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.

Should I be farming in Afghanistan?

A recent AP dispatch from Afghanistan raises an interesting question: are small farmers there getting better support from the US government than farmers back home?

The piece discusses the work of the Missouri National Guard’s Agri-Business Development Team with Afghan farmers, which includes installing solar powered wells and more:

Other long-range projects include designing micro-slaughter facilities for each district, rather than one large facility; building veterinary clinics that will be turned over to provincial veterinarians; and teaching food preservation techniques. And they are testing root cellars to prolong storage of produce for the market.

Small-scale local slaughterhouses, food preservation, and veterinary clinics for small farmers? These are exactly the sorts of items American small-farm advocates have been advocating for years, with little success in the face of government support for large agribusiness instead. These types of projects are rightly intended to help restore a viable small-farm economy in Afghanistan, and I deeply respect the efforts and risks the Guard members are taking in doing this work.

My question relates to the overarching policy: why are we apparently NOT interested in supporting the same local/regional small farm economies in the US? Why is it so hard to see the value of such things back home? Why are our governments and health departments so terrified of small-scale, local meat processing when apparently it’s good enough for Afghans? Are they somehow genetically superior to Americans, such that locally-slaughtered meat doesn’t kill them? Are they smarter than Americans, such that they know how to choose safe meat sources? Are they just too backward to make use of 21-st century modern industrial meat processing? What’s the difference?

Memorable Meal: real Italian pasta spread

As I turn this blog back toward food, ingredients, and farming for the growing season, I want to start highlighting specific meals that emphasize some aspect of our food ethic. This Saturday’s dinner, a nice spread of authentic dishes made from scratch, is a great example.

This was Joanna’s doing, and she made the most of it. On the table we have:

Fresh-made pasta (hand-rolled, not machined) topped with:
– Sauce of our tomatoes, garlic, & basil
– Fresh-made goat’s milk ricotta
– Our fresh spinach, shredded
– Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fresh homemade bread (bread flour and Missouri flour), with olive oil for dipping

Spinach salad (our fresh spinach, toasted Missouri pecans, organic raisins, shredded organic carrots, Goatsbeard feta cheese, olive oil & balsamic vinegar)

This all may sound fancy and/or time consuming, but start-to-finish it took Joanna about 2.5 hours, including making the cheese and bread, handrolling the pasta, and everything else. Nothing was done ahead of time. If that sounds like a lot of time for one meal, consider that it’s less than watching a basketball game or the average American’s daily TV intake, and indeed could have been accomplished while doing either of those things if desired.

We thoroughly and leisurely enjoyed this meal, which gave us leftovers for at least another meal. We don’t and can’t spend 2.5 hours every day making dinner, but priorities are priorities: I’d rather cook real food from scratch than almost any other use of disposable time. If you have time to watch TV, you have time to cook.

What We Eat: March IV

3/21/09 – 3/27/09: The end of March has marked the end of many preserved items we’ve been drawing from all winter. Okra, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and more are all very close to gone. We have lots of meat left, and are getting more eggs than we can eat (there are currently 15 goose eggs and 24 chickens eggs in the fridge). So our menus are naturally getting heavy on those items for now. Chives, spinach, and herbs are coming on nicely to provide some fresh flavors, and we’ll be getting to lettuce and radishes before too long. We’re also using a fair amount of bulk-purchased rice, beans, and other staples, as might be expected.

Still, even in this lean local food month, I think the point of this series is being made. It’s possible to eat a diverse, healthy, interesting without any real reliance on processed or out-of-season foods.

Saturday: Zucchini soup with rice (frozen from last summer); sandwich (homemade bread with cheese, homemade mustard, our fresh spinach, and more)

Sunday: Chinese-style 5-spice chicken (Pierpont chicken cooked in a homemade spice mix and broth); stir-fry (our green beans, onions; organic cashews, carrots; cooked with sauce from chicken)

Monday: Chicken adobo (Pierpont chicken marinated and cooked in Filipino sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, and bay leaf); leftover fried rice from Sunday

Tuesday: pseudo-Asian chicken soup (broth from previous days’ chicken with orzo, dropped egg, and more)

Wednesday: Mideast extravaganza: Homemade pitas stuffed with spiced meat (our goat cubes with garlic & spices), chickpea sauce (organic chickpeas cooked with our tomatoes and spices), Goatsbeard feta, and our fresh spinach.

Thursday: Meat stew (our goat meat, onions, garlic, broth; organic carrots and beans)

Friday: Ate out with friends at House of Chow, an excellent Chinese restaurant in Columbia with a real chef and real food.

What We Eat: March III

3/14/09 – 3/20/09: Like last week, I’m reconstructing this from partial records, so apologies for missing ingredients. We’ve been hitting the eggs and meat hard, as that’s what we have in adundance now. The emergence of our over-wintered spinach has really helped balance the meals, with the first taste of fresh greenery offering promises of much to come. This may be the tightest time of year, but our menus are still deeply based in our own farm-raised food, with purchased carrots being the only real concession.

Saturday: Filipino marinated goat over rice (our meat marinated in a sweetened Adobo base, braised and served over rice) with shredded carrot salad (shredded organic carrots topped with Goatsbeard feta, apple cider vinegar, and capers)

Sunday: Goose-egg souffle (one of Joanna’s specialties, made especially rich and tasty with our goose eggs and local goat milk) with side of shredded carrot salad.

Monday: Spiced koftas with rice (our ground goat meat mixed with spices and our onion & egg, then sauteed as meatballs) plus side I can’t decipher in my handwriting

Tuesday: Pasta with creamy tomato sauce (organic pasta topped with fresh cream sauce from local goat milk and our tomatoes and herbs)

Wednesday: Stew (our goat meat, onions, garlic; local mixed beans; various spices) with homemade bread and cherry-blackberry-strawberry pie (filling from our preserved fruit, crust from local wheat flour)

Thursday: No idea.

Friday: Zucchini soup over rice (thawed from last summer, served over local rice) and creamy tomato soup (our tomatoes, local goat milk)

What We Eat: March II

3/7/09 – 3/13/09: These last few weeks I’ve kept terrible records of our meals, as spring is really pushing our working schedule and the notebook has gotten lost in the shuffle. I’m going to post these next few as completely as I can, to keep the series going. March is really the hungry month, as we run pretty low on preserved vegetables and start to get more reliant on meat for many dishes.

Saturday: No idea.

Sunday: Tasty stew (our goat meat, onions, broth, garlic; organic carrots, rice, and spices)

Monday: Quiche (our eggs, Goatsbeard cheese, other ingredients)

Tuesday: Roasted rosemary chicken (frozen chicken from Pierpont Farm stuffed with our rosemary); squash soup (our frozen squash; various spices)

Wednesday: Shredded chicken with salsa and beans (leftover chicken from Tuesday, with locally-made salsa and spiced black beans)

Thursday: Chicken pasta (organic pasta topped with a cream sauce, our dried tomatoes, and shredded leftover chicken); spinach salad (our fresh spinach); fresh-made bread

Friday: Goatburgers (our ground goat on homemade buns, topped with our cheese, fresh spinach, homemade mustard, red onions, and pickles)