We thought it might be fun this week to give you some up-close and personal insight into our week via the Almighty To-Do List.
The lists we make at the beginning of each week are generally over-sized for the time we have, and so are an exercise in not letting things slip through the cracks. As long as a task makes it onto the list, we know we won’t forget about it in the midst of the chaos, and even if it doesn’t get done, it will be moved onto next week’s list as top-billing.
Because the season has undeniably changed over the last week (we had a light frost on Sunday night!!), the tasks at hand are increasing in diversity beyond the pick-wash-sell, pick-wash-sell of summer. We are now gradually turning our focus to cleaning up the farm for winter, prepping our soil and cropping for spring, infrastructure projects, Tax prep, etc.
It has never been easy for me to hold in the present moment both the reality of the current season and the preparations for the coming season. This is a very necessary skill for a farmer – always knowing what needs to be next month’s reality, and so planting those seeds (literally and proverbially) in the present. Calendars and to-do lists, as well as increasing years of experience, help.
So here goes! Try not to get overwhelmed. Despite what you might think, this list gets us pretty excited. Many of these activities are projects that have either been on hold for the summer, or signal the slowing down of the season into winter – either way, we welcome the work.
Move chicken tractors, feed water and collect eggs
Pick up whey from Beltane and deliver to pigs
Move goats to pasture
Harvest, Process & Pack veg
Seed greenhouse for winter
Set ground posts for moving greenhouse
Order potting soil
Build grain bin/pick up grain order
Move pig paddock
Move winter squash indoors
Cover crop harvested beds
Order more spinach/radish seed
Set up greenhouse for winter chickens
Finish masonry for woodstove install
Fix bent greenhouse rollup side
Process damaged winter squash for soup
Can tomato sauce
Mow front yard
Move tomato vines to compost
Collect black plastic from Winter squash field
Fill sand bags
Pick up 1000 pound bales of mulch straw from Bryan
Wood chip mulch to apple trees
Deer protection around apples
This weekend I listened to a TED talk given by Dan Barber (Executive Chef of Stone Barns). He was relating a love story between himself and a fish. This fish was raised in an incredibly unique environment on the coast of Spain, on a farm that is a model of a true sustainability. So much so that it is also one of the largest and most diverse bird sanctuaries in Europe. Without going into unnecessary details (see the whole talk HERE), the point is that they encourage biodiversity in a way that mimics nature. This includes an incredible bird population that consumes about 20% of the “farmed” fish. That kind of loss would be totally unacceptable to agribusiness of any kind. But it allows for a system in balance that accepts loss in the context of valuing all life and appreciating the true bounty that nature offers. And Dan Barber’s beloved fish was a product of that system. And it was delicious.
As Charlotte and I strive to be better farmers, our hope is to produce similarly excellent food from a system in balance. Easier said than done. Our farm doesn’t just exist in nature. The human effort we call farming is extremely destructive at certain times and from certain points of view. The act of tilling that Charlotte talked about in her last post, completely alters the ecosystem of a field. Reestablishing the balance from that point requires time and a juggling of all kinds of factors (water, nutrition, plant varieties and their rotation). When we add the financial pressure to produce enough vegetables to pay the bills it can be easy to lose site of the big picture. But we’re getting there!
One example: We would like to bring cabbage to market. But there are three different types of cabbage moths that lay eggs on our cabbage and as caterpillars they chew holes in it. Conventional farming indicates a threshold for the number of caterpillars per plant at which you begin your pesticide spray regimen which kills the pest caterpillars, but also any other caterpillar that happens to be on the plant. We choose not to spray pesticides on your food, organically approved or otherwise. We choose to wait. As the caterpillars grow, different types of parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillar and consume it as they develop, eventually hatching and killing it. They depend on the caterpillar for food. Research shows that there is a change in the inoculated caterpillar’s saliva, which triggers an immune response by the cabbage making it less desirable to the moth that lays eggs of the pest caterpillar.
To simply see the crop damage and destroy the pest is short sighted: in destroying the pest by spraying, the beneficial insect that would naturally control the pest population, is also destroyed. So the cycle perpetuates itself leading to more of the same insecticide use year after year with greater and greater resistance. We prefer to sell a little less cabbage.
Nature is full of these interrelationships and our goal is to foster those relationships into a more symbiotic whole. We choose to tolerate losses in the meantime as our land recovers from the huge changes that have taken place in our three-year tenure. So this year, you may not see much cabbage. We thank you for bearing with us in our struggles, and may we all look forward to a more and more bountiful Sweet Acre.
If you are a homeowner, I’d hazard a guess that you have not been proud of your lawn this summer. It’s likely brown, and patchy from the nearly absolute lack of rain we’ve had this summer. In a recent statement, US Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack expressed sympathy for the farmers of Rhode Island, where part of the state has been declared a natural disaster! It’s hard to reconcile weather that makes every day a perfect beach day, with a state of natural disaster, but the parched conditions have left many farmers hurting this summer. We’ve heard from cattle farmers who are already feeding hay to their cows because their pastures aren’t producing enough grass for grazing. And I can only imagine the price of that hay, a crop that is never irrigated (except, of course, by rain), will be sky-rocketing due to a severely limited supply.
On a vegetable farm, we do plan to irrigate our crops, setting up elaborate arrays of drip-tape that slowly leak water very close to the base of each plant. It is a very efficient means of watering. But when it hasn’t rained in 6+ weeks, and the soil has turned to dust that blows away in the wind, those lines simply can’t keep up. In these circumstances we use overhead irrigation to really throw down a solid inch of water, which is what plants needs each week to thrive. We are lucky to have a pond on our property out of which we can pump water, through a long series of hoses, to a sprinkler so large it’s referred to as a “gun”.
The conditions we have experienced this summer are such that much of our crops would have died without this overhead system. Indeed, most of our effort has been in keeping plants alive, rather than helping them grow. There’s a big difference, which includes time. In a recent episode of the WNPR show Next, a New England farmer tallied up his economic losses this summer due to the drought conditions, but not because any of his plants died. Instead the problem was that a large percentage of his crops never got planted because of the time he had to spend irrigating so as not to lose the crops he already had in the ground.
There has been an occasional rain this summer, and I can’t describe the sweet relief of that sound for a farmer. The amount of work being taken off of your shoulders by those rainclouds, the way that it drenches the fields to a degree you and your water pump could only dream of. It usually calls for a celebratory cup of coffee as we sit and just listen.
For some years now we have been interested in an approach to crop farming called no-till. It is a method of growing that leaves the soil completely undisturbed, allowing it to retain the natural structure and microbiology that is lost once soil is mechanically turned. Our interest in it was sparked by a mentor and friend who uses this method with great success here in Lebanon. The health, productivity, and flavor of the crops he and his wife grow are impressive, and the time saved on weeding is extremely enticing. Tilling brings weed seeds to the top of the soil where they germinate alongside the intended crop, whereas no-till farming leaves the weed seeds below ground, far from the alluring light of the sun. The structure of soil that has never been tilled is crumbly, as opposed to sandy tilled soil that is prone to drying out. So much of a tilled field remains bare ground, even when the crop is planted in it: The paths and spaces between rows are all bare and vulnerable to the drying effects of the sun and wind. Topsoil and organic matter are reduced by these natural forces. Land that is always “under cover” of plant life or mulch can absorb and hold water much better, reducing the need for irrigation. Not to mention the benefits of a soil that is more “alive” in its microbiology and therefore more nutritious to plants. And so, no-till seems an even stronger approach to vegetable farming in the face of these dry summer conditions that we are being warned will continue.
Raise your hand if you have been the unwitting bystander of a rather uncomfortable exchange at our market table when someone complains about the price of our vegetables. The comment is often accompanied by a recitation of how much they could buy the “same thing” for at Stop & Shop, or Walmart, or Big Y. One market day in particular, I remember being very discouraged by how much of this negative feedback we were getting, and went to commiserate with a good farmer-friend to ask his advice. An eternal optimist, he smiled and said “Well that’s easy! Tell them to go to the grocery store!”
He was right in a way. Some people should just take their negativity and go to the proverbial grocery store. Often we find those people are frustrated about other things and there is really no answer that will appease them anyways. But there are times when it is an honest question, and so deserves an honest answer. Part of which is that, frankly, most of our vegetables are not actually any more expensive than the organic produce you can buy at the grocery store (ok,ok, maybe Walmart has us beat). A few of the more labor-intensive, high-convenience crops (like the hand-cut, double-washed bags of baby greens) are a bit pricier, but we always try to have a less expensive equivalent option (lettuce heads).
BUT! Here I am, comparing our veggies to the sad, limp, bland grocery store fare as if they were actually comparable! The point of this piece is to address a few of the ways in which freshly picked, organically grown vegetables are indeed very different from the norm. Honestly, there are so many I can’t address them all here, but there are a few differences that have been on my mind lately.
First and foremost is the nutritional content. Most produce that is grown on a mass scale for wholesale distribution is harvested mechanically. This is not a gentle process like hand-picking, and because this produce needs to be wrangled from the vine by a machine, and then sit on a truck or plane across en route many hundreds of miles, it is picked under-ripe so that it is hard and therefor more resilient to the beating. There goes the flavor. It then sits on said truck/plane for up to a week before sitting on the shelves of the grocery store for 1-3 days, and then at home on your counter for a good few more. The loss in nutritional content over this odyssey is significant and begins the moment the vegetable or fruit is removed from the plant.
Then there is the attention we pay to the soil. This is not an organic vs. conventional issue. Not all organic farms – especially not those producing on a mass scale for wholesale distribution – pay attention to anything more than the “big 3” macronutrients: Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These are essentially all you need to produce a lot of big vegetables quickly. Adding and monitoring only these 3 chemical elements in the soil leads to massive imbalances in other important micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, manganese, and boron to name a few. Many people (including us) would argue that much of the produce available at the grocery store is no longer “whole” when it is lacking in so many nutritional components.
In Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food (Yes, I’m still reading it!), he concludes that this dilution of the nutritional content of our food is a kind of “nutritional inflation” in that you have to eat more vegetables to get the same amount of nutrition that we used to get from just one eggplant/tomato/pepper before industrial agriculture was the norm. In tracking 45 different food crops since the 1950’s, the USDA has found a decline in Vitamin C by 20%, Iron by 15%, and Calcium by 16%. Because we don’t pour massive amounts of nitrogen into our soil, our vegetables take a little longer to size-up, and their root systems are more robust, searching deeper in the ground to access a wide range of minerals.
My final fun-fact on this topic does have to do with organic vs. conventional methods. Because organically grown crops are not sprayed with harsh chemicals that kill insects and disease, the plants have to defend themselves against these scourges naturally. In doing so, they produce higher amounts of phytochemicals like carotenoids and polyphenols that have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in humans, according to Pollan’s research.
When we began farming, we had never taken a class on soil biology. We have learned by doing over the last 6 years, and each newly acquired experience and piece of knowledge adds another level of excitement and interest to an occupation that can sometimes feel like a grind. With experience and knowledge under our belts, we also become more comfortable having the tough conversations with the tough customers, all with a big smile and the sincere hope that we’re getting through to some of them.
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