Sunday, November 25, 2018

Queue and A

I was given the opportunity to speak a group of fine people in Dr. Wen's Capstone class at the University of Northern Iowa.  I thoroughly enjoyed talking with them and was reminded by their responses that the willingness to share, listen and respond thoughtfully is not a lost art.  I recently received the gift of feedback and additional questions from this group and I hope to provide timely responses in a series of blog posts that might continue a useful dialogue.

I took a moment and tried to 'snip out' segments in reflections that contained questions or had points that might bring out some interesting discussion.  I will periodically link in another blog post that already exists here.  Feel free to read it - or not - your choice.

I'll try and respond to something from each person over a series of posts.  I will not credit the questioner to maintain anonymity since I don't have their permission to post their names.   Anyone who wants to join in the discussion can respond in the comments below.  Observe common sense rules for respectful response and we'll all be good to go.

Natural Insecticides:
I think natural insecticides are interesting and I think it is a very clever way to assemble your garden. How long does it take to figure out these natural insecticides? Does it take multiple years or do you research new plants before you plant them? Do you make a game plan of where you are going to plant each one?

We do create plans every season on our farm that consider, among other things, how pests, pollinators and predators might react to our planting plan.  In fact, planning is one of the most important aspects of our farm, though this blog post concludes that there is an even more important job that the farmer does.  The simple answer is that we have daily work plans, weekly task plans, monthly project plans and yearly growing plans.  All of that is a part of a three to five year whole farm plan.  This much planning might sound a bit excessive to you (and maybe a little nuts), but it actually saves us time and heartache in the end.

2017 was a great cabbage year at GFF (despite the rabbits)!
Let's make it a little easier with a quick example.  I know from my own farm experience, from historical record, and research reports that intercropping with cabbage is a good idea.  I also have information that tells me it isn't wise to plant potatoes or tomatoes adjacent to these crops, so I wouldn't choose them to be an intercrop companion for my cabbage.  I start with that knowledge to come up with a rotation for several years, so I don't plant similar crops in exactly the same place from year to year.  That plan tells me what goes into each plot, so it is then up to my yearly plan to figure out exactly WHERE in each plot my cabbage will go and what sorts of crops or other plants I will put next to them.  As the season progresses, I make adjustments based on current circumstances.  The first batch of cabbage plants were eaten by rabbits right after transplant - now we have to make an adjustment!
Garter snakes - another good pest control measure.

It can take a long time to figure out if a particular pairing of plant types actually does anything at all.  And, if you really want proof, it can take years of carefully designed and replicated research projects to conclusively show anything.  That's where it helps to look at historical growing records and writings by farmers who came before me.  It is absolutely amazing how much help can be found in writings from decades (and centuries) prior to our current time. 

Just to make it more difficult, every year is different and every farm has different variables.  So, it makes sense to learn best practices and then find out how to adjust them to a particular farm or season.  In other words, it takes a whole lot of learning!  But, that should not stop anyone from taking the first steps and using general knowledge to their advantage.  In fact, we keep hoping that more funding will be made available to study intercropping as a pest control option.  There is a great deal we still have to learn.

Regional Differences in Sustainable Farming:
When thinking about questions to ask you after class, I could not stop thinking about how sustainability may
change in different parts of the country. For example, if an organic farm was placed in the middle of New York City or in the Rocky Mountains, how much or little will each three factors (environment, community, or profitability) affect the farming industry?

If someone asks me why I am bothering with these blog posts, I'll point them to these three questions as a starter.  They were the first three I read and the topics are vastly different!  All three people were at the same presentation and they each came away with something different.  This, all by itself, makes me happy that I participated.

The environmental component would be the most obviously different if you move to different parts of the country.  As you go West, finding sufficient water for crops and livestock becomes a larger issue, which means conservation of that resource becomes extremely important.  Any land with a grade (hills, mountains, etc) is going to increase the worry about soil loss due to water erosion while flatland with no shelter will have increased pressure to address wind erosion.  In short, the surroundings dictate the priorities of environmental stewardship that a farmer must consider.  At our farm, we have come to believe that protection of our pollinators may be our biggest and most important challenge.
It's difficult to find flatter land or better soil than where we farm.

Community considerations take a little more thought on my part.  I am tempted to say that it might be easier to build a supportive sub-community in areas where the population is more dense.  However, that is balanced by the peril that the rest of the surrounding community just might decide that your farm isn't wanted where it is.  Martin and Atina Diffley lost a multi-generational family farm to suburban development in Minnesota. 

Profitability differs from farm to farm, even in the same region.  But, from the wider view, costs to farm as we do are typically higher in denser populations.  Similarly, we could charge a good deal more for some products if we had more access to a larger and more affluent market.  In the end, it is simply important that a farm finds a way to 'set prices' rather than 'take prices.'  If you set a price, you can do your best to charge what is needed to cover expense and earn what you need.  If you take a given price, you abdicate control and are much more likely to fail.  Another issue is the availability of resources that the farm needs.  We are lucky to have a seed company in Decorah (Seed Savers) and another in Albert Lea (Albert Lea Seed Company) that we can patronize.  But, where do we go to get equipment that is sized for our farm? 
Nolt's is located about an hour north of our farm.
Ah, so that isn't as much of a problem either for us.  But, distance to needed resources does impact the economic portion of the farm.  We very much prefer to find sources as close to us as we can get.  The personal connection to suppliers actually helps us put our suppliers into the 'community' part of our sustainability plan, which strengthens two parts of the three-legged stool.

How Community Sees the Genuine Faux Farm:
Another question I have is regarding the way people see your farm in your community. Does your community see your farm as an asset, or do they see it in a different way? 

A picture at our farm by one of our customers
I was initially at a loss as to how I should answer this question.  In a way, it's a good question that maybe we should be asking ourselves more than we have up to this point.  Let me ask you this: would you really want to hear what people would say if you asked them "How do you see me?"  I am guessing your answer would be both a 'yes' and a 'no.'

We do ask our customers for feedback on a frequent basis and we are occasionally granted candid and useful responses.  Sometimes we are given positive feedback that encourages us to keep doing what we do and other times we are given a useful criticism that allows us to make adjustments and get better.  But, this is not really the crux of the question this person was asking us.  The question is really more this - "if someone who knew about your farm was asked their opinion of it, how would they respond?"

There are people that remind us that they see us as a positive presence.  When we needed help to put plastic on one of our high tunnels, this is what happened.  At a presentation I gave to a local service community I was surprised (and pleased) when our farm was introduced as "frequently giving to the community."  While we like to think that we try to do the right thing, I guess we usually don't think what we do is all that noteworthy - but we do what we can.  On the other hand, there are people in the community who have told us that we are intentionally causing discord in the area by simply making the decision to farm as we do.  Other individuals have indicated that we are naive to continue with a farm that requires so much effort with so little monetary return.

In other words, it's probably a mixed bag that depends on exactly who you ask and when you ask them.  I will also be honest and tell you that some of my opinions may not make some people happy with me, while others may suddenly think better of me.  But, that's not the game we are playing here.  I don't need you to like us or our farm, though it would be nice if you did.  We are certainly not looking to make enemies.  What I do need is for people to listen and work on being better and doing better when it comes to agriculture and food production/consumption.


  1. I really like your opinion of your farm and how you handle feedback from others. You say that you appreciate feedback of praise and useful tips but you also understand that some feedback may go in the other direction. I think this is important for owning and running a farm, or any type of business, because you can't assume that everyone is going to like what you do. I think it is also important that your purpose is to better agriculture and food production/consumption for your community because you're simply doing what you believe you should be doing, while enjoying what you do at the same time.

    Mariah Danger

    1. Mariah, thanks for the comment (and the compliment). The hard part about owning a small business is trying not to take things too personally. After all, the business is... kind of... you. So, if someone doesn't buy from you or another person is critical of what you do, it's hard to not get a little stressed by it. But, you still have to manage it. Best, Rob

  2. I have a question.. Have you thought of possible purchasing more land to farm on instead of recycling the land you currently use?? I feel like if you purchase a little more land than it's possible to have more product to get out to customers, or do you think that could also cause some issues?

    Krista Ryno

    1. Krista,
      This is a great question. Sorry I missed it earlier. Purchasing more land is not as easy as it sounds. Where would you find it? If it isn't next to the farm, then we need to find a way to take all of our equipment from one place to another. Now, if you can point me to a place that would be a step up from where we are now, I'll listen! Best, rob


Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.