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?

White House garden

How’s this for change? The Washington Post reports that:

On Friday, Michelle Obama will host a groundbreaking for a White House kitchen garden on the South Lawn… The 1,100 square foot garden will include 55 kinds of vegetables, including peppers, spinach, and, yes, arugula. (The list of vegetables is a wishlist put together by White House chefs.) There will also be berries, herbs and two hives for honey that will be tended by a White House carpenter who is also a beekeeper. The chefs will use the produce to feed the first family and for state dinners and other official events… The White House will be using organic seedlings, as well as organic fertilizers and organic insect repellents. The garden will be located near the tennis courts and visible to passerbys on the street. The whole Obama family will be involved in tending the garden, White House spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld said.

Fascinating. Of course, since it’s a garden and not a farm, they won’t run afoul of most of the regulations, restrictions, and challenges one encounters when attempting to do this for an income and not a hobby. Maybe they should try to sell the produce; that would open some eyes pretty quickly. It’s amazing how much more difficult things become when you try to earn a living instead of doing it for free.

Still, to quiet my inner curmudgeon, this is a pretty neat story and yet another indication of some potential shifts in our food culture. I’d sure love to see this example splashed all over the news, emphasizing the value of fresh food. Just one request: keep a good balance. If they go too Alice Waters on this, it’ll do more harm than good. Oops, there I go again. Congratulations to all involved for making an eminently sensible choice that will hopefully set a great example.

More spring firsts

Tuesday, with its near-record temperature, was a good day for natural events and signs of spring. We observed the following, all firsts for the year:

First snake of the year, a nice-sized prairie kingsnake. This was especially exciting as these fellows are excellent rodent predators, and their emergence will hopefully begin to control our outsized vole population.

First bat, cruising the field in search of the also-emergent mosquitos.

First robin song. Robins have been around for a bit, passing through and investigating, but the onset of true song means they’ve chosen a breeding site and have settled in.

First tick. Enough about that.

Wild onions coming up (these have been up a few days)

Release of cedar pollen. Tuesday morning the pollen release was so strong, our entire valley looked like it was filled with smoke or fog. With every gust of wind, the male trees appeared to be on fire, releasing a swirling plume of dusty pollen into the air. We’d never seen a release this thick and thorough, even Joanna in all her Ozark upbringing.

First leopard frog. These guys have a nice, distinct call, which can be heard on MDC’s website. Just follow this link and scroll down near the bottom for leopard frogs. Also calling right now are spring peepers and western chorus frogs.

Spring is a good time of year to have an outdoor farm career.

Farm update, mid-March 2009

Spring is progressing rapidly, with all natural signs that we track at least a week ahead of the past few years. It’s very warm and the natural world is really taking off. We’re shaping up for either a spectacular early spring or a heartbreaking late freeze like 2007.

In any case, we work with what we have, and are moving forward on preparing our spring plantings. Multiple beds of radishes, beets, and peas have been seeded, and we’ve transplanted out several beds of lettuce. The vole population seems to be enormous this spring; their tunnels are everywhere in our permanent beds and they’re eating some of the peas and even the young lettuce plants. I think the previous year of mild weather has caused a population explosion.

Above, you see a market garden bed of transplanted lettuce, with our home-built plastic hoops offering some extra warmth and protection. These are built from 7′ lengths of 1/2″ PVC set onto thin rebar. The plastic sheeting is tied at the end with baling twine and braced with wood and more rebar. Twine tied to the PVC’s rebar and stretched tight over the plastic holds the sheeting in place and allows the plastic to be lifted up for ventilation on hot days.

We’re experimenting with different methods of starting seed this year, from soil blockers to very small plug trays. Above is a 288-cell tray which allows the lettuce to get started just enough for early transplant. Below, I’m keeping the copious records required for organic certification; for this bed of transplanted lettuce it includes transplant date, seeding date, variety, source, any soil amendments, number of transplants, and more.

We have many trays of onions going, which are currently up in our new hoophouse hardening off for transplant later this week, along with various brassicas, herbs, and other items. We don’t really try to get too early a start on summer items like tomatoes; we have enough going on and have found that the early yields aren’t that spectacular for the extra work and danger of early tomatoes. Potatoes will go out eventually, but our field soil is very clay-rich and stays wet far longer than we’d like; it’s currently too mucky out there for spuds.

The Columbia Farmers Market opens on March 21, this coming weekend. We expect/hope to be there by mid-April, with early greens, radishes, and probably goose eggs. We spent Tuesday afternoon laying out our stall design for this year and working out our new materials, presentation, labels, and so on. We’re trying some new ideas for presenting variety information and prices, and will post on that when the materials are ready and can be photographed.

In other projects, we’ve trenched the fenceline for the larger field and drilled about half the post-holes. Foundation holes for our new prep shed have been drilled and basal piers poured; the concrete is curing and I’ll be doing the main post piers later this week. I hope to have the shed build by mid-April. We’ve mostly cleaned out and reorganized our main barn and are moving forward with running electricity to it. Joanna shovelled out the goat hoop and built a massive new compost pile (more on that soon) of which she is very proud. Spring is definitely here when our infrastructure projects begin to run up against our produce projects; time management becomes very critical now. In any case, we feel pretty good about where we’re at for the coming season.

Upcoming local foods event in Columbia

Just a quick notice for all local readers: the Columbia Farmers Market is organizing and hosting a really neat event for Saturday, April 4, 2009. It’s envisioned as a community event in which farmers, consumers, gardeners, cooks, and more can all meet and learn from one another. From the official notice:

The Spring Round Up Community Day will bring together local farmers, community members, gardeners, cooks, and all who enjoy fresh, local food. The afternoon event will feature speakers and workshops on diverse topics connected to food, agriculture, cooking, gardening, and home preservation of fresh foods. Local farmers will have booths at which customers and community members can stop to talk, ask questions, learn about the farms, and build relationships in a more relaxed setting than the farmers market. Come join us to learn about and take part in your local food supply!

The keynote speaker sounds especially worthwhile. We’ll be hosting him on-farm during his stay in Columbia, and find his background and accomplishments related to local foods in Iowa quite inspiring:

Kamyar Enshayan, Ph.D., is the Director of University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education as well as for the regional Buy Fresh, Buy Local initiative, which strives to connect people, restaurants, and stores with local farmers and processors. The winner of the 2008 Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, Kamyar has been recognized for his influential work in local foods and local communities. Enshayan also teaches environmental education classes at University of Northern Iowa, is program manager for Yards for Kids, and is a city council member for Cedar Falls.

I think he’ll really enjoy being hosted and fed by a real farm rather than the typical hotel and brunch, and we’re looking forward to his presence and talk.

In any case, read about the whole event here, and spread the word to everyone you know. Let’s make this event a really useful and worthwhile day. It’s a good, positive initiative in a food world going slowly mad.

H.R. 875: A truly frightening bit of legislation

Apparently in response to the growing number of contamination scares in the national food system, a new bill was introduced recently in the House of Representative aimed at fixing our deeply flawed system. Unfortunately, though the bill has lofty goals and means well, in practice it would be a disaster for small farms, local and direct-market food systems, and basically any other form of non-corporate, small-mid scale agriculture.

H.R. 875 basically creates a new government agency tasked with food safety. It requires all food establishments and food production facilities (“any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation”) to register with the government and be subjected to random inspections by an agent with the right to seize or condemn any food product deemed “adulterated” with little right of practical appeal. It requires every person or business in any way involved with food to institute a full tracking system that would allow the government to trace every bit of food from beginning to end, and to maintain complete records that can be demanded at any time by an agent. It basically places every kind of farm, restaurant, market, store, processor, and so on under direct Federal control at the whim of whatever national regulations are passed, regardless of local conditions, diversity, or relevance to different types of food production and sales. It’s a nice theory, but as soon as you start to think it through, it becomes a nightmare for anyone not a large corporation.

Quite a lot has already been written about this, and I don’t really need to reinvent the wheel here. The best summary I’ve seen so far is from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s website. The raw text of the bill itself can be read here; focus on sections 206, 210, and 400s for the most farm-related portions. I’ve been fuming over this all week, and have started all sorts of different posts about this, all of which become run-on rants about the utter asininity and un-American nature of something that places so many ridiculous restrictions and infringements on as basic an American right as growing and selling food. So I’ve tried to boil my objections down to some shorter points, presented in no particular order:

1) The bill is completely impractical. Even if you agree with its intentions, food and farming is far more complex than the large corporate growers and processors it’s clearly aimed at. There’s just no way you could enforce something like this across the entire country, on every small farm and ranch trying to make a living. How many Federal agents would you have to hire to conduct inspections and visits on every farm, restaurant, market, processor, and shipper in the country? How many staffers would you need to read the yearly applications and records from all these places? And if you couldn’t enforce it effectively across the board, why is it being done in this format? Government should not take on projects it can’t do effectively, and this reeks of a huge unfunded mandate that will be applied unevenly, ineffectively, and unfairly.

2) The bill will disproportionately affect small farms and local foods. Can you imagine a market farm growing 200 varieties of produce on 5 acres, using sustainable intensive methods, attempting to comply with that sort of record-keeping? Maybe big ag can hire some flunkies to keep records on their 100-1,000-acre fields of one tomato variety, but the rest of us don’t have that kind of time or resources. Ironically, certified organic farms do have to comply with a somewhat similar structure, but (a) it’s voluntary and there’s a financial benefit as a tradeoff, and (b) far more farms DON’T certify primarily because the record-keeping and requirements don’t work for them. The most recent Ag census conducted by USDA showed that, if I recall correctly, a large percentage of farms that drop organic certification (not methods) do so because the record-keeping and regulations are impractical for them. This bill would mandate worse regulations with no compensating benefit other than continued legal existence and no jail time.

3) It’s going to have a lot of unintended consequences. Whenever you attempt to over-legislate a complex system, it’s like stepping on a toothpaste tube. Everything squirts out where you don’t want it, and nothing is solved. In this case, what you’ll end up with is a Prohibition-style farm economy, with a massive black market of small farms dodging the law just so they can sell to local customers, and a few getting busted here and there because they became too noticeable. And lots of farms going out of business because they don’t dare risk large fines or jail, but refuse to submit to this level of Federal interference in their affairs. It’s difficult enough to start and maintain a small farm under the current regulatory, tax, and health framework; this would end any hope.

4) I wonder if it’s even Constitutional. Intrastate commerce is, in my understanding, generally held to be the states’ responsibility. Can the Feds actually regulate and restrict farming and food sales at a local level to this extent? Selling produce to our local community is not exactly interstate commerce. Anyway, if it doesn’t violate the letter of our founding document, it sure as hell violates the spirit of it. The right to farm, the right to make a living off your land, is one of the oldest and most fundamental American rights and traditions. Can you imagine the uproar if Federal agents start raiding and condemning small farmers’ henhouses and vegetable patches because they’re not meeting the same requirements as Dole? The way this bill is written, that’s the inevitable result, or at least the sword they can hang over our heads.

5) It’s not going to solve the problem. There is no doubt that our national food system has serious issues, but you don’t solve them just through massive new regulations. You solve problems by looking for their ultimate source, not the immediate source. For example, if arson-set wildfires are becoming a problem, you may look into stronger laws regarding arson, but you don’t assume the entire populace are arsonists and require registration of every lighter, matchbox, and flint in the region. Moreover, you look at why the wildfires are even possible, and whether existing polices and systems are making the arson events worse than they need to be. To come back to food, all of these food scares are ultimately sourced in the fact that our food system is incredibly concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, and the paths through which food travels are incredibly centralized. It’s insane that one squalid peanut factory could contaminate most of the country. There’s a fundamental problem there which is not going to be solved by regulation alone. And by passing laws which do not know the difference between a market farm selling direct to local customers and a factory supplying most of the country, you’re going to stomp out a lot of the budding diversity in the food system which makes our food supply safer. Quick, when’s the last time anyone heard anything about a local farm or market causing any form of illness or trouble on any meaningful scale? Yet we’re going to get hit hardest by a deeply flawed approach that declares us all arsonists.

5) As a bill put forward in a strongly Democratic government, it’s going to sour a LOT of people who might otherwise sympathize with that party. And it’s going to cause a LOT of anger (and already has; just look through Google results for “HR 875″). Consider this: when Joanna first read through this bill, she started shaking. Her first two statements were something like her first two statements were something like “so this is how wars are started” and “if they want me to learn to use a gun, they can try enforcing this”. I’m not sure how much of that was a joke. We have put our savings and our future on the line in starting this farm; we’re responsible law-abiding citizens who pay all our taxes and spend far too much time attempting to understand the legal and tax requirements the government puts forth.

We do not expect to be treated this way by our own government, and if this goes through, we won’t be, because we won’t farm anymore. At least not for income. We’ll lock our gate, grow food for ourselves, give it away to our friends, and tell the government and the rest of the world to go to hell. If they want to make it illegal and impossible to grow and sell fresh, healthy food to our community, they can. Just see what happens next.