Life with farm help

For the past month or so, we’ve had regular weekend help on the farm. An alumni of Joanna’s college (and another Geology major) has been working a summer job in Columbia, and has quickly integrated herself with the farm. Laura has been spending many partial/whole weekends out here, enjoying the farm and helping with whatever work we’re doing. It’s been a great arrangement, allowing her to get out of the city (she grew up on a farm) and giving us good company and excellent help.

It’s also allowed for some fun culinary cooperation. While Laura is vegan and we’re (on-farm) omnivores, we all respect the convictions that lead to our personal choices and enjoy crafting truly farm-fresh meals together. Laura is my kind of vegan, preferring to base her meals on real whole fruits, vegetables, and grains rather than processed meat substitutes (no tofurkey or soy dogs for any of us). We agree that it’s better to enjoy foods as they were meant to be, or avoid them altogether and accept that sacrifice to personal beliefs. Especially this time of year, it’s so easy to put together excellent meals based in our fresh produce that we don’t really think about the meals as “vegan”, in the sense of making a conscious choice to exclude something. It’s just a natural way for all of us to eat together on a diverse, productive vegetable farm.
Laura and her sister run a blog on food politics and other related issues, and she has written several recaps of time spent at our place. I found it fascinating to read her perspectives and descriptions on what goes on here, and thought other readers and customers might find these valuable as well. So enjoy:
Working with Laura has also been a good learning experience for us on working with regular helpers. By next year we’re going to need to arrange some form of help, whether interns or paid workers, as we keep expanding our offerings. So this has been a good trial run, and we’re grateful. We’ll miss her when she leaves.

Fresh duck meals

Earlier this year, somewhat on a whim, I brought home four young ducks from a nearby farm. Ducks are prolific egg layers and tasty, and I figured they would fit in well with our geese without adding too much management needs. That last part was wrong, as they were very independent-minded and continually failed to respect fencing. They regularly got into the chicken shed despite every attempt to rig things so chickens could get in and ducks couldn’t; once in they would eat all the grain and foul the water. Several times we caught them merrily exploring around the house, despite all the other birds’ willingness to respect their large fenced paddocks to range in. Finally, we’d had enough, and it was time for tasty, tasty duck.

We butchered all four one recent afternoon, saving two for fresh consumption and freezing two for later. We got four different nice meals out of the first two, briefly summarized below.

Roasted duck
We kept this one whole, stuffed the cavity with our fennel, onions, and garlic, and roasted it in a pan with chopped potatoes. I had rubbed the breast with orange zest, and the meat came out with a nice citrus flavor, while the roasted vegetables carried a good duck flavor.

Duck with peach marinade
This was loosely inspired by a recipe in the Tribune, which accompanied a nice column on the values of local foods and businesses. For our version, I marinated the breasts and legs from a single duck in a sauce of water, chopped market peaches, salt, sugar, and cider vinegar. Then I simmered everything together for hours, resulting in nice, tender meat that fell off the bone, topped with the reduced peach sauce. Served with sides of our fresh oven-roasted potato fries and sauteed fresh beans with garlic, this was a great meal (see below)

Duck broth vegetable soup
With any poultry we use, we always keep and boil the carcasses for broth, yielding lots of tasty liquid plus the last scraps of meat that are easier to strip once cooked. We generated several gallons of broth this time, freezing some and saving some for a basic soup. In this case, I just combined lots of our onions, garlic, potatoes, green beans, and zucchini in a long-simmering duck broth, with appropriate salt, pepper, herbs, and some frozen basil cubes left over from last year. Toward the end, I added a few cups of lentils for heartiness. Easy, filling, and tasty.

Duck stir fry
Finally, with the scrap meat left over from the four-carcass broth, I made a simple stir fry with the meat, our garlic, onions, green beans, and zucchini, flavoring it with soy sauce and rice vinegar. 15 minutes from start to finish.

All that from two young birds, plus two more in the freezer along with broth. Not a bad exchange, and our lives are just a little simpler again without four stubbornly independent birds crapping on our front step.

And, of course, no article on eating duck can end without a mention of the Fawlty Towers Gourmet Night:

Market plans, August 1

One of the challenges we regularly face consists of deciding when to stop harvesting something. From a harvest perspective, there are either one-time items (like onions, garlic, radishes, beets) or continually-producing items (like peas, beans, peppers, and tomatoes). Ok, and there are grey areas like cut-and-come-again greens. But the tough decisions come with the continual items, because their production is always in the form of a bell curve: early rises in yield, a peak in both quantity and quality, and then a slow tailing-off as the new growth slowly succumbs to pests and/or the plants just get old.

When to stop can be really hard to decide, because often there’s still a lot of food potential in the plants, but the quality is slowly declining to where they’re not really sellable anymore, or at least not at the near-perfect quality needed at market. We hate to rip up plants that are still producing food, but at some point they begin to create more work than practical as we spend more time sorting out bad product from good, and often we need the bed space for the next planting of something else.

This is our situation with regards to our popular Fin de Bagnol green beans this week. They’re still producing, and still loaded with flowers, but we’re definitely sorting out more and more bug-bitten or weird ones to get the same high quality we like for market, and we need the bed space for fall items. So this is the last week for these beans. Such tough decisions are one of the things that separate farming from gardening, in my eyes.

Nothing in particular. In a few weeks we expect to start having our first multi-colored cherry tomato mixes, featuring six distinct varieties. The first ones are just starting to turn color now.

The core of the stand this week will be 8 varieties of cured garlic, red potatoes, two types of fresh edamame, and two types of green beans (Fin de Bagnols and our heirloom mixes). We’ll have LOTS of edamame this week, so hopefully it will last through end of market for all the later customers who have missed it the past few weeks. Herbs will be a little less plentiful, as we donated a lot of chives, garlic chives, and mint to the Taste of the Market event Saturday night.

Amaranth greens are finished, as the plants are getting tall and the leaves are getting stronger. Most onions are finished for now as well.

Cherry tomato mixes, okra, purple fingerling potatoes, and more are coming down the line.

Taste of the Market

This Saturday, the Columbia Farmers Market and Sustainable Farms & Communities are hosting a fantastic event that any area readers of this blog should attend. The second annual Taste of the Market is a celebration of local foods in mid-Missouri, with over 20 local chefs and providers making and presenting foods sourced entirely or primarily from local producers. For just a $5 cover charge, you can explore the possibilities of our local food system, along with Missouri beers and wines. The event also includes live music and an outdoor screening of a food documentary.

Visit the event’s main page to see details; this is not something to miss! Even better, it’s serving as a fundraiser for the Farmers Market Pavilion, which is very much needed as the market continues to grow (we reportedly hit 6,700 customers last Saturday, in only four hours!).
See you there!

Farm update, late July

The last few weeks have been the busiest of the season for us, as will be the next few weeks. We have a great deal of produce coming on, particularly items which need to be harvested nearly every day to ensure their quality. This is especially true for our green beans and edamame; right now we’re spending hours a day picking these. They’re worth it, but still a time sink. Below, you see Joanna and our friend Laura harvesting Fin de Bagnol green beans.

There is always weeding and maintenance to be done, and with this cool, wet summer the weeds are growing fanatically. We’ve been trying to focus attention on the most needy areas, and so there are always areas which get left behind. It’s a constant battle, and one of the real challenges of organic management.
We are also in the middle of our best window for seeing most fall crops, such as greens, radishes, beets, lettuce, and more. If these wait much longer they’ll start pushing up against first frost dangers, but they can’t be done too early or likely August heat will affect them. So we’re working to get all these new beds seeded as soon as their summer crops (like potatoes and beans) are finished and we can clean out the bed and reseed. This work is also timed around rain chances, to ensure that the soil conditions are proper and the newly seeded areas will get some moisture.
Overall, it’s been a fantastic growing season for us so far. We have had to do almost no irrigation, with enough rain to keep things happy. Cool temperatures are keeping things like tomatoes and peppers back, but are really benefitting our large crops of green beans, edamame, potatoes, and more. We went heavily into beans this year and are seeing excellent yields. The potatoes have been really nice as well, though we’ve only sold smaller amounts because we intend to store many for our own winter and spring use. Below, you see the yield from one red potato plant.
In addition to all the vegetable maintenance and harvesting, the animals are taking up a fair bit of time. We make rounds twice a day (morning and night) to do their needed chores, which take 30-45 minutes each time. For the goats, we move their net fences once a week or so to bring them onto fresh browse, and bring them some hay and fresh water twice a day. We milk Garlic once or twice a day, along with feeding her some grain. All the birds (chickens, ducks, and geese) are let out of their enclosures in the morning and herded back in at night, with daily checks on water and grain. They spend the day ranging within the confines of fences, and we collect eggs daily. We also have our younger birds to manage, who have recently been moved into an outdoors enclosure and are now happily foraging for bugs and other natural feeds while still having access to their basic cracked grains. These, too, are locked away at night and need their grain and water checked daily. They’re great fun to watch chasing down protein:

We’re also working on another never-ending but very important task: putting up food for winter. With green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and more really producing, we have to find the time to process, freeze, and/or can these items. We’ll be grateful all winter for these, but there’s not enough time in the day right now.

And, of course, there are the weekly tasks. Fridays are completely taken with market preparations, and Saturdays are taken with going to market (especially as we’re getting busy and large enough these days for both of us to be beneficial at the stand). That leaves us five days a week to manage all the other needs, and for the last few weeks we’ve been going 6am to 10-11pm almost non-stop. We did take a rare night off on Monday to go see Food Inc, and very much noticed the lost time in terms of work not done. More on that film later.

So that’s life right now. Should stay about the same through August.

HR 2749 – votes upcoming

The latest effort by Congress to push through new food-safety regulations is moving forward today in the form of HR 2749. We’re both tired of trying to keep track of the daily shifts in language and content in these amorphous but far-reaching bills, but the fundamental concern remains the same: These attempts to over-regulate our food system are a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer attempting to regulate every aspect of food productions regardless of size or context, and regardless of the actual danger to Americans posed by various aspects of that food system. The real danger here is that we’ll end up pushing through harsh legislation by playing on the fears of consumers about industrial food, but will end up with laws that won’t fix the real problems but will crush small farms’ independence. Just consider how many corporate food lobbyists have direct access to Congress as compared to folks like us.
Anyway, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is collecting last-minute messages and petition signatures to send on to Congress today. Here’s what we sent to our reps:

My wife and I run a small vegetable farm together, selling at local farmers markets and restaurants in Boone Couny. This is our primary business and we’re working to make a decent living at it. We urge you to oppose all efforts to implement overly strict food safety regulations that will seriously impede our ability to run a good business that grows fresh food for our community. At our scale, food safety is best enforced by the customers who know our faces and our growing methods; we don’t need new Federal rules holding us down when we’re not the ones causing food safety problems in the first place. Please support us, not these overreaching and un-American laws.

Beyond this, we’re just to busy to try to have more of a say. I don’t have any real hope that we’ll get a better system, at this point we’re just hoping not to be driven out of business.

Market plans, July 25

Market this week should be the same as last week, with more garlic and edamame.

More cured garlic, 6-8 varieties this time. Also more fresh edamame, two different varieties.

ALSO AVAILABLE: Amaranth greens, onions, herbs (including basil), green beans, fennel, potatoes, and more.

DONE FOR NOW: Yukon Gold potatoes.


Fresh edamame are a delicious seasonal treat from the farm. These are edible soybeans, especially popular in Japan but catching on in the US. Generally you can only find them frozen in speciality food sections, but they can certainly be grown fresh by local farmers (just look at how many acres are in their commodity cousins in Missouri). We grew some for the first time last year at a foodie friend’s suggestion, and were amazed at their popularity. They just flew off the market stand, no questions asked. So this year, we planted a lot more.

We’re growing four varieties this year, each with their own features. Some mature faster, some have larger pods, some plants are taller, and so on. Above you see Joanna in a lush stand of beans; you can tell that the variety in the two right rows are taller than those to the left.

These were planted in our 2.5’x40′ beds, with lots of carefully planned experiments on spacing. We’re running a series of tests to determine the optimal spacing for our land, so that each variety is planted in either one or two rows per bed, with plant spacings of anywhere from 2″-6″. As we harvest, we’re trying to track what differences we see in per-bed and per-plant yield so we can improve our yields next year. We’ve already decided that the double-row plantings make harvest more difficult, as the plants tend to crowd the narrow aisles and make it hard to move.

Edamame form bush-habit plants with the beans mostly clustered along the stem, as seen above. Some varieties mature all at once, while others slowly mature to their own beat. Our earliest two varieties, Fiskby and Agate, fit the latter pattern, so we’ve been out every day or so harvesting pods as they mature. Edamame are reasonably easy to grow overall, as they quickly form a thick canopy that shades out weeds, and as a legume actually improve the soil as they grow. But harvesting them is extremely time-sensitive if you’re not using heavy equipment, as you have to move slowly down the row searching for plump pods among the still-growing ones. Much of the price we charge reflects the work involved in hand-picking to get just the right quality; this time investment will get even heavier as more varieties come on.

Edamame are quite easy to prepare; we just toss them in boiling salted water for 3-5 minutes. After this light cooking, they’re easy to shell and eat like a pea, with a really nice flavor. Some people will shell and then toss into a stir fry or salad, but most just eat them like popcorn. Several customers last year told me their kids loved the fun of shelling edamame, and they do make a tasty, salty, yet healthy treat.

In a time when most soybeans are large-scale, GMO, heavily sprayed commodities, we enjoy growing fresh organic beans as direct food rather than grist for the industrial food mill. Come to the market and try some for yourself!

Linking low-income consumers with farmers markets

Another interesting observation from my recent NY trip involved that state’s program linking low-income consumers with farmers markets:

The New York State Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides checks to low-income, nutritionally at-risk families enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Senior Nutrition Programs. The checks are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets. The purpose of the program is to promote improved nutrition through increased consumption of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also intended to expand sales at farmers’ markets. The Department collaborates with the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Office for the Aging, and Cornell Cooperative Extension in administering the program.

As it appeared at the markets I visited, qualified people receive paper checks that look like travellers checks and are marked “for use only for fresh produce at farmers markets” or something like that. Farmers I talked to seemed to think it was a good program.

Ideally, I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where the government didn’t need to prop up people’s budgets to afford decent food, where the overall food system didn’t shovel money into making it necessary for low-income people to need subsidies to buy fresh food. I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where decent food was a high priority in home budgets of any level, ahead of electronics and over-consumption. I’ll never understand why a population that happily shells out $4 for a hot dog and $6 for a beer at a baseball game complains that local farmers are gouging with their prices.

I’m also somewhat reluctant to back such proposals, because I fear that subsidizing anything leads to people taking it for granted. For example, I have very mixed feelings about programs that seek to get lots of donated food from farmers to give away to those in need. It’s hard to argue with the societal value of such things, but economically I’d rather have those folks as customers than dependants, and I worry that giveaways and subsidies encourage people not to value what they’re given at its true value. How many people grateful for a donated potato would scoff at the $4/lb I charge to make a decent income on growing it, because society and government taught them that food should be free or cheap at all costs?

That being said, we don’t live in that world right now, and it seems that the NY approach is a pretty good attempt to bridge the gap. It’s one of many ways states are experimenting with supporting low-income populations while also supporting local farmers (who often themselves could qualify for welfare based on their annual incomes). I remember seeing another type of program in either Maryland or Virginia while I was helping in a farm in the latter. As I recall, it involved doubling the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets, as a way to offset the perceived higher cost of fresh local food as compared to processed out-of-state food.

I do much prefer this kind of subsidy to other kinds, as rather than just giving money to people or businesses, it provides the support through actual economic activity. The farmer has to work to earn their part of the bargain, and the user has to make the effort to seek out the food. Far better than sending straight checks to either one.

Observations on NY agriculture

While visiting western NY this July, I was able to check out two farmers markets and chat with many vendors there, while also making some observations about NY agriculture in general. Take with plenty of salt, but this is what I saw and heard:

Brighton Farmers Market

Held in the school parking lot of this Rochester, NY suburb, this market boasts around 35 members sourced from within a 50-mile radius. According to its website, “The market aims to support farmers who use sustainable growing methods and to encourage farmers to move toward greater sustainability”. This was confirmed in my conversation with the market manager, who felt very strongly about this point. There were probably 20-25 stalls the day I visited, and nearly every one boasted various levels of sustainable practices, including at least four certified farms. Browsing the market’s website, I find it interesting that all their vendor listings include descriptions of the farm’s sustainable/organic growing methods, even for the conventional operations.

I especially enjoyed chatting with the folks at (certified organic) Fraser’s Garlic Farm, whose 30,000 heads a year put into perspective our pride in our 800 or so. Probably the most enlightening talk I had was with an organic pork producer whose card I unfortunately forgot to grab. He noted that there wasn’t a single organic-certified slaughterhouse in all of NY, so he and every other organic farmer he knows has to drive their animals 3 hours (in his case) one-way to an operation in northern PA. This is as bad as Missouri, which only has a single one down in southeast Missouri (where local folks like JJR Farm drive hours each way). Just shows how bizarre and unsupportive many aspects of our food system are right now.

Ithaca Farmers Market

Frankly, my impression was that this market is one of the holy grails for those who believe local foods and sustainable agriculture are the way of the future. As “a cooperative with 150 vendors who live within 30 miles of Ithaca, New York”, it supports an excellent network of direct-market farmers, despite being based in a college town of around 30,000 people hours away from larger cities (by comparison, Columbia is closer to 100,000, both numbers excluding college populations). There is little or no practical or agricultural reason that makes Ithaca unique as compared to other parts of the country; mid-Missouri and the rest of the Midwest could easily do this if the culture and economic choices were present.

I didn’t make it to one of their huge weekend markets in their beautiful lakeside pavilion, but even the smaller weekday morning market in a downtown park was excellent. About twenty vendors were set up, about 1/3 prepared food vendors and 2/3 farmers. I especially enjoyed talking with Mary McGarry-Newman of Buried Treasures Organic Farm (no website), who used to live in Columbia and Jefferson City years ago before settling with her husband on their current farm near Ithaca. They were a classic example of folks leaving other occupations to farm, and seem to be building up an excellent business in a very supportive environment.

The Ithaca market really pushes sustainability as well, including a Zero Waste Initiative that includes partnering with a local company to compost all waste from the market for use by local farmers. Good stuff.

Other observations

In driving across various parts of western NY, I was struck by just how diverse and vibrant (relatively) the agriculture was. Like much of the upper Midwest, NY has preserved far more of its small farms, and their crops are far more diverse. There were far more well-kept houses and barns than in much of Missouri, and it seemed that every other farm had a vegetable stand in a density only seen in Amish country here. With no massive 4-lane highways like most of Missouri’s major routes, it was still practical to stop at local farms and shop or visit. Approaching Ithaca, it became clear what the local government’s priorities were, as most of the standard tourist-type signs pointed to local farms and dairies rather than fast-food restaurants or other chains. Imagine driving into Columbia and seeing highway signs for Sparky’s, Main Squeeze, Sycamore, Shakespeare’s, Goatsbeard, etc.

Western NY is also home to Wegmans, a fantastic regional grocery chain that has been quite successful balancing a full-service grocery business with ethical and sustainable business practices. Often voted one of the top companies to work for in America, they are seriously dedicated to local farms and produce. Their produce sections are laced with a variety of NY-grown produce that most Missourians could only dream of right now, displayed under huge signs showcasing the farms they buy from and their practices. According to a large sign in one store, they are even running a certified organic research farm to help develop and explore agricultural methods suited to regional growing conditions, in order to help support and develop their supplying farmers’ skills and move them towards more sustainable practices. Ball’s in your court, Hy-Vee.

Now, many aspects of NY agriculture are still struggling, as a series of articles in the Rochester paper made clear. Their dairy farmers are feeling the same extraordinary pinch as others, and a very wet year has destroyed many crops, including the very common potatoes. The same issues that bedevil farmers everywhere hurt there too. But I couldn’t help but feel that here was a vision of a better way to balance all kinds of farming, and I got the sense that the NY government, though incredibly dysfunctional in many ways, has done a good job of working to support and promote its farms. I’d love to see Missouri re-diversify in the way that NY has, balancing its vast duocultures of corn and soybeans with all the other food crops that are perfectly growable here if the economic, cultural, and governmental factors favored such a shift.

In the interest of honesty, it’s worth noting that I grew up in western NY farm country, so am perhaps not quite entirely impartial. And these are pretty broad conclusions to draw from a couple days of visiting after many years away. But this is what I was thinking on the way home, so there it is. Make of it what you will.