Market plans, May 30

Our young head lettuces were popular last week, and we’ll have more of many varieties. We really like offering smaller, younger heads for sale; I’ve had multiple customers observe that they like the option to buy smaller items, whether for reasons of economy or serving size. Given that head lettuces are far easier for us to harvest, clean, and bring to market, we charge less for them than loose-leaf mix. This means you can assemble a really nice lettuce mix yourself just by buying a few of our small heads of different types and shredding them at home.

We’ll have a few new products this week, particularly garlic scapes. These are a fantastic side effect of growing hardneck garlic; about a month before the bulbs fully form, the plants send up a narrow seed stalk. If you harvest it at just the right time, it produces a long, tubular stem with a wonderful fresh garlic flavor that is simply unmatched by any other product. Our first batch of these are ready and will be available; I strongly urge readers to try them.

Peas are really close, and it will be a last-minute decision whether we’ll have them for sale this week. A sunny day Friday may push them fast enough to be ready. Probably a few pints of the earliest ones, with more coming on strong.

We’ll also have one more batch of our nice saute mix from last week, including baby kale, baby tat soi, pea shoots, beet greens, and so on.

Finally, we’ll have the last round of radish harvest until fall. If you’ve enjoyed our young heirloom mixes, this is the last chance to get them.

Fresh fish with farm produce

Joanna and I have recently started working our way back into fishing, something I used to do a lot of growing up, and on/off ever since. As a teenager, I spent a lot of days riding my bike to a railroad bridge about 5 miles from my house to fish and watch trains; I also did a fair bit of fishing while camping and canoeing on various family trips. We’ve been having fun getting back into the habit as a quick way to take a break while potentially producing something worthwhile.

We had a great meal recently which really highlighted both the taste of truly fresh fish and all the seasonal items we have to complement it right now. We brought home six bluegills from Lick Creek Conservation Area, a nice, quiet, wooded impoundment just a few miles away. After cleaning these up, I preheated the oven to 450 while melting some butter with chopped tarragon and chives. When the oven was ready, I put a bit of oil in two glass baking dishes, arranged the fish, sprinkled with salt, and drizzled on the butter mixture. I then baked the fish for about 9 minutes until they were flaky but still moist.

Served on a bed of fresh lettuce with the butter/herb sauce drizzled on, these were fantastic (if bony). The rest of the meal (not pictured) featured a salad of our fresh greens and radishes and fresh-made bread with our strawberry jam. This was a really easy meal to do with the fresh chives, tarragon, lettuce, and radishes on hand, all of which we sell at the market. If you’re not into fishing, it would be a great way to serve Troutdale’s fresh spring-raised trout or any other fish. Come by the stand on Saturday and try it yourself!

The joys of a prep shed

We’ve been able to use our new prep shed for the past few weeks, and boy is it an improvement. Though I only have half the roof on, and haven’t started the walls, we’ve got the first sink, counter, and table set up allowing us to wash and pack produce in a proper setting. It’s made a huge difference to our efficiency to not have to haul all the produce up to the house.

Above is a basic view through the shed back into the market garden. Produce comes in from the east, often harvested directly into tubs of cold water (in the case of lettuce, greens, radishes, and so on). We can then wash and sort items on the steel table in foreground (purchased for a song at a restaurant auction) before packing into lidded containers that are stored at proper temperature in old refrigerators until market.

Above is part of last week’s radish harvest in progress. I’ve washed and sorted all six varieties, and am about to start building the diverse bundles that customers have found very attractive and interesting. Doing this kind of work outdoors yet under shade and protection is just fantastic. When the shed is truly finished, we’ll have a series of stations like this, along with a great deal of shelving and storage space for produce, tools, and more. Having this close workspace also improves the quality of the produce, as we can get it chilled, washed, and packed that much faster, thus ensuring the long shelf life that folks have repeatedly told us our produce provides. Good stuff all around. Plus, made from all on-farm cedar lumber, it just looks danged pretty.

Market garden update

After yesterday’s long post about the big field, here’s the latest view of the market garden. Peas and garlic scapes are forming, and we expect to have the latter at market next Saturday. Pole beans are starting in the upper left corner, as are zucchini under the row cover in right-center. Beets are still taking forever, while the later lettuce heads are in their final growth in various beds. Sweet potatoes will be soon be going in the four radish beds at center-left.

We’re battling a frustrating fungus on our tomato and pepper starts, which resembles the common damping-off disease but is far more persistant and less responsive to normal measures. We resorted to direct-seeding some tomatoes recently just to make sure we had a backup if too many starts die. But we hope to have many of the farther beds in the photo above full of tomatoes and peppers by mid-late summer.

Establishing field beds

This year we’ve taken on the task of fully establishing our larger vegetable field in permanent beds. The goal here is to minimize the need for tillage and equipment use, while maximizing the efficient use of inputs such as manure and straw. Rather than plowing/tilling an entire field, and spreading fertilizer/inputs over the whole thing, and weeding the whole thing, we’d rather establish permanent zones of growth on which we can focus our energy and resources, leaving permanent aisles which we can ignore except to mow now and then.

Creating these beds has been an ongoing process over the past few years. We’ve grown in this area before, so have a head start on breaking the sod and improving the soil, but hadn’t yet established our permanent beds. Finally, last fall, we outlined a series of 4’x40′ beds and spread manure before mulching heavily with straw. This spring, these beds are carrying a serious load of earthworms and the soil beneath them is rich and ready to go. Some weeds still need to be pulled, but the near-permanent mulch has suppressed most of them. These are the beds you see in the foreground of the first picture, and the background of the second.

We’ve also been working to establish a large block permanent of 2.5’x40′ beds that will be managed in similar manner (see foreground of above picture). However, much of this area was still pasture with thick fescue, so it needed to be plowed and tilled to destroy the sod and create the beds in the first place. Our goal was to use the equipment once to really get these set up, and then never have to use it again. With careful management and strategic mulch use, we intend not to have to till, plow, or otherwise disrupt this soil again.

For this initial work we used a BCS borrowed from a friend. A BCS is a useful implement for small farms, basically a cross between a standard rototiller and a tractor. It has an engine and drive wheels, but also a PTO which takes a wide variety of implements including various tillers, plows, cultivators, mowers, and even miniature hay balers. They’ve very common on European small farms, where they can do most things a tractor can but for far less cost and far less impact in terms of weight. They’ve been growing in popularity on American small farms for the same reasons.

In our case, we used a rotary plow, which looks like a giant drill bit. As the BCS drives forward, the rotary plow chews the soil and throws it to one side, effectively mounding it up. It works very well for trenching and/or building raised beds, which is what we used it for. By marking out the permanent bed locations, and driving the BCS in circles around that location, we continually dug out a shallow lowered aisle and built a nice raised bed. Then we put on a regular tiller and tilled the top of the bed smooth in one or two passes to make sure we’d killed and chopped up the thick fescue and other growth remaining from the pasture.

A rough result of this work is shown above. The aisles are spaced to the wheelbase of our tractor, so that we can drive over them in the future if needed and never actually compress the growing soil. As this photo was being taken, we were spreading a light cover of wood ash from our stove to buffer the pH, then working the beds into their final configuration with a hoe. These will be planted in a wide variety of summer items like beans, edamame, okra, corn, sorghum, amaranth, sunflowers, and more.

The lowest and most virgin blocks of beds are being planted in a cover crop of buckwheat and clover this year. These crops improve the soil while helping to choke out remaining weeds. Above, you see the lowest bed blocks covered in a light mulch of straw following cover crop seeding; our intention is that they grow a thick canopy of those crops that will be maintained throughout the summer before being replaced with an equally beneficial winter crop of oats and/or rye. Then we’ll be in better shape to for vegetable planting next spring.

We’re very excited about the prospects for this field of permanent beds. We’re already seeing the benefits of a similar approach in our market garden, where the weed load is noticeably down compared to 2007 and 2008 and planting/management is far more weather-independent than on a tractor-reliant field. And keeping the permanent beds means we’re only working on the soil that actually grows food, while maintaining permanent aisles that provide habitat for beneficial fauna such as toads, snakes, and good insects. This year will be a good test case for managing this field, and in 2010 we’ll really dive into using it fully.

Market plans, May 23

This will probably be the last crop of our radish mixes this spring. We have one bed left to go, and they are maturing fast in this warm weather. Otherwise we’ll be sticking with the familiar blend of weeks past, with various lettuces, herbs, and so on.

One new item will be some very nice saute/braising mix, composed of various baby greens such as kale, arugula, tat soi, beet greens, and more. These are perfect for cooking lightly in a sauce/oil of your choosing and serving over pasta or as a side with meat. They also make a good stir fry with sliced radishes.

Happenings at Market

Various interesting stories passing through the Columbia Farmers Market:

Greenwood Farms, a state-certified raw-milk dairy, contacted CFM with interest in joining the market. Based on their state-issued Grade-A retail license, the market board (of which I’m a member) approved their membership. However, the local health department rejected permission to sell raw milk in the county, and the market decided not to fight the legal battle required to challenge that ruling.
Shortly thereafter, Weiler Dairy (whose pasteurized milk is currently available in local groceries) contacted the market to join, and was approved by both the board and the health department. They started selling last week.
Customer and vendor counts have really grown; we’re already hitting numbers seen only in mid-summer last year. Space is extremely tight and there will be many vendors forced into either sharing a single stall space or setting up farther and farther into the fringes of the market space; this includes us. Anyone visiting the market this year should have no trouble seeing the desperate need for a more permanent, expanded facility; the popularity and growth of the market have far outstripped the narrow space we’re squeezed in to. Please remember, when you’re browsing the market, to visit those of us set up along the fringes because there’s no more room anywhere else.
However, despite repeated efforts, no portion of the Federal stimulus money alloted to Missouri was assigned to the Pavilion campaign. So we’ll simply go back to the longer-term fundraising campaign we were already hard at work on, raising private funds, applying for grants, and so on. This means it will probably be two more years before any relief is had by the Market. Not sure what this summer and next year will look like. In the meantime, you can listen to a KBIA report on all this by listening to the May 13 Business Beat show.

Headaches for small farmers: liability

This series looks at different regulatory, liability, and governmental barriers small market farms like ours face in actually trying to do business. These kinds of things are rarely written or talked about, but are a far larger problem than weather, finances, or farming skill. I hope this series help customers and community members understand what it takes to actually be in business as a market farmer, and help potential new farmers understand what they have to pay attention to as they go into business. And if any government officials happen to read this, we would be deeply grateful if you could consider helping ease these sorts of burdens instead of just seeking grants or subsidies for us. I’d rather have a rational tax code and a citizen-friendly legal system than a subsidy or a grant any day.

There are various forms of liability that a small farm has to consider, especially in today’s litigious society. At the most basic level are things like farm insurance, but we must also deal with product liability, visitor liability, worker/intern liability, and so on. Basically we have to either protect ourselves against everything, or risk losing everything. In this piece, I’m drawing both from our own experiences, and from the excellent book Market Farming Success, by Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing For Market magazine.

Naturally, we wish to protect our home, farm, equipment, and other such things against loss or damage from storms, accidents, etc. Without a business, this is a pretty straightforward homeowners policy. Add in a farm business where you live, however, and it gets far hairier. For one thing, many insurance products are not set up to recognize a business in which home and business are integrated to the extent that our farm is. Second, fewer and fewer companies even offer policies relevant to farms at all, much less direct-market farms that sell to individuals (as opposed to commodity or wholesale farms selling to elevators, auctions, or processors).

One national company informed us that while they offer a farm policy, they would not cover any farm on which poultry were present, regardless of number or type or whether the poultry would even be included in the policy. Residual bird flu paranoia? Others just don’t bother at all, or technically offer something but don’t know their own policies. Another significant company attempted to sell us their farm policy, but we discovered multiple cases where their own underwriters (not just the agent) were completely unfamiliar with the farm policy and kept giving us wrong answers that we had to correct by quoting from their own policy. Reassuring. Our best bet turned out to be a Missouri-based company that does still write small farm policies (we were initially referred to them by another small farm we trust), but it ain’t cheap. The concept of “business” just seems to jack up the cost of everything.

Anyone selling food items ought to at least consider product liability. If a customer somehow gets sick, or even thinks they did, they can sue the farm for damages. No matter how carefully you wash produce, it’s always possible something might slip through and make someone sick, and there’s always risks associated with meats, eggs, and so on. It’s just the nature of food. But in our litigious society, it takes on a whole new level of risk. Can a small farm afford to fight such a legal battle, even if wrongly accused? So many take on product liability policies, or try to given that it’s hard to find those for small direct-market farms as well. This is particularly true for farms selling at farmers markets where the sales may be made in lots of different locations, rather than one farm or farmstand like a CSA or U-pick operation.

And then there’s the fascinating and disturbing question of whether you OUGHT to have the policy. We’ve been told by several reputable sources, including insurance agents, that having liability policies can actually invite lawsuits, because they create a target for the other party to shoot for. If you’re a poor farmer with no insurance, the other party may realize they’re not going to get anything out of you. But if you’re a poor farmer with a $500,000 product liability policy, you’ve got something that can be taken, and you’re a better target for legal action. Twisted, but apparently true.

Now we move on to the even more frightening question of liability for anyone present on the farm. Most small direct-market farms like and want to have visitors; that kind of openness is part of the concept of local, safe food. Whether it’s member-workers on a CSA, customers on a U-Pick, or visitors on an official market farm tour, these folks are on your property and you are responsible for their safety. If someone gets hurt, through an accident or otherwise, what happens? Their insurance company wants to know how the injury happened, and when they see it was on a farm, they instantly realize that the farm could be responsible and pursue that option. Thus, even your best friend could be forced to sue you if they (or their kid) hurts themselves while on-farm and the treatment is covered by their insurance; their choice is between the lawsuit or paying for the treatment out-of-pocket. Insurance, after all, is set up NOT to want to pay if they can get someone else to do it. Even if you end up proving you weren’t at fault, how many farmers can afford that kind of legal battle in the first place, particularly in the growing season?

And really, no matter, how safe you are, it’s a farm. Accidents are possible. There’s no way to guarantee that visitors, especially kids, won’t somehow hurt themselves. We had one illuminating episode where a family’s kids were having a great time meeting the goats and chickens, until I looked over to see the youngest happily dipping her hand into a water tub and licking her fingers. Interacting with the real world carries risks, but our society is so paranoid about the wrong kinds of risk that we’re forced away from plain old responsibility and common sense. So either you get an expensive (if you can even get it) liability policy that could act as a lawsuit magnet (see above), or you play dice and don’t get one, hoping that nothing happens and that if it does the other company will decide you’re too poor to sue (heaven forbid you’re actually a successful farm with assets to be taken). Or you severely restrict visitors and run very controlled tours, both of which are counter to the entire educated-consumer, personal-responsibility ethic of modern direct-market farms.

All of these things are just so frustrating. We’re forced into paying a great deal of money to protect against things that have little to do with real farming, or shouldn’t be as big an issue as they are, all so we can just run a business people want to patronize. None of this is a problem if you’re just a homestead; a simple homeowners policy covers all this stuff easily. But the second you try to make a living doing these things, the money and hassle just starts flowing. The full cost of all these things could top $3,000 a year for us, and that’s not counting the many, many hours we’ve spent talking to agents, poring over microscopic policy terms, and doing everything right to be responsible businesspeople and insurance consumers. All to protect ourselves from frivolous lawsuits rather than common sense.

Like everything I’ll write about in this series, keep these things in mind when you buy from a local farmer or farmers market. Like most businesses, there are a lot of hidden costs that aren’t apparent to consumers. And like so many of these situations, my complaint is not with the taxes or the insurance itself, it’s with the dysfunctional and nonsensical way in which we have to partake in these requirements. If governments focused more on making things work in a common-sense way, we’d all be a lot better off. And maybe our produce would be a bit cheaper.

Mid-May update

As of mid-May, we’re a few weeks behind schedule on the infrastructure work we’d intended to be done by end of April, but otherwise are right on track for the year. The prep shed is 1/2 built, just needing to finish the roof and walls, but is already functional. We were able to wash & pack in it last week, which was a great relief. We have all the posts in place for our main field’s new fencing, and will hopefully finish that task this week. All our permanent beds in the main field have been established and are ready for planting with a little more hoe work.

Produce-wise, we’ve hit the peak of our spring production and will probably be winding down for a few weeks. We have 1-2 weeks of radish harvest left, and probably the same for lettuce. Warm weather is hastening the end of those items. Late spring onions are coming on, and our beets are being very slow but hopefully will be ready in a couple weeks. Peas are growing nicely and starting to flower. Garlic continues to look very healthy and we’re expecting scapes to start forming within a few weeks; look for more on these fantastic items when they arrive.
As discussed Monday, we’ve been holding off on our summer plantings, in part to avoid just the sort of late frost that we got over the weekend. This week we’ll probably start on summer in earnest, beginning to seed corn, beans, sorghum, summer cover crops, and more, and will start considering transplants of tomatoes and peppers fairly soon.
Eventually we need to start getting ready for the arrival of new birds; we have another batch of chicks coming along with some turkey poults. We’ll need to brood them and then introduce them to grass as soon as possible. In the meantime, we’re continuing to rotate the goats to different pastures while starting to draw milk off Garlic (when the kids haven’t taken it all). We have a goose brooding eggs right now, and will be interested to see if she hatches anything within a few weeks (first-year eggs aren’t always fertile).

May frost & other weather notes

The average last frost date in central MO is mid-April, but the true last-frost date is mid-May. This is particularly true for those of us down in steep valleys, which trap cold air and extend the frost season far beyond the uplands. That was borne out Saturday night, as we got a light frost overnight.

This wasn’t unexpected on our part. We’ve had two very strong cold fronts come through in the past week, generating the severe weather that spawned tornadoes in Kirksville, large hail around the state, and very heavy rains on Friday. We got 3.5″ in two hours Friday evening, generating the highest streamflow we’ve seen yet and nearly blocking me in Saturday morning with a very heavy waterlogged log that I just managed to drag off the road without the aid of the tractor. The forecasts for Saturday and Sunday nights were around 41, which we know how to interpret.
Generally speaking, we can expect our valley-bottom temperatures to be 5-10 degrees cooler than the official NWS forecast at the airport. Thus, any time night-time temps are forecast in the low 40s, we know to expect a chance of frost. This is because our narrow valley really traps cold air and blocks wind, creating low, calm pockets of air that keep cooling beyond the relatively warm situation at the airport. When I got up at 5:30 Sunday morning, sure enough our house thermometer read 35 and there was light frost on the mulch and leaves in the lowest part of the market garden. I didn’t go out to the field, but I’m sure it was there too.
This is the reason we’ve never tried to start summer things too early, or beat people to market. It’s just not practical in our bottom-land. The trade-off is that we’re less susceptible to things like wind damage as compared to an open-land farm. In any case, we’ve been holding off on planting corn, beans, and more, while holding onto our tomato & pepper transplants, and we’re glad we did. Partly we also just haven’t gotten to those tasks yet, but we haven’t felt an urgency to because we know that late frosts are always possible here. And so this mid-May frost is little more than a weather note, rather than the disaster it could have been if we didn’t know our land and our hyper-local weather tendencies.
One of the best qualities a gardener/farmer can develop is an intimate knowledge of their land and weather/climate, however large or small. Plenty of gardening books offer advice like “talk to your neighbors; what works for them will probably work for you”. There’s some truth in that, but there’s also danger. It may work in a town, but our gardening neighbors (only a few hundred yards away) are also at least 80′ higher in elevation with a garden on an open ridge, and so their local weather conditions are thoroughly different from ours. If we planted corn or tomatoes on their schedule we’d likely lose it to late valley frosts. But our soil and wind patterns are different and allow us some benefits they don’t have. All part of being a responsible and observant farmer.