Market plants 4/11/09

As of Thursday evening, we’re intending to be at market this Saturday. Won’t have a lot to sell yet, but we feel it’s time to start making a presence. Probably 6-8 goose eggs and some fresh chives and mint, plus lots of farm information, a signup list for future on-farm events, and so on. Sounds like the first few weeks of market have been extremely busy, so we’re looking forward to seeing it first-hand.

No freeze damage

We recieved no damage from the early week’s freezes. Everything looks healthy and ready to start growing again. Such conditions do set us back, as much of the lettuce, beets, and radishes have not grown appreciably in several weeks due to the cold weather, but they’re alive. Now with more temperate conditions on the way, I hope they’ll get back to work. This will delay our real market products a few more weeks, but that’s better than losing them.

The temps here never dropped to a damaging level; our thermometer read 29 both mornings. Even accounting for the frost pocket down at the valley bottom, that’s not enough to damage what we had out. Still have no idea whether fruit growers were hit; I’ll look forward to making some inquiries at market on Saturday.

Random animal photos

Sometimes I just need to step back and view the blog from the reader’s point of view; what aspects of the farm just don’t make it through my lens? With that in mind, here are a few gratuitous cute animal shots:

One of our black Ameraucana hens enjoying her nest box. Look closely; I love the cheek feathers on this lady.

Toulouse geese on range, the source of delicious eggs and hopefully goslings. They also taste very good roasted. The fellow in the sunlight is the dominant gander, with his mate behind him. In the background is our other mated pair.

Gloria, our resident nun-goat. She hasn’t shown an interest in breeding in her life, much less actually born any kids. She’s currently kept around as company for our useful goat (see below) and for more pasture control until we start expanding the herd next year. Shown here doing her job, eating brush.
Garlic, our main dairy goat and source of milk and kids for this year. She’s due in mid-April, after which we’ll start having fresh dairy again as well as (probably) a couple cute and tasty kids.
We’ll be adding more chickens this summer, as well as five test turkeys. Look for hogs, sheep, and more poultry down the road.

Market forces in food

A fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning:

Simplicity Becomes a Selling Point

The authors document numerous ways in which food manufacturers are shifting to simpler ingredient lists and displaying those lists more prominantly.

Last week, Snapple Beverage unveiled a reformulated line of drinks and an eight-figure marketing campaign emphasizing that its iced teas are made from green and black tea and “real” sugar. Frito-Lay is boasting that its potato chips, tortilla chips and even Fritos are each made with just three ingredients. The hope: that consumers will equate fewer ingredients with healthfulness, even when it comes to ice cream and chips.

“It’s a convergence of health, food safety, taste and traceability,” said Phil Lempert, a food and consumer behavior analyst who calls himself the Supermarket Guru. “People are reading labels more carefully than they were previously. When they pick up a product and it has 30 ingredients and they don’t know what half of them are, they are putting it back on the shelves.”

This seems a very good development. Of course, there’s an element of greenwashing here, but greenwashing in the service of an admirable change is not the end of the world.

What I find interesting here is that once again, consumer demand and cultural shifts are doing a far better job than most government policies at creating a needed change. This new approach from food companies has very little to do with proposed laws; it’s all about the news and people’s shopping habits. If this really takes hold, far ahead of slow-moving government efforts to reform the food system, it has the potential to change our food system far to the better. Just like sweatshops and organics in Walmart, these shifts are happening because of customer feedback to companies who then willingly respond in an effective way, not well-meaning laws that force companies to respond in an ineffective way.

Now, there is very much a role for government here. Rather than mandating over-zealous food safety standards, government could instead mandate better packaging and ingredient standards. Requiring processors to make ingredient lists large and prominent, with the source of every ingredient (lists if necessary), would go a long way toward allowing customers to make the sort of informed decisions that appropriately influence a free market. Let customers make their own food choices, but make it very clear on the bag, box, or carton exactly how many countries those ingredients came from, what they are, and so on. Heck, I’d even consider requiring produce to have an informational card stating what pesticides and fertilizers were used.

Companies like Dole are moving toward this sort of thing, by inserting codes that you can enter online to see the farm on which the fruit came from. That’s cute, but far too susceptible to greenwashing. But it’s a start, and if they start doing the same thing for ingredients and growing/production methods, we’d really get somewhere. Imagine if Product A came with a large label saying “ingredients potentially from countries T-Z, with products from facilities in states A-D, final assembly in F”. That’s entirely doable from the manufacturer’s point of view, and provides the consumer with the information they need to make a decision. And, if you’re going to pass a top-down one-size-fits-all law, at least pass one that’s naturally easier on producers already doing what you want the law to achieve (like small farms and simple foods, for whom this would be quite easy to comply with).

Government itself is not the problem, just the current philosophy of how it should be applied.

First sales of the year!

We’ve officially opened our sales season for the year, setting up a booth at Saturday’s Spring Roundup Community Day, sponsored by the Columbia Farmers Market. We don’t have too much product yet, especially as the last few weeks’ cold weather has slowed the growth of our lettuce, beets, radishes, and so on. But we had fresh goose eggs, blown goose eggs, and fresh chives & mint. We sold almost everything, and had quite a bit of interest in the eggs. If I could magically conjure up more geese, we’d be able to sell a lot more eggs. I already heard back from one customer who loved them. I also talked to a couple whose young son is allergic to chicken eggs, and who are desperate for a local source of non-chicken eggs (they currently drive to Jeff City to buy duck eggs). We don’t have enough eggs to supply their needs, but I told them I had a few contacts who might, and to check back with us next week at market. A good example of the failure of our national food system to provide diversity.

The primary purpose of the day, however, was informational. We’ve spent some time putting together a good market stand setup with useful information, and wanted to give potential customers a chance to learn about us and ask questions. That, after all, was part of the point of organizing this event in the first place. On the table ablove, you see lots of photos, plus two binders containing our organic paperwork, records, and the NOP standards. I want customers to understand what Organic means and why it matters to have the seal. There’s also a signup sheet for notification of future on-farm events.

We’ll be at the Saturday market starting this coming week. It’s going to be a little while yet before we have enough product to financially justify coming, but goose eggs and fresh herbs are popular, and I want to start establishing a presence and drawing in customers. Look for us there!

Preparing for the freeze

We spent a busy Sunday afternoon preparing for the coming killing freeze, working as the temperature steadily fell and a cold misty rain fell that was almost, but not quite, snow.

I got a call from a TV reporter trying to find out more about the freeze and its effects on local farms; she asked if she could come out to film us working to protect our crops. I said no (I got the sense a lot of farmers had been turning her down). I have a very low opinion of TV news, and no matter how much they promise to not be in the way, they would be during a very busy day. It’s tough, though, because the media so often gets these kinds of stories terribly wrong. I remember an incident leading up to the 2007 freeze in which a local newspaper reporter called me to check facts on a story he was running the next day, in which he claimed that the freeze would mean no local vegetables that year. I had to explain the difference between long-lived, early-budding fruit trees and annual/seasonal vegetable crops that weren’t even in the ground yet; he really didn’t know the difference between an apple tree and a tomato plant. And if he hadn’t happened to call when I was near the phone that afternoon, that story might have run. Just frightening.

In any case, this is the sort of thing we’re trying to protect. Above, you see a just-emerged lettuce seedling. We have many beds of very young lettuce, beets, radishes, and more that are fairly cold-hardy when older, but when they’re just a day or two out of the ground, can be damaged or badly set back by sub-30s temperatures. We’re not sure how our larger lettuces and plants will do either, but if the next three nights knock all the newly emergent stuff out, we’ll have lost a lot of money. Hence work like this:

Above you see an example of the clear plastic hoops we use as mini-greenhouses on some of our lettuces, radishes, and spinach. They work pretty well and I think the more mature plants in these setups will be ok. Behind the hoops, Joanna is spreading thick straw mulch over beds with young plants or just-germinating seeds. Loosely scattered, the straw holds a multitude of air pockets that act as a reasonably insulating blanket.

The problem with straw is that it can be hard to pull back off, especially when you have very young and delicate plants underneath. For the youngest beds, we spread old sheets first and apply the straw over that. This adds another layer of temperature protection, and makes it easier to pull the mulch off the plants.

Of course, one of the problems of a multi-night freeze is that you can’t easily take these measures on and off during the day. So all these plants are going to have to hibernate under the mulch and blankets through at least Wednesday; we’re taking the risk that a few days without sunlight is less destructive than 25 degrees.

Plants aren’t the only thing we’re trying to protect. I’ve been trying to get the foundation piers for our new prep shed poured for weeks now, and haven’t had a window in which the ground was dry enough AND there wasn’t frost in the forecast. I finally got my window last week, but the concrete hasn’t fully cured yet. So I covered each pier with an old shirt or sweater, then a big piles of straw mulch. Hopefully this keeps the worst of the freeze away and maintains the integrity of the concrete:

All in all, though, we’re not the ones with the most to worry about. The biggest dangers of freezes like this are to flora with flowers and buds, like fruit & nut trees and berries. I told the TV person to call orchards and vineyards. I wish I’d reminded her of one other thing, too: this is NOT an “early” freeze. Average last frost date for mid-Missouri is April, and we can expect the possibility of frost through May. What makes this unusual and dangerous is the fact that spring is very early this year, as I’ve been documenting for over a month, which makes the buds on fruit trees and so on come out early and become susceptible to a later freeze. Vegetable folks like us take our chances, knowing this might come and planning our plantings accordingly. We have some control. Orchards and vineyards can’t really stop their trees, vines, and so on from reacting to natural stimuli.
Still, this isn’t likely to be the absolute disaster 2007 was; we’re expecting up to three nights of freezes, not four; and those temperatures were in the teens, not the 20s. Still, once you get below 28 or so it’s a killing frost for a lot of things. Much will depend on just how cold it gets these next three nights. Subtle changes in cloud cover, wind, and geography can mean the difference between 29 and 26, and the difference between loss and survival.

More freezes on the way

As of early Friday morning, the NWS forecast for Sunday-Tuesday shows another classic spring system moving through, with the typical low-pressure cycle of a very warm day followed by storms and a night or two of cold. In this case, we have another chance of snow and predicted lows for Monday night of 26.

One thing I’ve learned in years of closely tracking NWS; their forecasts are pretty good, but they always overestimate the lows associated with a strong cold front (or at least the St Louis office does). Any time you see a system like this, you can virtually guarantee they’re going to keep revising the nightime lows behind the cold front down a few degrees as the system approaches. If I could place bets on this, I’d have my retirement fund in hand. So when I see that they’ve already pegged Monday night for 26, I get real nervous about any vegetation and crops.

We can already tell the difference in our produce from the last few weeks’ readjustment toward cooler, wetter conditions after the absurdly early spring. Other than the peas, most things aren’t growing very fast. The lettuce and beets are just sitting there, going semi-dormant in the frequent cold nights. The beets are of especial concern, because most of them are still just emergent with their tender first leaves. Though they’re generally pretty hardy, a hard mid-20s freeze will hit a lot of plants; even if it just sets them back, it’s a problem.

And that doesn’t take into account all the natural vegetation; many trees are well into their bloom and many animals are becoming active. 2007 had multiple consecutive nights of temps near the teens; we’re not anywhere near that yet, but if this system stays on track you’re going to see a Freeze Warning issued by NWS for Monday.

Chances are we’ll be out there Sunday or Monday with lots of bed sheets, straw, and more to protect the many, many beds we now have in production.

UPDATE: Is there a Reno pool on the NWS that I could invest in? At 5:55AM this morning they posted the following Special Weather Statement:


I’ve been calling this for over a month now. Reporters, take notice.

Organic Inspection in photos

We had a special guest during yesterday’s organic inspection: photographer Catherine Szalkowski. Cat contacted us back in February, interested in conducting a long-term project tracking the transition of an integrated farm through the seasons. She’s been coming to the farm once or twice a week ever since, spending the day quietly following us through our daily work, and has become a comfortable and welcome part of our lives.

She was especially interested in following along during the inspection, and sent us some of her favorite images from the day. All images courtesy of Catherine Szalkowski, who was gracious enough to agree to our posting them:

Organic certification – inspection recap

Our official Organic inspection took place yesterday, and I think it’s fair to say it went well. Having never gone through the process before, I’ll walk through it for the interest of customers and farmers alike who may be wondering how this works.

We’re certifying through MOSA, a non-profit agency that is trained and approved by the USDA to handle organic certifications. Some states have their own government-run programs, like Iowa, but Missouri killed its program years ago. So we’re using Wisconsin-based MOSA because we liked their approach, setup, and philosophy best of all the agencies we looked at (they’re based in and focused on the Midwest and were very approachable with questions and concerns). They have some inspectors on staff, but not enough farms in Missouri yet to justify a trip down, so they hired an independent organic inspector based in Kansas City to do our inspection and prepare a report.

He showed up right on time at 10:00 am, and began by spending a little time interviewing us about our background in farming, choice of methods & location, justification for going organic, and so on. Much of this is written into our application, but understandably he wanted to see if the reality on the ground matched the paperwork. Really, that’s what the inspection is all about; it’s one thing to send in a 100-page set of documents, but it’s another to demonstrate the viability and reality of those documents’ contents to an independent, knowledgeable inspector.

So after talking through our backgrounds, methods, philosophies, and so on, we toured the farm. He needed to see all our growing areas, and asked a lot of questions about management practices, the surrounding landscape, and so on. For example, he was checking to make sure no ground uphill from our fields could be contaminated, for example by a conventional agricultural field with runoff. Not a problem; the forested ridges on most sides of our farm provide Organic’s dream buffer zone. In many cases he was checking that things were as we said they were; are there fields we didn’t declare? Activities we were hiding? Suspicious-looking sprayer in the barn? Did our maps match reality? Was there evidence of pesticide use or other prohibited activities?

As any photographer knows, reality can be framed in such a way as to send a very different impression from the overall picture. Our Organic application is a like a photograph, sending the picture of the farm that we intended to. The Inspection is like an auditor gazing around the entire scene after the shutter snaps, looking at what else might be there and whether the photographer captured the scene fairly and accurately.

After we’d finished the physical walkthrough, we returned to the house for more interviews and questioning which covered our methods, knowledge, and so on in some detail. He also needed to inspect our receipts, seed packages, and physical records, again to ensure that there was evidence of what we claimed and no evidence to the contrary.

All in all, the process took about three hours and felt, to us, like going through another graduate thesis defense (preparing the application with its copious record requirements felt like writing another thesis). My impression was that we passed with flying colors, and indeed when we were finished the inspector conveyed that he was very impressed and felt that our farm embodied the ideals of Organic (paraphrasing).

So now, we simply wait. He will write up a thorough report and send it to MOSA, where a certification review board will assess the report and our application and make a final decision about our status. Once we receive a notification of approval (which at this point we expect), we can start using the O-word officially and the USDA seal and so on. But we have no idea when that will be; it could be a month or two from now given how busy such organizations are this time of year. But at least it’s a major step, and a good feeling to have an independent professional inspector approve of our operation.

Reminder: neat Market event this Saturday

Just a reminder of a very cool food & farming event coming up this Saturday afternoon:

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!

We’ll have a booth where you can learn more about our farm, and purchase some fresh goose eggs or blown eggshells for decorating.