We had a short break and enjoyed time with family, friends and the fireplace over the holidays. We hope you did, as well. It does seem easier to get more rest when it gets dark a little after 5 each day. There is also a tendency to reflect on life, love and the pursuit of happiness with the arrival of a new year, which soon turns into making plans and commitments for the coming growing season. As nice as winter rest is, this year’s dance with Mother Nature has already begun. Brief bitter cold has yielded to thirst-quenching rains and the mud that comes with them. As farmers, we are eternally optimistic that this year will be the best yet. That is part of the calling.
This season’s slower pace gives us time to really hone in on what went well last year, and what did not, and why. Were our acreage estimates about right? Did we have the right people in the right places at the right time? Did CSA shareholders get all that was planned for them or that they expected? We closely review each and every crop, as well; I’ll use sweet corn for example. Did the early varieties actually perform as expected in colder soils, and how big did the ears get? Did the successive-planting schedule work out to stagger harvests, given the varieties selected? How prolific and tasty were those varieties? How much was yield impacted by the wet spell that delayed timely cultivation in July? Did the husks cover the ears well enough to protect the kernels from insects? Should we invest in taller electro-net to keep coyotes out of the patches, since the short fences that have worked for raccoons for years are no barrier for them? The list goes on. The deeper we dive, the greater the returns.
Our spreadsheets inform us in a structured sort of way. The numbers don’t lie, as long as we input good numbers. Our system of allocating time and expenses related to each crop and each market (meaning farmers markets, CSA, restaurants and wholesale) generates a lot of data. It takes due diligence and patience to massage the data into functional information to guide decision-making. How much toward overhead should CSA pay; how much should chickens or turkeys or eggs? By tracking each crop from seed through delivery, we can know how much it cost us to put each item into a CSA share and get it to you. Some places, we can identify where the labor was too high or the variety performed poorly, and we need to make adjustments to improve our efficiency. Other crops turned out in the black, and of course, as farmers, we are optimistic we can do those well again this year.
The numbers are just part of the equation. Our core principles are based on our relationship with, and stewardship of, the land and the animals in our care. Mother Nature calls the shots. Building soil through crop rotations is an investment in the future. It costs more to raise poultry the way we do, but having evaluated the options, it seems to be best for the birds. Preparing and sharing a home-cooked wholesome noon meal with all the farm staff has value far beyond the bottom line. Investing in infrastructure to buffer the sporadic nature of weather events gives our optimism a boost.
The seed catalogues are starting to get dog-eared pages, and with our eternal optimism, some seeds, starts and rhizomes have already been ordered. We rely on organic seed companies that we have come to know well and a few other organic farms that provide us some of the materials we need—both a valuable part of a healthy, stable food system. Also, as you may recall from this past fall, we already have strawberries, spinach, onions and garlic tucked in the ground for this upcoming spring and summer.
Some early tomatoes are already seeded in a warm, sometimes-sunny spot while we look to a date around Valentine’s Day as our ”heat the big greenhouse” day, when most of our spring crops get underway. We can move the actual date up or back a few days, depending on the winter weather forecast at the time, but we really need to be going strong by early- to mid-February to stay on track. Coordinating greenhouse space for each crop and scheduling when the plants will be ready to go to the field, which makes room for summer plants in the greenhouse, can be tedious, but it is important and even fun for those that thrive on organized chaos! With each variety having different seedling vigor, growth rates and root-ball development potential, timing is tricky, but we have acquired skills that usually allow us to flex around most situations as they arise. Learning from past experiences feeds our eternal optimism.
Touring the Farm
Our first foray into structured, scheduled farm tours season proved very rewarding to our visitors and helped us look at the farm through new eyes. The tours came about due to winter-time conversations with folks wanting see how their food was being raised, not just where it came from. Each tour was a little different because of the season but also because we tailored each one to focus on certain topics. We really enjoyed several credentialed guest hosts that brought scientific expertise to the conversation, and we all learned a lot more.
Building on our experiences, our “From the Ground Up” farm tour series is coming into view for 2017. Details are still in the works, but we are inviting specialists in numerous disciplines to explore all the farm has to offer, starting with the geology and working our way up through the soil to plants, trees, insects and wildlife to us. We hope to learn about how the cave on our property might have impacted the history of the region, have an anthropologist describe Native American culture in the area (we find flint arrowheads often), and explore the relationship between the soil biome and the human micro-biome. Part of the plan for this year’s farm tours is to document the uniqueness of this little piece of earth with which we have been entrusted.
Watch for details in coming newsletters. Who knows? We may be calling on some of you to share your knowledge, and feel free to suggest ideas of how you can help.
Back to the Books
For now, we will take what the numbers tell us, combine that information with our notes about each crop or market or delivery day, and map out a strategy for the coming growing season. We have every reason to be optimistic. We have established a farm-production system that gets more efficient every year, we have good people to work the land, and we have customers that thrive on the fruits of our labor.
Thank you for allowing us to be your food farmers. With your support, the numbers look better every year, which will allow this farm to continue being farmed, and that is cause for even more optimism. —Mac Stone