The future of Chert Hollow Farm

Following 2015’s sabbatical, we will not be offering a CSA program in 2016 or the near future. After three years, we weren’t able to reach our desired CSA membership goals, despite offering a variety of unique benefits including share customization, home delivery, and an especially wide variety of produce and herbs. Given that we left the farmers market in 2011 (also after three years) because our sales were averaging well below production, this places us in a trap going forward: it seems that we can’t sell the volume of produce necessary for a full-time farm in this area, but the time and financial commitment to a farmers market or CSA doesn’t work without that volume. Continue reading

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2014 CSA distribution #26: Thanksgiving-week share

The final share of the 2014 CSA season will be delivered on Monday, November 24 to ALL MEMBERS; we do not deliver on Thanksgiving Day. Personally, we’re pleased with the quality and quantity of produce that went into the shares this year, and the survey results suggest that those of you who responded agree. If anything, we overstocked the bags somewhat, but that was a function of membership being well below target in another productive year for the farm. If you’d like to review this year’s shares, and compare them to last year, please check out the share photos page.

There will be no Chert Hollow Farm CSA program in 2015. We are pulling back from the farm as a full-time business for reasons laid out here. We apologize to those who were looking forward to signing up again, but this is something we need to do for ourselves. There will be certain crops available for sale next year, including garlic and strawberries, and we will maintain an email list of consumers who wish to be contacted about products and events on the farm next year. Your final share survey will include an option to be placed on our email list for 2015; we will not contact anyone who has not expressed interest. Non-members reading this who wish to be on the list should email us to say so. Finally, if you would like to keep one of our cloth delivery bags as a useful keepsake, feel free to do so. We have a large quantity still in storage awaiting a membership expansion that didn’t come. Please return all bags labeled as “loaners” and keep one labeled with your name.

If you are looking for another CSA, take a look at Happy Hollow Farm, a certified organic CSA that delivers to Columbia. Liz of Happy Hollow grows quality vegetables on a gorgeous farm tucked away among the hills across the Missouri River from Columbia. She also sells at the Columbia Farmers Market, and you can find out if she’ll be at the winter markets by following her Happy Hollow Facebook page. She offers a different set of services and produce than we did, but is the closest you’ll get. Share Life Farms also grows certified organic produce, but the CSA information on their website hasn’t been updated since 2013. These are the only single-farm, organically minded CSAs that we’re aware of in the area.

Here are a few photos from the last big harvest push before the arctic blast hit:

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Left: First of two truck loads of produce hauled back from the field. Right: Work-share members Eric & Tyler trim leaves off of the kohlrabi plants in preparation for storage & distribution.

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Left: Jordan, Joanna, & Fae harvest parsnips, shown right. Photos by David Barker.

We’d like to extend a big thank you to all of our work-share members: Eric, Tyler, Jordan, Fae, David, Kendall, and Miranda. These are the folks who came out to the farm virtually every week this year, and some have been doing so for many years; we’ve relied on them to make the farm run smoothly. In addition, we greatly appreciate the regular members and other farm friends who have been out to take part in farm events, to pick strawberries, and to help with other farm tasks. And finally, we’d like to thank several farm-stay visitors from earlier in the season. In March, we enjoyed hosting two students from Carleton College, Joanna’s alma mater; read more here. And we had two excellent WWOOFers in 2014; thank you Vanessa and Kelly! We’ve certainly learned that it does take a community to run a farm. Though next year the work opportunities will be less structured, we’d like the feeling of community to continue; please get in touch &/or stay in touch if you’d like to be a part of the farm.

And, finally, the produce list for the final share of 2014:

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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.

2014 CSA distribution #25

Second-to-last share of the season; this one comes with a whiff of winter about it. Due to the serious cold snap coming midweek, we’ll be harvesting everything for both deliveries (and quite a bit for the Thanksgiving share) on Sunday. Virtually everything we offer this time of year has good storage qualities, so there should be no issue in doing so. With Thursday’s forecast high of 36 (and previous night low of 22), just getting things packed in our open barn will be an exercise in efficiency!

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2014 CSA distribution #24

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Fall shares mean roasted vegetables are back on the menu! This particular mix includes parsnips, turnips, beets, sweet potatoes, and carrots, some of which will be in the coming share and all of which you’ll get at some point in the remaining season. Onions, potatoes, garlic, & leeks also do well in such mixes. Read for more on this week’s share, and the rest of the CSA season leading up to Thanksgiving. Continue reading

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2014 CSA distribution #22

A late newsletter due to an eventful end of week, featuring over 6″ of rain followed by the season’s first killing frost on Friday night. Our thanks to those members who came out to help with pre-frost harvest & other chores on a long Friday.

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Here’s a photo of roasted “not quite shelling beans” that we made for Sat. lunch. We removed strings, tossed with oil and a bit of salt, spread whole on baking trays, and roasted in the oven at 400ºF for ~35 minutes, stirring after about 15 minutes. On the left: Kentucky Wonder, quite good flavor. On the right: Rattlesnake Snap, extraordinary flavor & sweetness. We left the beans whole (minimizes prep work) & ate them as finger food.

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2014 CSA distribution #21

We’re grateful for the nice, stable weather that is contributing both to the rapid growth of crops and to our sense of relief that there should be plenty of produce for the bags for the remainder of the season. Speaking of the remainder of the season, our first “off week” is coming up a few weeks from now, in mid-October. Please consult the webcalendar for full details on the distribution schedule from now to Thanksgiving.

Here’s a teaser of the crops that have a good chance of making an appearance in the shares between now & the end of the year: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, cucumbers, escarole, garlic, kale (curly & Russian red), kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard, okra, onions, pac choi, parsnips, peppers (Anaheim, sweet, & green), potatoes, radishes (watermelon & daikon), saute mix, shelling beans, spinach?, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tomatillos?, turnips (golden), & winter squash.

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2014 CSA potluck

We’re excited about hosting our annual potluck & produce tasting for CSA members on Saturday, September 27 starting at noon. We’ll start by setting out food, then eating & socializing; this event is a great way to meet other members. Afterward we’ll tour the farm & digest a bit.

Members: Please RSVP no later than Thursday Sept. 25 by commenting on this post, sharing what you intend to bring, so the menu can be balanced by all attendees without a lot of coordination on our part. If you’re not sure yet, even a general category (main dish, side, salad, dessert, etc.) is helpful for planning. Feel free to add more specifics later, if you wish. If you’d rather not use your full name, that’s ok as your email address (required to comment but not displayed on the site) should identify you to us. Read on below for more details & guidance.

FOOD CONSIDERATIONS

  • We have members with a variety of food preferences & allergies (vegetarian, gluten-free, etc.). We would like to be as accommodating as practical in making the potluck welcome to everyone who would like to come. However, the collective list of member food avoidances & allergies includes virtually everything EXCEPT vegetables. So, here’s our proposal: If you are planning to come and have special dietary concerns, please RSVP ASAP by commenting on this post (anonymously, if you like) with a description of your preferences/needs, and in the case of allergies, degree of sensitivity. In that way, when deciding what to bring, others can take into consideration the needs/preferences of members who are actually planning to come. Not all dishes necessarily need to meet all needs, but we hope to have appropriate & sufficient food available to feed everyone who is here. One consideration for extremely gluten-sensitive members: We bake routinely with wheat & rye (which we grind ourselves), so unfortunately we cannot guarantee a complete absence of residual gluten in the environment of our house or food that came from our kitchen.
  • Keep in mind the basic food ethics of the farm. For example, we’d strongly prefer that nothing brought onto the farm include GMO ingredients, highly processed foods, or factory-farmed meats. We’d prefer that animal products in general either be from a producer that you know and trust (and preferably who avoids/minimizes feeding GMOs to the extent economically feasible) or if from a distant source that they be certified organic. If you’re not certain what is GMO and what isn’t, there are numerous websites with information about that, such as this one.
  • Please let us know in advance if your dish needs any special handling (has to be kept cold, has to be reheated, etc.).

WHAT TO BRING

  • Your potluck dish. Basic labeling could be a good idea, especially if ingredients aren’t obvious (such as chicken broth in a soup). Also, serving utensils would be helpful, as we have a limited quantity of these.
  •  We’ll provide water to drink, possibly iced tea; anything else is up to you.
  •  Please bring your own (washable, not disposable) plates, bowls, cups, utensils, and napkins. We’ll have limited quantities of such things for anyone who forgets. We don’t use disposables here and would prefer that others didn’t either. Aside from the ethics, there’s the practical concern that we don’t have an easy way of getting rid of smelly trash smeared with food such as disposable paper plates. We generate very little trash ourselves (none containing food wastes) and bring a dumpster in only once every year or two to get rid of what dry trash we do generate.
  •  For touring the farm, we strongly advise close-toed shoes.
  • And, of course, bring a big appetite!
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