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.

2012 Archives

 

RE: BRIAN DE PALMA

DECEMBER 17, 2012 

About a month ago, Brian de Palma published an op-ed article somewhere  stating that research  had shown  that certified organically raised  produce had no more food value than produce raised conventionally. I didn’t see the original  article  but it  caused a furor in the  organic community.  Even as a non certified organic grower, I guess I would wonder how anybody arrives  at a blanket statement like that and the criterion that he used to reach that conclusion.   And of course,  the big question in my mind (without having seen the article),  what is  and how broad is his definition of  food value?

Being more concerned with the mundane business of cramming  farming into increasingly shortening daylight hours and colder temperatures as well as the seasonal  hurdle of Christmas shopping,  I never looked the article up. And I  fell asleep long before my curiosity arose to do so. But I caught a second article by de Palma in our local daily  paper  The Valley News, and I garnered some interesting facts from it that made  me stop and think.

Leaving  food value aside,  he compared  the energy consumption of organic farming  practices vs  conventional  farming.    I would have guessed conventional ag would have used less energy than organic ag.  This supposition is born from the fact that there is a fair amount of mechanical  cultivation  in organic ag  coupled with fallowing systems,  flame weeding  and,  up to this point,   very expensive  fertilizers and soil amendments.  Cultivation and organic  amendments  are  areas in which we  at Edgewater have some expertise, although  in some crops we use herbicides  to get some measure of control over the bad guys (weeds)  and conventional fertilizers as well.    But de Palma  points out that the high use of BTUs  in the  production of conventional  fertilizers and  chemicals  offsets the  high cost of organic production.  Upon thinking about it,   I think he may be onto something.   From a conventional  production   standpoint,  we can see  fossil fuel products  have climbed astronomically  the last  five years for both organic and conventional farmers,  we all use diesel fuel and grease.   Conventional fertilizer has risen astronomically.   I know that my cost of potash  has gone up  300% in the past five years,.   Part of this is demand  (with China being a huge customer for US produced fertilizers), but it remains  that  the means of producing  potash as well as conventional  urea form nitrogen  requires the use of fossil fuel.  So my world gets jostled a little because  not  too many years ago it was,  from a  purely economic  standpoint,   cheaper to produce  food through conventional means.  I think that I may have been complacent in my illusion to that fact, but there certainly is a strong statement  by de Palma in today’s economy  to be otherwise.

At the end of our  day this may just be  another interesting factoid.  Edgewater Farm really isn’t  going to be moved by this other than  better understanding the realities of farming in the 21st century.  It wont be a paradigm shift for us because we have always straddled the line of organic farming and conventional farming.  The objective is still  to understand the  systems that produce safe, healthy  food  in a sustainable way, and choose the correct path.  And while traveling down that  path  we will continue to look forward and aft and keeping an ear to the ground to what others, like de Palma ,  have to say.

THE PUTNAM FARM–NOVEMBER 2012

NOVEMBER 7, 2012 

As many of you  remember, we purchased the Putnam Farm and Homestead in Cornish back in May. It isn’t an exercise in empire-building, we just needed the land to continue what we currently do. We currently beg, borrow and lease about 35% of the tillable acreage we currently farm, so to secure a land base we bought the farm–both literally and (somewhat) figuratively.  Lots of  folks ask us about it, and what our plans are for its future.  Perhaps this blog will address those questions.

First and foremost, the Putnam Farm will be an exercise in restoration, not just in the buildings but the fields and woodlot as well.

The house presents a special set of problems.  If done properly, it alone could be a separate project in terms of finance and time. Our goal was to stabilize it from decay, which we have pretty well done. First, some electrical work (in terms of new panels and wiring) had to be completed in order for our insurance company to view the house as insurable. That was completed early in the summer, at the same time the water from the dug well was restored. The plumbing was solid and presented no big surprises when we finally pressurized the system.  After we did an inspection of all the chimneys, we installed a wood stove in the kitchen to supplement the forced hot water system. Then, the ancient and fragile boiler, valves and circulators had to be replaced and antifreeze put in the lines.  Our good friend and chief tractor operator, George Cilley,  patiently took all the windows apart, scraped them, re-glazed all the panes and painted all the window sashes to tighten up the windows. In November we  had  our friends the Skovsteads  (who oversaw our farm stand renovation) help us to cap the attic so we hopefully can retain a little bit more heat in the winter.

The fields needed some attention. Steve Taylor, our local “ag” historian and friend, figured that the fields had not been turned over in over 40 years. That corroborated with the fact that the soil test showed a low pH and high organic matter, which would indicate that it has been in sod for a long time. So we amended the pH with wood ash and cover-cropped half of the land with a combination of buckwheat, soybean and hairy vetch and winter rye for the winter. The tree lines have been encroaching on the field for a couple of generations, so much brush work will be done this winter. Hopefully, we will additionally clear two acres of field that was let go to woods.  Clearing will generate a  lot of firewood. That is good, ’cause I am sure Ray’s wood stove will be eating a lot of it.  

A key part of this farm puzzle will be trying to get water up from the Connecticut River and under Route 12A to the fields that we want to crop. To that end we have engaged the services of ECI Construction in Burlington who will deal with the permitting process with the Railroad and execute the horizontal bore under the tracks, fields and and road.  The time frame is hopefully early winter, and if  it does come to pass,  we may start limited cropping there in 2013.

After much research and soul-searching, we decided to take the barn down. The  barn dimension is 120 x 34 and is actually two separate  40 x 34  English post and beam barns connected with timbers to make one barn.  It has historical connection and value to the property.  But it is in need of extensive foundation work, and one gable end that has been exposed to weather has suffered a great deal of rot in the framing timbers.  Because of a compromised foundation, the frame is shifting to the south.  We engaged former barn and Ag structures Specialist John Porter from UNH as well as local framing guru Leo Maslan to assess the needed work. Ultimately, it looked like a big money pit that really wouldn’t give us a serviceable structure that we could actually use or need.  If left without the needed immediate  reparation,  it will be sufficiently compromised and might come down under snow load in the near future. Additionally, it may  be viewed  in legal terms as an “attractive nuisance,” and as such presents us with a potential liability issue. So Ken Epworth and his crew at the The Barn People, LLC in Windsor, Vermont  are going to take it down and dismantle it, marrying parts of the two frames into one good frame, saving any additional materials that might be recycled to future job sites, burn the waste and remove all  cement and foundation rock. That will give us room  in the future to  put up some appropriate barn or storage structure that we can actually  use, and at the very least give us another 1/2 acre of land to crop.

This is a highly visible property, and we know that because we are frequently asked questions about what is going on and what our plans there are. If you have an interest or question about the property, please feel free to contact us  at info@edgewaterfarm.com.  Happy Thanksgiving.

OCTOBER 3 ITS OVER!….WELL,, NOT REALLY

OCTOBER 3, 2012 

The farmstand closes Columbus Day, and I am already fielding the annual question:  “Now, what do you do when the farmstand closes?”   My most recently crafted response is simply to say “As soon as we shut down in 2012 we immediately start work on 2013″ and that statement is essentially true.  Yes, we will continue to wholesale fall crops to some degree,  our fall CSA will continue until Thanksgiving, and there will be gleaning and working to get food to the local community pantries in conjunction with Willing Hands, our local distribution service. But for the most part, we will be focusing  everyday on getting things in order for re-opening our doors for Spring 2013.

There is a ton of stuff to do before snowfall (if the weather cooperates), such that there is enough work for about 6 of us full time (40-45 hours a week) through mid-December.  We still have root crops in the field for harvest. Field cleanup is pretty far along at this point, although strings and stakes will have to be removed from peppers and tomatoes. The  raspberries have yet to be pruned.  Blueberries need to be cleaned up and lightly pruned. Strawberries will have to be gone through and perennial weeds removed,  straw mulch applied and protective deer fence put up.   Irrigation pipe will have to be picked up, and fall tillage (plowing, spading) done before the ground freezes.  The stand will have to be broken down and cleaned up so as not to attract animals. The potted plants will have to be cleaned up and brought back to the main farm. Perennials will be overwintered outdoors under protective covering, and the annuals will have to be overwintered in winterized stock plant greenhouses where we hope to start taking cuttings before the holidays. Vegetable and flower seed orders will have to be generated before the first of the year…that takes days. Tax prep work must be collated and completed (farmers’ federal tax is due March 1).
Greenhouses will have to be cleaned as soon as the onions, pumpkins and squash are taken out of them. Many will have to have their protective greenhouse skins replaced and repairs done to fans, thermostats and switches. Furnaces will have to be cleaned and serviced.  If and when we  get a snowstorm that has to be plowed (four to six inches), the snow will have to be removed from around the greenhouses that we have to get into all winter long. A six inch storm generates enough machine and hand labor to occupy 3-4 people a full day.  Flower seeding starts in December and the first greenhouse tomatoes are seeded right after New Year’s Day. Then there is brush cutting around the fields to keep them “open,” firewood to be generated for the families, an irrigation system to be designed for the new farm, a barn to come down, a replacement for that barn designed, more machine repair…

Our farm remains a very busy place year round.  Yes, we will cram some downtime in, a few hikes, day trips to see friends. Our days shorten as the sunlight ebbs towards winter. But we work here with the knowledge that the days will soon enough start to lengthen.   Self employment is not for the faint of heart, and it may be over-rated. But it still works for some of us.

AUG 5: IN THE DEAD HEAT OF SUMMER

AUGUST 5, 2012 

The Thirtieth Olympiad swirls around us, but down on the farm we are in the midst of our own marathon.  As we come to the end of the long hours of what is referred to as “blueberry season” (we still have to weed, water and  harvest everything else) we can mark the end (we hope) of the fairly frequent 14-hour day. Everyone is plodding onward. The college contingent of the crew is looking forward to the comfort of returning to sleeping later and air-conditioned classrooms, and the rest of us will look forward to taking comfort in the cooler weather of September, if and when it finally arrives. We have been slogging through a drought and a lot of 90-degree days this summer. Roy says that the hot days in Jamaica have nothing on the hot days in New Hampshire.  Today we are watching the radar to see if we can pick up a much needed shower, otherwise Mike will be back to wrestling irrigation pipe and priming finicky pumps. We are all ready for a change.

A nice thing happened yesterday. While on one of my infrequent stops at the farm stand I ran into Larry Dore, Plainfield Police Emeritus.  Larry has been stopping by and getting corn at the farm stand for just about as long as we have had one. I looked into his bag and made some remark that the paltry four ears of corn were another one of our mutual concessions to advancing years. (20 years ago we were easy 4-6-ears-a-sitting men). In the course of chatting about retirement, he made some very unwarranted but kind remarks about the value of the type of work that we do on the farm, and the contributions it makes to the greater community. He even thought that what I do for work might have more real tangible value  than his career. I, however, might draw the line saying that I don’t think farming is more valuable than his job of keeping the bad guys behind bars and keeping the honest people honest,  a job he executed professionally and effectively for so many  years. But it was nice to hear, and made me feel good for a few minutes until I got back out into the broiling sun and 90-degree heat. The irony was that we never set out to do something noble. At the end of the day we were just like so many other working stiffs setting out to do a job, have a lifestyle and make a living. And trying not to do any collateral damage along the way to anyone or anything. Glad that it seems to be turning out that way.

JUNE 26- REGARDING LEGACY AND SOYBEANS

JUNE 26, 2012 

We are  wading our way through strawberry season, our craziest time of year. Introduce the fact that we just added an additional 25 acres of tillable land and 45  acres of woodland  at the Putnam Farm to work up, and you might ratchet up the anxiety levels, but so far it has not been the case. In fact, we are settling into our new “home” pretty comfortably.  The fields haven’t  been plowed in over 40  years to anyone’s recollection, so we “broke  ground” by plowing the fields and seeding cover crops just as soon as the soil tests returned from the state lab.  The Macs put in  12 acres of cow corn in the  back half of the land, and we are working on the front half. After the addition of wood ash to remedy a low soil pH and some potassium deficiencies in the soil,  I seeded the cover crops (or green manures); one field down to buckwheat, and the other field to soybeans, a cover crop I have never tried before but hope to capture some nitrogen with.

While I was seeding down the soybeans, I had some time to reflect upon some questions that have been asked of us since we took ownership.  There are the simple questions like “Are you going to  put up a farmstand down there?”  which currently is not our intent.  One that took me off guard, but has cropped up a couple of times, is “What are you going to name your new farm?”

It is a curious question  to me, because I never questioned that it would or should be called anything but the Putnam Farm.  The Putnam family farmed that ground for over two hundred years. There is a legacy there that deserves some recognition because of the emotion and sweat equity a family puts into a piece of ground.  I think it would be pretty presumptuous of me to rename the farm, and a display of egotism.  Jon Satz in Brandon, Vermont,  a fellow farming buddy, kept the name of his farm (Wood’s Market Garden) the same, out of respect for the family that came before him.  Yes, land is a resource, but if you look at land only as an income-producing tool, you probably missed the point of being a farmer, and in the long run are likely to be a pretty shitty steward of that land.  The home farm where we live was owned by the Colby family from 1832 until we bought it in 1974, and  I knew Stan Colby, the gentleman who ultimately sold it to us. I got to know him better over the remaining years when he was living in Cornish.  It had always been known as the Edgewater Farm.   He gambled a bit and took less money for the place than he could have gotten on the open market, so that two kids could get a crack at having their own farm.  He lived long  enough to see that gamble pan out, for he was just as pleased as we were to see us developing a successful strawberry business and fixing up the old homestead.

Frank Brock,  a fellow ski patroller and longtime friend I worked with at Mt. Ascutney, once jokingly said  “We’re not here for a long time, we’re just here for a good time.”   Our stay on the land is not a long time, and we do want it to be a “good” time.  But we are just one in a number of families like the Colbys and the Putnams who are using this house, this land, this water for a while and we should never leave it in anything but better shape than we found it. So when I work in the fields I ponder questions about the families who stood there before me, and it connects me to them. Did Stan Colby’s grandmother really plant a box elder tree in the front yard of the house that eventually spawned all these weed trees encircling the lower meadow?  How did Link Putnam farm this wet area of the field?  Could my Dad ever have imagined that when he bought this 2-cylinder John Deere tractor to plow and bale hay in 1956 that his kid would be using it to plant soybeans in 2012?

I am never alone on a farm.

 

MAY 27-MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND

MAY 27, 2012 

For most everybody in the Upper Valley, this is traditionally the big weekend to plant the gardens, although many of the more hardcore types have been  pushing the envelope for almost a month by getting their perennials in, seeding  their hardy vegetables and annuals while covering their more tender transplants from the frost. But if you need to follow a clock, now is the time to get the garden in.  Here at Edgewater, as well as at  other farms in the Upper Valley,  the first planting of everything is in the ground.  Because we are shooting for earliness, we oftentime make two  plantings  of crops you might not consider.  We actually have two  chronologically staggered plantings of  cherry tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons and cukes to name a few. I usually  make my last  seeding of radishes the second week of  September.  Planting goes on all summer long with lettuce, herbs, greens and cole crops.

We closed on the purchase of the Putnam Homestead in Cornish earlier this month and are  hard at work there, both in the house and the fields. We are going through the necessary electrical upgrades in the house and  trying to improve some of the drainage about the foundation. As it is such a huge old house, windows need glazing before winter and that is being attended to on rainy days when  George isn,t mowing or having field tillage to attend to. The fields, which haven’t been plowed in anyone’s recent memory, have been turned over and the ancient sod broken.  Wood ash is being imported to correct the PH of some of the field as well as raise potassium levels, lime will be used  on other blocks. The MacNamara family is growing  fodder corn on some of the acreage, while we retain over half of the tillable land to cover-crop  and perhaps actually plant to vegetables as early as spring of 2013.  In any case,  the new property is another task to integrate, figure out and manage. So far, so good.

We seem to be getting more calls about U-Pick strawberries earlier in the year, with more frequency,  than ever before. This illustrates the huge disconnect that the average population has with its local food system despite all the recent press of the last couple of years.  The earliest call that I ever answered was from a woman who wanted to pick berries the third week in April.  It was three years ago, it was the first day that our greenhouses were open for the season, and there were still chunks of ice  on the river bank. In the “old days’ we used to notify one another (the other Upper Valley berry growers) to see who would have that first ridiculous call among us and I am now the record holder.  But now it is very routine to field e-mails or calls from people who want to pick berries in early May.  In discussing it with other growers the consensus was that if people  never grow a garden and they see Mr. Driscoll’s California strawberries in the market all winter long, consumers naturally would question why wouldn’t they be available locally in April?   Winter is over , isn’t it?

3/15, DUCK, CAESAR! THE IDES OF MARCH…

APRIL 4, 2012 

I hope I have no rude surprises today, but at this point in the season there are always many, both good and bad. Among the bad are the importation of insect pests from the purchase of other plants from other greenhouses. Surprise! the perennials from Michigan have aphids on them.  Surprise! the fuschia cuttings from Indiana  are covered with thrips.  Surprise! Pooh left the  key on in the skid steer loader so Mike could find the battery dead this morning.  The list can go on. But so far things are going well for the early greenhouse season. The mild winter has allowed us to function at this end of the growing season without having to wade around in slush, mud and snow and the fuel bills are greatly reduced in comparison to the winter of 2010-2011.  It is pushing the season a bit in the field, and this is always a dangerous path to be walking in early spring, but it is what it is, as they say, and we may as well try to take advantage of the open conditions to get things done out there in advance.

Recently a factoid caught my eye that I thought I would share with you.  I have  been down to the statehouse a couple of times, and testified before folks there regarding different agricultural issues.  It never ceases to amaze me that how little  the layperson/legislators understand about agriculture.  Most view us as interesting, harmless bucolic sorts, who use open land for food production until a better use can be found. That being, perhaps,  a family housing development, public education or recreation use or perhaps a manufacturing facility site.  But they find it hard to grapple with the fact that there is an economic contribution that we make to the surrounding community, much harder still for them to visualize us as small businesses.

A farming buddy of mine in Randolph,Vermont, came up with an interesting fact.  Sam Lincoln of Lincoln Farms is a pretty sharp fellow, and unlike many of us who deplore anything to do with economics, he enjoys looking at his books and figures. They speak to him directly and so he is able to couple good sound economic judgment with his passion for farming in making major decisions about his lifestyle and his farm.  Recently he figured out that out of all the  expenses he incurs at his farm, he pays back 88% of it to other vendors and folks within a 30 mile radius of his farm.  Talk about keeping it local.  I don’t know if my expenses would sugar off the same,  but as I sit here and think about it, I’ll bet that we aren’t very far off.  Most of my farm equipment comes from Townline Equipment, down at the end of River Road. The fuel suppliers are local (even if they make most of the stuff in the MidEast) and my auto mechanics live in town.  Most of my filters, auto repair, and batteries come from an independent parts jobber in Claremont,  insurance agent in Charlestown, fertilizer and supplies from Bradford, etc., etc.  Except for Roy and Willy, all the other help are local folks. Plus, because of the tax structure in NH, we pay a princely sum of money to the Town of Plainfield for the luxury of doing business in what is admittedly one of the prettiest sections of the state.  So yeah, we are keeping it pretty local too.  Farms are pretty significant businesses in their communities, even if they can’t be found in a store front in a mall.

So this blog is not meant to flog you with some more incentive to “Buy Local”.  Most likely if you are wading through this you probably support your local greenhouses and farm stands anyway, and thank you for that support. But it comes as some surprise to me (thanks to Brother Lincoln’s enterprising inclinations)  that we farms indeed have a bigger impact socially and economically in our communities than I previously thought.  So thanks for buying local. What is bought local, stays local.

MARCH 27 THE PUTNAM FARM

MARCH 27, 2012 

As many saw in the Saturday edition of the Valley News, we just signed a purchase and sales agreement with the Putnam heirs of Cornish, NH to buy their family farm.

This didn’t come as a  surprise to those who know us. We have been pursuing land acquisition for several years. Of all the land that we currently till, 25% is leased on an annual basis. That made for uncertainty about our future, at least in terms of growing food crops. Additionally, after 36 years of strawberry growing, we were seeing issues related to pathogen build-up in the soils. Nothing a good long term rotation won’t cure. We looked at several land possibilities, both on our own and in concert with the Upper Valley Land Trust.  Some sites were too far away, some sites had marginal soils.  In two cases people told us that although they loved our product and coming to our stand,  they  just didn’t want to have us in their field of vision while we were working.

The total scope of the  purchase of the Putnam Farm and the challenges it presents are much larger than we were originally looking for.  After many weeks of discussion we came to an agreement that although it might be a stretch for us initially, we could be grateful we did so at some time in the near future.  The soils at the Putnam Farm are the best in the northeast, and we have access to the Connecticut River for irrigation. And it doesn’t hurt that you can look up from hoeing lettuce and have the  most panoramic view in the Upper Valley of Mt. Ascutney.

We are a bit overwhelmed at this point, but none the less we are excited about the possibilities the acquisition of the Putnam homestead will bring to the future of the greater family at Edgewater Farm.  It is a big undertaking  both financially and from a management standpoint, and we are cautiously optimistic and hopeful that we are up to the task of handling both.  There have been several folks  in the area who have called to congratulate us.  My response now to them is to save the congratulations for ten years or so. It will be more appropriate then if we can pull this off successfully.

FEBRUARY 19 SOMEWHERE IT’S SPRING…..

FEBRUARY 19, 2012 

Pretty odd winter thus far. But that’s New England, where only the unexpected is expected. It’s been very open and very snowless, and pretty warm.

I can already hear the  incessant line of questioning:  “What is this doing to the strawberries??   It is a year that allows me to keep the answer succinct…which is simply “I have no idea.”  What happens to  our berries, legumes in the forage fields, the  maple syrup crop or the flowering perennials in home gardens is yet to be determined by what the weather in the  next two and a half months has to offer.  As a  person  who is in his advancing years, and profits more from the lack of ice to fall on or shovel from around the barns and greenhouses than the good snow cover for winter athletic activities, I can’t say that I have minded the mild conditions too much,  and now with March getting close,  we are getting the seasonal urges to get farming again. Today my son Ray and his cousins boiled their first 22 gallons of maple syrup of 2012.

Things keep getting ramped up in the greenhouse and it feels like spring in there when it’s sunny outside. We are well into seeding and taking cuttings of ornamentals….dividing begonias and grafting tomato plants.  Many perennials were seeded last week and there are flats of tomato seeds waiting to germinate along with browallia, portulaca and dusty miller, to name a few.  Some cuttings are just about ready to be  potted up already, and many of the salvias will be stuck this week. We are currently also seeing a particular aphid population expand with the lengthening daylight.

We are  beginning to release  beneficial  predatory and parasitic insects into our greenhouses in an effort to establish populations of good insects to balance the emergence of  things like our aphid population, aka The Bad Guys. We purchase from 3 insectaries nationwide, but they are primarily brokers for European concerns that grow for a much more developed and sophisticated market in Europe.  Here in the US the science of  beneficial pest control is really just getting a foothold. We here have been working with University and Extension Service entomologists for 20 years trying to get a handle on how to make it work for us, and it remains a work in progress. But we have definitely  gotten better at it,  and there is a lot of  info sharing going on between growers as other growers come on board.

Just an addendum in regards to globalization. A real downside to globalization is the rate that it brings in new  pests to our growing areas.  Historically, it has always happened – the  Colorado Potato Beetle came from Europe originally in the mid-nineteenth century and I believe it took over twenty years to work its way westward to Colorado. Dutch elm disease took 60 years to move through the US elm population. However, the latest huge concern to New England fruit and vegetable production- the Spotted-Wing Drosophila fruit fly that attacks all fruit and tomatoes- hit the west coast in 2009,  and was found burrowing in fall raspberries in southern NH last fall.  The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug is another little gem that showed up within the continental US in the last ten years, and is now part of our reality. There are some pretty nasty Bad Guys moving into the ‘hood, and I am sure you will become more aware of them in the future. But for now it is still winter even though it is comfortable to sit in the lawn chair on a sunny day with some warm clothes on. The bugs are not moving outdoors, anyway. Yet…

JANUARY 2012- THE FARM WASTE STREAM

JANUARY 3, 2012 

No doubt about it. Edgewater Farm  generates some refuse. And as the farm kept getting bigger over the years, the size of the dumpster and our waste stream kept getting bigger.  About 10 years ago it caught my attention enough to want to do something about it.

We have several different waste streams, and some have been trickier to solve than others.  There is the organic waste that is generated by the farm stand and greenhouses,  everything from  plant and flower trimmings to vegetable spoilage.  This particular waste stream has always been pretty easy to deal with,  because most of it is composted here and  broadcast back onto the fields as soil amendment. That waste stream has traditionally had value to us and we capture all of it.

The next problem we saw was the use of season-extending  agricultural plastics. The black plastic mulch that traditionally is used in the field for soil mulch is a petrochemically based product that had to be land-filled or incinerated. We were generating enough volume so that we were filling  our dumpster multiple times during the fall with just this product alone.  So when the Canadians started importing the cornstarch-based plastic mulch from Italy eight years ago, we made a journey north to get some to trial.  It turned  out to be as good as they claimed it to be. Every year since we have used this black cornstarch mulch and it holds up  for about 70 days before it starts to decompose. More farmers have come on board over the years so that I might  guess that  30-35% of the  farms in the northeast use it in their fields.  Oddly enough, the product is not certified by the feds for use by USDA  Certified organic farmers, a position that  I think is  counter-intuitive and perhaps political and therefore inexcusable. But we use it and find that the high up-front cost of the biodegradable mulch (about 3 times that of  non-biodegradable type) is offset by the reduction of labor at the end-of-season collection from the field. We just harrow it up or wait until spring to work the remains of it into the soil.  Conventional oil-based plastic has to be pulled up and landfilled.  Within a year of application there is no remaining shred of biodegradable  mulch in the soil.  The same can rarely be said abut the oil-based plastics, you find shreds of it for years in the fields after its use. Biodegradable mulch was a gamble we took on behalf of the environment that actually worked out well all the way around.

The next hurdle confronting us was the waste stream of pots, plastics and cardboard that is generated by greenhouse production. The  plastic pots and  baskets all come in carboard boxes. Seeds, hard goods, tools as well…..much comes in cardboard boxes. We break these boxes down to reduce volume but we still had truck loads of  random sized cardboard to deal with. Two years ago we bought an old trash compactor and baled our cardboard. That helped, but it still left us to move 250-pound bales of compressed cardboard. The plastic pots are recyclable,  but not easily reusable. This is because they have to be washed and sterilized and it is not cost-effective to do so. We have switched some of our pots to fiber so that they are  biodegradable, but they are not all that user friendly for the customers.

In 2011 (in between the spring floods and Hurricane Irene) our town switched to Zero-Sort trash collection and recycling.  I can’t begin to tell you how handy zero-sort recycling is.  The town of Plainfield had a recycling program before that recycled  glass, some different grades of plastic and paper and cans, but it all had to be pre-sorted into separate bins with some types of plastic not allowed. With Zero-Sort all types of plastic, all types of glass and all types of paper and cardboard can be mixed all together in one container. Suddenly we were able to participate effortlessly in community-wide recycling that reduced and diverted an additional 30  percent of our recyclable materials away from the landfill.  It  just became so much easier and it felt good for the environment. All that recycled plastic meant less fossil fuel to be used in plastic production. Just think, all those dirty plastic pots and bottles could be turned into another useful  product.

In 2012 another environmentally sound product became available to us. As we have started up a commercial kitchen as an adjunct to our farm stand,  we were in need of  packaging.  We were able to source food-grade biodegradable containers to  put our soups, salsas and  pestos in. Another product diverted from the landfill.

We still have some farm waste products that we have to figure out.  The greenhouse  plastic film coverings are not being  recycled at this time, but I have to follow up  on a lead or two  that may change that.  The plastic clamshells that we  package our  cherry and  grape tomatoes and  our blueberries for wholesale accounts  can be recycled, but I would feel much better if there was a biodegradable  solution for packaging those  as well, and will be keeping my eyes open for those this summer.

So if you are passionately  pro/anti-incineration  or pro/anti-landfilling of  garbage,  zero sort recycling is just a wonderful addition to the tools that deal with community waste streams. All in all,  2011 was a pretty good year for garbage at Edgewater Farm.  You can be sure that we will continue working on it.

2011 Archives

CHRISTMAS MORNING

DECEMBER 25, 2011 

After the frenetic last few weeks of wrapping up books for the farm, closing down the potato packing line, mounting snowblowers and plows and dealing with Christmas shopping, I find myself this morning with an hour to kill before going to a huge family breakfast. There is some mellow Christmas muzak floating through the air,  and as I look outside it appears to be a perfect Christmas morning: grey, cold  and a few flurries in the air. No guilt about sitting around with the relatives and doing nothing today….perfect.

As I was staring out the window I thought about Thanksgiving  and about how that particular holiday is about assessing the good things in our lives.  For me, Thanksgiving represents a huge meal with friends and family, and marks the  transition to “winter mode” here on the farm with the first uncomfortably cold weather, some small messy snowstorms and the darker, shorter days.  It is at Christmas, for me, that I reflect on the passage of time, remarkable events past and present, and condition of friends and family,  present and absent.

Anne and I went to Belize in November, a surprise gift, courtesy of our children.  A reward for mutually reaching our sixth decade alive, intact and still married.  While we were there we experienced many different things but nothing as rewarding as making a connection (albeit fleeting) with some native locals.  Most of them were connections through our guide, himself a Guatemalan Mayan.  All these people were poor as dirt by any American standards.  Belize is a poor Third World country.  They had the equivalent of a 4th-grade education.  Yet they were all extremely knowledgeable about local history, botany or marine zoology and agriculture,  were self-taught and spoke English clearly. (Our guide had all the American phrases in his lexicon:  “Back in the day….” “Totally!” and “We’re good to go…” )  Yet most grew up riding  mules and horses as the main mode of transportation (other than walking), and most spent their childhood in mud huts with braided palm-leaf roofs. All learned and still use a machete fluently, as no one owns a lawnmower or weedwhacker.  Yet they were all wonderful company, had great senses of humor, were intelligent and highly motivated individuals with the same aspirations as most of us:  a better education for the kids, access to plenty of food, security from fear and maybe one day a motorcycle or used car.  Anne and I both came away humbled by the fact that they are capable and hardworking and so intelligent.   A couple of the subsistence farmers I talked to were easily capable of walking onto Edgewater Farm and within 2 years time being totally up to speed and capable of running it.

So this morning  I am reflecting on the fact that we, (myself  in particular) are-as my Dad used to say – “shot in the ass with luck.”   As Americans, we really do have all the toys. We who live here on the river are lucky to have our families working close by to us.  We are lucky to have good medical care, security from fear and harm and more food than we possibly need to eat (although I will desperately try my best today).  So, with that in mind,  may you and your family go forth today counting your  blessings as well,  and have yourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

NOVEMBER 13

NOVEMBER 13, 2011 

Yesterday I felt pretty darn good by day’s end. I still had to begin and end my day with the usual fistful of Advil, but I felt  pretty chipper because I had spent the better part of the day participating in giving something back to the greater community.

We hosted our fall gleaning with Willing Hands volunteers yesterday afternoon. The organization provides an invaluable link to food kitchens, senior centers, and community groups in need of food. Willing Hands volunteers own and maintain a high cube van, and they pick up donations from many sources in the Upper Valley. They particularly provide a service to Upper Valley farms like ours in that they make the connections and distribution of extra produce to those in need for us. Yesterday they came down to the farm with volunteers and gleaned and washed about a ton of carrots, likewise potatoes and rutabaga. There were about 20 individuals and it was well organized, the day was pleasant, and they got the 4 pickup trucks filled up with our produce as well as apples from the neighboring Riverview Farm in about two hours. It made us feel good to donate the produce, but it also felt good to  be associated with a volunteer organization that runs on a “duct tape and baling twine” budget, donates so many man-hours by a small number of individuals,  and still manages to make a tremendous impact in the community on such a basic level.

Immediately upon finishing up with Willing Hands, I honored a small commitment to Sam Lincoln, a fellow farmer from Randolph, Vermont, who recognized how devastated some of the Vermont agricultural community had become as a result of Hurricane Irene. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that his family had been spared, he embarked upon a plan to try to raise money in some small way to give to those fellow farmers less fortunate. He and his brother (Buster Olney, who turns out to be a well recognized baseball commentator) thought they might be able to charge a couple of bucks to get some folks to to a roundtable discussion about the state of  professional baseball in the 21st century while raffling off a few pieces of baseball memorabilia.  I contacted him early on and asked if he wanted any free entertainement and we agreed that a little quiet acoustic music would be nice.  So I  gathered three of my musical bummy friends who thought it might be a hoot to play some bluegrass music for free on a Saturday night. As it happened, Sam and Buster’s idea turned out to be a small stroke of genius. The raffle turned out to be a huge silent auction on the Internet, the roundtable brought high-profile general managers from the Red Sox and New York Yankees among others. The audience sang along with a ramped-up bluegrass version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. The audience also got a chance to see the World Series Trophy up close and personal. The audience, by the way, was enough to sell out the VTC basketball gymnasium.  One of my bandmates agreed with me that maybe Sam ought to give up  farming and get into promoting bands and producing concerts, as it was a seamless, well organized event.  The final tally is not in as of this morning, but they were well on the way to raising $200,000 for Vermont farmers.

It felt good to be associated with giving something back, even in a small way. I sometimes feel guilty about getting myopic while I go about the day-to-day activities. Whether it is harvesting a crop, obsessing about the weather or wondering what to do about the arrival of a new plant pathogen on the farm, I easily forget there is a bigger world out there, and  people with bigger miseries and concerns. It felt good to be part of a slice of humanity that actually takes the time to address those problems that are not their own.

 

HURRICANE IRENE: THE FUN REMAINS

OCTOBER 2, 2011 

This morning I got up to find the  thermometer registered 45 degrees. It is only  the second time since August that the temps have dropped that low at night.  It has been one of the warmest falls I can remember for this time of year. Here we are 5 weeks after Irene blew through New Hampshire and Vermont, and the repercussions are still being felt in different ways. Highways are patched up for the most part, and  people are on their ways to putting their lives back together, but the  area farmers are still trying to sort out the true cost and damage the storm left in its wake. And the continued tropically warm and wet fall season has contributed to the problems initially generated by the hurricane. These add up to a mounting frustration for area farmers as well as additional losses in incomes.

When all was said and done, we lost about $25K in product and additional clean-up labor from Hurricane Irene. But it pales somewhat in comparison to what has been going on with some of my immediate farming friends. The continuing wet warm weather has brought on diseases to the remaining crops and made it difficult to harvest.   Alex MacLennan of MacLennan Farm in Windsor,Vermont, lost the remainder of his sweet corn crop, due to floodwater contamination of the ears of corn on the stalk.  What he didn’t count as initial damage from the hurricane came later, when his wholesale pumpkin crop turned up with a disease that came in on the floodwaters that saturated his pumpkin fields. Fifteen acres of pumpkin mush. Bob and Barb Chappelle of Chappelle Farm in Williamstown, Vermont, grow 50 acres of certified seed potatoes (we get our potato seed from him), as well as table stock.  His fields are so saturated from the hurricane and the continuing inundation since, that he has lost his entire Yukon Gold crop to water-born rots. His fields remain so sodden that he is in jeopardy of not being able to harvest the remaining  varieties this year because his fields may well not dry out enough to get the digging  machinery on them.  My brothers-in-law at McNamara Dairy had 25% of their field corn crop flooded.  They were informed that it would be too great a risk to chop it and use it for cattle feed because there was enough of a risk that a particular pathogen it might contain that was borne in by the floodwaters will kill cows. The same problem existed for David Ainsworth in Sharon, Vermont, and other dairy farms in the Connecticut River Valley.  Then there is the odd financial twist that Tim and Janet Taylor of Crossroads Farm in Fairlee,Vermont, face (I am sure other farmers in New England, as well).  They came through the hurricane with some soggy fields but were relatively unscathed.  But two of their two biggest accounts  were shut down for the year when their buildings suffered flood damage, so Crossroads has product, but is struggling to find ways to move it.  The worst scenario among my immediate farming friends remains the disaster that Geo Honigford faces at Hurricane Flats in Royalton, where he not only had total crop loss but will spend countless thousands in machine and hand labor to straighten out the debris and muck in his fields that the White River left in its wake.

Our town manager wrote a report in a local paper that Plainfield suffered no loss of property and it makes me wince to think about our $25K going down river.  It ain’t chump change, and it makes me want to maybe correct him, if it wasn’t just a pride thing. But when I look around at my farming counterparts I am thinking I should be  thankful that is all we lost, and at the year’s end this will be a waning memory and that we can look forward to the new growing season. That will be a harder trick for some.

AUGUST 30 “GOODNIGHT IRENE, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY (BAD) DREAMS…”

AUGUST 30, 2011 

The phone has been coming off the hook. The media has the river sweeping away the Bartonville, Vermont covered bridge on a tape loop. The  Disaster Vultures are cruising  up and down our road in their slow moving SUVs diligently looking for death and destruction. Our bottom line was that we took a hit from Hurricane Irene. But not as bad as so many other poor folks.

We prepared for the wind, we feared for damage to the greenhouses. So we moved things to higher ground and buttoned up buildings in preparation. But in fact we got no wind to speak of and relatively no rain. However, 10 miles to the west they were picking up 12 inches of rain. Whatever hits the eastern slopes of the Green Mountains of Vermont ends up in the Connecticut River, and when enough of it got there, it ended up in our lower meadow.

We suffered very little damage to infrastructure. We lost an electrical service panel and four propane furnaces, but the current was not strong enough to worry the greenhouses structurally. The water level engulfed and ruined the remaining greenhouse tomato crop there and ruined 2 acres of fall crops in the field by depositing anywhere from a half to six inches of a light Cream of Wheat-like gooey mud. Our losses were significant, but not crippling.

There were homes lost. There were farmers who lost their crops to inundation for a second time this season. It underscores the point that the fate of the farmer’s success is out of his hands. You have to accept the forces of nature  all the while  optimistically hoping they will work on your behalf, hopefully to your advantage. It also entails accepting them when they do not.

Harry Truman said “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”   We all know that the forces of nature will eventually turn a heavy hand to us. Its part of the deal.  We just hope that our turn doesn’t come around again for a good long  while.

THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

JULY 25, 2011 

Supposedly the dog days of summer come in August, but we have been hit with a period of intense heat and dryness. The  droughtiness is good because it creates a hostile environment for fungal pathogens, which basically means it’s harder for diseases to establish on the plants and they stay healthier. The bad part about the drought is that the vegetables need water and so we are irrigating all the time to keep things alive and coming along. Vegetables love a sandy soil, they warm up easily and plants grow like mad in those types of soils, but they do not retain moisture well, which on a year like this one presents some problems. So we have to compensate by watering. Which is okay but it entails moving a lot of irrigation pipe (cost of manual labor) and using  pumps (all kinds—little ones with 5 hp motors to big ones that require diesel tractors) to move water where needed. There is an additional cost of labor diversion, and by that I mean in a normal year the crew would be harvesting and weeding and pruning. This summer we are not getting  much time to do that after harvest because we are moving irrigation pipe and trying to keep pumps running. So we have it in our power to make it rain, but it costs a lot of money and we never do as good or thorough a job as Mother Nature. On the other hand, the plants are not reeling from leaf blights, molds and fungi. So if it’s too wet, you get some problems; if it’s too dry, you get some problems.

What has made this batch of dryness doubly hard is the intense heat that has accompanied it. Not only do the plants suffer, it is tough on everybody in the field, greenhouses and farm stand. It’s enough of a chore just trying to stay hydrated, much less to work in 100-degree heat.  I myself got a little woozy Saturday as I wasn’t paying attention to my hydration and I got a little cooked. Except for an annoyingly chipper young lady on the field crew who is from Georgia and loves the heat, the rest of us loathe the extreme temps of the last ten days. I try to remind myself how cold I was back in the winter, sitting on the skidsteer loader,  pushing snow away from the greenhouses.

OF COMPUTERS AND FOUL WEATHER….

JUNE 4, 2011 

No one group is more tuned in to climate change than farmers. Whether you believe it is a direct result of carbon dioxide emissions, or just natural forces at work, it is impossible to deny that climate change is upon us.  When I talked with Steve Wood at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a couple of years ago, he observed that the number of hail events that wiped out apple crops in New Hampshire in the past five years had exceeded all in New Hampshire for the previous twenty-five years that he had grown apples. Without question, our summer storms in the past five years have become increasingly violent with microbursts, downdrafts and tornadoes accompanied by some mighty impressive lightning. Three years ago Peter Van Berkum’s native-plant greenhouse and nursery in Deerfield, New Hampshire, was hit by a tornado that gave a newly-heightened meaning to the verb “trashed.”  Again, this year’s weather patterns have put the hurt on farms throughout New Hampshire and Vermont (check out the photos of the Skovsted’s carnage athttp://www.joesbrookfarm.com). We here thus far have been spared a hit from some of these storm cells that in this modern age we can now watch developing and track on our computers. Not only do we check the computer to look for what might happen to us, but we have the unpleasant advantage now of knowing which of our farming neighbors is getting whacked. On the flip side, the computer allows us farmers the ability to  stay connected to one another in the greater agricultural community at a time of year when it seems hard to find the time to get to the store to get toilet paper and dishwashing soap. Farmers now have listserves as well, and this past week some of the more fortunate farmers who had extra field transplants were able to coordinate getting plants to our less fortunate friends who got clobbered.

But it’s not just the dramatic storm events that wear down farmers. The 2011 growing season hasn’t even gotten underway for some farmers yet. Up in the Champlain Valley and Addison County of Vermont, dairy farmers are still mired in the fields trying to plant corn and not being able to cut hay. Steady rains coupled with snow melt have created flooding and tied them up for well over a month. At the same time, farmers in the seacoast areas of New Hampshire and southern Maine are getting their crops shredded by hail. Meanwhile, we are irrigating crops because it’s dry. As the guys in the field would say  “We’re eating dust and burning diesel,”  trying to keep the young transplants alive.  With all the storms, flooding and tornadoes that tore up Cabot and Barnet, Vermont and dumped 8″ of rain, we got all of .3 of an inch of rain and we are less than 60 miles away. Pretty fickle weather.

The important point to recognize is this; we as farmers are not in control. People call up asking when the berries will be ready. They wonder why this farm has good squash and another doesn’t.  It’s all about the weather.  I can only make sure that I plant the seed, provide fertility, keep ‘em somewhat pest-free. Beyond that is luck and forces that are out of our control.

MY PROBLEM WITH ORGANIC CERTIFICATION

MAY 8, 2011 

A couple of weeks ago I was representing the farm at a local food fair. I was chatting with a retired gentlemen I knew, whom we shall refer to as Mr. Celeriac, and a woman came up to the two of us with the purpose of saying hello to Mr. C.  After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. C introduced the woman (whom we shall refer to as Madame Greene) to me as the owner of Edgewater Farm, and the first thing out of her mouth  after “Hello” was “Are you Certified Organic?” to which I had to reply “No, we are not.”  The silence was deafening, and I was on the receiving end of a look that I can only assume is normally reserved for convicted pedophiles.  This situation was so uncomfortable that poor Mr. Celeriac felt he had to come to my defense by trying to explain all the things that we do on our farm that are organic and sustainable, and the good work that we do with the local food pantry. Madame Greene seemed unmoved, unflappable and certainly uninterested in finding out any more about Edgewater Farm. After a few minutes of direct discourse with Mr. C and no further acknowledgement of my presence, she moved on.

It grated on me at the time, for it is not the first time I, my family or employees have experienced that kind of response.  For the sake of making it easy for Americans to make certain decisions about their food choices, the USDA has come up with the Organic Certification Program and a little green sticker that differentiates products from USDA Certified Organic farms from everything else.  So all food choices become, at the point of purchase, either Organic (a good thing) or non-organic or conventional (a bad thing, or at the very least, not as good a thing as Organic). This rubs me wrong. The label and certification grants people  (like the sanctimonious Madame Greene) the ability actually to dismiss any further discussion of food production, by over-simplifying the discussion and reducing farming practices to “good” and  “bad” as determined by a little green sticker.

The last thing I would hope to convey to anyone is that because I may use a conventional chemical in my management practices (as exemplified by our spraying the tomatoes with  “conventional” fungicides which incidentally saved us from about a $35,000 crop loss during the late-blight outbreak of 2009) is the impression that I am against organic farming. (That aforementioned $35,000 crop loss would have been pretty much assured if I were certified organic, because some of the materials I use on the tomatoes are EPA-registered for tomatoes but are not OMRI listed.)  I certainly am not in any way against organic practices, and I am as familiar with J I Rodale, Arden Anderson and Louis Bromfield at Malabar Farm as anyone.  I admire any farmer who is good to his land and who can make an honest living farming without outside income, be he or she conventional, organic, or any shade between the two. We have farmed trying to utilize organic practices when and where applicable on this farm since long before it was trendy and long before the USDA got into the certification business.   I  find it irritating when people just simply buy into the fallacy that the little green USDA “Certified Organic” sticker automatically signals to them that 1) no sprays have been used, 2) there is less carbon footprint because it’s organic,  and 3) it’s completely “sustainable.”

Going to back Madame Greene, I would have welcomed from her a response of “Oh, Edgewater Farm is not organic? Why wouldn’t you want to be?”  Then maybe I could have told her why we don’t qualify for certification. Then we could have had a discussion about the declining profitability of  offering PYO Strawberries and how we feel the use of conventional chemical fungicides plays a part in allowing us to continue offering Pick Your Own.  Or, that in fact, we frequently choose to use the same biological OMRI-certified insecticides and fungicides that are available to Certified Organic farmers.  And how land base, green manuring and crop rotation at our farm works. Or how  our IPM program of pest management in our greenhouses precludes the use of prophylactic spraying by using beneficial insect  releases. Or maybe that buying my lettuce in season makes more sense than buying organic lettuce  with a huge carbon imprint from California. Maybe I could have persuaded her to consider all the organic practices we do undertake and why.  Then, after our discussion, she might well still have determined to buy organically-certified product, and I would have respected that decision.

How farmers arrive at how they manage their farms is a complex, thought-provoking discussion that we farmers constantly have amongst ourselves and at meetings. It is a discussion with no simplistic “correct way” or  “incorrect way”  answers.  At least Madame Greene wouldn’t have bought into the media hype surrounding the little green organic sticker, without having the discussion and going to the effort of putting some real thought into it. And maybe she could have reserved her glare for a real pedophile.

APRIL 12-MOTHER NATURE’S INTEMPERANCE

APRIL 12, 2011 

  Today we were going to  plant tomatoes in this greenhouse in our lower meadow. Even had extra hands on board so we could accomplish great things. Imagine my surprise when I went to the paper box at 6:15 this morning and found this.  The Connecticut River decided to visit the greenhouses in the night. Oh joy…

It’s tough to suffer a paradigm shift so early in the morning – especially before coffee, but it frequently happens in farming. By the time people arrived for work I had managed to rearrange the day for the employees. Although getting  the tomatoes in the lower greenhouses was the number one priority in my day, there were a bunch of things that immediately got moved from the back burners.

Frequently these quick “change of plans” occur because weather is uncooperative. If you are putting up bird netting on the blueberries and a nasty storm comes up, you may find yourself sitting in a barn with 6 employees watching it rain while they are on the clock. Sometimes sitting out the storm is the appropriate thing to do, but if it’s early in the afternoon and you sense that the weather is going to remain threatening or inclement for the rest of the afternoon, maybe you should redirect the folks to cleaning out a greenhouse or some other job that exists on the ever-changing list of things to do.

Weather can work against you in more subtle ways. It isn’t always bad weather that can be vexing. Suppose you consult your weather services and you are assured that a soaking rainy system is going to deluge everyone on both sides of the Connecticut River in the Upper Valley. Okay, now you decide to transplant lettuce and cole crops in the late afternoon so they can get soaked in at night. Everybody works an hour late and gets all the transplants in the ground. Sweet. How about when you wake up to cloudless skies the next morning and there is not a drop of moisture in the rain gauge? After some cussing and some more coffee you have to rustle around and make sure that the irrigation pipe gets set up in yesterday’s transplants immediately after morning harvest,  lest the mid-day sun burn them all up.

A friend of mine maintains that having ADHD is a prerequisite for a career in farming. Probably so. You start out with a daily plan, with a long list of back-ups. You constantly are looking at your paper and rearranging it to accommodate employee sickness, machinery breakdown, changes in weather and a myriad other surprises. Rarely does a day come by that Anne or I are actually able to check off more than half of the things that initially were penciled in on our daily lists.

So I am making tomorrow’s list. I really want to get those tomatoes planted, but I doubt I will be able to do it, with the river being so high.  But then again, I might be surprised when I go out to get the paper.

3/29 WHOA! BUGS IN THE GREENHOUSE!

MARCH 29, 2011 

Some of you may have read about our farming practices, and noted that we have been trying to regulate our pest problems in both our vegetable and ornamental greenhouses with biologic pesticides and the introduction of parasitic and predator insects.  Our motivation for this type of insect control are a couple of reasons. It is environmentally safer and cleaner for growers and end users. The downsides are many, not the least of which is that it is a very expensive form of control. It is more complicated than just reading the label and spraying a pesticide for a pest. The product (good or “beneficial” bugs) do not have a shelf life as the bottle of pesticide does.  And when a problem arises, it can take six to thirteen days for the product to arrive after ordering it. You have to know the life cycle of the bad bugs as well as the beneficial insects. That makes things yet more complicated. (I wanted to be a farmer, not an entomologist…)

So it’s a big deal, it’s expensive and complicated. It is an art as much as a science. But we have been trying to do it this way for fifteen years. We have now developed an annual plan of prophylactic releases,  based upon when we open greenhouses, what plants go in them, the crops, and the historical problems that have cropped up and when that has occurred.   All this, knowing that at some point in the spring aphids, white flies and thrips  (the horticultural equivalent of President Bush”s “Axis of Evil”)  will show up. Hand in hand with the prophylactic release of beneficial insects there comes  a monitoring or “scouting” plan that weekly makes you systematically assess insect and disease problems by observing trends in insect populations. For example, you are never going to be totally”pest free” so by observing and counting pests weekly on a yellow sticky card that attracts the pests and understanding the swell and ebb of populations, you can make a pest control strategy. Sometime things run like a top, sometimes they go to hell in a hand bag. You can always tell when the latter happens because you can read the lines of frustration in Anne and Pooh’s faces. But when its working right,there are enough predators to keep the  populations of bad guys surpressed  but enough bad guys to support a healthy population of predators and beneficials. Its a balancing act. See? I told you it was tricky.

We didn’t come up with this kind of control on our own. We weren’t that smart. Some forward-thinking individuals from the Extension Services of our land-grant universities in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire got together about 15 years ago and said “There has got to be a better way than hammering away at an insect pest problem with chemicals until the bug develops resistance and we have to find another chemical…besides I hear that Pooh Sprague hates spraying his greenhouses weekly…”  Well, maybe not the last part, but they were savvy enough to realize there might be a way of mimicking the way the natural insect populations are kept in check in an outdoor environment, and adapting that to a greenhouse environment.

So when you come to the greenhouses this year you will see little yellow cards again and you will know that we are monitoring pest populations with them. UVM is doing some experiments here, and you will be told that certain plants can’t be sold. And you will know that the tiny parasitic wasps we released at dusk on Tuesday are going about their business as you go about yours. And you can, we hope, appreciate the fact that we are trying to reduce our biologic footprint in our own corner of the world. 

MARCH 11

MARCH 11, 2011 

The weather of late has been grim,with little sun,seasonably cold  temps and more snow  that in recent memory. Admittedly, it is such small potatoes  when one looks at the  suffering perpetrated by the recent  collection of natural disasters and wars.  Reminds  us of the saying  “I cried because I had no shoes,until I saw the man who had no feet..”  Nonetheless,the  weather is pretty crappy even while  we  are still  proceeding  as though  spring is going to come . At this time of year there are seeds to be sown, plants to be potted, tomatoes to be grafted and planted. There is  usually a last flurry of  educational and grower meetings  that occur as well before farmers get into their brisk  seasonal pace of activities. In our circle of grower friends, we get together for a potluck dinner in late March each year  that has come  to be called  “The Last Supper”, because it is the last time  so many of us can be found in a room together until after the killing frosts of fall.

Many of the recent meetings have been generating a lot of angst in the small grower community about the impending food safety regulations that will be implememented by the FDA. Many smaller growers feel that they are shouldering the burden imposed by the FDA  from a problem that was a result of large corporate agriculture. But the general consensus  among the small New England  growers is that it cant  be a bad thing to review how you wash and handle your produce and modify  your production practices to  further reduce what little risk there may be for the end user.  Mike, Ray and I attended a work shop put on by UVM that helped us look at and develop a simple food safety plan for our farm. Initially it is a pilot program for interested farmers but perhaps could be adopted regionally. There were a few very interesting  take home points for us. 1) the investment is stainless steel  sinks in which you might wash greens is important because it sanitizes the best of any surface.  2) a regular testing of wash water is a good practice to insure low levels of pathogens (something I never thought about much because its the same stuff I drink and brush my teeth with) 3) If you triple rinse lettuce,the dilution rate of pathogens is logarithmic. Wow. Not a dilution rate of 3 times. Thats pretty huge. So,thats s huge impact  and all for the cost of a used 3 bay sink. Thats the kind of change one can embrace. We see food safety as a work in progress,so we will annually review the farm plan and see how we are doing.

I have rattled on too long. Time to put the ice grips on the boots and venture out to the greenhouses…

FEBRUARY 14

FEBRUARY 14, 2011 

Monday morning, Valentine’s Day…..where are the cards and chocolates? Most likely under the towering piles of snow that line the dooryard.  The nicest gift I could get would be a snowless week with some nice sunshine. This has been the coldest winter in the last 10-15 years and we have gotten a lot more snow than normal.  We are burning through our propane contract trying to keep our two big stock-plant houses going. We also use a lot of propane melting snow on and away from the greenhouses in a storm so it doesn’t pile up on top and collapse the greenhouses.  On top of that we have to supplement light levels with HID lites to bring the plants along so that we can take cuttings. There are 700 tiny little tomato plants struggling to grow in there as well. Hard to imagine that those same plants, when planted in the soil in a greenhouse in April, can sometimes put on almost an inch a day in height. Not so now, but their presence in the greenhouses and the slowly strengthening sun assures us that spring will come.

The new farmstand renovation is coming along pretty much on schedule. I am told that there is a painting party to be held there this afternoon and I am required to show up with a roller in hand and some crappy old clothes. After that gets done, we will be ready to put the flooring down and start moving some basic appliances into the kitchen part. Wooden shelves still need to be constructed for the farm stand part,  exterior doors and windows installed and a large counter constructed. It appears that this will not conflict too badly with the opening of greenhouses in early March and potting season, but there will be lots of little stuff that we overlooked that will have to be done. Ray and Mike have been reassembling the coolers, with many “farmer modifications” added to make old panels fit together in odd spaces. Fortunately we have gone two weeks without major snowfall (over 4″). Snow removal from around the greenhouses and driveways is a full 2-man job that takes a full day or better, so not having the expense for two weeks seems like a gift.  Maybe that’s what I got for Valentines Day this year….

JANUARY 24

JANUARY 24, 2011 

Last night we had a cold night; it was -21 Fahrenheit here at  6:00 AM. That leads me to believe that Mother Nature effectively thinned the 2011 peach crop here at the farm.  Fortunately for the raspberries, blueberries and strawberries, we have good snow cover so they will be unaffected by this event.  But as I look out the kitchen window at the upper greenhouses I can see dollar bills going up in smoke as the furnaces struggle to keep the greenhouses temperate.

I have been taking cuttings and sowing seeds (the greenhouse tomatoes are up). Mike, Ray, Leo and Eric have intermittently been plugging away at the the farm stand renovation when materials are available and the weather moderates. Griff has been trying to resurrect a pile of damaged irrigation pipe to some level of functionality and we all have been moving a lot of snow. Our greenhouses and barns are not set up to handle winters with lots of snow, so we  have to deal with snow removal on several different fronts, several different ways. A five inch snowstorm will take 2 people with two machines a full 10 hour day to clean up, so just moving snow around gets to be an expensive proposition. Global warming is looking good to some of  us….

2010 Archives

 

CHRISTMAS EVE

DECEMBER 24, 2010 

Christmas Eve? How did we get here? Time goes by so fast, it seems as though we were picking corn and pumpkins two weeks ago. I remember sitting in Mrs. Norton’s fourth grade class waiting for Christmas vacation. It seemed a span of two years between Thanksgiving and Christmas back then. Now it seems we barely get the Thanksgiving turkey soup cleaned up before we have to deal with Christmas cookies.(translation:  eat)

It has been a very busy fall here. We have a  huge farm stand renovation underway. As of now framing is completed and we have two new buildings with roofs flashed and papered, ready for the shingles. After the New Year, windows, electrical and plumbing will start as well as trim and siding on the outside. Our friends Leo Maslan with Eric and Mary Skovsted have guided Mike and Ray through the process thus far, acting as the brains of the outfit. When not developing their skills as carpenters, Mike and Ray have been renovating the gable ends of some of the older greenhouses. Thankfully the snow has held off, allowing us to proceed without the encumbrances of snow or ice. Anne and Sarah have been at the books since the middle of October. There is pre-tax work, greenhouse inventory, and seed and plant orders to go through, as well as the craploads of reports and documents to be filed with various government and and insurance bureaucracies. I am sure that if someone told us forty years ago that a farm of this size would generate this much desk work Anne would have remained a career teacher and I would  still be driving a dump truck or working for someone else. She puts in an inordinate amount of time at the desk for the privilege of getting to work her butt off in the greenhouses and farm the rest of the year. And she still gets a boat load of desk work to do at that time of the year as well. Everybody is pretty beat and I expect there will be some people who work here who will fall asleep at some point on Christmas Day, besides myself.

As I sit here a jazzy version of Silver Bells wafts from the radio in the other room. It brings to memory Christmas past.  I tend to be fairly unsentimental about things, but I can’t help but reflect back on how far we have come since we started in 1974. As my friend Scott Macleay would say, we were farming “with stone knives and bear skins” back then.  I sort of fantasize about giving some of the elders who went before us a tour of the place now. My Dad(who farmed and loved the outdoors), Stan Colby (who grew up here), my Grandad (a Tennessee farmboy and beekeeper), my Ma (from whom I got my love of gardening and plants) and my father-in-law who loved all things about animals and farming.  I know that they would get such a kick out of how far things have actually come. I also am aware that Edgewater Farm would not be what it is today without cooperative family efforts joined with the committed, hardworking efforts of many of those who passed through as laborers and part of our greater farm family. We can’t help but be grateful and feel more than a bit lucky.

So have a peceful and restful holiday season. The  2011 CSA  Programs have been formulated and the information will be going out soon and will be posted on the website. Sarah has pictures on our Facebook site for those who are interested.  We will be back at it on the 26th, rest assured. But not before I get some eggnog and quality time in my recliner…..

NOVEMBER 6TH – DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME

NOVEMBER 6, 2010 

Tonight we set the clocks back and I am repaid for the loss of an hour’s sleep one Sunday last spring. The crew continues to diminish as others leave for winter jobs or different lives. It is a bit sad to see them move on, but there is not much time to dwell on it as the workload amplifies for the few of us remaining. This fall we are rebuilding our farm stand and the first nails are to be pounded this coming Monday. There is a tension in the air as preparations for “winter” (snow) continue, and there will be a rush to get the new building roofed and buttoned before Christmas.  This will be complicated as the shorter and cooler days move in,  coupled with the often unstable weather.  Mike has been fixing broken greenhouse parts and putting things away, Griff, Ray and Jenny continue to work on packing out what little is left for the CSA (now done for the season) and Co-op orders. Sarah and Anne are trying to get flower and seed orders out for next spring’s material, and I have been working on getting the machinery serviced and put away while trying to get the stock plants up in the greenhouses cleaned up and sorted through. We have the specter of strawberry mulching looming before us which is always a dirty, time-consuming (and dangerous) job.  We would normally consider ourselves in good shape if we were not about to start building a new barn.

But there is also the excitement of creating something new as well, hopefully something a lot better. So we hope the real winter weather will hold out for a while as we round up the tape measures, hammers and utility knives, and head up to the farm stand.

OCT 9

OCTOBER 10, 2010 

The end is in sight. Or is it?  We close the  stand down for the season  this coming  Monday (Columbus Day) and as it has for the  past 6-8 years, right on time comes a wide spread frost.  We always have to respond to the same tired  rhetorical question—“Slowing down for you now,I suppose. Not much to do  but put everything away….” always with a knowing nod. Fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. As the days get shorter and temps start to cool down there is almost an urgency in the air to get as much accomplished  before the snow flies, because in the spring we will all be  consumed with the greenhouses and spring plant production.  So we spend  our days fixing and putting away machinery, mulching strawberries, perennial pots, garlic, rhubarb, patching up the greenhouses, cutting brush and the list goes on. In the dead of winter we are finally confined to the  office for tax work,seed orders and trying to lay out at least a rudimentary game plan for the farm for the upcoming season. Everybody gets some down time,but there is always something that needs attention.  We just dont all pack up for a couple of months and head to Florida. But then, who would really want to…?

This winter we will complicate things by doing a farmstand renovation. We have batted the idea around for a couple of years of having a commercial kitchen at the farmstand. Many New England  farmstands have them and we have recognized the benefits of them, but they  looked like a lot of extra money and  harder for us-more personnel management.  But recent events  have precipitated impending federal food safety legislation (Google California Leafy Greens Amendment and SB 510) that have us looking for an alternative income stream should the FDA make us loose  our capacity to service wholesale accounts. For me personally, it forced my decision to go ahead. Other members of the family found their own reasons to pursue the  stand renovation with a state certified kitchen, so we are all on board. But it  has been quite a process thusfar trying to talk to the  State agencies,utilities and municpalities. As we are trying to do as much of the construction as possible with the farm crew, I have  been acting as a “general contractor” and I must say that I have a  greater appreciation of what it is that a  general contractor contributes to the process of building something.  That said, we are poised to clean out the farmstand the day after we close for the season and start tearing the old structure down. So in essence we will be trying to cram reconstruction in around everything else that needs to be done.  It promises to be a very busy (and expensive ) close to 2010. Stay tuned…

SEPT 5

SEPTEMBER 5, 2010 

The weather just keeps getting more bizarre. We just  finished 5 days of  over-ninety degree temps. On top of  it being extremely dry, this heat seems  back breaking at this time of the year.We just finished putting strawberry plug plants into black plastic,in hopes of fruiting them very early in spring of 2011. We had to  continually water them in order to keep them alive until the weather moderates  and temperatures cool off and they can establish themselves and start growing. If it was tough on the plants ,it was doubly tough on the crew working.  Hydration is so important for them in when it gets brutally hot like that.  Not only is it miserably hot to have to work in,but conditions  warrant that  you  pay attention  to avoid heat stroke, a very serious  condition. Now that temps are moderating we will continue with regular fall harvest of potatoes,pumpkins and winter squash. But because it has been so dry here I am afraid we are going to have to break out some irrigation  pipe to try to save some of our late fall sweet corn as well as keep the  other fall  vegetables  coming along. No rain in sight….

AUGUST 21

AUGUST 23, 2010 

We are now in the transition phase of  our summer where the college  students and  educators all return  to  school and we shuffle about trying to  fill positions for the remainder of the harvest season. It is a bit of a mad scramble for all the farmers as the term of employment is really only for a couple of months, and any extra work that may be available into early winter   goes out to those whom have been  in your employ for the longest duration. There is still lots to harvest-tomatoes,potatoes,onions,corn,fall raspberries- so the days will be long for the workers even as the day length shortens. None the less,the cooler temps will be a welcome relief  for those of us that felt this  past summer was  too hot for working in comfort. We are still very dry here at our farm and the summer  showers were pretty fickle  as many nearby farms have had adequate moisture where we have been irrigating out of the rivers and ponds. Every year we have to report to the sate department of environmental services how much water we use for irrigation purposes and this year we seem to have a bumper report going; quite a change from last year where we  hardly showed any use because of the excessive rains. Normally a dry year translates into minimal disease and pest issues. Not so this year as we have had overwintering populations of insect pests due to the mild winter (remember,I had my first bumper crop of peaches…)  and hot temps of the summer.We are looking forward to a pleasant fall and hope for a repeat  performance  of  the fall of 2009 which was long,warm and  sunny, as we have many projects on the docket.

JULY 25

JULY 25, 2010 

Farewell to a crappy strawberry season, greetings to a bumper blueberry crop. Despite the frost damaging the blossoms on the blueberry plants and a growing  problem with a disease called mummy berry,  we still managed to have the best season yet with the blueberries.  This is due in large part that our bushes are getting older and larger, and also that we  have learned  how to be better growers. The crew has been keeping really long hours trying to keep up with the harvest, and have been working  until 7-7:30 at night trying to keep up with the picking. This makes for a pretty long day for the troops when your day starts in the field at 7 in the morning. Plus this wickedly hot weather takes the starch out of the toughest of men. We have been getting some respite from the drought  this week with the arrival of 1.5″ of  rain and  we thankfully have been by passed by all the  microbursts, gullywashersand tornados  that have  become somewhat an accepted fact of summer life,  an unpleasant little sidebar to our changing climate. Along with changing weather  patterns  my farming friends and I  also notice the arrival of seasonal diseases and insect pests brought up on southerly air flows starts much  earlier in the season.  This translates into  extra time devoted to  spraying to protect  your crops, whether you are an organic or conventional grower, and that contributes to extra costs.  I already got caught napping and lost a planting of cucumbers, and the melons arent too happy either. But we have been vigilant with the potatoes and tomatoes and the  return last seasons dreaded late blight is  in our future as it has been reported in Hadley,Mass two weeks ago.

An article in our local paper talked about a gardener in Vermont who was caught and fined $1500 for shooting birds in his strawberry patch by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They were Cedar Waxwings and are protected  under legislation as migratory birds. It does bring up the  point that the interface between wildlife  and agriculture is a conflicting one. Our university extension personnel tell us that verterbrate pests are emerging  as the #1  problem and pest in  New England row crop agriculture. We have found this to be true here on our farm. Where an occasional raccoon  in the corn or  woodchuck in the broccoli were of concern 30 years ago,we find we are defending  our crops  against an expanding deer population, and literally hordes of Redwing blackbirds in corn and Cedar Waxwings in our berries. A flock of wild turkeys can raise havoc in the blueberries. For deer we  can spray ammonium salts or rotten egg extracts to deter them or erect electric fences to keep them out. For birds we have used (along with shotguns) balloons and propane cannons. It is an increasing annual  expense to our production and it is having a huge impact on altering how we do and will do things in the future. We have netted part of our strawberry crop this year,and it worked well in exlcuding birds, but it is tremendously expensive  to purchase and would take a huge  amount of money and time to cover our 6-7 acres of strawberries. That cost has to be reflected in the cost to the consumer, so we are trying to figure out whether we can continue PYO strawberries.  I guess we will just have to charge for it and let the market determine whether or not we  should continue.

JUNE 22

JUNE 22, 2010 

Hard to believe that the days will now get shorter. Days fly by, although somedays  not fast enough. We are  in the last stages of a very early strawberry season,and not an all together great one. The winter and  spring did little to  enhance the plants  ability to produce fruit,so production is down. We started so early and the weather has remained  such that we may have no berries for  July 4th, and that will be a first.  Not only are the vegetable  plantings screwy this year, but some of the native plants are confused as well. I see milkweed about to bloom and that  usually is as late July event.  What next? Fall foliage by Labor Day?  I dont care, just as long as winter doesnt come early.

On other fronts we  have started to  deliver to our CSA members and the farmstand is open. So we are very busy on many fronts,with some planting yet to do. Things seem to be growing well, although we have been notified that the dreaded disease Late Blight of Tomato and Potato has been found in  Connecticut so we are trying to prepare for that visitation. Its nice to be eating the greens and salad vegetables again. We again have a great crew of people working for us and they are all working long  hours. We are trying to squeeze in weeding and watering  in between  harvesting and sleeping.  The end of an early strawberry seasonalso means that we are going to have an early blueberry season….

MAY 27, 2012 

For most everybody in the Upper Valley, this is traditionally the big weekend to plant the gardens, although many of the more hardcore types have been  pushing the envelope for almost a month by getting their perennials in, seeding  their hardy vegetables and annuals while covering their more tender transplants from the frost. But if you need to follow a clock, now is the time to get the garden in.  Here at Edgewater, as well as at  other farms in the Upper Valley,  the first planting of everything is in the ground.  Because we are shooting for earliness, we oftentime make two  plantings  of crops you might not consider.  We actually have two  chronologically staggered plantings of  cherry tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons and cukes to name a few. I usually  make my last  seeding of radishes the second week of  September.  Planting goes on all summer long with lettuce, herbs, greens and cole crops.

We closed on the purchase of the Putnam Homestead in Cornish earlier this month and are  hard at work there, both in the house and the fields. We are going through the necessary electrical upgrades in the house and  trying to improve some of the drainage about the foundation. As it is such a huge old house, windows need glazing before winter and that is being attended to on rainy days when  George isn,t mowing or having field tillage to attend to. The fields, which haven’t been plowed in anyone’s recent memory, have been turned over and the ancient sod broken.  Wood ash is being imported to correct the PH of some of the field as well as raise potassium levels, lime will be used  on other blocks. The MacNamara family is growing  fodder corn on some of the acreage, while we retain over half of the tillable land to cover-crop  and perhaps actually plant to vegetables as early as spring of 2013.  In any case,  the new property is another task to integrate, figure out and manage. So far, so good.

We seem to be getting more calls about U-Pick strawberries earlier in the year, with more frequency,  than ever before. This illustrates the huge disconnect that the average population has with its local food system despite all the recent press of the last couple of years.  The earliest call that I ever answered was from a woman who wanted to pick berries the third week in April.  It was three years ago, it was the first day that our greenhouses were open for the season, and there were still chunks of ice  on the river bank. In the “old days’ we used to notify one another (the other Upper Valley berry growers) to see who would have that first ridiculous call among us and I am now the record holder.  But now it is very routine to field e-mails or calls from people who want to pick berries in early May.  In discussing it with other growers the consensus was that if people  never grow a garden and they see Mr. Driscoll’s California strawberries in the market all winter long, consumers naturally would question why wouldn’t they be available locally in April?   Winter is over , isn’t it?

APRIL 20

APRIL 20, 2010 

The food safety enabling legislation in the Senate currently still occupies every small farmer’s mind as we  charge into  our growing season. Although regionally  we have tried through our legislators to  have our voices heard,there is  no real reason for optimism at this time.  I thought I would post an editorial response to an article that  was recently published in the Valley News and picked up  by the Concord Monitor. It  dealt with the  possible impacts the imposing  food safety regulations will have  on small farmers in the northeast. The article was  quite lengthy and very  accurate in a great many ways.  They picked up a quote from me that went   “It’s going to be a whole bunch of money, a whole bunch of oversight and a whole bunch of regulatory paperwork…not the way I really want to farm.”  The quote was accurate, but taken out of context it makes me sound a bit  like your standard anti-government malcontent. So I wrote the following response to underscore what I thought were the important points readers should focus on. Here it is.

Susan Boutwell’s article on food safety was timely and accurate but I feel that a few important  points should be underscored. I read my quotes in the paper and although they were accurate, I feel that they should be framed into the context to which they were given.

I personally feel that the federal government  has not done a very good job of keeping food safe when given the authority to do so. One only has to look at the tainted meat recalls that came from the huge federally inspected slaughterhouses.  Or the importation of melamine tainted baby food from China. All of the food safety  scares  (ex.-spinach, chicken ,raspberries)  can be traced back to large vertically integrated agribusinesses and not small local farms  in the  New England area.I believe that  historically the government is much more effective in regulating small operations (in this case small farms )  than larger entities. Large corporate farms have the resources to fund  batteries of compliance officers and boatloads of lawyers and lobbyists to their cause, but none of the farmers I know in New Hampshire or Vermont have those resources .

There is not a farmer in the Upper Valley that I know of who is not committed to doing a better job of producing safer, healthy food. To that end  our  growers group from the Upper Valley (in conjunction with the Hanover Consumer Coop)  proposed  to  Senators Shaheen and Gregg to have continuing documented education  provided to the  small farms through the University Extension System  in regards to food safety, a concept that gets a lukewarm reception from most Senators.   What farmers in the Upper Valley   object to is the “one size fits all” mentality that  would burden small farms disproportionately in terms of  capital outlay, burdensome paperwork and annual expense. Senator Gregg issued a editorial response in the Nashua Telegraph to a similar   food  safety article written a few weeks back in that  paper. In that editorial he assured readers that small farms would not be negatively effected by this food safety enabling legislation, which is pure bunk.  When  farmer Michael Smith of Gypsy Meadows Farm says it  can put him  out of business, he doesn’t say that because he is interested  in getting a picture of his tractor or a sound bite  in the Sunday section of the Valley News—he says it because the threat is real for small  and start up operations..

What is just as important here as the livelihood of small farmers regionwide is the stranglehold this will have on the development of a sustainable local food network. Jake Guest of Killdeer Farm  is absolutely correct in stating that this is every bit as much about grabbing and locking up marketshare by those  that can afford to do so under the guise  of  food safety. It is true that those of us that have farmstands or healthy CSA memberships can still come out the other side of a  stringent food safety policy and survive. But it will likely chokehold a developing sustainable local food  network  regionwide,   In the future “Locally Grown” may well be defined as locally grown in  New Jersey or beyond.

 

MARCH 20

MARCH 20, 2010 

Everybody’s big question is “Is this an early  spring?”  Gardeners are all fired up. Even one of my farmer friends is tempted to plant some peas just to get bragging rights (and he may look pretty clever  with his early peas for market if they dont rot in the ground first…)   Its interesting as a grower to have  gardeners come up to me  and ask the question, like I am privy to some fountain of information that they don’t have access to. I like Jake Guest’s response fashioned with a rhetorical question: ” So,what’s an early Spring? Three nights in May with nightime temperatures in the low twenties?”   So my response is pretty much tempered: go outside, pickup the  sticks off the lawn and rake the dog turds around. Do some pruning and have some fun but dont  get your water hot about seeding lettuce this weekend in the garden or come by early to get your plants from the greenhouses. April can be a long month, and I can remember being called back to work as a ski patrolman during that month just when I thought I was going to put my skis away  and trade them for the summer tractor.

But the focus on the weather does bring up the question of Global Warming in any weather  discussion. Forty nine of the fifty states in the Union  had snow this year. Its pretty interesting when you are looking at the  nightly news and see that the Dallas airport is closed because of snow. There are many politicos who pander to the assumption that these particular weather events point  to the fact that there is NO global warming, otherwise how could there be snow in Shreveport, Louisiana?  In our little world of agriculture we first got our first information about global warming from some of our University Extension Educators. They had  been attending seminars and reported  back to us at trade and educational meetings that Global Warming was not a hoax, the facts showed it to be happening and how it was happening. Verne Grubinger, a Vermont Extension specialist reported to us that there was a general forecast for New England and it was this:  Winters would be warmer, summers would be cooler and wetter. He also went further to say the climatologists   forecast  that the natural habitat for our native sugar maple will, in  a century’s time, will move north to Labrador.  Plus, storms and fronts  that result from changes in weather systems would be much more violent and dramatic.  Owtch!

After four years, I am inclined to think Verne missed his call as a meteorologist, because things seem to be bearing out just like he said they would,  at least  in my world. And we farmers spend a lot of time thinking about the weather and its ramifications. Any of  us boomers can remember growing up with longer ski seasons and snowier, colder winters,especially those of us who ski and long for the good old days.  Maine just logged either its warmest winter on record, despite the snow in Shreveport. I may not live to see the forest ecosystem change,but we can certainly document the extreme nature of the summer  thunderstorms. Ask Steve Wood or Poverty Lane Orchards or Matt Patch of Walahowden Farm about the  increasing  frequency of hail  events. I know we live in constant fear of a hail storm. Ask David Pierson of Pierson Farm what hail can do to a vegetable farm. I went up after an event decimated his home farm and  it looked like a battlefield…..greenhouse plastic shredded  and  the fields looked  a standing army had marched through shooting peppers and watermelons with shotguns.  The   2nd longest tornado  trail on record in the continental US occurred three summers ago in  NewHampshire-something like a path of 37 miles,which went right through Peter Van Berkums wildflower nursery in Deerfield  and toppled trees, ruined greenhouses and carried off a golf cart.  How about wetter summers? The last two summers have broken records as well.

Farmers and  growers are now dealing with pests and diseases that  were unheard of in our neck of the woods twenty years ago. Leaf hoppers showing up in June. Downy mildew in vine crops. Late blight of tomatoes and potatoes…ok,but in July? Squash vine borer?  These were all things that were common in the Mid Atlantic states, and now they are arriving in New England like an unwanted house guest.

Rush Limbaugh told me global warming is  a Greenie hoax.  Maybe he knows something ,I dunno……  but something weird is going on with the weather…

JAN 24 2010

JANUARY 24, 2010 

Its been a very busy off season at the farm.  Some of the regulars are trying to fit in vacations before greeenhouse season gets in full swing  (we have already started tomatoes and some flowers), Hannah is about to head to Georgia to start the AT, Ray is in the midst of a 6 week bike tour of Patagonia, and Liz is trying to line up a grad  school for the fall.  CSA membership brochures have gone out and Sarah is working up the greenhouse ads for the next  up coming season, Mike is finishing up machine and greenhouse repairs. Anne and I try to get out and do a bit of x country skiing but the  paperwork that goes with this deal is, at the least, overwhelming. Its either taxes, chasing inventory, filing H2A paperwork for Roy and Willie…..it really keeps us glued to the office. And we have begun the process of  lining up this summers employees and interviews…all very time consuming.

At the grower meetings the two hot topics continue to be food safety and  the diseases of vegetable plants, specifically the late blight issue of 2009. We lived through the late blight last summer,but are not sure how we are going to survive all these proposed bureuacratic measures in regards to food safety. There is GAP certification to comply with for those of us that are big enough to wholesale to  chains like Hannaford, Price Chopper, etc (and we are not).Then there is Senate Bill 510 in Congress that would get the FDA involved with food safety. There is HAACP, state alth departments…..virtually all in competition to  jump into food safety to regulate agriculture.

Once again, small farms  ( which are easier  to regulate but dont always have the financial resources to come into compliance) are going to  pay the price for globalization and a centralized food system. It will be a lot easier to regulate small farms than it will be to make sure the melamine stays out of the baby food coming from China or the e-coli  from  truck loads of factory farmed food coming from the west coast. We small diversified farms in the northeast dont have the political clout in our legislative  bodies to compete with the lobbyists and clout  that  large agribusiness concerns can wield. I understand that last statement sounds like a bunch of  cliched, leftist sound bites. But the fact is  large corporate agriculture can absorb the significant costs of compliance as merely a cost of  business, where we small farms can not.  The regulations will be written “one size fits all”  in a rush to  address the public concern over “safe food”  and it will be hard on small diversified agriculture. We are very, very concerned at this point, but not sure what we can do short of  writing letters to our senators and congressmen.

Our farm hasworked very hard at cleaning and bringing a safe,very healthy product to the marketplace. As we have grown over the years, we have upgraded and changed our washing and packing area. We actually  have a food safety policy as well as an employee handbook and saftey manuel that is required reading for each employee. Our washing /prep area and cooler are right near River Road, so you can drop by daily during the summer and see us at work. If you are curious to see a copy  of the food safety manual, its not a company secret, just e-mail us at info@edgewaterfarm.com and I will send you back the e-copy.

2009 Archives

THANKSGIVING WEEKEND

NOVEMBER 28, 2009 

We have had a merciful November allowing us to get our machinery serviced and  stored away and fields and buildings cleaned up for winter. This past week saw the crew shrink down to five of us full time 3o-50 hours) and one  part timer. Roy and Willie  are warming  up and planting gardens back home  in Jamaica while Mike puts the plow truck in order and mounts the snowblower on the tillage tractor  in preparation  for the first winter storm. We hope the ground gets a good freeze before that first snow in hopes that it will control some of the disease  and insects that plagued us this summer. Wouldn’t hurt knocking back the wood and deer tick populations in the woodlands, either.

Our next few weeks will be devoted to the  piles of deskwork that stand before us, the business part of the farm that we all dread doing. Mike has been doing a great deal of greenhouse repair as well as mulching the strawberry  plants. The deer fence is up and running in the blueberries and the last of the fall tillage has been completed.  Ray has been busy organiizing the wash and packing area for the vegetables and putting the various washing  machines and tables in storage to make way for the greenhouse operations that will start in earnest in February. He has done a great  job of organizing the colossal chaos of the machine and storage barns and sheds  that we turn a blind eye to during the growing season. I am trying to refocus my  efforts in the  two  greenhouses of overwintered stock plants and am even starting some plant propagation for next spring by taken some vegetative  cuttings. Soon Mike, Ray and I will work on the vegetable seed and plant orders, although Sarah and Anne are well along the process of ordering them for the greenhouse end of the operation as well as ordering the hardgoods . Anne this morning  is working on the farm books in preparation for meetings with the tax accountant….our taxes are due  March 1 as opposed to April 15 for the rest of you.

There are meetings to attend. I sit on a couple of  committees and boards and there is the  usual battery of off -season meetings that the University Extension folks organize for we farmers so that we can  exchange information and get exposure to the latest and greatest ideas. This years testy topic will  once again be food safety regulation for those of us that grow it. The federal govenmen tnow  wants to regulate how we  wash and prepare food ( and to a great degree how we grow it) to make it safer to the consumer. All which is well and good, I think we can all agree that safe food is a good thing. But you cant legislate a one size fits all program that works for all of us. There  have been repeated abuses  and food recalls that have been traced to the industrial agricultural complexes: Mr Barnels peanuts, baby food out of China, a recent recall of hamburger at  our local grocery chain..  and the list goes on.None of which,to date , has  originated  from  the multiple small farmily farms of the Upper Valley.  For some reason the federal government thinks that we ( small  family farms)  are all complicit in the problem. The federal government would, under some proposals, want small farms to essentially capitalize and build  “processing facilities”  like the ultra big boys to come  into compliance with food safety regulations…..which most of us cannot  afford to do. And  by  proposed definitions, just cutting a head of lettuce  out in the field might well be viewed as “processing” by the government. It has gotten a little crazier for vegetable growers in New England, and so  we spend our time  trying to get somebody to listen or lobby for us. We aren’t  much of a  lobbying constituency when  you figure that  one  corporate farm  in the  Salinas Valley crops more acreage that  all the small CSAs, berry growers and vegetable farmers in New England. So there will be time in the winter devoted to that…too much time as far as I am concerned.

OCTOBER 2

OCTOBER 5, 2009 

We are winding down the harvest season,the farmstand will close this weekend. Although sales  have been strong this fall, weather continues to make it difficult and the damp cool nights, foggy mornings and considerable rain events continue to  ruin  things, most recently playing havoc and spreading fruit rots in the  fall raspberries. This year we have have seen more new diseases on the farm than we  ever figured possible. And generally in the fall, the vegetable crops start to decline anyway before the frost finally takes them out. We will remain extremely busy with the full crew for at least a month and a half with fall clean up. I am already focusing on machinery when I get a minute, and the  stock plant greenhouses need to be  readied for the returning plants, which  will have  to be brought in, “de-loused” and cleaned up for the winter.  Brush to be be cut, plant stakes retrieved, greenhouses to be repaired…..and hopefully a few  last hikes up Cardigan Mountain. We will have some  meetings with our  CSA groups, lots of  plant material and seeds to be ordered for the greenhouses and there will be plenty of informational meetings to attend…I am sure that  this years diseases will be  the hot topics. One of my personal goals is to get in decent physical shape so each summers work load doesnt keep landing me in physical therapy…. but that goal maybe a “bridge too far”…

AUG 17

AUGUST 17, 2009 

Here it is two weeks from labor day. As  one ages, the time literally seems to fly by, and  you end up standing in the middle of the week wondering  how  you got there without without the ability to remember what transpired on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This summer has been a blur, and despite the fact we lament the passage of  time that goes by  unnoticed, I  and many of my farmer friends look forward to the passage of this  particular growing season. My usual chant starting about now is ‘Bring on the frost”, but I have heard it from others  this year, long before I dared open my mouth.  By far, this  has been the most challenging season for  most of us. From the pressure from wildlife, the problematic weather( lack of  heat and sun for most of the summer) and onslaught of various plant diseases  that we are seeing for the very first time (bacterial canker, late blight).

The upside is that  demand is good this year for what we grow, mainly at the expense of home  gardeners who were ill equipped to recognize and deal with the problems facing  all of us growing  vegetables and small fruit. Their early failures have created market demand for our tomatoes, corn ,melons and I suspect fall sales of  potatoes will be brisk.  Later this week (if the weather cools down) we will start harvesting onions and red potatoes…some of the early fall storage crops. So although the first part of this week will be unusually hot, the clock on the wall is ticking and we know that the number of sweltering days are clearly numbered.  I was making up a list this morning of projects to get done before winter settles in.

Where did the time go? Weren’t we shoveling snow  away from the greenhouse doors  two weeks ago….?

JULY 20

JULY 22, 2009 

A most unwelcome visitor has come to settle down among us since my early July blog: the nasty disease that cause the  Irish Potato Famine called  Late Blight of Potatoe and Tomatoes (phytopthora infestans) showed up  in our potatoes and tomato greenhouses.  The early arrival of this disease is not only complicating life in our little world  but wreaking  untold damage to farmers  in New England as well as New York State.  Late blight will not survive freezing conditions so  it  works its way north on weather systems coming up from the south and makes its ususal appearance  here in Late September or  October. This year, it was introduced on tomato plants for retail sales that the  big box stores brought up from  down south.  This   disease  is highly contagious  and spreads in the wind once it sporolates. The box stores  sold the plants region wide, gardeners took them home and innoculated  the region. Add to the “perfect storm” that the weather has been perfect for the growing and spreading the disease (lots of cool damp evenings in the last month and Voila:  instant  epidemic.)

For us it is not the end of the world, we have a few more tricks in the bag (as well as different food sources) than did the Irish back in 1847, but it is causing some economic hardship and stress nonetheless. We quickly had it positively  identified by our state plant pathologist at the University of New Hampshire and we  immediately embarked upon a program  of pruning and disposing of  the badly infested plant material, and embarked upon the University Extension service recommended program for spraying fungicides. The prognosis is not great because the only real way to make the disease abate is to freeze it out, but we definitely have slowed the march of the disease down in hopes of  salvaging a high percentage of what looked to be a great crop of both potatoes and tomatoes. We are living day to day, hoping for dry hot sunny weather to help us curb its spread. I  hope I can tell you by the time I write the next blog that our efforts were not in vain.

Instead of talking about the ramifications of  the global economy as I did  in the blog 20 days ago,  we are now having the dubious honor of  being victmized by it.

JULY 1

JULY 1, 2009 

If you are to believe the weather models for global warming, then this weather is certain confimation that global warming is here. The weather pattern this year has been similar to the past two and fits the models perfectly for the northeast: cooler and damper.   All which has been great for he  lettuce and greens, but not so hot fot the strawberries, corn and vine crops.   We started picking  our first strawberries back June 7, and I bet we havent  had  two full days of sunshine since we started. We havent gotten all the rain that many of  my farmer friends in New England have experienced. As a matter of fact, despite the cloud cover, we were dry enough  so that we drip irrigated our peppers,tomatoes and vine crops last week. But in the last two days our moisture  issues have been  addressed with 2.5″ of rain and more in the forecast. Hmmmm….not so good with the fourth of July coming and the last  half of the strawberry season in full swing. The good news is that the outside crew are champs in getting the stuff  harvested for the stand and bulling through a full afternoon of catch up farming. They are working 12 hours a ady at least 4 days a week. The guys at the stand  and at the greenhouses (where we have a plant sale going on) are short handed as well, yet things still look pretty fresh and  kept up. A good crew, indeed…

Speaking again of global issues,we got notification and call from our extension crop specialists informing us that  the disease Late Blight of Tomatoes and Potatoes (the same one that caused the Irish  Potatoe Famine in the mid 1800’s) has shown up in New England  2 months early this year. The damp,  sunless, weather is perfect for spreading it and  it usually works its way northward  on weather systems from the south in a normal year. By the time it gets here in late  September  the growing season is well over, and harvest is already underway. But this year it seems many of the box stores in New England that carry garden  starters have been buying their tomatoes from southern growers, and the NH University Extension pathologist has, as of yesterday, identified  garden tomatoe plants in 4 different box retailers who had  plants covered with late blight that they were selling to home gardeners. Despite her request that they pull  pull them from the shelves, they would not. (She has no legal powers to make them)   By not doing so they are going to sell diseased plants out into the communities and help spread the disease around. As if the weather was not enough of a problem.  So the commercial growers, organic and conventional, can look towards a summer of spraying  their tomatoes and potatoes  more than ever, all while hoping the  weather  improves and the disease doesnt show up in their fields.  Farmers trying to figure out reprocussions of global warming and a global econo

JUNE 9

JUNE 9, 2009 

The  last few weeks  have been a  whirlwind as  the rush of planting season has been coupled with some abnormally  late frost events and  cool nights. Nonetheless, Mother Nature  marches  on as we start harvesting  the first early fruit from  our strawberry beds on black  plastic. This system of raising berries is an adaptation of  a method that comes to us  from California and the deep south originally and  like  all good ideas,  it has its drawbacks. The drawbacks are the plants  bloom very early in the spring and are subject to frost damage, meaning more nights of pumping water to protect them. There is  additional expense in the  plastic mulch and drip tape that is used in the system of developing the bed, and  an upfront  cost of   additional plants   because  the way the system  functions depends  on a much higher plant population per acre  as compared to a traditional matted row system, (which constitutes the  majority of what we still do here on the farm.) The plus side of the equation is  twofold for us;  earliness is the main factor, but  there is another subtle benefit for us. With plasticulture we can  bring a given acreage of land into meaningful production in half the time, essentially allowing us to double crop our land in the summer.This is because traditional matted row strawberry beds take a full year to establish, whereas a matted row system allows you to fall plant, thus allowing  you to produce a short season vegetable crop on the same land as well. So it fills a void for those of us with limited acreage, allowing us to utilize our already short season here in the northeast. We  still do both traditional mattted row as well as  some plasticulture…. they both have their places.

People often ask about  how the crop looks, and I usually  respond  given the  amount of winter injury that I can see in the plants as they come out of the winter. The truth is, not only is  this a  guessing game, but it has little bearing on the profitablility of the crop for us. The plants  can  be  in the best of  shape and loaded with  fruit going  into the harvest season   only to loose a high percentage to fruit rot if the weather  turns dark and damp. This is  particularly a problem with a dependence  upon  Pick Your Own for harvesting….the  PYO crowd  only works  on nice sunny days.  So, you can have a great crop only to loose it at the very last  minute due to  uncooperative weather. On the other hand, you can have a  rough winter and light fruit set and if the weather is relatively cool,sunny and dry during the harvest season you might  harvest a higher percentage of good  berries  harvested between the farm and PYO crews and actually make out better financially.It is really a crap shoot.

So this tempers our enthusiasm  as we enter our  33rd strawberry season. It’s early in the season and the  plants  endured a fair amount of winter injury.  But the weather of late has been good for the  plants with no extreme heat and a fair  amount of sun despite the unseasonally cool nights. The  birds and ground varmints havent really  arrived yet to extract their  pound of flesh from the crop, so their is an air of anticpation about here. We shift our focus as greenhouse sales wind down a bit and we ready ourselves  to open the farmstand in a couple of days and the strawberries will be on the shelves when we do. If you see  me and and ask me if it looks like a good year for the strawberries,  don’t be surprised if I shrug  my shoulders. I am a believer in the words of  that  great Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra who said “It aint over till it’s over…”

 

MAY 29

MAY 29, 2009 

Ray brought the first ripe strawberries to me today.  They came from the rows we  planted upon the black plastic, but it surprised me none the less because the spring has been pretty cool thus far with the exception of a couple of scorchers back in  April. We may have a few to pick by next weekend, but I don’t see us wading in them for a couple of weeks. We got lots of things planted out this week, thanks in part to the arrival of our two Jamaican workers, and the arrival of the college help. This is their eighth year they have come and they pretty well know the ropes at this point, such that they can work with the green college kids. Despite getting a frost three nights ago we were able to put out the  peppers, tomatoes, cukes, and summer squash. We cultivated and hand-hoed  the onions (about an acre’s worth) this week, but up until two days ago irrigation was a major activity. Thanks to the 2″ of rain that we got, we can focus on weeding, which will really pop up  once we get some heat after this rain. Field preparation is still an ongoing activity, but the initial heat of getting land prepared is behind us and George Cilley, our tractor operator who does the lion’s share of it, can take a well deserved break to mow his lawn and do a few things on the list that has been growing while he has been up here the last month or so playing in the dirt and manure.

Memorial Day is behind us, and the weather has been kind to us, such that greenhouse starter sales have been pretty good despite the dimmed economy. It hardly looks like we sold much at all when you walk through the greenhouses, but Sarah assures me that the  plants that remain are just spaced a bit more apart because they are larger. The stuff looks really good, so if you are in need of  ornamentals please come down and give us a look as the selection is still very good.  We haven’t set a date to open the Route 12A farm stand yet…but I am sure Mike will tell us when we get close to harvesting greens and lettuce and berries.

MAY 16

MAY 16, 2009 

It never ceases to amaze me at how entitled customers think  they are or perhaps it is the depth of their  lack of knowledge concerning things remotely horticultural.  This  years best story to date is about a customer who came in and bought some rhubarb roots that  were still dormant. The  pot  contained the dormant root, it was the 23rd  of April and there was no foliage yet showing.  I  heard his  somewhat indignant voice on the message  machine about a week later (May 4) saying that there was no  harvestable rhubarb yet and what were we going to do to make it  right. I think my wife politely informed him  that we would make it right if something turned out to be wrong with the  product, but that he should be a bit more patience.  This was probably the correct way to handle this…not the way I would have approached it had I called the indignant fellow back when I first heard  his message.

I understand that we are a society that has come to  expect to get everything we  want, and that  we want it now. Fast food, wide screen televison, hi speed internet–whatever.  Gardening demands a bit more patience and a bit of knowledge. As far as the knowledge goes,  a recent interview was done of us in a local paper, and one of the angles the reporter was charged with was  to get  simple steps to guarantee  success with heirloom tomatoes. I had to inform the reporter that in my neighborhood their were no gurantees to having a successful gardening experience  year in and year out.  If was all that easy to be successful in farming  wouldn’t I have a 2nd home in some exotic locale to which  I could fly my plane  after thirty five years in business?  I tried to give her a list of things that were important to do to be  susccessful with growing heirloom tomatoes,  but that phrase  –guarantee success”— seemed to smack of more of entitlement. The reporter got a story, I guess….probably just not the story the editor wanted.

Me, I currently feel that I am entitled to no more frost until fall  and I would like about an inch of good soaking rain in the  next 48 hours. It would surely simplify my life as it it is very dry and difficult to get things transplanted out  in these conditions.  Mike was harrowing up some ground yesterday and it was surprising how dusty it was. Last spring was  verymuch like this until the middle of June when  the rains came and took a month to go away. Hopefully we will not experience that again, but that would be  a better choice than to continue on thiis dry sp