Sunday was my first shift of soil blocking at Sundog Farm this spring. Besides shopping, medical appointments, and trips to government offices, it was the first time out since being restricted by the coronavirus pandemic a year ago. There were people (wearing masks) and animals (who weren’t)… and four dogs!
To see a short video of farm life on Sunday, click here.
It was partly cloudy with intermittent snow flurries. We worked outside with me making 35 soil block trays (4,200 seedling blocks) and a varying seeding crew of four or five, socially distanced across the concrete pad, planting broccoli, kale, mustard greens and other early vegetables. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I worked mostly alone in the greenhouse. Sunday felt a bit more normal. The farmer and I negotiated our barter agreement and will continue discussions next weekend.
While it was relatively easy for me to get the COVID-19 vaccine, it has been a struggle for the farm workers who are mostly 20-somethings. I’ve had two doses and they had one. Both the state and federal government could do more to get rural Iowa vaccinated.
It’s good to be back to work, though. Here is a photo of my first tray of soil blocks for the season.
The thaw began and there is no stopping it. The ground remained covered with snow for most of February, yet no more. Snow cover is slowly melting and will soon be gone. Above the septic tank was first to go.
36 hours after the COVID-19 vaccination I still feel normal. Even the soreness around the injection spot feels better. I emailed the farm to see if we can make arrangements for my return after the booster shot in a couple of weeks. The farmers are all twenty and thirty somethings so their priority group has not been approved for vaccination yet. There are protocols to negotiate before making my way back to farm work.
I applied to be a mentor in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps U.S. Virtual Training beginning on Earth Day. There are three virtual trainings this year, one in the U.S., one for Latin America, and one global training. To find out more, follow this link. If I’m accepted, this would be my third time attending, the second as a mentor. I’m feeling bullish about reengaging in society after getting the first dose of vaccine.
Democrats got solidly beaten in the 2020 Iowa general election. I’m not sure what I want to do to help rebuild the party. I’m also not sure the party can be rebuilt in a way to win elections anytime soon. In any case, it’s time for the next generation to take the reins. While I will remain supportive, I’m stepping back. Politics won’t be a priority as we slowly exit the coronavirus pandemic.
Getting out of the pandemic is a first priority. We are doing our part to follow the governor’s guidelines and hope others will too. What’s certain is I’m getting spring fever and can’t wait to get outside and do normal things again. It’s only three weeks until Spring!
Hope everyone is well surviving the coronavirus pandemic. It made 2020 difficult, to say the least. Jacque and I remained virus free, although neighbors on two sides of us caught it and former Solon Mayor Steve Wright died from COVID-19 complications, as you may have heard. The virus is all around us and I’m reluctant to leave the house much.
I’m wrapping up old business and I saw the check from the sweet corn come through on my account this morning. Your sister still hasn’t cashed the $30 check from April for a t-shirt, so if you can give her a nudge on that, I’m not sure how long the bank will continue to cash it. If it doesn’t clear soon, I’ll presume she won’t cash it. Insert snarky comment for her about running a business here:
I’m not sure what I’m doing this coming season. Well, I know some things. When the derecho destroyed my small greenhouse I bought another. I plan to start onions in January using the channel trays I bought from you last year. I also got a heating pad from Johnny’s and may get a grow light. I don’t like having the trays inside for fear mold will form in the room where I put them. I also don’t want to run my space heater in the greenhouse continuously. I think you started onions in the basement. Is that true? If so, when did you start them and at what point did you give them light?
As far as soil blocking, I think the pandemic will remain with us for most of the season so we have to address that. As I may have mentioned, I don’t really like working by myself all the time. It did protect us from each other last year and one hopes the situation is not permanent. Last year I didn’t wear a mask, although I am now the proud owner of five homemade ones and can bring one along and wear it when I’m with people. Since it’s your farm, it is really up to you to tell me what to do. So what I’m saying is I’m open to the idea of a barter exchange in 2021. It’s time to start talking about that, although no particular hurry.
To better use the home time I started a writing project. Hoping to have a first draft done by next year at this time.
Hope you are bunkered in for the snow storm. Supposed to get 5-8 inches, I hear.
My favorite Biden-Harris campaign slogan was “build back better.”
Under Donald Trump, Republicans continued their deconstruction of a government largely built by Democratic administrations beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They have been trying to undo Democratic programs since FDR passed the New Deal. The Trump administration provided an unprecedented opportunity for them to get to work and they took advantage of it with a wrecking ball. The country will never be the same.
Voters rejected Trump, sort of. He received more popular votes than any previous presidential candidate. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris got more, though, more than 7 million more. Now Biden has a chance to stop the destruction and salvage the good work our government is or should be doing. Whether and how he can build back better is an open question.
In Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, he indicated the limits of his presidency were substantial. Obama wrote his political capital was mostly spent by the end of summer of his second year in office. The difference between Obama and Biden is the Obama administration briefly had a 60 senator, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate during his first term. We don’t yet know if Biden will have a majority of even 50 U.S. Senators, plus the vice president. That depends on the outcome of two U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021 and there is no reason to assume Democrats will win those two seats. There is even less reason to believe Mitch McConnell has changed since 2009. He will obstruct what legislation the Biden administration proposes from day one whether he is in the majority or minority.
Biden did win the 2020 general election with substantial margins in both the popular vote and in the electoral college, which meets on Dec. 14. After the electoral college vote, even Trump acolyte and President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate Chuck Grassley said he would recognize the winner. There is no question the winner is Joe Biden.
While we wait for the electoral college to meet, Biden has been appointing his cabinet. Many of the appointees are familiar for their role in the Obama administration.
For Secretary of Agriculture Biden picked the same guy as Obama, Tom Vilsack, who served during the entire Obama presidency in that role. In Iowa people are divided about the Vilsack announcement yesterday. One expects a lackluster technocrat who will undo the damage done by Trump appointee Sonny Perdue, yet do little to accomplish what ag groups say is needed: enforce antitrust laws, strengthen local food systems, advance racial equity in ag, mitigate climate change, and bolster nutrition assistance.
I’ve been with Vilsack on a number of occasions and “lackluster” well describes his personality. If the alternative was four more years of Sonny Perdue, then we are better off if Vilsack does little else besides keep the chair warm. He’ll do more than that. The current farm bill expires in 2023, so a major task of the Biden administration will be to create and pass the next one. It is possible to influence Vilsack, and I don’t mean just by large, corporate agricultural interests. The fact that Chuck Grassley gave a thumbs up to Tom Vilsack last week is a sign that massive subsidies to the wrong kinds of agriculture will be preserved.
We can’t wring our hands and do nothing about the farm bill though. It is the single biggest agricultural policy statement during the next four years. That we don’t start from ground zero with the secretary of agriculture has pluses and minuses.
We wanted a landslide election for Democrats in 2020. The electorate had other ideas. We’ll have to do the best we can. It remains possible to find common ground with Republicans although the slim majority in the U.S. Senate makes change more difficult regardless which party holds it. After the disastrous 2010 midterm elections Obama had a productive lame duck session the rest of that year. Comparatively speaking, Obama had the wind in his sails and Biden’s decisive win in the presidential race did not have the coattails needed to enable change of the kind Obama was able to make.
I live in a red state that went big for Republicans, including President Trump. I’m just happy the rest of the country felt otherwise about defeating the president. I hope Vilsack can get beyond his previous support for big agriculture. It will be up to us to make sure he does.
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.
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.
“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.