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.

Yes, Goats Like to Climb…

Goats are playful. They like to climb. Flat fields really aren’t their natural habitat. So when they decide to be themselves, interesting things happen, especially when the goat in question is an energetic, headstrong young buck. Saturday morning we went down to the goat paddock for the morning milking, intending it to be an efficient affair before heading in to market. Then we saw this (click on photos to enlarge):

Yes, he’d figured out how to climb up the sides of our hoop structures. Generally the method involves taking a running leap onto the side of the hoop, and getting your hoof just deep enough into the tarp to get purchase on a steel rod, so you can clamber up the side like a crab until you’re proudly perched at the summit of Mt. Cattle Panel (read more about these structures at the link above).

The benefits were clear. Not only was it insanely fun, as he was demonstrating by racing between the milking structure (blue tarp) and the housing structure (silver tarp) and climbing both, it also gave access to some higher-up branches that had otherwise been out of reach. Above, you see him enjoying the bounty while Garlic tries to figure out how SHE can join in.

Naturally, this was of concern. First, we didn’t know how long the tarps would last before breaking and leaving a young goat hanging five feet off the ground with his legs stuck through a cattle panel. Second, it appeared that his weight was gradually bending and deforming the hoop (see above photo). However, we really needed to get to market and didn’t have time to fully address the problem. We had just enough spare material lying around down there to put up barriers around the milking structure, but had to leave the housing structure to his whims until we got home. Of course, we arrived home around noon to find this:

Yes, he’d jumped on the hoop until it had deformed so low that all the others could join the game, and together the combined weight of five goats was MORE than enough to permanently squish the steel and produce the result you see above. Naturally, since this is their housing and shade, they were all still attempting to squeeze under it for their afternoon nap. Not an easy task with horns.

So we pulled the whole structure apart, dragged the deformed panels out of the paddock, cursed for a bit while threatening the buck with early butchering, and decided we didn’t have time to build a new structure that afternoon. So we moved all the hay, feed, and other supplies out of the milking hoop (which is normally off-limits to them) and let them have that as an overnight shelter. The next day we found the time and energy to drag down six more cattle panels and build a new housing structure, complete with cattle panel barriers along the side to forestall any further extreme sports. You can see the results below:

It was really a pretty funny incident, other than the fact that it was a hot, humid weekend with a mile-long to-do list. Still, watching the little bugger race around taking flying leaps onto the hoops was pretty amusing in its own way.

By the way, those who’ve been following the goats may be wondering why we’re still milking. Regardless of the snakeroot situation, we still need to milk the does to (a) help remove any possible toxins from their system, and (b) maintain the status quo until we can make a final decision on whether to dry them off for good this year or return to using the milk that’s currently being dumped twice a day. We’re pursuing that decision through research, a lab test, and more. Look for an update soon, when we get the lab results back. So far, everyone is healthy and signs indicate that they didn’t eat enough to really cause problems for us or them.

Late May Produce Report

Reading this blog, you’d barely realize we grew vegetables, much less that produce is the core of what we do. Certainly, recents events have drawn us away from the garden and field, but we’re getting back on track. Here’s an update on our status as we stand on the doorstep of summer.

Though the cold, wet spring really set us back on early-season items, we were able to go to market twice in May with lettuce, green onions, herbs, and mixed radishes. The latter, a colorful blend of four heirloom varieties (red, yellow, purple, and white) were a big hit and we could have sold many more than we had available. We’ll have a lot more growing space available next year and will increase our offerings of these for sure. The lettuce was difficult, because it grew so slowly in those conditions that much was not marketable; too old and bitter by the time it got big enough to harvest. We took to market a fraction of what we grew, but that’s the way of it.
Our garlic and peas are looking lush and happy. The first pea flowers are showing up, and the garlic scapes are here, meaning bulb harvest is coming soon. Garlic scapes are the young flower stem of the plant, and they are a treat. Pulling or cutting them can increase bulb size, as the plant puts its energy into the bulb rather than a flowerhead, and the scape itself is like a tender green onion but with a wonderful garlic flavor. We’ll be taking a load of garlic scapes to market tomorrow.
We are making progress on building and preparing beds for summer produce like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and more. A few early transplants are in, with more coming soon. These are a little late this year, but we’ve been cautious due to the weather. I’d rather get things in a little late and healthy than attempt to beat the lingering cold and have stunted plants. The first beans are coming up and looking good.
Other currently thriving items include potatoes, tat soi, kohlrabi, beets, and spinach. Perhaps the biggest recent addition is convenient water. Through last year, we had to run hundreds of feet of hose down from the house to irrigate everything, which wasted untold amounts of time and water. This spring, we took advantage of a rare dry spell to have a water line run down from the house, below frost line, with a series of hydrants installed along the garden and out to the goat paddock. I swear this has already paid for itself in time efficiency and water savings. Produce quality also benefits from water on demand, as we can instantly chill lettuce, greens, and other temperature-sensitive crops in a water bath upon harvesting.
Out in the field, of which I have no current photos, we’ve built and planted the majority of the raised beds we planned for this year. These are mostly in drying beans and squash, with the corn beds still to be built and planted (so far those have been a casualty of the last few weeks). This area needs a lot of work soon, including getting it fenced off from deer before the bean shoots come up, and mowing the grass down as its borders are approaching jungle status. One of these days…
Overall, we’re in decent shape for the start of summer. The next few weeks will likely be a whirlwind of fencing, bed building, transplanting, and earth moving. Hopefully we’ve put most of the disasters and unexpected time sinks behind us and can get back to our core purpose, growing and selling worthwhile fresh produce.

When It Rains…

The last two weeks have been a rather problematic and stressful time, with conditions and events doing their best to undermine my general philosophy of confident perseverance. I started to write up a thorough explanation of recent events, but stopped when I hit page 4, realizing that such a brain dump wouldn’t work for the blog. I’m going to give a very brief synopsis here, and those who want details can write us. Maybe I’ll email you a copy of the full Word document if you’re a glutton for punishment. At an individual level, these are the sorts of things you expect from running a small farm, but you certainly hope they don’t all come crashing down at the same time. For those who might worry about us after reading this, don’t. Yes, we’re pretty frazzled and a bit wild-eyed, but every job/career/life faces difficult times, and what matters is how you face those times and how you move beyond them. As horrible as the following events feel to us, they don’t begin to compare to what so many Americans (much less world citizens) face every day. Losing a cat is not the same as losing a soldier; dead chickens are not the same as having no food; poisoned goats are a far cry from war, famine, and poverty. So let this account be an accurate reflection of our recent troubles, but in the context that we’re still pretty damned well off compared to much of the world, and are likely to stay that way.

The loss of Loki has already been addressed, though it just set the stage for things to come. It was the beginning of a pretty rough 2 weeks.

We’ve lost 15 chickens to an unknown predator (probably raccoon), prompting us to spend over a day rebuilding the cedar goat shed as a secure chicken house and move the 12 survivors down to the goat paddock. Their old home was surrounded by an electric net fence running 7,000 volts, but that apparently wasn’t enough. When I contacted the net’s manufacturer (who were recommended to us by multiple people), they were flabbergasted at our report. The rep, who uses the netting herself on sweet corn and poultry with no problems, commented in disbelief, “You must have an armor-plated raccoon.”

About the same time, we discovered that a plant thriving in the goat’s home paddock and recently fenced new browse paddock is highly toxic to livestock, and is excreted & concentrated into milk, making our dairy products unusable. So far the goats (and us) are still alive, but white snakeroot was historically the cause for thousands of deaths among settlers and homesteaders across the Appalachians and Midwest. We’re working with Extension services to learn more about the toxicity and residence time we’re dealing with, as almost no one seems terribly familiar with this particular plant and toxin, despite it being common throughout Missouri. In the meantime, we’ve spent hours hand-pulling every snakeroot plant from the home paddock and have abandoned their new paddock for now. We identified the plant as soon as it got big enough to be noticeable, which was when the goats were already eating it. So we caught it very quickly, but there are no answers from the “experts” on how much constitutes a dangerous dose for them or for us.

We are still mired in a very wet spring, making all sorts of agricultural activities difficult (every size farm is suffering this year). This includes hay-making; a recent batch from a friend had to be baled during a very narrow dry window, did not dry enough in the field, and subsequently molded. This creates a fire hazard as the hay composts and heats up within each bale, so we spent an evening breaking open bales and spreading them outside the barn to avoid disaster. It’s 95% ruined and good only for mulch and ground cover. We have tentatively identified another source of hay, sharing an order with another goat farm in the area, so hopefully that gap will be addressed within a week or so.

The constant rain has kept setting us back on field/garden prep, planting, and many other necessary tasks, so we’ll see what our production is like this summer. In addition, dealing with the cascade of pressing animal issues has sucked many days of work time away from our core vegetable operation.

As a cap to all this, my neck muscles are spasming again, keeping me from doing any physical labor. It’s not as bad this time, and I’m aggressively countering it with stretches, heat, and rest, but this is really not the time for me to go out of commission. I went in to the doctor this morning, who asked if I’d been under stress lately. I laughed. He thinks there’s a connection there, and I believe it. Makes sense that the muscles would be tenser and more likely to knot up when I’m so tightly wound right now anyway.

After considering all this, it might be fair to ask if we’ve taken on too much. It’s something we’ve discussed at length, and here’s my take. Yes, possibly, but I’m glad we have. So many of these issues are things that can really only be learned by experience, and that means putting in the time and work. We fully expect that it will take us years to learn to be truly effective and knowledgeable livestock and poultry raisers, and that we won’t be doing it commercially until we are confident in our knowledge and abilities. Right now, we still have off-farm income and the luxury of being able to experiment with these things without losses being a disaster. If we waited to start animals until we were full-time vegetable growers, these losses of time and sanity would hurt a lot more than they do now. So despite the insanity, I think it’s the right approach to learn as much as we can early on, so we can apply those lessons as soon as possible when we need them. These early, combined trials put us on the road to self-sufficiency far faster than the alternative, and so I’m grateful for the lessons even as they give me muscle spasms.

Finally, in a bit of good news, we heard our first rooster crowing this morning. It was a wonderful, amusing sound as he struggled to get it right, warbling like a teenage boy in choir. Just a sign that even as many things go wrong, we’re still progressing toward the goals that have driven us all along. One of the most valuable aspects of this life is that everything is a lesson, and everything is worth experiencing. We are tired, but never bored, and that’s a bargain I’ll make any day.

Daily Life – Is It Work?

Many visitors here make comments along the lines of “You do so much work” or “You work too hard”, and I usually don’t have a good answer because we don’t really look at our lives in those terms. The closest I come to expressing our point of view is a favorite quote from Calvin & Hobbes: “It’s only work if someone makes you do it.” That’s not to say we don’t do a lot, and there are days when we can feel overwhelmed with the projects we’ve taken on. Keep in mind, though, that the value of the life we’ve chosen is that everything we do is integrated into a larger whole, and has a purpose that helps achieve our greater goals.

One friend came out to work for an afternoon in exchange for produce and dairy products, and commented something like “It’s so different from yard work”, even though our tasks in the field that day were about as repetitive and menial as it gets. I think she could sense that every task has a relevant purpose that feeds back into the goals of growing good food and supporting ourselves. For example, even something like clipping grass has a greater purpose, because those clippings can be fed to chickens to save on purchased feed and eventually become meat and eggs. We’re doing it for a deeper reason than to impress the neighbors.

“Doing so much” also depends on your life choices. A 2006 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some fascinating statistics on American life, and how we fit in (or not). The study breaks down the average time spent by people on various activities, compiling these numbers into hours per day for all population and those engaged in the activity. So, for example, the national average time spent per day watching television is 2.58 hours. 79.5% of people do so daily, and they average 3.24 hours. That’s over three hours right there that we choose to spend on cooking real food and managing our animals rather than slouching in front of a screen.

Anyway, here’s my estimate of an “average” day for me, keeping in mind that every day varies with weather and tasks. One day a week I’m probably spending indoors on yogurt and/or cheese making, house cleaning, records & computer work, and so on.

Wake up between 6:30 and 7:00. Making and eating breakfast takes about 1/2 hour, and dealing with the goats and chickens takes 30-45 minutes (milking, feeding, checking water, etc.) Usually Joanna is off to work around 8:00, and I’m starting in on whatever I need to do that day. I eat lunch around noon, usually at the computer so I can read news, check email, and keep up with demands from my various orginizations and projects. This may take anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on demands and how tired I am (I may take a nap during this period). Then back out to tasks until anywhere from 4:00-6:00, at which point I start dinner and clean up the kitchen. We make just about everything we eat from scratch; the “fastest” meal here involves pulling some leftovers from a previous meal out of the freezer on especially busy days. One of the advantages to our way of life is that we always have stocks of ingredients available to work with, whether fresh produce or canned/frozen items from past seasons, making cooking easy and flexible. Joanna gets home around 6:30, and we milk & manage the goats before eating dinner. By this point it’s usually around 8:00, and we may do some more chores until dark, or if we’re especially wiped out, crash on the couch for an hour and talk or watch online clips from The Daily Show before showering and attempting to fall asleep around 10:00.

Or look at it this way:
Sleep: 8 hours
Cooking & food prep: 2-3 hours
Eating meals: 1-2 hours
Managing animals: 1-2 hours
General farm work: 8-10 hours
Indoor/online work: 1-2 hours
Hobbies/unrelated recreation: little to none

It’s not for everyone, and I respect those who wouldn’t want to live this way. From one perspective, we have little to no downtime. From another perspective, everything we do is part of our lifestyle and furthers our values of good food and self-reliance. To me, spending 2-3 hours a day cooking or preparing food (including cheese-making) isn’t work or drudgery, it’s an integral part of our values the way that going to church might be to others. Also, even considering just a regular 8-hour work day for me at actual farm tasks, given that I don’t spend an hour commuting, 3 hours watching TV, or 1 hour excersizing (in the gym sense), that’s almost 5 hours a day I can devote to cooking, animals, and other lifestyle-related things that close the circle of being an integrated small farm. It’s what works for us, and what allows us to live and eat in ways that respect our values.

It’s only work if someone makes you do it, and just about everything I do here is by our own choice. It’s a tradeoff I’m quite satisfied with. Even on the most exhausting, stressful days, the alternative (working for someone else so I can pay someone else to do all these things for me) has little appeal.