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Food for Thought..

Saturday was the monthly winter farmers market in Deerfield Township. It was nice to get out and catch up with our fellow farmer friends and our regular customers.

It was very exciting to hear that the Deerfield Township government has decided to construct a pavilion to house the market as part of their development plan.

It made me proud that a local government would recognize that what we do is worth investment into the local community. It seems that whether it is our government, our politics, our news or our purchasing, things have become national or even global at the expense of the local priorities that make our communities great places to be.

Just this week here on the farm we were discussing how local business supports local business. A significant number of our suppliers are local family run businesses and thanks to the internet, we are also able to purchase from small businesses all over the country when services are not available here locally.

We counted 11 major suppliers for us that are locally based businesses. Our beef, pig and poultry processors are USDA certified modern operations but are family owned. We have a relationship with them that benefits the products we sell to you each week.

Just last week, we unloaded two skids of potting soil alongside that company’s owner. He told us about the challenges of making the mix during the extreme cold and how we needed to work with it to achieve the best results. When you choose to buy local you are receiving benefits from folks all along the chain of production.

Whenever I sit and talk with young folks, I always come away with some new things to think about. This week, while talking about folks who just seem to complain about stuff but don’t do anything, I heard the term “Slacktavist”. It made me chuckle at first to hear the term, but I understand the frustration behind it. There is a lot of passion for many different issues in our world and I suppose our social media provides a platform for a lot of “Slacktavism” to influence our days.

I am a firm believer in local, not just buying local but supporting local and participating in local. Our communities, our neighborhoods, and our families all benefits when we participate on this level. I read this week how our seed supplier was starting a project to make sure that folks without the resources would be able to get seeds for their gardens to help them grow their own food. One of the local farms in the area is sponsoring young farmers to come gain experience, in preparation for starting their own operations one day. No slacktavism there, just real people seeing a real problem and doing their best to make a change.

We can discuss quality, carbon footprint, and the many other benefits of purchasing local products from small businesses in your community, but I think the biggest impact centers around your participation and how that participation can benefit our “local” world, just food for thought….every pun intended.

-Robert

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Summer Garden Update

What a week, nearly 5 inches of rain following the hottest weather we have seen in 2 years. It certainly brings some challenges, but it also brings abundance.

Our gardens have begun the first of two major transitions; moving from spring crops to the vegetables of summer. This transition is usually completed by the 4th of July. The next transition will take place around the Labor Day holiday as we move toward shorter days and cooler temperatures. The good news is that there is plenty of good eating between here and there.

Lest you think we are headed off to the pool or out to play 18 holes at the local club, behind the scenes have begun the preparations for what will be the fall and winter gardens. The fall garden, defined as crops harvested by December 1st, will be planted starting next week. There are a lot of challenges keeping young seedlings going, even getting them to germinate, but it is time to start again.

Spring crops will be rotated out, beds recharged with fresh compost, and then replanted during the month of July. Along side of these plantings the winter garden will begin to take shape. These are crops that will be overwintered, harvested from December through April of next year. Careful planning is required of course since many of these winter crops will be in place for nearly 6 months from planting to harvest and require a good bit of garden space.

None of the crops receive any supplemental heat but with careful use of special fabric and plastic coverings we can eat fresh all winter long. Eliot Coleman (of winter gardening fame) has demonstrated that each layer of cover moves the growing conditions south one growing zone. With our coverings our plants will feel like they are spending the winter in Atlanta. Last winter while it was -10 outside, under cover our plants never froze, really remarkable.

Take heart, -10 is still a ways a way.

As the garden transitions to summer it looks to be a great season for all your favorites including those much treasured tomatoes. They got a slow start but are making up time and should be as nice a crop as we have had for a while. For the first time, we are growing all our tomatoes inside our high tunnel which will protect them from the weather a bit and help discourage diseases that can ruin a crop pretty quickly. Peppers, okra, beans, cucumbers and many more are coming on strong. Our club members have been enjoying our berries albeit quickly as the weather has been compressing those seasons as well.

One day when I discover what can be done with all these weeds, perhaps I will think about slowing down a bit. Until that happens it is pedal to the floor and hoe to the row as we look forward to a great summer of growing.

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Winter in April… What does it all mean?

Well it’s now mid April and we still have some snow on the porch this morning with a balmy air temperature of 33 degrees. To go along with the cold we have had nearly 4 inches of rain, most of which I am pretty sure fell in a 30 minute stretch back on the 3rd. Although our last frost date is still a month away the season is off to a sluggish start to say the least. So it begs the question, what does it mean for the spring as well as the entire growing season.

You know the saying about the best laid plans of mice and men….well if you’re a farmer it’s even more tricky. “Turn up the heat” you might think – and believe me, we have. The farm sounds like an airport with the engines idling as our jet heaters work to keep things alive. When it comes to growing though- it just isn’t as easy as turning up the thermostat.

Plants and insects/diseases respond to the extended accumulation of warm weather, which protects them from temperature shifts during the dormant season. One warm day or even a warm week will usually have very little effect on the rate of growth. This accumulation of heat is usually calculated by tracking the “growing days” each day. This is done by taking the average temperature for the day and subtracting the baseline temperature for plant growth, this time of year, 50 degrees. This time of year we would expect to be accumulating 7-10 growing days of temperature each day. This raises soil temperatures and that combined with increasing daylight leads us down the path of spring.

As we plan and adjust our plans for the season this is one of the key indicators of exactly where we are in the growing process. So if you feel like it has been cooler than normal, then you are right. We typically have had around 175 growing days by this time of year, in fact last year we had 292 by this date. This season we have had a whopping 61, quite a shortfall to normal and a huge swing from last year.

Simply put, crops are going to be slow to start and some may not perform at all especially if we swing to higher than normal temperatures in May. On the bright side, fruit trees will be slow to bloom which should offer some protection from a late frost which can really hurt the crop. This is true of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and the like. Each season is different and honestly that is one of the exciting parts of this business.

As for us, we have been able to plant pretty close to schedule although things in the field are not growing very fast. I noticed that the Snap Peas are breaking through the ground this morning and all the cool season crops are up and ready for those growing degree days to take hold. So far the potatoes haven’t rotted in the ground and the greenhouse is getting busier by the day. We planted two new varieties of blackberries, two new black raspberries, three new types of strawberries and new asparagus beds this week, as well as the next group of beets, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and radishes. We are looking forward to the start up of our buyers’ club, as well as farmers’ markets which begin in a few weeks.

So hang in there, the 10 day forecast looks very nice, see you all soon!

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Mid March Update

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I finished my lunch yesterday, stepped out onto the porch to head back out to the greenhouse to cheer my green friends on to greatness, when I realized that I couldn’t see the 100 ft to the greenhouse itself. Not only that, the world had suddenly turned white. That turned out to be one of the three mini blizzards that we experienced during the day. Of course, each time the snow melted pretty quickly but it still put a wrinkle in the day here on the farm. Such is the way things go when you are working with someone as unpredictable as Mother Nature herself.

During each season there are several very intense time periods for the market gardener and even more so for those of us with livestock, the orchard, and other perennial fruits to manage. It’s not that we are any busier than usual, it’s that there are so many different balls in the air that must be juggled if we are to have a successful season. For us, the next six to eight weeks are perhaps the most critical. Honestly by the time the farmers’ markets start up in May our busiest time is behind us.

Now that the really cold weather is past, the fruit trees get their annual pruning. This involves thinning, training, and just a general going over to promote good health and maximize fruiting. Each type is different and our apple trees take the most work by far.  Our thorn-less blackberries aren’t too far behind and after a winter like this one even more work is required. Blackberries fruit on the second year wood, which means the canes must overwinter and make it through the cold. All the training and work of the previous summer can be undone by a harsh winter. Unfortunately for this year’s crop the -17 degrees we had here looks to have done them in. Take heart however because the new red raspberry patch looks like a bountiful crop is on the horizon.

Planting, of course, has already started; the greenhouse is one third full already. With the first break in the weather flats of spinach, beets, kale and others will head out to the garden. Most of these crops will have to be covered for the first few weeks to be sure they get off to a good start. You may have seen the picture of the truckload of seed potatoes. It takes two or three weeks to get the potatoes ready to go to the garden. Each potato will be cut into sections with one or more “eyes”, which will begin to grow. These sections will be heated and cured for a couple weeks to make them more resistant to rotting in the cold ground before they sprout. The thousands of onion seedlings have been separated and transplanting into raised beds in the greenhouse itself to grow for five or six weeks to get large enough to be transplanted to the garden.

So how do things look so far you may ask? Well the cold weather is holding things up a bit but it has been dry enough to begin field work this week. Field number five had the year off last season except for a cover crop and we were able to turn it under this week and prepare the ground for potatoes. Planting is at full speed and still on schedule although the fuel and electric is flowing to keep things moving forward. The hens are continuing to lay their eggs and the new chicks, now 4 weeks old are eating more feed than seems possible. The cows are a little bored and are eagerly awaiting fresh grass instead of hay but overall doing well. We have daffodils ready to bloom and tree buds are beginning to swell, both sure signs of great things to come. We look forward to a great season and trust you are too. Don’t complain or grumble too much… it won’t do you any good and you know as well as I do that we might just be wishing for that freak snow storm to cool us off before you know it.

 

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Keeper of the Green

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This week’s schedule includes transplanting the first group of seedlings, as well as planting round two, which consists of nearly 7000 new seeds to be planted. This highlights one of the key differences between market gardening and home gardening, namely the succession planting that is required. Beginning in early February and continuing until about the 4th of July, seeds are started every 10 days to ensure a season long harvest that our customers expect. Fall and winter crops are started beginning in late July and continuing right up until Christmas. It is one of the most challenging aspects of what we do (yes even worse than the dreaded weeds). In order to pull this off we have to develop and follow a rather intimidating looking spreadsheet that details planting, transplanting and then finally garden planting into assigned rows for a specific number of days, then start the process all over again. The planting assignments have to take into account the complete grower calendar for the next 12 months in order to keep things straight. It can get a bit crazy but I don’t think I would have it any other way.

Today as I look back I think I could say it has been 40 years now since I first became fascinated with the idea of growing things. Each summer our family would can peaches into those wonderful mason jars (same jars we use today) and the leftover pits would go to the compost pile, which was really, yes, just a pile. The next spring most of the seeds would germinate from this pile and there were literally hundreds of little peach trees. Since most fruit is hybridized, the volunteer tree’s fruit does not resemble the parent and so they are discarded. As an ambitious ten year old I was unaware of this fact so I dug them out of the pile and planted them everywhere. At the time we lived in town on ¾ of an acre, so it was quite a site as these trees grew.

Fruit trees usually take 5 seasons to begin bearing fruit so this turned into quite an adventure. When it was all said and done about 10 trees survived to bear fruit. Of those 10 trees- one had an unbelievable peach, probably the best I have ever eaten, even to this day. While that tree is long gone, I learned the lesson early on that for me, the adventure was in the growing process, not the end result. I was 10 when I started, 15 before the end result and a lot happened in that 5 years. When our family moved to the farm a couple years later I started planting new trees and eventually stopped counting at 500 trees that I had planted just in close proximity to the house and barns. Many of those trees 30+ years later, now provide wonderful shade and limbs for climbing. In recent years have I started hybridizing my own daylilies. Somehow this season I ended up with over 3000 seeds to plant this spring, most of which won’t bloom till 2020 if I am lucky- seems some things never change.

Other than a brief detour into corporate America, I have always had a job growing things. I am a grower and oddly enough not really a harvester. Now don’t get me wrong, that first red ripe tomato is a wonderful experience each season, but truth be told I think it only taste that good to me because it has been about 5 months in the making. Folks are often surprised at the price of early season tomatoes but I assure you that the invested time and effort more than justify the cost. You see, that tomato began with a warm January fire, a hot coffee and a catalog, the easy part. Since the tomato is a heat & sun loving plant it is quite a process to turn that little dried up seed into a delicious tomato by early June here in Ohio. Heat and light are required for early season germination as well as  several nights of limited sleep during that late cold snap we always seem to get and the daily routine of covering and uncovering them to protect them from even the good weather we have this time of year. They will be transplanted three times, staked, pruned and once they start blooming, shaken each morning to move the pollen from blossom to blossom, not to mention watered and talked to, and that is just the tomatoes. For me however this is the adventure, and it makes the taste that much better.

It is important for us to control the growing process as much as possible so that we can be confident in the product we deliver to you. There are 352,000 seeds to plant in the first season which runs through the 4th of July. Growing our own transplants as well as our direct seeding allows us to know where each and every plant came from and bring a harvest to folks that we can talk about. We believe this adds integrity to our process and overall value to our products. I hear a lot of conversation about getting to know your farmer and I encourage that. I also encourage you to do your homework so you know what information you really want and what questions to ask to get that information. Familiarize yourself with the harvest timeline for our area so you too can share in the adventure and rest assured as your grower, I am happy this morning to go water your tomato plants for you and I can’t wait to share them with you as soon as I can. Be informed, be curious and share a conversation with a farmer, many that are really still 10 years old at heart.

 

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The Million Dollar Question

Often times, even before the “hello,” I get this question:

Are you organic?”

I used to chuckle, look down at myself and think well 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, about 0.85% is composed of another five elements: potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium and say “Why yes, I am.”

Well that apparently is only funny to me.

When folks ask us about organic what do they mean, what information are they looking for? If I ask for specifics most often I get in reply, “do you spray your vegetables?”

Last December I sat in a session at one of the leading Eco-Farming conferences in the world that was meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Leading the discussion was one of the nation’s foremost authorities on organic farming. The room was full of small farm owners like us, looking for a way to become recognized for the methods they used that go well beyond organic standards. Many of these folks are in our situation, finding the government certification process too expensive and cumbersome to participate in.

When it was announced that the government might be interested in recognizing these efforts there was quite a bit of excitement, until it was revealed that entry into the new certification required becoming certified organic as a prerequisite. I thought the room was going to explode. Here were 150+ farmers doing the right thing each day but locked out of being recognized for it.

What do you want to know when you ask me if I am organic? I could be Certified Organic and still not be able to tell you I don’t spray my vegetables, since there are over 100 pesticides certified for use by organic farmers. I can still hear my college professor telling the class that no matter the type of pesticide; “If it will kill a bug it will kill you”. A bit dramatic, but you get the point. For most consumers “organic” means what farmers are not doing; not using restricted chemicals, not using GMO’s or treated seed. Most industrial agriculture simply replaced more harmful pesticides with “approved ones” and replaced synthetic fertilizer with manufactured organic sources without changing any of the farming methods that damage the soil and endanger the water.

Don’t get me wrong, if I need to purchase an avocado I am going to buy organic if I can, but let me tell you why. Increasing with the rise of the one stop grocery store since the 1950’s there has been a resulting disconnection between producer and consumer. Since I don’t know the folks that grew my avocado, I will take the extra step and hope that they are in compliance with organic standards as they claim… better than nothing. However, if there is something like honey which we do not produce but use, I don’t go to the store and buy an organic option. I go down the street to our local bee keeper, look the operation over, talk to her, shake her hand and take home my honey. In a time when most of our foods origins can not be easily traced, I will take that handshake every time.

A lot of consumers operate out of ignorance when it comes to their organic food choices. Investigate the real requirements behind your organic eggs, free range chicken or vegetables, it may WILL surprise you. We don’t pursue certification for a number of reasons, ones that are personal and specific to our operation. A certification would not change what we do or how we do it. I was told by my grandfather that character was what you did when no one was looking, and that rings true for us today. The food we sell is the same food our family eats, all 18 of us, including the grandkids. Four generations have spent time here on the farm and hopefully four more will.

We believe strongly in building your tomato from the bottom up. Our soil is our most valuable resource and we are continually working to improve it for our plants, animals and ourselves. Organic farmers, true deep organic farmers don’t want to talk about what we don’t do, we want to talk about what we are doing. Did you know that if you pick up a handful of soil, good active soil, that you are holding 20 miles of linear mycelium, most of it mycorrhizal fungi in your hand? Did you know that this fungi is considered vital for plant growth and that it is easily destroyed by industrial agriculture, organic or not? Strange that nowhere as part of the organic certification process is there any requirements about preserving or promoting this fungi. If mycorrhizal fungi were reestablished as part of larger scale farming it would absorb the excess carbon dioxide everyone is all excited about, but then what would we talk about?

How about we talk about what we are doing here on the farm? How the “deep organic methods” we use (a phrase used by the gardening pioneer Eliot Coleman) can provide the answer to that question, “Are you organic?”

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The Farm Club from the Farmers Perspective

Our buyers’ club is an answer to the reality of our local food movement that has troubled me for several years.

First, each season beginning in May and lasting through October folks can buy seasonal products at their local farmers’ market. At the end of October the exhausted vendors disappeared until the next May when the market reopened and customers were expected to return and pick up where we left off. Just where do we expect consumers to go for their food? Now we can go off on the tangent about seasonal eating, preserving food etc., and to be clear; we have a room dedicated to the storage of vegetables, another for our canned products and several freezers full of the seasons’ bounty- but that’s non reality for most folks today. On the other side of that coin is the development of an environment in which you can buy nearly anything from anywhere in the world whether it is in season or not locally.

Second, farmers’ markets are designed for a vendor to bring a specific product- for example, vegetables. Our farm and many like it produce much more than the one specific product that could be sold and is available beyond the dates that an open air market in Ohio makes sense. Our farm is not a hobby or something we tend on the weekends. It is a living breathing organism that requires care and attention and in exchange yields a bounty of benefits. We raise cattle, chickens, grow an orchard, fruits and berries, all sorts of vegetables for ourselves, why not share these with our local community. There is also technology available to us that allows us to extend our growing season to nearly 12 months here is Ohio, why aren’t we using it? I am enjoying fresh salad greens and carrots harvested today, January 29th. It was as cold as -10 degrees during this past month, yet in an unheated structure we brought them through just fine.

I decided we have a responsibility to do everything we can to support our local community using the resources we have and the buyer’s club was born.

The club is designed to make available meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables from our farm and locally sourced products that we do not grow such as honey. We have developed relationships with other local vendors over the years and are proud to partner with them. Most of the products we sell are not as seasonal as our fruits and vegetables. Most meat, eggs and specialty items will be available 12 months a year.

The following timeline covers mostly vegetables. Using our season extending techniques we will deliver fresh produce about 50 weeks per year. The growing season is broken up into 2 very distinct growing cycles, summer/fall and winter/spring. Most folks are familiar with the summer/fall harvest of popular favorites like green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers etc. These crops are grown during the frost free part of our season, usually May 15 – October 15. Although many of these crops can be successfully stored for use in the winter, once we have a frost the growing window closes. This is usually the “growing season” most folks are familiar with.

Probably more exciting is the winter/spring growing cycle. Now to be clear, planting for this time period begins in early July and last until early December before taking a break until mid February. Crops will be harvested outside until mid December then most harvesting will come from plants grown under cover.

Winter, the time period after November 15, will have the storage items such as onions, potatoes, winter squash and many root vegetables. Fresh harvest will be broccoli, salad mixes, kales, spinach, baby carrots and many other cold hardy varieties. This period last until early April when early spring plantings begin to mature. It has been our experience that crops harvested this time of year are of higher quality and much more flavorful than when we grow them in warmer conditions. The limiting factor in this season is the harvest window. Crops must be above 32 degrees to be harvested without damaging them. Since most are inside under cover there aren’t many days when this happens, but it can and sometimes harvest may be delayed. Since we don’t ask for your money up front you don’t risk not getting something you paid for, the responsibility is ours to be sure things are available.

It is our hope that the Farm Club will help bridge the gap for those of you who want to eat local food all year, not just during farmers market season.

-Robert