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.

Washing Away…

While attention has rightly been focused on the massive rainfalls and flooding in Iowa and along the Mississippi river, conditions are quietly getting soggier in central and northern Missouri. In Linn County, a bit north of us, over 7 inches of rain fell in 4 hours; Locust Creek went up 20 feet in a few hours. The Chariton River has gone up 18 feet at Prairie Hill, and the Grand has gone up 25 feet at Chillicothe. These are both significant tributaries to the Missouri River, which has been hovering around moderate flood stage for a while now. As I write this on Thursday morning, the upper Missouri basin in eastern NE and western IA is being pounded by severe storms, central/northern Missouri has had wave after wave of heavy rainfall, and more is rotating into our area. We’ve had over 5″ in the last 24 hours, including 3″ in one hour, producing the highest streamflow we’ve seen on our property, and it continues to fall. We’re forecast for continued storms through the weekend, including severe storms and heavy rainfall Friday and Friday night.

At the moment, the Missouri is forecast to once again reach a stage height of 25′ at Jefferson City, well below the 1993 record of 38.3′ but enough to start flooding lower areas, and this forecast doesn’t include all the oncoming rain. It’s been cycling around that height for weeks now, so this is nothing new, but it’s a lot of water and continued heavy rains across the basin could keep the trend going. So far we’ve been fortunate that the rain pulses are just far enough apart to allow the Missouri to drop again before the next pulse arrives, but that may not last. Much of the region is saturated, and can’t hold much more. More and more folks are quietly saying that this reminds of them of ’93, when this just kept happening; the rain just kept coming and the rivers just kept rising. We’ll see. There’s a long way to go in the Missouri basin, but that’s what they thought in Iowa and along the Mississippi not that long ago.

As ex and current geologists with experience in rivers, we’re fascinated on a scientific level by these dynamics. There are many good websites to use when tracking these events, mostly those managed by the National Weather Service and the USGS. When using these, however, you’ll notice massive gaps in stream gage coverage; this is due to major budget cuts in river monitoring that have really hampered our ability to accurately study, track, and predict river behavior. Read coverage of the Iowa floods carefully, and you’ll find the experts bemoaning the cuts that have kept them from doing their job.

In any case, for an overall view of river conditions, visit http://water.usgs.gov/waterwatch/. This national map shows streamflow conditions for all gages monitored by the USGS, and you can click on a state to zoom in, then click on any gage to see recent conditions.

Another good site is the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center, which takes similar data to the USGS site and presents them in a slicker, more intuitive interface that really helps present conditions, as well as offering river stage forecasts. As above, click on individual gage sites to view graphs, data, and predictions. The link above is to the Kansas City forecast region that covers most of the central/northern Missouri area I wrote about above, but you can scroll in any direction through the country. Also, at any particular gage, scroll down to see a location map and table of how different gage heights affect the surrounding area. It’s a good way to get context for the river conditions.

Finally, as a way of documenting the wet conditions this spring and early summer, here’s a link to the National Weather Service’s 1-year rainfall data for St Louis. This is a live, daily-updated graph, so if you’re reading this months later in the archive it might not fit my description. But as of late June, you’ll clearly see that we spent most of the winter slightly dry, but around mid-March the rain just started falling and is now 12″ above average. The comparable temperature graph shows the cool side of this agriculturally terrible spring, which has hurt everyone from gardeners to grain spreads.

So for now we just wait, watch the streams rise, and pay attention. Our permanent raised beds are generally saving us from larger disaster, as they keep the roots of our plants above the accumulating water, but that only goes so far. When the soil stays constantly wet and never gets a chance to drain, it will start to stunt and hurt the plants, so we’re concerned. The biggest worry right now is our beautiful stand of 200+ heads of garlic, which is in the process of forming bulbs, only a few weeks from harvest. Garlic needs fairly dry conditions to do this properly, and can rot easily in overly wet conditions. A friend has already lost at least half her garlic to waterlogged fields, and we’re in danger. Losing this crop so close to harvest would really hurt. Overall, though, as I’ve written before, these conditions cement our commitment to developing an effective no-till, permanent raised bed farming method here, because in the long run it will insulate us as much as possible against these sorts of conditions that are causing even more trouble and damage for more equipment-dependent growers.

Marketing heirlooms

Last Saturday we were finally able to bring a reasonably diverse set of produce to market, offering snap peas, snow peas, white & red scallions, various beets, mint, and oregano. We equalled our best day from all of last year in terms of income, and are really looking forward to the heart of our sales season with tomatoes, squash, peppers, and okra as our core products.

The beets are especially noteworthy, though, as they represent another front in our exploration of heirloom varieties and their market. Beets are a good test for the difference between heirloom and hybrid varieties. Commercial strains reliably produce large, standard, round, red beets that are sold in big bunches for not much money. These heirloom varieties are not as reliable, and produce smaller beets, but their diversity is fascinating. None of my close-up photos came out in focus, but the bundles of beets at the right of the photo are a mix of 3 varieties; a yellow beet, a cylindrical purple beet, and a red beet that cuts open to a brilliant bullseye pattern. When sliced thin, cooked gently, and used as a side dish or salad garnish, they are simply wonderful. Like many heirlooms, the market for these beets is folks who enjoy cooking and like to experiment with interesting, colorful items. You don’t blend these up for borscht.

In our marketing of heirlooms, we’ve found that presentation is everything. Market shoppers are drawn in by something unusual, attractive, interesting. I had many people walk by the stand, glance over, and exclaim, “Wow, look at those pretty beets!”. We find the same dynamic with other heirloom produce, like tomatoes and radishes. We’ve made a point of offering our varieties as samples or mixes, giving people the full chance to appreciate the colors and diversity, and to try every variety. For example, last year we offered a five-color mix of cherry tomatoes and will do the same this year. Both springs we offered mixed bundles of white, red, and purple radishes (adding yellow this year) that drew far more attention than standard piles of normal-looking radishes. Most of these varieties are more than just show; the radishes and tomatoes have distinctly different flavors that make the mixes far more interesting and enjoyable than if the varieties were sold separately.

We charge more for our heirlooms, partly because we consider them a high-quality specialty product, and partly because they are often harder to grow. In the case of radishes and beets, the yields aren’t as consistent as a commercial hybrid, so you put more work into getting less product (we haven’t seen any difference with cherry tomatoes). But when the result is an attractive, high-quality item that excites people about “humdrum” items like radishes and beets, and makes our table stand out, we think it’s worth it.

Often some of these varieties serve as loss leaders. Last week, lots of people stopped to look at the neat-looking beets, giving me a chance to tell them about our farm and growing methods. Many of them didn’t actually want the beets, but ended up buying our snap peas or scallions. Without the beets, they might have walked right on by to one of the other 10+ stands selling pints of green snap peas.

As noted in the link above, we don’t grow all heirlooms; there are some hybrid varieties (such as Zephyr squash) that perform well and offer something unique when used as a complement to our heirloom varieties. But our experiences with radishes, beets, and cherry tomatoes support our dedication to heirloom varieties with notable market success, whether as an initial draw to the stand or a stand-along specialty crop. And we just plain like growing produce that has a real history and sets us in our place among a long line of small farmers around the world.

Picking Peas

Our fresh snap peas are producing now, our first really succesful crop this year (the lettuce and radishes were severly hampered by the cold, wet spring).

Peas are fairly easy to grow, but tricky to harvest. They ripen fast, with a narrow window to get them just right in order to hit the maximum sweetness and texture. We grow vining peas, which produce a continous crop as long as conditions allow, as oppoesd to bush peas, which ripen all at once, and only once. Below, you see a comparison of developing peas:

The top pea is not ready yet; still too small and too thin. It won’t be very sweet. The middle pea is perfect; starting to round out, but not yet cylindrical. It will be juicy and tasty. The bottom pea has gone too far; it’s bloated and round. It will have lost some sweetness and be a bit tough. I try to check every day to make sure I’m getting each pea just at its peak.

Like some other produce (greens especially), peas are sensitive to heat after being picked. They really ought to be chilled instantly once they’re off the plant; sitting in a bucket in the sun for even a few minutes and they may start to lose some of their peak sweetness and quality. We’ve started harvesting directly into buckets of cold water, so as to flash-chill the peas and keep them perfect.

This is a lesson learned, ironically, from industrial agriculture. At the Great Plains Vegetable Conference in January, I heard a fascinating talk about the methods large farms use to increase quality, such as driving refrigerated semis directly into the fields so produce could be instantly chilled. The point driven home in this talk was that if these folks go to such lengths to preserve what quality they do have, small farmers growing really high-quality produce ought to take the same care. With our new water line and hydrants in the garden, we can now harvest greens, peas, and any other relevant produce directly into cold water, improving both their quality and their shelf life.

Microbes, Medicine, and Agriculture

“It’s time for a new, conservation-minded view of the microbial communities that live on and in us”

With this tagline, an article in the current issue of American Scientist nicely captures an argument that is fundamental to organic farming, though the authors never directly make the connection to agriculture. The piece describes the complex interactions of microbial activity within the human body, a system medical science is only beginning to really understand. A series of fascinating details emerges through the piece, discussing the incredibly specialized microbial communities (“The skin on our right forearm, for example, harbors a different microbial community than that of our left forearm”) that work together to produce a functioning whole.

Once establishing the importance of these communities, the authors go on to discuss their fragility, and how easily the human body’s functions can be disrupted if the microbial community is disturbed. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of the role antibiotics play:

“Because antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, collateral damage far exceeds target destruction, and our microbial supporting cast is decimated in pursuit of the pathogen. Under the old view of human-microbe interactions, we accepted this collateral damage as a small cost to pay for ridding ourselves of bacteria. Under our proposed ecological model, however, we can understand that we no longer need to destroy the village in order to save it. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are properly seen as agents of major perturbation. Recent studies make clear that antibiotic exposure reduces the diversity of resident microbial communities and makes it easier for pathogens to invade.”

The basic argument being made here is very applicable to agriculture as well. Soil, too, is a very complex chemical and biological system, hosting an incredible diversity of microbial life that is integral to balancing and maintaining soil health. At the core of organic agricultural methods is the principle that nature has created a very dynamic, stable system that we are best off supporting rather than replacing. Instead of reducing soil and plant nutrition to just a few key elements (N-K-P), organic agriculture seeks to maintain the soil as close to a natural condition as possible. Instead of relying on herbicides and pesticides to eliminate all problems, organic agriculture seeks to maintain a healthy balance of pest and predator. In the same way that it’s worth being sick now and then to strengthen the immune system, it’s worth having some pests and weeds because they’re integral to the larger health of the soil and the ecosystem. I’ve seen many reports that medical researchers feel people are weakening their immune systems due to over-reliance on drugs; the same dynamic happens in soil that is regularly disturbed, sterilized, and chemically imbalanced by artificial inputs and treatments.

In addition, the over-use of artificial substances (whether antibiotics or farm chemicals) can actually be directly counter-productive by encouraging the development of resistant strains of bacteria, weeds, or pests. No spray can kill 100% of all pests or weeds, just as no drug can destroy 100% of harmful bacteria. The inevitable result is the survival of the few individuals whose genetics gave them more resistance, and over time these strains can become far more problematic than the original concern. This is actively happening in both the medical and agricultural worlds.

The author notes that “In much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we appear determined to make the planet microbe-free. The advertising, pharmaceutical and home-products industries have tried to persuade the public that every microbe is the enemy. But the more we learn about the biological world, the less this perspective makes sense.” The same dynamic is present in agriculture, and the result is ever-more reliance on artificial inputs as the natural ability of the soil and ecosystem to maintain a healthy balance is undercut.

I could go on for pages (I haven’t even touched on the obvious implications for antibiotic use in industrial meat production), but hopefully this demonstrates the underlying connections that can be made across the board. Organic farming is often characterized as an unscientific, pseudo-pagan, Earth-Mother belief system characterized by mythology rather than science, and this reputation is earned in some circles. However, the perspective we take is that true organic farming is deeply rational and scientific when approached with the philosophy outlined in this article; that we are best off understanding and working with the complex natural systems already available, rather than attempting to engineer a new reality without understanding what we’re replacing.