Time management vs. disruptions

Recently when I wrote about our weekly schedule, one thing I didn’t really get into was the overall time management we use to keep up with everything. Keeping this place running takes some choreography, especially because many of our crop management techniques rely heavily on keeping ahead of problems like weeds and insect outbreaks. For example, it’s much more effective to keep things weeded and maintained on a regular basis as compared to the task of cleaning up an overgrown bed or field row. We really try to keep ahead of these things; it’s just so much more efficient to do things right in the first place.

The past week has thrown a serious wrench into our management plan, as all this rain and heat means the weeds are exploding, while we haven’t been able to do much about it since last weekend. As it turns out, running the farm tour last weekend was very poor timing given what came next, because the 2+ days we spent preparing for that could have been spent getting ahead on all the planting, weeding, and maintenance that are now a week or more behind. But, of course, we couldn’t have known weeks ago when we scheduled it that those two lost days would be followed by 10″ of rain, damaging hail, illness, and more.

I mention all this simply to illustrate the nature of running this kind of farm; you just don’t take days off very often. We do get mini-breaks a lot, an hour here or there, but it just isn’t practical or possible to ever stop working during the growing season because the task list is so susceptible to disruptions and distractions.

Brutal week

This past week was quite disruptive to the farm; until now we’ve had things running pretty smoothly and the weather had been quite good throughout the spring. That will never last forever, and this week marked the switch.

Monday through Tuesday we got 5″ of rain, which saturated the soil and forced us out of many outdoor tasks. Wednesday was a fine interlude, until the severe storms blew up that afternoon and pounded us with another 3″ of rain and damaging hail. Thursday morning I woke up feeling rather ill and wasn’t much use; Joanna had already planned on attending a quail habitat management seminar that afternoon, so she dropped me off at the doctor to check for tick disease. Tests were negative, but whatever it was didn’t really release me until the end of Friday. I struggled through helping with market harvest, but wasn’t of much other help. Besides, 8″ of rain meant that we definitely couldn’t do much else.

We had a decent market Saturday, but as we drove home that afternoon, the sky looked awfully dark, and the roads near home looked awfully wet. We got to the bottom of our hill to find that we had indeed gotten another strong storm, about 2″ in what the neighbors reported to be 30 minutes, which on top of the fully saturated soil produced one heck of a flood, including depositing a rather large log on our road:
These latest rounds of intense rainfall have caused damage in addition to the hail, and mean that everything is so wet it will be days before we get started on weeding and cleanup again (it’s not effective or good to pull weeds or work soil when it’s saturated). And, of course, we have a week coming up forecast for mid-90s and very humid.
It’s Missouri, and none of these events are at all unusual. But packed together like that, they made for a week to move on from. Interestingly, it was right about this time last year that I was writing about heavy rains and the problems they were causing…

Market plans, 6/20

It’s going to be a small market this week for us, due to seasonal changes and hail damage. I’m also not feeling very well, and Joanna may be selling for us on Saturday.

Fresh garlic heads, first of the season. We’ll be bringing just a few to whet folks’ appetites, but the harvest will grow bigger and bigger over the next few weeks. Once the full harvest has been hung and cured, it will be a regular at the stand for the rest of the summer.
We should have beets again, though some leaves are shredded and we’ll be checking for damage to the roots. Some scallions and herbs will also be available.
Not sure if we’ll have any peas, we won’t know until we harvest tomorrow whether we have enough undamaged and mature ones to be worth bringing.
Lettuce and our popular saute mix are done until fall.

Oh, hail

We’ve had a rough few days here, weather-wise. Several rounds of storms brought around 5″ of rain early in the week, followed by a brutally muggy Wednesday that was crying out for strong storms to break out. And they did.

Lightning started crackling around us by late afternoon, and we soon had a very energetic thunderstorm building right over us. While I’ve seen worse storms in Texas and elsewhere around the West, this was the strongest we’ve had on this farm, with constant nearby lightning strikes, high winds, and heavy rain. The power kept flickering on and off, then finally died. Worse, pea-sized hail began to fall and kept up a pretty steady pelting for 10-15 minutes. Interspersed in this were larger chunks up to quarter-sized, bouncing impressively. Listening to our crank-radio, we heard reports of a funnel cloud being spotted along Highway 63 just southeast of us, and a tornado warning ended up being issued for parts of Callaway County, further along the storm’s track.

This storm dumped another 2.5″ of rain in less than an hour, on already saturated ground, producing another impressive flood on the stream and really causing problems for our produce, as this much water can drown roots and/or cause plants to topple over. But the real damage was from the hail, which shredded leaves and knocked down plants, while also punching plenty of holes in the row-cover fabric we use to keep insects off more susceptible items like squash. Here’s a photo tour of the damage:

Many scallions were knocked over, broken, or otherwise damaged. This one shows multiple hits that broke the upper two stalks, while the lower stalk looks like it took a direct hit that split it open like a bursting gun barrel. Not sellable.

Sturdier items like beets have some holes and broken leaves, but should be ok, especially as they’re nearing harvest. As we pull them, though, I suspect we’ll find some bruised roots that took direct hits on their shoulders. Given that we sell our beets with greens on, for extra food value, this will diminish the value of many.
Beans, too, are relatively resiliant to small hail, though like any other plant the holes and shredded leaves weaken the plant and make insects and disease more likely. This is a particular problem for organic growers who rely strongly on healthy plants to fend off problems on their own.
Hardest hit was zucchini, because these plants rely on upright, delicate stalks and large, tender leaves. These guys really got hammered, with the stalked broken and flattened and the leaves shredded. They’ll probably recover, but zucchini are so susceptible to insects and disease already that this will really increase their risk down the road.

Out in the field, we lost some young sorghum and corn to direct hits, while all the beans and potatoes are showing some shredded leaves. Still, it could have been worse, as I expect most things to recover. Very little was truly destroyed as it easily could have been if the hail had been any worse.

So we’ve now had around 8′ of rain this week, with another round of strong to severe storms expected Friday. For context, I looked into our blog posts from last year, and found a long article from June 26, 2008 lamenting the heavy rains and storms that were causing problems for us. It’s an interesting read for comparison; back then the whole state was getting pounded and rivers were rising fast, whereas this latest storm just impacted a narrow swatch of mid-Missouri.

It’s nice to not worry about irrigation so far, but this is far too much. I’m staying indoors today, with an expected heat index well over 100F; I’m not adjusted to this yet and nearly gave myself heat stroke yesterday working to finish a new goat hoop in our upper pasture.

And here is what hail-damaged peas look like:

Our market stand may be pretty small this Saturday.

Food safety and local TV

Local TV station KOMU called yesterday, planning to do a story on the food safety bills now before Congress (for background, see my post on HR 875). A very nice reporter drove out to the farm around 5:30 pm to interview and take footage for the 10pm newscast. We had a good time; she was intelligent and asked good questions, listening to the answers and asking followups. There is so much to say about how screwy these top-down, one-size-fits-all attempts to “fix” food safety that I was having a hard time condensing my thoughts into sound bites that would work for TV, but did my best.

This is why I don’t like TV as a medium, though. All reporters have to filter the large amount of information they gather, but TV makes it especially hard to present context and reasoned argument. After all, she spent over 30 minutes here, but had less than a minute to cover the entire topic. This format works for house fires and lost dogs, but not for serious public policy issues. It would be nice if (a) stations gave their reporters more time to do real stories, and (b) the audience demand supported such things.

In any case, watch the piece here and judge for yourself. I think it’s well done given the constraints, but no one sound bite can possibly convey the deeper discussion we had during her visit. I do wish they had used another quote from me, as that one out of context just makes me sound like any other business person instinctively bemoaning regulation, with none of the background arguments for why this particular regulation really is impractical. I felt particularly strongly about the point that on a farm like ours, customers can come out and inspect the production process for themselves; the FDA can’t possibly match that kind of relationship. To give credit, she did mention that during the voiceover, but with a couple more minutes she could really have delved into the issue in a way that would inform the viewer. Not her fault, though; it’s the nature of the (badly misused) medium.

June animal photos

I’ve had multiple requests to post more animal photos. I guess vegetables just aren’t as charismatic, though they’re less risky and more lucrative.

First, the newest arrivals. Joanna is holding one of four young ducks that we acquired this week as our first foray into duck-raising. We have them housed in a temporary mobile pen made from used chain-link fence panels, which we can drag around to keep giving them fresh browse. At least two of these will be meat when they get a bit bigger, but we may keep a pair to breed, as ducks are pretty prolific and could be a good side source of income. That’s if the coons don’t get them first, which is always a possibility with poultry.

Then we have a gosling, which like all baby animals is ridiculously cute.

And a kid meeting a hen. Just after the shutter clicked, she snapped her head around and pecked his inquisitive nose away. I would have loved to capture that.

And, for good measure, here’s a pretty fun video of the kids playing on our goose shed. I was hoping to capture one of the flying leaps they use to get on and off the shed, but you still get the idea. They just fling themselves into midair with no concept of where they’re going or what’s below them.

They’re insanely energetic, and we’ve been a bit worried that they would run over a gosling as they charge around and leap on and off the shed. As it turns out, that worry was justified, as I found a flattened gosling last night that had clearly been killed by one of the kids as it jumped off the shed and onto the unsuspecting gosling. So we’re down to one.

Farm tour recap

We put a lot of effort into preparing for this first farm tour of 2009. We worked through a two page checklist to make sure the tour would be as safe as possible, especially for children. This included walking the tour route, making sure it was clean and safe (no tripping hazards, tools left out, etc.), and in some cases working to improve the route. We collected all tools and other hazards and placed them out of sight; this was especially important given that we expected several families with kids. We planned out what we wanted to say where, to keep it moving while hitting all the important topics. We cleaned up the house and the prep shed, and even did some mowing. Overall, we spent the bulk of our time Saturday through Sunday afternoon getting ready.

We started in the market garden, explaining our core approach to integrated intensive organic growing. Then we moved up to the fruit plantings and discussed our active logging efforts and how that work fit into the rest of our farming. From there, we cut through some woods, over a ridge, and down into the main vegetable field, to talk about our expansion into larger-scale production. We finished by visiting with the farm animals as a nice, fun close. Afterwards, we served samplers of farm-fresh flatbreads with our fresh-made goat cheese and produce while answering any remaining questions.
I felt we had a great time, as those who came seemed to really enjoy the walkthrough and the discussion. It was a good first experience for us in giving an organized tour (as opposed to just hosting individuals by request). We’ll probably shoot for late July or early August for our next tour. By then, we’ll be in the peak of our summer growth, though the weather may not be as comfortable as the glorious day we had this time.

Recipe: roasted beet salad

Fresh spring beets are a delicacy. We grow multiple heirloom varieties with different colors, which offer many possibilities for good, simple meals. American cooking tends to reduce beets to an overcooked purple pulp, which is a real shame. I think beets are best lightly cooked, or even better roasted, which brings out their sweetness and flavor. Here’s an easy way to use a bundle of fresh heirloom beets from the market; remember to save the greens for cooking or making broth.

Preheat your oven to 350F. Peel the beets and slice cross-ways into thin circles, maybe 1/4′ thick. You want them solid, but not chunky. Evenness will help them roast correctly together. Toss the beets in a bowl with some olive oil, black pepper, salt, and a bit of apple cider vinegar. When the oven is ready, spread the beets on a baking sheet and drizzle the rest of the oil over them. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until they are partially tender but still solid (NOT mushy).

Prepare a simple salad base of fresh lettuce, maybe some nuts and raisins, and top with the roasted beets. A bit of feta cheese goes very nicely on this as well. A simple oil and vinegar dressing works well, so you don’t overwhelm the natural flavors of the beets.

Simple, but delicious for a light spring meal or side.

Market plans, 6/13

We’ve been waiting for our beets to develop for a while now, and finally the first batch will be ready for market. It seems like it’s taken forever, but checking last year’s records we didn’t start selling them until about this time, so I guess it fits.

We grow a variety of heirloom beets, which don’t get as large as commercial hybrid beets, but make up for it with really nice flavor and sweetness. Plus, with heirlooms, we can provide a range of colors and shapes that make for interesting dishes.

Above, you see three varieties pseudo-artistically arranged on our cutting board. The bullseye variety (Chioggia) is extremely pretty, though the pattern fades as they cook. You can preserve it partially by not overcooking. The others are two different varieties of red beets; Cylindra forms a long, tubular beet which slices nicely into lots of equal discs, while Bull’s Blood is just your nice deep red round beet. Not pictured are Golden and Red Ace. UPDATE: Joanna reminds me that Red Ace is a hybrid we planted as a test comparison to the heirlooms. I ought to know better.

Our beets are best shredded raw for salads, or gently roasted with olive oil as a side or salad topping. Don’t forget to use the greens, which are very tasty sauteed or added to soups. Our price certainly assumes that the fresh, tasty greens are half the value of the product.

Bundles of scallions, both red and white
Herbs, including tarragon, dill, mint, lemon balm, and more
Snap and snow peas by the pint
Garlic scapes (there are some still forming that hadn’t appeared last week)
Saute mix (this mix of beet greens, kale, tat soi, mustard, and pea shoots just keeps going)

Head lettuce is probably finished. Our last bed has started going to seed; it got off to a rough start and the consistent warm weather is too much for it. At least the geese and goats like it.


Kohlrabi will likely be the next interesting item coming up

Attending a listening session on NAIS

On Tuesday, we travelled to Jefferson City, MO to attend a USDA public hearing on the proposed National Animal Identification System. To put it as briefly as possible, NAIS would establish a Federal registry of farms and farm animals, implemented through electronic tags attached to each animal (whether poultry, swine, hooved, etc.), and requiring farmers to report all births, deaths, and movements of such animals. There are few exceptions.

I don’t want to go any deeper into NAIS policy in this post beyond stating that I think it’s an incredibly foolish, ineffective, offensive, and economically dangerous policy. If you’re interested in more than that, Google will lead you to a massive amount of pro and con writing about this very controversial issue. It’s worth noting that there is lots of misinformation out there, so anyone interested should peruse the USDA’s official NAIS site as a balance. There’s enough there to frighten any local foods advocate even without reading from the opposition. I just want to describe our experience in attempting to take part in this “listening session”, one of several USDA has scheduled around the country to collect public comment.

We had heard about this session through various grapevines and online reports, and determined that it was worth our while to go. It was quite hard to find specific information about the program on the USDA’s NAIS website, which has all sorts of pro-NAIS information but doesn’t exactly welcome opponents. The best we could find was a statement that the session would run from 9am to 4pm, during which the public could show up and make statements for the record. So we figured we’d get some other things done, then head down midday to allow plenty of time to stand in line.

We arrived at the conference center around 11:30, and immediately ran into folks we knew. “Are you here to comment?” we were asked. Yep. “Well, better hurry inside, the comment period only runs until noon.” So we hustled in to find out that public comments were scheduled for 9-12, with an hour and a half lunch break followed by a few hours of “breakout sessions” designed to facilitate discussions on appropriate implementation of NAIS. Then we were told that due to the overwhelming response and crowd, they were extending the comment period to 1pm. So I asked for a lottery ticket (they were drawing speakers from the crowd by lottery number) and headed inside.

The setup was a large ballroom, packed to the gills with people, most in overall, ballcaps, dresses, and otherwise clearly rural attire. There was a podium at the front, with a line of stony-faced USDA officials sitting facing it (in front of the crowd). The mood was restive and angry, with anti-NAIS shirts and signs common. You could almost feel the crackling energy. Speaker after speaker strode to the microphone to angrily, wistfully, and/or thoroughly denounce the USDA, and the Federal government. They argued the potential for NAIS to ruin small family farms in favor of industrial agriculture, that it was a huge overreach of Federal power into citizen’s rights, that it wouldn’t work as a disease prevention program, and that the technology wouldn’t even work effectively. I certainly don’t see how a government that can’t even track illegal immigrants or manage defense contracting expects to effectively track every farm animal in the country. Even in the 90 minutes I was there, I heard speakers from around Missouri and several neighboring states, and the AP reported that at least five states were represented.

I eagerly waited for my number to be called; most speakers were middle-aged and older, with lifetimes in agriculture, and I wanted a chance to speak as a young entreprenurial farmer who chose this life and this business. When 1:00 came, my number was one of many tickets left to be drawn, but the comment period was shut down (I went up and looked to see how many were left, and whether my matching number was even there; it was). I told the moderator how displeased we were to not have had proper information about the format of the event; we would have shown up sooner if we’d known how it was set up. She gave me a glazed-look “I’m so sorry you didn’t get to speak” and walked away. Several other attendees overheard and told me that the USDA folks had done a terrible job of moderating the morning, allowing multiple people to ramble on well past their alloted 3 minutes each, despite multiple protests from the crowd.

And in fairness, there was a lot of rambling, and a lot of off-topic ranting. Something like this draws opponents from a wide political spectrum, and there were some pretty fringe comments going around. I don’t think these off-topic comments helped the rational case against NAIS any, and I hope the USDA can filter the relevent anger from the latent vitriol. But the core message I took away from this was that a huge crowd of grassroots farmers, of all types and from multiple states, had taken the time from their farms and driven to central Missouri to express their fear and disgust about what the USDA is trying to do. It was a powerful experience, and I hope similar patterns will emerge at every one of these hearings (I suspect they will).

We didn’t stay for the afternoon sessions, as they were described as focusing on how to implement NAIS, and I have no input on that. I do not think it can be implemented practically or ethically, and will not cooperate in attempting to sugarcoat it. We’ll submit our comments online to USDA, and will post them here.

Thought that story might be of interest to some folks.