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.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Queue and A

I was given the opportunity to speak a group of fine people in Dr. Wen's Capstone class at the University of Northern Iowa.  I thoroughly enjoyed talking with them and was reminded by their responses that the willingness to share, listen and respond thoughtfully is not a lost art.  I recently received the gift of feedback and additional questions from this group and I hope to provide timely responses in a series of blog posts that might continue a useful dialogue.

I took a moment and tried to 'snip out' segments in reflections that contained questions or had points that might bring out some interesting discussion.  I will periodically link in another blog post that already exists here.  Feel free to read it - or not - your choice.

I'll try and respond to something from each person over a series of posts.  I will not credit the questioner to maintain anonymity since I don't have their permission to post their names.   Anyone who wants to join in the discussion can respond in the comments below.  Observe common sense rules for respectful response and we'll all be good to go.

Natural Insecticides:
I think natural insecticides are interesting and I think it is a very clever way to assemble your garden. How long does it take to figure out these natural insecticides? Does it take multiple years or do you research new plants before you plant them? Do you make a game plan of where you are going to plant each one?

We do create plans every season on our farm that consider, among other things, how pests, pollinators and predators might react to our planting plan.  In fact, planning is one of the most important aspects of our farm, though this blog post concludes that there is an even more important job that the farmer does.  The simple answer is that we have daily work plans, weekly task plans, monthly project plans and yearly growing plans.  All of that is a part of a three to five year whole farm plan.  This much planning might sound a bit excessive to you (and maybe a little nuts), but it actually saves us time and heartache in the end.

2017 was a great cabbage year at GFF (despite the rabbits)!
Let's make it a little easier with a quick example.  I know from my own farm experience, from historical record, and research reports that intercropping with cabbage is a good idea.  I also have information that tells me it isn't wise to plant potatoes or tomatoes adjacent to these crops, so I wouldn't choose them to be an intercrop companion for my cabbage.  I start with that knowledge to come up with a rotation for several years, so I don't plant similar crops in exactly the same place from year to year.  That plan tells me what goes into each plot, so it is then up to my yearly plan to figure out exactly WHERE in each plot my cabbage will go and what sorts of crops or other plants I will put next to them.  As the season progresses, I make adjustments based on current circumstances.  The first batch of cabbage plants were eaten by rabbits right after transplant - now we have to make an adjustment!
Garter snakes - another good pest control measure.

It can take a long time to figure out if a particular pairing of plant types actually does anything at all.  And, if you really want proof, it can take years of carefully designed and replicated research projects to conclusively show anything.  That's where it helps to look at historical growing records and writings by farmers who came before me.  It is absolutely amazing how much help can be found in writings from decades (and centuries) prior to our current time. 

Just to make it more difficult, every year is different and every farm has different variables.  So, it makes sense to learn best practices and then find out how to adjust them to a particular farm or season.  In other words, it takes a whole lot of learning!  But, that should not stop anyone from taking the first steps and using general knowledge to their advantage.  In fact, we keep hoping that more funding will be made available to study intercropping as a pest control option.  There is a great deal we still have to learn.

Regional Differences in Sustainable Farming:
When thinking about questions to ask you after class, I could not stop thinking about how sustainability may
change in different parts of the country. For example, if an organic farm was placed in the middle of New York City or in the Rocky Mountains, how much or little will each three factors (environment, community, or profitability) affect the farming industry?

If someone asks me why I am bothering with these blog posts, I'll point them to these three questions as a starter.  They were the first three I read and the topics are vastly different!  All three people were at the same presentation and they each came away with something different.  This, all by itself, makes me happy that I participated.

The environmental component would be the most obviously different if you move to different parts of the country.  As you go West, finding sufficient water for crops and livestock becomes a larger issue, which means conservation of that resource becomes extremely important.  Any land with a grade (hills, mountains, etc) is going to increase the worry about soil loss due to water erosion while flatland with no shelter will have increased pressure to address wind erosion.  In short, the surroundings dictate the priorities of environmental stewardship that a farmer must consider.  At our farm, we have come to believe that protection of our pollinators may be our biggest and most important challenge.
It's difficult to find flatter land or better soil than where we farm.

Community considerations take a little more thought on my part.  I am tempted to say that it might be easier to build a supportive sub-community in areas where the population is more dense.  However, that is balanced by the peril that the rest of the surrounding community just might decide that your farm isn't wanted where it is.  Martin and Atina Diffley lost a multi-generational family farm to suburban development in Minnesota. 

Profitability differs from farm to farm, even in the same region.  But, from the wider view, costs to farm as we do are typically higher in denser populations.  Similarly, we could charge a good deal more for some products if we had more access to a larger and more affluent market.  In the end, it is simply important that a farm finds a way to 'set prices' rather than 'take prices.'  If you set a price, you can do your best to charge what is needed to cover expense and earn what you need.  If you take a given price, you abdicate control and are much more likely to fail.  Another issue is the availability of resources that the farm needs.  We are lucky to have a seed company in Decorah (Seed Savers) and another in Albert Lea (Albert Lea Seed Company) that we can patronize.  But, where do we go to get equipment that is sized for our farm? 
Nolt's is located about an hour north of our farm.
Ah, so that isn't as much of a problem either for us.  But, distance to needed resources does impact the economic portion of the farm.  We very much prefer to find sources as close to us as we can get.  The personal connection to suppliers actually helps us put our suppliers into the 'community' part of our sustainability plan, which strengthens two parts of the three-legged stool.

How Community Sees the Genuine Faux Farm:
Another question I have is regarding the way people see your farm in your community. Does your community see your farm as an asset, or do they see it in a different way? 

A picture at our farm by one of our customers
I was initially at a loss as to how I should answer this question.  In a way, it's a good question that maybe we should be asking ourselves more than we have up to this point.  Let me ask you this: would you really want to hear what people would say if you asked them "How do you see me?"  I am guessing your answer would be both a 'yes' and a 'no.'

We do ask our customers for feedback on a frequent basis and we are occasionally granted candid and useful responses.  Sometimes we are given positive feedback that encourages us to keep doing what we do and other times we are given a useful criticism that allows us to make adjustments and get better.  But, this is not really the crux of the question this person was asking us.  The question is really more this - "if someone who knew about your farm was asked their opinion of it, how would they respond?"

There are people that remind us that they see us as a positive presence.  When we needed help to put plastic on one of our high tunnels, this is what happened.  At a presentation I gave to a local service community I was surprised (and pleased) when our farm was introduced as "frequently giving to the community."  While we like to think that we try to do the right thing, I guess we usually don't think what we do is all that noteworthy - but we do what we can.  On the other hand, there are people in the community who have told us that we are intentionally causing discord in the area by simply making the decision to farm as we do.  Other individuals have indicated that we are naive to continue with a farm that requires so much effort with so little monetary return.

In other words, it's probably a mixed bag that depends on exactly who you ask and when you ask them.  I will also be honest and tell you that some of my opinions may not make some people happy with me, while others may suddenly think better of me.  But, that's not the game we are playing here.  I don't need you to like us or our farm, though it would be nice if you did.  We are certainly not looking to make enemies.  What I do need is for people to listen and work on being better and doing better when it comes to agriculture and food production/consumption.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

What It Looks Like When III

We have continued to post the wisdom of our Farm Supervisors on Facebook using the hashtag #GFFWhatItLooksLikeWhen.  We compile these posts into the blog once we reach about a month's worth and add some extra writing for your reading pleasure.  As has been the case for our first and second installments, we now provide you with a third blog installment of these posts for your enjoyment.

What It Looks Like When

This is what it looks like when the cat population wants to stage a protest.  They execute what is known as a "sit on."
Some few people may say, "hey, that one seems familiar!"  Ok, probably only ROB will say it sounds familiar because he used this picture and idea once before in a prior post.  If you need a laugh or three, go check it out!

Perhaps the irony of this particular photo is the fact that it comes from 2014 and as of this Spring, we have none of these fine felines at our farm any longer.  Cubbie, Mrranda and the Sandman were a pretty cool batch of farm supervisors and they provided us with multiple photo ops.
This is what it looks like when the farmer tells you the story about the florist friars AGAIN.
Bree puts up with a great deal as an Indoor Farm Supervisor.  Rob likes to test out his pun stories on her first to see what sort of reaction he can get.  The photo above is a pretty normal reaction from her.  Kind of a resigned, "why me?"  Usually, she can be pacified by a gentle skritch or three.
This is what it looks like when you know something they do not know (he's not left-handed either).
Hello, my name is the Sandman.  I didn't know my father.  Prepare to nap!

We were sorely disappointed by the Facebook response on this one.  While we do not live or die by the number of 'likes' or visits we get in social media, we figured we'd at least get ONE response that would further our Princess Bride references.  Alas, a chance for fun and general silliness was wasted.

Yes, that IS a challenge.  I dare you to use the comment section on this post.  HA!  We have an overdeveloped sense of ... well, something.

This is what it looks like when you blame the farmer for all of the puddles that make it hard to keep you sensitive paddy paws dry.
We make no bones about it.  Farmer Rob and Soup R Cali the Fragile Mystic tolerate each other, but that's about it.  If there is something wrong, Soup usually gives Rob a look that says, "THIS is your fault."  However, since she usually cannot be bothered to do much about anything, she leaves it at a look.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sights for Sore Eyes

Every month of the year on the farm has some aspect of transition from one thing to another.  You see, I noticed a pattern in our monthly newsletters that we have been putting out in this blog since early 2017.  Most of those newsletters starts with some opening that references the prior month and the new, upcoming month.  I have a tendency to highlight each month as some sort of transition and, on reflection, it's just a reminder that running a diversified farm, such as ours, means that we are in constant transition.
The garlic is IN!  Color the farmers happy.
The period from late October until Thanksgiving may be one of the most jarring transitions we have to experience.  This is especially true if the weather decides to jump past November into mid-December.

But, that's not exactly the point I am trying to make.

First, there are some very real, very solid deadlines that have to be met.  One of those deadlines is solid in a very real sense.  It's called frozen ground and frozen water!  Once the ground freezes, you have a pretty difficult time planting garlic.  Pulling out stakes or putting in stakes become much more difficult.  Hoses that have been out for use need to be drained or you are stuck with hoses that WILL snap if you try to move them.  Poultry that are out in the field need to be moved in so that you can keep their water unfrozen.

You can mulch garlic once the ground freezes, but planting it is pretty difficult.  It's also much more difficult to spread compost after it freezes.  So, the fact that we actually got our garlic in, composted and mulched in OCTOBER is a pretty big deal for us.  
A recent farm visitor took notice that our garlic was in.
That's a second point about this time of year.  We always have major projects that need doing.  If you ask me to define "major" I'll point to the following criteria:
1. The number of hours that project alone will require
2. The number of DAYLIGHT hours the project will require (we've got fewer of those right now!)
3. The complexity of the task.
4. The amount of stress the farmers feel UNTIL the project is completed
5. The size of the impact to our farm should we fail to complete the project by the "deadline."
6. The observable change to the farm once it is completed.

The garlic planting process clearly qualifies.  We had five different people involved over parts of two days.  The process included finishing trimming the garlic, splitting out the cloves, harrowing the field, raising the planting beds and doing a quick till in the planting area.  Once that was done we were planting the garlic, putting compost on the garlic and mulching the garlic.  But, the best way to measure the project is to assess how the farmers feel about life on the farm AFTER the project is done.

Ya, this farm isn't so bad after all.  Kind of like it, actually.  Why?  'Cuz, the garlic is in.  And compost is on.  And mulch is on.  Life is good.
Approaching the sunset of 2018.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about projects like this one is the potential for a complete reversal of attitude about that particular part of the farm.  The plot that now holds our garlic was the same one that had potatoes and beans this year.  Let's just say that this was NOT our happy place for 2018.  To be more specific, we purchased more pounds of seed potatoes than we harvested from the field.  Ya, lots of rain tends to make potatoes rot.  And, beans don't like it much either.

Suddenly, that particular field is a sight for sore eyes.  I actually like to go look at it.  Apparently this was a successful VIP (Visual Improvement Project).  Successful enough that I'm more willing to take moment to greet Bald Eagles in the Oak trees and observe the brilliant sunsets that sometimes occur this time of year in Iowa.