Sunday a group of us gathered at Wild Woods Farm to pull plastic over the new greenhouse.
Pulling plastic takes a couple of experienced team leaders and a crew that can follow directions. The idea is to make the plastic covering as taught as possible then secure it with wiggle wire for years of use. The work proceeded as planned on a warm, clear and calm day.
It’s pruning time for grape vines, fruit trees, and any kind of tree. This weekend people were pruning in t-shirts because it was so warm. The concern is sap begins to flow before the cuts heal, creating an entry point for disease. Fingers crossed I got mine pruned in time. Folks are preparing to tap maple tree sap for syrup so we are at the in between time for finishing pruning.
My onions and shallots have sprouted and I moved them to the landing to get more light. They seem feeble at this stage. I’m not sure what else I can do but make sure they have moisture and light. This is the second year I tried starting them myself. The first didn’t produce usable onion sets. This year’s experiment is for the crew at Sundog Farm to start some of my shallot seeds as well to compare results. Eventually I’ll get this right, hopefully this year.
While garden and yard work beckons it is still winter. Piles of snow remain on the ground. Snow is forecast this week. There is hope for spring, but it is a false hope. It’s best to use the time to catch up on indoors work so when true spring arrives we are ready.
“The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm provides a public space for connecting to the land and local history through inclusive community-led opportunities,” said Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, farm project manager. She spoke at last night’s Johnson County Food Policy Council public forum where the poor farm was a featured topic.
This was my first forum as a member of the council. I brought a five gallon beverage jug, lemonade, coffee condiments, and a 20-pound bag of ice. One attraction of the event was a catered meal from a local food-centered restaurant. Attendance we good at about 80 people. We ran out of lemonade.
Solid ideas were discussed, centering around how to help beginning farmers get access to land, capital and markets. A number of “eaters,” a.k.a. consumers, were present, leading to discussions about pricing, quality, and health issues related to food. There was no lack of discussion and much of it was captured on audio-video or written down.
The county poor farm is not a priority for me. Some of the same people who attended a similar local food forum eight years ago were present last night. It seemed little progress has been made in establishing a vibrant local food system. The challenges are many, the approaches individualistic. There are activities, such as farmers markets and public events held at farms. This forum was an example of a public, food-related event. Discussion is positive, yet what is lacking is something to tie them all together in a coherent system. I don’t believe the poor farm will be that string of twine.
In 2017, the Johnson County Supervisors decided to revitalize the poor farm as a “New Century Farm.” The 3-2 decision was depicted as contentious by the local newspaper. Then supervisors Rod Sullivan, Mike Carberry and Kurt Friese voted to adopt this plan. Lisa Green-Douglass and Janelle Rettig did not. Friese died in office and Carberry lost his re-election bid, yet county support for the site persists. The forum was an opportunity to discuss how the poor farm might fit into a fledgling, disjointed local food system.
What made the 2017 supervisor meeting “contentious” was the discussion of affordable housing at the poor farm. Affordable housing is a key county issue, although I’m not sure of the benefit of sticking a development off Melrose Avenue, which is distant from the city-center and amenities like grocery stores. The poor farm is currently on the Iowa City bus route, but that route is being considered for elimination. There are logistical challenges to be addressed if the poor farm will be used for housing for people besides those who work or farm there.
One of the forum panelists, Alfred Matiyabo, gained access to land via the poor farm and this seems an excellent use of the resource. Land access is a key need of beginning farmers. More of that, as well as development of the planned trails and facilities, could create another valued farm incubator, conservation, and recreation site within the county.
My sense is two and a half years after adoption of the plan for the poor farm the community conversation is just beginning. As long as the supervisors have the will to fund activities, the project should be encouraged and supported. However, we can’t let it distract us from the bigger issue of engendering a local food system that matters in terms of satisfied consumers, economically viable farmers, and ecologically improved farming practices. The Historic Poor Farm fits in to the system, but is just one aspect among many.
The best part of last night was networking with friends and people I hadn’t met. If this is what being a member of the food policy council leads to, I’m ready for more.
The ten year old ran to the greenhouse to tell us, “There’s a lamb! I’m not kidding. She went to get the towel!”
The shepherdess left behind her power drill and rushed to the barn.
So began my eighth spring helping at Local Harvest CSA. More lambs dropped that evening and the goats are due soon. I’ve been around animals enough to recognize their pregnancy.
My job is to make soil blocks. I made enough for 3,120 seedlings. Once the seeds germinate and are established they will be transplanted in the high tunnel for a spring share of greens and lettuce. One of the farm partners was present planting flower seeds as well.
Yesterday had a couple of challenges. The hydrant outside the greenhouse was frozen so I carried water from another in buckets. The soil mix was frozen and required breaking up with a garden rake as I mixed it with water. Compared to previous February activities everything proceeded easily.
The seeding crew moved in and out of the greenhouse. There were a total of eight of us happy to be there and looking forward to spring.
My 2013 decision to develop a barter arrangement with my friend Susan Jutz helped resolve a couple of issues.
I needed the cash income plus a share of the vegetables she grew. More importantly than income, I wanted to become a better gardener and needed a mentor.
By almost any measure our relationship was successful and endured even as Susan sold her farm and moved out of state.
On Feb. 1, 2013 I sent this email proposing an arrangement at her Local Harvest CSA:
Hope you are staying warm. I have an interest in developing a deeper relationship with producing local foods. While our kitchen garden is doing well, I want to explore the possibility of doing more with local foods to provide a source of income. This is a long range project, and if you offer it, I would like to exchange my labor for a share of your CSA this season.
I think you would find this a cheap and reliable source of farm labor, and what I would get out of it would be a deeper knowledge of how you do your work.
What do you think?
We worked through details that lasted not only that season but established a continuing relationship now entering its eighth year. I expect the conversation about local food to continue this month with Carmen, Susan’s successor. Greenhouse work usually begins in February.
The Community Supported Agriculture model is the workhorse of the local food system. Instead of producing a few fungible commodities, CSA farms produce many types of vegetables in many varieties, providing a weekly share for members who buy in at the beginning of the season. They also leverage other producers to provide eggs, meat, bread, jellies, jams, and other items they don’t produce for their customers. On Carmen’s farm she produces grass-fed lambs and goats. The presence of livestock on a farm is an important part of reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers. Some CSA farms are more diverse than others but the salient feature is that the main consumer model is changed to include a share the farmer provides.
Operating a small farm is challenging. It requires hard work and specific knowledge about a wide variety of issues. It seems like more work than people with a big job at a large-sized employer are used to. There is also more risk during a growing season. Most local food farmers I know do something off the farm to supplement farm income. Every one of them has a positive disposition despite the challenges.
There is an ongoing discussion about alternatives to the CSA model.
Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farm in Virginia posted an article on Medium in which he wrote, “The romance of neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power.” Newman’s assertion is small family farms are not competition for, or a sustainable answer to burgeoning consolidation of agriculture. He touched on a number of obvious points, beginning with farmers markets.
Farmers markets are nice for consumers, but expensive to participate in. If some local food farmers produce for the seasonal markets they compromise their flexibility and scalability, he said. I don’t know about the operational advantages of a local food cooperative because many farmers already coordinate activities with each other. A farmer of meat, vegetables, flowers or the like can do better to avoid such markets. At a minimum one requires additional outlets to extend sales beyond the farmers market season.
Newman lays out the challenges small family farms face regarding workforce in a labor intensive business. Putting together a workforce that accomplishes weeding, cultivation, planting, harvesting, pest control, and everything else isn’t easy when the operating assumption is some percentage of workforce will volunteer or work for very low wages. Newman’s idea of forming a cooperative addresses the wage issue but also seems overly idealistic.
In his book The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front of the Good Food Revolution, Ontario farmer Brent Preston tells the story about how he and his spouse found sustainability in the local food movement by transitioning away from farmers markets to wholesale production and sales. This book is a must read for people interested in the local food movement.
Michelle Kenyon, executive director of Field to Family, is establishing a food hub in Johnson County. She’s been featured in the local newspaper. The idea is simple from a farmer’s perspective. Got too much basil? Bundle it to specs and sell to the food hub.
Having an outlet for a farm’s produce is important. Few local farmers follow the traditional CSA model of sharing the farm produce exclusively with members. That would mean all of the extra basil in my example would go to members who would presumably become rich in pesto and pasta sauce. Separating food production from CSA membership provides options for additional revenue streams such as selling to a food hub, to restaurants and to retailers.
A smart farm operator won’t put all their eggs and produce in single basket. They manage a portfolio of revenue streams based on farm production, but include variation in how customers are approached. So often, just having an item when others don’t makes a big difference in exploiting some types of “pop-up” marketing opportunities.
I would like to establish independence from the farms on which I’ve worked since 2013. Controlling everything would free me from outside responsibilities and enable re-designing my garden to expand and produce extra crops that could be sold to others. That has always been a small part of my garden operation but as I progress through my transition to “retirement,” any income generated could help supplement our structure of pension, Social Security and savings. For the time being, I look forward to returning to the farm for another spring of soil blocking. Looking back at this email to Susan, it’s clear I was not wrong to pursue the opportunity.
(Editor’s Note: This year I donated 350 pounds of Red Delicious apples to Local Harvest CSA for distribution in member shares. Here’s the note I wrote for weekly newsletter).
The apples in your share are Red Delicious variety grown from a tree planted on Earth Day 1995 by Paul Deaton in Big Grove Township.
Back yard apples are maligned for a couple of unjust reasons.
First, the State of Washington about ruined the Red Delicious, which was first discovered in Iowa, where it was called the Hawkeye by some. Growers in Washington decided this apple was the way to go because of its marketability. They went all in and devised techniques that took the flavor right out of the fruit, including picking before they were ripe, then “ripening” them in a chamber of ethylene gas before shipping. Applying science to the Red Delicious about ruined it and gave it a bad name.
Second, backyard apples have developed a number of “reasons” why people don’t want to cultivate them. If someone has an apple tree they inherited, they may make up a hundred excuses not to prune and take care of it. While these apples aren’t perfect, get a knife out, cut off the bad spots, and they make good eating if fully ripe. They make other fall apple things like crisps, cobblers, sauce, butter and dried apples.
Let’s face it, when Johnny Appleseed, born in 1774, came across the country he had one thing in mind as he planted apples by seed: enabling future settlers to make hard cider. Although the technique is making a comeback, many city-dwellers have forgotten that piece of apple lore. As long as the apple isn’t rotten, it can go into cider (press or many use a juicer for small batches) from which one can make vinegar, sweet cider or hard cider. If one is concerned about bacteria, get your cooking thermometer out and heat the cider thoroughly to about 165 degrees for ten seconds. It will kill the bad bugs and leave most of the flavor.
On a fine summer day conditions were perfect to harvest hay and garlic.
My CSA friends recruited volunteers to bring in the garlic and across the county farmers were baling hay in large round and small rectangular bales.
On Independence Day farmers came to town to buy cultivators, salt blocks, pumps, feed, big pedestal fans, bedding (for horses), air compressor parts, nuts and bolts, and other stuff of life. At the home, farm and auto supply store we also sold a lot of propane, grills and kayaks, but that was not to farmers, as a farmer plans his/her kayaking and grilling ahead of time.
The rain has been good enough my garden doesn’t need much watering. Predatory insects are noticeably in abeyance, I suspect because of the polar vortex and extremely cold temperatures last winter. Tomatoes look as good as they have in years. It is already hard to use all the cucumbers. There will be green beans, okra, hot peppers, eggplant, squash, kale, carrots and more by the time August is finished.
We love summer.
Actually, we love life even in the extreme weather brought on by our own assault on nature. That we have perfect conditions for haying and garlic harvesting may well be an anomaly going forward. It was enjoyable this year and will be for however long it lasts.
I viewed the president’s speech on the environment on YouTube. It was not about climate change, human-made or other. In fact, the speeches by the president and about half a dozen others were devoid of any mention of the science of climate change, or solutions to solve the climate crisis.
I feel certain the bait shop owner from Florida has seen improvement in his local environment by the administration’s work on red algae. His speech was unprepared and somewhat random, but a slice of Americana available for public consumption and that, maybe, was the point. There was praise for the president from his staff, including the despised Andrew Wheeler, current head of the Environmental Protection Agency. If one adds up everything in the 56 -minute event, if we didn’t know the science of climate change, it would be believable. The climate crisis was absent from the environment Trump depicted and that is the problem with the Trump administration.
What bothered me the most, as it does any time I listen to the president, it’s the assertion that covers up a lie. Wheeler was bragging on how many super fund sites have been deleted from the list. Were they actually cleaned up or just declared clean and deleted?
I agree with Al Gore’s analysis:
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the origin of hot weather. Is it coming from Anthropogenic climate change, or from politicians in Washington, D.C.? Maybe a little of both.
In a year of weird weather, garlic suddenly became ready to pull at Sundog Farm.
Some cloves began to burst and if the farmers couldn’t figure out exactly why, they decided to harvest it all before any more went past its prime.
It was a good call as the garlic heads brought to the barn were large and the crop was bigger than expected. It was an exceptional crop. The harvest took place on two days this week. I helped with the second.
Eight of us worked the field and racked the garlic for curing. It was hot work, and I couldn’t stand the sun and heat for long. After two and a half hours pulling garlic from the field, I changed to the racking operation in the barn to get out of the sun. There was plenty of work for everyone. Here are some photos of the operation.
After clearing the field of garlic the crew met at the farm house where we ate lunch of grilled brats and hot dogs, fresh grilled vegetables, and pickled asparagus put up last year. The grilled onions had been picked just moments before hitting the grill. Days like this one feels something got accomplished.
June’s last day marks the beginning of my hiatus from farm work.
The orchard’s chief apple officer confirmed they need me in the sales barn this year. My manager emailed me back to set a starting date. Apple season is set and I can focus on other things in July.
For the first time this year I made a “project run” to the commercial center in Coralville. I picked up a replacement faucet handle, a new light/vent fan part for a bathroom, some topsoil and grass seed to fill in the depression over the septic tank, a new bird feeder and a shepherd’s hook, and eight more 6-foot stakes to protect tomatoes from deer. I hope there will be more trips like that.
Weeding the garden is a never-ending task. I focused on the plot with beans and a variety of crops. Even the parsley seeds sprouted and I removed competition so they will grow to maturity. I saw several Japanese beetles in the basil so I harvested the big leaves. I also harvested kale, broccoli, green onions, radishes, parsley, beets and sugar snap peas. The ice box is crammed with containers of fresh greens and other vegetables. With my spouse visiting her sister for a few days I will be eating a lot of greens for a while.
I planted Table Queen Acorn squash (Ferry – Morse, 75 days) and Honey Bear Acorn squash (Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 85 days) in newly claimed space. Acorn is our favorite winter squash so here’s hoping they succeed.
The lawn was a field of clover which I harvested with my John Deere mower and grass catcher. Rabbits will find something else to eat, hopefully not my garden. I piled the clippings in the transition space near three oak trees I planted from acorns and will decide which vegetables get protection next. When weather turns hot, the lawn doesn’t produce as much, so it will be a couple of mowings before the garden is fully mulched.
My clothing was drenched with sweat by the time I finished the lawn. I hung my t-shirt and jeans to dry, took a shower, and focused on kitchen work the rest of the day. Processing today’s harvest took the most time.
I like this in between time for a lot of reasons. It’s a chance to let the dust of the first half year settle and figure out what is most important to sustaining a life in a turbulent world. Just like weeding, the non-productive energy-suckers need to be removed to free up what’s most valuable.
There is nothing magical about 40 acres in the 21st Century. Today’s American farmers can make a living on much less, largely because of crop diversification, technology, and emerging markets for locally grown food.
For a beginning specialty-crop farmer, 40 acres might be too much to handle.
“40 acres and a mule” entered the vernacular as a way of dealing with the question of what to do with newly freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Give them 40 acres and a mule to get started as free men, or so the line of thinking went.
In 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman provided for confiscation of 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, to redistribute in 40-acres parcels to formerly enslaved farmers. The arrangement did not persist, although even today, presidential candidates posit the United States should pay reparations for slavery.
While specialty crop farmers work hard, long days to make ends meet and sometimes take a job in town to provide enough household cash, they increasingly seek to own their future. To a person, that means buying land. In Iowa good farmland is expensive.
For farmers, the desire to create a farm on less than 40 acres has to do with start up capital. To make a go of it as a specialty farmer on 40 acres, that means $350,000 or more for land, another $100,000 or more for an on-farm dwelling, and more for at least one barn, a couple tractors, and other equipment for cultivation, mowing, tilling, fencing and general operations. Finding a banker to finance such an operation is difficult without collateral other than the land. There is also the hurdle of what to do with all that land. While a small farm can grow into 40 acres with success and over time, a beginning farmer has much to learn and the scale can be intimidating.
Shouldn’t there be opportunities to start a farm on less than 40 acres? The county board of supervisors said no. Couldn’t you move to another county? The market is in urban centers.
In Iowa farms have an agricultural zoning exemption. Beginning farmers seek the ag exemption in order to make ends meet on narrow gross margins. To be defined as a farm in our county, and get the exemption, 40 acres is required. Some of my farmer friends have been asking for accommodation of smaller farms for many years and none has been forthcoming from the county board. The future belongs to the young and they will not be stopped.
That brings us to House Study Bill 239, an act relating to the county zoning exemption for property used for agricultural purposes. Farms are defined as follows:
The bill provides that property is used for agricultural purposes if at least 51 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the growing, harvesting, or selling of crops and livestock raised and produced on the property or brought to the property and not more than 49 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the sale of agricultural experiences and other farm-related activities.
The number of acres defining a farm becomes irrelevant should the measure pass the legislature and be signed by the governor.
This bill amounts to an end run around the county board of supervisors. While it didn’t clear the state government committee this session, it remains eligible for consideration and debate next year in the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly.
A representative from our county made it to the bill’s subcommittee hearing on March 5. In what was described as a long, arrogant speech, the official characterized rural residents who had been working with the county board of supervisors as “loud complainers.” Not a good look for anyone, especially a county official.
Today was a great day of spring-like weather. We can feel it in the air as farmers prepare equipment, tend livestock, and prepare for another crop. Whether on 40 acres or 4,000 there are many common threads running through farming. Whether they will be defined according to the same standard is an open question. It’s time to see if the legislature can resolve the issue for beginning farmers, since the county won’t.