Heart and Grain: Learning to farm from my mom and YouTube

Andrew’s father helps him with a repair. It was actually Andrew’s mother who taught him how to drive a tractor and care for his farm. Meet Andrew’s parents in the video at the end of this post.

By Andrew Barsness

When I started farming in 2011, I had no idea what I was doing or what I was in for. Consequently, my naiveté spared me the appropriate terror and trepidation that may have deterred a well-informed individual from such an endeavor.

I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a farming community. Despite regular visits to my grandparents’ 280-acre grain farm, I never really participated in the actual farming operations. Sometimes I would help my grandfather with simple tasks that he found difficult or time-consuming at his age, but that was the extent of my involvement. Luckily, there are several people who have helped me find my way as a new farmer.

After the passing of my grandparents, my mom and I started farming the same 60-acre field that my grandfather was still farming when he died. My mom was relatively familiar with the way that my grandfather had done things on the farm. She knew whom to speak with at the local co-op to purchase crop inputs, and who to speak to at the bank to get an operating loan, and how to go about securing crop insurance. She also had a sense of which pieces of equipment to use for different tasks, and she taught me how to drive my grandfather’s tractor. I would have been lost without her guidance. My mom even drove the old Chevy C50 grain truck back and forth from the field to the grain elevator in town during harvest.

My mom also showed me the notes that my grandfather wrote every year. He recorded critical details like planting dates, how to set the grain drill for the desired seeding rate and depth, and the proper tractor gears and engine RPMs for different field operations. My grandfather died before I took an interest in farming, but I think he’d be happy to know that he was able to provide me with guidance as I literally follow in his footsteps. (more…)

Heart and Grain: When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears

 

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

Last year, after we harvested our wheat, we planted a diverse cover crop mix designed for forage and biomass production. It was a rainy summer, and we were getting close to the date when seeding this mix wouldn’t be as effective since the days were getting shorter. I was on my last field, after just refilling the grain drill with seed, and as I passed through a grass waterway, my right grain drill tire (a very specialized tire, of course!) was completely punctured by a 20-year-old hay rake that was lying hidden in the grass. Rains were imminent, and I was stuck. Walking back to the farm would have taken me 30 minutes. I called Paul, who was working in the shop. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed

By Mai Nguyen

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Big farms require big equipment. And lots of money.

By Andrew Barsness

Along with blood, sweat, and tears, farming requires a significant financial investment, and grain farming is one of the most capital-intensive types of farming. To support a small family, a grain farmer typically needs hundreds of acres of land, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery and infrastructure, and an equally large amount of cash to cover annual costs like seed, fertilizer, fuel, and repairs. It is common for family grain farms to span more than 1,000 acres. Even at this seemingly large scale, most grain farmers need an additional, off-farm source of income just to make ends meet.

I’ve noticed that people unfamiliar with grain farming sometimes perceive these larger-scale farms as corporate or “factory farm” operations. However, when it comes to grain farming, that simply isn’t the case.

I have two neighbors, a father and son, who farm roughly 2,000 acres together. They don’t have any employees—it’s just the two of them. Their farm supports the father, the son, and his family. Yes, 2,000 acres is a substantial amount of land, but it’s the scale at which most grain farmers have to operate in order to make a living thanks to small profit margins. (more…)

From Direct Action to Direct Seeding

Dan Graeve on his urban farm in Denver, CO.

 

It’s the week of action leading up to the 2017 People’s Climate March. Farmers are on the front lines of our changing climate, and this week they’re raising their voices. Here is one farmer’s story.

 

By Dan Graeve, True Roots Farm.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, I set up shop in front of the main convention center and displayed a piece of artwork about climate change. I stood in front of it juggling and rattling off statements about the need for action. Despite getting a pat on the back from Ted Koppel, I can’t be sure how impactful it was.

Like a lot of people, I spent a lot of time as a young adult speaking out against an environmentally destructive economy. Also like a lot of people, when I found a job working on an organic farm, everything changed. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet Mai

By Mai Nguyen

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, my family—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed—gathers to exchange well-wishes for the year to come. I enjoy this tradition. We voice encouragement and best wishes to each person, imagining the happiest future for those we love.

The tradition is especially poignant for my family, as each year we also gather the week before New Year’s Day to commemorate the passing of my grandfather. In Buddhist Vietnamese culture, we hold a memorial for ancestors on the anniversary of their death. These memorials are occasions for us to honor the family members who have passed away. We set up an altar with their photos and favorite foods to feed their spirits—long tables filled with rice bowls, bamboo shoot soup, mushroom salad, tangerines, apples, and desserts. (more…)

National uncertainty, community hope, and pruning

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

All winter I’ve been going to conferences, having potlucks, and generally reveling in the amazing farmer community we have here in Colorado. But now it’s time to start farming, which means the fun is over. Okay, that’s not true, but the rolling of the season brings us into a new cycle of long hours and hard work. Just as the buds are beginning to swell, so are the knots in my lower back and shoulders. Hello, spring.

Actually, this is the time of the year when I can’t contain my excitement for the growing season. Winter is a time of reflection and education. As a community organizer, I’ve been living my life one meeting at a time. We’ve been having great discussions about soil health and climate-smart agriculture with a broad spectrum of producers. Big operations and small ones are taking these conversations seriously and adopting practices that conserve water, build soil, and protect our environment. Most of my role models right now come from the world of traditional ag, which I think is a strong indicator of a more progressive attitude throughout agriculture. It makes me proud to be part of this industry and part of the system that sustains the people of this planet. (more…)

My climate change plan: foster community

Casey distributes CSA shares.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Last season was different. A noticeable shift. And based on what I’ve heard from other farmers, they’ve noticed it too. A term that describes what’s happening is on our tongues: climate change. It is impacting our plans for next season as well as our outlook for the future. My plans will be based on which crops I’ve seen do the best last season with an awareness of what will build towards greater overall sustainability for the farm.

Casey and Fawn

All the beans but the Dragon’s Tongue did awful last year, so this year I’ll definitely grow the Dragon’s Tongue again as well as a solid green bean like the Provider and a new variety that hails from my region—perhaps a tepary bean. These beans are accustomed to dry heat and very little water, so with an eye toward the future, it would be wise for me to start learning how to grow them. Of course, even though I have hesitations, I’ll continue to grow tomatoes. But I won’t be growing all of the same types. With the heat and drought we have been experiencing, there are definitely varieties that simply won’t work. Instead we’ll try to find tomato varieties that grow in other desert regions and see how they do here. This is the same principal behind our own seed saving—farmers in other desert regions have bred similar desirable traits into their fruit, and hopefully that will give us a leg up. (more…)

Farming is an art of adaptation

Tyler and Kendra on a warm day last summer. Photo by Eva Verbeeck

By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

On the whole, I would consider this past year a success. We expanded our market reach tremendously, turned a little bit of a profit overall, made it through our on-farm wedding, and had fun pretty much the entire time. We are looking forward to another productive and fruitful season in 2017.

Currently we are having one of the best winters on record as far as water is concerned. Our overall snowpack in the Mancos area has been hovering between 150-200 percent of average all winter, which has been a true blessing. The tremendous amount of moisture has made for some excellent skiing at higher elevations, and we anticipate full reservoirs this summer.

Yet, all of this water has also come with challenges. This has been one of the warmest winters on the books for our area, which means that most of our precipitation has come as rain instead of snow. That means endless “mud season.” In a typical winter, we would not be able to see the ground until late March, and we would be making endless ski-skin laps on our hill in the back forty. Not this year. We have had multiple rain events, even in the high country, which is antithetical to the definition of our continental snowpack. We’ve been doing lots of trench digging for water diversion and less on-farm skiing this winter.

Farming is an art of constant adaptation. Farmers have to continually adapt and evolve with changing environmental conditions, markets, consumer demands, rules and regulations. This will be our focus in the upcoming season. We will be changing the directional layout of our gardens (from predominantly north-south rows to east-west) in order to better harvest sunlight, as well as to allow for better drainage. We are slightly modifying the crops at our market stand to follow consumer demand and capitalize on niche products: more snap and snow peas, eggs, greens, onions, and cucumbers, and fewer tomatoes, peppers, and corn. Our property is just too cold to produce some crops well, so we will focus on what grows best. We will also be redesigning our drip system to create more sustained pressure and to better harness our limited amount of water and more efficiently water our crops.

The event space after a winter snow.

We will also be delving into the world of agritourism. Our wedding this summer was a test run for our new event center. We always believed that weddings were a giant waste of money, so we invested most of our wedding funds into our future by building a beautiful space for people to celebrate their own special events in a farm setting. I had a great conversation with a brilliant farmer friend a while back about how we (as farmers) can sell not only an agricultural product but also an aesthetic and a lifestyle. From the market stand to the fields, people are yearning for experiences outside of the city and outside of their comfort zone—dirt and farm smells included. We are keen to heed that call.

In order to adapt, we focus on diversification at Green Table Farm. Diversity in crops, practices, and growing zones on the farm enables us to maximize our space and take advantage of environmental factors. Aside from diversification, we are continually honing our snow dance because water is what really keeps our world turning.

 

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About this series: This year, four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico have been blogging about their experiences with water access and explaining everything from what it feels like to clean a 400-year-old acequia to how they’ve learned to make the most of the water they have through conservation and crop selection. To help you understand the terminology around water access, we’ve put together a short glossary at the bottom of this blog post.

Young Farmer Success Act Reintroduced in Congress

A bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives took action to address our urgent national need for more young farmers by reintroducing the Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060).  

The National Young Farmers Coalition first worked with members of Congress in 2015 to tackle one of the greatest barriers to young farmer success: student loan debt. The Young Farmer Success Act was introduced in October 2015 and today, that bill was reintroduced with key bipartisan support.

As an entire generation of farmers nears retirement, and with nearly two-thirds of our nation’s working farmland expected to change hands in the next two decades, our entire agricultural economy and food supply are at stake. Providing a viable path for young entrepreneurs to apply their energy and grit toward feeding their communities must become a national priority. And with a new Congress and a new President, now is the time to act.

“America needs a new generation of farmers, now more than ever,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “The number of new farmers entering the field of agriculture has dropped by 20 percent, while the average farmer age has risen above 58-years-old. We must invest in the next generation of farmers, and do it now.” (more…)