery stores, we would definitely choose Organic Valley. First, so far as we're aware, there is no other government-regulated dairy or cooperative with farms in North Carolina that sells organic milk. Second, we've seen a couple of the farms that sell to Organic Valley and we've talked to some of the farmers, and what we've seen up until now are real family farms with cows on green pastures. If you're going to buy government-regulated dairy products, the Organic Valley cooperative would be, by our recommendation, the best option (and well worth the price compared to the other supermarket options we're aware of.) [However, see here for later thoughts on the declining integrity of the Organic Valley brand.] Of course, even the best milk in stores still leaves a whole lot to be desired in terms of community accountability; dependency on "organic" grain and/or hay from halfway across the continent; dependency on conventional transportation, processing, and distribution systems; and other issues of sustainability.
   At this point we're forced to confront the hot button issue of "raw milk." We wish it hadn't become such a hot button issue. It's an issue that the mainstream food/agricultural system clearly feels threatened by. We would much rather just mind our own business and let the people that want the government to oversee and guarantee the safety of their food supply remain in their own little world. Ideally, we would definitely want to offer milk (and cheese and butter, etc.) from our cows and goats for sale, but as things are, we just want to steer far away from the whole controversy of distributing "raw milk." There are still a lot of things we can actively encourage you all to do, however. We are very happy to share what we know about keeping a family cow or goat, and we would love to help you figure out how to get started milking your own animal, if you're at all inclined. Even if you live in town or can't keep an animal on your own land, there are other ways to keep a dairy animal. We like the idea of a real "cow share" where several families share not just the milk but the actual work, taking turns milking over the course of a week, such that the milk is only ever handled by the consumer himself. In the past, we have milked neighbors' animals when they've wanted to get away or take a vacation. If these kinds of ideas interest you, we'd be more than happy to talk to you and try to help you become more self-sufficient with regards to dairy. Even if you're simply buying all your milk, we would encourage you to learn how to take control of more of the processing, e.g. butter and ice cream and cheese and yogurt, etc. Making yogurt is often a very cost effective thing to do at home. It may be cheaper to simply buy finished butter than to buy cream in the store and churn it, but the more you get away from the industrial food system, the more opportunities you'll find to do these kinds of things and save a few cents along the way, and, of course, enjoy dairy products that you can feel worlds better about. We'd be very happy to talk to you about any of these dairy-related things, so don't be shy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Low-tech beans

  Our farm is as much a homestead as it is a "for market" production farm.  This means many of the things we grow or do are just for ourselves.  Dry beans, for example.  When we moved to this farm three years ago we had enough garden space to experiment with growing a larger variety of our own food.  So we pulled some dry beans out of the pantry and planted them.  To our delight, the kidney, black, pinto, white beans and black-eyed peas all gave a pretty good yields.  We've yet to have any luck with chick peas.
  Without a combine to harvest the crop, we were left with low-tech options.  So we hand pulled the dried plants and put them in feed sacks.  Then this week, we finished the final steps of getting the beans back into the pantry.  Since the plants were good and dry it took only a couple minutes of beating with a bat or stick for the beans to fall out of the pods and to the bottom of the bag.  The empty plants were lifted out of the sack and the beans were poured into a bowl.  Then we winnowed them in front of a fan to get the chaff out.  Before using them, the beans will just need a once over to make sure they are fully clean.

Queen of the okra

Our first ever WWOOF'er arrived just in time for peak okra season this summer. During her three week stay, Lucie loyally harvested the okra three times a week. Though she'd only eaten the vegetable for the first time this summer (during her volunteer time in Haiti before coming to our farm), she was hopeful it would grow well in her mother's garden back home in France.  We were grateful for all of Lucie's help during her visit.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Where to buy good poultry

We were asked recently where we would recommend to go to buy good chicken. Unfortunately, chicken is an especially "corrupt" meat, having more than any other animal product (about 100 years) of ever worsening factory farming history, which makes the industrial product especially bad and leaves us with very few real alternatives. “Hormone and antibiotic free” poultry can be found in some stores, but those are misleading claims: there are lots and lots of bad things about what goes into chickens, but hormones aren't one of them; artificial hormones are available for and used on cattle, but there aren't any available for poultry, so all poultry is "hormone free." Antibiotics, on the other hand, are used with poultry, so that would be a potentially substantive claim. However, are the antibiotics just being replaced with another pharmaceutical product that isn't any more organic but technically just isn't an antibiotic? There are so many additives in conventional chicken feed that we don't know if that's an option, but we're suspicious of any such claims from any corporate source. Even if it were true and substantive, “hormone and antibiotic free” still leaves a tremendous amount to be desired. To pick just what we see as the two biggest issues, we would want to see the chickens fed something other than pesticide-intensive genetically modified (GMO) feeds, and we wouldn't want chickens raised thousands to a confinement house without any significant fresh grass or grubs or other forage. We consider those pretty minimal expectations, but there's really no regular place to go and buy chickens that meet both those expectations. You can avoid the GMO feed by buying USDA certified organic, but then you're still buying confinement house birds from a very industrial system, and you're doing nothing to contribute to the kind of local, independent alternatives that empower communities to stand up to industrial abuses. Alternatively, you can find chickens raised by local farmers in movable range shelters -- not free range, but a huge improvement over confinement houses -- but those birds are almost always fed GMO grain that comes from the very same market pool as what's fed to conventional birds. (A straight-forward question to ask the organic-looking farmer at the farmers' market is if he feeds his chickens any GMO grain.  If he knows anything about how his chicken feed was grown and if he's honest, the answer to that question should tell you something of substance.)  So typically as a consumer the only options left today are either the chemical-intensive GMO grains (farmers' market) or the factory farm confinement houses (USDA organic.) Forced with one of those choices, we would probably have to choose the GMO grains, because small local operations at least carry some hope of future improvements. We would be very eager to support and encourage those producers to take responsibility for the grain they feed their chickens, though, or better yet find motivation to personally engage in that work yourself (instead of buying poultry/poultry feed.) Hopefully, if more people realize how bad things have gotten, some of them will be inspired to start growing their own grain on a small enough scale (maybe a fraction of an acre) to be able to withstand commodity pressures, and maybe that could even lead to some small surpluses to sell to friends and neighbors. We certainly believe that there isn't any good way to raise and sell chickens at anywhere near conventional costs, especially not without hardly anyone living on appropriately scaled (small), working farms anymore. As consumers we've consented to giving so much control of our food supply to forces so far outside of our control, that a lot of options have just disappeared, especially when it comes to grain farming and grain-fed animals like poultry, for which there are practically zero local options outside the commodity system. As communities and as individuals, we should expect our helplessness to lead to our exploitation, and that's where we're at.  Lest we preach too much doom and gloom, there are some much better options with grass-fed (ruminant) meats (especially cattle.) A partial solution to eating better poultry may be to eat less poultry (and less pork) and more grass-fed meat. We've got nothing against feeding grain to poultry, but the only easy way to avoid the abuses of modern grain farming is to avoid grain-fed animals, so animals that can be raised exclusively on grass (like cattle) at least offer some ways to avoid some of the worst abuses of industrialized agriculture. You might even think further outside the box and hunt wild doves or raise a domestic gray goose in your backyard.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

New addition

Our new daughter, Hattie Elisabeth, was born July 21.

Cherry pickers

With so many colors and shapes of cherry tomatoes, Nora and Paul have had fun picking and sampling in the tomato patch this year.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mead and How to Make It

  Mead is the proper term for alcohol fermented from honey.  In mead's simplest form, honey is diluted with water to about the same sweetness as juice and then allowed to ferment like wine.  Mead is one of the very few kinds of alcohol we're able to make from all local, homegrown ingredients grown without the use of chemical pesticides.  (Traditional wine grapes are almost always grown in very pesticide-intensive ways, and most other fruits can't be made into wine without added sugar.)  If made only with honey and water, mead assumes its flavor mainly from the particular flowers from which the bees collect the nectar to make the honey.  Alternatively, honey can be combined with fruits that are otherwise unsuitable for fermentation on their own to make fruit meads, for example: blackberries, elderberries, muscadines, or strawberries.  Although most people assume that anything made with honey would have to be sweet, by using more or less honey, mead, like wine, can be made in a range of dry to sweet styles.  The alcohol level of mead is comparable to wines.
   Mead is very easy to make.  Begin with very good tasting honey.  Mead making generally amplifies the underlying flavors of the honey.  It takes about a quart of honey (slightly more for added sweetness) to make a gallon of mead (or about 5 standard wine bottles).  Mix the honey in with the water until it dissolves, then let it ferment.  Naturally occurring yeast strains could be used, but we've always added a selected yeast strain to our honey-water mixture.  Enough wine yeast to ferment 5-6 gallons can be purchased for well under a dollar.  We think it's best to ferment mead in what's called a carboy, a large glass container with a narrow opening that can be fitted with a stopper and airlock.  Once filled with water, the airlock allows the carbon dioxide given off by the yeast to escape but seals the mead off from the air, which helps prevent the mead from turning to vinegar.  It typically takes one to three months for the yeast to do their job and another three to nine months for all the yeast to drop out of suspension and for the mead to turn clear, which is when we like to bottle it.  Adding fruit can greatly accelerate the process.  If you've made wine before, you should already have all the equipment you'd need.  If not, you could spend anywhere from $40 to $150 for equipment that would pretty much all be reusable.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's Special About our Honey

Honey is, of course, naturally a very special food, but what most readily sets our honey apart from other honey you might find are our efforts to preserve honey's natural goodness.  As in almost every other field of agriculture, there are a lot of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly used in bee hives and in connection with honey production: a couple different antibiotics, various synthetic pesticides including one of a particularly toxic class of pesticides called organophosphates, chemical fumigants, chemical repellants, as well as flat out illegal substances never registered for use in bee hives.  We use nothing of this sort in connection with our bees or honey.  We can’t prove that any of these things is harmful, but we believe there are always risks with these sorts of things, not just for us as honey consumers, but for the long-term health of the bees, for other species in the ecosystems where these chemicals are used, for the people that handle these chemicals, for the people that drink the water downstream from where these things are manufactured, etc.,etc.  We strongly believe that it's not prudent to directly contribute to these risks in our own beekeeping.
   Some of honeybees' recent problems brought about by global trade (introducing exotic pests and diseases) made it extremely challenging for beekeepers to keep their hives organically, especially when the mites first hit North America, but as with the rest of agriculture, many of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals used in bee hives are used mostly for convenience and marginal cost/labor savings.  Butryic anhydride, for instance, is a nasty smelling chemical repellent used to drive bees out of honey supers when taking supers off the hives.  Instead of repellents, we place escape screens below our supers a day or two before harvesting.  (An escape screen is a wooden board with a built in maze that works as a one-way exit, allowing the bees to exit the supers but not return.)  Paradichlorobenzene is a chemical used by beekeepers to fumigate stored supers to prevent wax moth larvae from ruining the combs.  It's illegal in some places due to carcinogenic concerns, but it's very widely used in North Carolina and elsewhere.  Instead of using PDB, we keep susceptible combs (combs that have had brood reared in them before) separate from our honey combs, and leave the susceptible combs on hives where the bees can keep pests out, or we'll expose combs to sunlight or cold to deter wax moths.  These are really pretty easy management practices, but chemical use is the norm, and most beekeepers are so comfortable with chemical use that they wouldn't bother to avoid it.  Antibiotic use follows a similar pattern of comfort: many beekeepers simply feel “safer” having given their bees antibiotics (and other medications) than not.  Some antibiotics, like for nosema disease, have little hard evidence to even prove their limited usefulness.  Other antibiotics, like for foulbrood, are potentially effective, but antibiotic use is leading to antibiotic resistant foulbrood, which is leading to the use of stronger and riskier antibiotics.  Foulbrood is infrequent enough that we can pretty easily deal with it through careful inspections and the occasional burning of infected combs and equipment.  Even more disturbing than the use of these and other approved products is the use of chemicals never approved or tested for safe use in bee hives.  For instance, beekeepers have found that paper towels can be soaked in chemicals used for de-lousing cattle and placed in bee hives to kill mites.  Some of these practices have been encouraged by price gouging by chemical companies or the very high regulatory cost of chemical registration.  Roach poisons are used in hives to kill small hive beetles.  Authorities sometimes destroy foreign honey imports because residues of dangerous drugs are discovered.  We're concerned enough about all these kinds of chemical residue problems that we no longer even use beeswax “foundation” in our frames -- something that's been standard practice in beekeeping for well over 100 years -- because it would indirectly increase our exposure to these chemicals.  We distrust the whole mess of chemical and pharmaceutical agriculture, and we're committed to avoiding what we see as all these foolish risks.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Organic Window Dressing

   We've noticed farmers increasingly using the word "sustainable" as a label to say that their farm products are organic without actually using the word "organic." On the one hand, we sympathize with farmers that want to take a less legalistic approach to the meaning of organic but still want to communicate their commitment to organic principles. In an industrialized society industrial compromises of one sort or another are inevitable, and we see real dangers in oversimplifying those questions. We certainly don't like the way defining "organic" by a set of rules has encouraged a race to the bottom of that very limited standard. And we don't like the way third party certification has apparently displaced the need for real knowledge on the part of the consumer: knowing where and by whom and how food was -- and was not -- grown.
   On the other hand, we see farmers and consumers using words like "sustainable" or "naturally grown" or "certified organic" to describe food and farming methods with very little organic integrity. This especially concerns us when such sentiments lead to complacency with compromises, as if a little window dressing were the final answer to the very real, persistent problems of industrialized agriculture. If we know anything about organic agriculture, it's that we as a society each and all have a long, long, long way to go.
   Misuse of organic and pseudo-organic labels seems especially pronounced when it comes to animal products. Hogs or chickens raised on every bit as much genetically modified, pesticide-intensive grain as on conventional farms are labeled "sustainable" or "naturally grown" simply because antibiotics are withheld and they're given some kind of token access to the outdoors. The most important and basic part of what makes an animal product organic would have to be what that animal eats, and yet this is where "sustainable" most often fails to deliver any substance. Conventional farms are fittingly derided as just CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and yet it's hard to see so-called "sustainable" farms as very different when the animals are just as dependent on the very same industrial feed machine.
   To put things in perspective, of the over 30 small farms we know of in North Carolina that sell what's commonly called "sustainable" pork, we only know of two that don't feed genetically modified grains to their animals, and they only accomplish that by replacing grain with milk (in one case with milk from cows fed genetically modified grains.) Likewise, besides our own flock, we don't know of a single remaining chicken flock in the whole state that's fed locally grown, non-genetically modified feed -- what we would consider only the most basic first step toward a separate system of raising animals. (Crops are most commonly genetically modified in order to facilitate expanded options for spraying synthetic herbicides on the crop.) We recently called Whole Foods, the biggest "natural foods" grocery chain, to ask what meat they had from animals fed organic or even just non-GMO feeds: all the pork and poultry and other non-ruminant meats they had, with just one minor exception (some certified organic frozen chickens), were from animals raised on conventional, pesticide-intensive, genetically modified grains. There's clearly a tremendous gap between the marketing talk and the reality.
   We hope that as a first step consumers (and farmers) can confront the realities. The last thing we want is for our customers to indignantly run off and hide behind another empty buzzword. Apart from an informed relationship of trust with the farmer, the only label that we count for anything is USDA certified organic, and we place limited value on that. It's extremely difficult to find value-added farm products (like meat and eggs) with even a small amount of real organic integrity. A big part of the problem is that consumers and farmers have contented themselves with organic window dressing. Certainly window dressing is a lot cheaper than real substance, especially when it comes to foods like pork and poultry. As long as “organic” consumers continue to expect the artificial cost savings of pesticide-intensive GMO grain, window dressing is all they'll get. But simply paying more is no answer either, unless the consumer actually knows what he's paying for. Consumers and farmers will have to work together over time (blurring the definitions of "consumers" and "farmers") to develop farming and distribution systems to replace the industrialized model. We think avoiding genetically modified foods and feeds is a challenging but very important goal -- only a first step to the requirements of the USDA organic system, which itself leaves much more to be desired. There's hope for much better food and much better farming, but that hope isn't hiding conveniently behind any of the buzzwords; that hope surely depends on real knowledge, involvement, and labor.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Eating Local, Organic Fruit

Here Nora and Paul pit cherries, some we got from our own two trees, and some from a neighbor's tree.  We've been freezing and drying them.
   A couple weeks ago we began talking about what it would take to really get away from the conventional industrialized food system and all its pesticides, fossil fuel based fertilizers, etc.  We want to continue this week talking about fruit and what we would recommend for someone wanting to eat real homegrown fruit grown with old-fashioned organic integrity.  What would a person have to do to eat fruit that was grown the right way?  As with vegetables, one would have to eat the fresh fruit that was in season and put up fruit for the off-season.  Some fruits (notably blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.) can be almost as good out of the freezer as they are fresh.  A lot of fruits are also especially well suited to drying/dehyrdating (figs, sour cherries...)  Unlike with vegetables, however, switching from grocery store fruit to homegrown fruit would require a lot more changes in what kinds of fruit we eat.  The fruits that are sold in grocery stores -- and therefore our habits and expectations as grocery store-bred consumers -- are largely those fruits that have lent themselves best to industrialization: fruits that are good for shipping and that have fairly long shelf lives, fruits that can be grown in large acreages with labor-saving chemicals, etc.  We think the kind of fruits that lend themselves to local, organic management are just as good if not better, but they're mostly not what we're used to or what we might go looking for.  Obviously, bananas and citrus aren't the fruits to look for, but other fruits that are grown locally, like apples and peaches, are generally dependent on extensive arsenals of nasty chemicals.  As much as Eric loves peaches and Melissa loves apples, learning just a little about how the local commercial orchards grow these fruits has made it really hard to feel right about buying them.  We do have some hope in growing cosmetically less perfect, disease-resistant varieties of apples, and we did plant a couple peach trees hoping against hope to harvest some edible peaches, but for us eating local fruit means turning primarily to other fruits.  There are some familiar grocery store fruits for which there are excellent local alternatives.  Even though conventional strawberries are one of the most pesticide-laden fruits there are, it's very feasible to grow strawberries organically.  We're just finishing an excellent strawberry year, and we hope you all got plenty these last few weeks.  Local blueberries, on the other hand, tend to be a very low-spray crop, even on non-organic farms.  (That's not true of some of the blueberries in supermarkets from other areas, whose pesticide residues we've been told have been linked to behavioral disorders in children.)  No-spray melons may be somewhat scarcer at farmers' markets, but that's something else to look for.  For a fuller variety, though, we think a person would really have to eat fruits that aren't common in supermarkets.  Figs have a short shelf life, but they're delicious and very well suited to organic management.  Mulberries (the fruit of a large tree, similar in appearance to a blackberry but with none of the bitterness) can also be grown very easily, and we've really been enjoying them lately.  Even some of the wild mulberry trees have really good quality fruit.  Persimmons are one of our favorite wild fruits -- some trees have lesser quality fruit but there are a lot of very good wild trees -- and they can also be planted.  Wild blackberries are more familiar.  There are quite a few old sour cherry trees in local farmyards.  Although they're called “sour cherries,” some varieties are plenty sweet and are excellent for fresh eating, although typically not as big as conventionally grown varieties.  Muscadines/scuppernong grapes fall into the same category as local blueberries, being a cultivated fruit that tend to be very low-spray even on non-organic farms.  We've been told that Asian pears (the pears with a more apple-like shape and texture) could also fit into that category.  And the list goes on: pawpaws, jujubes, raspberries, tame blackberries, serviceberries, mayhaws...  We wouldn't be satisfied simply with the fruit we could find at farmers' markets, but if you can go out into the country and find additional types of fruit, we think one can find a full assortment of fruit grown the right way.  If you're motivated to eat good quality fruit, we'd love to help you with whatever know-how we can share.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

We Have a Long Way to Go

   We watched three documentaries about food and agriculture during the off-season: "Food Beware," "Supersize Me," and "Food Inc.," all of which we recommend to you all.  We wanted to share some thoughts here that these movies spawned by focusing on the restaurant chain Chipotle.  The founder of Chipotle was interviewed in an addition to the movie "Food Inc."  We've never been to a Chipotle chain, but listening to the interview and reading about Chipotle on their website, it's clear that they are a leading example of the organic movement.  What struck us, though, was how little it takes to be a leading example.  We're inclined at first to think their standards are so weak as to be worthless.  On the other hand, we don't really know of a restaurant that holds itself to any stricter standards.  To gain some perspective on the whole organic movement, we wanted to point out what organic standards like Chipotle's do and don't mean.  How would you, as a consumer, evaluate their organic claims?  If you want to take the time, to understand better what we're responding to, we'd encourage you to first read what Chipotle says on their website about what they call "food with integrity."
    Here are some things we see.  The chickens Chipotle buys aren't given antibiotics and they're given marginally more space than other chickens, but they're still made of fully conventional grains, and they're still crowded in confinement houses.  Their chickens are given zero freedom to forage naturally for grubs and worms or anything green or fresh -- this is perversely touted as an all vegetarian diet.  The chicks meanwhile come from farms that don't follow any organic practices at all.  Their pork is similarly fed fully conventional grains (pesticides, herbicides, interspecies genetic modifications, etc.), and farmers can give the hogs pharmaceutical injections so long as they follow protocols for preventing retained needles.  The dairies that supply Chipotle can also keep cows crowded in confinement houses, not eating any fresh grass, use antibiotics, and use hormone injections for reproductive management (just not rBGH.)  Separating from the industrial system that dominates American agriculture is incredibly difficult, and Chipotle doesn't claim to have fully arrived, but the big question is where their approach will take us.  At the very least we should recognize that there's a very viable marketing niche heading in the same direction as the rest of industrial agriculture, just one step behind.  There's no real hope in that.  We think we need to be careful and work hard to put more integrity in our cause and to really seek after a more fully separate and self-sufficient system of agriculture.  Of course, we have to start where we are, and that's tightly bound and interconnected to our industrial system, but the sheer size and momentum of the industrial system will surely drag us further along with it if we don't pursue real independence seriously.
   It seems to us that the real problem is that various forms of industrialization (mechanization, labor-saving chemicals, pharmaceuticals, artificial fertilizers, artificial draft power, etc.) have gradually destroyed the system and culture of working knowledge, shared community, and face-to-face accountability that is our only trustworthy protection against industrial abuses.  It seems good to focus even more on shortening supply lines (for example, eating more home-prepared meals from more locally sourced raw ingredients) and on regaining real personal and community control of our food system (all the way back to the source of the manure that fertilizes the crops that feed our animals.)  It seems to us that any other strategy will only come back around to bite us in the rear.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Food Safety Legislation

   Despite the fact that we make our living farming, we only realized a couple months ago that major food safety legislation that will dramatically restructure our farming/food system had already passed the US House (H.R. 2749) last summer and is on the verge of passing the Senate (S. 510).  As diversified, organic farmers we see some fundamental problems with the pending legislation,
(1) Diversity is seen as a threat: food safety is understood as keeping animals as far away from produce fields as possible. What that effectively means is large monocultures (where border issues are non-issues) and animals correspondingly confined to feedlots and confinement houses, whose manure then accumulates in tremendous quantities, far beyond the ability of the immediate ecosystem to safely absorb, and thus posing the most serious safety issues (as evidenced by the recent food safety scares, particularly the deadly food poisoning outbreak with spinach, as well as the most recent lettuce outbreak.) Diversified farms, after all, aren't causing the outbreaks we're hearing about and that have energized the push for new legislation; quite the opposite: large, monocultural farms are. Well managed plant and animal diversity is the friend of food safety (as well as the friend of a lot of other good things), not the enemy.
(2) Huge regulatory burdens are placed on the farm use of manure. But what's the alternative? Conventional fertilizers synthesized from fossil fuels and other non-renewable mined sources. Why should the risks of chemical contamination of produce (and of drinking water and other indirect paths) warrant so little attention? The science certainly isn't there to support, on the grounds of food safety, the hard push away from traditional uses of manure to chemical agriculture, and that's precisely the trade-off. What about synthetic pesticides? Are we supposed to ignore all the risks they bring with them, both to food consumers as well as to water resources, rural communities, and ecosystems? The reality is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go together. The only practical way to place all these limitations on the use of manure is to open ourselves up to more chemical risks and proven chemical harm.
Even then, using petroleum-based fertilizers doesn't mean we have any less manure to deal with; it only means more manure winds up in places where it's a worthless waste liability, which is where the greatest food safety risks lie. The sensible question isn't how to avoid manure but how to best incorporate manure into our agricultural system. (We might also ask if ways of keeping and feeding and medicating animals make for less pathogenic manure.) No matter how hard we make it for farmers to use manure productively, the manure still has to go somewhere.
(3) “Good Agricultural Practice” cannot be defined in a one-size-fits-all format, and especially not by Washington. There is zero scientifically proven risk to letting weeder geese into a sweet corn crop (i.e. letting domestic geese eat the competing weeds out from under an immature sweet corn crop), and no reason to even suspect food safety problems, but official GAP would outlaw the practice. What if some people would rather have some goose poop fall three feet under their corn before the corn even forms than to have the corn itself genetically modified and then sprayed directly with chemical herbicides? (Transgenic sweet corn has already found its way into the fields of vendors even at our little farmers' market.) Obviously, the use of weeder geese isn't common practice (at least not nowadays), but there are 10,000 other such innovate farming practices GAP would outlaw. The end effect of a legislative definition of good farming is that a great deal of innovation and unconventional ways of farming will be outlawed, particularly on the kind of small farms that generate the least run-off and waste liabilities, don't rely on illegal immigrant laborers, depend least on foreign oil, provide the most viable, long-term alternative to cost cutting produce from China or Mexico, produce food with the least chemical residues, expose farmers and farmhands to the least chemical dangers, necessitate less highway and air traffic, demand fewer square miles of land be paved over, etc., etc. Have we not gone far enough in pushing these kinds of farms out of business already?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Farm Update

 Here's some news from the off-season.
   Winter held its grip without respite until well into March. We've had some unseasonably hot spells mixed in with the near frosts since then. Even last night, with a clear starry sky, we went to bed fearing how low the temperature would fall. Fortunately, at sunrise, it was 41, sparing the hopeful bumper crop of strawberries. We're also looking at an abundant spinach and lettuce harvest. The spring peas are coming on strong, but they're behind schedule. A cold, wet late winter had them planted the latest we've ever put them in. If it doesn't get too hot too soon they should still produce very well. The first of the beans and sweet corn, on the other hand, went in the ground earlier than normal. We're getting ready to set out our 300 tomato plants today.
   The main honey flow has started with the tulip poplars, blackgum trees, and blackberries all in bloom. The air force is hoping for clear, sunny skies to make its crop of honey. The bees came through the winter very well, but the consistent cold delayed their spring population build-up. We're already busy making up lots of mating nucs (nucleus/starter colonies) for next year's honey crop.
   Animal projects, in particular, like fencing have kept us busy through the off-season. We currently have two cows in milk, one of which is feeding a calf that we'll beef at some point this year. We also bought a little jersey heifer we named Dandelion for our future milk supply. The first calf born on our farm is now several hundred pounds of beef steer that we plan to finish on the high energy summer grasses. We're hopeful three of our nanny goats are bred for late summer milking. They and a fourth nanny continue to clean the brambles, weeds, and poison ivy out of our pastures and perimeters. The first of our hens hatched a clutch of biddies a few weeks back. She had been setting up in the hay mow unknown to us. She is successfully mothering her 16 biddies! Other hens have started setting as well. As we seemed to be getting ahead of the demand for eggs we sold down some of our flock. With over 50 hens remaining, though, we hope to have a good supply for the market season.
   The other big news is that we are expecting our third child in mid-July. Fortunately, it has been a gentle pregnancy for Melissa, so we're moving forward with the season pretty much as normal so far. Of course, there will probably be some interruption when the baby arrives.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Low-tech germination

Until we build our dreamed of greenhouse, we've found old chest freezers to be a great way to germinate seeds. During the day, a piece of glass over the opening can easily send the temperatures over 100 degrees. At night, we shut the lids. Then a 60 to 100 watt bulb below the plants keeps the temperature quite cozey, between 70 and 80 degrees. Here flats of eggplant and pepper transplants enjoy the extra heat.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hot house tomatoes

The tomato plants are ready to go out. Every time we check the forecast though, it seems a better idea to keep them safe in their "hot house" a little longer. Tonight there is even a chance of frost. This after 80 degree weather a few weeks ago.
We have around 20 varieties this year. These include our favorites of Amish Paste, San Marzano Redorta, and Akers West Virginia. We have five different cherry types this year. And we're experimenting with a handful of new varieties, always searching for a new favorite.
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Surprise chicks

We've just had the first of our hens go to setting, an exciting sign of spring. Broodiness in our hens is a chicken trait we are glad for as the mother often does a better job of incubating and raising little chicks than we do. So when we see a broody hen, we'll give her about 9 marked eggs and leave her to her 21 days of sitting.
Just after the first hen had gone to sitting the other day, I came in the barn to the sound of cheeping. After some searching I found a hen in the hay mow with 16 chicks! We had thought the hen had just gone missing. In fact, she had been busy sitting. We were thrilled with this first hatch of spring, the most chicks we've ever had from one hen.Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 23, 2010


Within days of moving to our farm three years ago, we started planting fruit and nut trees. This spring, the orchard is finally starting to look like something. Many of the trees have grown over our heads (except the Asian pear the cow ran over) and some are putting out their first blossoms. This first planting is mostly an experiment to see what we can grow organically. We set out disease-resistant apples, some peaches, an apricot, some cherries, pears and Asian pears, persimmons, jujubes, figs, chestnuts and pecans. Along with these trees, we have grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. We look forward to someday soon taking an edible walk around the farm.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Crimson Clover - Food for bees, cows, and garden

Last fall, we sowed most every open space we had to crimson clover. Over the winter, it grew into a lush green mat, protecting the soil. Then this spring, it burst into bloom. But the clover is not only beautiful, it's a great food source for much of our farm. The bees have been busy working the blooms, collecting its nectar and pollen. In the pasture, Elsea and Mary May have been gorging themselves on it, resulting in increased milk production. We also cut some of the clover for hay, a treat for the girls this winter. And in the gardens the incorporated clover will decompose and provide valuable nitrogen for our garden crops.
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Saturday, January 30, 2010


This week we want to share with you all the biggest reason why we believe in local farms, which is also to explain why we do what we do. We believe in local farms because knowing where your food comes from genuinely empowers the consumer, enabling the consumer to make wise and responsible decisions about what to put on the table. Buzz words (like "free range" or "pesticide free" or "USDA organic") on labels of products from far away farms, on the other hand, more often mislead consumers and take advantage of the absence of any direct accountability to the consumer. This not only means inferior food on the table, but it means irresponsible and exploitive farming. We believe the only reliable source of good food is good farming, and we think good farming can only be sustained by wise and responsible consumption. You see, even more than the food itself, we believe in the kind of system that naturally produces good food and that produces it responsibly. Consider these questions: Does it matter at all how much fossil fuel is burned to substitute for natural fertility? Does it matter at all if farming depends on an immigrant underclass? Does it matter at all if insects pests are controlled by broad-spectrum insecticides (meaning they kill a huge range of insects instead of targeting the problem specifically)? Does it matter at all what impact the farm has on the human community that surrounds it? Do fields, pastures, gardens, and forests not have any more value to the local community than the dollars they generate? Does it matter at all if irrigation empties underground aquifers and causes rivers to run dry? The national organic standards, incidentally, say nothing about every one of these questions, but we believe these kinds of questions are ultimately inseparable from maintaining food quality. So the big question is: what kind of system allows a consumer to ask these kinds of questions? We think the answer is a system where the consumer knows the farmer, talks to the farmer, has a basis to trust the farmer, where the consumer knows the farm itself firsthand: sees the animals, sees the condition of the land, sees the farmer at work, etc. We think this kind of system: small-scale, diverse, local farming, naturally tends toward the production of good food. We all know where the industrial system of food production naturally tends. Do we want to naively try to tame the inherently irresponsible and exploitive system of industrial food production, or do we want to build and support the kind of food system that's consistent with good food, healthy ecosystems, and healthy communities?