Monday, January 31, 2011

We have traveled faaaaaaar.....

(note: the title might be an oblique reference to a bad Star Trek movie...unless it is not)

The Winter months encourage dreaming about the future and looking back to see how far we have come.  So, today's blog post focuses on that AND on poking a bit of fun at ourselves.  Things that loom large in our lives, decisions that seem so difficult and tasks that seem insurmountable at the time don't look nearly so bad when we look back...

Lesson 1 - Invest in proper tools
In 2005, we had a riding lawn mower, a walk behind tiller and some hand garden tools.  We saw buying a shovel as a major purchase of tools for the farm.  I tilled nearly 1.5 acres with the walk behind tiller that Spring until it died an untimely death (for us).  It was our first lesson in properly scaled equipment.  It IS NOT a waste of money to acquire tools that are intended for the work load required.  In this case, we put a new engine on the walk-behind AND we purchased a tiller attachment for the lawn tractor.  Ok we didn't shoot very high on this one - but it was the beginning of a good lesson learned.

Lesson 2 - Adjust growing techniques to a new scale
The following year (2006) taught us that we were no longer home gardeners.  There are things that work if you are growing for yourself that do not when you have the responsibility of growing larger amounts for yourself and others.  For example - straight rows are actually important.  And, certain companion crops are not efficient enough for the grower to pull them off.  Case in point  - we knew onions and tomatoes were good companions, so we put our onions in between tomato rows.  This had worked when we grew a couple of rows of tomatoes and one row of onions, so it should have worked again, right?  Unfortunately, the companions were too close - so hand weeding was required.  There was much to more to weed than there had been in the past so the onions were soon buried in weeds.  We knew they were there, so we refused to till it under or mow it.  The result?  We lost most of the onion crop and reduced our tomato harvest.  What do we do now?  We interplant basil and carrots - with proper spacing to allow for access AND..... we apply the next lesson.

Lesson 3 - Know when to give up
It wasn't until 2007 that we fully realized that we were not just a couple of people with a very large garden.  Yes, yes - the hints were there already.  But, we can be slow to learn some things in our lives.  Gardeners can relate to the stress and worry that comes with knowing a patch of vegetable needs weeding (or some other task) combined with the knowledge that you don't have the time now and you are already behind on the task.  As a gardener, you rarely give up and eventually make the time to 'save' the plants with a grand weeding party.  And, as a gardener - you celebrate harvesting each and every thing you manage to get from the 'saved' crop, even if it is a bit on the sparse side.  As a grower at our scale - you HAVE to give up.  You till it in and plant something else in its place.  The crop is already lost, it simply won't produce enough to be worth the effort to 'save it.'  We learned that admitting the loss can lead to a better overall result.  And, after the initial grieving process, we found ourselves to be a little less overwhelmed (but only a little).

Lesson 4 - Growers should be humble and persistent
After last season's weather issues, memories of 2008 may have faded for many of us (except those who were flooded out of their homes or businesses).  But, now that I've mentioned it, I'm sure you'll remember it now.  The prior year was a fairly good growing year for us at the farm.  The wet late summer and fall was difficult, but we still had good harvests overall.  Lots of variety, lots of volume.  We actually struggled finding a way to move all of what we harvested.  We planned for a year that was going to be even better - and we got - well - 2008.  As farmers, we work with nature.  Sometimes, nature has a nasty sense of humor and we have to work with it.  It may sound like a broken record, but we commiserated with other growers and took solace in the fact that we were not the only ones struggling.  Then, we re applied ourselves to those things that could be worked with.  The persistence of these farmers led to record tomato crops that were harvested starting in September deep into October.  Go figure.

Lesson 5 - Full service can lead to no service
A phone call in August of 2008 led us to consider making a major business plan move in 2009.  Prior to this season, we had about 60 CSA members and attended four farmers' markets per week.  The CSA customers picked up at three of the four markets.  In a nutshell, we were rapidly wearing down under the work load.  We streamlined our business by doubling to 120 CSA members and removing farmers' markets (with plant sales and tomato sales being exceptions).  The result?  We made our first profit that could pay Rob something reasonable for his work and the reduction in required labor was the equivalent of adding a half-time, fully trained person on the farm.  Yes, that's how much time we spent OFF the farm that really was needed to do work ON the farm.  A farm can only be sustainable if you don't use up your 'personal capital' by trying to do everything for everybody.  This is true even if you like to be wanted or needed and even if you are nice people who want to be gracious, helpful and kind.  Since Tammy is nice and wants to be gracious, helpful and kind, this applies to us.  We're not sure what it has to do with Rob.

Lesson 6 - Just keep planting
In a way, Lesson 6 is a corollary to Lesson 3.  You have to know when to give up on one thing so you can move your energy to something else.  Weather patterns in May, June and July this past year made it impossible to plant some crops and resulted in crop failures for many things we did get planted.  To put it succinctly, our long season crops failed - with only a few exceptions.  The season had some success because we accepted the failures in a timely fashion and then insisted on trying to grow more short season crops for the second part of the season.  We're not sure if people in the CSA were aware of just how close we were to giving the whole thing up as a bad job in July.  But, we take our responsibility to our members seriously and worked hard to get things in the ground that had a chance of maturing before the season's end.  The result?  There are a lot of crops that can survive a few frosts and produce some excellent food in the fall.  We already knew this - but in a regular season, we are extremely busy pulling in the full season crops.  But now, we have the experience to put in the late season crops AND find ways (and helpers) to pull in the full season crops. 

Lesson 7 - Keep educating, informing, sharing
It's a little early to identify a lesson for this year - but we're going to anyway.  In general, we've had good success on the farm - even with some difficult growing years.  But, our energy and focus on keeping people informed on what is going on has declined.  Part of this is due to the difficult years themselves.  It isn't easy to find the energy when problems on the farm drain it out of you.  And, then there's the worry that people will think you are whining or playing for sympathy.  What we really want is understanding for the realities of growing good (and local) food.  Looking back on last year, we realize that perhaps we did NOT do a very good job of initiating new CSA members.  It is possible that we did a poor job of making it clear to everyone what was going on in the growing season.  It is likely that we need to be clearer with what we intend for the season and with the reality of the season as it progresses.  And, so, there will be some changes made on that front for the new year.  Stay tuned and we'll clue you in on them.

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