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.

Market plans, May 16

Radish mixes, lettuce, and herbs will again anchor our market stand this week. Green onions are done for now, but we’ll have catnip, tarragon, 3 mints, chives, and more. Loose-leaf lettuce will be available, though we’ll have a larger selection of head lettuces this week (see below for a few varieties). The weather looks rough for Friday, but clear for Saturday, so hopefully we’ll have a good crowd again.

I’ve heard several market vendors comment that though crowds are up this year, purchasing seems a bit down. May be the combined effect of economic concerns and lots of new folks coming to the market for the first time, testing the waters but not committed shoppers yet. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of “window shoppers” passing through, but leaving without much product, which I can judge because I’m right at the main entrance. It makes sense; farmers markets and local foods are really being trumpeted by just about every media source now, but that doesn’t instantly translate to the somewhat different shopping, cooking, and eating habits that relate to significant consumption of local foods in a given household.

Wonderful farm multimedia piece

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had a wonderful MU graduate student in photojournalism following us around since February, doing a project on tracking a small farm’s transition from winter to spring. I think she’s about wrapping up, and we’re looking forward to her final product and CD of images with great excitement.

As a teaser, she gave us the link to her photo blog, which included this very nicely done multimedia slideshow/montage of images, interviews, and sounds from the farm. In my opinion, this is by far the best media product we’ve seen about what we do, in our many interactions with local journalism. She’s really captured things nicely and the slideshow flows very effectively. Thanks, Cat!.

The show is embedded below, or you can visit her blog for a larger version.


Chert Hollow from Catherine Szalkowski on Vimeo.

This is very much a teaser for us, as we’re really happy with this small product and can’t wait to see what else she captured.

Cute kids

When in doubt, post gratuitous cute animal photos:

I particularly like that last one. They love climbing on just about anything, and are getting noticeably heavier. They’re also starting to nibble on real food, meaning we can start to draw milk off Garlic. They were castrated and dehorned recently, so they’ve had a rough few days of walking funny, but are rapidly getting back to normal.

Market plans, May 9

Market this week will once again be about the same as last week, dominated by heirloom radish mixes, green onions, herbs, chives, and spring lettuce mix. I’d started by selling lettuce mix loose so customers could bag just what they wanted, but have found that far more people prefer it prebagged in a set amount. My mind doesn’t work that way, but if that’s how the customer wants it, that’s how we’ll do it! The radishes continue to be a major draw; no one else does a blend like it, and they’re young and tasty. Diversity is a good thing in all parts of agriculture. One new item this week will be some small head lettuce; several neat heirloom varieties that form compact heads that are very attractive and just right for single salads. Easier for us to manage than loose-cut leaf lettuce, too. UPDATE: We revisited those heads this morning and decided to leave them another week; still a bit small for their potential…

For those interested in where the current sales are coming from, here’s a panoramic view from the second floor of the new prep shed. This is the market garden where we grow spring items in intensively-managed raised beds. Radishes are in the middle-left block, lettuces above and to right of them, garlic and onions in foreground and background. Herbs come from the herb beds up near the house. Other beds are preparing to have summer items transplanted into them, and we’re close to seeding lots of things out in the main field for summer growth.

Headaches for small farmers: Sales Taxes

This new series will look 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.

Sales taxes are different in most cities and counties in Missouri, and also differ depending on product. For example, food is taxed at a different rate than regular items, and sales to restaurants or groceries are not taxed at all. This is annoying for any business, but is especially problematic for market farms, who travel to different locations to sell their items and don’t have a nice centralized cash register system that can track these things. For example, here are the relevant tax rates for us:

Items sold on-farm, in unincorporated Boone County:
food (produce, eggs, etc.): 2.55%
non-food (wood, flowers, blown eggs, gourds): 5.55%
to chefs (for use in restaurant): no tax

Items sold at Columbia Farmers Market, in Columbia city limits
food: 4.55%
non-food: 7.55%
to chefs: no tax
to EBT (food stamp) customers: no tax

Items sold at Hallsville Farmers Market, in Hallsville city limits
food: 3.55%
non-food: 6.55%
to chefs: no tax

So depending on where we make a sale of farm products, and what those products are, we might have to collect no tax, 2.55%, 3.55%, 4.55%, 5.55%, 6.55%, or 7.55%. To make matters worse, to qualify for the lower food tax rate, we have to pre-register all our sales locations with the Department of Revenue (DOR). This is because the system is set up for independent static businesses like brick-and-mortar franchises; DOR has no concept of a sales model in which the product is produced in one location but sold at many. So if I were to decide in the middle of the season to try out the Boonville, Moberly, or Ashland farmers markets, I would technically have to charge the full (non-food) rate at those locations because DOR hadn’t approved my new “location”. Or so I’m told by DOR staff.

In addition, most market farms aren’t set up to charge tax on top of their sales. Without a powered cash register capable of being programmed for different tax rates, it isn’t practical to add tax to purchases at the point of sale, especially when some sales combine items of different tax rates (purchasing produce along with a gourd, for example). It would take way too long in a busy marketplace and be a headache for everyone. Thus, most farmers have to “include” sales tax in their price, charging a nice round price that’s easier for everyone, then tracking their sales numbers and remitting the appropriate tax on whatever basis (monthly, quarterly, annually) the state requires based on their income.

So our market record sheets have a complicated table of tax rates in which we have to break down what kinds of products were sold where and to whom, so we can back out the appropriate tax bill to pay quarterly. Sometimes the work involved isn’t worth the effort of selling the product, if you consider the time it takes us to do this and/or the expense of an accountant.

This kind of system is unfortunate in so many ways. It creates a ridiculous burden on small businesses like market farms. This isn’t even something you can really pass off on an accountant, because you’d have to do most of the record-keeping in the first place so the accountant would know what to do. It doesn’t reflect the reality of this kind of business. It creates a misperception of price as compared to other sources like grocery stores, where tax is added at the register and thus the posted price in the produce aisle looks smaller. It creates a strong incentive to cheat or otherwise misuse the system; I suspect (without solid evidence) that many market farmers or roadside stands don’t go to all the trouble to break out their sales like this, just reporting sales based on farm location. That’s what we did at first until we realized how we were supposed to do it, and then filed an amended return with DOR. The resulting confusion on their end cost the state more in employee billable hours and postage costs than the extra tax we ended up paying just to be honest and ethical.

I believe pretty strongly that an unenforceable law, or a law which creates a strong incentive to break it, is at best counterproductive and at worst unethical. What systems like this do is punish the honest and reward the lazy/dishonest. Folks like us who spend hours attempting to learn the proper tax code in order to do the right thing are punished by paying the full amount of taxes, while those who throw up their hands or don’t bother to find out get away with far less payment, headaches, and time lost. And the state is likely cheated out of a fair bit of income, because the system for collecting it is so complicated and unenforceable that people don’t bother.

There are better ways to do handle such things, and it’s unfortunate that the repercussions of our current system fall most heavily on those who are most honest and ethical.

Marginal cost and market bags

After posting on the problem of “free” plastic bags at market, I ran across this interesting piece from Ezra Klein on the econonics of customer freebies like bread at a restaurant. The basic idea, which is nothing new, is that consumers do not behave rationally when something is percieved to be free. He recounts multiple excellent examples of such behavior, and the effects of even a tiny charge on changing consumer consumption of an item.

The problem as I see it, is that for incremental charges to work, they have to be percieved as unavoidable. One restaurant that charges for bread may lose offended customers to all the others that don’t. One grocery store that charges for bags, one market stand, etc. If everyone at a market charged equally for bags, perhaps the effect would take place. But if we just started it, chances are we’d annoy or offend customers who might go elsewhere, even if that extra nickel was more than worth the access to our produce.

Still, it’s a great quick look at the psychology of consumerism, and what kind of factors market farmers have to keep in mind as they compete for customers in a wide-open marketplace.

New prep shed – construction

Starting construction of our new prep shed began with finalizing the design and milling the lumber. I intended to build this solely from on-farm lumber, purchasing only hardware and roofing panels. We have so many good, solid cedars available for use, and it would be so much cheaper and easier to use our own lumber. Plus, this way I can get just the dimensions and lengths I want (I have lots of nice, long 18′ beams to support the rafters, for example). Below you see the freshly milled lumber pile awaiting use near the final site:

First, however, I had to pour the foundation footings, which took quite a while to complete due to weather and other work requirements. We laid out the site and drilled the nine foundation holes with our auger, then poured concrete footings with rebar in place. We then filled the holes to ground level and inserted anchor bolts, to which posts could be nailed using appropriate hardware. It kept raining or freezing as I was trying to get this done, which delayed the project many weeks. Finally the foundations were ready.

Next, we raised the nine posts and braced them in place before beginning to install the framing and rafters for the second floor. As of the first weekend in May, this is where the structure stands:

It’s ready for upper rafters and then the roofing panels. Once the roof is on, we can begin to use it for storage and packing even before I get the walls on. We just can’t wait to get this done; our production this year is already overwhelming the kitchen and this shed will be far cleaner, more efficient, and just all-around better. My original goal for completion was end of April, and I now expect to have it done by mid-May. Not too far off, and not a minute too soon.
It’s already a really neat-looking building, with the all-cedar framing. It ought to be incredibly solid, as we milled all the lumber to true dimension (actual 2x4s instead of store-bought 1.5×3.5s, for example) and are using many full-length beams for greater strength. Already, the view from the second floor is a great platform for panoramic photos of the market garden (look for those soon).
I’ll post again on this when it’s completed.

National organic farm maps

The NY Times recently published an absolutely fascinating map showing the distribution of organic farms as compared to other types of farm operations. It’s a must-peruse for anyone bothering to read this blog. Just so cool. (Thanks to The Ethicurean for pointing this out, as we don’t read the Times much)
One quick point that leaps out here is a significant reason we chose to farm in Missouri; a wide-open market. The relative saturation of small, organic vegetable farms in the Upper Midwest and New England as compared to the paucity of such things here meant we had a better chance to establish ourselves. There were many other factors as well, but this kind of thing would be well worth considering for new/young farmers looking to get started.
The other point I want to make about this map relates to the overall existence and pattern of organic farms. Notice that they exist just about everywhere. There’s very little physical, climatological, or scientific barrier to organic farming. It’s the baseline for how farming happened in this country prior to WWII. Where organic farms are now clustered are in the areas where consumers and/or governments are supporting their efforts and choices, not necessarily in areas uniquely suited to organic farming. The fact that New England, in a very difficult natural setting to farm, is laced with small, organic farms shows that there’s no inherent barrier. The fact that Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are laced with small, organic farms shows that the Midwest is quite able to support such operations. It’s a matter of consumer choices and agricultural policy that really drives the patterns of this map, and fortunately those are the things we’re most able to influence.