Monday, October 27, 2014

A Case for Diversity within a Crop Type

One of the things we say often when we give presentations is that we believe very strongly in diversity on the farm.  We grow many types of crops, from asparagus to zucchini.  But ,this is only one level of the diversity we embrace as a part of our operation.  We also take our diversity to the point that we grow different cultivars of each type of crop.  For example, we grow four types of snack tomatoes (Jaune Flamme, Red Zebra, Green Zebra and Wapsipinicon Peach) in the high tunnel.

Green Zebra ripening on the plant
Of course, one reason to grow multiple types of tomatoes is that it is fun to do.  We can't think of anything more dull than growing only one type of tomato.  Well, ok, we can think of things that are more dull than growing one type of tomato.  But, that's not the point here. 

Another reason to grow multiple types is the variety in taste.  People have a wide range of taste and texture preferences.  And, many of those people actually like to experience different tastes as well.  So, it makes sense from a customer satisfaction perspective that we identify good tasting tomatoes with a range of acceptable and interesting tastes. 

Fuzzy, juicy and delicious - Wapsipinicon Peach
Both of these reasons are important enough that it isn't really necessary to find more.  After all, if the farm doesn't have an element of enjoyment to it, why should we continue to work so hard to do this?  Again, you can argue that this is our job and it is not required that we enjoy it.  But, if you have the option to find ways to enjoy your work and still be productive, why would you fail to explore them?  And, if you can improve your customer's satisfaction and experience by adding some diversity in a reasonable way, why wouldn't you?

Then, there is this:

This chart represents the total production of ALL four varieties in our high tunnel over the past two seasons.  I suppose this chart is a bittersweet thing because its existence means we are officially done with these plants for the season.  But, the good news is that there is a very similar curve of production for both years.  The biggest difference is the spike at the end of the season for 2013.  Since that brings out another matter for discussion some other time, I'd rather focus on the harvest prior to that point.

A good year for Jaune Flamme in 2014

Here's where our argument for variety and diversity comes into play.  It looks like, for all practical purposes, our high tunnel production for snack tomatoes is very consistent.  This is a good thing for us.  It helps us to plan and it helps us to provide a consistent quality product.

Clearly, Jaune Flamme had a pretty miserable year last year in the high tunnel.  We know exactly why that is.  But, again, that is a topic for other posts.  The point here is that we had a down year last year and a decent year this year.  But, still, we had a very similar production level from the high tunnel for the snack tomatoes, with a similar curve of production.  The difference was that Wapsipinicon Peach, in particular, did not have the absolutely stellar year it had in 2013.  Did it do fine?  Yes, it performed within an acceptable range.  But, it really busted out last season.

Red Zebra
The basic idea is that there are a huge number of variables in vegetable production.  Even in the high tunnel, there are weather considerations.  If there are cooler days with more clouds, the warmth in the high tunnel will not be significantly different from fields outside.  On the other hand, excessive rains came at different times this year and actually impacted our high tunnel production each year!

Then, there are the variables we introduce.  You might argue that, in the high tunnel, we should be able to control planting, irrigation and weeding schedules.  In short, we should be able to replicate a successful season in terms of OUR actions on the farm.  But, now you make the assumption that conditions on the farm and in our lives allow us to follow an algorithm with no variability.  Thus far, this has not occurred for us on this farm.

The very nature of our farm often precludes exact replications from season to season.  Each year, we make adjustments in our plans.  Every season, there are new aspects to our operations.  And, there is the potential for new mistakes or accidents that require a response on our part.  Add to this the possibilities of potential seed issues, leaks in the irrigation hose, mice eating seedlings, etc etc and you find you can't guarantee sameness anyway.   So, why not embrace the diversity?

With diversity within the crop type, we 'hedge our bets' and increase the likelihood that we have success for the crop.  If one of the varieties likes hot and dry (Wapsi Peach) much more than the others, then you can deal with a year where that happens (regardless of how it happens).  If the season starts late, then varieties with shorter maturity times or cultivars that respond better to warmer weather as starts will perform.  Others that need a longer, more consistent season may not.

And, it always looks more inviting with a diverse offering anyway!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Is Organic Better for You?

While we do not spend much time on Facebook, we do try to reach people with our GFF page on Facebook and we do, on occasion, see what is being posted by people we know.

Recently, we noted a post by Earth We Are One that was being shared by persons who believe organic produce is the way to go.  Before I celebrated, I thought I'd better do a couple of things.  First, I wanted to learn a little about the organization that was sharing these results.  As I viewed their website, it was clear that there would be some definite biases.  That does not mean information found there is incorrect or not worthwhile.  It simply means that there is a definite agenda.  Agendas are not inherently evil, but a person needs to be aware of them when 'facts' are being reported.  This group clearly would want to support these results being claimed by this study.  So, right or wrong, I decided I would not just simply take their word for what they were reporting.

So, the second thing I did was look for the root of the information being given.  What led them to report what they reported?  My next stop was this LA Times article.  Here is an independent media source that is reporting on this meta-study.  I'll leave you to debate all you want about media, agendas and the like.  But, the reality is that I was now able to start checking more links and the flow of information back to the source. 

The Environmental Working Group is another organization that pointed at this meta-study.  I was impressed by how easy it is to learn about this organization.  They put their financial statements and annual reports on their "about us" page I linked to for all to see.  They also display an impressive ranking by the Charity Navigator, which they proudly include on their "about us" page.  These folks weigh in with this report on their pages.

All of this led me to the original journal article that is here:

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Published in the British Journal of Nutrition
Baranski et al. - Sep 2014

What was this study?

If you are not a researcher, this might sound a bit silly to you.  But, let me tell you about it and why it is useful.

This was a "meta-study" - or a study about studies on a given topic.

The problem is this: there have been many studies of varying quality that try to show that organic foods are better OR no different from conventionally grown foods.  Persons who have an agenda that are served by showing organic foods are better are likely to seize on any study that shows organic products in a positive light.  Unfortunately, they might be attracted to studies with the most dramatic results but with the poorest study designs.  On the other hand, those who are not inclined to favor organics will either find studies that show no difference (again, potentially ignoring study quality) OR they will attack the weaker studies selected by proponents of organic foods.

The net result of this is that there is confusion and disagreement about the facts of the matter.  This leaves us subject to our own preconceived notions and we learn nothing in the process.

The other problem is the fact that it is impossible to study all aspects of food production and quality at once and in one study.  By their very nature, highly focused studies are more likely to produce clearer results, but are also less likely to give us a clear picture of the entire situation.  A meta-study attempts to connect results within certain parameters.

My best example is this.  Let's say Rob did a study on whether or not plants need potassium to grow and he found that they did.  With that study only, should we try to grow plants purely in potassium?  What about all of the other things required to have healthy plants?  Perhaps it would be a good idea to gather the results of studies about plant growth in an effort to come up with a complete picture of what it takes to grow a plant?

I realize I am over simplifying things a bit.  But, my point is that it is important to gather relevant research and try to summarize what is learned on a subject THUS FAR.

This study identified over 300 studies with pertinent results.  After reading the British Journal of Nutrition article, I feel comfortable with the approach to the meta study.

Eat your broccoli!

What did the meta study conclude?

If you are able - read the abstract that resides at the last link above.  If it only confuses you, I found both the LA Times and the EWG's summaries to be clear and concise.

I boiled it down to a few things.

1. fruits, vegetables and grains grown using organic practices has less chemical residue
2. fruits, vegetables and grains grown using organic practices have more antioxidants - which are good for you.
3. there is so much more to learn.

And, in the end, one of the best quotes I found can be found in the LA Times article.  One of the study authors, Charles Benbrook (Washington State U) stated, "The first and foremost message is people need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Buying organic is the surest way of limiting exposure if you have health issues, but by all means, people need to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables whether it's organic or conventional."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Time to Talk Turkey

It is that time of year again!  Our flock of turkeys are getting excited about the prospect of being the guest of honor at Thanksgiving dinners in our area.  Tammy can call out "Thaaaaanksgiving Dinnnerrrrrrrrrr!" and they will respond with a "crowd gobble."  Thus far, we have just over 20 reservations and can take another 20 for these wonderful treats.  The trip to the park will occur on the 22nd/23rd of this month.  Contact us if you are interested.

As a warm up to this post, we'd like to point you to some of our previous turkey related posts:
And now...
Stages of Turkeyness!

Turklets (also known as BEEPS)
We do not hatch turkeys at our farm.  We have enough going on without having to maintain a year-round flock.  So, it is a big event when we pick up the little birds.  Of course, people should remember that when you deal with us on our farm, we do not necessarily bow to convention when it comes to names.

We initially called the baby turkeys "Beeps" in reference to the call they make when they are chicks.  Baby chickens "peep", baby ducks "queep" and baby turkeys "beep."  That's all there is to it.

Three Beeps in the hand is worth... three beeps in the hand.
On the other hand, we recognize that "Beep" sounds terribly unprofessional.  Since we want you all to think highly of us and we want to perpetuate the feeling that we might actually know what we are doing, we revised our reference to baby turkeys to "Turklet."  Yep, that sounds more professional!

Turklets do NOT drink coffee.
Of course, other people might refer to baby turkeys as "chicks" or "poults" or

Now wait for it.... this one REALLY sounds professional.


Well, most people who take turkeys seriously will stick with "poults."  We like "turklet" and we're sticking to it!  Hey, the Urban Dictionary lets us get away with it?  Why not?  And no, we didn't look it up before we started using it.  That's just how we do things at the Genuine Faux Farm.

Turkle (We're still just kids!  Really!)

As the birds grow up, they exhibit a good deal of curiosity.  They can be like a younger child that keeps asking "What's that?"  "What's that?"  The biggest difference is that their retention is MUCH shorter than most human children.

But, it is clear that these are no longer babies, so the designation as a "Turklet" no longer applies.  At our farm, they graduate to being 'turkles.'

You may ask us why and we'll make something up.  But, the most obvious reason is that by the time they get to this size, we are getting busier on the farm.  Tired farmers save their breath by removing the second "t."   That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

What are you doing?  What's that?  Why?
It is about this time that we try to get the birds outside.  They have decent feather coverage and can moderate their body temperature reasonably well.  The biggest issue is keeping them dry.  A wet cold turke often becomes a wet, cold and dead turkle.
Turkles learn to respect electric fences - usually without touching them!
Turkles see their diet gain much more variety as we let them forage and we start sending produce we won't be selling or eating their way.  Favorites are typically cucumbers, melons and tomatoes.  But, we can send a good number of things their way and they'll get to it eventually.

Turkles know they should eat their greens!
Turk (That's a good sized bird.)

Once our birds get close to full size, they graduate to "turk" status.  Yes, the farmers are tired enough that they can't include the "le" any more. 

We're thinking about fanning - but maybe not at this moment.
Male turkeys are generically called "jakes" and the dominant male is called a "tom."  Some people might call the males "gobblers."  The females are called "jennies," but less creative people might call them "hens."

You might be able to see it in the picture above, but it may not be clear enough.  The females usually have much shorter legs than the males and typically are smaller, with a rounder body, slightly shorter neck and/or less 'shoulder.'  Once you've been around them, you can easily see the difference.  It's just less easy to put it into words sometimes.

This IS my good side.
The red flap of skin under the chin is called a "wattle" and the flap that is on the forehead is called a "snood."  No, we are not making this up.  Honest.  Look it up.


At some point after the birds approach adult size, they change from "Turks" to "Knuckleheads."  In this case, the farmers find new energy for extra syllables because the birds sometimes find ways to elicit extra energy from the farmers. 
Muck and Myra were very good at getting the farmer's attention.
 Usually, the turks are pretty good about going back to their room on their own once it gets dark.  But, they have an annoying habit of deciding, every so often, that the farmers need to remind them to go in.  This usually happens on days when the farmers are stressed out.  The temptation to use words other than "knucklehead" increases at those times.

Jake is not entirely serious about fanning in this picture.
When male turkeys fan their feathers, they also drop their wings to the side, fanning those feathers out as well.  And, if you look closer, the feathers on the birds back also stand up.  The wattle and the snood expand and get redder and the color in their faces gets brighter.  The whole purpose is to try to look as big and impressive as they possibly can.

The funny thing about fanning is that we see three week old turklets trying to fan.  We try not to wound their pride by laughing too much.

We have noticed that the males will fan and gobble more when there are visitors on the farm.  Essentially, you have been identified as a rival flock.  So, they're trying to impress you (and show you who is boss).

Tuurrrkeeeeeeeeey Dinnnnnnerrrrrrrrrrrr!
The Final Stage - YUMMY!
Ok, ok.  I realize some of you don't like seeing the birds go from cute to impressive and then have us talk about eating them.  But, that is the reality of it.  We do enjoy raising these birds (most of the time) which is why we keep coming back to it every season.  We are also glad we can give them a decent place to live and be turkeys.

Now, excuse me, I have to go put the knuckleheads back into their room.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Crop Report - October

Rob spent a few moments to check in on some of the goals for the season.  We also thought this might let others see what we are aiming for and how well we get there.
White Wing onions were a winner this season.
We tend to set two goals for ourselves.   The first is a number we think is reasonable AND should provide us with plenty to meet obligations (CSA, etc) and provide additional sales opportunities.  The second is a goal we think we really have to get in order to just meet obligations.  Additional sales would be minimal in that case.
Edited with final numbers on April 3, 2015

Green Beans
   goal - 1000 pounds                                                   minimum goal - 750 pounds
   2014: 783.4 pounds                                                  2013:  478.4 pounds
   goal - 600 pounds                                                     minimum goal - 400 pounds
   2014: 674.4 pounds                                                2013: 517.2 pounds
   goal - 5000 fruit                                                        minimum goal - 3000 fruit
   2014: 2142 fruit                                                        2013: 5884 fruit
   goal - 3000 head                                                       minimum goal - 2000 head
   2014: 3153 head                                                       2013: 1959 head
Bell and Sweet Peppers
   goal - 4500 fruit                                                       minimum goal - 3000 fruit
   2014: 4405 fruit                                                       2013: 1552 fruit
   goal - 2000 fruit                                                       minimum goal - 1200 fruit
   2014: 1318 fruit                                                       2013: 1892 fruit
   goal -  750 pounds                                                   minimum goal -  500 pounds 
   2014 -  457.1 pounds                                             2013: 1034 pounds
   goal - 500 fruit                                                        min goal - 300 fruit
   2014 - 385 fruit                                                      2013: 153 fruit
   goal - 2000 bulbs                                                    min goal - 1500 bulbs
   2014 - 2298 bulbs                                                 2013: 0
Winter Squash
   goal - 1000 fruit                                                     min goal - 500 fruit
   2014 - 64 fruit                                                      2013: 250 fruit

This is just a sampling of our harvest so far and some of the general goals we set for ourselves for production. 

Not a bumper crop of tomatoes this year, but enough.
The general feeling we get from these numbers is that the majority of our crops are doing "well enough" to meet our obligations to our CSA Farm Share members.  You might notice that most of our current crop numbers are settling around the "minimum goal."  In other words, we're getting just enough, but not enough to do much with additional sales in most cases.  You might also notice that there aren't many complete failures this year.  The exception is the sad demise of nearly all of our winter squash again this season.  The cool weather and planting issues really set the vines back.  Then, a fairly early frost came in and took most of the leaves off of the vines.  Without leaves, the vines aren't getting more energy to develop the remaining fruit.  I expect we'll get something out of them, but it won't be much.

But, what does this mean? 
It continues to confirm that longer season crops continue to be difficult with extreme weather conditions.  On the other hand, multiple succession plantings of shorter season crops (and even some longer season crops) results in enough success to be able to meet obligations.  If the weather does something to take out one succession (like the first succession of cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash), another succession may well hit a 'good' window of opportunity. 
Our Fall radishes are making up for Spring shortfalls.
It also means that our efforts to split some crops up in the rotation is mitigating potential losses if difficult conditions occur.  We realize that eggplant is potentially a divisive vegetable (hate them or love them).  But, we know a number of our CSA members like them.  So, it would be disappointing if they all failed.  So, they were placed in more than one field this year.  The result is a reasonable number of eggplant (800 fruit) to get everyone in the CSA the taste they wanted.
A recently transplanted eggplant (June)
In some cases, the numbers are merely a function of decisions we make on the farm.  For example, it is possible we could have gotten to our goal for green beans this season.  But, the reality is that they started producing on the late side.  There were plenty of beans still to pick at the end of August, but we just couldn't spend the labor on them and keep everything else afloat.  We were comfortable that we had provided a nice amount of green beans for everyone, so we made the choice to prioritize picking them lower in September.  After all, our primary bean picker (Tammy) has other things to do at that time anyway!

All in all, we won't be crowing about record setting production this year, but we won't be doing much crying either.  It has been, and continues to be, a perfectly acceptable year for crop yields.  We'll build on this and aim for an even better year next season!

Friday, October 3, 2014

GF7 Scavenger Hunt Key

We held a scavenger hunt at our GF7 event this year and it kept people busy while the grill was doing its job cooking some things for everyone to eat!

It sounded like most everyone managed to find everything, but in case you weren't sure, we thought we'd put a key out on the blog as well!

Most of the pictures were taken a week or so before the event.  As a result, there were some changes in how things looked. 
Front of Yellow Trailer
Back window of the truck

 For example, the truck window was cleaner than it was in the picture shown above.  But, there was still some road dust on there to make it fairly clear where it was from.
Granted, we did keep most of the photos in a fairly close area.  In some cases, we could see more than one thing if you stood in one spot.

Look in the center to see the second item
In fact, when I took the picture below, there wasn't a tear in the plastic. 

Center post in seed starting building.

At least I remembered to prop open the cold frame before everyone arrived.  The wind we had gotten since the picture shut them, so it might have been a good bit more difficult to ID this one.

The one that follows was inside of one of our buildings and was pretty easy to find - even if the duct tape wasn't in exactly the same spot!

And this one was in the same building - hanging garlic!

We thought this one might be difficult for people.  We made sure that Rob did some work with the power washer Saturday AM and then he left it out for people to find it!

The next one (a closeup of some of the scaffolding) was a bit easier since some painting had been happening just prior to the festival.

But, this one was nearly impossible without some direction.  If you got this one on your own, good for you!  It was located on the ledge just inside the Poultry Pavilion.

The front of the Poultry Pavilion

And, the two pictures above were also just in front of the building.  One to the left of the opening and one to the right.

The next picture wasn't too hard if you were interested in the chickens or turkeys.  It's the top left of one of our gates to the poultry yards.

We left the granary open so you could see our feed bin.  If you saw the big red feed bin, you probably saw the ladder that goes to the top!

And, finally, we took a picture of some wood and other things inside the metal flair box (Tammy's flair box).  I suppose I should get the wood out of that thing so Tammy can use it!

Thank you to everyone who attended.  We're glad you all enjoyed GF7.  Hopefully, we can do more with this sort of thing in the future!