Monday, February 23, 2009

Looks like you're stuck with us

I don't know if T wants me to put this out here - but I'm going to any way because I am extremely proud of her.

We just received a letter in the mail from the college she works at - and it is a good letter. Says something about being pleased and granted tenure and stuff like that.

As a simple (minded) farmer, I am mildly perplexed by all of this. Don't really know what it means. But, since the letter seemed to be saying nice things about T, that must mean it is good.

Well done and congratulations!

Friday, February 20, 2009

We're nuts...

But, of course - you already knew that.

We realize we aren't really all that big in terms of farms - or even CSA's. We have only five acres of vegetable plots and our entire farm is 14 or 15 acres (depending on the day and which number pops into our heads when asked). We have 93 CSA members signed up for this year.

Conventional farmers look at 14 acres and call it a 'hobby farm' and we are also aware of numerous CSA's that have hundreds of members. So, in the grand scheme of things - we're small.

But, in comparison to how we USED to think of things - this is big.

For example, we used to go looking for a new tree or a couple of bushes. Or, for that matter, we might consider a group of 25 bare root shrubs to give us a hedge line. That WAS considered a huge move.

So, what do we do now as a small project? We order a couple hundred bareroot trees/shrubs from the DNR. One hundred Nanking Cherries, 50 Hazelnut and 50 Norway Spruce. That's all. Thing is - this isn't the first time we've ordered from the DNR. Below you can see a two year old(!?) pic from one of our plots. In the foreground - you can see zucchini and summer squash. In the background, you can see our highbush cranberries and wild plums. they are twice that size now (the cranberries & plums - it's a wee bit too much to expect of summer squash and zucchini). I think we had 500 plants in that order.

Can't do anything small anymore.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

...and then a biting wind

Ah...I told you all the hard part was coming.

Little teases of warmer weather. Hints of the possibility of Spring. Promise for some weather to grow things.

Take that! Forty mile per hour gusts hitting us from the north-northwest and cooler temperatures have a way of quickly reminding you that you can't put the winter coat away just yet. And, it always surprises me how quickly I get UNUSED to the cooler stuff. And, this isn't nearly as bad as what we had earlier in the winter. In fact, I would have said this was pretty nice just a few weeks ago.

Guess I'll have to get over this and buck up.

But, it was nice to hear a robin singing in downtown Des Moines yesterday.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Smell of Rain

For the first time in a what seems a long time, we had that lovely smell that only comes when the weather is warm enough to waft the combined smell of earth, plant matter and rain. Temps were only in the upper 30's F, but it was evidently enough to give a spring like feel to the day.

Ok, granted - there is still snow, the ground is still frozen and all of this will likely turn to snow as the system works its way through. But, you have to give me that moment where I almost felt like I was playing hooky from weeding the gardens....

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Supply vs Demand Bowl

Nearly everyone is aware of the basic concepts of supply and demand.

But, the question here is - which one drives the other? Of course, I'm looking at it from the perspective of a vegetable farmer - so that can give us some context. And, it is ONLY a blog post - so don't expect to read this and pass your econ test tomorrow.

Demand takes an early lead.

I've had many growers indicate that they simply respond to what the market tells them to grow. If the newest thing showing up in food shows, etc is kohlrabi, they will increase production of that crop. Others are a bit more pragmatic and simply grow based on direct requests for new items and/or prior sales of things they already grow. But, in these cases, the producer will tell you that their crop decisions are largely based on an interpretation of demand.

What does this mean?

Positive take:
It means that every person who consumes food has a say in what gets grown, how it gets grown and where it is grown. If the producer base consists of a broad base that is waiting for market pressure - then the market pressure needs to be increased with demand for a quality product grown in a sustainable fashion.

Negative take:
Producers often are not willing to spend the time to promote things that are new and different - even if they could potentially do well with them. In fact, both producer becomes complacent and simply works to maintain or increase demand while they try to increase the supply of a less diverse set of crops. The consumer becomes complacent as they spend less time considering their options.

But, Supply makes a come back!

On the other hand, suppliers/producers have a responsibility that includes the education of those who make up potential demand for a product. Who else is more aware of the nuances of the product than the producer? We have to walk the fine line between education and propaganda to do this. But, a better informed consumer should be able to alter the demand to include a more diverse set of crops grown in more sustainable fashions.

In short - we all need to care enough to consider our options.

As a supplier of food - we need to take the time to continue to learn our job of growing food and educate the consumer as to their food choices. We need to be willing to innovate and take risks even if it means that we will not see immediate success in our first growing season with that new trial.

As a consumer of food - we need to take the time to learn how food is grown and who grows it - then make it clear that we want GOOD food. We need to be willing to take the time to put a little effort into getting our food and perhaps.....stop considering convenience to be the number 1 requirement?!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday Moment (or... good or bad teacher)

I had a Friday moment today. This is ok - because it IS Friday. A good teacher can be flexible and go with the flow. A good teacher can adjust to the needs of their students. (side note - this is the end of week 7 out of 14 weeks in the semester at my college - at a normal school, this would be a good time for a break. Our school is NOT normal, however. We take our break after NINE weeks.) A bad teacher gives in to student wishes too often. A bad teacher does not follow through and is inconsistent with assignments.

So, you be the judge. For today's class we were going to have a discussion on 5 different theorists using the jigsaw method. Students were assigned their theorist to research and were to bring that information to class today. Jigsaws really only work well if there are an approximately even number of students in each group. So, we start the class today with over 20% of the class missing, with two of the groups being especially hit hard by absences and only having 2 vs 6 group members. The activity won't work. So, what's a prof to do? I could lecture instead of discuss. Or, I could throw the plan out the window and let them out a half hour early.

Heck with good or bad, I opted for good common sense, and, of course, being a hero. Test next week. TF

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why is Eating Local Good?

I was just asked how eating locally positively impacts the environment. In answering such questions, I often find myself thinking....

All together now....

A dangerous pastime. I know.

As a result, I'm dumping a bunch of thoughts as to why eating locally produced food can be a good thing:

  1. If you buy from a farmer you know, you can express how you want that farmer to do their business. You have MORE influence over how local producers go about their job than you do if you have no idea who is growing the food.
  2. Eating in-season and local shows a tremendous reduction in fossil fuel use. Food typically travels an average of 1300-1500 miles to get to our grocery stores.
  3. People who have a more direct connection to their food, food producers and the land tend to be more aware of the environment.
  4. Promoting local food sources encourages diversified crops. Diversity is more environmentally friendly than monocropping (single crops in large fields). Diversity is a more stable agricultural system that requires less in the form of governmental supports.
  5. Food that is picked ripe - or at least closer to ripe. Which means better taste and better nutrition.
  6. Varieties that were developed for taste and nutrition, rather than for shipping and shelf-life characteristics.
  7. Local growers have a tendency to buy more product for their businesses from other local businesses.
  8. More outdoor summer jobs for people who would like them.
  9. A world wide system of strong local food networks is safer than a world wide system of shipping from concentrated centers. As a computer scientist, I know that a redundant system is one that can keep going with less apparent distress than a centralized one.
  10. More local foods means more local foods producers - which means another alternative for local business development that promotes healthy communities, environment and economy.
  11. And...because this list MUST go to 11.... A stronger local food system can actually mean greater diversity in the selection of foods that we all have. That doesn't mean you will be getting bananas from us any time soon - but there is more diversity in food product than most of us know about. We simply allow ourselves to have tunnel vision within the limited set provided in our grocery stores.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tomato Trellis Trials

Last year, we participated in a study sponsored by PFI and the Ceres Foundation to look at three different trellising techniques: cages, stake and weave and cattle panels. Unfortunately, the year was atypical for tomato production - so it is difficult to draw any real conclusions from the study. However, my curiosity is sufficient that I believe we will run our own trial again this season (without PFI and the other two farms).

The question is - what heirloom variety do we use this year for the trials. Last year it was Cherokee Purple. The variety tastes excellent, but is one we don't have the best success with on the farm. We'd rather spend the 60 plants it will take to do the trial on a different variety that we know tends to do consistently well for us. (never fear, we'll still grow Cherokee Purple - they are great tasting - just not 60 plants worth).

Candidates for the trial include:
Italian Heirloom
German Pink
Wisconsin 55

Our tomato variety page is here.

Requirements for choice as the variety to test are:
- a variety that we want the kind of production 60 plants can give us. In other words, we need the demand for that sort of tomato!
- indeterminate cultivar
- larger plants (indeterminate tends to handle that)
- sufficient production levels to perhaps show some differences by trellising method

German Pink may eliminate itself because it produces very large (wonderful) fruit - but not a huge number of them (about 13-15 per plant). Trophy and Wisconsin 55 are our workhorse red, intermediate sized tomatoes. There is always demand for moderate sized slicers. Trophy tends to hold on to its fruit better than the 55's. But, could the 55's be easier to keep up with using a method other than cages? Hm.

Our initial thought is to go with the Italian Heirlooms. Larger, 1 pound fruits start earlier than even the Trophy's and 55's. They are meaty, tasty and one of our favorites. But, would it be better to go with one of the other varieties?

We'll keep you informed. Any votes out there?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Now for the Hard Part

The last couple days have been wonderful -with temperatures well above normal for early February. There is a LOT less snow at the farm than there was just a little while ago. It's a good indicator of how long we've had snow cover when your brain keeps sending little alarm bells that things look very different when you walk outside.

Perhaps the nicest thing was all of the natural light we had yesterday (Tuesday). Even when I was working in the office, I felt everything was bright and cheerful. Not bad for someone who is as even tempered as I am (always mad).

Average high temps at this time are around 30 degrees Fahrenheit and lows are around 12. I suspect we're all going to have a difficult time accepting that after a few days of relative warmth. There's nothing quite like a couple of warm days, lots of snow melt and a good bit of sunshine to start making all of us expect (unreasonably) that we'll be running around in short sleeves and putting on sunblock in a matter of a few days.

Sorry everyone, I think we have a bit more winter to get through yet. In fact, it is not at all unreasonable to expect another two or three day long cold snap that puts us down below zero again. As a veg farmer, I might like to see another snow fall or two. Nothing horrible, just a little cover for the ground.

Regardless, it's time to start keeping your eyes out for your first robin. Many of them do not go as far south as you think and will show up on a sunny day as early as January if there's a nice microclimate by a building or some such thing.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Excuse me sir, but may I have more gruel?

If you aren't involved in agriculture, you probably missed this news story in November - despite its appearance on the front page in Iowa. And, I'm writing about it because I suspect many intelligent folk (read in - you!) are generally unaware of how these things work.

The November GAO report identified $49 million dollars that were given out between 2003 and 2006 for farm program payments to ineligible or inappropriate recipients.
  • eligible recipients must earn less than $2.5 million annually.
  • eligible recipients must be actively engaged in farming.
  • farm programs focus on commodity crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat)
Some of the identified recipients clearly have other primary occupations ( basketball franchise owner, insurance and financial service executives) and others reside outside of the United States - which makes it difficult for me to believe that they are terribly active in day to day management of a US agricultural operation. Yes, there are some problems with implementation for the FSA offices. BUT, I ask you how these people can justify taking this money in the first place?

I'll admit, this is a small percentage of the nearly $15 billion paid out annually for farm commodity crop support programs. However, take the information above AND the fact that 10% of the recipients receive 67% of the total payout. This makes it clear to me how this program impacts our nation's agricultural system. Small, non-commodity crop producers need not apply.

And, before you tell me that $49 million is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things - let me remind you that just $10,000 to small farms such as ours would serve nearly 5000 of us. That much money is enough to put a roof on a barn such as ours. Or put up high tunnels for extended local food production. Or put in reasonable cooling facilities for produce storage. Or help us to put up a wind turbine - or solar panels.

If we're going to put money into agriculture, why do we insist on putting it into a structure that encourages reliance on a price structure support? It doesn't increase the desire to innovate or pursue sustainable alternatives. All it does is encourage us to work harder to milk the highest yields of a limited number of crops for the highest monetary return. Then, we have to come up with programs (such as CRP - which I am not entirely against for other reasons) to encourage farmers to reduce production of those commodity crops.

Meanwhile, the bottom line (highest yield per acre) is bought at a cost that is yet to be fully realized. Why do you think so few of our farmers are willing to try to reduce tillage or spray levels? One factor is the simple fact that price supports like these can make innovation risks seem more costly than they are. All it takes is a little bit of misperception and alot of institutional bias and you leave our farmers with a very limited set of choices.

And... if there is one thing I am learning, it's to understand why people do things the way they do. That 10% that receives 67% of the payments are likely driving policy. That leaves 90% of the commodity crop farmers playing the game - in part - because they believe they have to if they want to make a decent profit.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Uninvited vandal

I saw a picture from someone who has a worse raccoon problem than we do! This was apparently taken in her KITCHEN! And we thought WE had a raccoon problem! The buggers tore up the barn last night - ripped a sack of lime pellets to shreds, scattered the lime (which is certainly NOT edible, so they were just being destructive), tossed around empty trash cans and dumped the cat's water dish. Luckily, we HAVE learned to keep chicken and cat food in WELL secured containers.

The photo comes from

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What do you miss?


We had a wonderful meal of baked whole chicken with barbeque sauce, broccoli, corn and milk.

The cool part. The chicken and broccoli were from our farm. The sweet corn from a local farmer. The milk and butter from a local farm. Only the barbeque sauce doesn't qualify for a locavore - guess we're going to have to start making our own.

The broccoli and corn were two things we froze last summer for use this winter. They tasted very good - but frozen or canned NEVER matches up with fresh from the garden.

So - what fresh garden produce are you missing right now?

R's Vote: Green Beans - so fresh that they SQUEAK when you chew them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Birds of a Feather

Both of us were able to attend the Cooperator's Meeting for Practical Farmers of Iowa on Thursday of this week (R went last year). It is, in reality, a two-day event. But, something about T having a real job precluded our being there for day two. Well, that, and the fact that there is much to do and less time to do it in.

Last year, GFF was involved in a tomato trellising trial project funded by the Ceres Foundation and coordinated by PFI. One result of this was the field day we hosted last fall. It is likely that we will be involved in some different research projects this year. One (or so) horticultural and one with respect to poultry. We'll keep you posted as we learn more.

However, the biggest benefit to us comes from the opportunity to see and converse with others who do things similar to what we do. It is a splendid opportunity to commisserate, share ideas and explore resources. Everyone in the horticulture group is just as interested in learning more as we are, which means we can discuss topics in some depth.

Perhaps the strangest things about being involved in groups like this is how your perceptions of the group, individuals in the group and your place in the group change. For example, there are members of the group that we identified early as those with experience and knowledge in the areas we aspired to enter. They are no less admirable now than they were then - but we find ourselves speaking to them as peers and are no longer shocked when they divulge problems in production that we once irrationally believed couldn't cause them grief. Instead, we have learned that many problems and issues will persist regardless of experience and prior successes. We are working as a group to continue to fill our tool boxes with strategies and processes that we can use. Each time I attend a PFI event, I come away with hope that we can...eventually...make a difference in how we grow things in this state.

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


T was good enough to find a YouTube cut of the Beauty and the Beast Disney animated movie with the song about Gaston that includes the wonderful lines:

You know, Lafou, I've been thinking.
A dangerous pastime.
I know...

Here it is - take this link.

And, speaking of pastimes - here's another that sometimes gets my attention. I'm a postal historian/philatelist and I'm slowly putting some things together that match our farming endeavors with the hobby. This one is a bit contrived - but it's pretty. The only thing I have to say about it is to put a bit of a DIG on the "Crops of the Americas" label. The truth - most of the pictured items were grown by Native Americans. In fact, squash, dry beans and corn were known as the 'three sisters' and are a wonderful example of early companion planting. It was also not uncommon to include sunflowers in the companion mix. However, the implication is that these are present day crops of the Americas - either not true in the forms shown here or certainly not on the scale implied here. At least they didn't do 'commodity crops of the Americas!"

We have seen a 100+ acre field of sunflowers and I will say that it was something to behold!

Then there's this 1890's advertising cover. It more than likely contained a personal correspondence since the addressee has the last name, Faxon - and it's addressed to a Hotel - indicating likely travel. If anyone knows if the Faxon squash strain still exists somewhere in the world, let me know. I don' t necessarily want to grow it - I just want to know - because I can't help myself.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In Need of Repair

I've been thinking (all together now)...a dangerous pastime.

Then, I happened to read something on those thoughts and then I thought some more. Think. Think. Think. (as a certain Milne character might say)

What are some of the biggest blocks for an increase in local food producers?

I can give you one. Health Care.

In fact, I think you could expand this into the category of - what stops many of our conventional farmers from innovating and trying new things? Health Care.

Before you think I'm posting on this because we're having difficulties, let me assure you that we are fine. Both of us are in good health and we do have reasonable health insurance. Why? Because, one of us works full time off the farm. And it is SOOO easy for people who have health insurance to not make this a priority issue.

And, there lies one of the key points. If you haven't figured it out yet - farming and growing food (at whatever level), is a full-time endeavor. Yet, if you want health insurance, someone in your family must work another full-time job. Add into this, the current levels of unemployment and the fact that many businesses would like to cut costs AND the higher rates for insurance. What MUST we conclude - it's time to reorganize our health care system.

And, while we're at it, let's find a way to stop penalizing local food systems to further our health network. Or better yet, let's make it possible for the healthiest foods to be delivered to our schools, hospitals, retirement homes and other institutions that are key to the health of people.

Let's fix this people. Are you busy? Yes? Do something anyway.

Look at this information provided by the Center for Rural Affairs. Towards the bottom are several models for solutions. I am not advocating at present for any one of these - just that we must see progress. There's been talk - and no effective action.

You may also find food for thought at the Access Project. The Access Project is a result of some of the work at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Once again, I'm not advocating a specific solution - but we need to be pushing to get one.