What's in a CSA Share?

As CSA farmers, we will be the first to admit that CSAs are a bit weird. I mean, you are getting a box of veggies that you don't have a complete choice over, which in some ways is kind of the opposite of many modern shopping experiences! On the other hand, it's fun because it makes us all try new things (and who knows, maybe find our next favorite vegetable!).

As a CSA farmer, I can tell you that our number one winter planning priority is really trying to nail down the best mix of crops for those boxes to try and make the majority of our members happy and excited by the veggies each week. We spend at least two full weeks each winter just working on this, assessing feedback and how things meshed for the past seasons, and planning out better mixes for the upcoming season. Yup, we plan out every single item in every share for the whole season, though Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate on making those plans work out!

In general, we envision the shares as having a nice mix of certain "types" of crops each week: something salad that you can enjoy raw, something that's a cooking green for all our greens lovers, at least one fruiting or podded crop (for all but the first weeks, as these guys tend to need warm weather!), at least one root crop, and usually one unique or herb sort of crop. During the height of the season when we have more options, we add in more of the fan favorite veggies (broccoli, carrots, and tomatoes), and on weeks where we have some of the more interesting crops or things we know that a number of folks won't like--fennel haters, we are looking at you! ;), we make sure to stock those swap baskets extra well!

This year we made a handy dandy graphic to help share a better sense of what will be in the boxes and in the U-Pick fields each month... let us know if you have any questions, have veggies you want to request, or if you want to sign up for the CSA!

Real Life Biodiversity on the Farm: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

The forces of nature are definitely one of the things farmers struggle with constantly (and okay, complain about). But after reading Wild Farm Alliance’s Biodiversity Guide (https://www.wildfarmalliance.org/biodiversity_guide) we realized that we don’t share enough about the even more awesome natural experiences that got us into farming and have us going back outside every day!

The thing about farming I couldn’t live without is being outside so much of the time and having the opportunity to see a stream of amazing, once in a lifetime events of cool animal interactions, year in and year out. Like thousands of close encounters with deer, rabbits, groundhogs, coyotes, mink, muskrats, foxes, and all the amazing birds. While some of those get-togethers aren’t always ideal (mink that’s prowling around the pond this winter, you better keep out of my hen house!), others are magical.

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Small farms like ours are actually a pretty awesome natural environment thanks to their “edge” effect. This is where the woods hit the fields, in an edge that includes all the brushy bits and hedgerows that surround and split our farm. These edge zones are where you can see all the animals of the field hiding out for shade, all the animals of the woods sneaking through, and all the animals that just like to live in between the two environments in that thick in-between brush. It’s an incredibly rich reservoir of wildlife, a harbor for beneficial insects and predators, and a habitat for so many native plant and animal species.

As a small farm with smaller fields, we end up with more edges than the larger farms that surround us, which means that over the past six years, more and more critters are figuring this out and moving onto our farm. Each year we see new species and more birds and more good bugs (and yes, the edges also harbor bad bugs and plant diseases, but our hope is that in time the good will conquer the evil). We love seeing this because it means that we are succeeding in our goal to create a productive agricultural environment and good food while still supporting healthy animal populations. And while sometimes nature and its animal minions butt heads with us, for the most part we celebrate all the diversity around the farm.

For the blog this week, we wanted to take a few minutes to share our five favorite mini-animal interactions, and hopefully prime your eyes to be on the lookout for some awesome animal sightings of your own when you are U-Picking!

The Great Horned Owl creepers

First of all, I LOVE Great Horned Owls. All my life I’ve dreamed of seeing them in the wild, but despite spending most of my hours outside, I still never saw one until we moved to Fenner, where our farm is filthy with them. You think you are all alone doing chores, but then start to feel like you are being watched, and if it’s light enough, you might spot an immense silhouette of owl on a high branch against the sky.

In the woods around here, you regularly hear two owls: the Great Horned Owl is hoots most like the stereotypical owl (lot of “Whoot Whoots”), while the more common Barred Owl is smaller and has the call that sounds like “Who hoots for you?” Three years ago, we learned about the Great Horned Owls’ far less pleasant juvenile screeching phase when two baby owls hatched in the woods next to the farm and began serenading us with their god-awful noise every night. While we miss getting glimpses of the owlets, for our sleep and sanity we don’t mind if none nest nearby again!

Our most awesome owl experience came last summer while trying to catch a raccoon that had killed off 8 chickens (one of the times we got grumpy at nature). The best way to catch chicken killers is by baiting a trap with the dead chickens since they generally come back to the scene of the crime. In this case, a teenage Great Horned Owl must have seen a nice plump chicken just sitting there and decided, "Don’t mind if I do." The poor owl the next morning was quite peevish in the trap, snapping their beak angrily at us, but fine when released.

And in case you are wondering why I find these majestic guys creepy… well as someone who spends a lot of time alone in the fields, I am a bit of a podcast addict. One that sucked me in despite my normal aversion to any sort of true-crime things is the Criminal podcast. Specifically, this “Animal Instincts” episode where Great Horned Owls may or may not play a part in murder… http://www.thisiscriminal.com/episode-one-animal-instincts-1-31-2014-2/.

Birds that Block the Sky

The most amazing animal experience we had at this farm was in the first spring when we moved in. It was honestly a rough start, having moved to a place where we knew no one and neither of us having a job, and then starting a farm with no money on new land in a new community. We were in the front yard arguing about one of the many things we were debating over at the time, when eventually we realized that the flock of birds that was passing over was more like a river than flock. Millions of millions of millions of starlings and red wing blackbirds, in a sinuous curving line, almost so thick it was hard to see the sunset sky beyond them. For 16 more minutes they flowed above in waves.

It was truly one of the most amazing things either of us has seen, as the last stragglers floated north, all arguments forgotten amid the vast scope of moving nature. It made us a bit mournful to think about how even more spectacular the greater migrations of the now extinct past must have been, but also appreciate the starlings more, that even as an invasive species on this continent they adapted. And each year we enjoy seeing the mumerations of starlings and the redwings, but have never again been under that flowing feathery river… fingers crossed to be that lucky again.

A Knot of Toads

Our third year on the farm was the plagues of Egypt season, where we had eight of the ten biblical plagues hit at some point during the season. One of these plagues, however, was the cutest plague we’ve ever seen, that being five zillion or more miniature toads. Everywhere you went for a month, were mini-toads. Millions of millions of mini-toads, each smaller than a good size housefly—toads in the grass, toads in the greenhouse, toads in the lettuce heads, toads in the truck, toads up your pant legs. Walking was a nightmare as you tried to hustle the cute little things out of a patch of ground to put your foot down. Every year since then, we see a few of them, but nothing like that summer’s cuteness invasion.

Close Encounters of the Hawk Kind

We have pretty prime hawk territory, even without the temptation of fresh chicken. Rodents are the bane of many a vegetable grower, and we manage them with both the dog’s hunting and by keeping strips around the crop fields mowed super tight to enable hawks and owls a good shot at garden invaders. Every year we have a red tail nest nearby, so we see the big parents working the field most of the summer, before the less coordinated young take off towards fall.

Most of the time, we coexist okay with the hawks, having lost less than a dozen birds to them over the years. That doesn’t mean that they don’t constantly consider adding chicken to their diet. Last year Matt was collecting eggs when one of the hawks decided to shoot down and buzz the chickens. Let’s just say that neither Matt nor the red tail expected to run into each other when he turned around the corner of the house just at Mrs. Hawk zoomed by!

One of the things we like about our “factory farm refugee” hens (we call them that because they are raised totally indoors at the hatchery and don’t see the outside until they get to our place) is that they are a tough breed. They are scared witless of the sky for two weeks, and always retain a strong jumpy instinct of birds flying over, which serves them well for living in a place with so many raptors. Without any roosters to guard, the hens are more alert when grazing, always ready to jump under the safety of their house. What’s funny is that without any roosters, a few hens start to get more aggressive and exhibit rooster-like behavior, and that means that if a hawk goes for the hens and misses, the most aggressive hens will come attack it. From the air, advantage and surprise go to the hawk. On the ground, the chickens have far better speed and agility, and working together, they fight back and terrify hawks away!

Playing Chicken

The chickens of course, draw in a lot of unwanted animal attention as everything wants to eat some chicken. Matt’s funniest chicken encounter came when we worked in the Hudson Valley and he was holding down the fort while the farmer he worked for was away. Part of chores included evening chicken lock-in, which meant watering the hens, checking the nests one last time, and making sure they all made it into the house. Matt had shut the door and was counting the chickens off on the roost… fifteen, sixteen, seventeen,… wait a minute. There was a possum perched on the roost, tucked in tight between two hens, pretending as hard as it could be to be a chicken!

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Mr. Le Pew

On Friday, we had a near miss with one of our local Mr. Pepes. On Thursday, Matt finally won the battle with the groundhog that spent most of last summer grazing in one of our fields. I’ll spare you the details, but since one of Beulah’s main farm dog assignments is total control of groundhogs on the farm (one of them can eat thirty CSA shares worth of crops in a month), he spent a good chunk of time playing with her and the deceased groundhog, while feeding her treats.

Thursday’s lesson stuck, since when we were out trudging Friday through the melting snow in the field, Beulah lit up with excitement when she spotted a groundhog-sized creature trundling towards us from the hedgerow. At 200 yards, it clearly looked like a groundhog to me as well, so I was cheering her own as she took off towards it. Yet as the dog raced closer, the “groundhog” started to shuffle around, revealing a long tail and a flash of one small white spot on its head. Its back end facing the pup and tail all fanned out, the mostly black skunk was holding its ground.

I don’t know if Beulah’s instincts kicked in or if she finally caught the switch to overtones of fear in my shouting, but about 15 feet out, she slowed down, looked unsure, and then slowly backed away before trotting back to me. Thank goodness!

I actually love skunks. Along with possums, they are mostly good animals on the farm, snuffling around and eating bugs, though both animals will happily and opportunistically kill chickens given the chance. The only problem is that they don’t co-exist well with dogs. On my farm in NH, I had a tool shed on skids in the center of the field, under which lived Pepe. Pepe would amble around the garden, pal around with the cat next door (they would walk together around the field and go under the shed to hang out), watch me garden from a safe distance away, and in general was an extremely polite little skunk. In our five years together, he never sprayed me or the dog.

One cold spring night I was worried about the freeze overwhelming my wood stove and small propane heater and killing our greenhouse starts, so I slept down in the field to stoke the wood stove a couple times that night. It was gross and propane-smelling in the greenhouse, so around midnight, I moved my cot and sleeping bag outside. I was sleeping soundly until some point in the middle of the night when I suddenly woke up. I looked at the dark sky, blazing with the stars and rising moon, and then turned my head to look at the greenhouse. What I saw instead, of course, was Pepe, his front paws up on the cot, his nose less than an inch from mine, little nose sniffling. We froze, staring at each other for endless minutes, the moon lighting up his glossy little eyes, before he jumped down and ambled off.

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These stories are just a fraction of the awesome animals we’ve seen while farming, missing the bald eagles (okay, all the ones we’ve seen up in Fenner have been a bit underwhelming on the majestic part as they’ve all been on the road squabbling over road kill!), the ospreys hunched high over the pond and then dropping down to nab a fish, the foxes and coyotes pouncing on rodents in the snow in winter, or the fawns shyly peeking out from the hedgerows. And then there are the little animal miracles, that aren’t as big and flashy—the turtles laying eggs, the perfect orb weaver web, the bobolinks trilling their flying songs, or the killdeers’ perfect nest (and obnoxiously loud nest guarding). We hope when you visit next, you see some cool animals, and please share anything fun you notice!

P.S. You might have noticed we are bird nerds, it mostly snuck up on us after years in the field, where you start to realize how cool birds are. There are really great links to learn birds at Cornell’s Ornithology Lab http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478.

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What Organic Means to Me – GMOs and Hydroponics and Pasture, Oh My!

“Organic” is one of those words that polarizes. For some of us, it has connotations of healthy, natural foods, and pastoral scenes of frolicking calves in rolling green fields with neat vegetable rows nearby. For others, it creates images of ugly overpriced food available only to the wealthy, grown by dirty barefoot hippies in weedy fields.

As a farmer involved in the organic industry, I can definitively say that neither of those images is representative of organic as a whole, though for sure parts of each might be true in singular instances!

 No dirty hippies, just farmer fashion shows where Matt rocks his patented Blue Steel look.. (absolutely don't tell Matt I posted this photo!)

No dirty hippies, just farmer fashion shows where Matt rocks his patented Blue Steel look.. (absolutely don't tell Matt I posted this photo!)

This week was a big week for organics on our farm because we just mailed in our application for certification. [Keep your fingers crossed so that we pass inspection this summer and can actually say that we are organic!] To some extent, this isn’t a big deal – we only use practices approved for organic production already, so we aren’t changing our farm management, but in other ways, this application represents a big decision for us because of all the loaded connotations of that certification.

We know that some of you have asked us to certify, others might assume that we are certified, and we worry just a bit that by officially becoming organic we risk losing a few customers because of the perception that organic costs more or is elitist.

Our answer is that since we use all organic practices already, we already price our products at the organic level, and of course it isn’t just for the rich! (One of my pet peeves as a farmer is that when I grow vegetables just like how all our great-grandparents did not using modern products, it’s considered elitist. Shouldn’t doing things the old school way just be considered normal?) Yes, we will see some production costs go up by certifying but measured against the yearly march of minimum wage increases, overall input cost inflation, and constantly rising taxes, the financial impact of certification on the farm will be swallowed up by the greater increases elsewhere.

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What really is “Organic?”

What is organic to us? It’s not about certification and a label. Part of why we held off certifying so long is that we wanted to stay outside the regulation and just not deal with all the hassle just to get a label that our customers didn’t really need since you all can come visit us anytime. This also might sound silly, but what’s actually bothered me most over the years about “Organic” is that as a writer, it annoys me that the government owns a word, because words belong to the people using them.

What organic does mean to us is interacting with the world that we grow our vegetables in a way that works with the natural ecosystems, and builds up an (admittedly artificial) agricultural system that complements and fits in the environment, rather than imposes a completely man-made order on it. Our world is amazingly beautiful and complex, so much so that even with all of our modern technology and science, we still don’t understand the workings and interactions of large swaths of it.

 Some days are great days, some days it floods...

Some days are great days, some days it floods...

Farming using organic methods is like an incredibly challenging puzzle, where the pieces are alive and grow and move, the variables are infinite, and every time where you think you’ve learned how a part of the system works, nature throws in a new challenge (thanks for the hail last summer, earth!). We’ve been farming for twenty years but learn a graduate degree's worth of new things each season. We don’t farm because it’s easy or lucrative, but because we enjoy working outside and for the most part (again, reference the hail!) enjoy the challenges and embrace the chaos.

To be honest, we aren’t organic purists. We recognize that there is a spectrum of farm management styles and we respect that each grower has to make the choices that work for their operation. We don’t plan to use GMO crops (they aren’t allowed at all in organic production) and we don’t like that their genes are floating around out there, but we recognize that at some point, our planet might become crowded and trashed enough that we need things like GMO, indoor hydroponic production, and geo-engineering to survive. But when we think about how we farm, shouldn’t we be trying at this junction, when things aren’t quite dystopian thriller level bad, to do our part to keep s*%$ from reaching that point?

Some days we see our farm goals as doing whatever we can to keep us from the Blade Runner or Hunger Game futures, striving towards the Star Trek level where we cruise around a happy universe rather than live in cliffside bunkers to avoid the Morlocks. (I apologize to all non-nerds who had to read that sentence.)

 The year we made our own super hero costumes from farm supplies...

The year we made our own super hero costumes from farm supplies...

A Tangent on GMOs

In this all, we should talk about GMOs for a second. First of all, organic means no GMOs, they simply aren’t allowed under organic production, and using them gets you booted from the program.

I personally dislike GMOs not because of any human health issues in their consumption (I’m not sure the science is there on that front), but because of their Pandora’s Box nature of implementation. GE (Genetic Engineering) tech modifies the genetic code of plants that are then are used in our open world. Sure, there is testing for safety and attempts to try and keep them from spreading and mixing with non-GMO crops, but plants by their nature are promiscuous. Nature has plant sex going on every which way, and once out there in open field production subjected to the forces of nature, there is no way that GMOs can be 100% controlled.

I don’t care about people and animals eating GMOs, my concern is that their release endangers the international commons of open-pollinated seed pools and the communities relying on these seeds who didn’t get any say in the GMO development and release process. The companies selling the products cash in big time, while potentially taking away the livelihood and rights of impacted communities.

The other reason I’m not a GMO fan is because there are a LOT more modern science-backed breeding techniques out there, and in some circles, GMO tech is considered outdated, inelegant, and inefficient seed breeding. Yet GMOs persist largely because the companies selling them have sunk so much into that tech (and their concurrent marketing) that they are heavily invested in its present and future success.

While I’m happy to rail against the companies making and selling GMO technology, I don’t blame farmers for using it and won’t give anyone a hard time about it. Our weather frankly sucks now, and if you are running on a tight margin where a few more bushels an acre feels like the difference between staying in business and losing the family farm, and GMO technology promises to bridge that difference, than it would be silly to not use it from a growers’ perspective. In the system we have, it’s not the farmers banking millions on a technology that’s opened a genetic Pandora’s box, they too are at the mercy of the seed companies, which rather than spending money on new technologies for improved classical (non-GMO) breeding, instead only offer and promote GE tech.

Challenges to Organic Integrity

The thing is, and this is what makes it a little funny that we are certifying now, that organic agriculture has been a bit besieged. The news recently about organics, that for some have brought its integrity into question include organic hydroponics, the outside access rule for livestock, and some recently highly publicized issues of fraud on giant grain shipments coming in from overseas. Overall, organic integrity is important to us, and we are among a large group of growers committed to legit, honest organic production.

Before this last year, hydroponics was a grey area for organics. In hydroponics, plants are grown in some kind of substrate and fed a nutrient solution. There isn’t soil involved, but the nutrients used can be formulated to be either conventional or organic. It was passed last year that hydroponic farms can now be certified organic, which has raised the hackles on many organic growers and provided fuel for alternative organic labels that keep soil in farming. I’m not going to say that hydroponic farming is easy, but it sure deals with a lot fewer variables than farming in soil. The startup cost for hydroponics is HUGE, but once started, crops can be grown for way less cost than outside in a region like NY.

I can see that there is a place for hydroponics, and frankly, when I see their gorgeous heads of lettuce in the grocery store I am totally filled with envy. But I also question whether such a reductionist system is as good as field grown crops--can we test tube create food without losing some essential essence of that food?. Like ancient hunters who felt that eating the heart of their prey imbued them with the strength of their quarry, does eating soil grown plants share with us some of the energy and strength of the earth and the sun? I worry too that taking big steps to remove the outdoors from food production potentially weakens preservation and land use planning, beginning a trickle towards those darker dystopian futures where we embrace a model that gives more power to the huge well-funded commercial entities that can afford to finance hydroponic operations, moves all food production inside, and severs our connections to the real outside world.

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The second challenge this year came with keeping lower levels of outdoor access for organic animals. This one has my ire raised up more than the hydroponics rule, because I’m pretty sure that lettuce doesn’t care if it grows inside or outside, but that chickens much prefer the outside! There is a high cost for growers to provide outside access, namely that it’s a pain in the butt to manage in terms of time and money. If we had a big barn and our chickens were inside all the time, it would save us SO MUCH time and money. They’d be easier to feed, the eggs would be cleaner and faster to wash since they weren’t traipsing through mud puddles, and chores would take a fraction of the time. But what makes our eggs good is that they have come from the muddier butts of busy outdoor chickens.

I know that money is tight and matters, but as I wrote a few weeks ago, our food costs are relatively low compared to the past and other parts of the world, and is it worth a few more cents an egg or pound of meat for those animals to have a happier life? This pasture rule change is going to hurt the farms that take on all the extra management costs to ensure good outdoor access for their animals, put pressure on farms to reduce outdoor access in this tight farm economy, and it makes our hens sad.

My takeaway here is of course the same as my takeaway always is—buy local because then you can see in person what’s going on with your farms!

A final part of what’s driving our certification is something that might not be visible on the customer end. Producing and selling local food has become an incredibly crowded market these past years, with so many new delivery services, meal boxes, aggregation services, food apps, big companies gettingn involved, and more, all advertising heavily (and expensively) to anyone who seems to have the slightest interest in local or organic food.

All this competition combines with the major social media services significantly changing their algorithms so that farmers like us, who *finally* figured out how all social media worked, have now lost our best way to share our farms stories with you all.

We want to connect and sell directly with our customers through our CSA, on the farm, and at the market, but in this noisy, shiny, crowded world, we are starting to realize that we might lose our capacity to reach folks directly and may end up having to sell to these better funded aggregators instead, and the only way we have a chance to even contemplate making this switch is with that big organic stamp. [Do you know that you can make sure you see information from your favorite farms and small businesses on Facebook still despite the changes, just go to their Facebook pages and under the “Following” or “Liked” tab, scroll down and select “See First.”  You can also make sure you hear from us by signing up for our newsletter at www.hartwoodfarm.com.]

So until next week, keep your fingers crossed on our application process, don’t shovel too much snow, and drink some local milk (and buy some local veggies)!

Daylight Savings Edition: When Do Farmers REALLY Get up In the Morning?

Farmers in general get a LOT of questions, but this is actually the one that we get the most, and there is no good answer. (There's a farmer joke that the only answer people want to hear is 5:30, a time that is neither psychotically early or deviantly late!)

My answer is that as a vegetable farmer, I'm like a plant and get up at the same darn solar time everyday, but since that time is sunrise, it falls all over our fake human clock! [Full disclosure: I grew up in one of the non-time-changing states, Indiana, and 20 years later, I remain incredibly bitter about time changes for a solid month after they happen!]

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Historically, farms all had cows to milk, and it's most comfortable for the cows to get milked at evenly spaced times each day, which means on a two a day milking cycle, you find farmers milk early (say 5am and 5pm) to eat dinner at a normal-ish time and see their kids before bedtime. Even now, dairy farmers (or farmers who work a second job) will often be out there in the barns at 4 or 5am doing chores. The cows don't care when they get milked and the animals don't care when they get fed, as long as it's evenly spread out and consistent, so a night owl could milk at 8am and 8pm and from the cow perspective, that would be cool (from a cultural perspective, the other farmers might give you a hard time!).

For us veggie growers, schedules vary more, which is why I don't have an easy answer to what time I get up, because dawn right now falls a lot later that it does in July. In the spring and fall, when we are out in the field but days aren't long enough for all our work, we tend to get up earlier to maximize daylight hours. However, in the summer when days get close to 16 hours, we at Hartwood Farm certainly aren't rising at the 4am breaking light!

There are two main reasons (beyond wanting more sleep) why we intentionally don't start working at 5am (when lots of folks think we start work--thank you all for having such high opinions of our ability to be up and at 'em so early).

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First, in the north we don't have as much heat as California or Florida, but we get a lot more dew. We want to harvest crops when it's cool enough for best quality, but we don't want the crops to be too damp with dew, or the act of harvesting among wet plants can spread plant diseases around the farm from one dew laden plant to another (and for an organic grower, plant diseases are the bane of our existence that we work really hard to keep from spreading).

Some farmers are super early birds, so they brave the dew and get going at sunrise even in our area, so you can see a huge spread in start times for vegetable farms, including as early as 4:30am (ugh) and as late as 9am (decadent). For us, we don't want to be jerks to our poor employees with long commutes and we don't want people to burn out (which can happen fast when you start working long hours at manual labor if you aren't used to it!), so we have our team start at 8am in the cooler spring and fall months and at 7am in the summer months (only dropping down to 6am if we get a heat wave). We usually start harvesting from the most heat sensitive crops (the greens) to the least (tomatoes), which is why we don't have a lot of good photos of the greens, as we are always picking them in low light or with harsh early shadows (like below)!

So there's two votes from Matt and I to switch to Daylight Savings Time on a permanent basis... and if you have 7 minutes, the funniest take on farmer wake up times (and IMO the funniest CSA promotion video ever--I promise you no "Sky Eggplants" in our shares), can be found in this gem from Hugonaut Street Farm.

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Selling Cows and Money Matters

This winter I’ve worked part-time for the Northeast Farming Association of NY, which includes handling technical assistance requests from farmers about organic vegetable production. Most of these are pretty straight forward—helping read a soil test, suggesting places to source organic seeds, or brainstorming pest control options. Others hit me in the gut—like the growing numbers of dairy farmers wanting to learn about vegetable production after this year’s low milk prices forced them to sell off their cows.

Yup, this is one of my more downer blogs, but I’m writing it because I think it’s important to think about money in agriculture and where our food dollars go. Despite the price of milk seeming high from the consumer end, those dollars don’t trickle all the way down to the farm. This has been rattling around in my head since December’s Guardian article on increased farmer suicides (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/06/why-are-americas-farmers-killing-themselves-in-record-numbers) caught a lot of press in the agricultural world as it captured some of the stress that farmers, especially commodity farmers, are facing, and was reinforced by a more local story about NY dairies receiving information about suicide prevention from their coop last month WITH their milk checks (http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/news03/dairy-cooperative-sends-out-letter-with-suicide-lifeline-and-other-contacts-20180212&&) which was then picked up nationally by NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/02/27/586586267/as-milk-prices-decline-worries-about-dairy-farmer-suicides-rise).

The US is amazingly blessed with good land. We can feed the world a few times over, but we struggle mightily to chart a farm policy that keeps Americans fed, our farms and environment intact, and lets us all enjoy the healthy bounty of good crops raised well. Instead we’ve taken the tack of commoditizing our food, of raising vast quantities of what we can grow the cheapest (corn, soy, grain), and then processing them into nutritional oblivion. At the same time, we incentivize and reward farms to get bigger and bigger and run on razor thin profit margins so that one disastrous year or a hiccup in the market can flatten even the best producers.

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The most frustrating thing with the US cheap food policy is that it has warped agricultural markets and depressed rural economies for decades, but food *still* doesn’t feel cheap to us as consumers because food purchases now vie with all the new expenses in our lives (internet access, cell phone plans, and rising health care costs eat up anything households save on food) and our darn salaries haven’t risen with inflation. According to the World Economic Forum, the US is one of only eight countries that spend less than 10% of household income on food and by percentage spends the least of any county (We’re number one?). From a consumer standpoint, this isn’t necessarily bad, but for the farmers whose life lies in the margins of a few cents more per pound of grain or milk, that’s a brutally low percentage.

The thing that’s frustrating for farmers isn’t that food is affordable (because many of us work hard to be as efficient as possible to keep prices down to feed as many people as possible). What’s frustrating can be summed up in the next picture:

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Yup, 8.6 cents on the food dollar going into food production, with only 15.8 cents overall reaching farmers and the remaining 84.2 cents going to marketing. So as inflation hacks away at consumer salaries and the input costs of farming surge higher each year, the actual bit of the average food dollar getting back to the farms is less than two dimes. And it’s this situation that has suicide prevention resources going out with milk checks and me answering calls from farmers that feel the weight of the generations before them as they face losing their farm.

Do you want one more depressing graph?

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This one is what I find most challenging as a household with two full time farmers. Farming households look economically sound on paper, bringing in a median household income above the national average. Yet median *FARM* income, the income derived from agricultural activities, is negative, which means there are a lot of American farm families spinning their wheels as fast as they can working all day farming, yet not actually earning any income from that labor! It makes me wonder how many executives at dairy or food processing operations work full time for free?

Beyond helping struggling farmers at NOFA-NY this winter, I also worked on projects that address more vegetable related production challenges. With the proliferation of new technology and growing numbers of farmers markets, grocery deliver services, and CSA-like aggregators, non-dairy farmers are facing looming financial challenges as well as their costs of farm inputs and labor keep shooting up, as retail and wholesale market prices plummet. Even vegetable farmers like us with more flexible marketing options than dairy producers are pinched, with many now selling the same crops they used to sell retail at wholesale pricing that doesn’t cover increased costs of production. In 2004, my take home pay from farming full-time was 35 cents on the dollar. In 2017, it was 9 cents, despite thirteen years of hugely improved production and efficiency.

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Farming is one of those careers where it’s not so easy to walk away or make big changes, especially for established dairy operations. Current milk (and produce) prices usually cover costs of production but are hard to stretch over to capitalize new projects, and farm loans and mortgages are variable by the month, so as interest rates rise, producers will struggle to keep up with debt payments they have rather than be able to take on new debt to change gears. It’s also hard for long time farmers to conceive of not farming—how do you walk away from the barn where you’ve spent every day of your life milking in, just like the generations before you?

It’s clear there are no easy answers here—the world is changing and farms have to adapt. My concern as a farmer, a food-eater, and someone who loves our state and our local community, is how do we navigate through this transition without losing the things that are important to us, our community, and our environment? When I look at the ongoing “cheap” food policy where so little of the money spent on food reaches the real producers, I see it buying us an emptying rural landscape with fewer rural jobs and fields that are easier to fill with houses and developments, where we don’t get the chance to have the connection with the food that we eat and the farms that feed us. Yet this question of a broken food system is way beyond the scope of any easy fixes.

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So to move off my downer note, what *can* we all do? One way to start is buying more locally—search out your farmers and buy directly from them so your purchases go to cover costs of production rather than corporate marketing. Local farms are vitally important for ecosystem services (all this open land helps trap carbon, filter water, and provides habitat way better than houses or roads do). Local food is also super fresh—it’s hitting your plate at its peak taste levels rather than getting shipped across the country (or the world). Supporting your local farms and farmers is also fun. Just in our town alone, there are farm festivals, farm tours, U-Pick gardens, concerts, great weekly markets, local food stores, a ton of CSAs, and even dairies selling milk directly to customers.

Beyond buying local and connecting with your farming neighbors, there are also organizations (and some politics) that you might want to pay attention to. On the political side, the Farm Bill is on the docket for this year (hopefully, though it’s not guaranteed given how Washington is recently). The farm bill is a behemoth piece of legislation that bundles a lot of social service programs with farm funding that reaches across the country. It’s certainly not a perfect bill but is vitally important to supporting farmers and food systems.

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In NY, we have an invaluable organization called Farm Net (www.nyfarmnet.org), funded largely through tax dollars, and you can encourage your representatives to continue supporting its funding. Farm Net utilizes a network of professionals and volunteers to provide free, confidential assistance to farmers going through difficult times and is a much-needed resource right now. Finally, you can connect with and support local and national farm organizations, with Farm Aid being a good start to finding groups that help farmers (and I of course love NOFA-NY).

And what we are doing as farmers in our small corner of the country? Well first of all, we are keeping on keeping on. We are passionate about growing food for our neighbors and community, and don’t see this fading. From our farming perspective, with it being increasingly hard for farmers of all scales these past years, and the prognosis not great for many of our larger neighbors, it’s reinforced to us why we want to stay as a small farm and sell our food directly in our community. We want to know our customers, help folks enjoy and have fun with delicious, local produce, and open up our fields and farm so that you can see how we grow and connect with nature and the joy of growing things. Being able to sell more locally means we can save money on transportation and marketing and logistics, and we don’t need to sell our product to wholesalers for less than what it costs us to grow it. It also means we can focus on what our customers and CSA members want us to grow—good, healthy food for the community that tastes great. Finally, we are buying local as much as we can as well, to help support our neighbors as well.

We hope you have a great rest of the winter—go explore your local farms and drink lots of milk from local farms and co-ops!

 Because all serious blogs need to end with a puppy!

Because all serious blogs need to end with a puppy!