Pooh Talks: a winter of too much paperwork, and too much coffee, before heading into greenhouse season

I am  sitting here with a coffee cup laced with sugar and cream . The polar vortex is winding up once again outside with predicted high temps of the mid teens. This change came on the heels of 3 days of almost  40 degree temps and a big rain event. I am descending into my funk because I was hoping  for a better glimpse of mud-season these last days of February and not this. 

Remember the song by the British band the Kinks in the 1960’s titled “Enjoy yourself, It’s Later than You Think”?  It plays in my mind as I contemplate the upcoming growing season, which, by some strange twist of chronological fate, is at hand.  There are rooted cuttings galore in the propagation house and the tomatoes are up and chugging along. Long season ornamentals like begonias and lisianthus are in trays and today’s calendar tells me its time to seed artichokes.   Ray, Jenny and Mike will finish up the last round of vacations this week and we open a house to start seeding the onions next week….that will  signal “game on” as  Anne and Sarah will start to bring on the greenhouse crew. Then we will officially be off to the races.

As I look out the window I contemplate the challenges for us the upcoming season.  Right now there is a snow squall blowing through, a harbinger of the day’s plummeting temperatures. Weather will be a huge challenge again for the Edgewater Farm crew as well as all my agricultural colleagues.  My friend Mike Smith once remarked that farmers  are a pretty clever lot. We can grow crops in the desert, and we can grow things in a swamp. Here in New England the problem is that we just don’t know which one of those situations will confront us in the upcoming growing season.  Anybody that says what is going on meteorologically is not climate change simply has his head in the sand or doesn’t want to be assessed additional taxes to try and combat it. From my perspective the discussion should be not whether it is a reality, but what we should be doing about it. In addition, we have to factor in the reality that there are going to be a higher percentage of crop loss over the course of the season.  Drought, high wind, excessive rain, hail, extreme changes in temperature all can reduce and even eliminate yields.  Thus, we have to strategize weather as a more integral component of our crop rotations. And then hope for a decent outcome.

Labor is huge challenge for everyone in the farming industry. We are more and more dependent on our H2A farming crew from Jamaica every year. Last year we vetted 5 individuals -local Americans- for the field crew. No one showed up for the first day, and only 2 notified us that they  were not coming.  We are still trying to get used to the concept of the 30 hour work week which results in the training and managing more bodies. We have a good core crew of folks returning this year to the farm stand, greenhouses and kitchen, but most do not work a 40 hour week. This presents management problems for us, as we are responsible for so much mandated training by the government as well a scheduling nightmare for our folks managing those separate areas of the farm.  We have an aging workforce for the field crew, and even our professional force from Jamaica is getting older;  we have be sensitive to that. I am 68, for better or worse semi functional and working a 50 plus hour week during the season. And then there is George. During the spring he is doing pretty close to 40 hours a week and taking care of most of our primary tillage and tractor work. He drives up daily back and forth to Bradford with his lunch bucket  (extra brownies for me when available) and  Perry Como CDs which he  punches into the tractor CD player and goes about his business of  doing our business. He is 88 this year.  So we have to look at  our aging workforce and be sensitive to the challenges of that. Last year we ended up at the  beginning of the season with 66% of the number of bodies for the field crew that we figured we needed, and went all summer that way. Many things were left unattended, but our crew did yeoman’s duty out there and we had more accomplished by the time they headed south to Jamiaca on the first of November than I could have possibly hoped for.  We will continue looking for qualified earnest people to help us with the hard work of farming, but we will also be looking at ways to mechanize and capitalize  on efficiencies.  

Compliance.  I often say that if I knew that farming was so much compliance and documentation, I would have chosen the Elvis Tribute Band offer as a career choice. Most all of my colleagues- like myself - got into farming because they wanted to work outdoors in the environment. See things grow, visibly see jobs accomplished. Produce something tangible of value. As I push forward towards 50 years of doing this, I find that I am as much an HR person as I am a grower.

pooh leading up our HR department

pooh leading up our HR department

This year’s really big challenge will be our first FSMA inspection.  For several years we have felt that much of what is being required of farms going forward  towards FDA compliance really does little to actually improve food safety. However  it does  generate documentation for inspection, provides jobs  for well intentioned people staring at screens somewhere in  the bowels of an FDA center in DC. I had an  FDA “mock”  inspection last fall and the number of clipboards needed to record documentation on our farm went from  three to eleven(11) . And I am not sure that there wont be more by the time I am actually inspected. That is all just training field employees, protocols for growing, harvesting, washing and packing.  Health and hygiene training….. a yearly event for all workers.    Tracking cooler temps, testing sanitizer in the wash-line and documenting it, and on and on.  Worker Protection Standard for employees?   Yearly  (The farmstand doesn’t come under FSMA because it is direct retail and falls under NH Health and Human Service)  which is another agency. It is a lot of  training and  paperwork for the privilege of growing greenhouse tomatoes, cukes  and strawberries.  And it will eat up a lot of time before the inspector show up. 

There are many challenges not yet on the table. Nutrient management programs.  Vermont has a program that makes all agricultural enterprises in that state record their cultural practices while setting parameters and protocols for fertilization and manure handling and the attendant documentation going with it. I have no doubt that it is coming to a Live Free of Die state near you some time in the future.  Again, it is not a bad idea that this fertilizer and  manure management is regulated. But its another layer of documentation.   It is essentially, another expense. 

Recently I had the unenviable task of appearing at a statehouse ag committee meeting , to testify on behalf  of pesticides. I am loath to testify on behalf of any pesticide use, but did so  because I was asked by my trade groups, and appeared as one of many farmers. The woman who introduced it was a retired nurse from an  urban area  and  was an avid gardener, and she had determined that the absence of pollinators in her gardens was attributable to agricultural chemicals, and she was looking to get them banned from the state.  It is not easy for me to advocate against her sentiment, misguided and flawed as I thought her logic may  be.  But the reality is if you ban them in NH, you put me at a disadvantage in the marketplace with Quebec, Vermont, Massachuesetts and Maine having access to them and not letting me use the same toolbox.  I am perfectly happy with the prospect of farming without agricultural chemical.  We employ  a lot of sound organic practices here on the farm currently.   Take chemicals away? I would embrace it. We would be willing to take our chances against large growers. I know how to farm organically.   But it has to be a level playing field. And by the way, much of the ag chemicals that I have a license to purchase can be bought off the shelf and used by homeowners at any Home Depot, Lowe’s, feed store or garden center. It is disingenuous to look at the local farmer as the sole person responsible for misuse of ag chemical. Homeowner use ought to be scrutinized as well.

The remaining challenge is the one that faces us every year. It is a multi faceted problem.   How to balance ones life against the demands of the season?  Find time to spend with your kids during the summer?  How do we continue to do what we do and  maintain a certain quality of life? How do we avoid burning out on the job, or worse yet, how do we avoid stress injuries and physical therapy appointments from repetitive motion? How do we balance and empower healthy employee relationships with a workforce that encompasses a wide  diversity of differing interests, ages, genders, and cultures?

If you have some solutions to the problems above, we would love to hear about them. Or, you can have my job dealing with them. I just want to go outside, work in the soil and grow crops…..