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!

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!

Winter Resting Going on Here...

Winter is coming!

So we haven't written for a few months, but farming is going on still at Hartwood Farm while we work hard on our 2014 planning!  We've been taking some farming down time after last year's marathon summer, but are re-energized and excited for next season (though we do keep our fingers crossed for some normal weather!).  As we start gearing up for the season, check back here for more farm updates and pictures of new projects!

Good-bye to our geese neighbors (for now at least)!

Irrigation pond icing over...
Irrigation pond icing over...

Arlo on rodent patrol and checking out the hedgerows.

 

Most of our outside winter work right now are relatively easy chicken chores.  The hens are laying well (almost one egg each hen per day!).  In order to keep them laying, we do have them under lights (hens produce eggs best when they have 14 hours of light a day).

Chicken contemplating how much she *hates* snow.  Where is all that yummy grass?

 

However, the chickens are utterly unenthusiastic about snow and are incredibly bored without bugs to chase or grass to dig up.  Every thaw they go wild when the grass reappears, and we've been trying to put objects in their house to try and keep them distracted during the day (so far pumpkin seeds are their favorite, but hay bales seem to keep them entertained the longest).  They, like us, are waiting for the longer days of spring!

Winter chicken playground...

Getting the Veggies in the Ground!

... between the raindrops, that is! We've not had much time to post since our last big rain event because it's been raining on and off since then, which keeps us really busy trying to squeeze crops into the ground and stay on top of the weeds (which LOVE wet weather).  We can work around the rain but it's a lot harder--your boots get so heavy with mud it's like walking through quicksand.

Peas, lettuce, and spinach in the mist!

The last month or so has certainly been up and down. It's been quite a challenging spring this year--what makes the challenge most impressive is that we have had pretty much every spring weather situation occur here that could be a challenge in NY:  a cold, late start, a drought period with constant high winds, deluges, cold nights, and more.  And we actually were somewhat lucky here at the farm--we missed the mid-May snow that hit the upper Midwest, the late May snow that reached NH and VT, and the remnants of Andrea that dumped on the Hudson Valley!

Standing sentinel... Arlo is getting tired of all the rain!

Because we are new to our land, these challenges have also brought some learning opportunities as to how our soils and site can handle things.  On the positive side, 2012's drought was a powerful lesson in irrigation, so we are definitely better on that front.  We also better utilized our hedgerows as windbreaks this year, which was a huge help on some of the days where it hit 60 mph.  Our row cover investment lets us get almost an acre under row cover, and has definitely paid off--reducing pest, wind, and water stress on all the crops lucky enough to be under it.

Row covers in action (here they cover our broccoli family crops--mostly for pest control from our nemesis, the flea beetle).

On the negative side, we have been facing one huge challenge.  We have this beautiful lower field that we've been prepping since last year to hold 3 acres of our summer and fall crops (which is half of the acreage we grow).  We've spent hundreds of hours working on getting this ground ready, including a huge chunk of time in the last 3 weeks.  However, after getting more rain in just over a week than we did all summer, we learned that some of our fields are slower to drain than others.  Specifically, these 3 acres just aren't drying out.  After waiting and trying to work it and waiting some more, we realized we had to radically change our cropping plans in order to get the summer crops into the ground.

Mulched beds in the lower (wetter) field--so far the plants seem happy!

Fortunately, we had an area in the northern field that we had seeded down to oats to rest and rebuild for the 2013 season.  We realized that we needed to pull out the oats and get those summer crops in there.  We are lucky that we had this overflow option, but having to prepare these extra few acres has definitely strained our time resources (and our backs!).

One of the rougher areas tilled up for flowers--the green is just oats, which should break down quickly (we hope!).

We ended up tilling these beds and they look really good.  The soil seems very nice (and most importantly is DRY!).  We fit the beds for summer crops with black plastic.  We aren't huge fans of using the plastic, but it does a great job of warming up the soil (which is key for peppers, eggplant, melons, and tomatoes), keeping down weeds, and trapping in moisture.  We are also lucky enough to live in Madison County, which does recycle this at our dump.

All the summer cropped beds prepped and ready to plant.

We played hookey Sunday to go see the Civil War reenactment at the Gerritt Smith estate--so much cool history in CNY!

Making holes for the tomatoes (Matt's back is feeling this today!)

Eggplant and their protective clay cover (we dip them in clay prior to planting for some bug protection)

Before the rain Monday, we finished off all these beds!  It feels good to have these crops in the ground, and now we have time to assess that tricky lower field and learn what will work for using it.  Since that big rain (4" over a couple days) that flooded the field, the ground has been slowly drying out, and it seemed to handle our 2" rain storm well, which gives up hope that it will be fine in the future with some more moderate weather!

Tomatoes getting started (our main crop is all in the ground now!)

Arlo supervising as we get ready to water in transplants with our fancy new hose cart.