Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hard Questions

I love talking to the neighbors.

You generally learn something new about farming or the neighborhood. You see things from a new perspective. Or at the very least, you hear something amusing.  If you’re lucky and talk with the right neighbors, you get all three in one conversation!

Some time ago, we were talking to the hay guy (and the missus).  They nearly always come as a duo, and generally have two conversations going at once; she will interrupt her own story to correct his (and vice versa).  They are a wealth of local knowledge and truly amusing to boot.  Honestly, I could talk to them all day.  …and sometimes, that nearly happens.

We were discussing farming and history and how things are done. “Waaalll, I don’t do that one no more...” was uttered more than once.  Until the hay guy grinned a little sheepishly and said “Waaalll, it don’t sound like I really do much at all, now does it?” and he chuckled at himself.

He’s been farming a long time. His family has farmed here for many generations.  He’s seen trends come and go.  He’s tried things and knows what does (and does NOT) work for him.  He’s asked and answered all the hard questions about life and farming. …and he’s okay with the fact that he’s getting “up there” in years and has to conserve his time, his energy and his resources if he wants to keep on farming until he’s called to his reward. I’m certain he knows what exactly he needs to do to keep his farm and farming efforts sustainable.

With all the talk of sustainability today, I don’t know if the folks tossing the word about have ever thought about what the word really means and how it plays out on the family farm.

Sustainability is “the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.” A simple, elegant (somewhat flawed) definition. Indefinitely? Is it possible for anything to continue indefinitely?

While it would be every farmer’s desire to “continue indefinitely”, circumstances often dictate change of one kind or another (in order to continue farming) which may seem to run counter to the definition. Over time, a farm evolves, taking into consideration weather changes, public demand, unexpected life events and even health issues.  These lead to the introduction of new crops, different methods, labor-saving devices (and practices) and possible diversification. As the farming population ages, work-arounds to accommodate health and safety concerns become issues as well. And, when the next generation takes over, things really change although the farm itself remains a sustainable entity.

At the end of every season, it’s time to take stock and ask ourselves the hard questions as we prepare for the next year.  Is this really worth it?  Are we being good stewards? Does this method actually work?  Is there demand? Can we continue this method/crop for the long-haul? Are we still satisfied and happy? Do we have the strength (physical/mental/emotional) to keep on keeping on?  Could we be better? (that would be better stewards, better workers, more organized, better marketers...the list goes on and on) These are just some of the questions we have to ask ourselves, rather than simply hoping we can be “sustainable”.

Sustainability is the ability to continue.

It doesn’t mean no inputs, no matter what you might read on-line.  Fertilization and pest control are essential to continued growth and food production. The methods used for both are reviewed (often) and changed, particularly when there are options that are less toxic and/or more effective. It also does not mean clinging blindly to the “old ways” or just the things our grandparents would have remembered.

…and there’s always that little matter of profitability… I know there is a growing trend to think that food should somehow be produced for free…but, if farmers aren’t able to pay production costs, there is no way the operation can be sustainable.

These are hard questions.  Tough considerations.  Sometimes changes must be made and those don't come easy.

We aren’t the only farmers reviewing these subjects.  Over the years I have been greatly impressed with the great amounts of hard-earned knowledge possessed by those in the “humble profession”. 

And, I am not exaggerating when I say hard-earned…any success is only possible by the (very literal) “sweat of your brow”  in the farming world. A lot of thought and soul-searching goes into farm decisions.

When new methods are introduced, they are often met with skepticism and question. And in today’s world, protest and horror stories on the internet. Let me say… It would truly help matters if everyone would look at things objectively. (and get ALL the facts)

Years and years ago, when lots of young folks headed out to “the big city” it first began to become difficult to find farm help. So, many farmers switched to round bales when making hay.  This was a big deal. New and different equipment meant the face of farming changed forever. The small squares had become the norm and many still use them.  (although, you must remember that even baling was “new technology” at one point--- before that hay was just stacked loose) But, far more acreage can be cut and baled using a round bale system in a timely fashion, and doesn’t require near the man (or woman) power. And, cows really don’t show a preference for the shape of their meals. The change allowed farmers to “continue on indefinitely”, although hay season began to look far different. 

Our own desire to “continue on indefinitely” meant that there have been times when we had to stop, re-think and change directions.

While I truly loved my cows, when it came to profitability, it just wasn’t happening.  Raw milk sales are illegal in our state. (and raw milk consumption is a topic for another discussion) With a couple of cows on a small acreage, becoming a licensed dairy wasn’t an option. Bootlegging is not appealing and jumping through the hoops or circumventing the law was either too expensive or time-consuming to keep what were essentially gigantic pets.  Making milk soap was fun and even though we sold a fair amount, it wasn’t enough to justify the added work and expense.

Jersey Cow Milk soap for sale 2008

So, we moved on. The farm remained a working entity…just without cows. (we've made a lot of other changes over the years)

Wintertime is our time for review and revision. Those cold, gloomy days are perfect for assessing the past and planning for the future.  (and keeps us from falling asleep next to the warmth of the woodstove) There are numerous crops, some methods and more than a few ventures that we have discarded over the years.  And, there are always new things to consider.

So, whether it’s looking at earnings figures…(I do love my Quickbooks), discussing the failures and frustrations, or taking note of the successes… we have to be willing to ask the hard questions and perhaps even say “Waallll, I don’t do that one no more...” on occasion in order to “continue on indefinitely”.

Let’s hear it for asking (and answering) the hard questions and the quest for farming sustainability!

the dawn of a new day brings all sorts of possibilities

The definition of sustainability can be found here:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Walkabout 12-14

So…whatcha been doin’?
Waylon says, "HEY!"
...and where IS my breakfast?

Around here…there’s not a whole lot to report.

We spent the vast majority of the week on our knees.   

…and we were not praying.

When I said we were working on the big flooring project, I really meant WE were working on the big flooring project.  No contractors, no helpers, just the Boss and me (and our trusty knee pads).

doing prep work

finishing up the livingroom

After years of use and abuse, it was beyond time to fix the floor.  

this is what the kitchen floor looked like
With our autograph in place for future generations...we began working on the floor.

the job begins
getting ready
finished floor

Back to "normal".

I think I love the kitchen

the hole-y floor is gone forever!
check out...before...

...and after

We didn’t get completely finished like we had hoped.  The project took slightly longer since we had to move all the furniture (twice) as we worked along.  But, there were no disasters and no arguments…and the floor looks gorgeous. It looks like a whole new house.  I must say, we did a fine job. We’ll finish the office tomorrow and then maybe my desk won’t look like such a mess. (but, then again…)

I'm pretty proud of that cut around the toilet!

30+ years of construction experience
and watching This Old House come in handy

the job site/office

The only reason we could spend the whole week on our knees and focused on the floor is that life is slow, slow…real slow this time of year.  (don’t get used to it, it doesn’t last!)

this time of year it's easy to find time to appreciate the beauty surrounding us

For right now, the ewes are just hanging out, eating and growing the lambs that will start arriving in just about one month.  Next week, we will spend some time getting the barn and the sheep ready for the new arrivals.  We got some new heatlamps and hopefully they live up to our expectations. I’m really looking forward to lambing…that’s when I finally get to see if those breeding choices I made work out like I thought they would.

all you can hear is chewing and contented grunts
as the ewes work through their morning hay

The hens are still cleaning out the lower garden.  They do an amazing job getting all the weed seeds and spent crops.  We’ll take a little time on the next relatively nice day and pull out the t-tape (used for irrigation) and then the Boss can mow and everything will look tidy again. …and we’ll begin the countdown to spring planting. We will have our big “planting/planning meeting” in the next week or so. (we spend at least a day with the seed catalogs and garden maps, plotting out the next season) Then, I will be able to place the first seed orders for 2015. (which means I better clean out the greenhouse soon, too)

can you see the hens out there working?

hen cleaning garden

they've finished the crops in the foreground
time to move on

hens working

baby lettuce
The crops in the hoophouses are slowly…slowly growing. 

frosty kale
The frosty nights have slowed things down considerably.  There are numerous plantings that I had hoped I would be picking by now that are still just sitting there, under the frost blanket…waiting for a little warm sunshine. Crop re-growth is very slow and somewhat unpredictable this time of year, although it does happen. The weeds in the hoophouse, on the other hand, are growing profusely.  It’s just not fair! If I could just convince everyone that the weeds are truly tasty (and they really are) we’d be set.  However, the hens would miss their greens and we still wouldn’t have enough greens to satisfy our customers. (and chickweed is hard to pick nicely) So…we’ll just stick with the status quo.

While there hasn’t been a whole lot of action to note around here this week, the skies have been amazing.  I’m sure there is some explanation for the beautiful skies of December, but I’m not privy to it…so, we just enjoy the light show.  Thursday’s sky was particularly noteworthy, there were Facebook posts from all over the area.    


In the midst of flooring, we did indeed get out winter sales email sent out and the responses flooded back in.  Wow!  Week two was even bigger than week one!  And, despite the fact that we NEED more lettuce…and a lot MORE spinach (I’m trying…y’all…I’m trying!), everyone seemed happy with their purchases.  Our customers are great!

We’ll take a little break today, although the Boss has to finish up some trim work and I have to do some clean-up, laundry and bake some bread for the upcoming week. We’ll get back to our farm work and floor job later. I will also be writing to the FDA (did you read THIS?) I know I’m cutting it close…the deadline for comment on the FMSA is December 15th.  That's TOMORROW!

I’d say that maybe we’d have some exciting news next time…but, quite honestly…excitement is not something we want here on the farm.  Excitement generally means something unexpected happened…and unexpected is generally not a good thing.  So, personally, I really like dull…and predictable.  While it doesn’t make for real interesting reading, it does mean that all is well and going according to plan.  You  know…no news is good news.

Oh, wait...there was some news. Sort of. 

We had snow, sleet and freezing rain...which melted fairly quickly, but did add a bit of "interest" to the flooring job.

sheep in sleet

frozen birch tree

hauling plywood in the snow
dog helpers at the ready

Then, we had a roof inspection, courtesy of the dog.  No, Gus did NOT figure out how to get on the roof (thankfully, or we'd be doing roof repair today!).  He did chase the cat around the yard, up the greenhouse and onto the house.  After her "inspection" she safely returned to the ground.  Can't say that the greenhouse skin benefitted from all the kitty claws...
Where did the cat go, Gus?

Yep, this looks okay!

checking out the exhaust vent

Then, there were the "extreme free-ranging" chickens. About a dozen hens found a hole in the fence and were checking out the farm.  A short, intense chicken-roundup followed.

we don't usually have chickens in the woodpile
Tess has gotten used to the new floor
and doesn't even mind that there is still an air compressor
in the livingroom!

And, that, my friends was the totally uneventful week on the hill.

Hope you’re having a Happy Sunday!

looking thoughtful on a windy day

Thanks for visiting!  Come back and see us again real soon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let A Farm Be A Farm

FSMA Action Graphic

I’m pretty sure this is what Yogi Berra meant when he said “it’s just like déjà vu all over again”.

Last year, I wrote about the Food Safety Modernization Act and its far-reaching effects. And, while I really try to stay away from issues that are even remotely political in nature, this one really (really) concerns me. Not just for myself and my way of life, but for the future of farming and farm-related products.

But, now it’s back.

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?  If not, read one or both of these posts from last fall.

Over the past year, all the public comments from farmers and consumers have been 
reviewed and the rules are being updated.  While the new version is somewhat less onerous than the original, it still has some serious faults (to my mind). And, this time, unless there is more public debate, this draft will indeed become final and enforcement will follow in short order and the face of Agriculture will change (and not necessarily for the better).

 A safe food supply is in everyone’s best interest.  Farmers and food producers would be foolish not to take food safety into constant consideration. 

Presently, the US can boast the safest food supply in the world.  Interestingly, we also spend less of our disposable income on food than any other nation. We have food choices that many only dream about.  There are all sorts of safety regulations already in place that make much of this new legislation redundant and heavy-handed.

My biggest frustration with the new wording remains the definitions and the monetary limits.  While there is so much emphasis on promoting the small, local farms, this legislation would in fact make start-up harder and once an operation got any size to it, compliance would become incredibly costly, not to mention time-consuming.  To address any issue with a ONE SIZE FITS ALL solution is simply ludicrous. While the FDA has changed some of the wording, the proposed regulations remain vague and seemingly inconsistent and quite possibly excessive.  The issues faced by a “mom and pop” operation selling directly to the public and a large operation with many employees cannot possibly be the same. To base compliance strictly on annual earnings is flawed to my mind.

While it is assumed that since MOST selling at Farmers’ Markets make far less than the low limit of compliance (and would be exempt), there are those who make enough to require partial, if not complete compliance (from what remains a very small farm).  It is those folks, and the future farmers and market vendors for whom I have great concern. On one hand you have the programs to promote small farms and then this comes along and makes small farming even more difficult. (is it me, or is that truly contradictory?) Now, let me just say right here.  I do NOT think small farms are better than large operations. Nope.  Not at all. Read THIS. But, this particular issue seems to have more effect on the small operations and I take that personally.  "Very small"  farms (those making less than $25,000 annually and would be exempt) will never begin to meet the food demands, even locally. But, "very small" and small farms (over $25,000) and their products are vital to the economy and the vitality of their communities. Many of these operations are already under some sort of inspection (at least for water) and shouldn't be subject to the same rules as large operations, particularly when selling directly to the public. 

So, I would ask you to take a minute (or two) and learn more about this issue.

You can let those in authority know what you think here. Simply download the farmer/food biz or consumer template, customize it, and either pop it into the mail or submit it online by the deadline.

Time is of the essence, the comment period ends Monday December 15, 2014.

This is from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and I find it most important.

“Once finalized next year, these rules will likely stand for generations of farmers.  It’s critical that FDA gets them right.  Join us in submitting comments to FDA today before the December 15 deadline and telling FDA: let a farm be a farm!

Farms innovate.  Don’t let the rules squash farmers’ innovative efforts in growing and selling local food.  The rules need to ensure that local food and farms can grow and thrive. 
Farms work with nature.  Don’t let the rules undermine farmers’ sustainability. The rules need to allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices. 
Farms deserve fair treatment.  Don’t let the rules raise costs for farmers, food businesses, and consumers by imposing unclear, inconsistent, and unfair rules. The rules need to provide options that treat family farms fairly without unnecessary, excessive costs.”

Food choices are important. We need all sorts of farmers and the safe and healthy food products that they provide.  We all need to work together (farms of all sizes as well as consumers) to provide plenty of food choices in a safe and affordable manner. As they are written, these new regulations won't necessarily promote safe food, but in some cases will prevent farms from production.

I will be writing to the FDA again to express my concerns and frustrations with the Food Safety Modernization Act again this year. The future of farming will be affected by this legislation for a long time to come.

It's time to say...Let a farm be a farm!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Hills Are Alive

...with the light of a brand-new day.

It's coming...

Just wait...

Here it comes... every direction...

...and WOW!

Is that beautiful, or what?

Have a great day, y'all!