Every year when we turn the page of the calendar to the month of August on the farm, we start assessing how the current growing season is going. Part of the reason for this is that there often isn't much that can be done to change the course of the season at this point unless you are looking at shorter, late season crops. Mistakes that were made early are now being paid for and gambles that were made are either paying out or are in our list of 'don't do that agains.'
I thought we might share a little bit of what we are thinking with everyone else right now - so here you go!
Handling the Water (Incomplete but earning a B- so far)
We have made it no secret that heavy rains are one of the hardest things for us to deal with on our farm. And, of course, we had issues with wet fields early in the season, which now seems like eons ago since the rains have very much dried up over the past four weeks. Just to give you all some idea of how long we've dealt with wet conditions at the Genuine Faux Farm, I'd like to point out that our fields are in great condition for cultivation and other work right now. We haven't seen good soil working conditions at our farm for over two years now. We're not sure how to handle that.
In any event, we put in a couple of swales early in the season and have done some field reconfiguration. The swales are looking like they will help us eventually, but it would be nice to complete that task (it takes a long time to make these). Let's just say that we do not regret the path we are taking with our fields right now. We just wish we could get the project finished so we can move to next steps. It's getting old telling ourselves that we will 'get to that.'
Supporting the Pollinators (B+)
We always want to support the pollinators on our farm. From our perspective, this has been a pretty good year for us in that category. Perhaps some of it is because we really reduced the crop load and we still made sure to have some good flowers going in.
Another thing that may have something to do with it is that we have fewer work hours, so we've let some things go a bit longer? But, the more I think about it, that does not seem to be the case. I think this is more a case of a better weather situation for the pollinators this year combined with our normal efforts to support them. In other words, we did not drop the ball here despite all of the changes to the farm.
Dealing with Reduced Labor Hours (C-)
Ah. Here it is. One of those we feel we are handling the least well right now. We expect a great deal from ourselves in whatever we choose to do. Both of us have off-farm jobs now. Both of us intend to do well at those jobs. We have no workers at the farm other than an infrequent volunteer or a visit from family members. We always appreciate that help - of course. But, like all of you, we are still trying to figure out how to do things with the pandemic raging in the U.S.
I think we will both admit that we are working less hard on the farm this year. This was partially by design and partly due to reduced motivation. When someone is coming to work on your farm each day, you tend to be motivated to .. well... work on the farm too. But, that's not the whole story. We do still work hard enough. The issue has been trying to figure out how much work is the right amount of work and when will that work occur, given our new labor distribution. Those of you who work two jobs will get it. Once you get off of work, are you really ready to go to work right away? If you enjoy both things enough, the answer might be yes - but you still need to find the balancing point.
Managing a New Sales System (C+)
Going to the farm credits system seems to have worked for the customers who continue to patronize us. We are grateful for their willing and supportive participation. The move to farm credits has allowed us to drop production expectations so we can try to figure out some of these other things (address the water issue, figure out a new job, etc). There was no way we could make so many major changes and stick with the old CSA structure. This was the right call.
The down sides are a bit harder to explain. The tracking overhead is much higher for us. So, if you were to consider the amount of labor we put into each dollar of income from sales, you would find that this amount if much higher than it was in prior seasons. Sure, some if it is because we continue to adjust and refine as we figure things out. But, CSA is a good system because it simplifies a number of things for us. The fact is that CSA is a stressful system to use and use it well because you have to have so many crops doing reasonably well. This system reduces some of the crop stress but increases management stresses.
Either way, this is where we need to be right now. We'll just keep improving on it.
Further Refinements in Poultry (Incomplete - but pulling a B+ so far)
The good thing about poultry is that wet years do not necessarily cause great harm to our poultry production. Another good thing is that if there is herbicide drift in the spring, it does not necessarily end the flock as it might for many of our vegetable crops. We have some useful buildings and we have built up some of the infrastructure to keep getting better at what we do with our day-ranged birds.
Each year we try to refine the process a bit more. The biggest change this year is to have two concurrent flocks of broiler chickens at one time. The days that surround the 'trip to the park' are some of the hardest for us, so we hoped that this would reduce our trips while still maintaining a similar amount of production. I think we agree that the process from arrival to brooder room to pasture has gotten easier for us with this system. About the only thing we can say about the 'trip to the park' is that we're about as tired as we usually are once we are done. If we can reduce the number of overall days we do that process, I think we'll call it a win.
Our modification to the laying flock will not be able to be assessed until the new layers begin laying. So, we shall see.
Farmer Mental Health (A for effort)
If you have been following our blog for the past few years, you will recognize that we have been searching for that life-balance that allows us to continue to farm successfully while also living successfully. We never expected this process to be easy - because that's part of the point. Life has its challenges.
Asking us to assess how we are doing in this area might actually be a bit unfair. After all, we did not order a pandemic on the side with all of the fixings. Add in some family health concerns and shake well!
Let's just say this. Tammy and I talk often and we still like each other (a lot!). We do our best to stay in touch with others and offer our talents when we are able to help as we can and when we can. We still play Wingspan most every day. We go to Sweet Water Marsh on a regular basis. Tammy still makes fantastic bread and now we have some of our own honey to put on it.
In short, we are struggling with the world and with our own lives just like all of you are doing. But, we are also making time to enjoy life and enjoy what we do have. We'll never be perfect, but I don't think we'll regret our efforts to live well.
Reviving the Farm Grounds and Plantings (Incomplete - we signed up for too many courses)
We've watched as our perennial plantings around the house and elsewhere have fallen into disarray while we spent our energy on the rest of the farm. We set some goals to try to reclaim some of this during the current season. We always set the bar too high. We'll just leave it at that.
Making the Farm House A Positive Rather than a Negative (A-)
I am actually going to be very nice to us with this grade because there is still so much we have to do. And, I am not even going to start listing all of the things that are not quite finished. Instead, I will point out that we have new siding, some decent air conditioning, a working solar array, a functional kitchen and some new windows and doors that were in desperate need of repair.
All of the help we received (and are grateful for) was needed to get this far. We also put plenty of ourselves into the process. We are grateful to have better entry to the house and the basement. We no longer cringe when we look at the exterior. Hopefully we can keep these trends moving in the positive.
Vegetable Crops (C-)
It isn't what we wanted. Our history tells us to expect better from ourselves. It will be what it is.
We learned and we'll continue to adjust. In a way, this also needs to be chalked up to the signing up for too many courses in a term thing. The other problem has more to do with things we can not control. Another wet Spring. Field areas that are rough because we were digging swales when soil was still wet (not that there was much choice). Likely dicamba issues (again) and the labor thing.
Actually, it's ok. The challenging courses are where you learn the most. We're learning, even if we don't test well this year.
Giving Through Writing (A-)
Since Rob's new job had a significant component of writing to it, it made sense to hone those skills. When the pandemic hit, it was clear that everyone who could do so needed to give of themselves to help others out. It only made sense to exercise the writing skills and hope that it helped a few other people along the line.
I can't measure how much or how little this has helped anyone else - and I am not sure I need to know. What I do know is that the effort has been there and the intent is good. The content is often decent and the writing skill has improved. I hear from people now and again that the effort is appreciated. In fact, it happens just often enough to encourage me to keep it going. Maybe one day I'll make you laugh and another I might encourage you to think a new thought or consider something differently. Perhaps you will learn a new fact that will be interesting to you. Maybe you will recognize that I don't pretend to know it all, that I am critical of my own thinking and that I fully intend on learning and changing as I learn. Is it even possible that you will try something new that you might find rewarding or you will act on something that you feel needs to be acted on?
Or, you'll just feel a connection with two people who do their best on a small farm in Iowa - even if you can't sit down and share a face to face conversation with them.