October 27, 2009

Yesterday, before the howling winds, I attempted a long day of work at my garden site in Dunnigan. Hoeing weeds, burning weeds, spraying weeds…all that fun stuff. But I also completed round two of my winter squash harvest, and brought in about 15-20 Marina di Chioggia.

This has to be one of the ugliest vegetables out there, but, while ugly is skin deep, tasty goes all the way to the seeds. Further hunting revealed this great blog link for the squash, which of course includes a recipe for how it is made into gnocchi in its native Italy. One of the most gratifying things about farming is the selection of a crop that turns out to have special, ethnic dishes associated with a particular cultivar. It brings a connection to other places in the world, and one doesn’t have to travel to Venice or wherever else in order to enjoy the tastes. I guarantee that this weekend, some ugly pumpkin gnocchi will make it’s way to the table!

We are also enjoying another feeling of accomplishment…after all the insane amounts of work since the end of July, we’ve been able to declare a large measure of success with our planting calendar. Rows and rows of lettuce, carrots, mizuna, arugula, beets, turnips, etc. are actually pretty much ready out there, at the first of November. Last year, in our ignorance, these same vegetables weren’t ready until January onward. I’m really struggling to think of what in the world we put in our CSA boxes last time around. But what matters is that this year is so much better! Now if a gale just doesn’t destroy the entire bunch of it, life will be wonderful. The farmer groweth, and the north wind taketh away……

And unbelievably, it’s already time to get ready for the summer garden in one respect. My favorite seed company, Johnny’s, informs me that I have two weeks left to order seed before they hike the prices. I buy from other companies as well, (High Mowing Organic made a strong first impression this year, and Seed Savers has always been a part of what happens in our gardens!) but I’ve noticed that seeds from Johnny’s always seem to perform bigger, better, and faster than from many other sources. They sell a nice mix of hybrid and traditional varieties, and aren’t even bought out (so far) by a mega-agribusiness corporation. And I’ve learned over time that quality is worth a lot….you get what you pay for. Johnny’s seeds are on the pricey side, but cheap seeds often end up as unthrifty plants that take up room in the garden without giving much back…so in the end they don’t save money, they cost money. And when "gardening" becomes "farming" and is no longer a hobby, in that one must have something to give to the customers, yield becomes critical to business. Usually the seed order is something I mull over for weeks in the winter, and then actually get around to placing in February. This year needs to be different, to take advantage of better values. Most people think of seeds, and figure, they cost $2 a packet, so what? But when you’re growing for over 50 families, the numbers change a lot. Take our beloved ugly squash. We used all the seeds on this summer’s garden. A packet of Marina di Chioggia costs $2.55 and would have about 25 seeds. Add in the inevitable few broken seeds, seeds that fail to germinate, and seeds the birds eat, and that would guarantee me maybe 15 of these pumpkins. Not enough. Do I buy an ounce of seed instead, which costs $5.35? Or perhaps a quarter pound at $11.95? A quarter pound is a great choice, as I’d likely have seeds for two seasons. But now multiply that $11.95 through the 70 or so crops we grow from seed each year and the problem becomes apparent. We don’t have a seed budget of $800+. I can select a few varieties each year to buy in that quantity, but I have to be careful…they need to be plants which have seeds that remain viable for multiple years. Unplanted seeds equal wasted money. I can save seeds too, which would greatly expand my inventory, but in order to do that I have to be growing only one variety so cross-pollination won’t occur. Do I commit all the people in the CSA program to only enjoying one type of squash for an entire year so I can save the seeds? That’s an option as well, but we all prefer to see variety in what we eat. Another thing that makes the process difficult are freight charges. Each company charges usually a minumim of about $10 to ship the order. That amount applies to a small order, and a huge order doesn’t really cost that much more. So it’s important to place as few orders as possible in the year, to keep from being fleeced by shipping charges. I’ve always thought this was a bit silly…if someone needs 3 packets of seed, for crying out loud, put them in an envelope with $1 of stamps and send the thing. Then again, they probably don’t want to have to send dinky orders out all the time, and thus the fees….duh. Well, back to the catalog……oooh, maybe this year I’ll order the pumpkin called Long Island Cheese……

October 5, 2009

I spent today doing my least favorite thing…..combing through
account records, double-checking for errors, and sending emails to
clients detailing the status of their respective accounts. Oh, joy.
Even though I haven’t been exactly running my own business for decades,
there are two things that I figured out early on. One, have a business

Two, there are something like nine different functions that need
to be undertaken in any business. Sales, accounting, marketing,
production, banking, development, client relations, etc etc…..I don’t
know them all off the top of my head. Maybe those aren’t even the right
categories….but the point is, business isn’t just about how one earns
the money. Earning it does no good if all the income is out there,
uncollected, because someone failed to keep track of transactions and
settle accounts. I’ve seen people who were brilliant at what they
did….they repaired machinery, or did custom farm work, or kept
beehives by the hundreds, but they went broke because in their offices
(if they could be termed as such) there were landslides of invoices,
bills, and clutter cascading in tricolor reams onto the floor. What was
the business’ annual income? No idea. Top three expenses?
Well……..maybe there’s a way to guess. No one of us knows whether an
endeavor will succeed or fail in the long run, but not minding all the
different things that need attention is a great way to start on the
wrong path. 

Yesterday was lots more fun. We went to Hoes Down,
the big open house at Full Belly Farm in the Capay valley. Compared to
my small farm, Full Belly is an enviable megalopolis of Farmdom. Dozens
of full time workers, acres and acres, beautiful outbuildings, an
enviable fleet of tractors, diversified livestock, and customers of an
upper socioeconomic class willing to support all the fun. I don’t think
I ever want to get that big, but it sure is nice to visit. Yesterday my
friend Lisa and I were sharing our heritage livestock. We had our small
corner in front of "Pinto Bean" the Jersey cow. I brought one of my
rare Beltsville Small White turkeys in a carrier, so that people could
have a chance to peek at a breed that’s almost extinct. We also had
"Solo", who is a Spanish Black hen that has her own Twitter account and
tweets in something like turkey haiku. And there was "Coco" the 3 month
Navajo-Churro lamb. Both Solo and Coco belong to Lisa, and Lisa is the
Animal Whisperer. The turkey wants to sit on her shoulder. The lamb
will jump into her arms if startled. And follow her around like a lost
puppy. It sort of has to be seen to be believed, but I’m not making
this up. At some point in the afternoon there was a milking
demonstration, and Pinto Bean was none too happy about having to wait
so long to be milked. After the show was over Dixie cups of raw milk
were passed around. I really enjoyed getting to try that, because if I
ever decide to get my own cow, I should at least know what the product
tastes like straight from the source. 8% milkfat and still quite
warm….not bad. That could be some really worthwhile ice cream once
the cream rises…. anyway, it was really interesting to watch the
visitors. Our everyday lives are a source of amazement for people that
don’t live this way. I imagined if the shoe were on the other foot….
a crowd of us country folk travel to the city. We oooooh and aaaaaah
over seeing a dining room table with matching chairs. We can’t get over
the marble inlay shower with three shower heads, and we line up to ask
dozens of questions about the attachments on the Cuisinart. That sounds
really odd, but that’s what it can feel like to answer questions all
day about the most basic aspects of animal husbandry, crops, or the
like. And it’s poignant, too. One hundred years ago all this "farm
stuff" was common knowledge. Everyone either grew up this way or
visited their grandparents in the summer who still lived on the farm.
And now, with the demise of thousands of small family farms in the name
of progress and corporate agriculture, us rural folk are quite a
novelty. Many of us resist this disconnect, and it’s why we give up
weekends and time here and there when urban dwellers want to know more.
We feel it is vital to reconnect people with what has been taken away
from our national culture. It’s painful when a child has never seen a
living turkey or a hog….it just shouldn’t be like this, but it is.
And toward the end of the day, as I sat there reflecting on all this,
ol’ Pinto Bean caught me right across the face with her manure-sodden
tail. Oh yes, rural living…..