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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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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