Pooh Talks: soil health, early winter, and very casually throws in a "BTW"

“Excuse Me Mr. Sprague, it is not dirt we are studying. Dirt is what your mother washes off your pants in the washing machine. It is what she sweeps up in the kitchen if you do not leave your boots in the mudroom. We are studying soils, and they merit your respect.”

—Nobel Peterson PhD, addressing me (down) in my introductory soils course at UNH in 1971.

Recently there was an article in the valley news about a horse farmer in Vermont. One of the things that she touts about is using horses and that a horse has a low impact on the soil, and it fits into her organic paradigm really well. There has been a lot of research on soil health in the last 5 years, a lot is a direct spin off of Warren Buffett’s farmer/son committing a lot of personal assets towards research. The USDA and FSA have gotten involved in additional research and funding as well. As a result, more research has gone into understanding and supporting the understanding of soil structure, chemistry and flora and fauna, and getting much of that information out to practicing farmers.

Some of this goes into the category of “what is old is new again”. There was certainly a large body of research and methodology available to farmers in the first half of the twentieth century. Much came from European understanding and origin, but there were those in America who espoused and promoted it such as JI Rodale and writer Louis Broomfield. However, starting in the late 1940s, much of those practices were abandoned in favor of conventional chemical farming which enabled farmers to magnify yields very easily, and better yet, profitably. It really wasn’t until the “back to the land movement” of the 1970s when organic practices came back into vogue, that soil began to be empirically investigated. The downsides of conventional and chemically based practices were starting to become apparent. Maine’s own Eliot Coleman became the primary spokesperson for the movement for the boomer generation of farmers. But much of the old knowledge had been lost or buried. I remember, as a member of the Vermont Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, going to a meeting and Verne Grubinger introducing us to the concept and benefits of adding hairy vetch for nitrogen production in our winter cover crops. I got all fired up with this new information. I thought Verne had come up with this stuff, and soon all of us were adding hairy vetch to the mix. About five years ago I was reading a 1932 Blue Seal Feed pocket calendar, which the feed companies also supplemented with info like weights, animal gestation periods, feed blends for specific animal production as well as seeding rates for grains and legumes. Guess what? They were recommending 15 lbs of hairy vetch seed mixed with every bushel of winter rye. For nitrogen production. In 1932. Cool….

So people who work the forest and fields for a living are beginning to have a better reverence and appreciation for their soils, and a better understanding of what can support the chemical and biological activity therein. We have worked proactively the past 15-20 years to understand and implement practices that are less invasive and more supportive. We have always been disciples of cover cropping and recently I was lucky enough to be involved with an NRCS 2 year study looking at tillage innovations, practices as well as cover crop seed mixes. I thought I was pretty up to date and doing a good job, but it’s also pretty exciting to have all this new information before us, and it will assuredly impact our future cropping practices on our farm. And equally exciting is the fact that it is not just us old hippy farmers or the homesteader and her horse in Vermont who are embracing this new info. It’s large dairy and commodity farmers as well. So where I am often despondent about what is happening and coming out of our executive and legislative branches in our federal government, I am equally uplifted by what I see happening in American Agriculture as farmers look at their soils as a prized resource and committing anew to treat it that way.

For those of you that haven’t noticed already: Winter came, and it came too damn early. I haven’t taken a digger on the ice going across the yard to the dumpster yet, but there is still plenty of time before Christmas to do so. I navigate the icy footing by walking bow legged for stability, which makes me look like either a small child with a load in his diapers or an old geezer trying not to get his noggin cracked open from a fall. Wait a minute. I am an old geezer. Well, even the millennials around here don’t care very much for the winter thus far. Dry cold is one thing, but a hand tool with snow on it is just an unpleasant experience no matter what. We are struggling to get our strawberries mulched, but there is enough glaciated snow in the berry field so it is hard to tell if you are actually spreading mulch on the plant rows or in between the rows. This is known as “let’s do something even if it’s wrong” farming. We have no time to do it in the spring, and its super hard getting around the field now with a 4 wheel drive tractor…so …it’s now or never…

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And we are in the middle of greenhouse repairs. Mike has lifted up and restructured our first two tomato houses with taller ground stakes to make them two feet higher. The gable ends are being reconstructed and winter snow cover hampers him as well. Ray is still packing out root crops for wholesale and working on seed orders. We are all grateful that our new pack and storage barn is up. The miserably cold temps in November would have assuredly frozen our root crops if they were stored in bins in pole barns as we had done in the past. Having the washer indoors with a bit of heat is making it luxurious to wash and pack out compared to what we would have had faced with in the old pack-shed.

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As we are closing in on year’s end we are closing up books in preparation for taxes and visiting with the accountant. People always ask ”How did you do?” or “Was it a good year?” Well, we were set up a bit behind the 8 ball with a mediocre strawberry season due to deteriorating weather conditions in the last half of the season so there wasn’t much profitability there. Drought like conditions for most of the summer (remember the drought? Before the monsoons of October and November?) made growing things difficult, but we fared better than some of my friends and colleagues. Best of all, we had one of the best and harmonious work crews that I can remember in 45 years of doing this. I can not tell you how huge that is for all of us. So, no banner year with a new skid steer for us in the door yard. But good enough to make payments, have a nice Christmas and want to fire the whole thing up and get going again for 2019. (BTW, geranium cuttings for 2019 are on the rooting bench) It never ends, it just seamlessly segues into the next growing season…

Our family continues to enjoy good health and many blessings, among which is the community support for our farm and what we do. In as much as we wish you the best holiday season, we personally thank you for your patronage and moral support.

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Pooh Talks: Fall on the farm

That summer went by pretty quickly. A personal first for me: I didn’t know the stand was closing for the season until 10 days before it happened. Usually I have it on my calendar by Labor Day and start praying for a frost alternately to break up  the grind. This year has just gone by so quickly and it is not just the old guy in the room, all the help is kind of in shock. Is it really the middle of October already??

The weather contributed to the illusion. The first half of September was brutally hot, with temperatures that made us think that mid July had returned with a vengeance. The drought returned and the static level of the Connecticut River was as low as I have ever seen it in my lifetime here. I had been vigilant to keep the fungicides on the fall vines and tomatoes so we picked cucumbers up until frost and kept the blights off the tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, so things remained healthy. We rather out did ourselves, but the warm late fall has certainly helped.

So the leaves are changing and dropping, looks like we will loose our leaves quickly and foliage might be a bit muted this year. We are reminded that even though our work days are comfortable, they are getting dramatically shorter and soon things could get cold. Our ancient potato harvester (digger) has been a bit uncooperative, so there are still  many hundreds of bushels still in the ground, and our carrots, beets and turnips are still out there as well. So we have our hands full, and while the farmstand crew will embark on cleaning and buttoning up the farmstand and gardens, the fall CSA will soon start, and the field crew will marshall on even after our Jamaican friends heads back to the warmth of the Caribbean.  I suspect that part of the reason the time has gone by so quickly this year is that our field crew has been on a dead run all summer and short personnel. We hired five local folks for the field crew over the winter to start in early May. Not one of them showed up for the first day of work and only two individuals out of the five actually called us to tell us. So essentially the field crew operated at 66% capacity for the whole summer. That is like having one out of three employees sick every day of the summer. So lots of things didn’t get done. Other things got done, but not done particularly well. Despite that, there were more positives than negatives. The crew that was here was dependable, amiable and marshaled on with a sense of humor. That is worth everything. All our Jamaican workers are 59 or over, but meshed well with younger local employees. We have much to be pleased about.

Our new barn in which we wash, pack and store produce has worked out very well, although Mike has lamented that we didn’t build it twice the size. The saving in terms of human ergonomics has been more than we could of hoped for, and the facility will also propel us towards compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The pictures below are of the field tomatoes, cover crops and fall cleanup. I guess you have to be a farmer to be interested in the muted greens, blue greens, browns and grays of fall to think of these as pretty pictures. I like to think of it as a refined eye for the subtler colors of fall….who needs red maples when you can feast your eyes on this?

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Pooh Talks: whoa moments - favorite tractor driver, George - and August on the farm

Occasionally while racing around the farm I have to pull up and stop and stare at a vista. I refer to this phenomena as a “whoa” moment,  primarily because I get temporarily disorientated as to where I am chronologically in the seasons. This photo of the tomatoes is an example, because I took a picture of them last week  and they were less than a foot high and we hadn’t staked them. “It seemed like only yesterday”, the old saying goes. But of course, it was not. Here we are in August, and we are now harvesting cherry tomatoes and the plums for canning are  ripening up.

 taking a hot minute to admire all the loaded tomato plants

taking a hot minute to admire all the loaded tomato plants

The summer goes like that. This one seemingly more so. Alternately dragging on through the drought of the earlier part, we are faced with the struggle of balancing the harvest with the tail end of  a planting season that goes on into early September. Although the sun is back heading south in the sky, the work days are at their longest as we deal with picking fruit and vegetables and trying to find a home for them. This year we are shorthanded as 5 individuals  who approached us for summer and fall employment and we hired decided in the eleventh hour not to show up for the first day. That has put serious demands on the remaining crew and Ray’s ability to manage what takes place in the daily field activities. That said, we have a pretty good crew that seems to be working well and efficiently together, and they seem pretty happy. It would be nice to have the weeds under control and to be doing things in a timely fashion, but I will take a good working atmosphere any day.

Just want to take a minute  to recognize one of our long term employees. This relationship is so long because I first met him as a 5 year old in 1956. He had come to my Dad’s farm to work as a herdsman for the 40-50 cows that we were milking in Hillsboro. His name is George Cilley, he resides and in the house he grew up in in Bradford, NH. George commutes back and forth daily durring the spring and summer and is our go-to guy for tractor and mowing work. He is one of those people for whom a good day of work and having something accomplished defines who he is. Although he is 87, he is patient, sharp, a self starter (if he breaks something, you don’t hear about it unless he can not fix it himself) and can still plow a cleaner, straighter furrow than Ray, myself or Mike. He can also fix old chairs, leaky faucets and happy to run to the Pioneer Valley for  plants or parts if need be. He has as much pride in the good works and efforts as Anne, Sarah, Jenny, Mike or Ray has he does in his own. We had another retiree much like him. Eugene “Pep “ Chabot showed up the day he retired from the Hanover road crew at 66. Put in another 26 years picking vegetables and berries for us, and it was a sad day when he said he had to quit because his eyesight was failing him. Where are these guys? What is the attraction about golf courses and the concept of formal retirement that they resist? Maybe we have just been ultra fortunate to have had the help and wisdom of these highly motivated oldsters.

 our most beloved tractor driver, George

our most beloved tractor driver, George

 In other news, The new storage and pack barn is so near completion that we are already occupying it. When the crew from Ag Structures showed up on March 1st ,  I had serious doubts that we would be in it by the first of July, especially when winter dragged on for extra innings.  But Jake and Jason made it happen and we are grateful. It has been a large project for us and at times a distraction from the demands of the seasonal work. When we first started on this farm in 1974, it was more about taking down collapsing sheds and buildings. It was strictly chainsaw carpentry:  a couple of guys with some old telephone poles, rough pine and no real carpentry skills When I see how much space we have occupied in the new expanse I am amazed how we were ever able to function in the other smaller barn. All this was driven by food safety mandates and the need to protect fall root crops and store them. But the efficiencies and  improvement in ergonomics has definitely improved everyone's disposition. And even the little people are enjoying it as well …there are small Radio Flyers in there and you can refer to the lower photo of Admiral Hobbs, the U Boat commander, whom seems to be enjoying his new ride. So far, all good….

 Hobbes driving ship

Hobbes driving ship

 most impressive cooler space with our current summer crops

most impressive cooler space with our current summer crops

So as we spin towards fall, we are just trying to stay in the groove. Hopefully the weather  (which has been a rollercoaster of late) will not deal us any lethal blows and we can get the fall crops up and out of the field. There is some ancient machinery that needs to function to make that happen, and maybe with the help of a few extra bodies that may yet arrive, perhaps we can slide into Thanksgiving without getting spiked.  I am sure to awaken to a few more “Whoa” moments about the farm when I am caught off guard by the flight of time. At those times I often reminded of the words to a Talking Heads song……” same as it ever was, same as it ever was..”

Pooh Talks: longer days - the wintry arrival of Spring - our new casino (i mean, er vegetable pack house) and how it will change all of our lives, but really and truly it will save all our backs

Spring is here(sort of), and long gone is the quiet of the dead of winter where the only sound  is the kettle on the wood stove… and someone ticking away on a computer keyboard. Step outside the kitchen door today and there is the ambient droning noise of greenhouse air circulating fans and furnaces firing merrily. Six greenhouses are fired up on line and  there will be four more by St. Patrick’s Day. The core crew is back slogging away in high rubber boots in the mud and snow between greenhouses and barns;  the unwanted remains of an unwanted noreaster that dumped 18 inches of heavy snow on us last week. But the exciting news for us is that the barn building crew from Ag Structures came on site last week and is putting up a barn frame. They are, like us, slogging unceremoniously through the unwanted snow, mud and somewhat winter like weather. But it’s happening, and the reality of it happening is rather exciting . It has drawn a lot of interest.

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I posted this picture on Facebook. The regular collection of wise asses and hecklers posted on my timeline: “ What is its’ intended use, Mr. Sprague? Have you created a venue large enough for a stage and dance-floor  for your musical endeavors such that you will not have to drive anywhere at night in your Golden Years?” Someone else speculated that Ray and Mike were moving away from vegetable production by opening a casino and bordello. Perhaps from a financial perspective that’s not a bad idea, and perhaps not a hard sell especially if they included the small music venue for me and my bummy friends..…

But it is really going to be a barn. It’s a pretty big barn: 94 x 50 with 14 foot walls and a pitched roof. It will not go unnoticed. We have described it as a vegetable storage, wash and packaging  barn, designed primarily for handling fresh produce. It is a structure that has been discussed for several years because of its size and cost, but also discussing how it would be laid out to serve solve as many problems and needs that we now have.

Foremost, it replaces our current packing and storage area which we clearly have outgrown. Our wholesale enterprise has grown to be a larger component of our sales. In the height of our production season Ray has now run out of floor space as well as cooler space for produce.  Crops frequently either don’t get harvested or stored in a timely or appropriate way. Space was so tight in the old area that it resembled a vegetable maze. Efficiencies will be gained there, as well as the new barn giving us a truck loading dock so that peoples’ backs will be saved. Repetitive injury is a big concern here. We lift and package produce generally in containers that weigh nominally between 30 and 45 lbs. But we handle a lot of those containers from the end of July to the first of the year, and sometimes each packed container gets lifted, moved, and stacked 3-4 times before it ends up in someone elses’ cooler. I don’t feel the scar tissue I wear  on my back in my lumbar region is a badge of honor that any of my employees needs to earn in their tenure here, so ergonomic efficiencies are important. The new barn will address many of the food safety upgrades that we would be forced to deal with while implementing the FSMA mandates as dictated by the FDA. More washable surfaces, a new wash lines as well as improved post handling refrigeration for the produce. It is an expensive and sizeable pill to swallow, but we should be “good to go” for many years for having swallowed it.

It was 18 degrees last night.  The government had us set our clocks  forward yesterday, so the work days just got longer. The carpenters are here firing up the man-lifts and putting plywood on the sides. It maybe crunchy underfoot, and they maybe forecasting light snow tomorrow, but it sure feels like spring is about to be sprung. And it feels like we are off to the races…..again…

 

pooh talks end of season wrap up, November depression, Willing Hands & a teensie ounce of holiday cheer

November is a rough month for a lot of people. A lot of grey weather, days getting perilously short, and the ground begins to stiffen up and freeze.  You need  gloves to do just about anything outdoors, and you are not pleased when you have to take them off to do something dexterous with your fingers. It gets  dramatically harder and less pleasant to work outside than it does in October, and a foreboding  hangs in the air that it will get worse before it gets better.

We have been spending a great deal of time trying to get  wholesale  orders out-which are comprised this time of the year of carrots, beets, potatoes, onions and parsnips- washed and packed for sale to the  Coops. The final CSA pick up was last Tuesday. The chickens have left the premises, and  a disconcerting quiet hangs over the farm. The new storage barn has commenced being built but is moving slowly, and there surely will be some unhappy  carpenters working with snowy or icy lumber in the cold depths of January. But for now, winter is slowly closing in.

I found myself  at the Putnam  Farm last week. The day was typically overcast, cold, with a bit of a breeze to give it an edge. The ground was unfrozen at the time, so I was taking  a couple of hours in the middle of the day to take the tractor and cultivators and shape the strawberry rows up prior to applying the winter  covering of mulch.  This task  is a recreational one on a day that is sunny,   but it was overcast and the breeze had an edge to it that made it kind of unpleasant to be sitting still on the tractor, even though I had bundled  myself to look like the Michelin Man, coated in dirt.

At 1:30 in the afternoon a caravan of cars rolled into the carrot field next to where I was working. Fifteen or so retirees  piled out of the cars, smiling and chatting.  The Willing Hands volunteers  had come to glean carrots. The organizers, Milt and Carolyn Frye and Jim McCracken,  moved the trucks and  people  into place and distributed crates for the carrots to be put into. Pretty soon there was a collection of asses and elbows spread out in the field. A few folks worked on their knees, the position I am relegated to these days when I actually participate in harvest.  I could see the friendly banter and smiles  twenty  minutes into the gleaning. Crates of carrots mounted up on the trucks. When I shut the tractor off , they were finishing up. The volunteers were cold,but still smiling and chatting, and  then were picking up a few carrots for themselves to take home. They had  been out in the cold for  well over an hour , and worked pretty hard,  given their ages and  the weather. They really  didn’t have to do this, they could have sat on their butts  this crappy afternoon and filled out puzzles in the Valley News  or stared at social media posts.  Instead, they came for carrots.  These carrots, fortunately,  were beautiful…just too big for commercial sales. So the food shelves  and soup  kitchens would  be the beneficiaries. On this particular day they picked up approximately ¾ of a ton of carrots to be distributed  to folks a little less fortunate  than the rest of us before going back to their lives.  Many of these good folks are retired  and not only glean all season long for Willing Hands but also volunteer doing a variety of other things in the community.

As we all went our separate ways, I realized I was in a better frame of mind than I had been a couple of hours before, the reason being was that I was a participant  with some  good individuals doing a fundamentally good thing. This act of volunteering  was going to provide food to someone.  There is a lot of feel good  smarm written  about the noble farmers feeding humanity. Truth was, I miscalculated, grew a bunch of carrots  that I didn’t have a market  for and  I was  thrilled that  our farm  could partner  with Willing Hands, a non profit who could help harvest and distribute them.

November. For many, that in itself can cause depression.  For the rest of us, we don’t have to look very far in this world to find things that are depressing. Denial of climate change, political leaders behaving like rich privileged brats, meteorological disasters, ramping up of nuclear threats by political leaders, racism, predatory sexual behavior by those who pretend to know better….and the list goes on. But then you have this small  act of generosity in  a small corner of the globe:   Willing Hands doing its’ weekly gleaning at an area farm with volunteers.  November tractor work can still be cold, uncomfortable business.  But for a moment, my heart was warmed by the work of my fellow man.    

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Happy Holidays

Pooh talks Strawberries & Kardashians & his trusty Toyota Tacoma

I have seen it written that America buys with its eyes.  I pretty much agree.   And they can buy with complete disregard of functionality.  Pickup trucks have grown to gargantuan proportions, even though they don’t carry anymore payload than my little Toyota truck.  My Tacoma is a small, handy truck  I bought  2004. The Tacoma of 2017 is just about the same size as a Ford  F150 but cant really do as much work as my little version.  And it’s all tricked out with powered this and that, fuzzy carpet (great for collecting dirt) and a million amenities that a normal blue collar tradesman or working stiff will never take the time to use. We have enumerable choices in all facets of our shopping existence.   You can buy  Apple computers and telephones by color.  The GAP and J Crew depend upon us to embrace the latest styles they put forward.  You can get your  kids sneakers with lights in the heels.  And  on and on….

Small fruit and produce are no exception.  People buy pretty.   They talk about nutrient dense wholesome and safe produce.    But the reality here in America  is that most folks want their food cheap, safe and pretty.  “Attractive” still trumps everything else.  Heirloom tomatoes are quite varied in flavor and appearance, yet wholesale accounts tell us that the wide variety of colors and shapes are what generally drive the sales, not the nuanced flavors of the tomatoes themselves. Bell peppers are undergoing a renaissance driven by the same marketing of eye appeal. Plant breeders offer peppers in  green, purple, red, orange and yellow colors in just as many shapes. And then there are hot pepper  choices in  a myriad of shapes and degree of hotness. Yeowtch!

Recently the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine carried an article on Driscolls Berries, the empire that manages to keep strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on your supermarket shelves year around. Driscolls plant breeders are breeding strawberries in pink, white and polka dot configurations. (The polka dot is really the external seed of the strawberry contrasted against a white flesh.)  The powers to be at Driscolls spent a lot of time figuring out how to get product on those supermarket shelves, and they are thinking just as hard about how to keep their  product there, and that means clever marketing and innovative plant breeding.  They already own and drive the market, but they are still not complacent.

The Driscoll berry defines the norm and standard that today’s strawberry is to be judged by. The berries are universally large, have large green calyxes  (the green caps), and a very orange shade of red (disregarding the white tip).  The fruit is very dense and solid and slightly fragrant. The flavor is tangy, with some level of sweetness which is often times more determined by environmental factors than genetic make up.  I will buy them in the dead of winter when the storage apples get mealy, pomegranates go out of season and I have had just about enough bananas and citrus.  As a grower and someone who is always fond of a fresh strawberry,  I have to admit it is a pretty amazing product.  Built into its genetic makeup is an ability to sit on the store shelf for a week without breakdown. But let’s talk about its color, because that is where  it affects us here at the farm.

 pictured here, our own berries taken in our own field- fresh picked in the morning light, absolutely amazing flavor, probably wouldn't last more then 5 days in your fridge- but why would you want to wait that long to eat anyway?

pictured here, our own berries taken in our own field- fresh picked in the morning light, absolutely amazing flavor, probably wouldn't last more then 5 days in your fridge- but why would you want to wait that long to eat anyway?

Here at Edgewater Farm  our strawberry  season extends about 4 weeks. We plant about 6 different varieties of June bearing strawberries.  (Note: Every strawberry plant has a finite reproductive yield potential. Those that bear that fruit crop in short periods of time are referred to as “June bearing” and those that continually bear fruit over several months are categorized as  “ever bearing “ strawberries. The majority of Driscolls and California berries are ever bearing plants).  We purchase our plant stock from nurseries  that are growing out plant stock dedicated to commercial growers such as ourselves. A great many of those varieties  that we grow were developed by a lone wolf plant geneticist and breeder  named Andrew Jamieson who works for the Canadian Agricultural University  Extension Service out of a  provincial university in Kentville,  Nova Scotia. Over the years we have grown out and used his patented plants because they grow well, look good, fit in the plant mix  and most of all taste good. Jamieson  is “old school”.  He doesn’t short cut with GMO;  he pollinates,  grows out seed stock samples, and rogues these varieties from thousands that he trials every year. Then, he samples  up to 5000 berries a day for a  period of  four weeks determining  which  variety  will  get to “the show”  or go out to the compost pile.   He is a champ of a guy with a good sense of humour as well as being an industry legend among eastern American and Canadian  small fruit growers.  

Strawberries in New England are very different than the California, or even the Floridian berry.  They don’t take the heat well. They tend to be darker color. They are generally not as large throughout the season. The fruit is considerably juicier and softer.  In recent years the darker red  fruit has met with some resistance from produce clerks when wholesaling those strawberries and we hear  comments like “those must be rotting-they are too purpleish-reddish and soft.”  On  occasion we have had them  refused and sent back.  It is because the berry that people see or clerks work with  -the Driscoll  or California  berry- is very large, often white tipped , dense and orangey in color. Because it is on the  shelf  virtually twelve months a year, it defines what a strawberry should look and taste like. All those  cultivars we grew 30 years ago like Catskill, Sparkle, Blomidon and so forth…..would never  get in the front door.

In any new variety trial now we take color very heavily  into consideration in deference to the California berry. We can compete on taste quite handily with Andrew Jasmiesons’ Nova Scotian cultivars, but shelf life, size and color will be tougher.  I understand that “bling” drives American taste in all of life’s facets.  There are magazines for sale - at those same supermarket checkouts where you can buy some pretty nice strawberries in February -who are devoted to detailing for us the latest clothing decisions made  by the Kardashians. I just never thought that shape and appearance  would drive so dramatically the produce industry.

Bling!

Climate Change because, of course.

Todays subject is- again– weather and climate change. No, you are not allowed to yawn and go back to sleep.  There were four days in February that I actually got my bike out and roadwith the same amount of clothing on that I would choose on a sunny fall day with temps in the 50s and60s.  Last week Scott MacLeay and I went skiing at Mt. Sunapee and in the seven days between our last visit the ski area lost two feet of snow. That is, two feet of snow melted.  In the middle of February.  If it hasn’t got your attention yet I am here to tell you;    the- boots-on–the-ground folks who earn their living by working outside- be theytruckers, farmers, masons, or sanitary workers- whomever doing whatever outside will pointedly tell you that the weather we have experienced the last two winters is not normal by any stretch of the imagination. 

I, through some wicked twist of fate, frequently turn out to be the Old Guy in the room. With that title comes the requisite limp, squint, stutter, pocketful of Advil, and a strong need to nap when seated in a warm room.  But it does give me a perspective on this climate change thing.  Anne and I are coming up to our 43rd year of ownership of Edgewater Farm.  I knew the guy pretty well that grew up here on this farm and sold it to us.  His name was Stan Colby, and he passed away about 20 years ago. Having spent 80 years on the planet, he noted climate change to me years ago.  And that was long before Al Gore, purported Snowflake Supreme, former senator, vice president and advocate for action on climate change, was a household name. 

Those of us who grew up in rural New England in the 60s remember that a cold spell meant   week long periods of winter where temps rarely got into the double digits. Everybody woretights or long underwear to grammar school. Rubber boots for 3 months straight.  I had as many pairs of flannel lined jeans in my bureau drawer as “summer jeans”, and frostbite was a regularly occurring affliction. These periods of cold weren’t relegated to just the dark days of January, but could occur anytime between Thanksgiving and mid- March.  We all grew up in my hometown as a person who either snowshoed or skied(yeah, I lived before the invention of the computer and snowmobile..).  Those of us that were inclined to be predominantly interested in skiing learned on the back lawn, woods or in the fields, because there was always complete snow-cover for at least three months of the year, frequently four.  There were ski areas and little hills with rope tows all over New England. In the mid 1960s none of them had snow making. By the 1980s climate change was getting pretty real, and the overwhelming majority of ski areas were making significant investments to provide snow for their skiing surfaces. Many went out of business not being able to sustain income against the added costs to the production of snow. I worked at such an area for 13 winters as a ski patroller. Climate change became a pretty tangible concept.

In the summer, we see evidence of climate change here as well. I think the overwhelming evidence is not temperature change but weather patterns changes and the violence of summer storms.  There is also migration and arrival of new plant and animal populations.    (Whoever saw a possum or a cardinal living in the Upper Valley 15 years ago?  Noticeablythere has been documented extremes that we see in and the violence of the summer storm.  Thunderstorms of my youth on what was essentially a hill farm in southern New Hampshire were frequent, and they had their own level of violence and intensity. They carried the same level of surprise that they do today, a fact confirmed by the amount of my dad’s animal feed hay that was reduced to low quality mulch hay after those visiting storms.  But it wasn’t until I moved to the relative protection of the Connecticut River Valley that the intensity became noticeably more violent.  Thirty five years ago an accompanying hail event with a summer storm was a topic for discussion.  It would have had the neighbors making the telephone lines buzz. Every storm now carries the potential of hail and we have lost strawberries, pumpkins, greens, squash at one time or another due to hail damage.  Some 10 years agoI was at Dave Pierson’s farm in Bradford, Vt after a nasty storm with hail passed through. That storm took a couple of windshields out of cars and ruined all the plastic covering on his greenhouses. You can only imagine what his crops looked like. His watermelons looked like they had been shot close range with buckshot. These are not historically normal events, but once in a lifetime events that now seem to be occurring many times within our own lifetime.

So now most all of us red and blue staters can recognize and admit that there is a change in the weather.  There is still a contingent of folks that maintain that climate change is being overstated, that it’s not our fault, that it is a machination of Chinese, that it is a natural part of evolution, or that it is God’s will. . This “sweep it under the rug” attitude seems to be voiced by a lot of people who wear ties.  I never cared much for ties, even my own.  As a regular JoeAmerican of limited intellect, I would like to see more of these Tie People come around to my belief that something is going on with our environment and our climate.  We should accept that it’s measureable, and that maybe we should be looking into what we can do about it for the sake of future generations, if it’s not too late already.  I think when chunks of Greenland the size of Sullivan County start start falling off into the sea and the space shots of the arctic go from being white to turning brown, then it is a natural phenomenon that is worth noting, and to consider what, if anything, there is we can do about it.  

Current policy makers, including our POTUSwould like us to believe that we are threatened by Islamic Terrorists and illegal immigrants. It is hard from my sheltered corner of the world to understand how that can be so.  I see climate change as perhaps the paramount threat to all our existence. This affects everyone including myself, the Mexicans, Asians, Christians as well as the Islamic terrorists.  Extreme weather events here and elsewhere will definitelycompound the problems of producingfood worldwide, as it has for the farmers of the Upper Valley.  And we are, as a species, a lot better at producing humans than we are food.   So I feel money spent on aiding climatologists and funding NASA’s satellite climatology program is money better spent than building a wall that any self-respecting Mexican will find a way toscale, swim around, fly over or burrow under.  

As 2017 approaches

Here we are with one foot in 2016 and one in 2017.  We've been plowing snow for a couple weeks now, so I guess we didn't have to wait until December 22 to say that winter is here.  The crew has dwindled, many going off to college or winter jobs, or their homes in Jamaica;  leaving the rest of usto finishpacking out onions, potatoes, and carrots for the Coop.  The wreath and Christmas candles areup in the farm stand and I am wearing long underwear full time, soyup, it’s winter….

Anne is trying to tie up the fiscal year 2016as tax work has commenced. Our tax year is a bit different than most folks with taxes due the 15 of March.    Most of the flower seed orders have gone out, but vegetable seeds have to be reviewed and ordered.  Most of the things that need to be stored away have been, andthose that have not will appear in the spring when the snow melts.  

We, as I imagine all farmers do, are wondering what 2017 will bring.  The new administrationis clamoring for some drastic changes that will affect us all but what changes are going to directly affect the ag community? Yes, I suppose one could say that because we grow potatoes that no matter what happens we will always have food to sell.  But it is really the subtle changes that can make the difference to us. We serve the general public, and if subtle policy changes affect the public, that can be reflected in our sales. And it does look like there could be some big changes. My guess is that the current president elect knows, or cares, precious little about agriculture. His experience with the environment and ag seems to be pretty much limited to what he sees from his golf cart or from his airplane. I suppose that this deregulation of bureaucracies- EPA, FDA, Dept. of Labor -could play to our advantage. However, I think I heard him state about a month ago that he would do away with the H2A guest work program-the program that allows us to get Roy and Bill up here from Jamaica- and that the work that they do should be done by Americans. The problem is that getting seasonal labor is a hard job order to fulfill, and Americans haven’t shown interest in those jobs given what they pay and the seasonality of those jobs in the northeast, especially here in the Upper Valley where the unemployment rate is 2-3%.   That could dramatically alter how we go about doing things here at Edgewater and I expect we will bewatching that one closely in the coming months.  As far as deregulation of DOL, OSHA, FDA, EPA or USDA…I think those bureaucracies have enough critical mass and political pull to withstand a great deal of battle, and will survive, but may have to survive underfunded at current levels.  Surely the next 6 months are going to be epic as far as our system of government is concerned and what that government will look like at the end of this president’s term of office. 

Otherwise the change of year will bring a change of faces in the ag community. I have been meeting some of the new growers in the upper valley, a young crop of folks who have youth on their side and smarts on their side that I wish I had when I only brought youth to this farm.  We will be seeing a change at the Killdeer Farm Stand in Norwich.  Scott Woolsey who has managed the stand for Jake and Liz Guest deftly for the last 14 years is tradingin his foodie hat for some new ski gear as he moves to Utah. Jake and Liz, mainstays in the Upper Valley ag community, are going to downsize their operationand I am not clear what that specifically means, but I don’t expect it means that Jake will be seen doing a lot of fishing on the Connecticut River, more likely fighting with his irrigation pump..  We tip our hats to them as they embark on their new directions,  and pay tribute to them for setting a high standard of service and quality for the rest of us to emulate.

I am now about to trundle off to the upper greenhouse and start taking rosemary and geranium cuttings for 2017 spring greenhouse sales.  Just as it is  “5 o’clock somewhere”  as Jimmy Buffet would sing, here at Edgewater there is a small expanding spring somewhere in the corner of the upper greenhouse. So, on behalf of the family and staff of Edgewater Farm, we wish to thank you for your past support and patronage and wish you the best for the coming holidays and new year. 

 

 

 

PYO at the FARM: Pooh's perspective.

Been a pretty good season in the Pick Your Own strawberry fields.  So far anyway.

Cool mornings, bright hot sunny days and then the evenings cool off….Dry.  Been damn dry. We could use some rain, but no matter; it is perfect weather to pick strawberries.  And people have been taking advantage of the weather and come out.  Just like the old days….

Whoops. I guess I have to admit that this is the  fortieth year that I have  journeyed through a PYO  (Pick Your Own) Strawberry season  with  my  still sane  pal  Anne.  We’ve  been at it awhile, so it gives us some license to say “good old days”.  But I must clarify what I meant when I said that  because a general  PYO season is now very different than  the PYO seasons of the late  1970s and the 1980s for us.

When we planted our first strawberries on the home farm in 1975 we hand planted 6000 plants by hand, with the assistance of my parents and some of their close friends. Like today, friends are enlisted  and promised  grilled chicken and  bottomless beer, so the plants got into the ground just fine and in a timely fashion.  Our mentor was our then  Sullivan County Agent   Bill Lord who predicted that we would have 6000 quarts of fruit to sell the following June. We were told that if we  did PYO, we never would have to pick a berry we didn’t want to.

That was the marketing plan. At that time there was  one other PYO berry patch;  Stu Shepherd ran one  in Hartland,  Vt.  There was a line waiting to get in when we went there. We agreed with Bill that there was a need.  People wanted to pick strawberries.  And they came and showed up  the following June without so much as a newspaper transaction  for advertisement.  They  never came out of the field with less than 6 quarts of berries in tow, no matter how the picking was. They were committed to getting  berries to freeze, make shortcake, make jams and jellies. They picked for others who were too old, or had health issues.  Some familys  would  pick up to 500 lbs.  of fruit in a season. Others picked fruit for resale.  They showed up in droves at 6:30 in the morning, waiting to get in. They came  when  the weather was fair. They also came when  the weather  was not so nice. In fact, I would literally have to drive the pickers out of the field when thrunderstorms came up. Talk about commitment.

So I implicated that it’s different today. How so?

They don’t come unless the weather is nice. I have  not driven a patron out of the field during a thunderstorm  in 25 years, they are long gone  after the first clap of thunder in the distance. They don’t like fog. They don’t care much  for really  hot periods of the day.They hate the insects (don’t we all?) And they don’t pick that much fruit. Many just come for the experience of a farm….more on that in another blog. We calculate  that it  takes twice as many patrons today  to pick the same amount of fruit as the picker of 30 years ago. At least  twice as many.

So what happened? What changed it?  What ever happened to the Shuttleworths, the Tanzi  brothers and their wives, Barney Laber and his family, John  Grant and Betty  Renehan?   The folks who  would appear to pick  berries 3 or four times a week during the season? All great patrons, and  truly supportive us during those early years?  True, many of them have since passed on to that big patch in the sky.  True, Anne and I were better looking then, but we have lots of attractive and pleasant souls working at the farm such that I don’t have to be  viewed in public anymore. So why isn’t  PYO the big nut driving the farm  and why do we have a harvest crew today in the fields  picking when it was just me or  Anne  in the late  70’s?  Its  not  that we are that much bigger now.

The PYO as a way to harvest the crop just became too undependable. Today most of the harvest is done by our farmworkers. When the planets align right, the pick your own folks will show up. But most do not can or freeze. So we pick fruit  for our farmstand and for  some wholesale accounts. It’s about demand for strawberries, and although it is still strong,  its diminished considerably by  non local fruit being brought in year around to the markets. Way back when, strawberries were…well,  only local. It was a true season.  It came somewhere around the first of June and lasted  to the  middle of July; depending on where you lived and where you picked in the upper valley.  Then it was done, no more strawberries until next year… you ate jam  and frozen strawberries.  Today the first thing you are apt  trip over when you walk into a grocery store is a big display case of not only strawberries but raspberries, blackberries and  blueberries.   Year round.   In the dead of winter.   Great big clear clamshells full of monsterous  strawberries half the size of your head. And  even I get sucked in and buy them  periodically.   And honestly?  They are not bad at all. They  can be a little crunchy, sometimes not that sweet  and devoid of the aroma ours have….but they can oftentimes  be pretty good.  And because they have a level of dependable quality and flavor, people are no longer starved and motivated  to get in the  fields and pick ours.  And why go to the bother of sitting in front of the TV and hulling berries to freeze when you can get a quart or two the second week of January in the store if you want  them?

Sure was different way back then…..

 

amazing things that happen under foot

The older I get, the more amazed I get when I really think about all the stuff I used to take for granted.    Things like the fact that lots of people fly some distant place  every minute inairplanes and they canactually can get all that aluminum, fuel and peopleoff the groundand across a vast expanse ofland in a fraction of the time it would take to drive a car that distance, say nothing about walking behind a covered wagon and some mules.  ( I try to remind myself of this whenever one ofour flights is delayed at the terminal.)    It is really prettyamazing.  How about cell phones?  Twenty five years ago they came in a seven poundbag with a battery the size of your head.  Now they come with an app that can show me in realtimea radar image of athunderstorm perched over Chris Hemingway’s farm in Charlestown and give me an idea how long it will be before we get clobbered by it down at Putnams.  Technology surely has done some amazing things.

What I am discovering-or should I say “awakening to” are the amazing things that happen under foot. Things that I take for granted in the natural as well as material world.  I always loved the seasonal changes. But birds migrate thousands of miles seasonally. And they basically end up in the same places each year.   Mammals in the sea, like whales and dolphins, have ways of communicating to one another and have social structures. Thathoney bees will come back to the same source of pollen and nectar time and time again while commuting back and forthto the hive, which can be as much asthree miles away.

Really?  How do they do that?

How about rooting plants from a vegetative cutting?  Yeah, I know all about providing humidity, proper lighting and heat…..but think about all the complex chemistry and biology that just kicks into gear when you sever a cutting from a plant andplunge it rootless into the soil. Sometimes, when you get it right, you have a rooted cutting in 7 days.  Of course, when I don’t get it right, I can also end up with a pile of soggy, fungus ridden ,slimy schwag….but the potentialis stillamazing. The plant does that, on its own. We didn’t genetically modify that organism to do it, it occurs naturally.  The concept of a seedinitself is pretty mind blowing. All that genetic potential-again we didn’t have anything to do with it- …seeds have been aroundfor…..well, you can fill in the blank)  All the genetic potential thata plant is endowed with to grow, adapt ,reproduce is stored in that little seed. That seed can hang around a long time ,too.   Lambsquarter , a broadleafweed around here and member of the spinach family chenopodium , can hang out in the soil for up to 40 years before it loses it viability to germinate.  Thenone, day some farmers plow or harrows bring it upclose enough to the surface, it gets a little rain, couple of sunny days and Voila!  Instant lambsquarter.    It’s pretty amazingthatit can last in a hostile environment.  Whenever I encounter a hostile environmentI usually don’t try to spend any time there at all, muchlesstime measured in years.

I have also marvel at things”underfoot”.  Why does the damn cat stay off the bed at night (thank you, Kevin) but then decide when its morning and then pounce up on the bed by your head and start rubbingits head on my ear or nose(damnit, Kevin!) in an effort to get you up to let her out? We didn’t teach her to train us. She is one smart little cat (and yes, her name is Kevin)   We have a small flotilla of 60-70 year old tractors that we use periodically. Amazingly these things still start up. Simple machines that you can still get to work, and still source parts over the internet with a little investigation. They are amazing in that they are not part of the planned obsolescence that isbuilt into most of todays products.  I attached a picture of a tree behind the greenhouses. There was a largelimb that hangs out at such an angle I was moved to cut it off before it broke off. When I went to cut it, I realized that it was getting support from an upper limb thatactually grew out and intothe lower limb, giving it extra structural support by becoming part of and growing into the lower limb. Sort of likea brace or collar tie. But the tree did it on its own. It was here 20 years beforeI realized what was going on. Now that is cool, andI hope the picturedoes itjustice. Ifit doesn’t,  well, take a look atit next time you are downat the greenhouses,


Take home message for me is that it confirms in my mind that humans are pretty intelligent, but maybe not as intelligent as we think we are. We like to think we are smarter  than the plants, insects and animals…but there is some things going on in my world that indicate otherwise. 

Kevin just came in the room and started clawing  furniture. She knows we hate it. She also knows that we will get up and let her out. Guess what I am doing next…







Big investments- for better or worse...

There is a high cost for doing the right thing. It does not mean that  “no good deed goes unpunished”, but in farming a lot of what we do around here is spend additional money  while taking the long view of the future of  our farm…and for some of us that means looking beyond the grave.

Not all of it is that long term.  I am particularly interested in soil biodynamics. I will be the first to admit, I am no scientist (or accountant, mechanic, or meteorologist, for that matter) but I have been always interested in soil chemistry and soil biology.  As a result of  that, I have believed that good cover cropping was essential to soil health and long term soil productivity.  In the short term, extensive commitment to crop rotations and use of green manures is a direct expense, perhaps an unnecessary expense against the bottom line. I could purchase fertilizer like the commodity crowers in the Midwest and still harvest a crop, right? But we feel that what we do here -essentially row crop ag- is essentially  a disturbance in the natural ecological flow of things and not all that great for the soil’s  physical and nutritive values.  Cover crops are a way of amending that disturbance…and those practices that reduce impact are inherently good to do, and although they do not enhance the bottom line, they  hopefully will have some pay back in the future.

 Ray in a field of mustard... prettiest of the cover crops.

Ray in a field of mustard... prettiest of the cover crops.

There are the high costs of business that have no real payback, just are large expenses.  I refer, of course, to the nemesis of all small farms like our; and that is the newly mandated FDA Food Safety Modernization Act  that goes into effect today. Essentially it is a duplication of the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices  (GAP) program that  was set up as a tool to be used  by large wholesale  growers and vendors.  So now some farms have two  agencys  to answer to, two sets of documentation and two sets of fees to  pay the federal government. Say nothing of the additional bureaucracy that will be paid by tax dollars. This kind of investment in the future is not helpful, but it is mandatory. And expensive.

There are farm  investments that may or may not contribute to the viability of the farm. Whereas seed, machinery and soil  ammendments are a necessary components to the economic health of the farm, is the new paint of the farm barns a good investment?  Looks nice, shows we care, but how do you give justify its shaky value other than it “protects the outer shell”?   Is that money really well spent…aesthetics?   How about the solar array?  We finally installed a 29KW array on the barn roofs this past year. There was a pile of money shelled out for that baby, and even with some grant money from the NH PUC (public utilities commission) and the USDA, it was still $60,000 out of pocket and small financial payback over the period of 20 years.  

 this big investment...

this big investment...

When I wrote the check I felt really good about reducing our farms carbon imprint on the planet, but I could have installed a generator that would  automatically come on in a power outage and insure the safety of 30,000 square feet of  greenhouse produced plants for half the money. That may have been the smarter business decision. Chalk it up to the high costs of trying to do  the right thing…


Dogs Of War

We just finished up the 2015 strawberry season. Right in the middle of it a low pressure system squatted over our farm  providing wet and humid weather.  It was  less than ideal for the fruit, we lost a lot to fruit rot at the time.  Makes picking the berries harder as well.  But it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the field crew significantly  as they went out each day to deal with it. I could hear the chatter in the field punctuated by some periodic  laughter. They goaded me to make coffee and donut runs.    Made the loss of fruit somehow more  bearable for me personally.

I have come to refer to the people who do the stoop labor in the fields—the planting, harvest,weeding and all that goes into the outdoor production of fruits and vegetables here-  as the Edgewater Farm Dogs of War. It is not  easy work and  you have to be mindful  and pay attention to what you are doing.  And yet there are those  who like the challenge of accomplishment and being in the elements.  A high percentage of applicants  for this type of  job can wax eloquently about working outdoors,  but usually are picturing in their minds warm sunny tan-developing days, not gloomy murky days filled with face gnats, blackflies and ticks lurking in the edge of the fields. Nor cold days in the fall where the fog doesn’t lift and show the warming sun until you are 4 hours into the workday.  Or a job  where the most popular attire is commercial duty  fisherman’s raingear  worn over shorts.  There is no demographic that produces the  more perfect farm employee.  We have  Roy and Bill, our Jamaican H2A workers that have been  here for 14 years, but we have tried other H2A workers  that we didn’t care to ask back the following year. We have George Cilley  who is 84 this year who deals with light mowing and tractor work  but is the best man on the farm for plowing  and heavy tillage. And invariably the harvest crew is  almost 50% male/female in ratio. The make up of the Dogs of War Crew here really runs the gamut.

When we hire we are looking for people  who will fit into the returning team  of employees.  Are they personable and do they have previous experience in the outdoors?   Will they step up to help their fellow workers?  (If a young woman shows up having hiked the AT with a 30 pound backpack  through muddy stretches  with blackflies or put herself through college as a night janitor….that demonstrates to me a determination and grit that is essential to this lifestyle) .  I often tell new employees that they have nothing to prove to me, but everything to prove to their fellow workers.  These people may have very little in common in outside interests, but the job will bond them  with mutual respect if they are willing to step up and haul a little extra weight now and again. Part of  having a good field crew is when  in the context of being tired and facing adverse weather conditions there is no undue drama generated.   I have always answered the question “Was it a good summer for the farm?”   When I answer “Yes, I always am thinking that there was no drama, everyone managed to get along really well, and at the end of the day were able to sit down and have a beer  together and  BS with one another before heading home at night. That’s a good year.

So the rush of strawberry season is over. The weeds grew everywhere during the harvest, we have  transplanting backed up  in the greenhouse, not enough hours in the day to work, not enough  hours at night to sleep and the raspberry and blueberry rush is already in full swing.  So when Mike and I got rained out yesterday when we were cultivating,  I went uptown to get a haircut and some chickenfeed.  The Dogs of War were in their rain-gear picking blueberries.

Tough Winter, Rough Spring

We opened the retail greenhouse season last week. We never expect much business, usually just a few regulars stop by to say hello and pick up some pansies in bloom, or  just to enjoy the peaty, damp fragrance that greenhouses have in the late winter and early spring.  Most everybody has thus far mentioned how much they hated the winter; how brutally cold and long it was. I was fine with it for most of the duration.  But our wood  supply  that I was so proud of in November  had  vanished  by the middle of March.  Around the farm we struggled with the fuel jelling in the diesel motors an although our poor little skid steer has an engine heater, the hydraulic oil in the motors that drive his tracks got so thick from sitting outside in the extremely cold winter nights that his servo motors cried in pain when we tried to first move him. There are still a few water lines frozen in the driveway and here it is, almost the first of May and no crocuses or daffodils.

The odd thing is that it might  just be a blessing in disguise. Last year we had a very cold spring and slow start to summer. Not only was that a plus for our strawberry crop, the blossoms on the strawberries were delayed until the chance of frost was gone at the very end of May. That made 2014 the first year since 1975 that we never had to irrigate at night for frost in the strawberries while they were in bloom. I can’t begin to tell you how much money we save when we don’t have to  push water around to protect the strawberry blooms.  And we value the fact that we get an uninterrupted night’s sleep probably even more. 

The cold late spring coupled with the lack of frost contributed to the profitability of the strawberries, without a doubt.

 Looking forward to seeing this berry blossom once we are frost free... 

Looking forward to seeing this berry blossom once we are frost free... 

So we Fieldies (those  of us here on the farm involved in growing and harvesting of the fruit and vegetables) have gone from grousing about the cold spring to rooting for it to continue, that we might  once again get lucky enough to grease by Mother Nature’s frost season.  The possibility  of not having to  keep  an eye on the weather and cold temps as opposed to getting a good nights rest, the pleasure of trading a warm bed for getting soaked while trying to unclog a sprinkler tip, the choice between  taking a shower to  wake up as opposed to taking a shower to  clean off the diesel fuel that  you dribbled onto your clothes while trying to refuel a tractor at 4:30 AM…..those are easy choices.  You can easily see why some of us have not been complaining too loudly about the continued cold. 

As far as the  growing season being late….it may well be so.  Many things are done here on a chronological clock…such as the seeding and greenhouse work . Even some of the field preparation gets done as soon as the soil dries out enough to be prepared for planting.  But the planting itself is done on a meterological clock…such as the field transplants or field seeding. For example, last year at this time we had seeded spinach and carrots on our driest and warmest ground, whereas this year it will be almost 10 days later because of the  cold soil temperature.  Seeding early this time of year can be a gamble because the seeds can sometimes germinate and emerge,  but just as easily they can rot in the ground.  

In looking at the weather forecast  for the next week it looks to be warmer, and priorities will be  rearranged around trying to get things planted. Having wished for warmer weather and gotten it, we will begin to look for other favors from Mother  Nature…like some timely and adequate rainfall. We farmers are partners and dependent  on Mother Nature. We don’t always get it our way…


DOUBLE DIPPING OR GOVERNMENT REDUNDANCY

The other day,while working in  the greenhouse, I was listening to a show called Vermont Edition on Vermont Public Radio. The discussion was gun control legislation, a topic I am only  mildly interested.  But the  anti gun legislation proponent’s argument  made my ears  dial in. His  point  was that there are federal laws on the books that deal with gun registration through the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Vermont, by creating another bureaucracy to duplicate the process was expensive and wouldn’t  make  anyone safer in the process.

To me, how you feel about gun control is irrelevant. But I am coming to a point  in my life where I feel that  there is an awful lot of  duplicated  bureaucracy around  in my world. And I believe  that it is  unnecessary and costing me—or all of us—a lot of money, time of aggravation.

Recently at our New Hampshire  Vegetable  and Berry Growers  annual meeting, I listened to  Kelly  Connelly from the Federal Department of Labor, whom we had  invited to speak to our trade group. She is a federal inpsector, and she is the  person who would come to our farm if there was a  labor or wage violation.  Because many farms in the northeast use volunteers or interns on the farm, we wanted her to qualify the legality of the point. She said, on no uncertain terms, that if we were not a federally registered non profit,  we had to pay  all interns and volunteers at least minimum wage. Nor would the Fed DOL   recognize any “payment in kind” arrangements like work swapped for room, or food. There was an exemption   volunteer labor  under a certain number of man hours, but it  wasn’t enough to get a person through a normal growing season. I went  and posted  the info I took from the meeting on a couple of list serves so that it might clarify the DOL ‘s read on things to those farmers who might be impacted by it. There are many farms in Vermont and NH whose use of interns constitutes a significant portion of their farm  labor. What I  precipitated was a discussion about the confusion of what the state laws allow and what the federal laws allow, and needed clarification  from both state and federal agencies.  Do the feds trump the state laws?    Who  do we listen to?

The same thing is developing in food safety. Around  8 years ago  USDA (US Department of Agriculture) developed a voluntary certification program called Good Agricultural Practices (GAP-for short)  with a set of guidelines and documentation to follow for the production of  food . Large wholesale buyers—like  Hannaford or Price Chopper- could request GAP certification from their ag vendors (farms like Edgewater)  in order to be able to sell to them.  Here is a science based  program already developed and  in use…albeit a voluntary one. If you don’t want to get GAP certified, you don’t get to sell to Hannaford.  Pretty simple..the choice is  yours and their. and it is as  strong step towards food safety that p[rotects both the buyer as well as the vendor.

Along comes the 2013 Food Safety and Modernization Act.  Now, the FDA(Food and Drug Administration)   wants  to get into the act. They  get busy, gather up a bunch of  people in white coats, some people in suits and put them in a room in Washington and  devise a set of guidelines  for food production for  farms without even visiting  a farm.   For that little oversight, they find out the cost of  compliance to the initial set of rules would crush the development of a local food economy in the northeast. So  after some congressional delegations chastise them, they agree to rewrite the rules and even visit a few farms (which now becomes a photo  opportunity at places like Edgewater Farm). Now they have retired back to the confines of their Washington offices to see if they can do a little better.   You might think that someone  in the FDA would have the common sense to say “Hey guys, the USDA has this GAP program, and maybe we should look at it, see how it works and give them a call.” But Washington being Washington, and the FDA  being  the bureaucracy that it is, chooses to reinvent the wheel  in the assumption that nobody else is as smart or diligent as they  are when it comes to food safety.  Ultimately what will happen is that there are some farms that will have to   fulfill a food safety requirement  from their buyers (GAP) as well as keep a separate set of books and documentation for the federally mandated program  (FSMA).

I often jokingly say that “The new growth industry in  America is federal bureaucracy” to my friends who  want talk about investments. Truth is, I really believe that.   Why FSMA and  USDA GAP?  Who is the primary person to answer to  FED DOL  or NH DOL?   Where  does NH Department of Environmental Sciences  end and federal EPA begin?

The  redundancy, in the end, makes nobody’s food,environment or work space any safer,more productive or easier.   In our case bureaucratic redundancy makes our jobs here   harder and our product  dramatically  more expensive.

2014 Archives

 

FARM ENTERPRISE BUDGET: CHIX-A-LAY

DECEMBER 2, 2014

The chickens went down the road a couple of days  ago.  Literally.   Once the fall CSA was over, we shut them up one night in their Portable Affordable Chicken Coop and drove them down the road where they took  up permanent winter  residency with the  flock at  Macs Happy  Acres  Farm. Once the ground froze up inour fields here  the clover and grass  was harder to  come by in the field  for the chickens and the insects that scurry around were gone. Gone also was the vegetable refuse that  we make seasonably available to them from the farmstand. I tried to encourage them by throwing them some frozen heads of cabbage and  cauliflower. They just ran up to me and looked forlorn and hungry. Now they live where there is  an unfrozen water supply and bottomless grain feeders.

We got into the chicken business 3 years ago when we did our farmstand upgrade and added a commercial kitchen.   I grew up  on  a dairy farm, so I had some experience around cows, but chickens?   I surmised that they  wouldn’t  make as much manure as  cows, and a chicken stepping on your foot wouldn’t hurt half as much as a cow  would.  How hard could it be?   Besides, Ray was  raising  meatbirds for sale and everyone can use eggs, right? How hard  to take care of a flock of laying hens be?  The kitchen sure would use eggs ….and we would be able to  sell the rest.

So armed with this bullet proof business plan,  we took an old   four wheeled  hay wagon running gear and built a  little  10x 12  house on it with  roosts and nesting  boxes.  I bought a book by Joel Salatin, the Guru of American Pastured Poultry Farming and read it.  We had a couple  acres of  clover and  fescue on which  we could pasture them on.    I drove down to Wellscroft Fencing and spent a small ransom on   portable electric poultry fencing. Then after some discussions Ray had  with a gentleman known only  to me  as “Bucky the Chicken Guy from Connecticut”, a pickup truck piled high with chicken crates drove into the yard. The chickens came home to roost.

Of course they were pullets, and we knew  they were going to lay little eggs for awhile.  What we didn’t know  is that it would be  some time before they started to lay little eggs at all.  About three weeks to be exact.   But they were full sized birds with full sized appetites. Despite the  fact they  had lots of  grass to supplement their grain habit,  a pallet of 25 lb grain bags was  vanquished in short order .  In no time we  understood that  putting up a grain silo and buying grain in 3 ton deliveries would pay  off the  capital investment in about 26 minutes.  But we didn’t see it coming….the hidden costs.

By week five the girls were laying a quantity of what  were now large eggs. The kitchen was  loving them, and the sales through the farmstand were   indeed cleaning up what our 175 chickens are  producing. Pasture  poultry eggs are a very different product  than anything that you find in the store. The yolks are a deep colored orange and the  total   egg and plops onto the frying pan and it doesn’t run at all. They taste really good. Probably the result of a varied  diet and exercise…(where have we  heard that  said before?)    But I realized that my role as  Old Geezer Who Cares for the Laying Hens is taking a lot of time.  Fresh water twice a day.   All the  kitchen and farmstand refuse is being diverted from the compost pile to the chickens, and dedicated  garbage cans must be  removed twice a day. The eggs have to be  picked up and cleaned. And boxed.  And taken up to the farmstand. Even the damn  chicken nesting boxes  became repositorys for chicken shit and had to  be cleaned  out and fresh straw added weekly.  So I tracked my time. And I tracked the number of  dozens of eggs that went to the stand.

There was predation and attrition. Chicken hawks would help themselves. Although we feared the eagles, they seemed to prefer fishing to picking off our bony little chickens. But the weasels, coons and foxes would move  in occasionally and help themselves. A couple of our family dogs, despite their affable and good nature with humans, discovered latent hunting urges occasionally when presented with a strutting chicken.   And that 4 foot poultry fencing?  Even  with clipped wings the more resourceful and energetic chickens  could  get a running start and  clear the top of the fence to freedom. (Fortuneatley most are still not smart  enough….)  So this year  our original flock of 175 birds dwindled  to  about 100-115 birds by the  time they went south on River Road to their winter home.

At the end of year two I had some figures to work with.  I calculated  the gross dollar sales from the eggs that I boxed  up for sale.  I totaled up my hours and charged myself out at$13 an hour.  I deducted the grain costs, the cost of the egg cartons  and the cost of 3 bags of oyster shells.   Looks like I made made $1100 profit.  Cool!  That’s not a lot, but at least we aren’t loosing money.   That is, if you didn’t amortize the capital investments in the  fencing ,the grain silo or the RTV I used to haul grain  garbage, water,straw to them.  Whoops.

So there are some lessons we learned  here along with the standard lesson of  “all that glitters is not gold”. We have to raise our price on eggs, and get  it  at  least in line with the pastured poultry egg prices in the stores (when you can find them).   We have to figure out  the reduction of bird loss.  What do can we do  to streamline some part of the chore  process that I perform to save time? This is a process that we  should use to figure out many aspects of our farm. We just don’t  raise eggs for  a living. We grow strawberries. Potatoes.  Basil.   And about a thousand other things.      It would be easy to figure out profit and loss for Edgewater farm if we just grew eggs, but we do not.  Turns out best idea for us  may not be the idea to grow pastured poultry, but the utilizing an exercise  that determines  whether  raising eggs and meatbirds  makes any real sense at all.

2014 GROWING SEASON….ITS A WRAP, FOLKS!

OCTOBER 29, 2014 

This farmer’s time clock says that 2014 is pretty much over, despite the fact that there is no New Year’s Eve party in our immediate future or even the thanksgiving Turkey. That said, 2014 is pretty much done. The time to alter anything to change the outcome is past.  We are truly in chore mode; a steady diet of fall maintenance and packing out of root crops.  Daylight savings time shows up this coming weekend and we then will truly know what is in store for us.  Most of us remaining will probably go down to two meals a day so that we can capitalize on the short amount of daylight allowed us. (In my case that will be a difficult sacrifice, but maybe I won’t balloon up this winter.) Still, I welcome this time of year because it is probably the only time of year that we feel   relieved of any pressure that the growing   and retail season brings.  That will all return the first week of January when we seed the first greenhouse tomatoes.

2014 was a pretty nice year to farm in. We had adequate moisture, and despite a late winter that would not loosen its grip, we had a pretty temperate and sunny growing season (perhaps a bit on the cool side, but what farmer is incapable of not saying something slightly negative about the weather?) followed by a long warm fall. Who knows where we may go from here, but so far the farm workforce acknowledges this gift.  No temperatures in the 90’s, no spring frosts (the first year in 38 that we didn’t have to  protect the strawberries from frost with  irrigation….I  never had to get out of bed.Whooo-Hoooo!)   And lots of sun.   A fellow could get spoiled with weather this good.

It was an unusually busy year as well as we  incorporated the Putnam Farm into  the regular activities. We planted about  6 acres of potatoes there as well as a little sweet corn and 3.5 acres of strawberries that will be up to bat this coming spring.  We got a new barn and a greenhouse up as well…as much for Ray and Jenny’s wedding as for the 2015 growing season. We are also in the process of constructing   a dedicated office space and lunchroom in the barn.  So we had our hands full with accommodating some projects during the growing season.

Crops all fared well, except our fall squash and pumpkin crops which failed through some colossally bad management decisions I can only blame on myself. Jenny continued to grow our CSA programs by adding some business drop offs and our commercial kitchen seems to be just about at profitability in year 3.  We won’t attack the books until December when we move most of the operations inside. There will be seed orders to do as well, and tax work to be done as our year ends December 31. But first we must get the strawberries mulched and ready for winter, the rest of the carrots dug, greenhouse sides rolled up, stock plant house back in order, perennial pots covered for winter. The plow has to go on the truck and the snowblower mounted on the tractor. Blueberries could be pruned if the weather allows and if we don’t get too much snow we have lots of brush to cut along the field edges.

And maybe we will get to go south for a week in the winter before we have to start grafting tomatoes for spring of 2015…

MADE IN AMERICA? REALLY? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

AUGUST 3, 2014 

“Stuff that works, stuff that holds up.The kind of stuff you don’t hang on a wall.

Stuff that’s real,and stuff you feel. The kinda stuff you reach for when you fall”  ……Guy Glark, Texas songwriter

It first happened  when one day in 1987 that  my Dad proudly announced that he bought an American John Deere green tractor, because he didn’t want to support the Japanese economy by buying a Kubota tractor like mine. (This sentiment was fairly common amongst World War II veterans.)

So I  lifted the hood of his newly purchased green John Deere and found the serial number plate,– A Mitsubishi  motor married to a Yanmar tractor assembled in Osaka, Japan.   It resembled his old John Deere two cylinder Model  420U because it was painted green, but therein the similarities ended    It was a dog in my estimation…and I believe that  he would have been more comfortable operating the Kubota I thought he should have.

Its pretty confusing today trying  to buy American, such to the point that you have to read the fine print just to find out who exactly  did produce it.   For example:  Case – International  Harvester is pretty much an American Company,  right?  Recently they introduced a new line of low horsepower tractors to the market and branded them  Farmall   after the venerable predecessors with the same  name  that successfully butted marketing heads with John Deere  in the period from  the late 1920’s to the mid  1980’s.  I was looking  for a no frills tillage tractor with about 90 hp and the new Farmall  95 seemed to  be what was available to me.  The verdict is still out on whether it is a good tractor or not, considering the active life of  tractors can span anywhere from 20 to 35 years and its only 3 years old.  (We still use actively  6 tractors that range in age of 35 to 60 years).  Turns out my Farmall 95 is in reality a Fiat tractor put together in Ankara, Turkey and the loader on it is built in Sweden.  It’s American in name and paint scheme only.

Wait! What about  the new clawhammer style banjo I just bought form the Morgan-Monroe Banjo Company?  Sounds pretty  American, doesn’t it?  Wasn’t Bill Munroe the father of American bluegrass music? Yeah, but his namesake banjo was built  by oriental luthiers in China.  And, like a lot of the pacific rim instruments ( and farm machinery),   it’s pretty reasonably priced and  pretty well made.  And if this isn’t baffling  enough….my old 2004 Toyota Tacoma truck was assembled by American workers in Atlanta, Georgia. And it  just so happens that  Atlanta is also home to a plant  that assembles Kubota tractors.

Huh?

The interesting thing is that quality  used to be  synonomous with the American name. Its  a great deal more  complicated than that now. I maintain that the chessey  sheet  metal fenders on my Kubotas wont be around in 50 years,  but my little 245 Kubota tractors  don’t cost any money  to run, are  easy to get parts for and I suspect if I can keep a seat on them and  decent rubber under them  those little motors and transmissions will make 50 years of farm work  long after their  fenders turn to dust.  And my little Georgian  2004 Toyota truck is as comfortable as any sedan, and has given me 98000 trouble free miles with a little brake work, oil undercoating biennially, and a  piece of the muffler replaced. Cant beat that with a stick, as the locals would say.

I like supporting the local  economy as much as possible. Buying American made goods is a natural extension of that, and I am willing to pay some extra for that privilege.  But determining what is produced  in the US and is produced elsewhere is now a complicated proposition made  more complicated by the American companies like Case IH who slap branded American names on overseas products.

Are Carharrt pants still made in America?   I  better check.    Levis aren’t…..

THE STATE OF PYO STRAWBERRY PICKING VERS;2014

JUNE 29, 2014 

It had to happen. The other night there was an indignant , impassioned message  left on the answering machine.  It went like this:  “Why are you not opening your  PYO strawberry beds? Wellwood  Orchard  is open, and they are farther away than you are. Why aren’t you open? You are stupid. You are wasting money.”

I was tempted to return the call, but the fear of reprisals from my dear wife and daughter made me hesitate.  Then I considered the intellect of whom I might be trying to argue with. How bright could they  possibly be? Do they really think that we are hoarding  strawberries  from them because we don’t like to make money? I reconsidered my call, and opted not to.

But when we started harvesting  our first strawberry crop 38 years ago, we really counted on the PYO folks essentially to harvest that crop for us.   Anne and I were the only  pickers and we had no wholesale accounts. It worked well for many years.  Back then there was  no profusion of berries all winter long at the grocery store so strawberry season was as real summer landmark event, and people  came in weather good and bad. They turned out frequently during the season and then frequently returned again. They picked for themselves, some  picked for  resale, others  picked for shut ins  and elderly folks. The PYO crowd was a tangible, dependable work force for us in 1980.

Fast forward to 2014. We have a new word- agritainment.  Some people come to the farm not for the strawberries but for the experience….usually on a sunny day. They   come to the farms because they like the wagon rides, or the petting zoo…. But this measurable fact exists that we harvest essentially the same tonnage of fruit with twice as many patrons in 2013 as we had in the field in 1980.  Why?  Pretty decent product abounds in warmer areas and gets shipped here.    Strawberries from Watsonville or Plant City.   Blackberries from Arkansas in the spring, but Mexico during the winter.  Raspberries from Guatemala.   Our strawberries  just aren’t as big a deal as they were 30 years ago(despite the evidence of our phone call the other night). People aren’t  as motivated to pick, and  they pick smaller quantities.  Fewer people freeze or make their own jam.  It is now as much a nice sunny day’s activity as it is fresh strawberries on a shortcake.

So over time we have had to modify our harvest. PYO is still important and there not as many PYO Strawberry farms statewide as there were in the 80’s, but we need to  have a way of guaranteeing that the crop will be harvested. So we  have a field crew on the farm that harvests the vegetable and fruits as well as grows and cares for them. And we  have some wholesale accounts  as well as pick for our CSA customers and folks who visit the farmstand. The crew works on rainy days  (PYO folks do not) they need  very little management-other than coffee and donuts and pay-  (PYO folks  need extra  facilities, parking and lots of  direction and management). The crew monitors crop development and ripening for us (PYO folks are generally  only interested in what they have in their bucket and their own experience in the field.  There really has to be a large critical mass of ripe fruit out there ready for them when you open) and our farm crew  picks  in a clean organized fashion  (some PYO folks harvest cleanly, but not as a rule).     Bottom line is that running a good harvest crew is a profitable and dependable way to harvest the crop  whereas PYO is more fickle and weather dependent.

So that explains the integrated approach we currently employ. We always grow more than we need for our stand, CSA and wholesale needs,  and do so specifically for the U-pick.  But more and more PYO is a gamble.  And you know how I prefer to bet on a sure thing.

THIS IS MY ONLY REWARD????

APRIL 20, 2014 

After 16 years of biodynamic pest control in the greenhouses and a spider is what I have to show for my efforts?

Meet Phiddippus audax.  He is a tiny member of the arachnid family  known generically as  Jumping Spiders. He is a fast-moving little fellow about 1/4  of an inch in length, who can  actually jump 3-4 times his body length when he needs to get somewhere in a hurry. As he is a timid little guy, we more often see him in escape mode. I wouldn’t say he is cuddly, and certainly if you were  a potential meal for him, you   might feel different about how he looks. But to me he is in the “Good Guy” category,  and he doesnt seem as creepy as the over- sized barn spiders that move into the garage in late summer, or as sinister as the  beautiful black and yellow orb spiders that  move into the  field tomatoes in the summer and weave those  incredible webs. My  Dad  actually went so far as to  bestow the name  ‘Mr. Witloof’ on the little jumping spider, as to almost humanize him.

So what has this got to do with anything?

Well, for most of my life as a greenhouseman, Mr,  Witloof  made his appearance in the greenhouse furnaces in the fall, when he moved into the greenhouses looking for warmer winter quarters. In early winter, while I would be cleaning burners and  doing annual checks of my furnaces,  I would find him beating a hasty retreat.  But Jake Guest (of Killdeer Farm in Norwich) and I  have been  noticing  that for the last two years there seems to have been a population spike. These funny little fellows are now  in the pot trays and plant canopies. I can find an occasional  Witloof wandering around up in the brugmansia and fuchsia standards. Or meandering around the  shelf behind the  seed boxes  and radio.  They seem to be everywhere now.

Beyond their comical movements and the enjoyment that seeing them brings to me , I think that  there are some real reasons why they are now omnipresent. That reason could be that we  have actually gotten to the point after 16 years that we can control our pests in the greenhouse biologically, without the aid of conventional or certified  organic  pesticides.  It hasn’t been an inexpensive learning curve to do this, but  for the last three years we have been dialed in enough to  achieve control with biological insect releases alone.

I am by no means an entomologist  or out on the edge of this , but we certainly have learned a lot about biological pest control in the last 16 years.   This is due in no small part to the  efforts put forth by  some determined individuals in the University  Cooperative Extension Systems of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  Annual meetings, studies, internet access, on-farm education and scouting  have additionally contributed. Even vendors have gone from  just selling “good bugs in a can” to being  proactive in making sure the product they sell to us  has good quality control (the good bugs get delivered in the best possible  condition) as well as talking with us at length about the possibilities of choice of one predatory or parasitic control  over another. Lots of info.

I don’t think I’ll be problem-free  in the future. Problems and  hurdles always crop up in  natural systems. But to go three years without dragging my sprayer out and dumping a bottle of some goo in the tank to go spray for white fly or aphids is huge for me, and something for the farm to feel good  about.

So maybe Mr. Witloof is out and about because of this. Even though the arachnids are generally  insensitive to most pesticides in the greenhouse, the total absence of any  materials makes his household more inviting. In any event, he is a funny little guy who is now part of our defense arsenal  for greenhouse pest management for  aphids and other soft-bodied plant pests.  Welcome home,   Mr. Witloof.

Now go get ‘em..

MARCH….WHERE THE FARMER IS CAUGHT THINKING TOO HARD ABOUT THE ISSUES

MARCH 9, 2014 

Alan Jackson’s song “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” keeps coming into my head, but its lyrics transpose in my head  to “It’s Got to Be Spring Somewhere.”  Here it is March 6, and the temperature has broken 40 degrees only once in the last month and a half, and it’s pretty tough to  even remember when last it was in the  30’s.   But farming is done by the clock as much as the weather, and so the greenhouses are up and running.  Despite the fact that the sun is getting stronger by the day (when the sun actually shines) the nights have been brutally cold.  A couple of after-hours trips to the greenhouses have already been executed to tweak temperature alarms, thermostats and propane furnaces.  This cold weather is playing hell on our propane contracts.

But we have had some sunny days this week and the greenhouse crew have begun trickling back after their long winter’s nap. There are sprigs of green in the pots and baskets.  Despite the outdoor temps in the low twenties, I have been shedding layers on sunny days as I work in the upper greenhouses. The furnaces will not come on if the sun is anywhere near out,  and I duck outside to cool off from time to time in the  midday.  I know that this weather will break, so we are trying to keep up with things and not be caught napping.  It could well be that the snow is all gone and we will be having 70-degree days in April.  This is, after all, New England.

One of the benefits of working at a bench in the greenhouse – besides being warm – is that I get caught up on world events through news broadcasts and talk radio shows. Much of the time I spend grafting tomatoes, taking cuttings, watering flats and seeding,  so there is plenty of time to hear what is going on beyond the realm of the weather at Edgewater Farm.   Of course, we have had the Olympics and the developing events in Ukraine, but the talk shows resound with many of the same issues as last year at this time.  Many are pertinent to what we do here. The ongoing issue of food safety, global food supply,  hydrofracking,  the FDA’s re-vamping of FSMA ( see earlier blogs for more info on that)  and how that will affect how and what we do for business on this farm.  We hear about GMO and gene splicing in plants and animals.  Yesterday I listened to a call-in program on NHPR where people were lamenting the fact that  many of New Hampshires’s  open  fields were growing up to woods, meaning the loss of open land. Meanwhile, two other callers talked about the benefits to the  environment that forests  provide through carbon sequestration.   Talk shows, discussions and the media are full of all sorts of authorities on all sorts of subjects.

I find myself marveling at the fervent nature and assured authority from which these media panelists argue their point of view.  Most of the time I can understand all points of view, and empathize to a degree.  Many of this season’s discussion  involves  mankind’s use of technology to solve problems. The GMO question is frequesntly  brought up to us all at the farm.    Do we use GMO seeds?   Is our sweet corn Round-up Ready? These are fair questions, and for the record we do not.  Upon investigation we do, it seems, use some varieties of vegetable seeds that come from companies whose parent company is Monsanto, who actually does  produce large amounts of   GMO soy and grain and feed  corn seed to complement the sale of their proprietary herbicide Roundup. Monsanto accumulated vegetable seed companies,   I suppose, for the simple fact there is money to be made selling seeds.   Then there is the GMO  labeling issue as well, which is not altogether  removed  from the GMO/gene modification discussion.

I find the food labeling issue a no-brainer. I think GMO foods should be labeled, since there are some issues regarding the safety and politic of its use, especially where  transgenic gene modification is used.  These are of burning interest to consumers,v as been demonstrated by petitions circulated by movements like MoveOn.org.     People have a right to know, and if the FDA mandates that the producers of Slim Jims have to state that they use “processed beef lips” in their product, then  I think folks should be allowed be able to determine whether their foods have GMO products in them.

However, how I feel about GMO as a science gets more complicated. I am against transgenic GMO plant production (remember the death of the Monarch butterflies?).   But GMO in plant development as a way of expediting  the process of hybridization?  I don’t know enough about that to be for or against it.  The other day NPR had  panelists discuss the introduction of genes into  the human reproductive process to prevent   generational transmission of endocrine immune deficiency into children.  Some panelists were fervently opposed because it would be “opening a Pandora’s box of medical mad science” and  might well lead to  the creation of “Franken-babies.”  On the other side of the fence the people who had this immune deficiency  maintained that they would have have cut off their arm not to pass the same  problem on to some  of their children.  So what is it….good science or evil science?

It is all about the march of technology.   I don’t envy scientists.   Poor old Robert Oppenheimer.    Did he really want to be remembered as the father of the atom bomb? Wouldn’t he rather be remembered as a physicist who  further the development  of the fission reaction that heats homes and powers  air conditioners?  The guy who expedited, in some small fashion, the development of radiation treatment for cancers?  Technology is always a double-edged  sword.    DDT was a swell way to treat soldiers in World War II when they came back from battle covered with body lice. Worked  well in agriculture, too, or so we surmised. Seemed harmless enough  for those  who used it as directed until some years later when  Rachael Carson pointed out it was accumulating in the food chain. Whoops.   Monsanto  developed  Roundup back in the 70’s.  We all were led  to believe that  there was  rapid breakdown of the active ingredient,  and it was the safe to humans.  But the Emperor’s clothes started to deteriorate  when it was discovered that  the compound actually did bind with certain soil types under certain conditions and  rendered damage to the very  plants  farmers  were trying to protect.  Meanwhile the parent company got involved in developing Roundup-resistant corn and  soybeans through GMO. Then they went about with their legal police force looking to  protect their proprietary rights and taking anybody who looked suspicious to court.  As if this weren’t bad enough or terminal confusing, we can look at some of the medical compounds  medical science  developed to fight diseases and infections over the years.   Many   have been pulled from the market  since because of the unintended side effects on some  humans.  Makes the old head spin.

This is all part of the human dilemma as we march forward.  Will technological advancement help humanity go forward or guarantee our species’ extinction?  Can we operate in a void and try to ignore it  while  it spins everywhere around us?  I have no answers, only questions.    We here just try to inform ourselves and make the best possible decisions with the fewest compromises as we  move forward.

JANUARY 5- ONWARD INTO THE NEW GROWING SEASONS….

JANUARY 5, 2014 

The books are closed on Edgewater Farm’s 2013 season (our tax year being somewhat different than most people’s, we have to file our taxes by March 1st).  By all accounts it was a much better year for us than we  thought it would be back in July when we  had our onion crop and a fair amount of our strawberry crop ruined by rainy weather and flooding. That was a grim period for all NH and VT farmers and their employees .   You couldn’t cultivate the weeds to have them dry out and die, and  your work boots were soggy 24-7. My old hockey-skate-induced  athletes’-foot returned with a vengeance, and we all got depressed  from sunlight deprivation.  Then August came, and  summer showed its  cheerier side;   fall was absolutely delightful.   Sales were strong, and we able to get some stuff to  actually grow. So  now, as we surround ourselves with catalogs and go to meetings, we can  erase the memory of the bleaker times and have happy dreams of the future. Unfortunately, the future begins now as we have to make  plant divisions and start seeding ornamentals this week,  as well as start root stocks for the greenhouse tomatoes we graft.  But it is nice to have these little seasonal benchmarks to adhere to.  Keeps you  in touch with the flow of the seasons, and fosters the hope of renewal.

It has  been very cold thus far this winter,  starting  back in November.  All of us old geezers are making the same comment:  that this winter is more like the winters of our childhood. Cold temps and snow appeared well before  Christmas, and such has not been the case the last  many years. I  know better than to make general statements  about what may lie before us weather-wise, for it could turn out to be  warm and rainy yet. After all, this is still New England even if climate change is out and about.  But the single most striking thing one notices as you get older (and if you work outdoors) is the lengthening of the days.  It has been brutally cold this past week (a  couple of nights of -15 F ) and yet  farmers notice that it seems to be much lighter outside at 4:45 PM than it was at Christmas. The change is subtle, but it captures your attention.  And it brings you some cheer.  I guess that  the one understated benefit of farming is that you get to enjoy nature’s subtle  changes. The slowing growth of lettuce in the fall, the accelerated growth of summer squash  in the June heat,  the  muggy oppressive tension before a thunderstorm in July, the cooler drier change of the air of late August and early  September,  the lengthening tree shadows of November.  There are more lucrative ways to make a living, but  not many that let you directly feel the vagaries of the natural forces about us.

So the  temperatures have abated and it’s  a sunny Sunday morning, and the snow is nice and dry….good for skiing and snow shoeing.  I have been at the desk too long,  and with warming temps and rain in the forecast, I have decided all the greenhouse work that I should have done yesterday will await me tomorrow morning when it’s icy and miserable. And I will be happier to tackle it then….

2013 Archives

NOVEMBER 27

NOVEMBER 27, 2013 

It’s the first day of winter, at least in my book.  I just came in from moving some pots of blueberries around with the skidsteer. It’s 3:30 PM, the outside temps are 20 degrees. There is a howling wind and the snow (what very little we got) never thought of melting today and  it is just riding around on the wind. This is the time of year that I love my woodstove;  my fingers, toes and hindquarters, especially.

We have been wading through the fall list of cleanup. Mike has been changing skins on the greenhouses while Ray, Jenny, Heat and Sam valiantly wash and pack out potatoes and carrots and try to winterize the miserably cold barn. The greenhouse crew works on plant orders and comes outside to price pottery, but daylight is in short supply these days.Farm chores are increasingly in need of moderated temperatures and a good desk lamp.

I have been spreading manure and trying to clean up around the shop. The other day I spread some of our homemade compost on the rhubarb and the more deserving rows of raspberries. On my trips back and forth from the field, I noticed a little maroon Honda driving past, very slowly.  I assumed someone to be admiring my clean tractor as I loaded compost. After all, what’s not to admire about a clean tractor? It’s almost as prestigious as owning an Aston Martin, at least in any self-respecting farmer’s book. But I was wrong.  A couple of trips back and forth  past  me later, a woman’s hand emerged from the Honda to flag me down .  I went over to the car to see what might be amiss.

She was concerned with the fact that I seemed to be unaware that my compost pile was on fire. Was I aware of that and should that be allowed?  Seems that after I opened up the pile with the tractor bucket she mistook the billowing clouds of steam for smoke from a fire. So I thanked her for her concern, tried to give her 3-minute course on the building and function of a compost pile, and assured her that all she was witnessing was a good thing. She then apologized for asking what then appeared to her to be a stupid question, to which I replied “If you don’t ask the question, you don’t learn anything.”

I was grateful to connect with her,  even in a casual way, and to have an opportunity to address her concerns. But it brought home to me that in the last 50 years the vast majority of Americans have become removed from any form of agriculture.  Perhaps that explains the uproar over FSMA 2013 and Food Safety.  Most Americans don’t know how farms work, and their total personal connection to the farming community is through Fox Network or CNN News.  When I was growing up   (which in real time,  according to most who work here was a period shortly before the invention of the steam  engine)  lived in Hillsboro, NH,  which was small community of maybe 2000 folks. At that time there were 12 viable farms like ours  in town that shipped fluid milk.  There were no farm stands.   Many folks in town  kept some chickens or a pig, gardened,  and they canned  goods from their garden for the winter even though they might have had day jobs at  Sylvania or Monadnock Paper. Many headed to the woods in  November to get a deer to put in the freezer. Fishing was a food source or  favorite pastime for me and my  pals (unless it was baseball or softball season, that  ran periodically year round  for those of us who didn’t believe we could hurt our arms by throwing hard in the winter). The rest of the folks were either relatives of farmers, or lived near one.

Somewhere along the line the community/farmer connection deteriorated.  A farmer spreading manure  50 years ago was a sign of spring, not  unlike the arrival of the first robin. Today it means a potential visit from the road agent or a call from the town manager if any manure from the spreader ends up on the road, thus undercoating  someone’s car. My Mom knew when it was time to call Elgin Sherk to see if he had any extra strawberries to sell from his garden, and she was a city kid from Stamford, Connecticut.  Here at our farm we have witnessed the disconnect  when we have  had local people show up at the farm greenhouses when  we first open in April with buckets in hand, looking to pick strawberries.

How did this disconnect happen?  Obviously well-intentioned but destructive farm policy in the  60’s  helped, as well as  America’s undying  belief that technology solves all problems and technology will feed all people cheaply.  The farmers themselves bought into these beliefs, even though it led to their own demise.  In Hillsboro in 1966 I could name you the twelve farms shipping milk by family name. Today not one farm in Hillsboro ships milk.  I don’t know how many families were milking cows for a livelihood here in Plainfield in 1966, but I am sure that the number was many times the two that remain today. So there are fewer family farms, less personal and community connection to farmers, less knowledge about farming.

There has been a resurgence of small diverse family-based agriculture in the last fifteen years. Attendant to that is the development of  farmstands, food hubs, CSAs  and a foodie movement.  From my perspective this is a very cool thing, not just for my own pocketbook but for society as well. I believe when people get involved with either food hubs or CSAs. or just come to the farm stand to pick up some vine-ripe tomatoes,  they have  an opportunity  to understand and learn once again what it takes to produce  the food we eat. Oftentimes the best support a community can offer a farmer is the understanding  of how farms operate  and allowing  them to operate freely , despite  the fact that they may be sometimes odiferous or  sometimes noisy or inconvenient.  Let’s hope the trend continues.  Maybe someday in the future there will be twelve farms in Hillsboro providing livelihoods for twelve  families.  Now  that would be something to see. 

FARMS,FSMA AND FALL

SEPTEMBER 3, 2013 

Its been a busy summer and here it is already September. They say time flies when you are having  fun; this past summer has been a mixed bag, to say the least. The arrival of our grandaughter has been the best hoot, and she has reduced her grandfather to behavior patterns he once denied he would ever ascribe to.  The arrival of Labor Day always draws the comment from customers that we must enjoy the winding down of the season. On the contrary, the “September Sprint” begins in late  August, when the collegians within the crew depart to go back to school. Fall root crops have yet to be harvested; we still have another month and a half of picking tomatoes, corn, and all the other vegetables.  There is much to harvest and pack out between now and Thanksgiving, and the shortening days remind you that there are myriad non-income-producing chores that also need attention before winter’s arrival.

Recently you may have noticed that the FDA sent a panel of bureaucrats and scientists into New England at the behest of the northeastern Congressional  delegation,  for the stated purpose of hearing the concerns and complaints of farmers, food producers and  other concerned stakeholders in the Northeast.  This was in response to final rule-making of the 2013 Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA).   On the morning of August 20 I attended the hearing in Hanover,  and then we hosted a farm visit with the FDA panelists  in the  afternoon.  There was ample press coverage, and the turnout for the morning hearing was a full house (about 300 people), predominantly  farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont who generally are fearful of the onerous documentation and cost that the Act will bring to their operations. Conservationists, consumers and other stakeholders were concerned with the Act’s potentially negative impact on development of a sustainable local food web, our diversified family-farm-based agriculture, as well as on the environment  here in the Northeast.

The FDA panel was polite, but by the afternoon it was apparent to me that they were, at best,  only mildly interested in hearing what we had to say, and were more interested in defending their own position.  They clearly didn’t grasp the diversity or complexity of small-scale agriculture, but how could they? None came from a farming background (unless you count being a Vice President of Monsanto a “farming background”). In the end, having been in the room with the panel in Hanover and then having had them visit my farm left a hollow feeling in my gut.  I felt that they were here  because someone told them they had to come; so they came and got some photo ops and went back to DC.  Net result, in my opinion?  They may just as well not have come.

There is one huge point lost amid all the minutiae that surrounds FSMA. We spent a boatload of time discussing the impact of poor science in the  AG Water Regs, the huge amount of documentation that will be required for traceability, the enforcement components, the  proposed “exemptions”(which have more tripwires than a minefield) and on and on.  The big point that doesn’t get enough attention is that our food system is pretty safe.  People get sick from food poisoning, some may die, and that is no small tradgedy.  But the on morning of the hearing in Hanover, the first person to rise to the microphone was Jake Guest of Killdeer Farm of Norwich ,Vt.  He quoted  a report from the Center for Disease Control (based in Atlanta and a branch of the government)  stating that from 1996-2010 less than 1% of the total of all foodborne illnesses were attributable to fresh produce,  and most of that small fraction could be traced to large, vertically-integrated packer-shippers from out west (already supposedly under the auspices of food safety management).  He surmised that perhaps there wasn’t a problem, and if there was, it probably wasn’t  from small Northeastern family farms. To the average citizen it is pretty apparent that 2 (maybe 3 now) Mid-Eastern conflicts , the daily operation of motorized vehicles, the right for Americans to purchase automatic military-style weapons for their personal amusement, and  ball pein hammers (see my Jan 2013 blog)  constitute much greater risk to Americans  than eating strawberries from Edgewater Farm irrigated with Connecticut River water.

Immediately the panelists went into defensive posture and trotted out some of George Bush’s “Fuzzy Math, ”   going on at length for 10 minutes  about  how  “the figures don’t accurately reflect…. “  and  “if you look at how that 1% breaks down….”  Their response, in hypnotic  Washington-speak,  had the expected effect ;  eyes  glazed over and  we almost forgot why we were in the room.  It may cloud the issue, but it doesn’t erase the fact that a tiny fraction of illness  food borne illnesses are attributable to fresh produce. It’s a fact that Jake  has been railing about ever since we first heard about mandatory food safety  and the 2007 California Leafy Greens Amendment .

Your food is pretty safe, and it’s already heavily regulated.  If you feel that processed food,  shipped  from afar in shrink wrap or poly bags with government stamps on it has less risk or is better food for you, then you already  currently have  plenty of choice and access to that.  But don’t deny others the right to have another choice from their local farmers by choking those farmers with government regulations and economic burdens.

Many farmers today belonged to an agricultural youth organization when they were growing  up. I belonged to a 4-H Club when I grew up on a dairy farm. Their  club motto is: “To Make the Best BETTER.” That’s a noble endeavor in life, whether you are milking cows, engineering bridges, educating young people ,driving a dumptruck  or playing in a blues band.  All the small farmers I come in contact with have worked very hard at being better farmers and taking better  better care of their natural resources. They certainly work hard to minimize food risks on their farms. By arguing against FSMA, they are not arguing against food safety, or trivializing its importance.  But FSMA as currently written is destructive to diversified and small-scale agriculture. Education, not regulation is needed, if anything is needed at all. “To make the best better” should be  an individual’s  outlook  into approaching a life, not  not a federally mandated  and regulated program.

DUBIOUS ANNIVERSARIES OF SORTS….

JULY 29, 2013 

It was in 1973 that I  gave  up my chair as bassist for the aspiring Ray Charles tribute band Great Baye to farm up here in Plainfield.  It will be 40 years this year that  Anne and I have been married.   Been forty years since I graduated from UNH with a degree in Environmental Science,  finishing  a fairly  undistinguished and unremarkable academic career.  

It’s also been forty years since the town of Plainfield has had as much untimely and destructive weather as it has this year .  After a sopping wet June of that year,  the weather gods followed up with a storm  on July 4th that  dumped 4” of rain onto the already saturated earth.  The result was flash flooding  all about the town.  Families on our road were isolated for days,   due to washouts of sections of the road as well as to a couple of well -placed  mudslides on the lower end of the road.  Anne and I were stranded that day, trying to retrieve some calves from a farm in West Claremont,  only to  come  to a stop  with the truck  and trailer on the way home when the hole in the road turned out to be 40 feet deep.  We spent the night at the house of a friend of the family in Plainfield Village and were not able to get home until the next afternoon.

That was a pretty expensive weather event for the town of Plainfield.  There were federal disaster monies made available, but it took months to get culverts replaced and  roads back into shape.  They did a good  job, but little would they know for another 40 years  just how  well they actually had done.  Didn’t effect Anne and me too much,  we  were only cropping a couple of acres, and those acres sat on dry ground.   I didn’t have irrigation then,  so the melons and corn really liked the extra moisture.  (So did the weeds, but that’s another story…)

Fast forward to 2013. After planting corn with dust masks and living in what then appeared to be a developing dust bowl, we started to get rainy weather…..just about the time we started picking strawberries. It was helpful in  the continuation of crop planting, but timely rain,  not continuous rain,  is really the order of the day during strawberry harvest.  So  we were doing a pretty good job of dealing with the crop for what  we could pick  and sell,  but  the PYO pickers couldn’t get into the field, or didn’t want to come out into the muggy,  rizzly weather.  Out of a potential 17 evenings that we were open for PYO, only twice did we stay open for our full  hours of operation.  We were either rained out,  or the threat of lightning made us close the  patch.  The farm crew was doing an admirable job harvesting, and rot was minimal because we were  getting just enough periods of drying and breeziness.   But on  July 2nd it started raining in the afternoon – 2.5″ in 40 minutes.  It washed out all our  farm roads  and just hammered the strawberries.  During that night it rained another 3″,  and just when the workers knelt down to  try to sort through the mess and  pick strawberries, the heavens opened up and dumped another inch of rain on them.  The 2013  strawberry season was pretty much over .

Peter contemplates the merits of a FYO enterprise for the farm (Fish Your  Own) in the shop door yard

It has been a hard summer for all farmers:  dairy,  orchardists,   loggers  and truck farmers alike.  Weather seems  to come in extremes.  Extreme heat, extreme rainfall, extreme wind and lighting…..There are  a lot of long faces in the  greater farming family, and more sad than happy stories to go around.  The sun is headed in the other direction,  making it too late to plant many crops with the expectation of profitability. Most all the farmers I talk to  have the same resigned quote for you: “It is what it is..”  The crops and dollars  that we  have lost to this season would make good gossip in another year,  but alternately seem disarmingly insignificant to the loss suffered by some of my  fellow farmers in this current year. But if there is one type of human who could be considered an optimist in this world,  it would be a farmer. Couple of days of sun and things start to  look normal.   I look at the new strawberry plants I put in and they are  looking  pretty good.  Not many  weeds, leaves are big – I get excited all over again.  We are able to forget (somewhat) the weather-induced depression and again we are “off to the races.”  

I remarked once to my friend Skip Paul that I felt I suffered from some sort of ADHD  or ADD- an attention deficit disorder.   He shot back , “Well, isn’t that a prerequisite for being a farmer?”

THE PUTNAM FARM AFTER ONE YEAR

MAY 8, 2013 

It’s just about a year ago exactly that we passed  papers on the Putnam Farm. I told one of the neighbors that “the scorched earth policy is over,” and indeed it looks a little like that has been our intent.  Once our 2012 growing season was over,  we had to get the house habitable and back in order.  Jim Osterlund had to deal with some dangerously antiquated electrical issues and we had our propane guy install a new furnace before we focused on the fields and buildings. There was a lot of brush to cut back, and with the  help of Leo Maslan, his climbing skills and chipper (coupled with a warmish spell of weather in January),  we got a lot of  brush cut from the edge of the fields back to the stone walls.  Wayne McCutcheon completed a survey at the same time as a precursor to  pursuing conservation easements.

We decided to open up a new field that lay unused on the river side of the railroad tracks. The folks from Oak Hill Lumber came in with their chipper and shears and logged it off.  Three days, an excavator, a bulldozer and Scott Macleay and Rob Williams left us with a three-acre field to work with.

Many have lamented the loss of the barn.  As mentioned in an earlier blog, we had given a great deal of thought to finding a way of keeping it in some portion as part of the farm. Ultimately, though, any kind of restoration looked like financial folly- even to the most ardent Eric Sloane fan.  In the end,  Ken Epworth and The Barn People of Windsor dismantled it for the barn board and timbers in it.  They are going to re-size the timbers (due to the significant rot in the connection joinery) and reconstruct part of the barn as an adjunct to the new Artistree Art and Performance Center that is being built up in Pomfret, Vermont.  So the original barn, in part, will still live. Sometime down the road when we really determine what our needs will be, there will be another barn on the Putnam Farm.

The final piece of the puzzle will be the completion of a horizontal bore underneath the railroad track and  state Route 12-A for an irrigation line that will allow us to  get water from the Connecticut River. Once that is completed,  we can focus on working with the soil and actually growing crops.  It will be nice to have the money meter running (we hope) in the other direction.

A BAD APRIL FOOLS DAY. NO JOKE…

APRIL 5, 2013 

Below is a picture of Eric Heaton planting up the first of one of our two tomato greenhouses on March 28.

Below is a picture of what I found on Monday morning, April 1st.


This is a vivid illustration that there is a darker face to what most people see of farms. A confluence of events Sunday between a gust of wind and our furnace igniting during the night resulted in a flash fire that destroyed some electrical wiring, burned holes through and ruined the plastic greenhouse covering, and killed 360 grafted tomato transplants that would have had a street value of $1800 if I were, in fact, able to go and and buy them, were they even available.

The upside, per usual, is that it could have been much worse. The furnace was not ruined. Because it happened during a rain event, the fire on the greenhouse plastic never really got going, thus the fire never transferred to the two greenhouses on either side. And, of course, no humans or favorite dogs were in the house at the time of the fire. And we were able to make all necessary reparations within 24 hours. We have been scavenging tomatoes from all of our friends and, with some extras that we had, we will have about half the house replanted, hopefully, by the end of the day. The only reminder will be the smell of burned earth and plastic.

Shit happens, as they say. It happens to all of us. It seems, however, that it happens a little more frequently to farmers than to real estate brokers or people with government jobs. Self-employment, especially the kind that is so weather-dependent, is not for the fainthearted. Wind events and hail can shred row covers and greenhouse plastic. Wet, heavy snow can collapse greenhouses. Floods render crops unsafe and unmarketable. Frost can undo weeks of work in a couple of minutes on a cold spring morning. So the next time you pick up a quart of berries at the farm stand, your weekly CSA box share, or peruse the local farmers’ collective efforts on display at the Coop Food Stores, remember both these pictures. They represent the true picture of farming.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION IN THE AGE OF INFORMATION

MARCH 20, 2013 

I had a customer inquiry this past  weekend  that I probably handled poorly. Then again, maybe  I didn’t.  The customer wanted to know if we handled GMO seeds, or generated greenhouse transplants from  GMO seeds, or  by inference, use them in the field. The customer had been reading  about Monsanto and they were very disturbed about what they had learned. This was my reply:

Dear  X:

To the best of my  knowledge we are not  using any GMO varieties, and we would not knowingly  purchase any. I  have some unanswered questions in my mind as to the value of gene modification to science (I am  by no means a scientist) –  regarding,for example, developing a diabetic cure, reversing  Alzeheimer’s disease, etc., which might be a good use,  but we are not in favor of its use in food  production.  Monsanto developed BST and tried to shove that down the dairy industry’s throat, and my relatives at McNamara Dairy didn’t bite on that either. There are a lot of unanswered questions being  ignored in the name of science and profitability,  and  I have  personally felt that Monsanto is a bad corporate  citizen. Period.

I am  aware that Monsanto is acquiring foreign seed  companies, and a  lot of our  hybrids are from these European seed  houses. However, I would say that 90 percent of our seed comes from  either Johnny’s or Harris in NY,  both companies that are pretty sensitive to the GMO issue  and  buy significant lots from these seed houses for re-distribution. They are very clear and label what is GMO and what is not, as they service the smaller farm and  organic  community in the Northeast.  We here at Edgewater are not certified organic by the  Federal government, so we can save a great deal of money buying the same varieties without the federal organic  certification.

I hope this is helpful information.  Please feel free to get hold  of me  if you have other specific questions.

All the Best,

Pooh Sprague

 My response was crafted to be completely transparent to the customer. Perhaps if I had spun the answer thusly:  ” I would never knowingly allow a GMO variety to be propagated on Edgewater Farm,” (which is  also true),  I would still have her as a customer.  I feel I may have lost the customer  because I gave her a longer,  and  what I thought was a more candid and thoughtful response, and I think I complicated her  agenda.  GMO,  to me,  is a huge issue, larger than Monsanto and sweet corn or tomato seed. I read that there may be cures developed through GMO  for diabetes, and if a couple of my family members can make it to 70 without their extremities amputated from  circulatory complications resulting from diabetes, then I think that is good thing. But I muddied the answer; she was looking  for the black and white answer. Keep it simple.

Today,  most every question I field from customers  is in want  of a simple black-or- white, yes-or-no answer. Do you spray? Yes or no. Are you organic? Yes or no.  Is your produce safe to eat? Yes or no.  This is the age of the sound bite. Today there is more information available than ever before to us and yet we spend less time researching and thinking about things.  I have no illusions that more people look at the  Edgewater Farm Facebook pictures than read the Edgewater Farm blog. I can see it in the eyes of a customer when I am asked if I am certified organic. They  would  much rather see a little green USDA Certified Organic sticker  on the middle of my forehead that enter  into a discussion with me as to why I am not or what organic methods  we  actually do practice . Because the federal government, through its certification process,  has made the “O” word almost proprietary, I cannot even us it  to  to describe the crops we actually do grow organically. Thus not being  certified makes it simple. If its not good (certified organic) it must be bad. Reality is, it’s like many things in life;  mostly shades of gray. But for most people, if it can be viewed as black  or white,  good  or bad, then the decision becomes easier and thus goes away quicker. More time to watch Downton Abby, less time thinking about the GMO.

I wish my world was that simple. I am often paralyzed in the decision making process,  if not internally torn by the decisions I make because there are so many considerations. We are  converting two acres low grade forest into field down at the Putnam Farm. Although I know that two acres of land grows a lot of radishes and green beans and that land conversion just increases the existing field, I confided to the logger some guilt because carbon sequestration that forests provide is really important to environment,  perhaps more important than growing food for humans. If we made decisions based solely on business profitability, things would look totally different when people drove down River Road. Smart money would have  made us move out of here back in the 80’s  when the Asian gentlemen   jumped out of the BMW, started waving his checkbook at me asking me to name a price on the farm. That turned out to be a  simple decision. Most are not.

I realize in my conversation with the customer that maybe there can be a thing as being “too” honest.    I have to become better,perhaps, at crafting sound bites.  In the end, I think the former customer and I probably feel the same way  about the GMO issue . But I think she  made the wrong decision  deciding to  stop doing  business with  us,  because in the end she may hurt Edgewater  much more than she will hurt Monsanto. 

TOOLS WE REALLY LIKE

IMAGE FEBRUARY 26, 2013 

I got caught blindsided the other day. A  beginner farmer asked me about my favorite tools that are a must for a start up farm, something that I couldn’t live without and might need to  get on hand. Their question was directed to elicit an answer like  “Boy, I couldn’t live without my old Kubota 274 cultivating tractor,” or similar response like “You need to get a broadfork for working in your high tunnel greenhouses.”  Imagine the look I got when I responded that my favorite go-to farm tool was duct tape.

After some explanation the person appreciated my perspective and,  I think, was moved to lay in her own personal supply. I think we use approximately 20 rolls a year around the farm. Need to patch some plastic holes in the greenhouse? Duct tape.  Got a big  gash in the tractor seat that absorbs  rain water and soaks your ass when you sit on it? Duct tape cures it.  Got a bundle of unruly tomato stakes? Duct tape.  Need something to give that radiator hose a little extra life? Duct tape. Need to fashion a makeshift  chute to  get potatoes from a bulk box to a table grader? You got nothin’  if you don’t have duct tape.

There are other  tools that I find over the years I look to keep in stock. There are wire tie wraps. A little hand tool that takes a piece of wire with a loop on both ends and with a few quick flips of the wrist closes potato bags. At least that is how they originally landed on the farm, and what we needed them for. Pretty soon Mike was using them to suspend purlins in the greenhouse and I was wiring up hydraulic hoses on the harrow to keep them out of harm’s way. Next, they showed up as low-budget hose clamps in the greenhouse and outdoor mum-watering lines. Recently they have been traveling up to the sugar bush to hang sap lines. We prefer the teflon-coated ones because they are easy to see while we’re working in bad light and they seem to keep their structural integrity longer. How did we ever live without them?

For the welder there is a special electrode for welding steel .  It is ubiquitously called the E6011 rod, and I try to keep several pounds of rods lying around at all times.. Today  there are hundreds of welding rods available to those who weld professionally. A real welder who makes his living from his profession must be part metallurgist, part engineer and part artist. They have different welding rigs (gas, Mig, Tig, Argon shield, electrode AC-DC, etc. etc.) that they choose from to  fabricate everything from bridges to sculptures. But  the E6011 was designed specifically with farmers in mind.  The folks  who sell them will  proudly tell you that they will burn through 1/2 inch of cow manure on a shit spreader to fuse rusty steel into structural integrity. Sounds like magic. Damn near is. Everyone here  at Edgewater who fires up the old Buzz Box (a generic name for the industry standard arc welder)  and blobs some piece of machinery or broken steel back together is beholden to the E6011.

Everybody has to do a bunch of hand hoeing at some point around here. Even the girls at the stand.  Doesn’t matter if  you  have the latest collection of exquisite European cultivators for your tractor, or a pesticide shed full of herbicides….in the end there is always hand hoeing.  Everybody has his or her own favorite. I started out with an old onion hoe that I bought with the farm.  Early on I took a cue from my  neighbor, Paul Franklin,  and ground it down to  emulate his favored “Racing Hoe.”  Then there came the Real trapezoid hoe, the Coleman Collinear hoe,  the scuffle hoe and the Dutch swan neck hoe. By the middle of  July,  people working here in the fields find the particular hoe that they like either because of  its weight, angle of blade or length of handle.  They become covetous of it.  Sometimes they hide it from others between uses (yeah, I am one of them). They become territorial about it.  I broke the handle on my son’s favorite hoe this fall.  Upon his hearing  my admission to the  crime, his reaction made me fear that he might just bludgeon me to death with the remaining parts.  So much for the limits of paternal love.

Everybody knows about Vise Grips… How about the adjustable wrench?  Doesn’t have to be a name brand.  I figure I need at least two per employee. They gotta be big, too…because most of the time they are used in place of hammers.  Occasionally they get used to tighten nuts and bolts, but not that  often.  So they nominally have to be 12″ in length. They make a handy drawbar pin for a large tractor-drawn implement, and I can see by the handles of some that are returned to the shop in the fall that somebody used them  (with the addition of a pipe on the handle) as, perhaps,  a fulcrum or pry bar.

One of the regional University Extension personnel referred to farmers as an “innovative lot.”  I would say from experience on this farm that we appreciate tools, and endeavor to find creative ways of using them above and beyond those for which they were designed.

JAN 26– THEY’RE HERE,NEW FARMER MANDATES FROM THE FDA

JANUARY 26, 2013 

We suspected that something like this was in the works and it might happen,but we were hoping it wasn’t  going to be this onerous.  Thanks to media hype  (think Jim Cantore on the Weather Channel,  showing us the accumulation of  one half-inch of snow on New York  park benches every 20 minutes),  the  Federal Government  through the FDA will expand its bureaucratic hand of influence now into the hand of  agriculture. This will be done in an effort to insure that Americans will now  be evermore protected from the dangers of fresh produce.

Seems as though there have been attributable deaths of Americans from the consumption of foods that contained food-borne  pathogens. We can all remember the spinach scare of 2009. Subsequent illnesses were reported with imported raspberries. Chicken, tainted hamburger? Colorado melons with  listeria?  Lettuce mixes recalled? And remember a  delightful fellow named Mr. Barnel  who knowingly and intentionally had  some of his really nasty  peanuts ground up into  peanut butter. so that a pile of folks got sick on  peanut butter, some dying?    Hard to think that he is  somebody’s uncle.

These are facts, I have read them myself.  I’m  not here to make light of them. But I read another interesting fact that was released from some group with a name like the  Municipal Policemen Association that  showed us that  more people were murdered last year by ball pein  hammers (not the regular carpenter’s claw hammers, but  a machinist or mechanic’s hammer) than died from pathogen-painted food.  I don’t remember hearing  that anybody who wants to own or use a ball pein hammer needs to  undergo training, certification and monitoring by an arm of the federal government.  I would think that  if the level of risk from death by ball pein hammer and consuming  fresh produce,  which are  just about the  same (under 500  deaths per year), it  might warrant oversight  that would be similar and proportionate, right?

Well, I guess not. And  I wonder why  other  activities that  actually kill thousands more  people go on  as business as usual…say allowing people to  smoke when we know that it kills or at the very  least diminishes them?   We could really impact  the safety of Americans if we told them that it was a criminal  and punishable offense to be caught smoking  or distributing tobacco…..just like marijuana.  If we really wanted to save lives we could regulate the amount of high fructose corn syrup that folks can consume  ( I personally would miss my  unlimited access to Mountain Dew)  but  we could impact the  high rate of  American obesity and obesity-related diseases by  doing so.

OK, so I am  a tad  grumpy sounding.    And I know I am getting to the Old Fart stage,  because I have been caught saying that  I don’t understand how Edgewater Farm  became such a risk to the public welfare after all these years in farming. Why do we need regulatory oversight now?  I would be presumptuous to say that no one never got sick from eating our produce in the 40 years we have been here. I know from personal experience that  five  buttered ears of fresh sweet corn can get through your system in kind of a hurry if you eat it alone on an empty stomach.  But a capital outlay and  now the feds?   Did  a bunch of people  get sick on strawberries in town and I didn’t hear about it?  Americans seem not to be willing to take any responsibility for anything in their lives (including making food choices), so  we here  have been slowly ramping  up for the arrival of yet another set of compliance regulations set forth by the federal government.  Rather than  dump  $25,000-$50,000 into a certifiable  wash/packing facility, we have making capital  improvements over the last two or three years so the  financial sting wouldn’t be  so bad if it did  come to this. Early this winter we added a new barn ceiling and  all new light fixtures  even before the FDA mandates came out.  A sad sidebar to this is that on small-scale startup farms this new mandate will handcuff their marketing strategies, limiting them to the CSA model only. They will  probably have to buy a wash facility long before they buy their first  tiller or tractor if they want to  grow vegetables and sell to  restaurants. The mandates are coupled with expensive water testing, paperwork  generation and federal inspections.  It’s just another small-business  enterprise hurdle, with no real scientific basis to conclude that food is any more a threat to  human life than a  common ball pein hammer.

The University USDA Extension personnel are currently trying to digest and sort out for all of us  what  the 1200 page food safety mandate actually means, and what specifics that we cannot overlook in our 2-3 year march towards compliance. Small startup farms are cringing, and  may just get out. We at Edgewater are hoping  that it’s a do-able exercise, yet knowing all too well that these  additional measures add cost to the  production of food, and  usually can’t be recovered.  By making  the smaller farmer adhere to what the huge  vertically  integrated grower-packer-shippers do gives  the big outfits a competitive edge.  The net effect could well be the squashing of  the emergence of  small  local farms and and small regional foodwebs. At the worst it will have an effect on the face of small farms  not unlike what the mandated  use of  commercial bulk tanks did to  small New England Farms in the 1950’s.  We thought  we had heard the last of Earl Butz’s ( Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon) cry  to farmers— “Get big…or get out!”    Evidently not.

There is a comment period. You can find out about it (ending May 16, I think..) at the FDA website,  though I would  pessimistically say that it’s a done deal. That is, in the long run, unfortunate for small scale farms as well as the  good folks  who would buy their produce from them. Time will tell. But I  guess you can  garner some degree of relief in the meantime knowing that although you are still  at mortal risk from a ball pein hammer, you and your children will be protected from fresh fruits and vegetables.