Thursday, October 11, 2018

Little Things

We recently had a group of students from Waverly Shell-Rock at the farm and it was interesting to get a glimpse of what the farm looks like through the eyes of others.  No matter how many times I give presentations or provide tour opportunities, I can still be presented with questions that make me pause and think a bit more.  One such question was a very simple one - "How do you know where each crop is?"  It's a great reminder to me that I take various landscape cues for granted and I don't always recognize that other people cannot see exactly what I do without a little guidance.  Another person asked me what "small" changes we had made that worked out well for us.  Rather than quibble with defining what a "small change" might be, I thought I would dedicate a post to some of the "little things" we have done over the years that had more impact than you might think.

August, 2008 on the farm.  Look!  We had rain then too!
Running Rows the Long Way
It doesn't seem like a big deal, but we made a switch on the orientation of our rows in our Eastern plots several years ago.  The picture above shows our rows with a North-South orientation.  Our plots are oriented East-West, so the rows essentially went the "short-way" on our plots.  We changed our row orientation to go East-West with the "long-way" on the 60' by 200' plots and it led to improvements in mechanization that has helped us to continue with the farm.

Sure, the short rows made it easier for weeders to feel a sense of accomplishment.  You can certainly finish 60 foot rows faster than 200 foot rows.  The short rows also provided more natural breaks for crop successions and crop variety.  But, if you run any sort of equipment, you spent an awful lot of time just turning around.  In the end, the simple idea of changing the orientation of rows in our plots may have had as much impact on changing our farming strategies as any other thing we've done on the farm.

July 2010, yep had rain then too.
These Are Not Show Gardens
The earlier versions of the Genuine Faux Farm leaned closer to obsessive gardening rather than horticultural farming.  We had visions of beautiful fields with easy to read signs so the flocks of people who would come to visit the modern marvel that was our farm would thoroughly enjoy the experience.  We even considered growing a 'show garden' that would highlight specific veggies in one plot.

I will grant you that there was nothing wrong with that plan if our goal was to provide more of an agri-tourism business versus what we actually ended up doing.  We also didn't have a good enough feel as to how much we could actually manage to do without being able to afford unlimited labor.  Everything looks doable when you plan it out during the Winter months.  But, when fields get too wet to work, or the delivery and market schedule eats up more of your time and energy than you thought it would...  Well, let's just say, you re-assess what your goals are.

Once we made the decision that we do not have the temperament to take the agri-tourism route (and our location probably wouldn't make that work anyway) we spent less time on things like cute little signs showing the pepper variety in a field that was flooded during a year where several hundred plants gave us seven peppers.  But, we also learned that putting together a decent operating farm is actually interesting to others and provides good learning opportunities in and of itself.  Once we got rid of the old attitude, we were able to figure out how to do what we do well - which usually results in some pretty good looking fields anyway.  We'll call that a win.  

Happy to get new chicken crates in 2011.
Sometimes Making Do Doesn't Make Sense
When we first started raising chickens for meat, we did not have our own cages for transporting birds to the "Park."  Initially, we would borrow a batch of old, patched wooden cages from a neighbor.  They hadn't been used for a while and they were in awful condition.  In some cases, the chicken wire was attached to chicken wire which was attached to the rotting wood of the remaining frame.  Usually, we would have to cobble together some additional repairs just to keep chickens in them.

We finally gave ourselves permission to look into and purchase new, uniformly sized crates for transporting.  Yes, it cost us some money to do this.  But, it really did not cost all that much in the grand scheme of things.  It is amazing how much savings in time and effort this simple acquisition has provided over the years.

Let's just use a quick example:  Each cage will hold thirteen to fifteen full-grown broiler chickens for a total of 100 to 120 pounds of weight.  It's dark, late and raining.  The two of you have to lift this crate up high enough on the truck to stack it on another crate.  If crates are uniform size, don't have various wires sticking out everywhere and do not threaten to fall apart when you lift them then life is good.  If we were still trying to use crates that were in poor repair and various sizes and shapes, we wouldn't be using them.  Why?  Well, we wouldn't be raising broiler chickens anymore.  It's just that simple.

Heirloom tomatoes at market in 2012
Not Returning Home With More Than Half

We are asked periodically if we are willing to return to farmers' market sales and our answer remains the same.  No.

This is not an indictment of farmers' markets in general, but it does highlight the limitations.  There is not enough of us to go around to spend the hours it takes to prepare, set up, staff the table, tear down and clean up for each market for the limited return we can get from the smaller farmers' markets in our area.

The table you see at left was our heirloom tomato offering September of 2012.  Frankly, the trays full of different types of heirloom tomatoes look pretty impressive to me (and there was more in the truck).  We even had lettuce and offered BLT specials.  And, we DID have several fine customers who purchased from us that day.  But, we still went home with more than half of those tomatoes after the market was done.  And this was not the exception to the rule.  You had to have plentiful product to get people to come to you, but there wasn't a chance that you could go home with an empty truck.

Simply put, if we wanted to move more product we had to try something else.  We could have gone to another farmers' market that was located in a larger city, but that didn't address the time consideration and still didn't guarantee that we wouldn't come home with significant amounts of produce.  And there you have it, an explanation as to why we pursue the types of sales we pursue at our farm.  CSA shares and other direct sales that are order based means we don't have to lug excess from the farm and then back TO the farm.  If there is excess on the farm, it can stay there and get processed or fed to the poultry without the extra travels.  In both cases, we get more value out of them without the extra expense of loading them into a truck twice.

Tyler finishes a gate at GFF in 2013
You Won't Believe the Good a Fence Can Do
Neither of us grew up on a farm and our backgrounds really didn't lend many opportunities to develop fence building and maintenance skills.  Thus, we were grateful to receive assistance from farmer friends when the hen pasture fence went up.  We just can't quite list all of the things that become easier once you have a good, solid fence in place.  It's enough to make you think that we would find the energy to put up some other fences that could be equally as valuable on the farm.  But, while we're much more certain about what we would need to do to put up new fences, they always seem to reside just below the last item on the VAP that gets done. 

It really shouldn't come as a surprise.  After all, putting up some good fencing requires some capital as well as a decent investment of time.  Argue all you want that you will have a net savings of time once the new fence is up.  But, if you don't have the necessary chunk of time to put the fence up in the first place, the point is moot.

That, and a fencing project won't really go all that well when any post hole you dig fills up with water immediately.  Given our current situation, we can't find the ground in some places because there is too much water already in the way.   So, I guess fence building continues to reside on the 'do this later' list.

 Don't Be Stubborn - Stake and Weave is a Fine Solution
All out with stake and weave in 2014
Many years ago, we participated in a research trial involving multiple trellising techniques.  One of those is called the Florida Stake and Weave method.  We found that this technique tended to be troublesome for us in our fields because the plants kept getting blown out of the weave.  You could argue that it was because we weren't particularly good at stake and weave and that wouldn't be completely unfair.  But, we actually weren't stubborn about stake and weave either.  We trialed it in different situations over time and eventually opted for square collapsible cages in the field and... stake and weave in the high tunnels.

It might be more accurate to state that the 'little thing' we are highlighting here is a willingness to keep trying something that has promise until that promise is realized OR it becomes clear that this is just not the right solution for us and our farm.  We have seen so many people give up on something after experiencing failure on the first try and we don't want to be that way ourselves.  After all, what makes us think that we can pick up a skill without any practice?

Giving Flowers Their Due
We've always had flowers on the farm and we have always had a good idea as to all of the positive things flowers could do as a part of our farming system.  But, growing flowers because you like them and think they're good is one thing.  Being committed to growing them because they are a critical component for making the farm a successful farm is something different. 
A re commitment to flowers in 2015
The natural follow-up question we get after we make that statement has to do with whether we sell cut flowers or not.  While we could certainly try to do that, I think people are missing the point here.  The flowers do NOT need the extra justification for their existence on the farm that flower sales would bring.  They bring value all on their own without requiring us to turn them into an additional enterprise. 

Like any other crop we grow, we have successes and failures.  Sometimes the weeds win.  Sometimes the wet weather wins.  And sometimes... the butterflies win.  Win or lose, we're going to keep playing this game and include flowers in the line-up.  Besides, if the only reason were because they make your farmers smile, that should be a good enough reason.

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