We are thrilled to announce the start to the 2013 Bootstrap blogging season!
This year, the Bootstrap blog – entering its third year – will focus entirely on up-and-coming dairy farmers. Some are newly transitioned from apprenticeships on other farms and excited to be building their own operations and others grew up living and breathing the family farm and are now moving into leadership roles. The Bootstrap blog is designed to bring the reader through a beginning farmer’s season on the farm – through the ups and downs, lofty dreams and sometimes-harsh reality.
Given the capital-intensive nature of dairy farming, the goal of the blog this year is to look at what it takes to successfully start up and run a dairy farm in America today. This series is being supported by the generous support of Stonyfield Farm, Profits for the Planet, the non-profit wing of Stonyfield Farm.
Hailing from across the country, this year’s five Bootstrap writers are:
Ashlee Kleinhammer, of North Country Creamery in Keeseville, NY
Laura Ginsburg, of The Golden Yoke in St. Ignatius, MT
Abbie Corse, of Corse Farm Dairy, in Windham County, VT
Laura Sluder, of Blue Sage Farm in Lincoln County, ID
Sarah Lyons Chase, of Chaseholm Farm in Pine Plains, NY
The blog series will begin next week with an introduction from each of these amazing dairy farmers. Articles will then be posted at the end of every month, each with a particular focus:
MAY: “Why I’m a dairy farmer”
JUNE: Animals and Breeds
JULY: Equipment and Capital
SEPTEMBER: Pasture Management
OCTOBER: Marketing and Sales
NOVEMBER: Policy and Regulations
DECEMBER: Year in Review
We are excited for a great year with these fantastic farmers!
With the close of the 2012 Bootstrap Blog season, we at the Young Farmers’ Coalition would like to extend a warm thank you to our six Bootstrap farms this season. You’ve followed them all season – from the early planning and big dreams of spring through the frustrations and challenges of summertime, and now through to the end of their first seasons managing their own operations. Feel free to read back over their posts using the 2012 Bootstrap Blog Hub, where you can see profiles and feeds for each farm.
Karla and Elizabeth from Bossy Acres, Becky from City Grown Seattle, Allyson from Full Heart Farm, Maryellen and Matt from Hartwood Farm, Stowe from Rippling Waters Organic Farm, and Liberty and Leslie from The Salad Garden: we can’t thank you enough for opening your farms up to us every month and giving us an insider’s perspective to your season.
Your insights have been invaluable for the many farmers out there also in the beginning stages of their own businesses – or at the point of still dreaming about it one day.
We will be spending the winter season putting together NYFC’s third Bootstrap year, with 2013 focusing on the ranching side of things. So stay tuned!
The crops are mostly out of the ground, the fields and yard are picked up for winter, and our off-season project list has grown to seemingly impossible lengths. We don’t want to praise anything too much though—last month’s blog where we celebrated our equipment making it through the season may have jinxed us. Two days after writing that, our tractor engine blew, requiring complete rebuilding, including machining. It was a tortuous end of season decision–do we spend $5000 we don’t have on a crappy old tractor that we hoped was only temporary, or do we go buy a “new” old tractor for $5000, which could have a whole host of problems of its own?
Hindsight is 20/20, so boy do we wish we had taken all the money we will end up spending on this tractor and just buy a $12,000 machine up front! [We did decide to repair the old machine; under the idea that it's better to have a tractor that we know all the issues it has, than to introduce another unknown element into the farm equipment roster.]
We could say all sorts of seemingly positive things here, like “At least it happened at the end of the season, rather than in the spring,” and they would be true, but it doesn’t change a lousy situation. That $5000–which equals our entire 2013 seed and potting soil budget, or two hoop houses for next spring, or two acres of hop rhizomes–is the hardest, most discouraging money we’ve had to spend yet. It also means that we both need to work full time during this off season in order to make those payments and be in good shape financially for next season.
Most of our thinking and assessment over the past few months has been on the economics of this past season, since (if we give some leeway due to the drought) we were satisfied for the most part with where the produce was going.
The two areas that kept coming up as weak spots for our production were marketing/finance, and systems design. We realized we weren’t doing great on the marketing front back in June, and on the systems front in July, but despite knowing we needed to make changes in these areas, we were so busy during the season just staying caught up, that we couldn’t find time to change things! This was incredibly frustrating, knowing that we needed to change, but not being able to enact it.
On the marketing front, we need to recruit more members. We played things super safe for our first year, especially after the drought started to impact things, and we ended up postponing fall and winter shares until next year because of this. However, we had counted on that longer season to help us get through the winter financially, and we regretted being so conservative when we ended up having more produce than we could sell. While this was frustrating, we are much happier to have played it safe and sold too few shares rather than commit to more shares than we could ultimately produce for. We need to amp things up next year, but will still maintain a solid production buffer to guarantee nice CSA shares.
On the systems front, it was frustrating to be in an operation without good systems. We had NO infrastructure. In particular, we didn’t have the initial funds to build a real wash line before the season began, and during the season we didn’t have the labor hours to adapt what we had to make it work better. Without good infrastructure (or at least “good” in terms of efficiency), harvesting and washing took a lot longer every week. In retrospect, it would have been a better investment to give up a day up front (and maybe even skip a market) and get our setup together better. We didn’t do this, and we paid for it twice a week at harvest—which started earlier and ended later due to our inefficiencies in the system.
Also on a systems front, it was frustrating how you can make a decision to save money up front, but then end up having so much more hassle as a result of that decision. For example, we decided to go with bags for our CSA. They were nice bags, but they were still soft and floppy. They were torture to pack, stacked terribly, and were just a couple inches too wide to fit in our coolers. They made loading the car a complete pain. Starting in week two, we moaned about those darn bags. At the end, we estimated that having bags rather than boxes doubled our packing time, cost us a whole WEEK’s extra labor, and exponentially increased CSA stress. [Moral of the story: NEVER use bags for your CSA share if you are pre-packing and then transporting them in your vehicle!]
Hopefully by next month, we will be on our way with a plan for retooling (and have a few of the biggest off-season projects under our belt)!
City Grown Seattle’s first “real” year in business included a lot of learning, adapting, and improving. As the year nears its close, I am left thinking about the things we did well and the things we can adjust and further improve in 2013.
Starting up this year was a huge challenge. It took a lot of time and mental and physical energy from all three of us running the business when everything was new and untested. It’s incredible to think about how much easier it will be this coming winter when we don’t have to triple our land area and clear all that sod. We don’t have to spend time designing and building infrastructure — our tiny greenhouse and collapsible bean trellis system will last at least another couple seasons. We have established our basic markets, so we don’t have to deal with those nagging worries about whether folks will come to our farmstand or whether we will look ridiculous with only a tiny amount of produce at the farmers’ market. Seemingly, all we have to do is order seed and plant, and we will be off and rolling on another successful season.
But, of course, we want to do it better next time around. We want to be able to grow more produce, higher quality produce, and be able to pay ourselves better for our work next year. We want to get more people involved on the farm and get more people eating our food. We want to have food available earlier and later in the season, and grow more of the things that sell well and earn us a high value per square foot. This season is barely winding down and I’m already getting excited thinking about ways to push and challenge ourselves to do better next season.
There are plenty of things I know we can do better based on what we learned this year. There were so many points in time throughout the summer that Noe or Scott and I would say to each other, “well, chalk that one up in the know-for-next-year column!” I’m sure every farmer feels this way after every season — “If only I’d known back in April what I know now!” But we will know it for next April. Next year, we will plant three rows of carrots per bed instead of two. Our method of planting salad mix will change too. I’ll seed the fall cauliflower a couple weeks earlier, and churn out more lettuce successions closer together in the height of summer. Our processing area could improve a lot with the acquisition of a certified scale and a salad spinner — things we will actually have the money to buy next year.
But those ideas are just the easy, obvious ones. There are more that we can come up with by examining the planting, harvest and sales data that we did a pretty good job of collecting over the season. Some number crunching will reveal which crops made us the most and least profit, and hopefully by combining that info with data about how long the plants were in the ground and how much space they took up, we can determine which crops to eliminate and which to grow more of for next year. Of course some of these decisions could be made based on feel (we were there all season, we can guess who was a best seller and who took too much work to grow with measly return on investment) but I think it’s important to look at the hard numbers to back up our gut feelings.
And then even after we’re done with the math and the spreadsheets, I want to take some time with my farming partners to brainstorm for even more creative ideas. It would be great if we could outreach to other urban or small-scale or SPIN farmers on this too. Intercropping, making better use of vertical space, and who knows what other ideas are out there to be explored. Any tiny improvements we can make could add up to big gains in efficiency and productivity. When you’re running a market farm on 8 plots totalling a quarter acre, every little bit helps.
We are thankful for the weather we got this season. While the rest of the country was suffering under drought, we actually got some relief from our standard too much rain. It was far better overall than the past two years in which I’d done apprenticeships and seen farmers stress over the late spring cold and early fall rains. It was warm and dry enough this year to ripen our tomatoes with no protective greenhouse, although I did go conservative based on the apprenticeship experiences and chose only varieties I felt fairly sure about. We are also thankful for our amazing, supportive, Seattlite-locavore-foodie neighbors and friends who became our CSA members and regulars at our farmstand. We recognize that we live in a spot where the “climate” can be said to favor our endeavor in multiple ways. Through many bits of luck and our own hard work, we feel we had a successful enough first season to give it another go, and hopefully find plenty of room for improvement, next year.
Equipment at Hartwood Farm: The New, the Old, and the Ugly
With enough rain falling that the fields are too wet to work for the first time all year, we found ourselves in a reflective season’s ending sort of mood after Matt drove our tractor down to the shop for hydraulics repair. While we are waiting for the (hopefully not too) bad news, we’ve (read: Matt has) been struck by a strong case of equipment envy watching all the sweet combines hauling by to chop corn, while we chug out to the field in our 1970 International Cub Cadet hydro lawn tractor. This glorified lawn mower is the clear winner of our 2012 equipment MVP award (since the big tractor fizzled out in the post-season). Thinking about this rough season, we realized that our ancient, decrepit fleet of equipment might be our biggest success—it tilled and cultivated 5 acres, brought produce to market each week, used under $500 in fuel, cost under $10,000 total, and (mostly) made it through the season.
All of our equipment purchases centered around our lack of money, and the lawn mower pretty much epitomizes our equipment styles—Matt has actual skills to fix old things, and Maryellen is good at solutions (that seem really stupid at first) to keep from spending money. Hence the ancient Cub Cadet (it was $400, and came with a snow blower and chains to keep the greenhouses and hockey rink plowed in winter) and it’s faithful partner, the $400 Tractor Supply 4×6 mesh bottomed trailer (which was Maryellen’s solution to us not being able to buy a truck—we tow it as our truck bed with our Subaru and it holds about 1300 lbs). We use these every day for everything. Incidental parts sometimes fall off (wheels, taillights, etc), but they are easy to get replacements for.
The big tractor is a 55hp 1970 Massey Ferguson 175, and this gets runner up MVP—we couldn’t farm without this. Matt spent a couple months looking at tractors online across the region, and drove around the state to see a number of them in person. We wanted something nicer, with a bucket loader, and a roll bar… but realized that options like safety are apparently out of our budget. Tractor shopping was the point in this whole farm-starting process where the reality of making tradeoffs sunk in. On the plus side, it’s been reliable for a 42 year old machine (and it still works fine if you never want to lift up your implement), it’s relatively fuel efficient, it has decent tires (did you know that tractor tires cost $800 each to replace!), and it’s very nice to use. This tractor (along with the MF 135 and 165) was designed for field work and tight turns, and this one is amazing—you can see the crops really well and turn around in a 2 bed radius. We are saving up for a bucket loader, but in the meantime, we did another cheapie modification by buying $120 TSC 3ph platform and building a box off it. You can’t scoop stuff with it, but it does a good job of hauling rocks.
The only piece of equipment we had but didn’t use this year much was our 1950 Farmall Cub (which we actually bought two years ago). Since it never rained, weed pressure was so low that we never needed it. The last old implement we bought was a 6’ (very dilapidated) Woods brush hog. This is a piece of crap, and is the one piece we had buyer’s remorse over, but it gets the job done. (We transported it home on the 4×6 trailer, which made for an interesting and questionably legal road situation.)
While most of our big equipment was very old, we did buy a few new things—a 6’ Taylor Way roto-tiller and one of Nolt’s Equipment’s black plastic mulch layers. We looked for a long time for a 5 or 6 foot used tiller by a better manufacturer, but couldn’t find anything. The Taylor Way seemed to be one of the better cheapie tillers (it was $2200 new), and it was carried by our local shop, so parts are easy to get. Our tractor is too powerful for this tiller, so it voided the warranty, but we’ve just been as gentle as possible with it. It’s not heavy duty, but considering how rocky our fields are, it’s been doing fine, and we hope to get at least 2 seasons from it (we have yet to lose a tine even!).
Our one implement splurge was the mulch layer, and we agonized over this (it was $1700, and meant buying into the whole black plastic scene), but this paid for itself by saving our two acres of summer crops during the drought. We decided to buy this because we felt like this was the one piece that no nearby farms would have (so there would be no way to rent or borrow it).
We are trying to regroup on equipment now, since it is better to buy things we need next year now rather than in spring. This year, the entire field was in corn stubble, so no heavier tillage equipment was needed. Next year, we will have some heavy cover crops to deal with, so we are debating the best equipment option—disk harrow or 2 bottom plow. This year we did hire out one job—drilling the pasture seed, and it worked out well (our neighbor has a 15’ seeder, so 30 acres took 2.5 hours). As the 12 bottom plows drive by on the road, we think we may not get any new equipment and just hire out spring tillage instead.
We want to farm because we love it. We are somehow energized by the work even though it is physically and mentally demanding. There is something in our nature that is instinctually drawn to planting, tending, and harvesting. But we also want to farm to make our living. We don’t get paid by the hour – our earnings are a direct measure of the fruits of our labors, in the most literal possible way. Last winter, the three of us had no illusions that City Grown’s first season was going to allow us to quit our day jobs or fund a European winter vacation. But we wanted to farm as a business, not a non-profit educational or social-justice organization. We like those organizations, just as we like the businesses that exist around Seattle which make money by maintaining peoples’ edible gardens. But those niches have already been filled. We wanted to be a production farm, implementing techniques that we’ve learned from “real” farmers, making money by selling at farmers’ markets. We just wanted to do it in the city.
For this to make sense, we needed to think about our venture as a business and not just do it because it’s what we wanted to spend our time doing. We knew that we may not make much money from it, especially not our first season. But if a certain amount of profit is not a major goal and plan, our enthusiasm to commit many hours per week to the farm will soon run out. We knew that we needed to come up with some numbers, be realistic, and understand at least a little of the dry business aspects as well as the “fun” (for us) farming aspects of this endeavor.
We took a fantastic class over the winter last year, called “Cultivating Success,” which is run by the Washington State University Extension service. It covered a variety of aspects of agricultural entrepreneurship: writing a business plan, choosing the right type of business entity, various regulations, financial documents, record-keeping, and the like. It was an invaluable class and it came at the perfect time for our budding business.
Over the course of the season, we’ve come a long way in developing various systems and routines for our farming operation. Documentation has been a really important aspect: this coming winter we want to go back and evaluate things like the dollars-per-square-footage yields of each of our crops, and how well each of them sold over the course of our two markets. The book that we used as a textbook for the Cultivating Success class, The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook by Richard Wiswall, helped us hone our documentation systems. A class we took with Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farm in Portland was where we originally learned the concept of using Excel spreadsheets for crop planning and tracking. We spent a lot of time in the early spring drawing up versions of his sheets to fit our own farm. Maybe it is the inner nerd in me, but I find it pretty fun to document seeding dates, map successions in numbered beds, and record market sales using the different spreadsheets. Finding time to do this stuff during July and August is another matter, but if the spreadsheet is created over the winter, it doesn’t usually take too much time to add a row of data each time I plant or get home from a market.
We hope to use these tools and our experience gained from running the farm in this first season to create a plan for an increasingly productive and efficient second season in 2013. There were many start-up costs and once-only time expenditures that were hurdles in 2012 which we won’t have to jump again next year. Our skills have also been built up and routines established that weren’t there at the beginning of this season. I can’t think about too many details for next year quite yet – it feels a little too overwhelming as we are just starting to wind down from the summer. We did get our garlic and cover crop seed purchased…. Just waiting to get some RAIN before we plant those!… so the important first steps for 2013 have already been taken. Other than that, for the next few months it will be good enough to have a general sense of excitement about continuing with City Grown next year. And then when the time becomes right we will again be feeling ready to start the whole beautiful cycle over again, one more time.
Since last writing, we’ve had two of four weeks with “normal” rainfall—a .75” week and a 1.5” week! What this means is that our plants are still alive and our pond, while continuing its steady decline, does still have water enough in it for irrigation. These two rainfalls saved our pasture, which is a huge mental and financial relief. With less than two months of markets and CSA distributions left in this season, we can finally breathe a little easier that at least some crops will hold out.
We had hoped by this time to have come to some conclusions on what our new land is like, but it has been hard this year to get a clear sense because of the drought. Areas that we suspect of being too wet are bone dry, and areas we suspect might be excessively drained are like deserts. Driving around the Adirondack foothills last week, we saw one enterprising gardener who moved their entire garden into the swamp by their house (which apparently hasn’t had water for more than three months, judging by their 8 foot tall tomatoes)! As we edge our beds into the flat land that we vaguely think is marshy, we hope we aren’t overcommitting to an excessively wet spot.
We did come to some conclusions about ourselves, though, namely that we were simultaneously over-optimistic and over-pessimistic, over-committed, and possibly crazy. We definitely took on too much in terms of acreage for two people on a new operation (we had four acres going). In an ideal world, we could have done this, but not in a drought. The added labor of irrigation took up 25% of every day, while the added costs of the drought meant one of us had to start working off farm midway through the season, which left us with closer to 1.2 people full time in the field working on non-irrigation projects.
When you spend all day, every day, with your partner on the farm, there’s this rut that forms that leads to a lack of perspective. For us as pessimists, it led us to just see the rocks and the weeds and the broken equipment and the wilted plants and all that gloomy stuff, which was making us go into a bit of a funk. Fortunately, we had farmer friends show up, and they determined that we were just crazy for doing so much. Our loss of perspective meant we weren’t seeing the big picture well enough to enjoy our successes—namely that as 1.2 people, we had planted and weeded (and are still harvesting) four acres of intensive vegetables, which actually look and taste really good. We have crops like melons thriving in a climate that is marginal for them, and until the last month didn’t even have many weeds (confession: drought is bad for the crops, but it’s really, really hard on weeds!).
We can draw at least a few field and plant conclusions so far this year. First, our soil is pretty decent. Neither of us grew in a limestone-based soil before, and this one was used pretty hard before our arrival, but overall crop quality is high, despite the drought. As the largest fruit crops start straining the soil, we can see slight signs of phosphorus deficiency in purpling on the outer leaves, but overall, the phosphorus fertilizer we side-dressed with seems to have provided adequate nutrients for the growing season. We had hoped to get a good round of cover crops in this summer to prep the fields better for next year, but weren’t able to get germination. We are seeding winter cover crops over the next few weeks, and hope they will help at least a little to reduce next year’s fertilizer needs.
Disease pressure was low for the most part this year, but we aren’t sure if that’s a factor of the super dry weather, or that our site is high and well ventilated. Powdery mildew arrived on time, but took a few weeks to move into the winter squash crops (thanks to prophylactic spraying), so we are hoping that an earlier planting next year will address that. We had a late blight scare last week in the tomatoes, with several plants showing blight damage. However, after pulling and bagging the infected plant parts, it seems that the copper/regalia (both organic) rotation is working so far, and no more blight was sighted (yet).
Pests, on the other hand, have been a challenge, with flea beetles destroying (or trying to destroy) everything. Apparently corn flea beetles, when not provided with corn, also eat brassicas, onions, chard, purslane, basil, and nasturtiums. Since this was a corn field, they were conveniently located everywhere, so even the row covers did not exclude them. The cucumber and squash bugs are starting to establish, which will definitely be something we need to address in upcoming years, and cutworms are potentially a problem, especially in our greenhouse. We did have a still unidentified pest that looks like a flea beetle on steroids (and jumps like one) that also seems to eat everything, but we can’t figure out how to control it yet, since we don’t know what it is!
So far, we think that our new site has a lot of potential over the long run. There are definitely field challenges that we need to address that drought kept us from taking on this season. We also need to regroup on what scale we can realistically take on, especially if we start incorporating animals into our operations next year.
With our really small land area (1/4 acre total, spread among eight plots), we are able to grow enough produce to supply our two weekly markets, but just barely. This leads to a different type of harvest procedure than I remember from the farms I interned on. On a City Grown harvest day, we go out and get everything that’s ready. We generally keep the plants very well harvested, because we have to in order to have enough to sell! There aren’t very many overripe tomatoes falling onto the ground or baseball-bat sized, got-away-from-us zucchini. However, the month of August brought our first crop that’s really too much to keep up with: beans! We planted six 25-foot beds with pole beans in two different varieties. For our tiny farm, this is a lot! And during the last two weeks of August they came on hard and fast, producing a bounty of gorgeous, delicious beans all at once. Luckily, the beans hold over well in the fridge compared to other crops, so we can save them for the next market when we pick more than we can sell. But they’re also pretty much impossible to keep fully picked the way we’ve been getting used to doing with our other crops. It was kind of a revelation for Noe and me to be out in the field and realize that it would take all day for the two of us to thoroughly harvest the beans. Wow! Now this is what it was like on my internship farm, where our instructions were often to go out and get a certain amount of something or to harvest for a certain amount of time, not to completely clean the crop of all the ready fruits.
Noe and I decided to spend an hour on the beans and get what we could. In that amount of time we were able to harvest plenty enough to sell. There were still plenty of tiny baby beans indicating a plethora of fresh tender ones next time we came to pick. The beans that we had to leave on the vine will get over-mature, but they can be saved for next year’s seed. Maybe we can find time in here to can some dilly beans, too. So the upshot is that it is great to be able to harvest most of our crops thoroughly with very little wasted food. But it is also great to be able to adapt our harvest strategy to fit the needs of each crop.
This adaptability to the requirements of the present moment is really what farming is all about. This is far from being a job in which every day is the same old routine. You are always changing and modifiying based on the season, the weather, pest pressures, available markets, and a million other factors.
To take the beans for example again: This time of year, I go to pick beans twice a week. I walk into the leafy, shady hallway created by the pole bean trellises to pick handfuls of succulent, slightly fuzzy purple pods to fill my harvest bin. As I crunch on the flavorful fruits, I can sort of remember planting the seeds for these beans back in May. I know that I must have watered them and watched for germination, but I’ve forgotten most of the details of those springtime days. And back then when I planted, I didn’t really have a fully formed idea of what the beans would be like now. I knew theoretically that they’d be ready for harvest in August, but I wasn’t visualizing the details of trellis building, climbing tendrils, and laden vines. This is what farming does for me: it keeps me in the now, dealing with each day, week, and season as it presents itself. I do have a general overview picture in my head about crop planning and such, but I also have to just keep showing up at each plot and looking around and having the plants tell me what they need from me today.
I have to adapt my daily rituals to the seasons in a continual flow of gradual changes from April through October. Certain crops can only be planted at one very specific time. Others can be grown during a longer window, but they behave differently and need different care in the spring and fall versus the summer. I rarely have to water seedlings for several months in the spring, but then in August it feels like I’m spending half my time with a hose in my hand.
I love to farm and I am grateful for the opportunity it gives me to spend my days outside, feeling the change of the seasons, watching and reacting to the behavior of the plants. As the days now get noticeably shorter around here and the feel of fall enters the air, I don’t feel sad at the passing of summer. I feel excited for the crispness of fall, apple cider pressings, and the natural slowing down of production that gives us overworked farmers a chance to rest. I am already looking forward to a winter filled with seed ordering, new plot development, and a little more sleep. And then we’ll be ready to start all over again!
Well, many areas of New York received some good drenching over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, we were not among them. We did get about ¾” between 3 rainfalls, and that helped us have a few days off irrigating and kept our pasture and cover crops alive longer, but it didn’t touch the pond level (that’s now down a few feet), didn’t restore soil moisture, and isn’t nearly enough. The tally now for our site is just over two inches of rain falling over the last ten weeks.
We wanted to blog about something other than the lack of rain, but it’s pretty much become the dominating situation in our farm lives. On one hand, we are happy for everyone around us who got rain. On the other hand, especially on the two days where we could actually SEE rain falling from our farm but didn’t receive anything ourselves, we are pretty darn jealous. We also are done with looking at the forecast, since we’ve had several days with 90% chance of rain, but received nothing. However, it does seem like we are over some sort of mental hump at least… we have completely abandoned any hope of receiving rain the rest of this season, and are focusing on where to go in that (increasingly likely) situation.
So we moved on to what seems like Plan Z (we’ve already exhausted plans A through Y): cut back fall production. It’s difficult because we didn’t move here until February, so we started slow in terms of recruiting shares and marketing. Our hope was to grow the CSA with extra fall shares after we got to know the land and markets a bit better. We also planned to add a second market and attempt some wholesale sales in the fall. With the dropping water levels, we know that we won’t be able to grow for anything but our CSA members and one market from this point on.
This is a big hit for us financially, since we committed everything we had to starting the operation, and those fall sales were really important to our farm’s viability. It’s also frustrating because while we do have crops in the ground, we don’t feel confident committing them to sell wholesale in a week or two, because we just don’t know what the water situation will be. This week we have a full crop mix, but who knows how that will stand after ten more days of drought.
Right now we are reworking everything around water. We tilled in the more stressed crops in our north field, which is higher and more drained than the other fields. In an attempt to stretch the pond out a week or so longer, we bought another drip irrigation zone for the south field. We are also holding off on any additional share or market recruiting, and beginning to look for additional off-farm work.
On the plus side (which we are trying to think of at least a bit), we now have a lot of irrigation infrastructure (so those are some expenses we won’t be tallying in future seasons). Also, lower pond levels will reduce the snail and aquatic weed population (which needed to be brought down anyway). It also gives us the chance to examine the bottom and decide if excavation is an option for future years.
We bought this farm because it had a spring fed pond that never dried up in the past. We didn’t calculate into that equation that following a winter without a snow pack, a dry summer would impact that spring as well. It is clear that longer term (when our finances aren’t stretched so tight between start-up and drought), we need to consider supplemental water supply infrastructure options, like drilling a well for irrigation or excavating this or new ponds. We learned that we are unlikely to have the kind of flow rate on our site that irrigation needs, so the current best solution would involve drilling a low gpm well towards the back of the property (so that it pulls from a different vein of water) and piping the water up front into the pond, where it will be stored. This would likely take off some of the water pressure, but is an expensive set of operations.
We are still looking forward to keeping our CSA happy and going to market through the fall… trying to eke something out of this season. It’s just getting harder as the drought continues. We have grown some nice produce despite the challenges, while gaining a lot of experience this season about water stress and how it impacts crops, pests, soil, and weeds at our site. But so far, 2012 is edging into the lead over tomato-blight-year and fall-hurricane-year as our hardest growing season yet.
July at City Grown Seattle has seen a huge explosion of growing and producing plants. Looking back at photos from the beginning of the month, I was amazed at how things have changed: Sunflowers now in bloom were just little sprouts at the end of June, and the beans currently reaching off the tops of their eight-foot trellis hadn’t even begun climbing 30 days ago. I marvel at the plants’ vigor and appreciate that their health shows we’ve been tending them properly.
At the same time, though, the past few weeks have turned up more than a few crop shortages. I have an increasing admiration for the farmers I’ve worked for in the past, who were able to keep various crops in constant supply by careful succession planning. As our City Grown season has progressed, more and more divergences from the original planting plan have occurred. A single planting of head lettuce, for example, gave us only enough heads to last through three weeks of markets, instead of the four weeks we’d hoped for, and the following succession wasn’t ready as early as our paper plan had predicted. This meant a disappointing two-week gap in our head lettuce. Many customers were excited about our romaine and would be buying a head a week if we had it available for them, but it’s not the end of the world: We still have salad mix with baby lettuces, and plenty of other veggie options.
That’s what’s been important for our market stand: having a wide variety. We often get comments from shoppers that our display is the most diverse at the farmers’ market. Because we can’t bring large quantities, it’s nice that we can set ourselves apart by bringing a little bit of a lot of things. There are lots of veggies growing out in the fields, giving us plenty of items to bring to market, even some unexpected items. We have been learning to make use of whatever is ready as we harvest each week, and a healthy mix of creativity and neglected plants has led to some fun farmstand additions. Mustard greens, for example, were not in our planting plan. Then a succession of spicy salad mix grew beyond its baby state when we didn’t have time to till it in during the spring rush. The larger leaves were still lush and edible, so we got a couple weeks of extra harvest from the bed and had some nice looking–and unexpected–bunches of mustard greens to bulk up the market stand display. And people loved them! Harvesting and marketing whatever is growing well, instead of trying to stick to an exact pre-planned harvest goal, is teaching us a lot about consumer tastes. Why do people love radishes and parsley so much? I don’t know, but it’s lucky they do. We had a lot of them this spring.
Creativity has also necessary in planning our space use. I spend a lot of mental energy deciding what to plant where, and when. I am getting to know all the little quirks of each of our eight plots. Jon and Katie’s yard has the sandiest soil and needs more frequent watering, so it’s best not to sow seeds there in the summertime. Use transplanted crops instead. The Bonds’ place has a lot of snail and slug pests, so we put tomatoes there instead of lettuce. Half of Bryan’s place is quite a bit shadier than the rest, so how do we use that to our advantage? It’s like fitting together puzzle pieces. Or more like playing chess, really, because there is a time dimension involved too: If I seed these brassicas in the greenhouse now, which beds will be available in a month when they’re ready to be transplanted? What should we plan to put in after the peas? How long can we keep harvesting a single planting of kale? I know that, over time, many of these things will become second-nature to me. I could tell by watching my mentors during my apprenticeships that they were doing many things based on feel and experience that they couldn’t fully explain. It is exciting to realize how much my own intuition has grown over just a few months of running my own farm, and I am already very much looking forward to next season.
We made our first restaurant connection this month, with a fantastic vegan restaurant and yoga studio in our neighborhood. The chef bought a couple things from us at the farmers’ market, then we exchanged contact information and he has called us a couple times to order more. He came and picked up the veggies from our plot, which is about five minutes away from his restaurant, and we are already discussing growing some crops specifically for him next season. This immediate proximity is what sets our farm apart. We may not have much growing space, but we have enough, and it’s right here. We travel only 10 minutes to and from the farmers’ market where we sell. One of us can quickly go harvest extra and bring it to the market if we run low on something. On Saturdays, when we open up our farmstand, we wake up, walk out the back door, process vegetables, and then set up our tent in our front yard to wait for our neighbors to come to us to buy food. Sure, we could grow more and make more money if we had more land. But our expenses are few and the degree of success that we’ve been having with City Grown so far makes me very excited about the possibilities of urban farming as a viable commercial farming model. I hope to continue expanding and improving our business, becoming more creative, efficient, and involved in our community as we go.