Farming Local Food

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:


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.

Local Food

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.


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.

Farming Garden Local Food

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!

Environment Farming 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.

Farming Local Food

Garlic Harvest 2019

Pulling Garlic

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.

Eight rows of garlic remained to pull on day two of the garlic harvest. The ground was wet so we pulled, shook off dirt on the roots, and let it dry in the sun for a bit.
Staying hydrated is important and we refilled our water bottles multiple times over the morning.
After an hour or so, the stalks were cleaned of remaining dirt and hauled to the barn in a pickup truck.
The stalks were inspected, sorted by quality and lined up along a two by four rack, three deep. Next a second two by four was placed on top and they were bolted together with three sets of nuts and bolts.
The individual racks were lined up on sawhorses where they will rest and dry until fully cured.
The farm crew got to take some fresh garlic home. Here are six heads I brought back. These are “seconds” that were a bit deformed or had been hit by the fork during harvest. They eat as well as any of them.

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.

Home Life

Storm at Night

Fallen apples after a severe storm Sept. 20, 2013.

A thunderstorm with potential to create a tornado arrived about 8:45 p.m. last night. As the front of the cell moved over our house, we went to the lower level and waited in a safe corner, staying tuned to reports from news outlets. The National Weather Service precisely described our location in one of its tornado warnings.

The early warning system and technology supporting it are pretty amazing.

There was no tornado or straight line winds I could see or hear, although when the sun rises I’ll inspect the property for damage. The forecast is for scattered and isolated thunderstorms beginning around 2 p.m. today. We’ve seen worse storms than last night in recent years.

Wednesday I went to the warehouse club to fill a new eyeglasses prescription. On the way I stopped at a hair salon for a trim. Stylist conversation was about spring planting and how far behind many farmers are. We shared observations that fields have standing water and many farmers haven’t planted. One more manifestation of community talk about excessive rain’s impact our lives.

Farmers are giving up on corn, as it is getting too late to plant. They’ll switch to soybeans if they can get in the fields. From where we are today, they need a solid week of drying before running planters in fields. Estimates are 31 million planned corn acres remain to be planted, a few days work with modern agricultural technology. Because of wet fields with forecasts for more rain, it seems unlikely many will make it before the mid-June planting deadline to get crop insurance. 2019 looks to be a year farmers remain viable through insurance payments, federal subsidies and smart planning. Getting into wet fields not only poses risks of reduced yield for a current crop, resulting soil compaction would affect next year’s planting. So we wait.

I ordered my eyeglasses, fueled my vehicle and picked up groceries. The garden was muddy so I focused on inside work, still waiting for the weather to break. Last night’s thunderstorm indicated Mother Nature is not ready for that.

Social Commentary Writing

Unexpected Monday

Maple Tree – Before

Monday didn’t happen as expected. There were three things involving arborists, health care and farming.

Without announcement, the arborist arrived to take down a maple tree I planted on the northwest corner of the house. Turns out I didn’t know what I was doing when planting the 12-inch, stick-sized sapling so close to the house in 1994.

Now fully grown, unusually strong winds already took out one of the main branches. We determined it would be less expensive to remove the tree than pay for a roof repair when limbs inevitably blew down on it.

It was a small way of mitigating the damage of the climate crisis.

The crew was four men with two pickup trucks to haul away brush and wood. The benefit of using an arborist instead of a tree service is the equipment is pickup trucks, ladders, and an array of Stihl brand chainsaws and old fashioned loppers. There is minimal soil compaction around the work site without heavy equipment and that’s important to a home owner.

Arborists at Work

The arborists took out the maple and trimmed the pin oak, finishing well before noon. Our next door neighbor engaged them for tree trimming and by the end of the day our corner of the neighborhood was looking good.

Monday’s main event was a trip to the local clinic to get checked out.

Last Friday someone called, saying I was overdue for a physical exam. They had an appointment the following business day, which in a small city is disconcerting. The hospital managing the clinic is already having financial difficulties. The fear is the clinic will close, making it neccessary to drive to the county seat for health care. I took the appointment.

We no longer have two physicians at our clinic as one was replaced with an ARNP or Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner. I get that the United States is facing a physician shortage, and our ARNP fills a coverage gap. It makes sense to differentiate the skills being performed in a local clinic and find practitioners that closely match them.

I miss what I had for a very long time, a doctor with whom I established a relationship and could get to know in our community. I’m not saying it was great, or that we should go back. I miss it but am ready to move on, seeking an answer to the question how do people get treatment in a scenario in which part of every office visit is talking about how to pay for services?

Arborist at Work

I liked my ARNP. He explained something I hadn’t considered. He said I was scheduled for a physical exam and there would be a significant cost. I explained that’s what the Friday caller said I needed so I went with it. He changed the billing code and said, once a person reaches a certain age, the better course of action when seeking treatment is to come into the clinic for specific maladies, without getting a traditional physical exam. I have a history already, which when combined with age and lifestyle risks, along with my complaints, can determine a course of care without physical examinations as I’ve had previously. What their team did today was little different from what the last physician did, with the exception the prostate examination was delayed until the results of a panel of lab tests he ordered were known.

At 3:40 p.m. I drove to the farm to pick up our vegetable share of Bok Choy and Koji, Leaf Broccoli, Mixed Greens, Lettuce, Spring Garlic, and Garlic Chives. Each year I secure onion starts for our garden leftover once the farm has planted theirs. It was time. Usually I get a bundle or two of starts produced in Texas, but Monday was different. The farmers gave me two trays of locally grown starts still in soil blocks. It seemed a generous gift considering the work that produced them. I was thankful to have them.

A day that started with a headache from a 12-hour fast before my clinic appointment turned out for the better. I had a cup of coffee after the clinic and the day got progressively better. It was one more day of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Farming Writing

40 Acres Sans Mule

Flooded Farm Near the Cedar River, Sept. 27, 2016

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.

Environment Farming Work Life

Wind Howled All Day

Squirrels Dining on Sunflower Seeds

The store manager from the home, farm and auto supply store phoned Sunday afternoon to ask me to work on Monday. The colleague who assumed my full time job last spring was visiting family in Nebraska and bad weather closed roads across the state, including Interstate 80. She couldn’t make it back in time for her shift.

In Iowa, helping out is part of our culture. I said yes I’d work and rearranged my plans so I could.

In addition, the farmer decided the weather was bad enough she didn’t want people venturing out to the farm. The roads were iced over and the wind howled at 30 miles per hour all day. Her sister, the shepherdess, posted social media photos of installing a new anemometer and weather station. Its LED panel displayed the digital message, “hold onto your hat!”

As I was settling in last night, the Washington Post put up an article about White House plans to form an “ad hoc group of select federal scientists to reassess the government’s analysis of climate science and counter conclusions that the continued burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet.”

In other words, the Fourth National Climate Assessment told the story of how dire our future could be without climate action. Rather than doing something, the administration is arguing with their own scientists that global warming is not caused by burning fossil fuels. These are times that will fry men’s souls.

Which part of yesterday’s howling wind was an amplification caused by global warming? The answer doesn’t matter because it’s the wrong question. We know the deleterious effect of burning fossil fuels. We also know thawing permafrost, agriculture, methane releases during oil production, building construction, manufacturing processes, air transport, deforestation, landfill decomposition and other human activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We can’t get bogged down in details when the bigger picture is we have an obstructionist government led by Republicans and their conservative, dark-moneyed think tanks who would interpret the howling wind as something else. The better question is when will voters do something to fix this?

Yesterday’s wind was the kind that calls for hunkering down until it ends. Eventually we will have a calm, sunny day and the opportunity to work as normal. Or maybe it is something else, as Bob Dylan sang in the 1970s,

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Farming Local Food

Moving the Goal Posts

Farm Landscape

More than at any previous time I feel a goal line was crossed when I left full time work last spring.

So what’s next?

I don’t anticipate buying a fancy television with new, matching easy chairs to put in front of it.

My late aunt and uncle had that. When we visited their Alabama home our conversations turned to the evangelical Christianity their family had undertaken. It was a distance from the socialist and Catholic household in which she grew up with her brothers and sisters. I suspect aunt and uncle watched FOX News, although we talked the entire visit without turning on the T.V. Dinner was a tuna-noodle casserole taking me back to a time I hardly remembered. Mom never made tuna-noodle casserole at home. My uncle died shortly after we left them and she died soon after that. All that’s left are memories.

My fear is if we had a digital television I’d sit back in an easy chair, watch too much, and my mind would succumb to the blather that invades people’s lives from cable news. I’d spend the rest of this life talking about, to and at the television.

There is only one answer to the question, and that’s to stay active physically, emotionally and mentally. That’s really a lie. There are plenty of answers, although doing these three things can form a foundation upon which an answer can be built. Maybe that’s what I’ll do.

Birds eat from the feeder and a freezing rain falls on the county. Snow melt is filling the ditches and running toward the lake. Soon there will be floods in Iowa as the crazy weather continues.

Tomorrow I return to the farm for the first round of soil blocking. They already started seeds in the house, but these will go into the greenhouse despite the coming cold spell. I’m waiting another week to plant celery. At 120 days, celery has the longest plant to pick cycle.

Will farm work bring catharsis to my search for truth and meaning? I don’t know, but I’ll be spending time with friends again and that means something.

I’ll get to see the lambs, those sad but cute creatures destined for someone’s dinner table. I’ll be careful not to get attached but new life is always a pleasure. That’s what I need in the rainy, snowy, flooded Iowa I call home as the cycle of the growing season begins anew.

Moving the goal posts once they are set is not a good option in retirement. We may only get one chance for new goals and it’s important to be sure. I’ll be thinking about that as I make the soil blocks tomorrow morning. I’m looking forward to getting started.