Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Where Have I Been?

I am so sorry I haven’t been on here in an age- and many thanks to the people that are showing up to read old posts anyway! Life has been throwing me curve balls and I haven’t been dodging quite as well as I would hope to. However, I do believe I am back for the time being.

One of the challenges that I’m coming up against is that I can either work on farms and learn how to farm, or I can hope to afford my own one of these days. I want to do the former. There’s no better way to learn than to do. Particularly for something that requires the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience. One really can’t know if they are able to work outside doing labor for sometimes crazy hours until they have actually done it for a season. It’s how I learned that I can only handle so much weeding, but dodging angry geese every day is fun. Unfortunately, I got started on the learning curve a little late, so I have to go with the latter. Maybe it’s my nesting tendencies finally getting around to having an opinion, but I’m at this point that I’d rather screw up on my own property than learn how to do everything right on someone else’s. The problem, here, is that I have to make that choice.

I am slowly working on putting together a business plan. I do need to have a “normal” job for several more years to make this work, but the sooner I can get my hands on land, the sooner I can start making those mistakes that need to be made as part of the learning process. My main focus right now is laying hens. I think they are something that can have income pretty quickly but can also be handled around a 40+ hour work week. I need some feedback from you folks, though.

  • What is your pie-in-the-sky perfect egg?
    • Feed concerns?
    • Housing concerns?
    • Ethical treatment definition?
    • Heritage or modern breeds?
    • Egg color?
  • Do the above concerns extend to meat birds?
    • What are your thoughts on stew birds?
    • What weights and prices seem reasonable to you?
  • Would you be interested in duck, quail, or other meat and eggs if they were raised similarly to the chickens above?
  • What are the other food/farm items that you would buy locally if you could find them?
    • Honey?
    • Herbs?
    • Feathers?
    • Flowers?
    • Homespun thistle yarn?
  • Delivery options?
    • Would you take a drive in the country to pick up your eggs, or would they need to make it into town?
    • Would you sign up to purchase X dozen every week, or do you prefer to pick them up as needed?
  • What questions and concerns have I missed that you would like to have me (or your other farmers) address?

I know what I want in my eggs, meat, and other food, but if I’m setting up a business, I need to know what you want, too. You don’t have to be local to answer this- but if you are local, let me know how many eggs you’ll buy every month!

I look forward to the feedback to help me get this dream off the ground. Thank you!

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

Farm Lesson: Weathah

I had another idea for the first lesson, but part of farming is the ability to roll with what life throws you. That means that this lesson is currently more important.

In my family, we recognize two kinds of weather. Weather is sun, rain, clouds, snow- no big deal. Weathah, on the other hand, is when you batten down the hatches and put on your sou’wester because the nor’easter is going to beat the tar out of you. Not being a coastal state, Colorado doesn’t really go in for nor’easters, but we do have our own versions of weathah. One of the worst types for farmers being hail. Overnight between August 25 and 26, the farm got nailed by hail. The hail itself wasn’t so big, but it just kept coming until most of our plants were little more than stems, their leaves all shredded. This would have been bad if it had happened in spring or the early summer when most hail strikes, but because it hit at the end of August, it’s devastating.

The reason that this hail is devastating rather than just a royal pain is because it’s too late in the season for most of the plants to recover. Many of our crops have already set the fruit they were going to set and don’t have time to set new. This is particularly true of the winter squash that I’ve been looking forward to since May when we planted them. We are able to start harvesting many of them anyway, but we found very few that look like they’ll be able to keep the way they usually should. I’m starting to think of things in terms of self-sufficiency, and having squash that won’t sell well is one thing, but if this were being harvested to be our carbs for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble. Our potatoes are in great shape, since they were hidden underground, but just potatoes for carbs gets pretty boring.

The other aspect of this is that we went from too many jobs and not enough hands to not enough jobs and too many hands. If the farm weren’t backed by PPCF, most or all of us would have been out of a job on the 26th. As it is, our hours are being cut because there just isn’t enough to do. As a farm employee, I knew that the work would go from crazy to nothing pretty much overnight, but that wasn’t supposed to happen for another month and a half or two months. However, I also know that this is a job that tends to be feast or famine. Rather literally. When you can plan and prepare for the down times, they can be a wonderful break from the intensity of the work. However, this wasn’t in the plan. Having some extra time of is pretty nice, but it’s going to be less nice when I get the smaller paycheck.

We are telling our customers what happened and that we will have less to offer for the rest of the season, but I got the impression that only some of them realized what this actually means. I think most of them are so accustomed to going from farm stand to farm stand at the market and then picking up anything else they need at the grocery store on the way home, that our lack of produce means very little. They’ll just get it somewhere else. It’s not their fault, we’ve been conditioned this way for 50+ years. However, something like this could spell the end of a small farm, which would mean one less producer of local food. You can only always get it “somewhere else” as long as food is being brought in from “somewhere else.”

What this lesson is really driving home for me is the fragility of our food system. Whether you “believe” in climate change or not, I think it’s getting pretty clear that weather is getting more extreme. It’s not going to be long before weathah is as common as weather, and that’s a problem. For the time being, we can import what we need, but what happens if California dries up or, worse, falls into the ocean? What happens when gas gets so expensive that it’s not worth shipping food half-way across the country- or world- to us? How are we going to handle an already delicate food system that is going to be battered by too much need and not enough predictability of growing conditions? I don’t know, but we need to figure it out.

My Summer

I promised to update you on the interesting things going on in my life some time ago, and I haven’t. However, we are now at the time of year when students are all being asked to write about what they did this summer. It seems as good a time as any to finally follow through on that promise.

This summer I . . . weeded. I weeded a lot. I am now very, very familiar with bindweed in all of its incarnations. There was also a lot of planting in the spring and now we’re getting into the serious harvest times. In between, always weeding. I can tell you with confidence that weeding knives and hori knives are both wonderful inventions. This summer I also consistently underestimated how much work it is to be a farmer. I haven’t been updating my blog not because I didn’t have ideas or information to pass on, but because once I got home and sat down, my brain was as fried as my body.

This summer I got to be one of the interns at Venetucci Farm. I say “got to be” because nailing a paid position for a non-experienced person who wants to get into farming is hard. For the most part, they simply don’t exist. I’ve started asking about this, and Mike Callicrate shared that interns are more often than not an expense rather than an asset. After being one for about four and a half months, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t looked at the books for the farm that employs me, it’s none of my business, but I do know from other research that the profit margins for small, organic farms are generally not impressive. That means that there is less room for the farmer to be able to handle things like an employee that moves slowly, or makes mistakes. Mis-seeding a 200-foot row is something an intern may easily do, and you can’t undo that mistake. That seed is now a loss. Spearing garlic heads during harvest is really easy to do, especially for the inexperienced, but every head speared is one more that can’t go to market to be exchanged for money. Even taking two hours to weed a bed that should only take one hour means that something else that is just as pressing may not get done. All of this cuts into the profits of the farm which cuts into the ability, and desire, to hire and train the less experienced.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to speak at church about my job. The woman who was running the service said I was the only farmer in the congregation and, as I clearly loved my job, it was an important job to hear about. That request got me to do some research to make sure I was giving the right facts. Only 2% of the US population calls itself a farmer according to the IRS. Only half of those claim it as the main income for the household. After growing up in farm country and talking to farmers around here, I bet the number that have it as the only household income is much, much smaller than that. As of 2007, the official average age of farmers in America is 55. I am quite sure that average has not gone down in the intervening seven years. I am including both conventional and organic farmers in this because I don’t know where to look for the minute numbers that would be the organic farmers and because conventional farmers still know a whole lot more about how to raise food than your average non-farmer. The point of these statistics is that a tiny and rapidly aging population holds the key to feeding a vast and still growing population, but there is no support for them to pass on that knowledge to the people that want to learn. Since I’m pretty sure you know that food does not just appear in grocery stores- though not everyone does- what happens when the last farmer dies?

Lucky for me, Susan Gordon is willing to take on the inexperienced each year to run Venetucci. I got to hear her speak to a group of college kids the other day, and it only confirmed that she can’t seem to do anything without pouring all of herself into it. It’s really inspiring, particularly in a job that can so easily overwhelm and beat down one’s spirit. Rather than throwing up my hands and vowing to never work anywhere but another desk, having her as a daily example of what I could be has given me a reason to work through the pain and exhaustion that is simply a part of this job. Instead of rolling with the idea that organic produce is a niche market and maybe even a fad, she helped to start both CFAM (Colorado Farm and Art Market) and later AVOG (Arkansas Valley Organic Growers) so that her friends and fellow farmers will be able to compete with conventional growers and food importers for their share of local food money. Trust me when I tell you that not shopping at Wal-Mart will not phase Wal-Mart in the least. However, spending that money on a local farm’s produce will make a difference for that local farmer. Yes, it is often more expensive. However, aside from the fact that you are paying for a more nutritionally useful item, you are paying the actual price for the item. Well, as close to the actual price as the market will bear, anyway. We have been trained for far too long to think of food as a cheap item, a small part of the budget. It shouldn’t be. Not if we’re actually paying the real price for real food.

Speaking of money, I am also lucky that I could take on a job that doesn’t pay a living wage. That lack of money is not the fault of Susan or PPCF by any means. My income reflects how we value farmers. We don’t. As a single, childless person with relatively little debt compared to others my age, I am willing to live on less than I made 10 years ago because that’s the price I had to pay to learn what I needed to learn. You can read all the books you want. The only way to really learn how to farm is to do. I happened to pair passion with relative financial ability to support it. I have run into a fair number of others that have the passion, but don’t have the financial ability to support the learning process. This is a problem. We need to be supporting our new and young farmers, not discouraging them.

In conclusion, my summer has been exhausting, painful, sun burning, financially frustrating, and the best summer I’ve had in years. I have learned so much about farming, and about myself (turns out I can take a tan if I spend enough time outside), that I wouldn’t trade it for all the health insurance and retirement accounts in the world. I have learned so much that I want to pass on to you folks. Hopefully I will have a post up at least once a week for the rest of the season to pass on at least a few of the lessons I’ve absorbed along with the dirt that has taken up permanent residence under my fingernails.

Hanna Ranch Movie

I know I’ve been MIA for a while now, and I intend to update you on that and on some of the cool things happening in my life, but for the moment- this movie.

If you live in Southern Colorado (specifically Colorado Springs to Pueblo) or you have any interest at all in the plight of the family farmer or rancher- you have got to see Hanna Ranch. For the local folks, it’s going to be at Ivywild for a few more days. For everyone else, it’s travelling around a bit and available on iTunes. It should be showing up on Netflix eventually, too. It is one place, one ranch, and one family- but a story that I suspect a lot of the agricultural community knows in one way or another.

We need to support our farms. In 30 years, we’ve lost half-a-million ranchers (or farmers in general- can’t remember which) which is a problem. This film clearly illustrates why.

“Food Processing Unit”

I really feel the need to share this new technological break-through with you.

So what they did was invent the backyard pig. A pig that no doubt runs on fossil fuel.

They invented a backyard pig that doesn’t produce bacon!

What are your thoughts on this?