Are birds damaging our apples?

What’s doing this to our apples?

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For weeks, we’ve been finding cavities dug out of our young apples, often with some kind of rot starting within the excavation. We don’t find any insects or caterpillars inside the  cavities, nor any frass. Generally the cavities have smaller wounds nearby. This damage devastated the fruit on our William’s Pride tree, damaging over half the fruit. As they were nearly ripe, we were able to carve around and eat some of the damaged fruits, but still lost a lot of apples. About the time the William’s Prides were gone, the same thing started happening on the two nearby Liberty trees, a worse loss because Liberty doesn’t ripen until September, so the fruits are way too underripe to eat. Not being able to identify any insect behavior linked to this has been maddening, until a belated two-part aha moment cleared things up. Continue reading

Experiencing pesticide drift, part II: Calling in the government

In this series:
Part I – Experiencing pesticide drift
Part II – Calling in the government
Part III – Aftermath, conclusions, & ramifications.

INITIAL CONTACT

After a week of waiting to hear from the farmer responsible for the spraying operation (calls/messages went unanswered), we gave up and pursued other avenues. Our local extension office referred us to the Bureau of Pesticide Control (hereafter referred to as “the Bureau”), part of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The nice lady on the phone advised us on how to file a formal complaint, which was needed to initiate an investigation into any suspected pesticide drift incident. The actual process was easy, but we had a question: Continue reading

Experiencing pesticide drift, part I

On July 14, 2014, our vegetable farm experienced pesticide drift from a crop-duster. It has taken nearly five months for the resulting investigation to run its course, and only now can we tell the full story with all the information. In this three-part series we’ll discuss (I) the actual experience and immediate aftermath, (II) the arc of getting the government involved, and (III) the practical and philosophical considerations drawn from this experience. Throughout this topic we’ll use the phrase “pesticide” as defined by the EPA:

Though often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests…Under United States law, a pesticide is also any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant”.

The following narrative is drawn from written statements requested by the Missouri Bureau of Pesticide Control as part of their official investigation into the incident. We each wrote a separate narrative of our memories and experiences, which I have woven together here using the original text with only minimal editing to remove redundancy and confusion, and a few notes added for clarification where needed. These are our words from the time presenting what we experienced, as we recorded it several weeks later.
Continue reading

Agroforestry symposium Jan 8; Mark Shepard speaking

Interested in forestry practices? Concerned about climate issues and how appropriate land management can help? You may well enjoy attending the 6th Annual Agroforestry Symposium next Thursday on the MU campus; it is free & open to the public. We’re particularly excited to hear Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm speak, as his book Restoration Agriculture has been very influential in our discussions about transitioning this farm to a more perennial-based system. Eric has also been asked to participate in a “landowner panel discussion”, which will include a 10-minute presentation on our diversified forest management. We’ve long found the MU Center for Agroforestry a useful and valuable resource for diversified sustainable farmers like ourselves (among other things they got us started on shiitake mushroom production), so we hope many others can attend this symposium and support their creative and interesting work.

 

Sabbatical

There will be no Chert Hollow Farm CSA in 2015; we are taking a much-needed break to pursue other projects and sources of income while assessing and discussing our future here. Our attention has been focused on the need for a change by the various stresses of the past year, including a significantly under-strength CSA membership, possible drift from a crop duster, the loss of our best dairy goat to deer-borne parasites, and more. In fact, after eight years of farming, we’ve already overshot the Biblical origins of sabbatical as a commandment to rest the fields every seventh year. Even God took a break before we did.

We feel a sense of burnout, after working hard to build a business that has never quite achieved our financial and entrepreneurial goals. The farm business has always been profitable on an annual basis (not counting long-term infrastructure investments), but never close to the level of income we left on the table to pursue this in lieu of more traditional careers in science and education. We’ve tried multiple approaches to adapting the farm business to our goals and principles, but have never quite succeeded in connecting with enough consumers to sell all the abundant, quality produce we’ve grown year after year. Farming itself has not been the core challenge; earning a decent independent living at it has. Health insurance plays a role, too, as the recent reforms have done little to assuage our concern over costs and the long-term economic viability of health care and personal finances in the event one of us is injured or sickened in any way.

In truth, we know of no young, sustainable farmers in this region who are making a comfortable living selling local food without some kind of supplemental off-farm source of income or funds in the background, and few have lasted as long as we have. Three years ago, in a post discussing our egg prices, we stated that “…if not enough people will pay minimum wage for good eggs, it’s chicken soup time and we’ll go back down to a home-sized flock. There are lots of easier and less risky ways to make minimum wage; neither of us will do this work, and take these risks, for less.” This is essentially the approach we’re now taking with the entire farm, at least for the coming year. We value our skills, knowledge, and labor at a higher level than we’re able to earn for them in the current food system here, and so we choose to focus our energies elsewhere.

We are not quitting farming, however, simply accepting that farming alone cannot provide the living we desire at this time, as self-employed folks in our 30s who are looking ahead to a career path that supports a decent retirement while we’re still healthy. We will be actively seeking to develop other sources of work and income that may offer a more balanced life. As an example, we both enjoy writing, and used to do more on our website and elsewhere. As the farm took over our lives, and particularly since the CSA started, that aspect of ourselves drifted away, and we’d like to recapture it. Expect this site to publish more policy and nature writing in the coming year, as a backdrop to some professional writing projects we’ll be undertaking. In addition, we’ll be offering two classes this spring through the Columbia Area Career Center, and will pursue additional opportunities for paid teaching, speaking, and more.

Meanwhile, we’ll be undertaking several longer-term farm projects we’ve discussed for years. Putting more time into developing permaculture areas such as perennial food plantings is an investment in farming for the long run, as is larger-scale landscape restoration/improvement of pastures and forests. Most of these goals cannot be achieved while simultaneously running full-time on the treadmill of annual vegetable production.

We’ll be cover-cropping and resting a large portion of the farm, but will be raising a few targeted cash crops that are especially reliable and practical in our experience. Strawberries will be producing again next spring, and we’ve planted more garlic for next year than ever before. We have not decided the best way to market these items yet, but  will maintain a list of customers who wish to be contacted if and when various crops are available for sale; this will also be announced on the website & Twitter feed. As we intend to return this website to its previous incarnation as a wide-ranging outlet for our thoughts and analysis on everything from agriculture to ecology, it’ll be easy to keep up with us if desired.

Agriculture writer Gene Logsdon wrote recently that farming requires “someone with more brains than banking requires, as much stamina as professional sports demands, almost as many people skills as it takes to run a university and the dedication of a sainted doctor.” We have learned that, apparently, we are not all of those things, or at least not to the extent that results in commercial success in this area. So we will explore other ways of putting our diverse skill set to use in service of our personal goals, while retaining our deep love of sustainable land management and production of excellent food.

We thank all of you who gave our farm a chance, and hope we’ll be able to continue providing value to your lives in other ways. We don’t entirely know what decisions we might make during the coming year; it’s going to be an exciting and nerve-wracking time as we navigate this new set of goals and lifestyle changes. We thrive on new and interesting challenges, and this is one we’re both currently inspired by. We are fortunate to be able to attempt this change, and will do our best to make it worthwhile.

Dropping organic certification, part III

Our farm has been certified organic for 5 of its 7 years in business, including our transition from a market & restaurant focus to a CSA, but we’ve decided to drop our certification for 2014 and the forseeable future, effective March 15. This decision has been developing for a long time, and was the topic of countless hours of discussion over the last year. This is the third of three posts in which we attempt to discuss and explain some of the myriad experiences and reasons behind this decision, though we can’t possibly cover everything.

PART III: The benefits of dropping certification Continue reading

Dropping organic certification, part II

Our farm has been certified organic for 5 of its 7 years in business, including our transition from a market & restaurant focus to a CSA, but we’ve decided to drop our certification for 2014 and the forseeable future, effective March 15. This decision has been developing for a long time, and was the topic of countless hours of discussion over the last year. This is the second of three posts in which we attempt to discuss and explain some of the myriad experiences and reasons behind this decision, though we can’t possibly cover everything.

PART II: Some of our specific concerns and problems with certification Continue reading

Dropping organic certification, part I

Our farm has been certified organic for 5 of its 7 years in business, including our transition from a market & restaurant focus to a CSA, but we’ve decided to drop our certification for 2014 and the forseeable future, effective March 15. This decision has been developing for a long time, and was the topic of countless hours of discussion over the last year. Over the next three posts, we’ll attempt to discuss and explain some of the myriad experiences and reasons behind this decision, though we can’t possibly cover everything.

PART I: Some of our concerns with the USDA Organic system as a whole

Continue reading

Early April farm happenings

Spring has finally arrived in our valley, and with vigor. In just the past week of warm weather, an intense flush of green growth has invigorated the grasses, weeds and wildflowers everywhere we look. Lots of spring birds are arriving, while a diverse chorus of frogs provides background ambiance.  The very slow start to spring pushed our outdoor work far behind as we waited for the soil to dry & warm. Finally, last week’s dry spell allowed us to undertake a marathon week of bed prep, seeding, transplanting, and more, exhausting ourselves thoroughly while enjoying finally moving forward with the growing season. This important work was cut off by the recent swath of strong storms which dumped over 2″ of rain, very heavy at times, and caused various problems with flooding and erosion (with minimal problems in the growing area, but roads especially aren’t pretty). And, of course, this once again slows down our planting & seeding plans while we wait for things to dry out.  We  could really use a nice, long stretch of pleasant weather, however unlikely that is in a typical Missouri April (the upcoming forecast has repeated rounds of rain again). Read on for some photos of early spring on the farm, and a glimpse of the first new crops of the year. Continue reading

Crop production strategies: resilience to cold spring weather

The current cold & wet spring situation means that CSA distributions are not going to get off to as early a start as last year. We hate that this sounds like an excuse, but the reality is that soil temperatures dictate our ability to successfully plant, and those have remained below critical thresholds. Adverse weather tends to make us think though strategies that can help us to better handle a repeat of such conditions. What follows is our current analysis of the options, along with what we’re already doing and what we plan to do differently for the future; these plans reflect our philosophy of low-budget economic & environmental sustainability. Continue reading