Genuine Faux News of the Farm
Vol 4 Issue 12 - December 2008
On a recent driving excursion, we were musing about how far the farm has come in just a few short years. What amazes us is how much we have adapted and changed since GFF's inception in 2004. Equally difficult to comprehend is the fact that we are now one of the most established vegetable producers in the area.
Starting the farm business and the CSA was very much like pushing rope. You can accomplish it, but the rope will not help much with the process. It wasn't easy convincing people in the area that we could be trusted with growing their produce. It's amazing how many times you can explain that the red and yellow stripy tomato IS okay to eat. It was even more difficult developing a CSA with no local precedent. We had to create a market by educating people about what a CSA could be. No small feat when you've never run one or been a part of one yourself!
We planned as best as we knew how and worked hard to make things go even though we weren't sure if any of it would work. In addition, we had to the be the 'experts' in what we were doing - even though we were feeling our way through the process and (frantically) learning as we went. I don't know how many times one or the other of us wanted to throw up our hands and say, "Why are you asking us? We're NEW at this!" All the while, we realized that no one else in the area knew the job any better. All we could do was teach ourselves as effectively and efficiently as possible in hopes that we could get the business off the ground. It was a little bit like being told to practice a series of knots on a piece of rope. Some successes and some really big tangles to undo!
But, some incredible things happened along the way. We realized that we really do have a reasonable idea of what we are doing. We also learned that uncertainty, continuous learning and adaptability are part of the program.
Even better, we learned what it means to be a part of a positive community that focuses on things like sustainably grown food and the best ways for distributing and processing that food. The people who joined our CSA and patronized our market booths made a significant impact on how we see our roles in the community. We know we have support, and that gives us a secure base from which to work. Suddenly, the rope we were pushing became a safety net or harness to keep us from falling.
We have now completed our 4th year of the CSA and 5th year on the farm. The combination of hard work, experience and an awareness of local opportunities brings us into yet another phase of development. It seems someone has tied the other end of the rope to something that is pulling us forward. It is now our job to navigate intelligently and carefully so that we can remain a sustainable operation. We no longer have to provide all of the momentum, and this is a welcomed change.
It is human nature to look for things that validate our beliefs and ignore things that counter those beliefs. On the farm, we try to avoid being close-minded as much as we possibly can. But, the most recent Organic News from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship had a picture (from August 2007) that impressed upon me the importance of organic production - even after reevaluating what I was seeing without my 'rose colored organic glasses.'
[click to view larger picture]
Enclosed in red is a farm that is operated using organic practices (not all is certified). Surrounding fields are conventional fields. The organic fields all appear to be much more uniform in coloring. Part of this indicates to me a more uniform crop - and apparently healthier plants and land. Clearly, not every conventional field is created equal either - as some plots appear to be healthier than others.
More than anything, I think this illustrates the difference between good and bad farming practices. It is possible to grow conventional fields intelligently, just as it is possible to use organic methods badly. My suspicion is that one can abuse a field using organic methods, but it is much harder to do so and maintain certification.
Perhaps this makes one of the best arguments for organic practices and organic certification. The process itself requires care in management. One cannot farm organically without making purposeful observations of the land, the crop and the surrounding environment. Every input has to be carefully weighed for its benefits and costs. The result will typically be better stewardship of the land.
Can a conventional farmer do these things? Of course they can. And, if they do, they may eventually learn to adopt more practices that approach those of organic farmers. The problems is that too few of our land stewards are taking the task seriously.
4 Issue 12 - December 2008
So, what DO you do when the growing season is over?
Rob hears this question frequently in the winter months and it is often a bit difficult to answer. After all, this is often a personalized equivalent of "How are you?" The person asking doesn't want to hear much more than something about keeping busy. The hard part is determining whether a person wants to know or not. Hence one reason why newsletters are a great outlet. Don't want to know? Don't read! Otherwise, we're going to tell you!
One thing we did just after Thanksgiving was finish putting on the shingles on the east side of one of our outbuildings. Completion was five hours prior to our first serious snow. For those who don't know, we took three layers of old shingles off of two sides during the 4th of July. One side was immediately re-covered. The other side...not so much. Picking happened - that's our only explanation.
In our defense, there was a fair amount of repair to the eaves that was required. And, the down side? We still have two more sides to tear off and reroof.
Persons who have purchased eggs from us have been disappointed lately in the dearth of eggs available for their consumption. For that matter, the farmers who FEED the chickens that LAY those eggs have also been disappointed. The chickens were placed on notice, with little effect. One would think the disappearance of the meat chickens (the boyus) and the turkeys might have had some impact...
We have been trying to determine what changes were necessary to encourage laying and have finally found that a decent light on a timer is what they needed. We try to give the birds around 16 hours of light (the light comes on early in the AM, turns off when the sun is up and back on in the evening after the sun goes down). The result has been the return of eggs to the menu.
Are you interested in eggs? Let us know.
Note: chickens aren't fond of snow - they ran out into it once. Humorous? Yes. Repeat performance? No.
Keep your eyes open for the Go Green Fair to be held at the W in Waverly on January 31. We will be holding a table at the fair from 9am to noon which gives everyone another opportunity to come and talk to us about the farm and the CSA. We will place more details of this event in our January newsletter for your consideration. Otherwise, just mark it down on your calendar!
Winter is our time for dreaming, planning and preparing. We like to give insights into what we are thinking, with the belief that this helps build the connection with the farm - and with the land - that we want everyone to have. Here are some things we are likely to be trying in next year's fields:
Trials with under sown cover crops
Mulching and cultivating are good tools for helping our crops, but there just isn't enough time to stay on top of it all when the crops really get going. In an effort to maintain soil health AND reduce weed competition, we are going to do some controlled trials involving under sowing market crops with cover crops.
Row cover trials
The only organic treatment that is shown to help winter squash overcome borers and other pests are floating row covers early in their growth. The covers would then be removed at the point of bloom (for pollination). We are sufficiently convinced that we should give this a full trial in 2009.
The rutabega trial was a success. At the very least, Tammy and I have found that we like rutabega very much. So, even if you DON'T like them, we will be growing them. The fall pok choi planting was also successful and we will likely stick to a fall planting schedule for those. Under consideration for new crops are arugala, parsnips and artichokes.
Climbing Crop Trellising
We have discovered a couple of cultivars for dry beans, limas and cucumbers that like to climb. As a result, we will be working to come up with better methods for trellising these crops. More accurately, we will be working harder this winter and early spring to get set up to be sure the trellis is ready.
But wait...there's more! No, really - you have to wait (until January)
'Tis the season for ag conferences. At least, that's the way it should be since we couldn't manage to go to any during the growing season. At present, we are planning to attend the Practical Farmers of Iowa conference in Marshalltown. We are strong supporters of PFI and very much appreciate what they are doing for Iowa agriculture.
We are also planning on attending the annual organics conference sponsored by MOSES in LaCrosse. Last year was our first time attending the conference and we found it to be very useful. This year, we are planning on having Rob attend the Organic University session on beekeeping. At least that's the buzz we've been hearing.
Vol 4 Issue 12 - December 2008
It has been some time since we mentioned this Flash movie clip and we have a number of new visitors who may enjoy it. A few years ago, we were introduced to Grocery Store Wars. It is, of course, a parody of the Star Wars saga and it does promote organic/local foods. Clearly, if you do not know Star Wars, much of the humor will be lost on you. But, if you do, we hope you enjoy seeing Cuke Skywalker, Princess Lettuce, Ham Solo and Chewbroccoli as they traverse the store.
May the farm be with you. (It's a sort of ...field)
For other links, go here.
We grew kale for the first time this season and were impressed by each of the three varieties we grew for various reasons. First and foremost, we found these crops to be fairly easy to grow. It was not difficult to grow enough to continue to have enough supply of kale to keep our CSA customers 'swimming' in it for a large portion of the season. And, the simple fact that these crops keep regenerating, makes them a good production choice.
On the taste front, we have found it easier to convince persons who claim not to like greens to try kale. First, kale is a brassica (related to broccoli, cauliflower, etc), so it has a different taste and texture. Second, kale is excellent for soups and is also excellent as part of a stir fry. This makes it easier to allow persons to taste kale without the overall 'commitment' salads tend to entail.
And, if you are looking for something that is healthy, kale is your vegetable!
Red Russian Kale
Red Russian was only planted as a fall crop simply because it was advertised to be hardy to -10 degrees F. We don't know how true this is because they are currently buried in snow. We didn't think about that part. The leaves of Red Russian tend to be more tender than other kales and have a mild taste. Harvest is easier than the other two varieties we tried and it does appear to be a great fall crop. We suspect that this variety tastes sweeter after a frost, but we may try a spring crop to determine this for ourselves.
We have found that if we target a specific crop or variety for special attention, it helps us to isolate processes that lead to successful harvests. Usually, we make selections in response to a weak crop or a specific problem. Targeting usually results in increased success for related crops and varieties as well - but not always in the same year. Some of our 2009 targets are:
Chioggia Beets - We've successfully grown beets and love the taste of the Chioggia's. Since the deer have discovered they love our beets (leaving none for the rest of us), we will target this variety of beet for exclusion trials (covers and fences to prevent access).
Snow Peas - Shell and snap peas have similar cultivation requirements, so if we focus on our favorite, the others should also come along nicely. In this case, our focus is on trellising and exclusion of deer.
German Butterball Potatoes - two years of excessive rains have caused problems with our potato crops. We will be trying some cultivation and planting techniques to increase reliability of potato production.
Christmas Limas - these are a pole lima that is supposed to be able to handle our shorter seasons and be very productive. We will be focusing on trellising techniques and mulching options
Burgess Buttercup Squash - our favorite winter squash will be treated to some row cover experiments this year in an effort to exclude vine borers and squash bugs.
Roots Market in Cedar Falls has offered to host CSA informational sessions. The first will be Saturday, December 13 from 1 to 3pm. Even if you already know us and feel comfortable with the CSA, it would be pleasant to visit with you!
If you want to see who we are, ask us questions about how the CSA works or just want to introduce yourselves - we'll be there! We will be willing and able to take signups in person for next summer as well.
A second session will be held from 11am to 1pm on Saturday, January 24.
Vol 4 Issue 12 - December 2008
There was no voting, no committees and very little discussion. Even so, we again award our annual vegetable variety awards for cultivars we were most impressed with during the growing year.
#1. Dr. Wyche's Yellow Tomato
Given the nature of the tomato crop this year, it was hard to avoid choosing a bunch of tomato cultivars. However, when it came to overall performance for production, plant health and length of harvest, Dr. Wyche's Yellow easily beat out the other tomatoes this season. And, of course, we don't pick a cultivar if it doesn't taste good! Beautiful and tasty - these plants produce big, yellow tomatoes that rarely crack.
#2.St Valery's Carrot
All of our carrot varieties did well this season. But, we cannot deny that the St Valery's carrots gave us the most consistent size and shape. These carrots got fairly large, but did not get 'woody.' Sweet consistent taste and texture all the way to the core of the root. We cannot deny that some of this varieties success had to do with the year - but it still beat out Bolero, Nelson and Danvers (our other carrots).
#3.Blue Curled Scotch Kale
Rob would have shuddered if you had told him that a carrot and a kale would be two of his top three for the year. He doesn't like carrots and he and Tammy just learned to eat kale this year (just like the rest of you!). These plants were productive for a LONG time. They are compact, healthy plants and the harvested leaves hold extremely well in the refrigerator. Excellent in soups and stir fries. This variety is the one that has sold us on kale.
A romaine lettuce with a refreshing taste was introduced to CSA members this year with positive reviews. These started well in trays for future field transplant. Both spring and fall plantings produced good stands of strong plants. We did not notice any of the plants bolting and we appreciate the fact that they do not seem to collect as much dirt in the lower leaves as some varieties.
#5.King Richard Leek
These tall leeks have a stronger taste than many leeks without being disagreeable. In fact, reports have been very favorable. We like to say that leeks are understated - instead of "hello, I'm a leek," they say things like "Welcome to your soup." We especially like the long heads on this variety that give you more leek to use per plant. Unlike many varieties, we did not have to repeatedly hill the rows to increase the edible portion of the fruit. We like that.
Superstar Onion - early production, nice shape and good taste. Not a storing onion, but great for summer eating.
Provider Green Bean - Good sized pods that stay tender for a longer production period than some varieties. They remind us a little of Jade in taste, with a slightly different taste quality. Good for freezing.
Grandpa Admires Leaf Lettuce - beautiful plants, excellent for late spring/summer production. Great taste and a soft leaf variety.
Black Krim - oh...the taste. yum. The best of our 'black/purple' varieties.
Sweet Genovese Basil - another great production year. More wonderful basil leaves!
Early Dividend Broccoli - mild taste that doesn't talk back later. Excellent main head production and even better side shoot production.
The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
You may recall that we reviewed this book in April as well. But, at that time, I had not completed the book and the growing season was taking time from reading (but never from learning).
My current plan is to read the entire book cover to cover (mostly accomplished), and then go back and reread sections that I am currently working on for future plans for the farm. In fact, if there were to be a text book on the topic of organic growing on five acres of garden - this is it.
Coleman makes an assumption that you already have a base of gardening knowledge. That doesn't mean a beginning gardener couldn't read this book. But, it does mean that it will resonate more with someone who has some experience growing food crops. Especially if that experience goes beyond a home garden.
There are concrete examples, based on Coleman's own operation, that illustrate the concepts being covered throughout the book. These give the reader a starting point from which they can then develop their own plans. In our case, these examples give us new insights into how we might improve our own operations. In fact, there are some things we have considered, but not done because we didn't know where to start.
Coleman reminds the reader that every farm has some different characteristics and a dedicated farmer will continue to work at improving how they do things. He doesn't need to sell us on this point. We strongly believe sustainable farming is a learning process. It's a difficult job, trying to figure out how to work with nature!
And, finally, the book often validates what we have been saying or doing for the last several years. It doesn't hurt to read something that fits your own thoughts and, perhaps, says it even better than you have before! The affirmation of seeing some of your own beliefs put in print by someone as highly respected as Elliot Coleman doesn't hurt either.
For other recommendations from GFF, visit this page.
Vol 4 Issue 12 - December 2008
One of our winter tasks is email distribution list maintenance. Our distribution lists must now be split into multiple groups to avoid being blocked by mail servers. Happily, our distribution list population provides us with a logical breakdown.
CSA Member Lists: CSA members are automatically added to this distribution list. We use the distribution lists to make announcements during the season, including previews of what to expect in your shares. We now have separate lists for each distribution location (Tripoli, Waverly and Cedar Falls).
Opt In Lists: Our opt in lists are intended for notification regarding our newsletters and special events. We have a local, non-local and business list of this sort. On occasion, the local and business lists may receive notifications about available product. We try to combine these announcements with the newsletter announcement to limit the number of contacts we make. Persons on these lists may opt out at any time.
Opting In or Out: If you are not a CSA subscriber and wish to opt in to a list, please contact us and tell us which list you want to be a part of. If you are receiving mails as a part of a list and wish to be removed, you may request removal via email. If you are a CSA subscriber for 2009, we strongly request that you remain opted in to that list so you are aware of any important announcements.
Some potential subscribers fear that a CSA share would be too much for their family. In these cases, we strongly recommend that they consider splitting a share with someone else. The difficulty, of course, is handling the logistics of a split share. Here are a few approaches some of our subscribers have used.
Alternating weeks: Much of the produce you receive during a distribution can be kept for two weeks (or more) in a proper storage environment. Alternating pickup with those you share with (or following a preset schedule) requires the least amount of interaction between share holders and can be very efficient.
The Produce "Draft": After one representative picks up the weekly share, all members meet to select what they want of the produce. All produce is placed on a table and members take turns selecting items they wish to take home. It's a fun social activity and usually means that no one is getting a vegetable they do not like.
Half and Half: Some members have done their best to split the quantities of each item equally. Of course, there is always negotiation possibilities for swapping. We have seen all members arrive at distribution to split the share while they pick up and we also know some simply drop half off at the other's home.
Community Dinner: If you have a select group of friends over for dinner periodically, why not split a share and use a sizable chunk of the week's produce to create one or more dinners a week? A different person can host the dinner each week. Remaining produce and leftovers can be distributed in whatever fashion seems appropriate.
Welcome to 2009 share holders who are new next year and to those that are returning from prior years! All members who have signed up for 2009 will be placed on our CSA distribution list. With the season recently completed, emails will focus primarily on our monthly newsletters.
As always, feel free to contact us with questions and we will do our best to answer! Also, if you wish to converse with those who have experience our CSA in prior years, we will gladly refer you to them!
We are committed to filling up our 120 slots by the end of this year for 2009. The move from 60 CSA slots to 120 is a huge change. It is important that we be at, or close to, full so that we can proceed with planning for our growing model during next year's season.
Currently, we have 80 spots reserved for next year - so there is still plenty of room! Join us.
All you have to do to secure a spot is make a $25 deposit this year. For more information, please go here on our web site.
Tammy's mother, Sue, is fond of growing nice, big, purple eggplants. These fruits are often the key ingredient for eggplant parmesan, one of her favorites. But, as is so often the case, Mom's dish of choice is NOT appreciated by all members of the family.
Tammy likes vegetables. Remember, it was Tammy who had to encourage Rob to eat more veg? So, who was sad this year when the eggplant crop was poor? It wasn't Tammy! The mere suggestion that we grow some eggplants was enough to make her question someone's sanity (guess who?). In fact, Rob's winning argument for growing eggplant in the garden a few years ago went something like this:
"Hey, we won't have to feel bad about selling all of the eggplant we grow since we won't want to eat them anyway!"
Even more amazing than this is the fact that Rob found out he kind of liked eggplant - much to Tammy's horror!
We tell you all of this as a prelude to this month's GFF story:
Some years ago in the Zenk garden, Mom and Dad, with their two lovely daughters, worked to plant their vegetable garden for the year. The asparagus was already sending up spears and the mulch had been tilled in. They would plant a little bit of everything, just as they did most years. There would be beans and tomatoes, oregano and garlic, onions and ... eggplant.
When you are kid, there may be no greater injustice than to have to care for a plant that produces something you do NOT want to eat.
The garden grew. The plants in the garden were, in general, healthy. The crops were being harvested and consumed. The eggplants grew tall, with green, healthy foliage. But, for some strange reason that year, the eggplants were not blooming. And, without a bloom, there would be no fruit.
What could the problem be? Too much water? Too little water? Was there some sort of disease that needed to be diagnosed? There was discussion about this, of course. And, some amount of disappointment that there would be no eggplant parmesan. But, in the end, the crop failure was attributed to either bad seed or just a strange year.
A year without eggplant parmesan.
It wasn't until many years later that the blight that caused the crop failure was discovered. Or should we say, the culprit confessed?
We all know that a kid who has seen injustice can be motivated to be diligent in a task. We also now know that a kid can make sure that every flower is picked off of an eggplant plant before they turn to fruit.
Vol 4 Issue 12 - December 2008 page 6
Little known fact: During a music symposium after his senior year in high school, Rob played the cello 10 hours a day for a week.