Visualizing consumption

This diverges slightly from our food/farming focus, but is too fascinating NOT to pass along.

There are many folks who are deeply worried about the level of consumption, and trash generation, in the modern world. To me, it seems completely unsustainable in sorts of ways, and deeply offends my instinctive need for efficiency and conservation. On a very deep level, it just doesn’t make sense to me to waste things, and I cannot put myself, mentally, in the position of people who can just throw things away without a second thought.

That being said, it’s very difficult to actually visualize or understand the scale of modern consumption, and I think that’s part of the barrier to changing habits. Lots of numbers are thrown out there, but what does 2 million bottles every five minutes really mean? I can’t hold that image in my head.

Via The Ethicurean, artist Chris Jordan has come up with a novel, fascinating, and utterly compelling way to visually represent consumption. His work Running the Numbers is a twist on the old “make a big picture with lots of little pictures” form of art. Jordan takes a statistic, such as the “2 million bottles used every 5 minutes” quoted above, and uses those two million bottles to develop a larger patterned image of what that might look like. The website linked to above presents a long series of these images, many of them originally large-scale art installations (people are provided for scale). Scrolling down through this page absolutely riveted me, and I hope you as well.

The series generally focuses on consumption and waste, though it takes detours into more controversial territory such as Abu Ghraib. All in all, Running the Numbers is the most fascinating art installation I’ve seen in a long time, which means all the more coming from someone who is generally very much NOT a modern art person. Take a look, and post a comment letting me know what you think.

Marketing decisions

We skipped market last weekend, and will do so again this weekend. The decision to sell or not takes into account the value of the available products, the time necessary to go to market, the amount of work needed to be done at home, our own need to put up food for the winter, and whether we have other outlets for the products.

Above is a photo of our last market stand in early August. This was the last week for garlic and fresh onions, which were the core of our market sales for weeks. What we have left is reserved for our own use over the next year; about 75 heads of garlic and LOTS of onions (read the link above to understand our approach to home food supplies). Cucumbers and squash have really struggled this year with the wet conditions, which have caused a lot of rot, blight, and other disease issues with all cucurbits, so those are pretty much done for the year. The trickle we’re still getting is reserved for us (we just put up ten jars of pickles last weekend). The wild blackberries were a one-time market special at the peak of their production, though we continue to harvest and freeze them.

The few pints of cherry tomatoes in the back corner represent the next wave of produce coming on, the tomatoes and peppers. Our cherry tomato plants are bushy, gorgeous, and productive, currently giving us buckets of 6 heirloom varieties. The regular and sauce tomato plants are loaded with green fruit, but are ripening extremely slowly due to our long stretch of low-80s days and 50-60s nights. Not really tomato weather. Peppers are healthy and bushy as well, but also maturing very slowly, such that we don’t have enough at any given time to sell yet. Green beans are producing reasonably well, though less than we expected (others have reported low bean yields this year as well, also probably due to cool, wet conditions. See a pattern?). Okra is puttering along slowly, again giving just enough for us to put up for winter.

So when making a market decision, we’re faced with having just enough product to want to sell, but not really enough to justify the time. I estimate it takes around 15-20 hours at least to complete a Saturday of selling, including the harvesting, cleaning, prep, early morning setup, and so on. Saturday alone tends to take me from 5am to around 2pm. So if I’m going to go in, I want to have enough product to be worth that time. The last two weeks, between putting up tomatoes, pickles, beans, and okra for ourselves and the low yields, it hasn’t been worth it.

The other dynamic here is work needs on-farm, especially 2-person jobs. There are some things it’s just not practical, or at least a lot harder, to do 1-person. By skipping last weekend’s market, giving us two full days of four-handed work, we were able to power through just about everything on our to-do list (with the help of a friend who came out to work Sunday morning in exchange for produce), and that was worth a lot more overall than the income from that day.

So what do we do with the excess that we aren’t selling and can’t/don’t preserve? Right now our outlet for surplus produce is restaurants. So far this week I’ve sold cherry tomatoes to Sycamore and Main Squeeze, with the latter also taking green beans. I’ll probably do another delivery to Main Squeeze at the end of the week. Although restaurants naturally don’t pay as much as market customers, it’s far more time-efficient to swing by and drop off a bin of product as compared to setting up and manning a market stand. Making 60% of the income for 30% of the time investment is a pretty good trade.

As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, the final factor here is the amount of time I currently spend working on market-related projects such as managing websites, Board-related tasks, helping organize events, and so on. I do most of that during the week in between farm work, which also pushes some tasks onto the weekends when Joanna is home, helping create that conflict with market. There are also at-market demands that don’t correlate well with selling; for example this coming weekend I’m not selling partly so that I can spend the morning visiting every vendor and making sure we have up to day photos and information for the Market’s online vendor listings, which are still incomplete. It’s possible for Joanna to sell for us, but it’s generally far more useful for her to stay home and get work done here. Unless we have a ton of product, losing BOTH of our time for most of Saturday isn’t worth it.

So for any customers who’ve missed us, that’s where we’ve been. Look for us Labor Day weekend and possibly the Wednesday before, and check out Main Squeeze in case we just brought some tomatoes by that morning!

Charismatic Critter of the Week – August 18


Meet the caterpillar of the Cecropia Moth. This fellow was found on one of our wild plum trees, a common habitat. A member of the Saturniidae family of giant moths, these can become a moth with a hand-sized wingspan. Click on the photos to enlarge, and to enjoy closeup views of the mouth and spines. Although he eats like a machine, there aren’t enough of them to really be pests, so he remains in the wonderful realm of fantastic creatures. Right now he’s residing on a stick in a large yogurt container, where he rapidly devours plum leaves and drops turds the size of blueberries. (I have no idea what gender this is, but “it” just doesn’t do justice.)

Another benefit we find to farming is the sheer amount of time we spend outdoors in varied habitats, giving us the opportunity to run across rare but fascinating things like this. As the title of this post suggests, I’m hoping to make this a regular feature; I have a nice backlog of good fauna photos to draw from.

Homesteading vs. Farming

We consider ourselves a “homestead” farm, meaning that we live on our land and do our best to feed ourselves as well as sell to others. This a choice that has tradeoffs; the more time, effort, and resources we spend on home production and preservation, the less we are able to sell at market. We know excellent farmers who have made the choice to focus on their business, not putting up much food for winter, eating processed or premade food, happy to purchase most of their food from others so they can grow more for market or CSA. For various reasons, we’ve chosen a different path.

Part of the decision for us is the principle of self-sufficiency. I like to know that, if nothing else, I’ve provided for my household. Every bit of food I grow, produce, and preserve is something I don’t have to buy or search for at the whims of larger factors such as world markets, contamination scares, or weather. Part of the decision relates to being serious cooks and foodies. We’re very selective about our food and cooking, and like so many people, find that the very best ingredients are those you grow yourself and have absolute control over. While there are certainly products out there that other folks produce better (we can’t compete with the truly excellent cheese from nearby Goatsbeard Farm), there’s a real value to doing something yourself. It is an almost religious principle for us that we use little to no processed products; just about everything is made from scratch in our household, even mustard, and we’re working to cultivate more and more raw materials like dried beans, grains, dent corn, and spices. There’s also the practical benefit that grocery shopping becomes less urgent or necessary. We always have a wide variety of food available; at any given time, even in winter, we could be shut off from the world and be able to eat comfortably, diversely, and healthily for weeks if not months. Finally, I feel that being so intimately involved with our food makes us better farmers and salespeople.

The downside, of course, is that our strong focus on homesteading interferes with our business. For example, managing dairy goats and poultry for our own use takes a significant amount of time each day and week that could otherwise be spent growing more produce for market (and income). Even if those choices save us money over purchasing dairy, eggs, and meat, they do interfere with market production, and we do actually have to earn SOME profit down the road. I don’t expect the day to return when I can send in a basket of potatoes and a few chickens to the tax collector. Every time I can or freeze fruit, vegetables, broth, meat, and so on, that’s time I’m not earning money. As a specific example, starting the dairy goats this spring resulted in my not having the time to properly fence, prepare, and maintain our larger field, where we’d intended to grow a wide variety of drying beans. That crop failed, costing us money and time we’d prefer to have back. So learning to balance the demands of our do-it-ourselves principles and the realities of profitable market farming is an ongoing process for us.

So why am I writing about this now? I spent part of a rainy afternoon going through our chest freezer, emptying it out for a light defrosting, and cataloguing its contents. During the busy summer, we tend to just throw things in there without writing them down, so it was utterly chaotic and unrecorded. I wanted to know what we’d put up so far, so we’d know what we still needed. It’s a thrill to read through the long, diverse list of food available to us this winter, knowing its quality and source, and the income we won’t need to spend on it. Here’s the list (all amounts in quarts):

Peaches: 3
Strawberries: 14
Blueberries: 13
Strawberry ice: 3
Cherry pie filling: 3
Blackberries: 6
Blueberry sauce: 2

Winter squash: 4
Beet greens: 1
Peas: 2
Spinach: 2
Tat Soi: 3
Green beans: 7
Corn: 3
Okra: 1

Chicken broth: 6
Goat broth: 2
Veggie broth: 3
Zucchini soup: 2
Ricotta cheese: 2

This does not include the tomatoes, pickles, sauces, and more that we’ll be canning, the rounds of cheese aging in the basement, the jams and preserves already canned, the goats and chickens yet to be butchered for winter meat, and the fall vegetables just now starting to grow. It also doesn’t include the next month’s worth of additions to the list above, especially okra, corn, beans, and broth. But perhaps you get the idea. Being a homestead farm, for us, means respecting and living the self-sufficiency and independance that traditional American farms valued; my great-grandparents would recognize exactly what we’re doing here. And no matter what happens in the economy or the world, we have a stable base from which to support ourselves.

Building a Better Market, Part II

(Photos by Dory Colbert)

On July 26, the Columbia Farmers Market hosted a major public event officially kicking off the fundraising campaign for a permanent structure to house the market. I wrote about this effort, and the reasons for it, in a previous post.

The event itself was a smashing success. A core group of volunteers worked all day Saturday (and for weeks in advance) to set up an event that would interest, enthrall, and excite the community about the possibilities. Relying on conceptual architectural plans, we laid out the future footprint of the market structure using farmers’ market tents, strung together with lights. Thirteen local chefs prepared food samples sourced entirely from local market farmers, which were presented under a large tent along with local wines and beers.


We also screened a new documentary on local farms & food, called “Tableland”, which had never before been shown in the Midwest. Rough estimates are that over 2,000 folks showed up that evening, and lines for food stretched across the lawn for the entire night. The weather was perfect, and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset:


All in all, everyone involved was thrilled with the event, the turnout, and the community excitement it generated. Now, of course, the real work is to continue developing that interest into active fundraising. The price of construction materials continues to skyrocket, and the longer our effort takes, the higher our price tag goes.

The need is so strong, however. For the last month, the market has been so crowded with vendors that we (and others) have actually been sharing tent space with other farms in an effort to fit everyone in. Our market manager is making heroic efforts to include all the members that want to sell while offering fair locations for them, but we’ve just thoroughly outgrown the space we’re in. I suspect it hurts the business of vendors who have to be tucked away on the fringes of the market, and it makes it harder for customers to navigate the chaotic crowds of shoppers. And, of course, a single morning of bad weather can mean big losses for farmers when people don’t want to walk through wind, rain, or brutal sun to shop. We need this structure, and I hope the successful kickoff event helps moves everyone in the right direction.

Read more about the Columbia Farmers Market Pavilion, and donate online.

Cheesemaking


Since this spring, when we acquired our first dairy goats, we’ve been making a variety of fresh cheeses. It’s an absolutely fascinating process, and yields a wide variety of useful products. Actually, we started making cheese ante-goat, using fresh cow milk from a small Missouri dairy, but the regular and “free” supply from the goats has boosted our production and capabilities to a new level. About once a week I devote a morning to making cheese (I’m writing this as several batches are in progress)

So far, we’ve been making mostly ricotta, mozzarella, feta, and cheddar. The first two are used fresh in pizzas, calzones, and baking, though we’re testing how well ritotta freezes. The feta is an all-around general use cheese, crumbled on salads or spread on bread. Cheddar is cheddar, my single favorite cheese, and needs no introduction.

Having the goats makes the learning process far better, as we’re more likely to experiment and less likely to worry about waste or mistakes. I tend to do feta in 1-gallon batches and cheddar in 2-gallon batches; if we were purchasing all that milk, it would be an expensive hobby. When we’re getting a gallon a day from the goats for “free”, it becomes a natural part of the process much like canning or freezing excess produce. Here’s a quick look at the process:

UPDATED PARAGRAPH: Ricotta is fairly straightforward; we can make a fresh batch and use it that day. It just involves heating milk, adding starter & rennet, letting curds form, and draining them. Mozzarella, Joanna informs me, is more difficult (I had initially claimed it was easy as well, but she makes these two, so I’m hardly qualified to judge).

Feta is a bit more complicated, involving holding the milk at specific temperatures, cutting & draining curd, and so on. It takes maybe 6-8 hours to do a batch, during which I can be doing other tasks. If I want a softer, spreadable feta, I drain the curds through cheesecloth. If I want a harder, crumbly feta, I drain them briefly before pressing them like a hard cheese.

Cheddar is pretty similar to feta, though it involves holding the milk at multiple temperatures for set periods of time, and thus takes more attention. Once the curds are cut, salted, and drained, they are pressed at various pressures (20, 30, and 50lb) for lengths of time up to 12 hours. Then, of course, it has to be aged. This alone makes cheddar far more challenging, as I don’t get feedback on my methods for at least a month. All the other cheeses, you’ll know that night if you screwed up. Cheddar is a long learning process.

So far we’ve opened up two 2lb rounds, one raw-milk cheddar and one pasteurized milk cheddar. Both have been rustic but good, with a nice sharp flavor. My goal is to put up a large set of rounds for the winter, when we can open them at our leisure and sample the results. Now that the first two have tasted good, I feel better about putting all this work in.

Many people who’ve tried our cheese have asked if we sell it. No. By law we’re forbidden to sell any dairy products, including milk, without a certified kitchen and commercially certified dairy barn. We don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to attempt to meet the same standards as a large dairy, and so we have to stay at the hobby level. I have another long post in me somewhere about the absurdity of food & ag laws that make it almost impossible for small farms to produce and sell dairy products in local markets, but that’s another day. In the meantime we do it for ourselves, and give it away to friends and neighbors who enjoy the product and look forward to the day the government will let them pay for it.

Washing Away, part 3

Sunday night through Monday morning: at least another 2″, probably more, on fully saturated ground (I didn’t have my gauge bucket set up). We set a new stream flow record by far, with concrete blocks landing about 30′ downstream and large driftwood across the bottomland. Tonight we’re expecting the remnants of Hurrican Dolly to pass through, promising more heavy rains. Insert standard Noah reference here.

We were lucky Sunday, as that system was producing 80mph winds, tornadoes, and golfball hail. The worst cells passed just a few miles east of us, so all we got was heavy rain and some wind. Could have been much worse.

Washing Away, Pt. 2

A very quick post in a very busy time.

This week’s rainfall: Tuesday, 3.5″; Thursday, 1.5″; Friday morning, 3″. 8″ in four days is a lot, but parts of northern Missouri recieved over 9″ within 30 hours.

This latest round resulted in the highest stream flow we’ve yet seen here. Those familiar with our place will be interested to know that the footbridge washed out, as the water level reached the logs, and had to be dragged out with the tractor. Of course, everything is absurdly soggy and we have concerns about damage to plants from drowned roots and possible disease. More storms are forecast for the forseeable future. The tomatoes are absolutely bursting with green fruit, and if they can just make it through the downpours alive, will be stuffing our market stand very soon.

On the plus side, it’s nice to not worry about irrigation this year…

Diverse Garlic is a Hit

Yesterday we finally returned to market, after a month-long gap. All of our summer produce, delayed so long by the long wet spring, is thriving under the recent warm, sunny conditions. From now on we should be market regulars.
Our prized crop right now consists of 13 different varieties of heirloom garlic, which we’ve nursed for nine months to a successful harvest. The wet spring was quite dangerous to garlic, and we know folks who lost a lot of it to flooding and rot, but once again our permanent raised beds really helped by keeping the soil drained and supporting higher soil quality. There are hundreds of varieties of garlic in the world, and our 13 range from hot to mild, better raw to better roasted, and many interesting flavors and qualities. They’ve been curing for three weeks now, and were finally judged ready for market on Saturday.

We had some debates over how much we could sell in one morning, and settled on bringing about 60 heads as a sampler of each variety (you can see the arrangement in the above photo). As it turns out, that was far too conservative, as I sold out by 10:00 am and could have sold far more. Lesson learned for next week. As we’ve learned over and over in marketing heirloom produce, people really enjoy seeing and experiencing the true diversity of vegetables, and the attractive grid of garlic varieties complete with sniffable samples and information cards really complemented the presentation. Over and over I heard variations on “Wow, I had no idea there were so many types of garlic. How neat!”. From a marketing perspective, the diversity helps set us apart and draw people’s interest, and many customers seem to enjoy experiencing and having such choices available.

Next week we’ll bring a lot more heads to market, though if sales stay at this rate we’ll sell out of everything within a few weeks. Cucumbers, onions, squash, and green beans are now producing, and our tomato plants are loaded with almost-ripe fruits ready to swamp our stand within a week or two. The next month or two will hopefully do a lot to compensate for the frustration and losses of the spring.

Building a Better Market

The Columbia Farmers Market is working to build a permanent home. Currently the Market meets on an open lot in the city, which means any inclement weather (rain, high wind, excessive heat, snow, etc.) has a severe impact on attendance and sales. We’re hoping to build a permanent structure that can protect vendors and shoppers from the weather while expanding the possibilities of the market to more vendors, longer seasons, and wider offerings.

Permanent market structures are on the rise around the country, and we hope Columbia follows that trend. I’m on the board of both the Farmers Market itself and another non-profit group, Sustainable Farms & Communities, that’s closely tied to the Market and is leading the current fundraising drive to build the new pavilion. We’ve recently launched a new web site that serves as the public face of the capital campaign, and is the place to go to learn more about the project. Visit http://www.farmersmarketpavilion.org/ to learn more.

This project affects us in many ways. In the long term, a stronger, more attractive market will be key to our financial success as market farmers. One of my favorite aspects of market farming is the interaction with consumers, and it’s been exciting to see the rapid growth in customer counts at CFM over the last few years (from averages around 1,500 a few years ago to 4,500 in 2008). In the short term, taking an active role in this campaign and on both boards draws a great deal of my time, and limits the amount of actual farming that we do. We look at it as an investment in the future; in 3 years, when the new pavilion is built and the market is humming, we’ll be in a very strong place to really focus on our own farm. We think it’ll take that long for us to really develop the plans, infrastructure, and local knowledge we need to be succesful at this. In the meantime, we’ll keep growing and selling at a smaller scale, building familiarity with the community and customers while laying the groundwork for a full-time operation down the road.

If you’re reading this in the mid-Missouri area, please consider coming to the big campaign kick-off event being held Saturday July 26 at the Market. This event will present the new Market plans to the community, by laying out the new pavilion’s footprint in lights on-site and offering a wide variety of local foods and music. We’re also offering a premier screening of a new film on local foods and agriculture that’s only been seen a few places around the country so far. Read more about the event at the official campaign website. Helping plan and execute this event has been a great deal of work, but we think it’s worth it in the long run.