Sunday, November 3, 2019

Which of these can you identify?

String of brown ovals - groundnut Apios Americana, long brown - Yacon, large oval green - chayote, long orange pieces - tumeric, three red circles - spice peppers, yellow ball - bitter lemon, three orange circles - Asian persimmons, dark orange ball - pomegranate, three brown balls - tara, small green ovals - hardy kiwi, large white ball - lion's mane mushroom

Monday, October 14, 2019

What's happening on the farm

  It hardly seems worth mentioning that it's dry.  It's hardly rained since June.  And now that it has cooled off, we're actually enjoying the day after day of sunny weather.  But we don't have to look far to remind ourselves that it's dry.  There's the sprinkler and soaker hose going constantly in the gardens on the remaining crops.  Moving sprinklers and hoses has just become a regular part of our life, something we do every hour or two all day long almost every day, week after week (kind of like changing diapers, except that the baby gets diaper changes even on Sundays.)  We had a scare a week ago with our well but after some trouble shooting we realized the problem wasn't with the well or even the pump but just the switch on the pressure tank.  Then it fixed itself, but even if we have to completely replace the switch that's no big deal.  So we continue to work our well about as hard as we can every day.  But it's hard to get enough water to everything.  In the greens patch, you can see something like crop circles with lush large green leaves inside the circle and scorched small withered leaves where the plants were just out of the sprinkler's reach.  We have a fairly small fall garden, in part because of our early September baby, but in larger part because we knew we'd only be able to water so much ground, so we postponed planting more, waiting for rain that never came, at least not in time for more fall crops.  But we expect the dry weather, if it continues, will actually make easier work of the big root crop harvests that need to happen over the next few weeks: the peanuts and the sweet potatoes.  And the garden season is almost done.  It's been a good year, the pantry is full.  Rain would be nice, but by now it's too late to make much difference for this year's crops.
  The pasture on the other hand, could really, really use some rain.  In October the cool season grasses that are dominant in our pastures should be putting on some of the nicest growth of the whole year.  Fall growth is often abundant, and as an added bonus, it can be stockpiled for winter grazing.  While it won't grow any more in the winter, the grass holds most of its nutritional value and the animals can be gradually let in to eat it, strip by strip, saving the expense and time of feeding hay.  Sadly, unless we get rain very soon, we'll have practically no fall grass at all, and it's already too late for abundance.  We're already offering the cattle hay as they finish up the last stubs of green out in their rotation.  To compensate for what looks like will be a long hay feeding season, we've secured enough hay from a neighbor to hopefully make it through the winter.  We're wondering how precious hay will be in our area this winter.  Fortunately, there was plenty of moisture this spring, but this spring it was hard to find a good stretch of dry weather to cure the hay.  We've been reducing animal numbers lately, butchering some goats and one steer sooner than we might otherwise have and selling a couple goats we might have otherwise kept at least a while longer.
  And with no rain in the forecast, we've begun to wonder about the wheat crop.  It's about time to work up the ground and get the wheat seeded.  We'll keep an eye on the forecast and hope for a wet window to make that happen.
  Even if you're not a farmer, you probably remember how wet it was last year, apparently the wettest year on record, and that actually continued into the early part of this calendar year, but now we're going on four nearly continuous months of very dry conditions.  It seems like our crops have suffered worse from dry spells in previous years, but this has got to be the longest continuous dry spell we've seen in our not-too-many years of farming, at least during the growing season when it really matters.
  A crop we're especially enjoying this year is the peppers, especially some of the less common varieties: the little orange snacking peppers, the long slender red frying peppers, the strangely addictive little green shishito peppers... The peppers are doing well, but we're nearing the end of their season.  Try some of these less common varieties if you aren't already familiar with them!  There are some other very enjoyable and unique sweet peppers besides just bell peppers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Baby announcement

We wanted to announce the arrival of our newest farm family member, Rachel Brown.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Movable goat shade

Paul built this shade structure today for the goat kids so that we can rotate them wherever we want and have shade for them.  He made the frame out of different sizes of bamboo that fit into each other, and then he split pieces of bamboo to weave into the frame.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Today's CSA share

Field peas, cherry tomatoes, malabar spinach, potatoes, onions, shishito peppers, tomato, okra, sweet peppers

Monday, July 29, 2019

If we had to grow just one tomato variety . . .

. . . it would be San Marzano redorta, and these two photos highlight what really sets this tomato apart.  We were removing the seeds from these tomatoes in order to save the seeds to plant next year.  The bottom photo is one tomato cut into thirds.  That little puddle of seeds on the table in the other photo is the full contents of the seed cavities of that same tomato, and the other three tomatoes were just as meaty.  The contents of the seed cavities of all four of those tomatoes together added up to less than 1/4 cup.  Just one regular slicing tomato the same size would probably yield more seeds than that.  San Marzano redorta tomatoes are just so much meatier than any other tomato we've ever tried, and that's ideal for most of the things we do with tomatoes: whole canned tomatoes, salsa, sauce, ketchup, tomato pies, fresh cucumber and tomato salad... anything where thickness is a virtue.  We think the flavor is great both fresh and cooked into sauce, and because they're so much meatier to start with it seems like they yield a thick sauce quicker with less cooking.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


[We wrote this a couple years ago but forgot to post it here to our blog until now]

  Last year we wrote about seven reasons to support local-organic grain farming.  In response to what we wrote there one of our customers asked us why we had said that local-organic grain for human consumption mainly needs to precede local-organic grain production for animal feed and why we wouldn't get very far at all the other way around.  Here, more or less, is our answer to that question, which we hope will be of interest to some of you as well, particularly if you've ever lamented the very substantial compromises to local-organic methods practically always involved with pork and poultry, even from local farmers that grow other things organically.  (Cattle are sometimes an exception because they can be raised entirely on grass, which swine and poultry can't be.  Sheep and goats raised for market practically always fall far short of local-organic practice, even though they can be raised entirely on grass and browse.)  We hope our response will deepen your understanding of the hurdles to a more complete local-organic food system and motivate you to help overcome those hurdles, particularly by buying local-organic grains to eat.  These issues are complex, especially if you're a consumer trying to decide what to eat without the benefit of knowing and trusting any farmer well enough to let your consumer choices follow his lead.  The easy solution is just to content oneself with some "non-GMO" or "pastured" window-dressing on farming which isn't really the least bit local or organic at all (or just to abandon local and organic pretenses altogether), but if you want more than just superficial organic window-dressing on your pork or poultry..., here's our attempt to explain why the grains you eat yourself will have to come first.
  Perhaps the most important reason we don't see any realistic path to local-organic pork or poultry that doesn't begin with local-organic grain for human consumption is that farmers would have to convince customers to care about it and pay for that local-organic feed, and we really can't see consumers caring about (or even understanding the production facts of) the grain they eat indirectly as animal products if they haven't yet even changed the grain they put directly on their own plates.  And the same would be true for the farmer that would grow the grain.  Presumably before any farmer would try to sell the value of local-organic feed grain to his customers, he'd have to be convinced of the value of it himself, but think about the kind of farmer that would grow his own feed grain without herbicides, etc.: what would motivate him to hand hoe those rows of corn instead of using herbicides (not that corn is a complete feed anyway; the high protein component of any complete feed would very likely be even more challenging)?  If he valued local-organic food and farming, would he feed that hard-won, homegrown grain to his animals while he kept on buying his own grain from the supermarket (or other retailer selling grain from the same sources as the supermarket)?  Quite simply, people are going to come first and then farm animals.
  But to explore the details beyond that basic point, consider that even if a local farmer could grow a particular grain efficiently enough to compete with commodity-organic prices, he wouldn't be able to maintain that efficiency on a scale as small as the local-organic market potential, and even if he could grow it price-competitively on a scale appropriate to local markets, there's no single grain crop that can efficiently serve as a complete animal feed, and there would be very substantial added costs to processing grains for feed (normally including extracting oil and using the leftover oil seed meal for animal feed), so the unavoidable reality is that local-organic grain means taking on additional costs that would make it impossible to compete even with commodity-organic feed, let alone the cheapest conventional feed on the market.  And yet, the vast majority of consumers that buy organically grown vegetables at local markets, if they also buy pork or poultry/eggs at those markets, buy from farmers feeding conventional (not even commodity-organic, let alone local-organic) -- if their feed is non-GMO, and it mostly isn't even non-GMO, it's mostly just feed made from 100% conventional ingredients for which genetically modified options just aren't on the market yet -- which goes to show how great the cost pressures are and how little it takes to displace local-organic practices in the marketplace.  If a farmer believes in local-organic agriculture, there are things he can do for himself, things that were commonly done by most farmers until not that long ago, to raise local-organic pork or poultry, but getting customers to understand those things, appreciate the differences, and trust the farmer to do things that don't make sense to agriculturally illiterate consumers (or very minimally literate and easily misled, even by selective facts that are completely true) is the huge hurdle, especially if customers are mainly price (and convenience) shopping based on just an assortment of a few of the buzz words ("pastured," "hormone-free," "non-GMO," etc.) that farmers can offer without growing any of the feed their animals eat (or even so much as having a clue where the feed was grown.)  ("Pasture" can potentially play a significant role in the feed of swine or poultry, but most often its feed value is completely insignificant.)
  And the cost differences between local-organic and conventional grain are compounded by using grain for feed.  If our farm sells grain for human consumption for around $2/lb (or a little more for milled/processed grain products) we might be about double the price of conventional (non-organic) counterparts at the supermarket but fairly competitive with USDA-organic supermarket prices (largely by being able to cut out all the processors and distributors and retailers that commodity farmers have to support.)  But unlike supermarket options, at $2/lb most of our cost is in actually growing the grain.  There would certainly be some savings to not having to keep our grain food grade and being able to use it in bulk for animal feed, but on a small (direct market) scale we'd still have to put our cost of growing grain as animal feed at or above $1/lb (compared to about 50c/lb for commodity organic whole corn we could purchase by the ton), and if you compare that to conventional grain prices (less than 10c/lb), that's over 10 times the price (and, again, that's without considering the likely more challenging high protein part of a complete feed.)  Put simply, local-organic grain products for human consumption can compete much better on price with their counterparts than any animal products raised on local-organic grain can compete with their counterparts.  So there's a whole lot of pressure there to keep feed costs down, and before farmers (and consumers) bear those greater costs for the sake of what they're only going to indirectly eat (animal feed), we can't imagine they wouldn't first pay the smaller costs for what they would eat directly (as food).
  But one excellent way to minimize the costs of animal feed would be to utilize the byproducts of growing (and milling) local-organic grain for (human) food.  There are lots of ways this can come up.  When we run our wheat through our seed cleaner to get out weed seeds like rye grass and small bits of chaff, etc., probably 5% or more of our wheat (smaller and broken kernels) gets sifted out along with the rye grass and chaff.  With our corn significantly more grain gets culled as animal feed.  We definitely err on the side of culling hard, but even in a good year we're probably culling close to 25% as animal feed.  In 2014, when crows pecked into the ends of the ears letting rain into the shuck we wound up with a whole planting that just went to animal feed.  There are also opportunities to fence animals in to self-harvest crops that have lodged or otherwise failed.  Mostly piggybacking the grain needs of pork or poultry onto grain crops grown primarily for direct human consumption can go a long way to making local-organic pork and poultry relatively economical.
  But we don't mean to over-emphasize the need for feed grain in a local-organic context, especially not grain grown intentionally for animal feed, because small diversified farms can utilize a lot of other different surpluses, byproducts , forages, etc. in feeding poultry and swine and really minimize the need for grain, even completely do without at times, but we think grain will inevitably be the feed that fills in the gaps between all those other feeds and forages.  But those other feeds and forages are going to quickly become impractical and uneconomical as farms scale up and specialize.  For example, it's one thing to feed lettuce to the geese that's wilted or is starting to bolt, but it's entirely uneconomical to coordinate with and drive to a produce farm to get lettuce to feed to geese.  Similarly, it's a whole lot easier to feed one's own cull watermelons or pumpkins to the hogs than it is to get a farmer to get another farmer to coordinate any collection (especially anytime besides just the week after Halloween, and such pumpkins wouldn't come from organic farms anyways) and get them to the farm where the hogs are.  In other words, the less specialized a farmer is, the more alternative options (besides grain) he's likely to find practical for feeding swine or poultry. 
  But these ways of making local-organic animal products (like pork and poultry) more economical aren't going to happen when customers shop superficially item by item and farmers position themselves to serve that kind of market.  Buying USDA organic flour that was grown in and around Kansas and pork that was raised locally on corn grown in Ohio and soybean meal from an oil processing plant in Indiana from soybeans grown in five different states (none of which is North Carolina) and buying pumpkins from one non-organic North Carolina farm and apples from another non-organic farm and buying sweet potatoes from one local-organic farm and USDA-organic tomatoes in December from Mexico... leaves none of those farms with an assortment of surpluses to economically feed a good, mixed diet to some pigs, nor does it leave those surpluses with the kind of farmers that would be interested in small sideline production anyways, and so the only options for pork (or chicken) that customers find anywhere on the market are options raised on commodity corn-soy (or similar) type mixes, certainly nothing like a diet of apples and acorns and pumpkins and heirloom corn and cheesemaking whey, etc.  That's not because those options couldn't be economical, only that they can't be economical unless farms are more diversified.  But the only realistic way for farms to really diversify is if they can find a way to sell a wide assortment of products (tree fruits, garden crops, grains, dry beans, lumber, nuts, dairy, etc.), without having to compete superficially (mostly just on price) item by item, which is a sure way to force farms to specialize in order to survive.  So that's the answer we see to local-organic pork and poultry (and eggs), and we see local-organic grains for human consumption as an essential and hugely important piece of that puzzle.