Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Value of Trusted Peers

It started at the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference in January 2011 with a conversation between Rob of GFF and Melissa Dunham of Grinnell Heritage Farm.  We wondered if there was some way we could recapture the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose that many of us left with after a mid-season filming for HBO's Weight of the Nation in Grinnell.  We were soon joined by Tammy, Andy Dunham, Mark Quee, Dana Foster, Jill Beebout and Sean Skeehan and the idea that became the "Gang of Four" progressed from there.

Perhaps a bit more background would be helpful here.  The growing season in 2010 was one of the worst many of us had experienced.  Mother Nature provided us with absurd amounts of rain and many vegetable growers in the region were struggling to keep their heads above water literally and figuratively.  We were all exhausted with worry and from continuous efforts to try to do anything we could to get any sort of crop going (or to keep it going).  And, on top of all of this, most of us had little to no contact with other growers.  The distance between farms such as ours along with the intense labor requirements during the growing season enforced this feeling of isolation.  Our customers, while supportive, really didn't have a full understanding of what we were going through.  Row crop farmers in the vicinity barely understood what it was we did.  It was simply too much to expect that we could interact with most farmers in the area as peers.

So, what happens when you work hard, but things keep going wrong?  You question your abilities.  You ask if it was wise to even think you should be doing what you are doing.  Right or wrong, you become sure that anyone and everyone else is probably fine and you are the only one who can't figure it out.  There is no one to go to for help because you're the only one in the area that does what you do.  In short, our isolation from others who had operations with similar characteristics was making it harder for us to continue than it needed to be.

Beginning in 2011, Grinnell Heritage Farm, Blue Gate Farm, Scattergood Friends School Farm and Genuine Faux Farm started an in-season farm visit rotation.  Each month in the Summer, three of the farms would go to work and then have a dinner together at the fourth farm.  That first year was a huge success that culminated in a Holiday dinner at Scattergood.  We have continued with this summer program every year since.  If there is any complaint to be made, it is the fact that there is simply TOO MUCH good food to eat.  Hey, I didn't say it was a reasonable complaint.

The four farms added what we initially called "Almosta" conference and has since morphed to "Nota" conference in January/February.  A weekend is spent at Blue Gate Farm and each farm has a chance to pick a topic that they want to talk about during a 'session.' This year, we held "Nota" on the first weekend of February.

There was, of course, great food.  There was also companionship, support and perhaps, most importantly, understanding.

These are people who have earned our respect and trust.  We all genuinely want the best for each other.  We hope each farm has a fantastic season and that any challenges they have this year are met and goals exceeded.  But, we also know, given recent history, that there will be problems we can't solve and things will happen that will cause each of us to struggle.  But, unlike the way things were in 2010, we've got a group of farmers that have our backs.  It's a good feeling.

So, what did we talk about this year in our sessions?  Well, GFF asked for input on our plans for the new high tunnel building and for input on how to continue our progress on the spraying litigation.  Other topics included a big idea brainstorming for future goals, discussion of farm succession and thoughts on meeting GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards on our farms.  Time well spent.

And we're set up for our farm visits again this year.  It's going to be a good year.

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