Monday, February 18, 2013

Tools of the Trade

With another batch of cold weather and maybe some precipitation heading this way, we are encouraged to continue evaluating tools, supplies and other items for the farm in 2013.  Since neither of us grew up on a farm, the whole process of scaling up our operation and acquiring proper tools for our operation is new to us.  Ok, so we've been going through the process for eight or so years, so it's not that new and we're not entirely lost.  But, if we take a little time to reflect, it can be a revelation to us to see where we've been and where it looks like we're going.

If you've been with us for a while, you might recognize this picture.  We started Genuine Faux Farm when our biggest pieces of equipment were the walk behind tiller you see above and a lawn tractor.  Our first graduation came when this tiller threw a rod and stopped running (not too long after this picture) - and we weren't done prepping for planting.  We made our first larger farm purchase by acquiring a tiller attachment for our lawn tractor.  It was unnerving and frightening to think about investing so much into this project with which we had so little experience and direct knowledge.

We've learned that a key part to being a sustainable farming operation is the ability to complete the tasks we've set out to do each season.  The trick is finding the balance between environmental health, our financial health, a positive place in the community (which includes the satisfaction of our customers) and our personal well-being.  We believe that they are all related in that if you ignore one of these, you are likely to harm the others.   But, there is tension between them as well.

Case in point - the high tunnel (2010).   

This building is the second largest purchase we have made for the farm (with Chumley the truck exceeding it in 2012).  We decided to make this leap in part because the extremely wet years of 2008 and 2010 illustrated that we needed to be more resilient during years that saw too much rain.  Our long term financial health was in jeopardy if we couldn't respond to weather extremes better than we had up to that point.  We decided to put this tunnel up as part of our efforts to address the problem.  It was a toss up as to whether it would help our personal well-being and it made our short term finances a bit tenuous.  We were/are also concerned about how the increased use of plastics in horticulture may be negatively impacting our environment.  And so, we made a larger short term financial sacrifice in an effort to reduce a perceived negative impact on the environment.  We invested in a movable high tunnel in order to allow nature to do its magic on the ground that had been farmed the previous season and we resist the temptation to let optimal financial returns dictate how we grow in this structure.  Of course, they are a part of it.  But, the day we let that be our only decision point is the day we will cease to farm.

Working at the Farm

Having people work on the farm is another advance we've made over the last several years.  Thank you to all who have done so!  I bring this one up because it is part of my calculations as I consider new equipment, technologies or techniques for our farm.  If you think you know exactly where I am going, you are likely only partially correct.

Many new tools are intended to reduce our reliance on manual labor.  So, a simple way to look at something is to do the following:
It cost us X dollars to hire the three ladies shown above to weed the melon patch in 2007.  Mystery tool/technology A will cost me A dollars to purchase and B dollars to maintain yearly and it does the same job.  In the end, the labor cost I save will have it paying for itself in Z years.  That's what you expected, yes?

Well, consider this as well.   As a small, local farm, we feel we have some responsibility for providing a positive place for people to do some good, honest work for decent pay.  If we blindly make changes to our farm in an effort to wholly mechanize, we remove opportunities for people.  Now, at this point, we are not in danger of mechanizing to the point of not needing help on the farm.  We are very, very far from it.  In fact, we are still attempting to identify and acquire enough tools so that we can accomplish what our farm needs to accomplish each season with a reasonable number of workers that we can afford to pay.

But, when I consider tools, I also consider what sorts of jobs are best suiting to people and which are not.  In fact, I feel a responsibility to myself and to those who work for us that the jobs should be interesting, have an element of challenge and be diverse in their actions.  The tools we buy are purchased in an effort to make working on the farm a more positive experience, both for us and for those who join us each year.  They are not intended to replace anyone.  This may be one of the most attractive attributes small, diversified farms have.  Tools are not typically intended to replace humans, instead they are intended to support them in their efforts.

Out of the Comfort Zone

Every year we push ourselves out of our comfort zones and try to figure out what the best approach for our farm will be.  Each season we try new things, even if we have had little personal experience doing those things.  We challenge what we think we know and we ask ourselves if what we are doing is the best we can do for our environment, our community, our customers and for ourselves.  We ask questions and look for answers, we share what we think are the answers so far and we dream about what we could do, exploring new ideas constantly.  It is difficult, it is frustrating and it is oh so rewarding when we make steps forward - even if we are just going to question ourselves again later to see if we've done everything we should have done. 

What's Next?
We are back from our Gang of Four "Nota" Conference and I am full of ideas and thoughts about their farms and our farm.  The list of investments for the year is long and I'm trying to figure out what we should do.  Then I have to figure out what we MUST do.  After that, I determine what we are ABLE to do.  We'll share some of that process with you in the next two weeks via the blog.

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