Market plans, May 23

This will probably be the last crop of our radish mixes this spring. We have one bed left to go, and they are maturing fast in this warm weather. Otherwise we’ll be sticking with the familiar blend of weeks past, with various lettuces, herbs, and so on.

One new item will be some very nice saute/braising mix, composed of various baby greens such as kale, arugula, tat soi, beet greens, and more. These are perfect for cooking lightly in a sauce/oil of your choosing and serving over pasta or as a side with meat. They also make a good stir fry with sliced radishes.

Happenings at Market

Various interesting stories passing through the Columbia Farmers Market:

Greenwood Farms, a state-certified raw-milk dairy, contacted CFM with interest in joining the market. Based on their state-issued Grade-A retail license, the market board (of which I’m a member) approved their membership. However, the local health department rejected permission to sell raw milk in the county, and the market decided not to fight the legal battle required to challenge that ruling.
Shortly thereafter, Weiler Dairy (whose pasteurized milk is currently available in local groceries) contacted the market to join, and was approved by both the board and the health department. They started selling last week.
Customer and vendor counts have really grown; we’re already hitting numbers seen only in mid-summer last year. Space is extremely tight and there will be many vendors forced into either sharing a single stall space or setting up farther and farther into the fringes of the market space; this includes us. Anyone visiting the market this year should have no trouble seeing the desperate need for a more permanent, expanded facility; the popularity and growth of the market have far outstripped the narrow space we’re squeezed in to. Please remember, when you’re browsing the market, to visit those of us set up along the fringes because there’s no more room anywhere else.
However, despite repeated efforts, no portion of the Federal stimulus money alloted to Missouri was assigned to the Pavilion campaign. So we’ll simply go back to the longer-term fundraising campaign we were already hard at work on, raising private funds, applying for grants, and so on. This means it will probably be two more years before any relief is had by the Market. Not sure what this summer and next year will look like. In the meantime, you can listen to a KBIA report on all this by listening to the May 13 Business Beat show.

Headaches for small farmers: liability

This series looks at different regulatory, liability, and governmental barriers small market farms like ours face in actually trying to do business. These kinds of things are rarely written or talked about, but are a far larger problem than weather, finances, or farming skill. I hope this series help customers and community members understand what it takes to actually be in business as a market farmer, and help potential new farmers understand what they have to pay attention to as they go into business. And if any government officials happen to read this, we would be deeply grateful if you could consider helping ease these sorts of burdens instead of just seeking grants or subsidies for us. I’d rather have a rational tax code and a citizen-friendly legal system than a subsidy or a grant any day.

There are various forms of liability that a small farm has to consider, especially in today’s litigious society. At the most basic level are things like farm insurance, but we must also deal with product liability, visitor liability, worker/intern liability, and so on. Basically we have to either protect ourselves against everything, or risk losing everything. In this piece, I’m drawing both from our own experiences, and from the excellent book Market Farming Success, by Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing For Market magazine.

Naturally, we wish to protect our home, farm, equipment, and other such things against loss or damage from storms, accidents, etc. Without a business, this is a pretty straightforward homeowners policy. Add in a farm business where you live, however, and it gets far hairier. For one thing, many insurance products are not set up to recognize a business in which home and business are integrated to the extent that our farm is. Second, fewer and fewer companies even offer policies relevant to farms at all, much less direct-market farms that sell to individuals (as opposed to commodity or wholesale farms selling to elevators, auctions, or processors).

One national company informed us that while they offer a farm policy, they would not cover any farm on which poultry were present, regardless of number or type or whether the poultry would even be included in the policy. Residual bird flu paranoia? Others just don’t bother at all, or technically offer something but don’t know their own policies. Another significant company attempted to sell us their farm policy, but we discovered multiple cases where their own underwriters (not just the agent) were completely unfamiliar with the farm policy and kept giving us wrong answers that we had to correct by quoting from their own policy. Reassuring. Our best bet turned out to be a Missouri-based company that does still write small farm policies (we were initially referred to them by another small farm we trust), but it ain’t cheap. The concept of “business” just seems to jack up the cost of everything.

Anyone selling food items ought to at least consider product liability. If a customer somehow gets sick, or even thinks they did, they can sue the farm for damages. No matter how carefully you wash produce, it’s always possible something might slip through and make someone sick, and there’s always risks associated with meats, eggs, and so on. It’s just the nature of food. But in our litigious society, it takes on a whole new level of risk. Can a small farm afford to fight such a legal battle, even if wrongly accused? So many take on product liability policies, or try to given that it’s hard to find those for small direct-market farms as well. This is particularly true for farms selling at farmers markets where the sales may be made in lots of different locations, rather than one farm or farmstand like a CSA or U-pick operation.

And then there’s the fascinating and disturbing question of whether you OUGHT to have the policy. We’ve been told by several reputable sources, including insurance agents, that having liability policies can actually invite lawsuits, because they create a target for the other party to shoot for. If you’re a poor farmer with no insurance, the other party may realize they’re not going to get anything out of you. But if you’re a poor farmer with a $500,000 product liability policy, you’ve got something that can be taken, and you’re a better target for legal action. Twisted, but apparently true.

Now we move on to the even more frightening question of liability for anyone present on the farm. Most small direct-market farms like and want to have visitors; that kind of openness is part of the concept of local, safe food. Whether it’s member-workers on a CSA, customers on a U-Pick, or visitors on an official market farm tour, these folks are on your property and you are responsible for their safety. If someone gets hurt, through an accident or otherwise, what happens? Their insurance company wants to know how the injury happened, and when they see it was on a farm, they instantly realize that the farm could be responsible and pursue that option. Thus, even your best friend could be forced to sue you if they (or their kid) hurts themselves while on-farm and the treatment is covered by their insurance; their choice is between the lawsuit or paying for the treatment out-of-pocket. Insurance, after all, is set up NOT to want to pay if they can get someone else to do it. Even if you end up proving you weren’t at fault, how many farmers can afford that kind of legal battle in the first place, particularly in the growing season?

And really, no matter, how safe you are, it’s a farm. Accidents are possible. There’s no way to guarantee that visitors, especially kids, won’t somehow hurt themselves. We had one illuminating episode where a family’s kids were having a great time meeting the goats and chickens, until I looked over to see the youngest happily dipping her hand into a water tub and licking her fingers. Interacting with the real world carries risks, but our society is so paranoid about the wrong kinds of risk that we’re forced away from plain old responsibility and common sense. So either you get an expensive (if you can even get it) liability policy that could act as a lawsuit magnet (see above), or you play dice and don’t get one, hoping that nothing happens and that if it does the other company will decide you’re too poor to sue (heaven forbid you’re actually a successful farm with assets to be taken). Or you severely restrict visitors and run very controlled tours, both of which are counter to the entire educated-consumer, personal-responsibility ethic of modern direct-market farms.

All of these things are just so frustrating. We’re forced into paying a great deal of money to protect against things that have little to do with real farming, or shouldn’t be as big an issue as they are, all so we can just run a business people want to patronize. None of this is a problem if you’re just a homestead; a simple homeowners policy covers all this stuff easily. But the second you try to make a living doing these things, the money and hassle just starts flowing. The full cost of all these things could top $3,000 a year for us, and that’s not counting the many, many hours we’ve spent talking to agents, poring over microscopic policy terms, and doing everything right to be responsible businesspeople and insurance consumers. All to protect ourselves from frivolous lawsuits rather than common sense.

Like everything I’ll write about in this series, keep these things in mind when you buy from a local farmer or farmers market. Like most businesses, there are a lot of hidden costs that aren’t apparent to consumers. And like so many of these situations, my complaint is not with the taxes or the insurance itself, it’s with the dysfunctional and nonsensical way in which we have to partake in these requirements. If governments focused more on making things work in a common-sense way, we’d all be a lot better off. And maybe our produce would be a bit cheaper.

Mid-May update

As of mid-May, we’re a few weeks behind schedule on the infrastructure work we’d intended to be done by end of April, but otherwise are right on track for the year. The prep shed is 1/2 built, just needing to finish the roof and walls, but is already functional. We were able to wash & pack in it last week, which was a great relief. We have all the posts in place for our main field’s new fencing, and will hopefully finish that task this week. All our permanent beds in the main field have been established and are ready for planting with a little more hoe work.

Produce-wise, we’ve hit the peak of our spring production and will probably be winding down for a few weeks. We have 1-2 weeks of radish harvest left, and probably the same for lettuce. Warm weather is hastening the end of those items. Late spring onions are coming on, and our beets are being very slow but hopefully will be ready in a couple weeks. Peas are growing nicely and starting to flower. Garlic continues to look very healthy and we’re expecting scapes to start forming within a few weeks; look for more on these fantastic items when they arrive.
As discussed Monday, we’ve been holding off on our summer plantings, in part to avoid just the sort of late frost that we got over the weekend. This week we’ll probably start on summer in earnest, beginning to seed corn, beans, sorghum, summer cover crops, and more, and will start considering transplants of tomatoes and peppers fairly soon.
Eventually we need to start getting ready for the arrival of new birds; we have another batch of chicks coming along with some turkey poults. We’ll need to brood them and then introduce them to grass as soon as possible. In the meantime, we’re continuing to rotate the goats to different pastures while starting to draw milk off Garlic (when the kids haven’t taken it all). We have a goose brooding eggs right now, and will be interested to see if she hatches anything within a few weeks (first-year eggs aren’t always fertile).

May frost & other weather notes

The average last frost date in central MO is mid-April, but the true last-frost date is mid-May. This is particularly true for those of us down in steep valleys, which trap cold air and extend the frost season far beyond the uplands. That was borne out Saturday night, as we got a light frost overnight.

This wasn’t unexpected on our part. We’ve had two very strong cold fronts come through in the past week, generating the severe weather that spawned tornadoes in Kirksville, large hail around the state, and very heavy rains on Friday. We got 3.5″ in two hours Friday evening, generating the highest streamflow we’ve seen yet and nearly blocking me in Saturday morning with a very heavy waterlogged log that I just managed to drag off the road without the aid of the tractor. The forecasts for Saturday and Sunday nights were around 41, which we know how to interpret.
Generally speaking, we can expect our valley-bottom temperatures to be 5-10 degrees cooler than the official NWS forecast at the airport. Thus, any time night-time temps are forecast in the low 40s, we know to expect a chance of frost. This is because our narrow valley really traps cold air and blocks wind, creating low, calm pockets of air that keep cooling beyond the relatively warm situation at the airport. When I got up at 5:30 Sunday morning, sure enough our house thermometer read 35 and there was light frost on the mulch and leaves in the lowest part of the market garden. I didn’t go out to the field, but I’m sure it was there too.
This is the reason we’ve never tried to start summer things too early, or beat people to market. It’s just not practical in our bottom-land. The trade-off is that we’re less susceptible to things like wind damage as compared to an open-land farm. In any case, we’ve been holding off on planting corn, beans, and more, while holding onto our tomato & pepper transplants, and we’re glad we did. Partly we also just haven’t gotten to those tasks yet, but we haven’t felt an urgency to because we know that late frosts are always possible here. And so this mid-May frost is little more than a weather note, rather than the disaster it could have been if we didn’t know our land and our hyper-local weather tendencies.
One of the best qualities a gardener/farmer can develop is an intimate knowledge of their land and weather/climate, however large or small. Plenty of gardening books offer advice like “talk to your neighbors; what works for them will probably work for you”. There’s some truth in that, but there’s also danger. It may work in a town, but our gardening neighbors (only a few hundred yards away) are also at least 80′ higher in elevation with a garden on an open ridge, and so their local weather conditions are thoroughly different from ours. If we planted corn or tomatoes on their schedule we’d likely lose it to late valley frosts. But our soil and wind patterns are different and allow us some benefits they don’t have. All part of being a responsible and observant farmer.

Market plans, May 16

Radish mixes, lettuce, and herbs will again anchor our market stand this week. Green onions are done for now, but we’ll have catnip, tarragon, 3 mints, chives, and more. Loose-leaf lettuce will be available, though we’ll have a larger selection of head lettuces this week (see below for a few varieties). The weather looks rough for Friday, but clear for Saturday, so hopefully we’ll have a good crowd again.

I’ve heard several market vendors comment that though crowds are up this year, purchasing seems a bit down. May be the combined effect of economic concerns and lots of new folks coming to the market for the first time, testing the waters but not committed shoppers yet. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of “window shoppers” passing through, but leaving without much product, which I can judge because I’m right at the main entrance. It makes sense; farmers markets and local foods are really being trumpeted by just about every media source now, but that doesn’t instantly translate to the somewhat different shopping, cooking, and eating habits that relate to significant consumption of local foods in a given household.

Wonderful farm multimedia piece

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had a wonderful MU graduate student in photojournalism following us around since February, doing a project on tracking a small farm’s transition from winter to spring. I think she’s about wrapping up, and we’re looking forward to her final product and CD of images with great excitement.

As a teaser, she gave us the link to her photo blog, which included this very nicely done multimedia slideshow/montage of images, interviews, and sounds from the farm. In my opinion, this is by far the best media product we’ve seen about what we do, in our many interactions with local journalism. She’s really captured things nicely and the slideshow flows very effectively. Thanks, Cat!.

The show is embedded below, or you can visit her blog for a larger version.

Chert Hollow from Catherine Szalkowski on Vimeo.

This is very much a teaser for us, as we’re really happy with this small product and can’t wait to see what else she captured.

Cute kids

When in doubt, post gratuitous cute animal photos:

I particularly like that last one. They love climbing on just about anything, and are getting noticeably heavier. They’re also starting to nibble on real food, meaning we can start to draw milk off Garlic. They were castrated and dehorned recently, so they’ve had a rough few days of walking funny, but are rapidly getting back to normal.

Market plans, May 9

Market this week will once again be about the same as last week, dominated by heirloom radish mixes, green onions, herbs, chives, and spring lettuce mix. I’d started by selling lettuce mix loose so customers could bag just what they wanted, but have found that far more people prefer it prebagged in a set amount. My mind doesn’t work that way, but if that’s how the customer wants it, that’s how we’ll do it! The radishes continue to be a major draw; no one else does a blend like it, and they’re young and tasty. Diversity is a good thing in all parts of agriculture. One new item this week will be some small head lettuce; several neat heirloom varieties that form compact heads that are very attractive and just right for single salads. Easier for us to manage than loose-cut leaf lettuce, too. UPDATE: We revisited those heads this morning and decided to leave them another week; still a bit small for their potential…

For those interested in where the current sales are coming from, here’s a panoramic view from the second floor of the new prep shed. This is the market garden where we grow spring items in intensively-managed raised beds. Radishes are in the middle-left block, lettuces above and to right of them, garlic and onions in foreground and background. Herbs come from the herb beds up near the house. Other beds are preparing to have summer items transplanted into them, and we’re close to seeding lots of things out in the main field for summer growth.

Headaches for small farmers: Sales Taxes

This new series will look at different regulatory, liability, and governmental barriers small market farms like ours face in actually trying to do business. These kinds of things are rarely written or talked about, but are a far larger problem than weather, finances, or farming skill. I hope this series help customers and community members understand what it takes to actually be in business as a market farmer, and help potential new farmers understand what they have to pay attention to as they go into business. And if any government officials happen to read this, we would be deeply grateful if you could consider helping ease these sorts of burdens instead of just seeking grants or subsidies for us. I’d rather have a rational tax code and a citizen-friendly legal system than a subsidy or a grant any day.

Sales taxes are different in most cities and counties in Missouri, and also differ depending on product. For example, food is taxed at a different rate than regular items, and sales to restaurants or groceries are not taxed at all. This is annoying for any business, but is especially problematic for market farms, who travel to different locations to sell their items and don’t have a nice centralized cash register system that can track these things. For example, here are the relevant tax rates for us:

Items sold on-farm, in unincorporated Boone County:
food (produce, eggs, etc.): 2.55%
non-food (wood, flowers, blown eggs, gourds): 5.55%
to chefs (for use in restaurant): no tax

Items sold at Columbia Farmers Market, in Columbia city limits
food: 4.55%
non-food: 7.55%
to chefs: no tax
to EBT (food stamp) customers: no tax

Items sold at Hallsville Farmers Market, in Hallsville city limits
food: 3.55%
non-food: 6.55%
to chefs: no tax

So depending on where we make a sale of farm products, and what those products are, we might have to collect no tax, 2.55%, 3.55%, 4.55%, 5.55%, 6.55%, or 7.55%. To make matters worse, to qualify for the lower food tax rate, we have to pre-register all our sales locations with the Department of Revenue (DOR). This is because the system is set up for independent static businesses like brick-and-mortar franchises; DOR has no concept of a sales model in which the product is produced in one location but sold at many. So if I were to decide in the middle of the season to try out the Boonville, Moberly, or Ashland farmers markets, I would technically have to charge the full (non-food) rate at those locations because DOR hadn’t approved my new “location”. Or so I’m told by DOR staff.

In addition, most market farms aren’t set up to charge tax on top of their sales. Without a powered cash register capable of being programmed for different tax rates, it isn’t practical to add tax to purchases at the point of sale, especially when some sales combine items of different tax rates (purchasing produce along with a gourd, for example). It would take way too long in a busy marketplace and be a headache for everyone. Thus, most farmers have to “include” sales tax in their price, charging a nice round price that’s easier for everyone, then tracking their sales numbers and remitting the appropriate tax on whatever basis (monthly, quarterly, annually) the state requires based on their income.

So our market record sheets have a complicated table of tax rates in which we have to break down what kinds of products were sold where and to whom, so we can back out the appropriate tax bill to pay quarterly. Sometimes the work involved isn’t worth the effort of selling the product, if you consider the time it takes us to do this and/or the expense of an accountant.

This kind of system is unfortunate in so many ways. It creates a ridiculous burden on small businesses like market farms. This isn’t even something you can really pass off on an accountant, because you’d have to do most of the record-keeping in the first place so the accountant would know what to do. It doesn’t reflect the reality of this kind of business. It creates a misperception of price as compared to other sources like grocery stores, where tax is added at the register and thus the posted price in the produce aisle looks smaller. It creates a strong incentive to cheat or otherwise misuse the system; I suspect (without solid evidence) that many market farmers or roadside stands don’t go to all the trouble to break out their sales like this, just reporting sales based on farm location. That’s what we did at first until we realized how we were supposed to do it, and then filed an amended return with DOR. The resulting confusion on their end cost the state more in employee billable hours and postage costs than the extra tax we ended up paying just to be honest and ethical.

I believe pretty strongly that an unenforceable law, or a law which creates a strong incentive to break it, is at best counterproductive and at worst unethical. What systems like this do is punish the honest and reward the lazy/dishonest. Folks like us who spend hours attempting to learn the proper tax code in order to do the right thing are punished by paying the full amount of taxes, while those who throw up their hands or don’t bother to find out get away with far less payment, headaches, and time lost. And the state is likely cheated out of a fair bit of income, because the system for collecting it is so complicated and unenforceable that people don’t bother.

There are better ways to do handle such things, and it’s unfortunate that the repercussions of our current system fall most heavily on those who are most honest and ethical.