Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Look in the Mirror - 2017

We try to create a "year in review" type of post every January and we succeed - sometimes.  Last year, we did just fine, using the 'original' idea of using a by the month approach for 2016.  The year prior to that, we used the 'original' approach of doing our 2015 year in review and posting it in September of the following year (oops).  And, in years prior to that, we succumbed to ye ole Top Ten List for our year in review.

This year, we actually produced for ourselves a schedule of "year in review" posts that can be found in our January Newsletter.   We're actually going to meet our self-imposed schedule and get them out there on time.  I know, it's amazing and fantastic - but we won't let that go to our head now, will we?
onions and lettuce just getting started in 2017
Saying Good-bye to Things We Have "Always" Done
When I first started looking at doing this post, I was having difficulty trying to figure out what to highlight.  It's a normal product of working day to day on the farm.  If you are submersed in the environment, it is amazing how quickly you begin to accept a major change as the "new norm."  Then, I realized that last Winter we were making some very difficult decisions that led to some significant differences in how the Genuine Faux Farm operates.

Perhaps one of the biggest decisions was to remove ourselves from the Waverly Farmers's Market entirely.  We realized this was the correct decision when it seemed as if people didn't really notice that we were absent from the Saturday market until they ran across us at some other venue on a Saturday morning.  A corollary decision was to cease the early season plant sales that we had been doing since our farm started in 2005.  We still raised plants for people who pre-ordered from us, but we did not grow an "additional couple thousand" plants for sale to customers.  The net result is that we "re-acquired" many hours of labor for use on doing a better job on the farm at the cost of an acceptable income loss.  In fact, the net result for us in labor savings was better for the bottom line.

We also restructured our CSA program in an effort to serve the changing needs of our customers and our potential customers.  By the time we reached October, we were so immersed in the new system we almost forgot this was the pilot year for the new system.  The good news here is that there actually WAS a reduction in management required by us by adopting the changes we did.  The bad news is that it did not really prevent membership from continuing to decline, but it does appear that the decline slowed.

There was one theme that led us to all of these changes - the desire to find our balance once again.  Certainly some of the motivation for change had an origin in maintaining a reasonable success in running the farm business.  But, most of the drive for adjustment came from our need to stay healthy in body, mind and spirit.  The old processes were no longer serving us for where we are in our lives.  Rather than walk a path that led to discontent and resentment, we took a leap or two in other directions.

Iowa Ingredient came to our farm in 2016 to feature our farm and Muscovey ducks used for meat and egg production.  We had raised duck for several years, even doing some PFI sponsored research on duck breeds.  Sadly, the cost for raising duck and the relatively low demand in our area led us to the decision to only raise duck if we received sufficient pre-orders.  We didn't actively pursue those orders and we did not raise ducks in 2017.
Not going quackers so much in 2017
Perhaps we will return to raising Muscoveys in the future.  But for now, we periodically bask in the irony that our farm is featured in re-runs of the Iowa Ingredient show featuring duck production and preparation.

Pesticide and herbicide drift issues are the number one challenge our farm has at this time.  You could argue that the weather is actually the number one challenge and you would have a point.  However, we agreed to deal with the weather when we signed up to farm.  We did not sign up to deal with the misapplication of chemicals by others in the state.  Rather than let this topic over-ride everything else that is here, we will simply acknowledge that it is there and move on.  There will certainly be other posts that deal with this topic in the future.

Celebrating Consistency In a Year of Change
Our farm has been in operation since 2005 and you could argue that it really started during the Summer of 2004 since we did attend a few farmers' markets, but we did so without a farm name or a CSA program.  We celebrated our 1000th blog post this year and we estimate that we have now presided over 750-850 CSA distribution sessions since the farm started (no, I am NOT going to carefully count that!).
Red Express - consistent producer of small red cabbage
We continue to find a way to get a wide range of crops to produce enough that our CSA customers can't usually tell if we're having a bad year with any particular crop unless we tell them about it.  While we're at it, we can still manage to set new records for production as we did for broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage this past year.  Experience does have a pay-off it seems.

Speaking of Pay-Offs
Rosie the tractor is now entirely ours!  Our final yearly payment was made this past Spring after her initial acquisition in 2014

Rosie is now completely part of the family.

Renewing Commitments to Local Resources
The more I look at 2017, the more amazed I am by the number of changes we made in one season.  Another fairly major change was to move to using poultry feed from the Canfield Family Farm near Dunkerton.  The Canfields are working hard to get away from the pervasive 'commodity-based' agriculture you find in the state of Iowa.  A big part of their effort to take their destiny into their own hands is to use their own crops to make feeds.

We often talk about how we want agriculture to change in Iowa and this was one way we could put our money where our mouths are.  If we want farms being run in ways that support local economies, work reasonably with the environment and provide opportunities for farming families then this change made a great deal of sense.  The Canfields are close to us and we like what they are doing.  It's a good change.

We also continue to take our birds to the "park" at Martzahn's in Greene, we buy about 40% of our veggie seeds from Seed Savers in Decorah, we get our seed starting mix from Iowa businesses and we have acquired trees, bushes, etc from K&K in Hawkeye, Cannon's in Westgate and Tiedt's in Waverly.  We like to do business as close to home as we can and 2017 was a good year to review and renew that commitment.

Praise for the Helpers
We can usually find help for the farm most Summers, but we don't often have the opportunity to have returning workers.  This year, Emma and Caleb returned for a second season of weeds and veggies and Jocelyn joined them, each a vital part of the group.  When you have three quality people working on the farm consistently, everything just goes more smoothly.  We can even have a little fun listening to Bohemian Rhapsody and dealing with 'garden zits' (that's Colorado Potato Beetles if you want to know).

Watch out, there might be horned, fanged bats!
We were pleased to have interested and genuinely helpful groups from Wartburg Service Trips join us in some Spring tasks and Mrs. Borglum's Waverly Shell-Rock High School group came out and helped for part of a day as well.  And we had excellent help from many of our members in set up and clean up for the Summer Harvest Festival.

Then, there is Bryan.  We have a walk-in cooler and a portable hen building because this man likes these sorts of projects.  This is yet another instance where the farmer learns that it could actually be a good thing he can't get everything done himself.   If he could, he would not have had the opportunity to interact with each of these quality individuals who have come to help on the farm.

Incremental Improvement vs Delayed Perfection
Ohhh!  That's why it's called S-tine.
Every year we make adjustments to how we do work on the farm.  Each season we improve in some way and we work to avoid taking steps back as we make changes.  It can be difficult to explain some of these efforts to those who are not involved in day to day operations, but we will still give it a try!

The addition of the walk-in cooler space is a huge improvement that is still on-going.  One reason why it is a big deal - Rob did not have to haul several tons of produce down the slippery stairs into the basement of the house (and then back up again to make deliveries) once the weather started turning too cold for produce to stay in out-buildings.  We have nothing against exercise.  We still pick up and move produce regularly, so there is still lifting and movement going on.  The main difference is that it is now reasonable and MUCH safer.

We have tried to use our S-tine harrow in our fields in the past, but we always found it to be wanting for one reason or another.  Often, the issue was a maintenance thing.  Well, we got it figured this year and we were quite pleased with how it keeps the wheel paths clean in certain fields.  We continue to improve our tool set and we are always getting just a bit better using the tools we have.

We even made more changes to our field configurations this year.  It's official, we're removing a field that has given us troubles over the years and changing its purposes.  We expanded another field to get it closer to the size of the others and started preparations for another new production area.

Off Farm Adventures
On the shore of the Georgian Bay
The farmers even got off the farm a few times this past year.  Rob and Tammy took a trip in July to Minnesota to visit Tammy's family and to allow Rob to place his postal history exhibit in a competition.  The visits were enjoyable and the exhibit won the Reserve Grand Award (essentially 2nd place overall).  Rob was also invited to speak at the EFAO conference in Ontario, Canada.  We were blessed with beautiful weather during that visit and were able to take a moment and enjoy some wonderful waterfalls.

If you recall, one of our themes for renewing ourselves this year was to refind some balance between the farm and the rest of our lives.  We're still working on improving in that area, but these instances of off-farm adventures provide some evidence of our efforts.

Weather Wythards

And yes, there were weather events.  We gave some farm statistics in our January newsletter for 2017, but we can give a bit more summary here.

The growing season started with much less sun than we're used to getting.  As a result, our high tunnel crops were very slow getting out of the gate.  They eventually got going, but it did cause a little stress for the farmers, who wanted to start things out right for our Whole Enchilada share holders.  Then, we hit the active May period where we had to deal with high wind gusts more than once in the Tripoli area (with three such events in one day from three different directions!).  The highest wind gust was estimated to have been around 70 mph.

Jocelyn had boots on the the rain.
Overall, we had a wetter than average year (40.58 inches of rain vs about 34" average) and it was actually a bit cooler for us during what we would say is some of our peak growing period.  And, of course, we had that ridiculous rainfall in July while Rob and Tammy went to Minnesota.

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