Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ton Tongue Toffee

Sometimes I wonder what sort of title for a blog post would get your collective attention.  I suspect, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you'll probably be curious about this one and be correspondingly disappointed when I don't end up using that link more than I just did.  If you like alliteration, you may have a chance to be somewhat satisfied since I do see some sequences that might seem alliterative. 
Chumley, on his way to being loaded for a CSA distribution

But, the thing that is on my mind is this - I had a couple of discussions toward the end of the season that showed me that many people have a difficult time appreciating the scale of what it is we do.  One person almost always picked up their share towards the end of the distribution period.  He had never seen us arrive with a full truck that needed to be unloaded.

Even the picture above doesn't help too much if you don't actually load or unload the truck.  But, it is not unusual for us to have 24 to 30 trays with produce and another 10 to 12 coolers.  If you assume that you can carry two trays or two coolers per trip, that's 17 to 21 trips to unload the vehicle, not including tables and other items needed for a distribution.  Perhaps that makes it a bit more real to you?
Mr Aubergine found this interesting.

Mr Aubergine (at right) took a ride in the truck this year and found a nice home.  These CSA members were kind enough to give him some eyes to see and they made sure to take a picture of his "good" side.  He looks like a very inquisitive eggplant, so we thought we'd actually answer a few more questions in his honor.  Some of these questions were fielded by the curious at our CSA distributions and others have been posed during various presentations or conversations in recent weeks.

Question 1: How Much Produce Did You Harvest in 2015?
We actually fielded this one twice in recent conversations.  Our organic certifier asked us this question in both a general and a specific way AND another person asked me during a recent presentation.  Of course, I answered the question in different ways because the purpose of the question in each case called for different levels of detail.

Short Answer #1:
What made me think of Ton Tongue Toffee?  Well, I found it amusing to convert all of our weighed crops to tons.  Thus far, we have harvested over 9.3 tons of produce from the farm.  Some crops are not weighed for various reasons, so it would be reasonable to estimate those and land between 9.5 and 10 tons for the year.  Not bad for about five acres of veggies.

Not as Short Answer #1:
For many of our crops, we are interested in the weight, but we are much more interested in a count.  Why?  Well, if you knew you needed to give 104 different subscribers three cucumbers this week, you probably would be more interested to know that you can harvest at least 312 quality cucumbers.  The weight, in this case, is inconsequential.  On the other hand, weight helps us to compare different types of a vegetable.  After all, how can you say German Pink tomatoes are carrying their end of the deal with 197 fruit versus Jaune Flamme with 1020 fruit?  Part of the equation is number of plants.  But, if you look at the total weight of each: German Pink: 159.8 lbs  Jaune Flamme: 144.2 lbs.  You might conclude that they were roughly equivalent - after all, Jaune Flamme comes in smaller packages.

As a result, you might find that I will focus on different numbers for different crops and maybe even different numbers for different varieties in a crop.  For example, we harvested over 3300 snack tomatoes this year and about 3100 larger tomatoes.  The snack tomatoes weighed in around 550 lbs versus over 1600 lbs for the larger tomatoes.  That accounts for one ton of our produce this season.  You're welcome.

Question 2: How Consistent is Your Production?
This one is a great question and worthy, perhaps, of its own post someday.  But, since we are doing a harvest/numbers type of post, we'll do a little with it here.

Short Answer #2:
In this case, it makes sense for us to measure consistency in terms of the value of produce given to our CSA farm share members during the regular and extended seasons.  Happily, since 2011, we have been very consistent with respect to the value in excess of the cost provided to our members. I have not re worked numbers for the years prior to 2011.

Not So Short Answer #2
Our farm is both amazingly consistent and alarmingly inconsistent, which is a wonderful non-answer.  If you look at our overall performance and avoid getting too fine with each crop we grow, you will find that the diversity on our farm provides us with the ability to do reasonably well each year.  But, if you isolate a specific crop, it can be tempting to conclude that we're not all that good at what we do.

First, we need to make it clear that pure production numbers do not take into account decisions regarding how much of each thing we decide to grow each year.  However, if I start on those numbers, it will take me away from the point I want to make.

And, what is that point?

Diversity in crop production helps to balance peaks and valleys in individual crop yields.

If you look at the chart, it shows fruit counts for eight different crops since 2006 on our farm.  And, if I were to pick production numbers I would like to have on our farm, my first pick would be to take the record production year for each crop and ask for that, of course.  But, that is not realistic.  Instead, I will take numbers such as those we had in 2014 and 2015 every year.  Each crop had reasonable numbers, even if few records were threatened.  But, there is a sense of security in knowing that when a crop crashes (Bell Peppers in 2010) another one tends to have a banner year (Cucumbers in 2010).

The other measure I have used to determine how consistent our farm is has to do with our ability to be resilient with each crop we grow.  Overall, we are finding that our high production numbers and our low production numbers tend to appear less like an outlier than they used to.   So, my point here is that:

Production consistency is a function of continued improvements in how the farm goes about growing.

If you look at the bar chart showing our production of green beans since 2009, you will see a very disappointing year in 2010 and we had similar weather issues in 2013 for this crop.  But, the dip in production was not nearly so severe in 2013.  We can trace this improvement to a number of changes on our farm, which gives us confidence that, barring an unforeseen catastrophe of terrible proportions, we can manage to produce at a reasonable level even in a tough season.

Our record production year is 2012, but the numbers for 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2015 are all close enough to that year's production numbers that it no longer seems like an outlier to expect to get within range of that record on any given season.

And, my final point?  Commitment to a crop is a variable that makes a difference.

Neither Tammy nor I were big fans of cabbage, so our motivation for growing cabbage was admittedly low.  But, we had some CSA members that were asking, so we started looking at growing them.  The blue represents European style cabbage and the red Asian cabbage (aka Napa or Chinese or Korean).

We started trialing cabbage varieties in 2010 and felt ready to increase the production to meet the demand of our CSA in 2012, while we trialed the Napa varieties.  We personally liked the Napa varieties better and switched roles in 2013.  In the end, we realized that we probably didn't have the demand or interest to push either one of these too hard and we have settled to a fairly consistent and equivalent level between the two types.  In other words, the only reason for inconsistent yield levels was our own varying commitment to each of these crop types.  Once our commitment levels stabilized, so did the production.