Categories
Writing

Food Policy Council

Lake Macbride on June 24, 2020

On Jan. 30 I received email notice of my appointment to the Johnson County Food Policy Council. My application was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete a term ending June 30.

I declined to re-apply at the end of my term.

The idea of having a food policy council may have been good when it was organized. During my brief tenure, each meeting seemed a random conglomeration of thoughts, statements and opinions heading down a dead end street. To a person, everyone I met while serving was talented, including the county-paid coordinator Ilsa DeWald. So what was wrong about the food policy council?

The goal of fostering relationships between farmers, buyers and government in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids region is important. For their part, non-conventional farmers are a well-organized group of entrepreneurs that take advantage of networking within Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, and other organizations. If you know some of these farmers, they seem to all be talking to each other about everything, all the time. That’s really no different from any successful farmer, regardless of what they grow.

The challenge of a local food movement is establishing enough mass to be a meaningful presence. The kind of changes needed in our food system are complicated and require engagement by many organizations, businesses, and individuals. That includes entities beyond vegetable, meat and flower producers.

By far, large corporations dominate food sales in our region. Reducing their presence or market share is not a point of discussion for the Food Policy Council. Even if it were, there are not enough local food producers to compete with or challenge them. The basic tenets of consumer participation in financing the growing season on a farm, knowing the face of the farmer, and understanding how our food is grown are main attractions for people who choose local food for their kitchen. As recently as last week, many community supported agriculture projects continued to accept new members this summer: demand has not been enough to significantly disrupt grocery operations.

The highlight of my tenure was participation in an annual forum titled, Land Access and Beyond: How Can the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm Support Beginning and Current Farmers? By participation I mean I made lemonade, helped set up, and led a couple of discussion groups. The forum was well-attended by a diverse group of people.

The board of supervisors decided to develop the Historic Poor Farm and this has been part of discussions of the Food Policy Council. Access to land is important and the Poor Farm has enabled some beginning farmers along a path to land ownership. Supporting the Poor Farm is a worthy endeavor for the Food Policy Council.

Part of the inability to engage in a single direction was the coronavirus pandemic. It affected council members both those who farm and those who don’t, and threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of effective policy planning. While we met via video conference, that’s not the same as being together in person with all of the possible side conversations. If not for the pandemic, I might have a different view of the council’s work.

I was happy to do what I could to advance the cause of local food in our food system. I value my time on the Food Policy Council.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Spring Share and All

Tomato seedlings taking a ride home.

Today is the first spring share at our community supported agriculture project.

The farmers developed a no-contact method to deliver shares during the coronavirus pandemic. Each member’s share will be prepacked in a cooler and left under the oak tree that dominates the farm entrance.

No more self serve from bins in the walk-in cooler until risk of infection passes. With portable coolers there is less to sanitize after pickup.

Sunday was a drop-dead gorgeous spring day in Iowa. Cumulus clouds floated in blue sky and the temperature was perfect. Neighbors were outside working in yards, kayaking on the lake, and walking the roads and trails. There are only so many days like this each year before insects arrive to eat our greenery. Each leaf on each tree looked perfect in the mid day sun.

The first tray of tomato seedlings took a ride home in the passenger seat after my shift at the farm. The forecast is rain the next couple of days so I’m not sure when I will plant them. The portable greenhouse is getting full.

A group of friends from high school participated in a Zoom meeting last night. The host, who also played keyboards in our 1970s band, organized a weekly meeting using the service. I found value in the conversation.

One of the guys on the call is an unemployed nurse who found work last week helping a team from the Iowa Department of Public Health administer COVID-19 tests to slaughterhouse workers. Beginning Friday he spent three days in Waterloo with a team drawing blood and doing nasal swabs to about 3,500 people. Today they head to Columbus Junction for more. I’m glad he found work.

Whatever the reason for the governor’s hesitation, unchecked spread of the coronavirus happened in Iowa because of it. Chasing it in meatpacking plants and care facilities alone will be a major undertaking. She started this scale of testing too late to head off the worst aspects of the pandemic. We are in this until researchers develop a vaccine and distribute it world-wide. Word on the street is it will take three years to accomplish that.

Yesterday we completed our ballots for the Democratic primary. Like many, we are voting by mail because of the coronavirus. Primaries are the time to vote your beliefs. Once voters express their preference, we’ll support the nominees in the general election to retake our government. We can flip the Iowa House of Representatives this year, and if stars properly align, the U.S. Senate. It will be an unusual election because of the pandemic.

So much depends on so many things. Yet when spring is as glorious as it was yesterday the work ahead in politics fades from view. Our collective journey home continues.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Celery – In!

Spring Plants from Indiana

It was another busy day at the farm for seeding session #4.

I planted one tray of

Conquistador Celery, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 80 days.

and one tray with

Georgia Southern Collard, Ferry-Morse, 75 days.
Pak Choy Toy Choy, Ferry-Morse, 30 days.
Teton Hybrid Spinach, Ferry-Morse, 45 days.
Cilantro, Ferry-Morse, 28 days.

Space is beginning to fill with trays.

I delivered a box of flower seeds for the farm’s coming garden class at a local food pantry.

We talked, a lot, about everything. We were chatty.

I enjoy my time with eight people talking and seeding trays of soil mix. I don’t say a lot, just do my work and bask in the sounds of another day on the farm.

The lamb count is now 40 and there are five new goats.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Frozen Ground

Burn Pile

A friend grows straw for the home, farm and auto supply store and he isn’t in the fields yet. The ground is frozen.

In addition to producing wheat straw he grows commodity crops and has a tough row to hoe… literally.

I enjoy interacting with him and his crew as they remove a hundred bales from a gooseneck trailer and put them on pallets. Once re-stacked, I move them indoors with a lift truck.

I have been drafting emails to groups of which I am a part since I woke. Gotta stay on top of all that so when the ground thaws I can get my spade in it. Not yet… but soon.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Featuring the Poor Farm

Panel of regional farm mentors. L. to R. Dayna Burtness, Nettle Valley Farm; Zachary Couture, Luthern Services in Iowa Global Greens; Alfred Matiyabo, Moving 4Ward Farm; and Derek Roller, Echollective Farm on Feb. 20, 2020 in North Liberty, Iowa

“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.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

First Day at the Farm 2020

Hand tool.

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.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Challenges in a Local Food System

Work Clothes at the Farm

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:

Susan:

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?
Regards, Paul

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.

Categories
Writing

Working Through a Local Food Learning Curve

Sunrise on Another Hopeful Day

I didn’t know where bartering labor for local food would lead. In retrospect, it was not about economics, but learning, access to a greenhouse and participating in farm life.

This Feb. 1, 2013 email to Susan Jutz, one of the first organic farmers and community supported agriculture farm operators in the state got things going.

Susan:

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?
Regards, Paul

She accepted my offer and I’ve been working at Local Harvest ever since. When Carmen Black bought the farm and CSA operation from Susan, I stayed on. I plan to return next year.

In seven seasons I’ve learned a lot about food production. This year’s garden was the best ever, and if I had more time it could be better still. The education I gained has been valuable and I’m ready for next steps.

I engaged with three farms in 2019: Sundog Farm where Carmen lives, Wild Woods Farm where Kate Edwards leases land, and at Wilson’s Orchard owned by Sara Goering and Paul Rasch. Before tax income was $2,423.08 in cash with another $861.75 in bartered goods comprised of vegetables, greenhouse space, and soil mix for home use. I scheduled my work to do soil-blocking at Sundog Farm and Wild Woods Farm beginning in March, finishing in June. That gave me a month off before working at the orchard sales barn where the season runs from Aug. 1 through Oct. 31. I plan leave work at Wild Woods Farm in 2020 which frees up a day a week for gardening.

What else can I learn? Having a place to ask questions about vegetable and fruit growing is important to a gardener. The greenhouse space remains important, although eventually I’ll want to do this at home. Perhaps most valuable is participating in farm life, getting to know young farmers, workers and volunteers and the challenges they face in farming and in life generally.

Our home freezer and pantry are loaded with produce and that’s one measure of success of what began as a barter arrangement. As winter approaches there is a lot to consider for 2020.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Apple Share

Cart of Red Delicious apples harvested Sept. 30, 2019.

(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.

Hope you enjoy them!

Categories
Environment Kitchen Garden

Hot Weather Harvest

Neighbors Haying

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.