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A Thorn in the Farmers Paw

Do you have things around you that are just a thorn in your paw, you know, something that just aggravates you a bit?  It doesn’t keep you from doing what you want or need to but is always there in the background.

One of those things for me has been the disconnection between buyers and growers of food. When we first began selling at farmers’ markets it seemed like a great model. Folks would come by to buy our stuff, choosing what they wanted and often returning the next week for more. Those sunny weekends in May were wonderful. During the season there was the ebb and flow of customers and seasonal products, then in October it was over. Exhausted farmers went home to plan for next year and customers went…. Where did they go? That question has become a thorn in my paw for the last few years.

We have tried several ways to market our products, tried several methods for extending our season and found that it is certainly an uphill climb. Honestly, it has become so easy to buy any product at any time and now have it brought to your door, I can understand why folks shop this way. Many folks choose the Organic label for the things not in those products, ie. Pesticides, Herbicides etc., I get that. I also feel the pressure to provide products during the time usually considered downtime for farmers. So, where are we? This thorn is getting to be a problem.

I would like to suggest that farmers and eaters meet somewhere in the middle to find a solution and I have a couple thoughts on the matter (surprise!). 

First, as eaters we need to focus on the things that are in our food and less on what is not. I am all about the idea of organic food, however, organic has become a label for the things not included in the product. It is possible for a conventional farming system to simply switch from manufactured pesticides and fertilizers to natural ones and call the product organic. There are over 100 approved pesticides for use on organic produce. Technically it meets the requirement but what does it add, which I believe is the important question we need to ask.

The science shows that food grown in nutrient dense soil provides better nutrition when eaten, something that the organic certification doesn’t consider. The nutrient level found in today’s conventionally farmed vegetables are up to 70% less than in found in the 1960’s. The minute a vegetable is harvested the nutritional value begins to decline, so given the shipping and shelf time a lot of the original value is lost. The organic label usually goes along with a higher price and that should reflect a higher value which it often does not.

Second, as farmers we need to understand that our consumer’s needs are there 12 months a year and do our best to meet those needs. I acknowledge the limitations of climate and conditions. In the past folks would preserve foods during the season for use in the winter but that art has been replaced by an app and a delivery service in a lot of cases. There are a fair number of folks still trying to buy local, fresh food and we need to be doing everything we can to support them.

The above picture was taken April 19 and is a pile of cucumbers we harvested that day. Since our last frost date is about May 10th and cucumbers take 55 days to mature it can be June in usual circumstances before you get a harvest, we beat that by 2 months. The best part is that they are growing in our nutrient rich soil without supplemental heat. How is that possible? Well I won’t give away all our secrets but using the current technologies available to farmers we are able to pull it off.

My point is simply that it is possible to extend the season early and late to meet the needs of more folks. I know we can’t meet every need but if you can buy vegetables and meat 12 months a year it would seem to me to be better for us all.      

If improving the quality of your food is important, look up your local farmers and support them now and challenge them to work towards extending the availability of their products. Reward these efforts by your support and together we can grow our local food system, every pun intended.

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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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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.