Thoughts on raw milk, Part I

Raw milk is one of the touchiest flashpoints of food. Battles are fought all over the country between governments and food safety types who are absolutely convinced it’s a menace to humanity and should be banned with the same force as cocaine, while equally fervent defenders swear it’s all but the fountain of youth. Personally, I don’t see it as anything particularly special, except as a symbol of the disfunctional nature of our food system and culture.

On our farm, we rarely drink raw milk, despite keeping our own dairy goats. Partly this is because we prefer the tastes and uses of yogurt and cheese, which we make from our own milk. Partly this is because we do see the point of food safety concerns with raw milk, and don’t have a problem with home-pasteurizing any milk we do drink (all you have to do is heat it to 165F for a short period). But I don’t think raw milk is inherently dangerous; I think it’s like any other raw food in that its safety comes from its methods of production, handling, and preparation.

There is now a certified Grade A raw milk dairy in Missouri, Greenwood Farms, whose mere legel existence ought to prove that raw milk is not inherently dangerous. After all, the Missouri government seems hell-bent on claiming raw milk is illegal, despite clear wording in the Missouri statues stating otherwise: “an individual may purchase and have delivered to him for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm.” (MRS 196.935) But yet this raw milk dairy managed to get certified to the same standards as any other dairy. Good for them. As is true for virtually any food, the danger is not the food itself but the way it’s handled and prepared.

The best summary of the raw milk situation in Missouri (and the challenges facing small dairies in general) that I’ve found yet comes in this well-written piece from the Columbia Missourian earlier this year. It shows both sides of the argument, from the health officials absolutely convinced that raw milk is dangerous to the small farmers who find it a rational and manageable way to make an income on a small herd. It also clearly demonstrates the dangers well-meaning governments can pose to small farms, as when the State tried to shut down a series of small farms selling raw milk under the above-linked law in the name of consumer safety, only to back off and apologize when challenged with their own statutes.

In Part II of this long post, I’ll explain why, regardless of your opinion of raw milk, attempting to ban it in the name of consumer safety is both hypocritical and pointless.

Market Plans, April 18 2009

We’ll be at market again this Saturday with another small selection of early spring items. New this week will be the first harvest of radishes, 5-6 varieties of young, tender heirlooms that are wonderfully sweet and tasty. Like a lot of produce, we find that radishes taste even better when they’re harvested young, before they’ve had a chance to mature and go woody. Don’t be fooled by the small size. We’ll probably also bring some young heads of baby lettuce, several varieties of color and texture. Still debating whether to sell these as miniature heads or just mix everything as a salad mix. Goose eggs, chives, garlic chives, and green onions will appear again.

In related comments, we had to be in Columbia today, so swung by Hy-Vee to do check on comparitive prices for produce. We have no real idea what produce costs these days, having not bought vegetables in any meaningful sense in years. We were stunned to see ratty, old-looking herbs (like chives and mint) in plastic containers being sold for almost $3/4oz; not even organic! Good grief, I’ve been given strange looks for charging $1.50 for our large bundles of 12-hour-old chives, and $1 for small bundles of fresh mint. Same for lettuce; mixed bagged organic lettuce was going for the equivalent of $16/lb, whereas I was getting gasps for daring to charge $8/lb for greens last year. The effects of the California water crisis must be taking hold…

Meal of the Week: Filipino barbeque

This was a Filipino dish I hadn’t made before, sourced from a cookbook given to me by my mother to expand my horizons past traditional family recipes. It turned out wonderfully, and the basic idea would work for almost any kind of meat or vegetable.

The sauce was made from garlic, green onions, vinegar, honey, soy sauce, mustard, hot pepper, and five-spice powder. This being our kitchen, the garlic, onions, and peppers were ours. The mustard was our home-scratch-made version, which I try to keep a small jar of at all times. The five-spice was a custom fresh-ground blend of fennel, anise, black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. The honey was local, and everything else was of decent provenance. All was mixed together and poured over…

The meat, which was a quantity of our farm-butchered goat rib strips. Now, these aren’t quite the meaty, fat-dripping pork ribs most folks are familiar with, but they’re what we have. We strip them from the bone fresh and freeze them as packets of strips, to be thawed and marinated for such dishes as this. After several days tenderizing and absorbing the flavor of the marinade, they were ready for…

The grilling, which was a quite basic hot charcoal fire with the strips turned once and basted thoroughly with marinade. Finished, they were not quite the mouth-melting tenderness of pork but had absorbed the marinade wonderfully and were good, mildly chewy strips of spicy Asian barbequed goodness. Goat has its own flavor which I think goes really well with Filipino cooking, whose liberal use of vinegar helps soften the meat and imbue it with flavor. Plus, it’s plenty authentic. We finished with…

The salad

which was an utterly simple mix of fresh spinach and various lettuces topped with sliced fresh radishes, all gathered from the garden a few minutes before dinner. The dressing to the left is a home invention of rice vinegar, soy sauce, chopped fresh scallion, minced elephant garlic, grated ginger, sesame oil, and olive oil. It turned out very well and complemented the ribs nicely.
A good, reasonably quick (other than the grill) spring dinner sourced reasonably from the farm.

Where and how will we grow new farmers?

We are about to reach a point in the local foods business where demand vastly outstrips supply. I have it from a trusted source that several large institutions in mid-Missouri are seeking to source “as much as they can” from our farmers. I just got an email from another local restaurant asking for my product list and prices. It’s coming.

The problem is, as many have noted, small direct-market farms don’t have the capacity yet. Farming is not manufacturing, despite the slogan “industrial food”. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t react to quick market forces very well. We can’t just up and order more widgets from our supplier when the demand for widgets jumps. New farmers can’t just up and rent a storefront and get started. Also, many of us got into farming for the direct-market segment; we like our retail prices, our integrated operations, and our customer interaction. We’re not necessarily set up for larger-scale wholesale farming, even to local sources.

The recent USDA census noted that while small farms were booming, mid-sized farms were vanishing, and it’s those who have the best potential to really serve an intense regional demand. Either that (and that) we need a whole lot more farmers who know how to raise vegetables, fruits, meats…you know, FOOD. Where are we going to get them, and how are we going to make that possible?

Enter a neat article on Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of a new documentary about young farmers, The Greenhorns. In true blogger fashion, I’m just going to throw these links out there, because I have to get outside and farm. However, I really enjoyed this quote:

She speaks in sweeping, lyrical terms, but her visions of the future of American farming are firmly based in reality. “We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm,” she says.

Consider that our governments, and our major land-grant universities, are so busy propping up commodity agriculture and so reliant on agribusiness funding that they’ve almost completely missed this coming. Are there any major universities with meaningful programs in direct-market ag and vegetable growing? Many universities don’t even offer basic instruction in how to start a business and manage tax implications, much less classes aimed at the unique challenges market farmers face. Joanna amusedly noted this year that the IRS’s farm expense deduction list doesn’t even include a place for “advertising/marketing”. What does that tell you about the assumptions of government?

The boom in local foods makes me afraid sometimes. We’re not going to be able to meet it all at once, and I’m afraid its long-term value may become obscured by justifiable annoyance on the parts of the chefs and institutions who are just now jumping on the bandwagon, only to find it wasn’t ready for their weight. I hope the grassroots can rise to the task, because that’s our best hope to meet this.

Updated planting plans

As part of organic certification, we had to submit a list of every variety we planned to grow, along with its seed source and maps of where it would be grown. This was something we already did, as we liked having lists and maps on our website to show customers where and how things were being done.

This year, our site has been somewhat neglected. I finally got around to updating our Growing Information page with this year’s information, which some readers and customers might find interesting. Under Planting Plans, you can see maps of our market garden and field with their intended crops for this year (click on the smaller images to load large ones). Under Produce Varieties, you can scan a list of every item we’ll be growing this year. Not all of these are for sale, some are for our consumption and some are just tests for possible use in future. But they’re all being grown, contributing to the diversity of the farm. Last year I provided links from each variety to the seed source’s online listing, but I don’t have time to do that for 199 varieties this year.

Hope features like this are of interest.

Preparing the field – fencing

Getting some real fencing around the vegetable field is a significant priority. We’ve grown corn, beans, squash, and more out here over the past few years, and deer are a significant problem (as are raccoons). Fencing is a must, so we’ve been working on that lately. The goal is a solid welded-wire fence that will stop all small critters, tall enough to stop most deer, with several electrified wires to stop raccoons and goats.

First, we surveyed the fence lines we wanted to establish, laying out straight lines that would require a minimum of bracing and angles. Gate locations were an important consideration for future workflow of vehicles and people. When this was set, we used our potato plow to trench the fencelines so we could bury the bottom to deter digging.

We’re using a combination of farm-cut cedar posts and metal T-posts to support the fence. The former are a natural byproduct of our orchard-clearing, while the latter we scrounge and source from auctions, Craigslist, and so on (the welded-wire fencing came used from Craigslist as well). To set the cedar posts, we drill holes with a tractor-mounted auger before setting the posts, and brace corners with our farm-milled cedar lumber. Below, you see a future gate entrance to the field.

When all posts are set, we unroll and start attaching the welded wire. The ground is uneven enough to keep the fencing a bit wavy, and I expect the fence posts to settle and tilt a bit, but they ought to stay up and do their job. A little bracing here and there on poor performers will do the trick. Below you see the southern fenceline, for which we had to clear a stand of trees that was encroaching on to our good farm land. When all the main fencing is in place, I’ll go back through and string hot (electrified) wire at several heights along offset insulators to discourage coons from climbing and deer/goats from rubbing. We’ll be building solid cedar-plank gates for the main entrances, which is a good rainy-day project.

Hopefully this system works reasonably well, and we can keep the critters to a manageable level. There will certainly be a lot of tasty stuff behind this fence, so we’ll see how it works. I don’t expect it to be as straight, pretty, or perfect as a professional job, but doing it ourselves saves so much investment that it’s worth it. We’d just rather do things ourselves whenever we can.

Preparing the field – spring burns

As we work to expand our vegetable field this year, we decided that a spring burn would be in order. The lower portion of the field had had some cover crops, but still a lot of grass, and burns can remove some of the dead material while contributing to soil fertility. In addition, given our goal of restoring our pastures to a more natural native prairie ecology, working with fire will be a necessity to suppress invasives and encourage natives. So on a calmish day, shortly after rain, and late enough that some greening had occured, we burned our lower vegetable field and a test patch of pasture above:

We hit the conditions perfectly, as there was enough fuel remaining to keep the fire moving, but enough greening to suppress any extensive growth. We had recently trenched the future fenceline, which provided a nice firebreak, and I had back-burned along parts of this first to give extra protection. The fire just quietly licked its way along the front, consuming what was left and leaving better ground behind. In years to come, we’ll move toward a regular cycle of burns in the pastures, but this was a good start. In months to come, I’ll post some paired photos of the burned areas’ condition compared to non-burned.

Preparing the field – permanent beds

With spring’s arrival, we’re working to expand and prepare our vegetable field for planting. We’ve been slowly expanding from our market garden into the larger field over the past few years, and are taking several significant steps this year toward really bringing the larger area into production. I’m going to be posting several items about our preparation methods, including burning and fence-building. In this post, I’ll discuss our philosophy on field management and our methods of establishing permanent beds.

Here’s our vegetable field, looking NW. To the north, south, and east are pasture areas, while to the west the field slopes down to our creek bottom and the ridge beyond (direction of view). We’ve set aside an area a bit over an acre for intensive vegetable production, with an option to expand into pastures to the north down the road. In the foreground you see a series of established 4’x40′ beds, covered in straw/hay mulch from the winter. In the background you see me starting to establish the next set of beds.

Our philosophy of field management is dependant on several goals. First, we want to minimize equipment use. Tractors and implements are expensive, repair-prone, require significant off-farm investments, and are damaging to the soil in the long run due to compaction and disruption. They are also very susceptible to weather and soil conditions. While they have an important role, we do not want to be utterly reliant on them.
Second, we want to maximize the efficiency of our land management. Vegetables are not grains; you have to grow them in rows with aisles in between, for equipment and manual access and also simply because the plants need space. Tomatoes and lettuce don’t take to being driven over, walked through, or packed together the way a corn or wheat field does. Typically, a farm would plow and/or till the entire field, spread whatever fertilizer they feel the need to use, then plant in rows with aisles in between. A mid-scale vegetable farm might use a mechanized raised-bed builder which drives along, mounding soil into beds, but still involves tilling and preparing the entire field (row and aisle alike). While that may be time-efficient, we see it as resource-inefficient, because inputs are spread over far more land than is actually grown upon, and the impacts of any equipment use and tillage are spread over the entire land as well. Put it this way: would you drive over your garden bed with your car, or spread compost on your driveway? I didn’t think so. We want to manage our fields to maximize our resource efficiency in terms of targeting inputs just where they’re needed, and conserving the soil’s texture and quality as much as possible.
Third, we want to minimize tillage. There are a number of studies and experiences clearly demonstrating the long-term detrimental effects of disturbing the soil’s natural structure, and we would prefer to follow the pioneering example of organic no-till farms like Foundation Farm in northern Arkansas.
With these goals in mind, we’ve been planning and establishing the vegetable field along the same lines as our market garden, using permanent bed locations that are spaced to allow both equipment and manual labor to function. When these beds are established, they will stay established, as will their aisles. All driving and tire weight will remain in these aisles, and all crops and inputs will remain in the beds. Better conservation and resource efficiency, balanced by somewhat less time efficiency (though not having to plow/till the whole field multiple times per year ought to balance that somewhat).
Above you see our wide beds, 4’x40′, established last year. These are designed to be straddled by our pickup truck, and are intended for growing crops that can be densely planted or need lots of room, like edamame, corn, squash, and so on. There are 24 of these.

Just west of these, we’re establishing a grid of narrower beds, about 2.5’x40′. These are designed to be straddled by our tractor, allowing us to do some basic maintenance like mowing cover crops or trenching potatoes, while being intended for items that like to grow in lines, like potatoes, tomatoes, and so on. Also, these beds are narrow enough to be straddled by a person, making some weeding and planting easier. The image above shows the future home of these beds, shortly after burning off the grass. There will be 48 of these beds (view a map of the field plants here, though the information is out of date).

Given that we’re establishing these beds in a pasture, breaking the sod is a near-necessity. We’ve done it here using a potato plow, a very simple implement which digs a single furrow at the center of the tractor’s path. Each successive row is plowed with the tires in the previous tire track, so that the overlapping tire tracks become narrow permanent aisles between beds that are never driven on. Look carefully at the left side of the photo and you’ll see this. In many of these beds we’re coming back through with a one-time tilling to break up the thick clumps of grass, but do not intend to use such methods again once the beds are established.

From here on, we’ll treat each bed as a garden bed, using hand cultivation, and mulch to manage weeds and soil tilth. Inputs like manure can be spread by truck in the upper beds, and a wide-wheelbase cart in the lower beds. This will sound like a great deal of manual labor to those accustomed to tractor farming, and it is. But equipment reliance brings with it a whole separate set of needs, like extra financial and resource costs that are often not properly accounted for. Using intensive, careful, organic methods, we expect to pull very high yields out of this area that will compensate for the labor needed. Patrice Gros at Foundation Farm in Arkansas has proven that such methods work very well when applied correctly, and we’re following in his footsteps while adapting the philosophy to our own needs. As he writes on this front page,

Many of the farming methods used at the farm are extensions of gardening
techniques fine-tuned on a small scale.

I think that’s a pretty accurate depiction of our philosophy as well, and it’s rooted in centuries of European small-scale farming that is very sustainable and practical for the small, diversified, non-mechanized type of agriculture we’re pursuing. Might not work for everyone, but we’re expecting it to work for us.

Organic Certification – It’s official!

Our mail today contained a most welcome delivery: our official Organic certification certificate, along with a copy of the inspector’s report and other documents. I’ll post more about these when I have more time (currently getting materials ready for market tomorrow), but this is the culmination of a LOT of work. We’re very happy to be only the third (possibly fourth) certified farm at the Market.

More details in a few days when I can get to it.

A thorough debate on local food prices

There’s been quite a little kerfluffle online lately, after the excellent food/farm blog The Ethicurean posted a provocative and thoughtful essay from a small hog farmer accusing small farms of “gouging” customers through their pricing. The essay, and the ensuing comment thread, are very much worth the time of anyone reading this blog. You will learn a great deal from all the perspectives offered:

Later, another food blog picked up on this, and got Joel Salatin to write a commentary about pricing of local foods. My thinking has obviously been deeply influenced by Joel’s libertarian approach to farming, and I thought his response was spot-on. There is some fair criticism that his Polyface Farm is, in fact, quite large and so its problems are not necessarily those of true small farms, but I think that misses the point. Even at a few acres, we run up against most of the same issues Salatin does with regards to inane bureaucracy, regulations, and limitations. In any case, read his take and the ensuing comment thread as well:

For my two cents, I think a core contention is whether farmers should be passing all costs along to consumers. I don’t think most people realize just how expensive it is to farm, especially at the market scale. I don’t mean inputs and seeds, though that certainly matters. I mean all the insurance and liability requirements, legal concerns, licenses, and so on, which are immensely expensive with regards to either the time to comply with them, or the money to hire accountants and lawyers to help you do so. And if you’re trying to farm full-time, add in all the basic costs of living a reasonable life that allows you to save for retirement or health care. I feel fully justified in including my health insurance costs and personal cost of living in my prices; this small business is intended to be my primary livelihood and I can’t separate that from the need to make a decent living.

If customers won’t pay the price I need to charge to make a living, that’s my problem. I chose this business and I’ll sink or swim with it. But one thing I won’t do is suffer an existence of poverty in a well-meaning attempt to serve people cheap food. My skills, effort, knowledge, and talents are too valuable to me to give away to an artificially subsidized concept of food. If I can’t make a living at this, I’ll quit and do something else, as will many other of the young small farmers just coming online.

Ball’s in your court, customers. I loved this comment from the second blog link:

Living expenses have snuck up on me, things I never paid for before. TV used to be free. I never had a cell phone until the last couple years. There didn’t even used to be an internet. I pay willingly for all these things, mostly for my own entertainment and enjoyment. How can I in good conscience justify paying $100 a month for satellite TV and cry “poor” about food, the very sustenance of my life?

One thing Joanna and I are working toward is open books; in a year or two, we’d like to make our books available to any customer at market, so they can see just how much it costs to grow each item, how much we pay in liability insurance, how many hours per year we spend wrestling with tax codes and regulatory messes, and so on. Some people seem to think market farming is like a garden with a business licence. Hah. Maybe it is if you don’t follow the rules, but it’s a classic case of ethical people taking the fall for everyone else.

Coming soon will be a long rant about the inanities of the insurance and liability issues we face as a small market farm, along with the equal silliness of the way tax codes and business structures restrict our ability to farm.