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


  1. Hi Rob! I am one of the UNI students that got to listen to your presentation. I find this topic very interesting and loved learning more about it. I am definitely a people person, so I love the idea of having interactions with the people selling and knowing where my food is coming from. Right now, as a college student only feeding herself, I wonder if I would be your targeted customer? I am a very picky eater and from what I understood at your presentation, each person gets a little of everything that you picked that week. Is this correct? Do you ever sell certain fruits and vegetables separately or do you just have the one model? I think that someday I would like to buy fruits and vegetables from your CSA or a similar one. I admire that you can say that there really is not a solution for the convenience factor yet. That, along with price, is my number one reason for buying where I do. A lot of the times, I am just barely squeezing grocery shopping into my schedule. Do you think there will be a time where you could grow your business into having more time (people) to open up an area with more accessible hours? Thank you for visiting our class! I find this subject very education and I look forward to hearing back from you.

    1. Hello Kristin,
      Sorry I missed this comment earlier!
      This is certainly a two-way street. There are things we can do to help people like you out and there are things you can do to make it possible for someone like us to be your farmer. We have problems when neither of us believes we have any responsibility to meet somewhere in the middle. In 2019 we are making a change that might address some of your concerns. We are doing a combined CSA and farm credit program where you will get CSA shares from Aug-Dec but can apply additional credits earlier in the season (and throughout the season) for produce you want. Many CSA programs are looking for reasonable ways to be flexible for their customers. But, remember, we can't be a grocery store and a grocery store cannot be us. If you would like to discuss this with us directly, we can see if we can find a way to accommodate each other. Or, who knows what the future holds, you may find that farm that matches you perfectly. Best, rob


Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.