Monday, December 31, 2018

Is A Thousand Words Enough?

A good friend put the not fully formed thought into words - allowing me to contemplate something I knew, but hadn't really articulated before.  A farmer will rarely experience beauty as thoroughly as they do when a crop is at its peak in health and vigor.  And that same farmer will experience a form of grief as they harvest that crop, converting that beauty to something else.  Sometimes, the process continues over a number of days and other times, the change occurs in moments.

The Bronze Arrowhead lettuce is one of those crops that often experiences a longer period of change.  Typically, we grow our lettuce in two rows per bed.  When the plants approach early harvest size, the rows are vibrant with green, tinged with a hint of magenta.  Each plant forms a part of the whole, a mound of leaves that covers the ground and crowds out any other plants that may want to compete for space and resources.  It is at this point that the farmer should get out his camera (mental or real) to take a snapshot of success.

We often will harvest every other plant in these rows, giving more space to the remaining plants so that they can continue to develop and add bulk.  But, now there are stumps that were once healthy plants marring that row.  A few leaves lie between rows where the farmer removed them from the head, deciding they were going to reduce the rest of the head's desirability by their presence.  If all goes well, the row will look nearly as good when the remaining plants expand to cover the voids left by the absence of their former companions.  But, the time will come when these heads will also be removed, hopefully to be parts of delicious (and attractive) meals.

The farmer might be caught humming pleasantly to himself as he harvests a crop that has done well.  But, you might catch that same farmer looking back over the row with a look that hints at melancholy. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

More Than A Thousand Words

It was morning and the door to the hen building had just been opened so the chickens could explore their pasture, visit with Crazy Maurice the weeping willow, eat their grains and exercise their wings, legs and lungs.  The clouds overhead held the memory of continuous rainfall and the much of the ground in the pasture was only visible through the ripples of standing water.

The hens rushed to the doorway.  And stopped.

The desire of their hearts, if I can be so bold as to pretend to know what a hen actually desires, was to eat that grain, chase a few moths and rest in the shade of the willow.  The building is, I suppose, nice enough for night-time sleep.  There are perches for those who want them and straw for those who do not.  But, it is the daylight hours and it is time to be out of this building.  There are dustbaths to take and clover to sample.  The turkeys in the nearby pasture often provide entertainment and the rooster sounds ever so much less obnoxious when he is OUTSIDE!

But the clover was under water and there was no dust to be seen anywhere in the pasture.  And thus, the debate.  Do I jump down and explore?  Do I dare hope that I will find tasty food and interesting things to do?  Or do I just stay up here?

In the end, the answer was simple.

There are many more hens behind these hens and they still have unaltered dreams of what may be outside.  Their dreams will force these chickens to visit reality.  A new group will stand on the precipice that is the doorway until they too will be forced to alter their dreams to face the reality of another wet day on the farm.

Not too worry.  They'll come back to the building again tonight.  They will find their perches and their straw.  And they will sleep so they can again dream of grain, dust baths, clover and the shade of the great willow in their pasture.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Thousand More Words

In an effort to highlight what we feel were our best photos for the 2018 calendar year, we have taken to presenting each candidate in its own post.  We hope you enjoy the photos and the thoughts that accompany them.

Every year, we identify areas on the farm where we will plant hedges of annual flowers in hopes that we will be graced by the presence of blooms that lift our spirits and provide habitat for critters we hope will find our farm to be a good home.  Every year, there are hedges of zinnias and marigolds and most years there is at least one hedge of sunflowers.
Zinnias and marigolds tend to have a longer period of time when they are able to dazzle you with their presence, but this is not the case for the sunflowers.  They tend to have a peak bloom period that lasts about ten days until the elements begin taking their toll.  There are certainly blooms after that peak and we certainly do not feel that they have no value on the farm at that point.  But, it is clear that there is a big difference between that special moment when the sunflowers grab your full attention and every other point in their life cycle.

As farmers, we take it upon ourselves to plant, cultivate and care for these plants throughout the process that leads to this brief moment of perfection.  We take pleasure in the stages that lead to peak bloom and we look at this same stand of sunflowers with fondness after that peak because we can still see the shadows of magnificence in what remains.

Friday, December 28, 2018

A Thousand Words

At the end of the year, we have a tendency to do a "Best of the Year" post featuring our best "phauxtos" for the past year.  This year, we thought we would do something different.  We will still hold a vote on Facebook for the best pictures from the season.  But, on the blog, we're going to select from the candidates and include some of the 'words' they might bring to mind when we see them.

Today's picture features purple coneflowers and oregano in full bloom on our farm.  If you look closer, you might see a hint of other flowers (such as a rudebekia) in the background.  This picture has not been filtered in any way, so you are seeing the color just as I saw it.

The sky was slightly overcast, so the sun did not bleach out the color with its light.  There was only a light, sporadic breeze - just enough to keep a person comfortable.  In fact, this was one of those rare times on the farm that I saw something I liked and I stopped what I was doing to go GET the camera.  Often, the moment is lost because light and conditions can change before you return to record it.  I was fortunate that this was not the case this time around.

This picture tells us two stories.  The first is what you might expect - there is beauty in nature.  There is healing for the soul if you can just transport yourself to that field that is covered in flowers.  Most places in nature have a specific time when they really dress up to show off, but you need to give them the rest of the year to build up to that moment.

The second story is one of absence.  The flowers are clearly in full bloom.  The weather was beautiful.  But, there are no pollinators in this picture.  Coneflowers and oregano (and the other flowers in the area) are plants that often attract a whole host of pollinators, yet I observed none while I stood there to take pictures.  There was very little wind, there was plenty of light, temperatures were moderate and it was a typical point in the day when there is often significant insect activity.  This area should literally have been humming with activity at this moment.

But, it wasn't.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Best Medicine 2018

A "year in review" of humor in the blog was started back in 2009.  We're not sure how many people enjoy it, but the farmer has fun with it - so that will be enough.  There are two categories.  Line of the Year may appear in any type of post.   Post of the year was selected for the perceived entertainment value.  Of course, entertainment value is subjective.  And, since the farmer and his lovely bride were the only two judges, you can feel free to comment and correct our flawed insight!  

If you wish to read any of the posts that have been highlighted here, feel free to take the links provided.

Previous Best Medicine posts are linked here: 2017 2016, 2015201420132012, 2011, 2010, 2009

Line of the Year Category

The following is from the, "let's sneak a good line into the middle of a serious post" subcategory.

Rob: "It's time for plan D."
Crew Member: "What's plan D?"
Rob: "There is no plan D.  So, let's do this..." 

From Man with the Plan, June 23

Occasionally, we'll put something worthwhile in a post as a caption.  In short, our captions can be captivating.  Especially if there are cats.
This is what it looks like when you've had enough and you're just daring someone to cross that line one more time.
From What It Looks Like When, August 20

Proof once again that if you don't read ALL of our posts, you might miss a gem or two.  Ok, I think these are gems.  I have an inflated sense of... of... something.  Maybe it's the beans I had for dinner?

Neither of us has ever said, "Boy howdy!  I'd really like to do some routine maintenance on our small engines.  And, while I am at it, I would really ENJOY making a few repairs as well!"  Of course, that's because neither of us is prone to saying "Boy howdy!" 
From Mekanikle Ineptitude, April 26

And, I still think I should put the word "Poo" in the title of all of our blog posts to increase traffic.

Since I am supposed to be a professional farmer, I should use the word "manure."  If you want to sound professional and evasive at the same time, you can refer to it as "soil amendments" or "added fertility."  But, since I am ALSO a person who is amused by wordplay and general silliness, we're still going to use the word "poo" just because... it's our blog and I CAN.
From, The Blessings of Poo, August 12
We realize the category is "Line of the Year," but sometimes the line needs set-up.
We tuck the little plants in each evening and let them out to play once the temperature in the building reaches levels they might enjoy.  It does the heart good to see six inch tall tomatoes and three inch tall pepper plants running around having a good time. Ok.  They really just sit there.  Sometimes, we put them in a cart and pull them around just so they can see some different things.  They are young and they should see the world before they put down roots.
What? We want them to be happy.

From There's No Snow? , April 27
Things that make you say, "Hmmmmmmmm."
I say "hmmmmm" fairly often on the farm, actually.  The humming birds have threatened to sue me because I keep using their catch-phrase, but they failed to copyright it, so I think I'm still in the clear.
From Perspectives, August 26
And then, there are times when we get a little bit of help.
When it was revealed that one such chinjury was caused by the trim on some object I started humming a familiar tune to myself.
Trim chinjury, trim chinjury, trim chin cheroooooo!
From Meal-time Humor, August 24
And our 2018 LINE OF THE YEAR
"Look, that's the second scale operator your tiger has eaten this week.  If you can't control your pet, we just can't weigh it for you anymore."
From Sayings That Might Be Better Unsaid, September 3

Post of the Year Category

Mom ALWAYS makes the list!

We didn't need "take the deck off the lawn tractor, clean it off, get a new belt, take the old one off and put the new one on and while you are at it lube the spindles, sharpen the blades and tell your Mother you love her!"

Ok, "tell your Mother you love her" should always be on the list.  Hi Mom!
From, Big Deal, July 3

And cats usually make the list!

This is what it looks like when the cat population wants to stage a protest.  They execute what is known as a "sit on."
From What It Looks Like When III, November 10

Our April Fools Post ALWAYS makes this list

It looked neat until I realized I was still relying on wheels.  In disgust, I cut off the power to the shop vacs.  So.... about those shop vacs I borrowed.
From When Your Calendar's A Day Late, April 2

Turkeys only make lists as we approach Thanksgiving (or so it seems)

After the third time that it managed to go in entirely the WRONG direction I found myself forcefully saying, "YOU TURKEY!!!!"

I stopped moving.  The turkey stopped moving.  We looked at each other.  I could swear I could see it thinking, "Yes.  That's me.  What do you want?"
From Captain Obvious, October 28

We have to give this post Runner Up Status for 2018, just eeking out over the April Fools post.
Avoid accidental forgiveness!  Use our NEW Grudge Book App!  Just download for $4.99 initial fee plus $9.99 per month for this personalized service.  Get automatic alerts on a schedule you choose to remind you that you should be grumpy AND to help you be sure that you are grumpy at the right person! 
From Remembering Half of It, July 7
But, Crazy Maurice wins with this year's POST OF THE YEAR for 2018

I don't mind Hansel and Gretel (the Austrian Pines), but I have a harder time communicating with the conifers.  They just don't get the whole dropping leaves thing that we deciduous trees do.
From Crazy Maurice - His Two Cents Worth, September 16

Give Crazy Maurice (our willow tree) some love and visit his full blog post!  For that matter, give us some love and visit and share some of the other blog posts linked here!  You'll get a laugh or three and maybe learn something in the process.  Even if that thing you learn is that our sense of humor is a bit out of whack!

Friday, December 21, 2018

I Would Walk in the Woods

Tammy and I took a longer drive over Thanksgiving to see family.  This is a departure from the norm since we normally stay home or drive a shorter distance for this holiday.  The trip might explain why there wasn't our normal Thanksgiving post.  But, if you wanted one, we were featuring last year's post, which is still quite good.

I mentioned to Tammy that I thought we might still see some Fall color as we went South and it turned out I was right.  We started to see evidence of very LATE fall color in Southern Indiana.  The weather was nice enough and we had done a good job of keeping moving on our travels thus far.  So, we decided to stop at the Clark State Forest to do a little walking around (and eat some lunch). 

We weren't entirely sure what we were getting ourselves into as we pulled off the highway.  There was some mention of a waterfall in the area, so we thought we might find it (we didn't).  Really, all we wanted was to see a little bit of nature and walk around for a bit.

The entrance to the park had a public area that catered more to human entertainment.  Things like picnic shelters, basketball courts, etc.  So, we drove deeper into the park and found ourselves climbing quite a bit.  Eventually, we found a place to park and identified an interesting thing to do.

We usually take our camera with us on trips like this, so I took a picture of the thing that caught our attention.   I found that I might be a little bit close to take a picture of it.  But, I tried anyway.  The results is what you see to the left.

You've probably already guessed this was a fire watch tower.  But, if you haven't...

It's a fire watch tower.

It was fairly clear that it was no longer used for that purpose and it was maintained so people like us could climb up and take a look around.  I am not particularly fond of heights, but Tammy doesn't mind them.  So, not to be outdone by my lovely bride, I climbed up the tower with her.  After all, I had the camera.  Someone had to take pictures.

See!  I did get to the top!
The day was a bit overcast and the Fall colors were pretty muted.  But, we didn't need all that to see the beauty of the land around us. 

Of course, some time after we returned home, I was curious to learn a little more about this forest, so I did a little looking around.  After all, unless you live in southern Indiana, you don't think of that area for its forests.  An Iowan can be just as guilty of making assumptions about Indiana as an Indianan might be regarding Iowa.  Seems fair.  Or at least, it seems honest.

It turns out that part of the reason for some of the area's initial designation had to do with a realization that the state of the lumber industry in southern Indiana in the last 1800's to early 1900's was in danger due to over harvest of the trees in the forests.  So, some of this area was actually established as a nursery to start trees that would be moved elsewhere.  While I am glad that this was done, I am also disappointed that, once again, we humans won't do anything to support nature unless we see something in it for us.

Maybe we need to force people to climb the fire tower and take a look.  But, then again, taking a look doesn't mean they're going to see.

As for Tammy and I, we would walk in the woods if we could.  We know others might like to as well.  But, even if we couldn't walk in the woods, we still want them to be there, because it doesn't all have to be about us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

December Newsletter

Different Worlds

We realize we have used the picture at left before, but it's a good picture.  We haven't had much motivation to go out and about on the farm to take photos, so this one will have to do so I can make the point I was hoping to make. 

We have snow on the ground at the farm right now.  We drove into Waverly this morning and there isn't much for snow anywhere other than the small piles that remain from shoveling.  This isn't the only time we have observed the snow on the farm versus no snow in town phenomenon.  It's just a good reminder that the weather can differ a fair amount over a short distance.  In this case, it has more to do with the latent heat held by the town's structures than different snowfall amounts.

We see evidence of how little things can make a big difference on our farm as well.  The first frost of the the Fall is one instance where you can observe significant differences in results due to what seems like an insignificant alteration in the surroundings.  One year, we went outside to find that the row covers we had put on some peppers had blown off and we had somehow missed that the evening before.  On first glance, we thought we were pretty lucky.  But, as we worked our way towards the end of the row, we found we had lost the plants towards the far end.  All except for the one that had a decent sized weed growing next to it.  The button weed took the hit and was not looking happy.  The pepper plant, on the other hand, was doing pretty well.  A bit singed, but happy enough as compared to its neighbors.

With Thanksgiving still looming pretty large in the rear-view mirror and Christmas and New Year's growing larger as we look forward, it feels like a good time to consider the little things we might be doing that could make a big difference in the world - for good or for ill. 

Veg Variety of the Month

We were able to bring in a batch of carrots from Valhalla (our newer high tunnel) in October this season.  The varieties were Dragon (purple outside) and Napoli.  The variety shown in the picture is St Valery.  We were out of St Valery seed when it came time to put this batch in, so we went with Napoli and Dragon.  The results were pretty good, if we do say so ourselves. 

Germination for Napoli was lower than we wanted, but the numbers and size of the carrots were good enough for our needs.  The germination of Dragon was right on, just enough that we didn't have to thin, but not so thin that we were regretting wasted space.

The net result?  We were able to give our CSA members a couple of pounds of carrots each at the end of the season AND we had a few left over for supplemental sales.  After a season that had so many struggles, it was nice to end it with a positive note.

Weather Wythards
Do I dare say it?  Rainfall was above the average for November in Tripoli.  Average rainfall amount is 2.32" and average snowfall is about 3 inches. 

November's Report

High Temp: 58
Low Temp: -4
Rain: 3.43"
Snow: 2-3 inches

Year Through August
High Temp: 97
Low Temp: -20
Lowest Windchill: -34
Highest Heat Index: 119
Highest Wind gust: 46 mph
Rainfall: 52.36"
Barometer Range: 29.39 to 30.89

Song of the Month

For those who haven't noticed, music plays a significant role on the farm.  We do enjoy the music of nature, but there are times when a really good playlist of enjoyable tunes is just what is needed for a few hours behind the wheel hoe.  And, if it is paperwork in the Winter, there is almost always some music playing.  Here is our song of the month for December by the Vocal Few.

Picture of the Month

This is actually from the end of October.  But, we've not been big into picture taking this November.  Besides, this is a good photo.

Other Farm News
The process of 'packing up' the farm for the Winter continues at a decent pace, though we have to admit that we wish it were complete.  Why?  Well, there is still the matter of the Applecart Upset that has been our continuous state of being in our house since Spring this year.  The kitchen is still completely gutted and it would be really nice to make some progress on that project before the new year arrives.  Of course, since we live in Ye Ol' Farme House, every repair project has an issue with 'scope creep.'  If you're going to do "X" to the kitchen, it can't be done until you do "Y" to an adjacent room.  Etcetera.  Here's hoping we can target a week to concentrate on this project.  The current goal is to target the week after Christmas.  Here's hoping.

We will be taking a "Farm Sabbatical" during the month of January.  What does that mean?  Well, we need a bit of a break and January is the best candidate for that sort of a break.  But, that also means there are some things we need to finish in December that normally get done in January.  Seed orders, I'm looking at you.  Organic certification paperwork, you too.  It looks like we're setting ourselves up to fail with the long "to-do" list for the month, but I think we're also willing to accept where things land and pick them up again in February.  We know the break is important and if we don't enforce it, we are fully aware how the farm will simply creep until January is no different than any other month on the farm.

For those who are interested in eggs and poultry, that doesn't mean you are out of luck in January.  Well, if it is poultry, you should buy what you need in December or wait until February.  The hens, on the other hand, will continue to lay eggs.  We will be finding help to manage the flock and the distribution of eggs in January, so stay tuned as we figure that out.  Other than garlic and some carrots, we don't really have much left from our crops.  If you want garlic or carrots, you should contact us soon.  The lettuce in the high tunnels are in over-wintering mode and won't be ready until February or March.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Queue of A's

This is the final installment of answers to questions posed by Dr. Wen's Capstone class at the University of Northern Iowa.  I realize there were more questions posed by those who submitted reflections, but this is what I was able to get to in a reasonable amount of time.  If you are wondering why I might have limited the answers to this set, consider that I am aware that the semester for the students in this class is coming to a close and I wanted to get responses to them while they were actively involved in the class.  I hope everyone who has read this series has enjoyed it.

Early season in 2017.
This series of questions and answers will be a bit shorter and less detailed than maybe they deserve, but I didn't want to ignore them either.

Lower Organic Standards:

One thing that I would have enjoyed further discussion on in your presentation is the big companies lowering standards of organic products. What could happen as a result of this? If you do not change the quality of your product, but the term certified organic becomes looser, does that make your product a separate category or would you have to identify as certified organic even if the government takes away the meaning behind that term?

A short answer for this is that we are considering Rodale's Regenerative Organic Certification process for the future at our farm.  The focus for this certification is placed on the goals that National Organic Standards were based on, but it is not subject to some of the same pushing and pulling that the economic factor has brought to the National Standards.  We would easily be able to qualify for the National Standards if we meet the Regenerative Standards.

There is certainly much more to this answer.  To really understand what is going on, a person needs to get a feel for the structure that oversees what it means to be certified organic in the United States.  It is not necessarily a bad structure, but it does have to withstand significant pressure from larger producers that would prefer less strict standards while still enjoying higher prices a certified organic label often enjoys.  In short, the guidelines for organic certification are likely to be a battleground simply because they hold some importance.  We have to expect to have some push and pull for anything that seems to be worthwhile.

Early kale and broccoli in the 2nd high tunnel
Who is in Your CSA?
So, a question I would have is are there several young members in your programs or is it fairly broad?

We have had members who are students in college and members who have been retired for many years.  There have been groups of people who have shared a membership and split what they receive.  In one instance a group of four college students joined and used the produce to make shared meals.  Some people find it suits them very well and others like it well enough but move on to another option that fits their life better (like growing their own garden).

What Makes Your Product Different:

Other than taste and texture (your primary focuses), what other differences might us as consumers see in your products compared to the products in grocery stores?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that people who buy from us have the opportunity to interact with us.  I am not saying that as if we think we are super cool and people should WANT to be around us.  What I am saying is that our customers have an opportunity to actually learn about how their food is raised.  They have a chance to participate in the process AND have a say in what we do.  Do you get that at a grocery store?

Covering transplants during a cold snap

Monoculture in a high tunnel? One question I do have comes from the idea of high tunnels or the covered plots you have and that question is, with all those diverse plants you grow in these is there ever a time where you would want to plant only one crop in them? LIke if you have a bad year for say lettuce, would you consider just planting only lettuce in there and not intercropping in them?

Farming is full of choices, opportunities and temptations.  One temptation is to respond to circumstances and go all in with one crop.  This is especially true in high tunnels since there are opportunities to control the environment a bit more which could potentially increase returns.  However, our short answer to the question is "no."  We believe so much in diversity on our farm that we would not go completely with a single plant type in a high tunnel.

However, that doesn't mean we wouldn't simplify the diversity in a high tunnel if the situation arose where that was our best option.  Let's say I opted to focus on tomatoes and lettuce in the high tunnels.  I would still maintain a more diverse environment by including some flowers and by being sure to have a variety of types within those crops.  And, remember, I can actually grow multiple successions of crops in these buildings during one year, so I can add diversity over time!  Here is an example of our 2017 growing in one of our high tunnels.


all people care about is the convenience and how much money and time they are spending. What are ways we could make organic farming more convenient? Or what are ways we can help people prioritize environmental and safety concerns rather than convenience?

This is a fantastic question that I wish I had good answers for.  If people have ideas, please let us know!

One answer, of course, is for farms such as ours to change our models to try to make access easier for potential customers.  But, with already full work days, how do we find the time to do that?  Feel free to comment on this one.

Learning to Farm:
I am very curious in knowing how did you learn to farm? Did you have some expertise, or any sort of knowledge? Did someone teach you? You mentioned you have gotten better at what you do, but did somebody helped you getting started?

We did have some experience as gardeners, but that didn't always translate well into being professional growers.  We've learned a great deal by trial and error, reading, performing research on the farm and by identifying other farmers we could trust that we could converse with about what we do.  At the point we started this farm, there were very few organizations that were prepared to mentor people like us as we learned the ropes.  At present, there are many more groups providing support for new producers.  We have served as mentors for some of those organizations such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and MOSES

Thursday, November 29, 2018

More Queue and A!

Starting soil must also be approved for organic operations
The series of posts answering questions from Dr. Wen's Capstone class continues with this post.  It's a rare thing to have this many posts dedicated to one thing on our blog.  But, it's hard to pass on what is a such a good thing.  So, here you go!

Organic and Taste/Quality:
I’m not sure how I feel about organic costing more just because it requires more work. Isn’t it basically the same product? What is the actual difference? Is what they are doing differently that important? I would rather pay more for something if I can tell an actual difference in the taste and quality.

This question or something similar to it actually showed up in a couple of reflections, so I apologize to the others who asked it as well that I didn't copy paste their versions of the question as well.

This question if a fair one and it deserves to be answered well.  After all, people who grow certified organic foods WANT you to believe the product is good.  I grow certified organic veggies so I also want you to believe there is good quality to be had.  But, I also want you to consider what I have to say without skepticism, so I am very careful with my claims.  I wrote a post a couple of years ago that highlighted a research meta-study that considered all of the existing research regarding organic production and food quality.  If you are really interested in what I believe is a solid answer to this question, go to that post and read it.  It's worth the time.

If you want the short version, I will give it to you here.  The meta-study, after looking at all of the results and adjusting for study design flaws, etc etc came up with these three points:
1. fruits, vegetables and grains grown using organic practices have 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.
Veggies from a September share

These are the FACTS that have been established by research as I see them.  It is up to you to decide if they are sufficient to make a decision based ONLY on food qualities.

Then, I'd like you to consider three more points:
1.  Local production typically has better quality. There is additional research that shows fruits and vegetables that are purchased from local producers typically have better quality.  So, if you can't get organic, perhaps you should consider local production?  Remember, I can harvest a tomato that is closer to ripe than someone who needs to ship a tomato from Mexico.  They are concerned about growing product that has shelf-life rather than a pleasing taste or texture.
2. Certified Organic products are traceable.  If you are worried about food safety (see the recent romaine lettuce issue) you should consider that a large part of organic certification is traceability.  Where the product goes and what is done to it is carefully recorded, this is a benefit for better food safety.  If you can't buy local, the certified organic provides you with an extra layer of food safety.
3. Many of the benefits for Certified Organic products have nothing to do with taste and food quality.  Many of the organic growing processes focus on damaging our environment less than other growing methods.  It's a long view of growing food that considers how we impact our water, soil and wildlife.  In the end, if certified organic produce tastes the same as other produce and if they cost the same thing or a tiny bit more, why wouldn't you select certified organic?

If you are interested in some of the specifics regarding organic certification and our farm, I encourage you to view these:

By genetically modifying any seed, we essentially make the plant better at some things that we want. For example, the could be more resistant to pesticides, maybe have higher yields etc. If I understand correctly, this reduces the need for using very toxic pesticides or the use of fertilizer that have massive environmental effects. Knowing a little
bit about GMOs, I still don’t have any problems with consuming any GMO. Do you think GMOs make our diets less healthy? Do you think controlling the use of GMO is a fair regulation as a part of the certification process? Do you personally care?

Another great question that is complex and difficult to answer simply.   I will try to keep it from getting too complex here, but I may get motivated to write more on it in the future. 
Grasses (and corn) are wind-pollinated, making trait migration easier.
First, I want to clarify something.  Humans have participated in genetic modification for centuries by selecting seed to propagate.  Even I participate in this when I select 'seed garlic' or when I collect seed from our zinnia flower plantings to use the next year.  If humans were to die out tomorrow and the world was able to self-select surviving plant types, very few of the cultivars we favor would make it.  The issues surround modifications that are created by genetic engineering.  Here is a fantastic overview of that process that might clarify the issue for you.

I have absolutely no problem with the absence of genetically modified seeds in certified organic processes at this time.  In fact I prefer it that way.  Why?  Well, once again, I feel that a holistic approach that includes a broader range of solutions and tools is preferable to one that relies on a single solution that lies entirely outside of the farmers' sphere of influence.  Let me give a you a quick rundown of the issues I have with GMOs right now:

1. Traits currently selected to be edited into crops promote poor farming practices.  The most widely used GMO crops introduce traits that allow a crop to tolerate and survive our most widely used herbicides.  You've probably already read that I think we have built an over-reliance on chemicals into our farming system.  This only makes it worse.
2. Trait migration can happen, and we are not certain how bad that can be.  Here is another good short article that summarizes the issue as it is know right now.  From a practical farmer standpoint, cases have been documented where traits in corn have migrated to nearby corn crops and 'infected' the seed in a non-GMO crop.  So, migration happens.  The problem is, we have a tendency to allow use of a technology before we are sure we can contain the unintended consequences of using that technology.
3. Genetic modification is usually motivated by making money rather than making things better.  If it were really the latter, we'd be much more patient with figuring out the unintended consequences.
Lettuce bolting (sending up seed stalks)

4. Our farming systems ignore natural processes so much that we are heading towards limiting our choices to produce food.  Genetic modification isn't evil by itself.  But, if we keep backing ourselves into a corner where we have no choice other than genetic modification, then I don't see a benefit.  Wealth and health come with choices, not the other way around.
5. GMOs take even more control away from the farmer.  Increased use of products like Dicamba-ready soybeans and Round-up ready corn only promotes reliance on a limited set of outside sources for farming inputs and reduces the ability of farmers to choose to be self-reliant if they want to collect and use their own seed. 

What Keeps Us Going:
You go on to say that you are awake when the chickens go to sleep and you are awake when the chickens wake up. For the things that you give up, how is it that you still like to farm? I feel like I would be so sleep deprived that I would want to take personal days all the time but you just do it everyday. What keeps you going?

Just when I think the questions can't possibly encourage me to cover more ground, I get this one.  Wow.

Truth in advertising.  We wonder about this ourselves sometimes.  This season's trials have really given us pause and we actually revealed how difficult it was to keep going in our blog.  In fact, every season has its moments.  But, we're usually philosophical about it.  After all, every job or profession has its negatives, doesn't it?  But, if you read a bit later this year in our blog, you'll find that I'm ready to rededicate myself to the coming growing year.

You might recognize that the first post linked above probably shows my state of mind at the point I presented at UNI.  I was NOT in the best place I could be with respect to the farm.  And, I assure you that if I find myself in that place all of the time, I will move on - because I can't do anyone any good if I can't see positive ways forward.
Borage is a favorite flower companion on the farm

In any event, I may not have conveyed enough of the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that I receive by working on the farm.  Let me give you insights as to some of the things that keep me going by providing some links:

  • The Farmers Dream - I was just reminded of this post by someone else.  It's a great post and gives you plenty of pictures and looks into what we enjoy at our farm.
  • Realm of Peace and Content - maybe a little Tolkien reference interests you? 
What keeps us going?  In the end, it's the belief that we are doing something worthwhile and we appreciate the challenge of doing it as well as we are able.  We have a purpose.  We have goals.  We have opportunities to reach for those goals.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Queue and A Part III

Once again, we have a post that features questions provided by members of Dr. Wen's Capstone class at UNI.  The prior two posts also contain questions and this farmer's thoughts.  We hope the members of that class and anyone else who reads these posts will enjoy them.

The turkeys were briefly mentioned in the presentation but I would like to know more about why you chose to raise turkeys and the process that you have to go through to have them? Do you have to have a state license or anything to keep them on your property?

Every presentation comes out differently because of the people in the room and because of where I am at at the time of the presentation.  If it had been later in the month, I suspect turkeys would have been on my brain and I would have talked about them more!  I have a few good posts that will give you some of the information you might enjoy getting.  The very best post for an overview regarding turkeys on our farm (warning, includes some humor) is the one linked in this sentence above.  This post includes a video that gives you an idea of what excited turkeys sound like at our farm.  And, this post is a more recent one answering some questions about a few of our choices with respect to raising these birds.

I suspect those will give you more than enough to chew on.  But, the short answers to your questions are as follows:
  • Why raise them? We think it is important to have livestock on a diversified farm.  It spreads out our income stream.  The birds provide manure for fertility.  They will eat vegetable scraps or substandard vegetables that we can't sell.  And, they are interesting.
  • We purchase turkeys as chicks that are less than one week old and raise them until they are processed.  You might be surprised that we receive chicks in the mail!  We do have the option of going to the hatchery to pick them up, but mailing is often more efficient for us during that time of year.
  • We do not need a license to keep turkeys on our farm.  However, we do take them to a facility that has a state inspector so we have more freedom selling the birds.
Handling Over-Spray and Drift:
First, I would like to know more about the process you have to go through to deal with over-spraying of your property. Do you think this issue is a widespread one?

I am going to use this question to point interested persons to a few other posts that will give you more details, just as I did with the turkeys.  The first post I will highlight is this one that includes links to a few more YouTube videos produced by Practical Farmers of Iowa.  You might see a familiar face in a couple of those linked there.  This post will also begin to give you an idea as to how widespread this issue has become simply by illustrating how prevalent use of agri-chemicals is in Iowa.  The video in the prior post includes some of the basics for dealing with drift when it happens.  The video that follows is actually the one I wanted to link in the prior post.  Ah, technology, it has a mind of its own sometimes!

What makes the situation worse is the fact that our current system in the United States is set up so that the burden of the process nearly entirely with those who have had chemical drift impact them.  If our farm experiences a problem, we have to identify it, we have to figure out who did the spraying, what was sprayed and how it was sprayed.  If we want speedy test results, we have take samples ourselves, send them to a lab and pay for the tests.  If we don't opt for this, we have to halt harvest in impacted areas until the slower test results from the Pesticide Bureau arrive (two months later the last time).  So, you either give up your crop waiting for results or you give up $500 per test sample to get quicker results that might still result in lost crops.  All of this results in lost income or cash outflow that may or may not be compensated at a later time.  The process is difficult with minimal 'reward' for the effort.  Not that we're looking for rewards here.  What I suspect most who have a drift/overspray problem want is not be sprayed or drifted on.

The next question should be "what can we do to change this system?"  Well, we need to be persistent.
In 2015, Iowa Farmers Union put forwards some legislation in Iowa that didn't end up going anywhere.  Our farm was one of those trying to promote some activity to work on this change.  Here is a letter we sent out to all of our customers and other interested parties.   Here is a bit more description for some of the legislation we were supporting at the time.  Unfortunately, the 2016 election results eliminated some of our best supporters in the Iowa Senate and House.  But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't still try impress upon our representatives that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed.

If you are interested in a post that lists some of my ideas for reasonable parts of a larger solution, check this one out.

I was wondering what kinds of equipment you most commonly use and the size of the equipment. I’ve seen huge tractors, combines, etc. but I can’t imagine that you would have a machine that big on your farm. To go along with that, how often do you get new equipment or do you do most of the daily labor yourself?

This is another example as to why I was motivated to make these blog posts.  The range of thoughtful questions was absolutely impressive.  I've been seeking motivation for writing and here it is.  I wouldn't be surprised if I returned to some of these topics in the future!

Rosie, the tractor.
You are correct, our equipment is a bit smaller than most of what you see in the corn/soybean fields in Iowa.  It wouldn't be unreasonable to be seeing 400 horsepower tractors with a typical row crop operation.  We, on the other hand, work with a 45 hp tractor that includes a bucket and standard 3-point hitch attachment.  We also have a walk-behind tractor and a lawn tractor.  There is also a retired Ford 8-n tractor (from the 1840's) that doesn't see much use anymore on the farm.

The size of the tractor makes it possible for us to maneuver in our fields without sacrificing the power we need to get our work done - and that's a big deal on our farm.  Fifteen acres may sound like a lot to some people, but given everything we want to do on it, finding the correct size for our equipment is very important.
Disk harrow

We have a number of tools that we can attach to the tractor.  I'll bring up just a few examples here.  The disk harrow was actually the motivation for retiring the old tractor and getting the new one.  While the old tractor could pull this piece of equipment, it struggled mightily.

A more important tool for our farm is the flex tine harrow.  The picture in this post that shows the flex tine also shows some black attachments on it that are called "squash knives."  I can take those on and off as I need them.

The first harrow is typically used to do the initial preparation of a plot on our farm.  The flex tine is used to cultivate crops that are already planted.
Flex tine harrow
Even with the equipment, there is still a significant amount of physical labor that goes along with the process.  One of the biggest puzzles for us every season is figuring out the best combination of equipment use and physical labor for the conditions we encounter.  This is actually a surprisingly big topic and I am not sure I do it justice elsewhere on our blog.

Ever year we tell ourselves that we don't want to add another piece of equipment on the farm.  We tell ourselves we have enough.  Every year, we seem to find ourselves making an investment in something else because we become convinced that the investment is worthwhile.  Sometimes, are wrong about this, but normally, we find out that we are correct.

Our farm is a living farm, which means it continues to change and adapt.  Some of those adaptations have come in the form of equipment so we can improve the efficiency of our labor on the farm.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Queue and A Again

The following is part of a series where Rob writes answers to questions provided in reflection pieces by members of Dr. Wen's Capstone class at UNI.  Part one is in the prior post on this blog.

Pesticide Free:
I learned how easily accidental spray seems to occur on farms and how much of an issue it seems to be causing throughout other organic farms. How much research have you put into these types of chemical pesticides/fungicides and so forth and how beneficial do you think it is to be pesticide free?

I was not surprised to get at least one question on the topic of agricultural chemicals.  And, as I read and find questions, I expect to see it again.  It is fair to say that I have done some significant research on the topic.  However, I will also readily admit that I am not the foremost expert on the topic.  There is still so much for me (and everyone else) to learn.  That said, here are some thoughts.

First, you need to know that there are chemicals and then there are chemicals.  All agricultural and horticultural chemicals have a "use label" that outlines the procedures for safe application.  I have written a short blog that explains what you can find on one of these labels.  It's really not that bad of a read, so I encourage you to view it.  Most chemicals used on corn and soybeans in Iowa are NOT rated for use on the kinds of crops we grow.  So, either they will damage our crops directly OR they will not be safe for human consumption.  In other words, we can't have those chemicals on our crops or in our poultry's drinking water, etc.  It's not about benefit here, it's about food safety and about plants and animals that continue to live and produce versus dead/unhealthy plants and animals.

Then, there are chemicals.  In this case, these are the chemicals that are rated for use on food crops.  These too, have use labels that need to be followed for food safety reasons.  So, if a person is a responsible grower, they will adhere to both the letter and the intent of the label for the best effects.  Chemicals are simply ONE TOOL in a broad toolbox that farmers might use.  My biggest argument is that we have misplaced the rest of our toolbox and reach for the sprayer for every situation without thinking about a better options.  The temptation to ignore labels is greater when it's the only solution you believe might exist for a given problem.  The result we are beginning to see is that this tool is becoming less effective with increasing herbicide resistant weeds and pesticide resistant insects and our skill for the other tools is fading.
Planting bushes in the buffer zone of the farm.

It's actually the over-use and over-reliance on these chemicals that has me concerned.  On our farm, we made the decision to try to illustrate that a farm COULD succeed without them entirely as a counterpoint to the normal approaches.  Since that time, we have done more reading and paid attention to research that is beginning to show additional risks with our overuse/misuse of chemicals in farming and in our cities/towns.

So, how beneficial is it that we are pesticide/herbicide/fungicide free in our operation?  It isn't so much beneficial as I think it is critical.  We need to keep alive and try to advocate for some of the other tools that are being neglected - and that's part of our purpose at our farm.

An American Way of Eating:
As a quick bonus, one reflection mentioned the UNI production of An American Way of Eating in 2013.  This was a project where students involved in this project came out to the farm and worked for part of a day to get a feel for what it was like to do the kinds of things we do.  They were encouraged to talk with both Tammy and myself as they worked.  While we can never be sure what someone else takes away from a farm experience, the feedback seemed to be positive.  All I can say is that the people were open-minded and willing to help.  That makes for a good experience from our points of view.

Optimism and the Future:

So, I ask you, are you optimistic about the future? My generation and generations that follow all speak about how we want to be progressive and how we want to keep our earth alive, but I constantly wonder if anyone is actually doing anything. We talk a big talk but I’m not sure we walk the walk. I have always been pessimistic when it comes to the environment and those who are in charge, and so I don’t see a bright light at the end of this tunnel. If you are optimistic about the future, what exactly is the change that you’re seeing that makes you optimistic?

I understand where this is coming from.  It can be horribly frustrating when it is so easy to tear something down and freakishly hard to build something up.  I will not lie, I have good days and bad days, probably just like the person who wrote this section in their reflection.  Here is where I land on this:

This is all a matter of choice.  Your choice.  If you want to read another post called A Choice of Litany, you will get a sense of some of the personal process I go through JUST for how I feel about our own farm and my own life as it interacts with the farm.  I am not being the eternal blind optimist who can't see when things are heading the wrong way - I question where things are going and I wonder if anything will make a difference.  In the end, I choose to emphasize those parts of the whole that show a path towards making a difference.
We have more monarchs on our farm than we did when me moved to it

Am I optimistic about the future?  I choose to be optimistic about the future, and I hope you will as well.  Because if both of us make that choice, then that's two of us who will be working to make things better.  Twice my effort.  I'm all for that!

How can we make things better?  We make things better by exercising the better parts of us every single day.  Every meal, ask yourself if you are making choices that promote better food systems.  If the answer is "no," start finding small changes that make that a "maybe."  Then, find more changes that make it a "yes."  Every day, ask yourself if something you are doing or have done could have been done better.  Then - do it better the next time or take steps to remedy a shortcoming in what you have already done.  Put yourself in someone else's shoes every day, especially when you hear yourself criticizing that person.  Find ways to give feedback without tearing down.  See something that isn't right?  Speak out, but do it with integrity.  Check and double check facts, find out if sources are reliable.  Then, when you speak, do it in a way that shows knowledge without belittling others who might not agree or know what you know.

Is it hard?  You bet it is.  Do I always succeed?  Of course I don't.  But, that's part of what makes it worth the effort.  It's a challenge that is worthy of all of us.

The writings I was privileged to read tell me that you are all capable of these things.  And that makes me optimistic as well.