Should I be farming in Afghanistan?

A recent AP dispatch from Afghanistan raises an interesting question: are small farmers there getting better support from the US government than farmers back home?

The piece discusses the work of the Missouri National Guard’s Agri-Business Development Team with Afghan farmers, which includes installing solar powered wells and more:

Other long-range projects include designing micro-slaughter facilities for each district, rather than one large facility; building veterinary clinics that will be turned over to provincial veterinarians; and teaching food preservation techniques. And they are testing root cellars to prolong storage of produce for the market.

Small-scale local slaughterhouses, food preservation, and veterinary clinics for small farmers? These are exactly the sorts of items American small-farm advocates have been advocating for years, with little success in the face of government support for large agribusiness instead. These types of projects are rightly intended to help restore a viable small-farm economy in Afghanistan, and I deeply respect the efforts and risks the Guard members are taking in doing this work.

My question relates to the overarching policy: why are we apparently NOT interested in supporting the same local/regional small farm economies in the US? Why is it so hard to see the value of such things back home? Why are our governments and health departments so terrified of small-scale, local meat processing when apparently it’s good enough for Afghans? Are they somehow genetically superior to Americans, such that locally-slaughtered meat doesn’t kill them? Are they smarter than Americans, such that they know how to choose safe meat sources? Are they just too backward to make use of 21-st century modern industrial meat processing? What’s the difference?

Memorable Meal: real Italian pasta spread

As I turn this blog back toward food, ingredients, and farming for the growing season, I want to start highlighting specific meals that emphasize some aspect of our food ethic. This Saturday’s dinner, a nice spread of authentic dishes made from scratch, is a great example.

This was Joanna’s doing, and she made the most of it. On the table we have:

Fresh-made pasta (hand-rolled, not machined) topped with:
– Sauce of our tomatoes, garlic, & basil
– Fresh-made goat’s milk ricotta
– Our fresh spinach, shredded
– Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fresh homemade bread (bread flour and Missouri flour), with olive oil for dipping

Spinach salad (our fresh spinach, toasted Missouri pecans, organic raisins, shredded organic carrots, Goatsbeard feta cheese, olive oil & balsamic vinegar)

This all may sound fancy and/or time consuming, but start-to-finish it took Joanna about 2.5 hours, including making the cheese and bread, handrolling the pasta, and everything else. Nothing was done ahead of time. If that sounds like a lot of time for one meal, consider that it’s less than watching a basketball game or the average American’s daily TV intake, and indeed could have been accomplished while doing either of those things if desired.

We thoroughly and leisurely enjoyed this meal, which gave us leftovers for at least another meal. We don’t and can’t spend 2.5 hours every day making dinner, but priorities are priorities: I’d rather cook real food from scratch than almost any other use of disposable time. If you have time to watch TV, you have time to cook.

What We Eat: March IV

3/21/09 – 3/27/09: The end of March has marked the end of many preserved items we’ve been drawing from all winter. Okra, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and more are all very close to gone. We have lots of meat left, and are getting more eggs than we can eat (there are currently 15 goose eggs and 24 chickens eggs in the fridge). So our menus are naturally getting heavy on those items for now. Chives, spinach, and herbs are coming on nicely to provide some fresh flavors, and we’ll be getting to lettuce and radishes before too long. We’re also using a fair amount of bulk-purchased rice, beans, and other staples, as might be expected.

Still, even in this lean local food month, I think the point of this series is being made. It’s possible to eat a diverse, healthy, interesting without any real reliance on processed or out-of-season foods.

Saturday: Zucchini soup with rice (frozen from last summer); sandwich (homemade bread with cheese, homemade mustard, our fresh spinach, and more)

Sunday: Chinese-style 5-spice chicken (Pierpont chicken cooked in a homemade spice mix and broth); stir-fry (our green beans, onions; organic cashews, carrots; cooked with sauce from chicken)

Monday: Chicken adobo (Pierpont chicken marinated and cooked in Filipino sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, and bay leaf); leftover fried rice from Sunday

Tuesday: pseudo-Asian chicken soup (broth from previous days’ chicken with orzo, dropped egg, and more)

Wednesday: Mideast extravaganza: Homemade pitas stuffed with spiced meat (our goat cubes with garlic & spices), chickpea sauce (organic chickpeas cooked with our tomatoes and spices), Goatsbeard feta, and our fresh spinach.

Thursday: Meat stew (our goat meat, onions, garlic, broth; organic carrots and beans)

Friday: Ate out with friends at House of Chow, an excellent Chinese restaurant in Columbia with a real chef and real food.

What We Eat: March III

3/14/09 – 3/20/09: Like last week, I’m reconstructing this from partial records, so apologies for missing ingredients. We’ve been hitting the eggs and meat hard, as that’s what we have in adundance now. The emergence of our over-wintered spinach has really helped balance the meals, with the first taste of fresh greenery offering promises of much to come. This may be the tightest time of year, but our menus are still deeply based in our own farm-raised food, with purchased carrots being the only real concession.

Saturday: Filipino marinated goat over rice (our meat marinated in a sweetened Adobo base, braised and served over rice) with shredded carrot salad (shredded organic carrots topped with Goatsbeard feta, apple cider vinegar, and capers)

Sunday: Goose-egg souffle (one of Joanna’s specialties, made especially rich and tasty with our goose eggs and local goat milk) with side of shredded carrot salad.

Monday: Spiced koftas with rice (our ground goat meat mixed with spices and our onion & egg, then sauteed as meatballs) plus side I can’t decipher in my handwriting

Tuesday: Pasta with creamy tomato sauce (organic pasta topped with fresh cream sauce from local goat milk and our tomatoes and herbs)

Wednesday: Stew (our goat meat, onions, garlic; local mixed beans; various spices) with homemade bread and cherry-blackberry-strawberry pie (filling from our preserved fruit, crust from local wheat flour)

Thursday: No idea.

Friday: Zucchini soup over rice (thawed from last summer, served over local rice) and creamy tomato soup (our tomatoes, local goat milk)

What We Eat: March II

3/7/09 – 3/13/09: These last few weeks I’ve kept terrible records of our meals, as spring is really pushing our working schedule and the notebook has gotten lost in the shuffle. I’m going to post these next few as completely as I can, to keep the series going. March is really the hungry month, as we run pretty low on preserved vegetables and start to get more reliant on meat for many dishes.

Saturday: No idea.

Sunday: Tasty stew (our goat meat, onions, broth, garlic; organic carrots, rice, and spices)

Monday: Quiche (our eggs, Goatsbeard cheese, other ingredients)

Tuesday: Roasted rosemary chicken (frozen chicken from Pierpont Farm stuffed with our rosemary); squash soup (our frozen squash; various spices)

Wednesday: Shredded chicken with salsa and beans (leftover chicken from Tuesday, with locally-made salsa and spiced black beans)

Thursday: Chicken pasta (organic pasta topped with a cream sauce, our dried tomatoes, and shredded leftover chicken); spinach salad (our fresh spinach); fresh-made bread

Friday: Goatburgers (our ground goat on homemade buns, topped with our cheese, fresh spinach, homemade mustard, red onions, and pickles)

Spring storm recap

As things turned out, we weathered our spring storm pretty well. The whole system seemed to bog down along the Kansas-Missouri line, dumping over 2′ of snow in eastern Kansas and shutting down the Kansas City airport for a while. We settled for 1.5″ of rain on a cold, wet day hovering just over freezing, and a smattering of snow overnight as the weakened storm finally blew through. Our real concern, the temperature, only got as low as 31, so I expect all our plants to do just fine. It got a lot colder south and west of the River; I saw areas around KC at 26 this morning, which will do some damage to newly-emergent vegetation. Just have to wait and see if any reports of significant agricultural damage turn up.

So most of us dodged a bullet there, but we have a ways to go. Spring is still rocketing forward, and it’s entirely possible for another system like this weekend’s to show up over the next few weeks.

Weather update: here comes the cold snap

I’ve written several times about this extra-early spring, and the concern about a late freeze. Well, it’s coming, though not at a 2007 level and not likely to do much damage (at this least weekend). If it was going to happen, it was going to take several strong cold fronts in a row to keep pushing temperatures down, and that’s just what’s happening this week.

Early this week we had a really intense system that pushed temps near 80F with winds of 30-45mph on Monday (which, incidentally, did some damage to our hoophouse including lifting one of the heavy wooden ends right off its rebar foundation). That lead to over 2″ of rain on Tuesday, which thoroughly saturated everything including my partially-poured shed footings, which are now underwater, as are the un-set fencepost holes in the field. We’ve had frosts the last few nights in the valley bottoms as the cold air moves through.

Now here comes the second round, with another strong front bringing an expected 1-2″ rain through end of week and weekend, with temps on Saturday dropping into the upper 20s and a decent chance of snow flurries. We’ll be working to cover and protect the young plants we have out, which are especially sensitive to such temps when they’re very small. This system itself won’t cause anyone too much trouble, because most plants and buds can handle a quick freeze. What made 2007 so bad was four straight nights in a row of well-below-freezing temperatures. Still, notice that we aren’t even IN April yet, but everything is budding and greening up like crazy. This current weather pattern ought to be expected (March is the most likely month for heavy snowfall in Missouri); it’s just that the biota are weeks ahead.

Now that we’ve been knocked back to our seasonal normals of H/L 50s/30s for next week, it doesn’t take much to drop a few more Canadian lows down across Missouri for some serious freezes. Or it could warm up again. There’s a reason they call it weather.

UPDATE: As of Thursday night, that storm system has strengthened, leading to an NWS winter storm watch:


UPDATE II: As of Friday morning, this juicy quote appears in the NWS’s online forecast discussion (a semi-internal discussion of the modelling results and forecasts):


Well, we may not have been calling for heavy snow, but I’ve been posting for weeks that a late storm or spell of winter weather was likely. And here we go…

Organic certification – inspection

We’re moving on to the next step in the certification process; the inspection. On April 1, a licensed inspector will visit the farm and spend hours poring over our records, documentation, maps, reciepts, and other files to determine whether the information in our application is correct. He will explore the farm and interview us, assessing whether the on-farm reality matches our statements and claims. Basically, he will attempt to determine whether our management practices and activities allow us to qualify for organic certification. The report generated from this visit goes to our certifying agency, which will make the final determination.

Needless to say, this is a mildly nerve-wracking day to expect, although we’re pretty confident that we meet the requirements. Still, having never done this before, we don’t know quite what to expect. At least the process is moving along. Right now we’re in a bit of limbo, as we’re preparing marketing materials for the year but can’t officially use the O-word or any official seals until we know whether we’ve achieved certification. It will be nice to get an answer so we can get moving on materials and marketing.

Review: Blade Runner Sharpening services

With a working farm and a very active kitchen, we have a lot of blades around. We’ve taken variously good care of these over time, and do some rough sharpening of our tools, but nothing very professional or overly respectful to the poor things. So when Corby Roberts stopped me on the sidewalk in downtown Columbia recently, having recognized me from the Columbia Farmers Market, I was primed to be his next customer.

Corby runs a mobile sharpening service, Blade Runner Sharpening, which he operates out of a large truck. The Columbia Tribune recently did an article on the business. He’s focusing on restaurants and private kitchens, but was intrigued by the diverse array of potential sharpening jobs on our farm, and agreed to give it a shot. So last week he drove his truck down into our little valley and parked next to the stream, where I greeted him with a pickup-full of kitchen knives and all sorts of farm tools.

It took him a few hours, but he was able to work with just about everything we threw at him, including all our kitchen knives, shovels, hoes, planting knives, and even two antique scythes I’d picked up at farm auctions. We’ve been using the tools since, and the difference is very noticeable, particularly on the hoes and scythes. He even restored/upgraded the serrations on tools that needed it. I can’t yet assess how long the edges will last, but the initial sharpening was excellent.

The mobile business is a neat idea, and worked great for us. He’s working to establish drop-off points around town and a more reliable location for the truck (he was turned down for membership in the Columbia Farmers Market this year), but in the meantime I’d say he’s worth a call for anything from a few knives to a garage full of gardening tools. Friendly, accomodating, and good work is an excellent combination for any business. Look for the truck around town or just visit the website to make contact. It was definitely worth it for us.

Blogging in the growing season

As the growing season develops, and farm work becomes more and more demanding, I need to re-evaluate the content and scheduling of this blog. I’m pretty happy with the publication schedule and content balance I’ve settled into over the winter; shooting for a new post every morning with a healthy mix of on-farm information, national agricultural issues, and food/cooking over the course of each week. I feel like it’s a decent product, if one with a narrow audience.

I’ve been able to maintain this schedule by sitting down once a week or so, usually Sunday evening, and writing up the week’s worth of items which are then automatically queued for publication. It generally takes a couple hours to do the research, writing, and editing for a week of columns, not counting the time I spend each week reading the multitude of print publications and online news sources from which I draw my ideas, opinions, and information.

Given that time commitment, though, the increasing day length and rising demands of the growing season have been eating into my ability to generate content of an amount and quality that I’m comfortable with. I have far more items, perspectives, and subjects rattling around in my head than I can write about, and blogging does not pay for the time it would take to do justice to these topics. I love to write, but it doesn’t raise any product or money; this is not a paid column. And as daylight hours expand, I find my computer time pushed earlier into the morning or later into the night. Once we start milking, that will really be true. In addition, I’m spending a fair amount of time in the background maintaining the websites of the Columbia Farmers Market and the Pavilion Campaign, both of which also suck time from the day (although I’m paid a bit for the former).

In addition, once we start up at Market, I intend to use the blog more directly as a customer relations tool, posting variety information, product availabilities, recipes, and direct farm updates. This will either double my writing workload, or cut deeply into the policy and politics content that I most enjoy researching and writing. Really, it’s the classic dilemma faced by virtually all bloggers eventually, and web-based media in general; how long can you go on producing a good product for no return, especially if (like me) you abhor advertising?

So right now my inclination is to cut way back on the policy & food writing, and go down to a several-posts-a-week schedule that really focuses on farm products and market news. That may end up killing much of the value for out-of-town readers (of which there are many), but I’m not sure what else to do given the demands on my time from now through October.

Thoughts? Feedback? Crickets?