Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Confidence Builder

Something I said to Tammy a couple of days ago just might be the turning point we need on the farm for this season.  I said something to the effect of, "I'm not letting this season beat me.  We're going to come back next year.  And, if we're tired of farming after that, or we can't figure out how to turn this around, we'll know we gave it our best shot and I can be content that we did what we could."

The sun is setting on this particular season
A couple of posts prior to this one on the blog found us feeling a bit less certain about our future at the Genuine Faux Farm.  You can certainly find similar sentiment at various points since we started this blog post in 2008.  After all, farming is very much a bit of a roller coaster ride all by itself.  If we were to portray it as anything other than that, you would receive an inaccurate picture and I think that would be a mistake.  We put many of our posts out here because we want to facilitate learning.  If we were to paint a picture of perfection, it would be a lie and if we paint a picture of abject misery and failure all the time it would be a sign that our lives need a new direction.

It Stopped Raining
The first thing that significantly helped me to thing more positively was the appearance of the sun.  It is absolutely amazing to think about the number of days we went without seeing it AT ALL.  On the other hand, it is interesting how Mother Nature decided to terminate that cycle of dreary and wet days.

Yes.  It decided to snow.  The official reading was one inch in Tripoli.  The first full inch of snow is more typical of mid-November than mid-October.  But, given the history of 2018's weather, it actually seems appropriate.  I was actually predicting that we would have a Halloween snowstorm, but I think this actually qualifies well enough.  I just had the feeling that some early snow was going to happen - and there it was last Sunday.

Fall Crops Are Historically Our Strong Suit
I took a couple of moments to remind myself that August through October is typically high time for crops and crop variety on our farm.  Yes, it is true that the Summer crops quickly dwindle in September (cucumbers, zucchini, melons).  But, we've also used our high tunnels to good effect to extend tomatoes, peppers and green beans most seasons.  Broccoli and cauliflower are often wearing their best clothing for us at this time.

Just like last year's cauliflower
In fact, our September CSA shares were actually still quite strong this season.  But, we saw how things were shaking out with the weather and we have seen significant losses.  October has been (and will continue to be) uncharacteristically weak for us.  And that is the key.  This is NOT normal for our farm.  And that is a reason to have hope for the future.

Better Results Are Only a Year Away
Last year was not our best season on the farm, though it did have a number of highlights.  We broke long standing farm records for broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.  We also set shorter-term records for things like cherry tomatoes and turnips.  Other crops did more poorly than usual (cucumbers and melons to name a couple) and we had continuing issues with chemicals and normal issues with weather and life as usual. 
Early reports on 2017 Winter squash was very good.
The point here is that we can have another chance at this if we want it and better results have occurred as recently as last year.  For that matter, we had some better results for some crops THIS year.  We've just been so overwhelmed with the difficulties the wet weather has presented us that we have trouble seeing that many of the tomatoes were looking pretty good up until the point things got wet in mid-August.  The broccoli was doing pretty well and we did harvest many beautiful heads of broccoli this season.  The sunflowers looked great, as did the zinnias.  And the apples?  They were fantastic.

It Isn't Because We Don't Know What We're Doing
Ok.  Ok.  You could argue that we don't know what we're doing if you don't agree with what we're doing.  That's fine.  In fact, I frequently criticize myself for how things end up getting done (or not getting done) each and every season.  But, we do have documentary proof that our techniques continue to evolve as we learn and that they have resulted in some decent results at least once in a while.
The early beans on the left look FANTASTIC!
What we need to recognize is that the game rules keep changing.  There has always been seasonal weather variability.  There have been droughts and floods, cold snaps and heat waves, etc etc.  It's the human tendency to want to shape, mold and control everything that is actually leading to more, not fewer variables for farming operations such as ours.  I believe that most people who work on the land have recognized for generations that humans can create micro-climates with things as simple as a hedge row.  It shouldn't be much of a stretch to recognize that billions of human beings living on this planet at the same time are going to be able to impact global weather patterns.

The point here is that between issues created by a changing climate and issues created by alterations in chemical applications by agribusiness, there are some harsh realities that growers are going to have to face.  One such reality is that we will continue to see an increase in lost crops every season.  Happily, a farm such as ours is able to replant many of our crops until the window opens up for a crop to be successful.  We just need to set ourselves up to be even more willing to terminate failures and try again.  We've had success before, we can have success again.  We just have to persist.

Building Confidence for Future Success
It is tempting to think that someone who has done something since 2005 has no need to build confidence.  After all, if our farm is still going in 2018, we must have had some success and surely there is no self-doubt. 
This is where I think humans often fall down.  We have this tendency to believe that any business, organization or service that has been around for five or more years has been around "forever" and we forget that while they might have more stability than newer groups, they still have struggles.  One struggle that is specific to farms like ours is the realization that there isn't really a magical point in time where it all "gets easy."  If you are doing things right (in my opinion) may parts of farming "get easier," but a good farm is one that is perpetually looking to improve.  And improvement is hard.

A season like this one, however, is more than just the trials of struggling to improve.  This one was a gut check that shook even the parts of the farm that we felt had 'gotten easier' for us.  That is why we are taking time now to plan for 2019 before the lessons of 2018 have any chance to fade.  It is also why we are looking to prior success to build confidence that we can do again what we have done in the past with one difference.

We intend to do it better.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Little Things

We recently had a group of students from Waverly Shell-Rock at the farm and it was interesting to get a glimpse of what the farm looks like through the eyes of others.  No matter how many times I give presentations or provide tour opportunities, I can still be presented with questions that make me pause and think a bit more.  One such question was a very simple one - "How do you know where each crop is?"  It's a great reminder to me that I take various landscape cues for granted and I don't always recognize that other people cannot see exactly what I do without a little guidance.  Another person asked me what "small" changes we had made that worked out well for us.  Rather than quibble with defining what a "small change" might be, I thought I would dedicate a post to some of the "little things" we have done over the years that had more impact than you might think.

August, 2008 on the farm.  Look!  We had rain then too!
Running Rows the Long Way
It doesn't seem like a big deal, but we made a switch on the orientation of our rows in our Eastern plots several years ago.  The picture above shows our rows with a North-South orientation.  Our plots are oriented East-West, so the rows essentially went the "short-way" on our plots.  We changed our row orientation to go East-West with the "long-way" on the 60' by 200' plots and it led to improvements in mechanization that has helped us to continue with the farm.

Sure, the short rows made it easier for weeders to feel a sense of accomplishment.  You can certainly finish 60 foot rows faster than 200 foot rows.  The short rows also provided more natural breaks for crop successions and crop variety.  But, if you run any sort of equipment, you spent an awful lot of time just turning around.  In the end, the simple idea of changing the orientation of rows in our plots may have had as much impact on changing our farming strategies as any other thing we've done on the farm.

July 2010, yep had rain then too.
These Are Not Show Gardens
The earlier versions of the Genuine Faux Farm leaned closer to obsessive gardening rather than horticultural farming.  We had visions of beautiful fields with easy to read signs so the flocks of people who would come to visit the modern marvel that was our farm would thoroughly enjoy the experience.  We even considered growing a 'show garden' that would highlight specific veggies in one plot.

I will grant you that there was nothing wrong with that plan if our goal was to provide more of an agri-tourism business versus what we actually ended up doing.  We also didn't have a good enough feel as to how much we could actually manage to do without being able to afford unlimited labor.  Everything looks doable when you plan it out during the Winter months.  But, when fields get too wet to work, or the delivery and market schedule eats up more of your time and energy than you thought it would...  Well, let's just say, you re-assess what your goals are.

Once we made the decision that we do not have the temperament to take the agri-tourism route (and our location probably wouldn't make that work anyway) we spent less time on things like cute little signs showing the pepper variety in a field that was flooded during a year where several hundred plants gave us seven peppers.  But, we also learned that putting together a decent operating farm is actually interesting to others and provides good learning opportunities in and of itself.  Once we got rid of the old attitude, we were able to figure out how to do what we do well - which usually results in some pretty good looking fields anyway.  We'll call that a win.  

Happy to get new chicken crates in 2011.
Sometimes Making Do Doesn't Make Sense
When we first started raising chickens for meat, we did not have our own cages for transporting birds to the "Park."  Initially, we would borrow a batch of old, patched wooden cages from a neighbor.  They hadn't been used for a while and they were in awful condition.  In some cases, the chicken wire was attached to chicken wire which was attached to the rotting wood of the remaining frame.  Usually, we would have to cobble together some additional repairs just to keep chickens in them.

We finally gave ourselves permission to look into and purchase new, uniformly sized crates for transporting.  Yes, it cost us some money to do this.  But, it really did not cost all that much in the grand scheme of things.  It is amazing how much savings in time and effort this simple acquisition has provided over the years.

Let's just use a quick example:  Each cage will hold thirteen to fifteen full-grown broiler chickens for a total of 100 to 120 pounds of weight.  It's dark, late and raining.  The two of you have to lift this crate up high enough on the truck to stack it on another crate.  If crates are uniform size, don't have various wires sticking out everywhere and do not threaten to fall apart when you lift them then life is good.  If we were still trying to use crates that were in poor repair and various sizes and shapes, we wouldn't be using them.  Why?  Well, we wouldn't be raising broiler chickens anymore.  It's just that simple.

Heirloom tomatoes at market in 2012
Not Returning Home With More Than Half

We are asked periodically if we are willing to return to farmers' market sales and our answer remains the same.  No.

This is not an indictment of farmers' markets in general, but it does highlight the limitations.  There is not enough of us to go around to spend the hours it takes to prepare, set up, staff the table, tear down and clean up for each market for the limited return we can get from the smaller farmers' markets in our area.

The table you see at left was our heirloom tomato offering September of 2012.  Frankly, the trays full of different types of heirloom tomatoes look pretty impressive to me (and there was more in the truck).  We even had lettuce and offered BLT specials.  And, we DID have several fine customers who purchased from us that day.  But, we still went home with more than half of those tomatoes after the market was done.  And this was not the exception to the rule.  You had to have plentiful product to get people to come to you, but there wasn't a chance that you could go home with an empty truck.

Simply put, if we wanted to move more product we had to try something else.  We could have gone to another farmers' market that was located in a larger city, but that didn't address the time consideration and still didn't guarantee that we wouldn't come home with significant amounts of produce.  And there you have it, an explanation as to why we pursue the types of sales we pursue at our farm.  CSA shares and other direct sales that are order based means we don't have to lug excess from the farm and then back TO the farm.  If there is excess on the farm, it can stay there and get processed or fed to the poultry without the extra travels.  In both cases, we get more value out of them without the extra expense of loading them into a truck twice.

Tyler finishes a gate at GFF in 2013
You Won't Believe the Good a Fence Can Do
Neither of us grew up on a farm and our backgrounds really didn't lend many opportunities to develop fence building and maintenance skills.  Thus, we were grateful to receive assistance from farmer friends when the hen pasture fence went up.  We just can't quite list all of the things that become easier once you have a good, solid fence in place.  It's enough to make you think that we would find the energy to put up some other fences that could be equally as valuable on the farm.  But, while we're much more certain about what we would need to do to put up new fences, they always seem to reside just below the last item on the VAP that gets done. 

It really shouldn't come as a surprise.  After all, putting up some good fencing requires some capital as well as a decent investment of time.  Argue all you want that you will have a net savings of time once the new fence is up.  But, if you don't have the necessary chunk of time to put the fence up in the first place, the point is moot.

That, and a fencing project won't really go all that well when any post hole you dig fills up with water immediately.  Given our current situation, we can't find the ground in some places because there is too much water already in the way.   So, I guess fence building continues to reside on the 'do this later' list.

 Don't Be Stubborn - Stake and Weave is a Fine Solution
All out with stake and weave in 2014
Many years ago, we participated in a research trial involving multiple trellising techniques.  One of those is called the Florida Stake and Weave method.  We found that this technique tended to be troublesome for us in our fields because the plants kept getting blown out of the weave.  You could argue that it was because we weren't particularly good at stake and weave and that wouldn't be completely unfair.  But, we actually weren't stubborn about stake and weave either.  We trialed it in different situations over time and eventually opted for square collapsible cages in the field and... stake and weave in the high tunnels.

It might be more accurate to state that the 'little thing' we are highlighting here is a willingness to keep trying something that has promise until that promise is realized OR it becomes clear that this is just not the right solution for us and our farm.  We have seen so many people give up on something after experiencing failure on the first try and we don't want to be that way ourselves.  After all, what makes us think that we can pick up a skill without any practice?

Giving Flowers Their Due
We've always had flowers on the farm and we have always had a good idea as to all of the positive things flowers could do as a part of our farming system.  But, growing flowers because you like them and think they're good is one thing.  Being committed to growing them because they are a critical component for making the farm a successful farm is something different. 
A re commitment to flowers in 2015
The natural follow-up question we get after we make that statement has to do with whether we sell cut flowers or not.  While we could certainly try to do that, I think people are missing the point here.  The flowers do NOT need the extra justification for their existence on the farm that flower sales would bring.  They bring value all on their own without requiring us to turn them into an additional enterprise. 

Like any other crop we grow, we have successes and failures.  Sometimes the weeds win.  Sometimes the wet weather wins.  And sometimes... the butterflies win.  Win or lose, we're going to keep playing this game and include flowers in the line-up.  Besides, if the only reason were because they make your farmers smile, that should be a good enough reason.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Looking for the Promise


It feels as if every day is a rainy day right now.  That isn't true and we know it.  We had some very nice days in early to mid-September and we awaited drier fields anxiously so we could get things done.  In fact, we did get a few things done.  Then, it rained some more.  And, a bit more.  Annnnnd... a bit more.  One morning we awoke with the understanding based on the weather forecast as shared by multiple sources that we should have a day without rain and we looked to the East and saw the light of a new dawn.

We looked to the West and saw.......
Clouds and a rainbow


Under normal circumstances, the relatively light rain shower that did, in fact, march right towards our farm, would not have been much more than an inconvenience.  In this case, it felt very much like a betrayal.  Isn't a rainbow supposed to be a promise?  Don't we usually associate the promises of a rainbow with positive things?  Then what was the promise of rain doing on our 'positive promise list?'   After all, we've seen this sight on the farm multiple times now this year:
October 1
Because we run a working farm, we can't just go inside and ignore the rain and water.  That used to be the case when we both worked off-farm jobs.  So, we remember what it was like when the consequences for extreme weather seemed so much less personal in nature (as long as you were not directly impacted by a flood or tornado of course).  Constant rains would be a staple of conversation, where you could roll your eyes and say, "Oh great!  It's raining again" and pretend that it had a 'real' consequence for your life.  But, the reality is that the biggest losses were cancelled baseball games, some dampness in the basement or an outdoor gathering being moved indoors.

But this?  This is a daily slog to get food to the poultry flocks.  It's losing boots in the mud and desperately trying not to fall on your can while you try to get your foot back in the boot.  It's about watching hundreds of tomatoes rot and numerous other crops drown.  It's a situation where we actually have to think carefully about what equipment we should even consider getting out to do work because we don't want to permanently tear up pathways or fields.  Caleb nearly realized this the hard way recently when he took the lawn tractor to help haul water to birds (yes, we do see the irony in that).  He doesn't usually do that job so he wasn't as aware as Tammy and I are as to what paths are safest to take right now.  It was a near thing, but he managed to NOT get stuck.
We know we have been dwelling on the excessive rains in our blog posts and in our email newsletters and we DO apologize for that.  The reality is that this has been an exceedingly difficult year for us at the Genuine Faux Farm.  We continue to fight chemical spray issues and we have continued to see a decline in demand for what we do with our CSA farm share program.  Other sales outlets seem tenuous or fragile to us right now, which leaves us wondering why we should be so upset about crop losses (except we know that the failure to have these crops contributes to the problem).  The rains only seem to be mirroring my own attitude for what we do at the farm right now. 

So, here we are.  Looking for a promise that makes sense to us.  We could just accept a 'promise' that is less than promising or we can look for the opportunities that are hiding behind the persistent rain clouds.  It's at this point in the blog that we should turn this therapy session away from "woe is me" to "I'll take that promise and raise you some determination."  But, I am having a difficult finding it this time around.

In most blog posts that we've written that explore difficulties on the farm, we cycle back to the good.  We show a beautiful picture and say, "look, everything is fine we've got this!"  And, I will say that we have every intention of making it through this and working it out.  But, there is also value in sharing the struggle.  We KNOW there are worse things than what we are experiencing here.  We are fully aware that we are lucky to be who we are and to have the resources we have (friends, family, supportive customers, etc..).  We are grateful for the kindnesses and support we have gotten - so please don't take this posting as a rejection of that  either!

Perhaps the blessing this time around is a chance to look harder for the promise, whatever it ends up being.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Perseverance

I am privileged to have been able to travel with Tammy to some interesting places and I am still able to revisit some of those places with the pictures we took while we were there.  Some of the photos that mean the most to me rotate as the background image on my computer.  There are sunset pictures, flower pictures and other neat images of the farm as well as photos of waterfalls, waves and...  trees.

Tree at Holman Vista in Oregon
This image was the first one selected by my computer this morning.  I don't know if it is a particularly good photograph based on artistic criteria, but I like it.  Perhaps that is partly because I can feel myself being transported back to the moment I hit the button to preserve the image I was seeing.  The temperature was 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Tammy and I now refer to that temperature as "Oregon" since that was roughly what it was during most of our outdoor exploits while we were there.  It was cloudy most of the time with the threat of impending rain (unless it was actively raining).  In other words, just about what it has been like this morning (and many recent days) on the farm.

The only thing missing this morning was the strong wind that we experienced while we were at Holman Vista.  The wind there was normal, given the fact that many of the older trees had shapes similar to this one.  The consistent, prevailing winds discouraged tree growth that went into the wind and it was obvious that this tree had lost many branches over time.  Yet, this tree continued to live (and grow) in a difficult situation.  Clearly, this is not the shape it would have had if its life were less difficult.  And, if this tree hadn't been shaped the way it was, I doubt I would have decided to take this particular photograph.  The continued success of this tree, despite difficult conditions, is attractive, yet somehow bittersweet.  I view this photo and find that it is reassuring and disconcerting at the same time.  This tree encourages me and discourages me.  It teaches me the values of perseverance in the face of adversity.

Monday, October 1, 2018

October Newsletter

The Perils of Paucity
Nothing like a very difficult month to make a person eat their own words.  Our opening title for the September newsletter was "The Perils of Plenty."  And, we did, in fact, seem to have plenty of produce.  Certainly, there were some things that weren't going the way we wanted, but really didn't expect a wetter than normal August and its trials to lead to a record setting amount of rain in September.  To top it off, it looks like October is going to start with a front parked over the northern half of Iowa and the rain chances continue.

The photo at right shows one of the few times in September that we had a nice sunny day AND the fields were workable.  Caleb and I took some of that time to weed and clean up around the late planting of broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco.  There is still a chance these crops will produce for us and we have done (and will do) all that we can to help them out.

There were some significant crop failures as a result of the heavy rains and standing water on the farm.  The outside tomato crops declined rapidly and looked like they usually do in late October, not mid-September.  The newer plantings of turnips, spinach, beets, radish, mustard greens (etc) essentially drowned.  A quick look yesterday showed maybe a half dozen radish and a couple dozen beet plants still alive.  That's it.  To give you perspective, a planting of radish usually consists of 1000 plants.  The crash in production will be putting a dent in our anticipated end of year farm income.  This year may well be the worst we've had since 2010 for struggles on the farm.  For those who do not remember or did not know, that was the year we came within a whisker of calling an end to the Genuine Faux Farm.

The hardest part of all of this is fighting through difficult conditions and remaining motivated to get things done at the farm.  It's an attitude thing - and we know it.  So, per the norm, we cope with difficulties by accentuating the positive.  We are better prepared, have better tools and our experience certainly counts for something.  One positive is that we are able to start working on field clean-up much earlier this year.  We have managed to pull in our winter squash harvest and our planning for 2019 is already ahead of schedule.  We passed our organic inspection with flying colors yet again and we are fully aware that we have gotten some harvests this year simply because of some of the adjustments we have made to handle wetter weather. 

Veg Variety of the Month
There are few crops that allow a grower to make in-season adjustments more than lettuce.   Our philopshy this year has been to "just keep planting" the lettuce - even when some of those plantings are doomed to fail.  One new variety that has shown some definite positives for warmer season production is Bergam's Green.  We're pleased that our High Mowing seed representative, Paul Betz sent this one along for us to evaluate.  Nice call, Paul, we like it.



Weather Wythards
September kicked us off with five days of rain and it is leaving us with rain.  We have had two and a half days where the soil was NOT mud during this month.  To say that it has been difficult getting work done would be quite the understatement.

September's Report
High Temp: 92 (actually 3 degrees warmer than August's high)
Low Temp: 32 (20 degrees cooler than August's low)
Heat Index High: 99

Highest wind gust: 29 mph out of NW
Rain: 14.66" (6+ inches more than August)
Barometer Range: 29.48-30.30

For those who are curious, the average rainfall for Tripoli in September is 3.11 inches.  According to KWWL Waterloo set a record for most rainfall in ANY month this year during September.  Our rainfall actually exceeded the rainfall recorded in Waterloo.  We must be special!

Year Through August
High Temp: 97
Low Temp: -20
Lowest Windchill: -34
Highest Heat Index: 119
Highest Wind gust: 46 mph
Rainfall: 44.85"
Barometer Range: 29.39 to 30.89

The rain thus far on October 1 has put us well past the 45 inch mark for the year.  The record for a single year is 53+" in Waterloo.  We are hopeful that we will come no where near that mark this year!

Song of the Month
Switchfoot's Faust, Midas and Myself has long been a favorite tune of ours and we think it is appropriate at a time when we might be tempted to be dissatisfied with our life the way it is now.


Picture of the Month

The hen flock has been stuck in the northwest pasture since the rains began because we just cannot risk getting the tractor stuck while trying to move their building.  Of course, every other location has been equally wet, so moving them wouldn't really do much for them.  The picture at left was taken just after their shelter door was opened for the day.  The hens were not terribly certain they wanted to get out of their dry building on this particular day.

What Happens When One Is Uninspired for a Newsletter?
Well, you get what you have a here.  We'll find reasons to write as the month progresses, not to worry. But, we'll give you a very short summary about farm happenings here:

  • Turkeys are available for reservations.  The Great Turkey Pickup for 2018 will be on October 25.  If you want a turkey but cannot pickup at that time, this does not eliminate you from buying one of our birds!
  • Broiler batch number three will be taken to the park on October 28.  We do have birds from batch #2 still available.
  • We continue to collect a decent number of eggs from our flock and we sell/deliver each week in Waverly on Tuesdays and Cedar Falls on Thursdays.
  • The Farm Share CSA continues with Waverly/Tripoli delivery on Tuesdays and Cedar Falls on Thursdays (wow! same day as above!  Wonder why?)  The Traditional 20 will be completed the third week of October.  The Whole Enchilada, Traveler 20 and Alternating will continue to Thanksgiving as crops allow.
  • We intend to offer farm shares again in 2019.  We will be modifying the program significantly in hopes that it will better meet the needs of our customers and deal with the requirements of the farm and farmers.  We will begin taking reservations for 2019 on October 10 of this year and will take them until we are full or the season begins.
  • We are scheduled to host a Waverly Shell-Rock schools group this week at that farm this week.  Rob is tentatively scheduled to speak to a class at UNI this Fall and to give a tour to a Wartburg College class as well.
  • Our final Gang of Five farm work day event for the year will be held this month at Wabi Sabi Farm in Granger.  We're incredibly fortunate to be involved with this fine group of people.
  • Just a quick reminder that the Genuine Faux Farm is periodically featured on Iowa Ingredient episode for preparing duck.  Demand for duck has been insufficient for us to continue raising them, so we do NOT have duck or duck eggs for sale.  If this makes you sad, the best thing to do is to get a bunch of interested people to commit to buying a certain number of ducks.  That is the easiest way to get us to return to raising duck for interested parties.