May 15, 2010

This post was written over a month ago but not uploaded. Still, here it is…..

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I’ve always found it amusing that almost every blog starts out with some variation on “I’ve been really busy lately” but lately I have indeed sailed into Uncharted Waters of Busy-ness. Most of this concerns having fired all the hired help. I don’t regret that decision for a minute, but it certainly does cut into the time one has to type and eat bonbons.

So spring has come to the farm and summer is knocking at the door. Many, many changes have been made. The soil in certain garden areas, while never robust, has demanded a new approach. For a long time I’vegrown vegetables with minimal or no fertilizer, and that no longer works. Our class AA sandy loam has always had poor tilth and available nutirents, and developing a functional strategy to boost that up to acceptable plant levels takes time. We are working on a two-pronged solution. First and foremost, feed the plants. The easiest way to do this is tha traditional N-P-K fertilizer….whterh granular or liquid, a single application of some moderate numbers (16-16-16 has seemed good) can do the job. But the second approach has to address longer term issues…I think it’s unacceptable to grow on crappy dirt while only addressing three nutrients. So the second approach involves top dressings of good quality compost, addition of rock dust to rows to take care of micronutrients, and when possible more reliance on mulches (especially between rows) to offer plant matter to break down over time and provide moisture retention. What I’d really like to explore more is traditional cover cropping but that isn’t as simple as everyone thinks in permanent garden beds. First, the seed is expensive and has to be sown at just the right time. The cover crop needs just as much attention and support as a food crop. Then it has to be tilled under at the right time…lacking a garden tractor, this is no small job. Then the crop needs time to decompose (more irrigation needed). And after all that, it’s golden. That is a huge amount of time, resources and labor to allocate to a traditional soil enrichment project. Over time, we may have enough resources of fava bean seed to be able to try this out in a test area. But for now something is better than nothing.
Another significant project is crop removal. Not every crop “works” and comes to harvest. Some plants decide that temperatures are too high or there wasn’t enough humidity and bypass being edible in order to go straight to seed. Once a plant heads for flowering, it is usually worthless for eating and needs removal if there is no need to save the seed. This isn’t easy work either. Each plant has to be dug out with a shovel in order to release the roots. Extra soil needs to be shaken off the roots, since the object is to keep soil on the garden beds. This year I am simply laying the removed vegetables down in the bottoms of the furrows between rows. The good news is, they will slowly rot and release nutrition back to the soil. The bad news is, until they break down somewhat I’ll be tripping over them, and every earwig in the garden will have a haven. Also, some weeding happens during this process, since it’s unusual to have a row still be weed-free at this point in the cycle. Each short row takes about 45 minutes to complete.

And of course there is picking. Right now we have three pea crops in full swing–shell, snow and snap– each of which should be picked once to twice a week. Very soon there will be fruit added to the load of vegetables to harvest. The first cherries are within a few days of being ready, to be followed by the apricots and beyond.

Weeds have been a lot of work but I’m hugely determined to keep on top of them this year. I’m paying the price for all the years I wasn’t working full time on the farm and weeds were allowed to go to seed. This year, no matter what has to be done–mowing, spraying, hand-weeding, the goal is to keep them from forming seed. And even the poultry pens had to be mowed. In some spots the weeds were two and a half feet tall, which is a danger on many levels. Certain grasses form “foxtails” that can burrow into the skin or even ears of a bird and cause an infection. And should a fire occur, the unthinkable would happen. This is the time of year when large fuel loads that feed summer wildfires grow tall and thick with the extra spring rains we’ve had. It was an eye-opener to me to learn about how a rangeland fire can move, especially in any kind of wind. We’ve done 10 acre field burns in which I’ve seen 40 foot flames roar out of nowhere. The heat is searing and unapproachable. So I’ve taken note from what I’ve seen of others’ tragedies: what isn’t there can’t burn.

Planning and efforts toward the summer crops have also been necessary to the outcome. A  lot of work had to be done in the greenhouse to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumbers, basil, onions, leeks, etc etc ready for the summer garden. Many were transplanted 3-4 weeks ago. The tomatoes, eggplants and peppers need to be transplanted from their starting trays into larger cells, so they need an extra step in order to make it into the field. Every year for the last four years some accident or disaster has befallen one of these three plants in the greenhouse. And I have to chalk this up to me leaving the work to someone else. It’s the old adage:”If you want it done right, do it yourself.” This year I was able to head off every problem that we’ve had in the past by being hands-on and having the chance to realize what the plants need and when. Right now is the last battle before the plants go outside…every year the aphids invade the greehouse and try to suck the life out of the young starts. But this year they didn’t have much of a chance with my trusty bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. So I feel that this year was a success, and the end of a basic learning curve that has taken a long time. It isn’t easy to start certain plants from seed. And it also isn’t easy to understand how to work with a greenhouse. We’ve had ours for several years and it “behaves” uniquely. Learning how it heats, how it cools, how each kind of plant responds to living inside of it and in which location (there are warmer and cooler zones within the structure) has taken considerable observation and recordkeeping.

In the avian realm, there has been plenty of work as well. Without going into all the details, we either hatched or purchased not quite 40 chicks. Some of those are sexed hens, others were, well, not sexed and we’ll find out eventually. We have decided to basically not raise any new turkeys this year except Beltsville Small Whites. The expense of feeding them, coupled with meat sales that have plummeted since the economic downturn, have made it seem a good idea to put the turkeys on hold until times are better. We’ll keep our breeding stock but not much more. And, we’ve been exploring ideas, such as offering classes. We held our first class on Backyard Poultry Processing for a group of interested persons. There is a growing number of people who would like to know how to supply themselves with their own meat. And while our grandparents would have laughed at needing a class for this, so it is. This has become something of a lost art, and having experienced firsthand the frustration and uncertainties of having to learn to do this “from scratch”, I’m glad to be able to offer something useful.
The orchards are gaining steam for the season. The fruit trees become more rewarding every year….in the beginning it seemed like we would wait an eternity for fruit, but the time has passed and we are starting to have to think more and more about how to manage harvesttime than when the baby trees will give us fruit. Every year the trees are a bigger job to keep up with. This last season we failed to keep up on dormant season orchard tasks. We applied dormant spray too little and too late, so we are currently contending with a significant outbreak of peach leaf curl. This will be powerful motivation to be on time with those jobs next fall, but for now we have to look at some ugly peach and nectarine trees. Another problem will be last year’s discovery of a full=blown codling moth infestation in the apples. We had almost 100% of the fruit be ruined from this pest. The new and fancy method of controlling this is to use pheromone disruptors in the orchards to make sure that male moths can’t find females with which to mate, but those methods are very pricey to use, over $100 for about seven trees…..I don’t think so. So we are going to apply a barrier chemical called Surround that basically coats the fruit with a film of clay in order to keep the moth larvae from burrowing into the immature apples. It has to be applied carefully, about three times during the growing season.
Recently we attended the annual Field Day at the Nickels Laboratory. This is an event presented by UC Davis which rolls out new and relevant research pertaining mostly to almond production. However, I find that many of the topics are also quite valuable to my understanding as a Grower of Everything. Topics included discussions of the contrast between producing almonds organically and conventionally, new techniques for getting the most out of chemicals for weed control, and how trees respond to minimal irrigation in times of crisis (drought). Events such as this bring cutting-edge data from academia into useful formats that allow those who actually do the growing to make better decisions about their practices. The only downside was, it was gusting up to 40 mph that day. During lunch one farmer let go of his plate for just a minute, and next thing he was wearing his beans. These things happen.

February 8, 2010

Occasionally it’s fun to write about things only tangential to farming, so this is one of those times. I’ve wanted to compose an essay for awhile on the topic of “How I came to be a SF Giants baseball nut after a lifetime of not giving a whoop about organized sports.” This actually has something to do with farming, so stay tuned.

When I met my farming partner some years back, his house was the place to hang on hot summer afternoons. Fully air-conditioned, relative peace and quiet, and a big screen TV with HD. My farming partner IS a sports nut, which has always been a guaranteed eye-roller for me. Sports in general has always seemed to me to be a topic that aborbs too many, to the unfortunate exclusion of other more important pursuits. I grew up in a house where every sport known to man was on TV, seemingly constant. Football was incomprehensible and basketball wasn’t far behind. Boxing seemed ugly, and golf, NASCAR, tennis and anything else I’m forgetting to mention were like watching paint dry. There was always a little tolerance for baseball on my part, though, because my dad used to take me to A’s games and I liked that. I didn’t understand the game beyond the merest basics, but I strongly liked being at the ballpark. It felt exciting to see things happening in front of me, even though I didn’t know triple play from a ground rule double. My dad tried to explain the game to me somewhat, but at that time in my life it just didn’t seem to compute. But even back then there I had an awareness that baseball was something American, and that just like I was a kid sitting in the stands now, other kids at my age in days long past went to the ballpark too….it connected all of us.

So back to those summer afternoons… partner has season tickets to the SF Giants, and the ball games were always on during those hot afternoons at the house. One day I spotted a large book on the shelf, which was the publication version of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” mega-documentary. I started reading at the beginning for something to do, and rapidly found myself completely sucked in. By the time I was a kid in the 70s, I would argue that the game had changed quite a bit, and for the worse. Huge player salaries and all the bureaucracy that accompanies modern professional sports always seemed to be the talk. But in that book, I read about the old time baseball players that were heroes to generations of Americans. Men who didn’t earn big money, but played with heart and captivated the national imagination because their whole purpose was to excel with pride at what they did. No one will get me to believe that Ty Cobb or Christy Mathewson were in it for the money, because back then there just wasn’t that much paid to those guys. And so reading about these players of a bygone time gave me some excitement, some understanding of what the game was and why it had a pedigree worth learning about. Also noteworthy for the amateur historian in me were the parallels between baseball and the evolution of American society, which others have written about so well elsewhere.

So after many months, I finished the “Baseball” book, and was logging more and more hours staring at baseball games. I realized how much I didn’t understand about the rules and what I was seeing, and I asked a million questions. And one day we were invited to go to a game. I had never been to AT&T park, and was rather overwhelmed…the seats weren’t just okay seats, they were 9 rows behind home plate with a perfect view of everything. I had a great time, but it was the beginning of a monster being born. In the course of the next two seasons (which were pretty darn awful, reallly) I found that one day I knew who all the players were. And began to form some knowledge of how well or poorly they played. And while it made some fans happy, the Barry Bonds era didn’t do it for me. He always seemed surly, and his physique just screamed “enhanced body”. Baseball’s sad relationship with performance-enhancing drugs felt like another reason to not get too excited about this sport….who cares about how many home runs or whatever else, when it wasn’t done without a”little extra help”? I sat and thought about how Babe Ruth played his amazing ball in spite of being half-pickled most of the time he was on the mound…I could note with some irony that many of the old-timers played with performance-detracting substances and still managed to set records….that sort of excellence didn’t seem to be anywhere. And if some was out there to be found, the first thing I’d wonder is which steroid the guy was on.

So fast forward to the season before last. Not knowing anything about drafts or college baseball or any of that, I only knew that one day there was this Tim Lincecum kid on the mound. He pitched with a sneer and his cap pulled down so low it was hard to see his eyes. He was slightly built and….where did he come from again? But it didn’t take long to realize that here was finally something to become a little excited about. One look tells me there aren’t steroids in that body…and as the games unfolded, it became obvious that just maybe, here was someone who was a blast from the past and someone to defy the stereotypes all rolled into one. Then last season started, but this time Timmy had the Cy Young in hand. When it was time to get the season tickets, who cared who the opposite team was, just get the games for which Timmy was pitching! As the season ran on with a flagship pitching staff trying to bail out the leaky boat of No Decent Offense, Tim just shined. Sure, Randy and Matt, Barry and Jonathan put in amazing performances all around, but it was Tim that filled the seats more than any other…with those unhittable pitches and the physique that wasn’t supposed to be big enough for the major leagues. I was lucky enough to be there the night they almost ran out of spaces to hang Ks on the outfield wall…..I know why I like to see Tim play. It’s easy…he is displaying the excellence that comes from a young lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and discipline. When other 17 year olds spent their entire weekends moving a joystick around Grand Theft Auto, I’m guessing Tim either never touched the controller or at the very least put it down in short order to go outside and practice. And practice and practice. And frankly, in today’s society, individuals like that stand out because there are fewer and fewer of them around.

The sum of my baseball interests has at least shed some light for me on the value of sports. I now realize that they have a place….but I still think pro sports has been allowed to occupy a hopelessly skewed monetary importance, which likely will never be reversed.

So I haven’t mentioned farming yet, but here it comes. People that excel give us all a little boost. They are the visible reminder that nothing great (or even just good) can ever happen unless you get up, get focused, and get to work. And when things go badly, you take a deep breath, re-focus, get up, and get back to work to try again. Running a farm is not really so different from pitching…if it’s going to work, you have to exert the effort, week in and week out. And I could write another essay on how an excellent pitcher matches an excellent soprano in more ways that one can imagine. The qualities needed to excel remain the same through every endeavor out in the world, and that is something I like to keep in mind. And for now, Timmy still has that unspoilt demeanor, unswayed as of yet by the multimillionaire he is destined to become. He may not stay so wonderful forever. But for now, a day seeing him at the ballpark is still going to be a welcome getaway from 105 degrees in Arbuckle. For my birthday I received the best thing ever…..a number 55 SF Giants official jersey. Opening day is about 2 months away, and this farmer hopes to be there. Go Timmy!

January 31, 2010

It’s a little after 6pm, and I’ve just come in from the end of something like 4 solid days of pruning trees and shrubs. There are a few little things left to do but mostly it’s done. What fascinated me about the job this year, aside from wondering what I was thinking to own over 70 fruit trees that need intensive pruning, was how I could have been doing this for all these years somewhat incorrectly.

This is clearly the year that the lightbulb came on as to how to properly shape stone fruit trees (plum, peach, apricot, nectarines). Pruning isn’t really that easy, and it is no wonder that homeowners quail at this annual job that everyone says must be done each winter. There is a lot to think about. What kind of tree? Dwarf or standard? Open center system, central leader system, espalier, or something completely different? How old is the tree?,  since that matters too as to technique. Apple versus jujube, plum versus cherry, fig, mulberry, the complexity runs all over the place. At the end of the day, each pruning technique is designed to compliment and keep under control the growing habits of a given kind of fruit. An untended cherry will grow one or two sticks 25 feet into the air unless forced to do otherwise. Apricots and peaches will immediately grow rampantly and guarantee their own demise by ending up in a shape unable to support the weight of the fruit that they are bred to bear, and if no intervention comes along the tree will be a split and diseased ruination in about 3 years. I remember once reading a backyard orchard website….it asked “are you prepared to forego weekends, vacations, and free time in order to properly care for your trees?” That sounded pretty heavy-handed to me….but I see now what they meant. In a way it’s true…trees have specific needs at specific seasons, and if you can’t commit to being available to do what the trees need, when they need it, the vision of luscious cherries or dripping sweet peaches is a pipe dream that will never come to be. We figure we have invested more than $3000on purchases for our orchard, which totals out at more than 120 trees. It is an investment in, and hope for, the future. A $25 stick that arrives in January will, in something like 5 years time and after a lot of care, yield unsurpassed food. When one purchases a fruit tree, the idea of waiting that long for results is a killer….in our society a “long time” is something like a month.  One always has to think, to quote my farming partner, “it isn’t about fruit. It’s about the needs and the health of the tree.” And what is unsaid, is that it is about the distant future, when, if all the right things are done, the best fruit you’ve ever had will be the reward for good work. It is hard to resist, in the beginning, letting the little tree set 30 peaches because you just want to taste them so much! But it’s not the right thing to do. Year one, cut every little branch off until there is nothing but a stick in the ground. Year two, choose the best looking sideshoots to become the future main branches of the tree. Remove any fruit. Year three, strip off almost all fruit deliberately, to promote healthy vegetative growth, while pruning to further strengthen and shape the tree. Year four, maybe let a little bit of fruit set, carefully monitoring that the weight isn’t too much for the structure of the tree. Afterward, monitor and prune annualy to keep a good shape and remove diseased or damaged wood while still making sure again, that there isn’t too much fruit on the tree. I had to laugh this year, because as I was planting the 5 new arrivals we purchased (4 pluots and an aprium–gettin’ fancy!) and stripping all the sideshoots off, I realized that I could do this so easily because “the thrill is gone”. Once the time has elapsed and one actually has a producing trees, it is easy to give the new ones the right care….there is no need to wait with bated breath for the fruit because 20 other trees are doing the job nicely. Of course, we’re lucky, as it would be madness to have this many trees without having customers. It’s probably still madness, but at least it sounds like a good excuse on paper. Our orchard is probably 20%-25% mature at this point in time. When it is fully mature, the yields will be more than I’ll know what to do with. We’re already looking at commerical sized dehydrators in order to be able to maybe handle some of the surplus…ah well, lotsa fruit!

January 18, 2010

I guess it’s high time to write something new this year! Life seems to move along in predictable rhythyms. Weeds need killing. Trees need pruning. The occasional client hasn’t paid up and needs prodding. I don’t like that last part, and I don’t think anyone in business does. So today, I write about something I have never seen discussed online in a well-rounded manner. Which isn’t to say it isn’t there, but… know.

Small business operators (and I mean really small, as in “mom and pop”) know about, but rarely discuss, the realities of trying to get paid. Like many financial matters, it is seen as somewhat culturally impolite to discuss the elephant in the room. Most clients of most business pay up, or those businesses would be insolvent in short order.  But from what I’ve seen in my own endeavors, and in listening to my cohorts, there exists an entire class of persons in this world who make it their life’s work to avoid paying what they owe. This isn’t to say that every delinquent client falls into this category. Quite the contrary. There are those who are Forgetful. And those who find themselves in Financial Distress, and who will make good on their obligations as soon as they are able. Having been in the “forgetful” category myself on an occasion or two, I can’t “cast stones” there. Certainly, one hopes one never finds oneself in severe financial difficulty, as honorable people don’t like being debtors, on principle. But alas, there are more categories than that. Some feel that it is unimportant if someone is owed $100, how can they be bothered with such a pithy sum? Yet others know full well they are ripping someone off, and just don’t care. Maybe they feel that their economic status (whether that good, or that bad) makes it OK to shirk payment. Or maybe it’s worse than that, and they are miniature white collar thieves with little or no intention of ever parting with their cash now that they have the goods in hand…..the word now escalates to “fraud”. Yes, I’ll call it fraud when one enters into a transaction knowing fully well that the provider of goods or services is not going to see what is owed them, yet accepts those goods or services anyway. Over time I’ve pondered all the paths humanity has taken in noting these ancient problems, as I am certainly not the first person to have ever wanted payment.

By way of examples, some 700 years ago Dante wrote his allegorical “Inferno”, and assigned the Frauds to the Eighth Circle of Hell (that’s not good) in repudiation of their twisted violations of man’s gift of reason. Those folks knew better, but talked themselves into believing that their behavior was somehow just fine. Later on, in Victorian times, one could be thrown into a debtor’s prison if one owed. Imagine that, John Doe can’t pay for his box of produce so off to jail he goes until his family can pony up for the turnips. I myself favor a resurgence of public humiliation, complete with tarring and feathering. I’ll supply the feathers, and pine tar can be used for humanitarian reasons.

These unfortunate cases of “being owed” always take the same course. We used to have a sort of free-for-all payment system…we didn’t care if people paid in advance or in arrears, as long as we were paid. This approach was somewhat naive. One day, we found that we were owed close to two thousand dollars! Our attempt at a solution was to enact a policy requiring prepayment for our produce boxes. One extra box of produce would be delivered to accounts going into arrears, but after that, no more produce until paid up in advance. While that sounds good, it is difficult to do. Farming is hard. Lots of work, lots to think about, and it’s easy to forget to check all the accounts prior to each week’s packing activity. (Or maybe, to be brutally honest, I don’t want to spend what little free time I have on this activity, even though I know I’m going to have to just do it if I want problems to stop.) If someone is in arrears, the time has to be taken to write a letter asking about the amount owing. I’m not an accountant by any means and sometimes the person doesn’t owe at all, I made a mistake. But if they do owe, there has to be some communication about how and when payment will be made. Most of the time this goes well, but sometimes not. The first letter is always nice. I try hard to give others the benefit of the doubt. If I receive no response, the second email is much more blunt. My fond term for these missives is “nastygram”. I don’t like to be direct, but what the recipients don’t realize is that I am overcome by waves of “Oh NO here we go again” and feel the need to be firmer than usual. I have also noticed that all payment problems are preceded by non-communication. Nothing arouses my concerns faster than someone who won’t respond to correspondence or who gives the appearance of avoidance. Another problem is that if our policy is strictly adhered to, it may cost us income. We usually need the income from all the boxes we sell each week. To not send a box on account of not connecting with someone who owes, and thus missing the income….ouch. So it becomes a gamble….do we think the person will pay? How much into debt can we allow someone to go before the risk of nonpayment becomes too high? And what if a longtime client is a little behind on payment, does one adhere to the exact rules, or is it better to be flexible in order to show goodwill? At what point in being a customer is a client entitled to more lenient and favorable treatment? After all, our clients are who we work for, and no one decent businessperson wants to offend someone else needlessly. Even more awkwardly, some of our clients are our friends, relations, or business contacts. How does one best cope with that? While it’s easy to say that “business and friendship should be kept separate”, sometimes the other party hasn’t heard that one.

So as noted, I have sometimes failed to keep up on accounts, which is when problems begin. (Although with each additional occurrence of being taken advantage of, I become a little more organized and defensive.) It can happen very quickly that someone owes $50 or $100, or more. This may be peanuts to many businesses, but those peanuts are what keeps us running at this farm. $50 is two fruit trees or 5 bags of poultry food or whatever else may be needed to function and grow. And then there is the really dreaded event: someone is in arrears, who notifies us that they are quitting the CSA program. They are told how much they owe, they may or may not promise to pay, and either way the check isn’t in the mail. Now it becomes much harder. We have had instances where I’ve nagged and emailed and made phone calls (and even had Ken make phone calls) and sent snail mail letters, and eventually received payment in full. Other times we’ve received partial payment and written off the rest, because if it was that difficult to get some of it, it will be impossible to get all of it. In yet other instances we’ve been stiffed completely, which left a complete feeling of disgust and betrayal. I often wonder what the other party is thinking, if they think this is funny, or if they feel bad about it (but not bad enough to do something), or if they are so oblivious to others’ feelings that it doesn’t even rate. I am convinced that defrauding a very small business is one of the most complete shows of  selfishness and lack of empathy possible. It only takes one or two of these events per year to make a business owner feel bad about humanity. And, there is an option available to large businesses of which we really can’t avail ourselves….the collections agency. It costs more money to use those services than the money we are owed. There is a part of me that would SO love to sick and agency on persons who have run out on their obligations and take pokes at their credit ratings, but, we don’t have the means (and I think the offending parties know that quite well).

So obviously I need to take the reins, run a/r reports weekly, and spend my time hounding people for payment……but that isn’t why I became a farmer. I became a farmer to grow good food and support a community of people for whom quality food and discovery of better eating really matters. And I think for the most part, that occurs. It’s just sad that a few proverbial bad potatoes always occupy the bottom of the proverbial sack. I’ll close this by mentioning one other thing…most clients pay in full, on time every month, and we never even talk about accounts. Yet other clients prepay quarterly, like clockwork, and we really never talk about accounts. And some people stop their membership in our CSA with money owing back to them. When I offer to send them a check for their balance, they tell me to keep it as a donation because they are so happy that we are here, doing what we do. It’s all these people that I choose to think of the most, and it’s people like them for whom we’re farming.

December 26, 2009

Lately I’ve been philosophically amazed at how much time one can spend? waste? preparing orders for growing supplies. This commentary is something of an offshoot to the “catalog campaign” that occurs every so often, in which I spend many hours reading descriptions of plants or whathaveyou in order to make a purchase decision. Not so long ago I was on the verge of placing an order for some hundreds of dollars worth of fruit trees with Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley. I like shopping there because I feel good about the idea of supporting a company that caters to organic growers, and I am able to make a two hour drive to pick up my items in person, which saves me shipping charges and gives me a chance to take a scenic drive through some beautiful country.

So I called their customer service in order to determine how it would work that I could pick up my order of fruit trees. The representative I spoke with was, I felt, less than nice, and I was informed in rather firm terms that if I wanted the fruit trees, they would have to be shipped to me at a cost of $30 per box because no way no how did they hold orders. That information would have been helpful at the beginning of the process, alas. I was facing needing about 3 or more shipping boxes, so now in addition to my costs for the purchase, I’m looking at another $100 or so in extra and unaccounted for expenses. Maybe not much for some people, but I found this upsetting both in terms of the principle and the lack of flexibility. So after all my research, this order may or may not go through. And I’m certainly not feeling warm fuzzies toward this seller at the moment. Likely I’ll have to pick one or two boxes worth of trees to get from PVGS and take the rest of my business elsewhere, as there are other nurseries that don’t seem to have these kinds of rigid rules.

And then I moved on to a search for sweet potatoes. I have never grown them before and would like to try, especially since cooking with them this Thanksgiving reminded me of how delicious and easy to prepare they are. I did a lot of reading and then began looking for suppliers. I found a place in Tennessee that looked amazing….a true mom and pop farm that would sell 500 plants for something like $60…how great is that? But then I started looking for the inevitable…….hard to find……where is it…..NO ORDERS TO CALIFORNIA OR HAWAII. *deep sigh*. Nuts. Living in California can be like being in a compound sometimes, if it’s a good deal and you’d like to grow it, rest assured that there will be some major problem trying to obtain it. Why? Our state’s ever-shifting USDA quarantines that are supposed to keep CA agriculture safe from pests and pathogens that threaten us. Never mind that NAFTA and other economically important import activity pumps invasive species into this state at a rate of which the government has just about lost control. However this time I wanted to know, what was so problematic about sweet potatoes? A little more internet digging revealed that the worry revolved around a colorful insect called the sweet potato weevil, whose larvae make an impressive ruination of the edible part of the plant. This insect doesn’t travel particularly far on its own steam, and there is already apparently an established population of them in San Diego county (seems like poor SD gets visited by just about everything, but I digress). So I abandoned Tennessee and went to search for a California supplier of sweet potato slips. There is one, in Merced. They are very sophisticated and use advanced laboratory techniques to make sure that not so much as a stray virus infects their plants. And they even sell the purple skinned and fleshed kind of sweet potato I’d like to grow. But the cost? 99 cents per slip if ordering less than 500 slips, and 60 cents per slip if ordering 500 or more. Ouch. So now comes the second stage of deep thought. What the hell do I want to do? If I buy 500 plants, that leaves me with a potential yield of 2,500 or more tubers if my growing season is successful. Even if my growing season were to be an abject failure, I have a vivid image of purple tubers overflowing out of my newly finished (I hope) root cellar something like in that film “Son of the Blob”. So I suppose even for the discount, $300 worth of discounted slips is out of the question. I’ll determine some other number, and save California from an insect that is already here.

I could point out how easy it would be to have an order from the Tennessee folks sent to southern Oregon, make a four hour drive to pick up the illegal plants, and smuggle them home past the “do you have any fresh fruits or plants on board” joke of an agricultural checkpoint outside Yreka….why are we using taxpayer money to only periodically station folks to ask a question that depends on the honesty and decency of our citizens? Don’t we know better than that by now? Fortunately, I support the concept that my desire to keep costs down is unimportant compared to the potential to cause my state neighbors economic harm, unlike people and industries who don’t care, and bring in god knows what in order to save a buck or a little convenience.

Still, all this turned out to be an interesting odyssey of learning about obscure…issues…in the course of simply trying to grow a new kind of crop. And really, the sweet potato project began when I heard about a crop found in the Phillippines called Ubi that I would like to grow. It is similar to, yet botanically distinct from, purple sweet potatoes….but until I can find those, I guess I’ll have to content myself with whatever I can find around these parts.

December 3, 2009

My generation has been cheated, and I’ll tell you why.

At 11:30pm a few nights ago, I found myself cajoled out of bed, trussed up in my cold-weather work clothes, driving off in a pickup with my farming partner and his brother, on our way to the local rice fields. There was something special they thought I should see. Usually at 11:30pm I tell people to go stuff themselves, but something sounded different here.

We crawled along, talking about the usual farming stuff…..when they’d gotten out of the rice fields after harvest, who still had yet to flood their fields, who messed up this harvest or did well at the other one. I was asked to keep the window down, and the still air was icy. All the land around was lit in shades of grays and deep blues, and clearest of all was the unending gray of the gravel levees that ran between the fields recently run with water. In the distance I could hear the sound of a large machine, and the see the lights from Beale AFB as well as the towers perched on top of the Sutter Buttes shone in the distance. We crept along, slower and slower, and finally came to a halt. The machine was much louder now, and we carefully exited the truck in order to see the rice fields we had come to, filled with water for the winter. In the distance were masses of white out on the water. The machine was not a machine at all, but was now making a roaring sound much like a turbine. We took three more steps forward and with the roar of a jetliner taking off, hundreds of thousands of geese exploded into the air. They looked like a wave of foam across the watery fields. The noise was simply incredible. We crept on to yet another section, and heard and saw the same thing. This was the experience of migration, the birds that depend on the man-made "wetlands" of the rice fields to feed before they move on to wherever it is they are going. I know from reading books that even 75 years ago, what I just saw was common. People took it for granted to see a sky so full of birds that it blacked out the sun. Now, it is an experience apparantly to be found only at midnight in the middle of nowhere. If you know a rice farmer who can find it. All I could think was, how we "people in general" have managed to screw so much up, in such a short amount of time. I know I’ll remember what I saw and heard for a long, long time. We may have screwed it up, but we haven’t killed it….not yet.

November 20, 2009

This blog will either fascinate, or be right up there with watching paint dry, because today we write about the seed and tree order. I don’t always spend much time discussing this annual event, but this year it deserves its own place just for having reached such grand proportions.

It’s not a surprise that a farm needs to buy some seeds and trees, Every gardener buys seeds…a quick drive to the local nursery or hardware store, plunk down a dollar or two per packet, no problem. It used to be like that, long ago! I sit next to a box that arrived yesterday, it’s 12”x10”x8”.  It contains $450 worth of seeds, and arguably, the future of our farm for the next two to three years. That alone makes it as good as my own private bar of gold. What the hell can cost that much money?….it’s not as hard to spend that much as one would like to think…in fact, it represents rather a lot of thrift and probably no less than 30 hours of research and work to compile. There is an easy comparison…imagine your boss tells you “order everything you will need to do your job for the next two years….supply prices are going up and we have to acquire everything now. Oh, and don’t spend a penny on anything you won’t use.”
So, enough about why it got so big….what is in there? Well, all sorts of things…spigariello liscia ( a special Italian broccoli raab), passionflower, bitter melon, pumpkins, hot peppers, special purslane, at least 7 kinds of hybrid pollenless sunflower, amaranth greens, sweet peppers, celosia, summer squashes, kohlrabi, bunching onions, snap beans, French shell beans, sweet corn, shelling peas, cucumber, cabbage, okra, and acorn squash. This doesn’t include the other $100 order with another company for the snap and snow peas and some other assorted items that the first company ran out of. Nor does it address the fruit tree order that is already hovering at $400. Not only does money not grow on trees, it takes money to grow trees. But, like everything else, it’s an investment in the future. We were short on pomegranates this year….don’t sit around and endure that; buy 15 more trees so than in 3-5 years there will be no lack! I haven’t counted in awhile, but I try not to think about what we invest in order to have a farm that can earn our living for us….the outcome is that in some ways we are not well-off at all, but we are richer than Midas when it comes to good food for ourselves and our customers. I was taken to a fancy early dinner the other day. Every single item in the dish I ordered (spaetlze with heritage turkey confit, butternut squash, chestnuts and brussesls sprouts)  with the exception of the sprouts is growing right here. There is almost no point to eating out, except to get ideas about what to do with all of it!
But back to the seeds. Or the trees. Picking them out isn’t some random stab of the finger in the catalog. Growers who love what they do are as addicted to these catalogs as…..well, it’s bad, trust me on that. We linger over each description, searching out the one that titillates the most. Looking for a pole bean? Ooooh, here’s “Marvel of Venice”….54 days, BIG, TASTY, YELLOW PODS promises “large, sweet juicy, 8”-9” ¾” wide flat pods borne on vigorous vines. This white-seeded variety is remarkably early”. Oh, and it’s an heirloom! Bonus, I can save the seeds! But wait, a quarter pound costs $9.05. And I’m really tired of moving t-posts for trellises. And every time the customers see a bean that isn’t green they freak and I have to spend 2 days explaining that yes, that is still a bean and you eat it. Just like if it was green. Really…….oh, maybe not that one. Hm, maybe a bush bean would be better….. If you can imagine this process repeated with some variation for every vegetable imaginable, now you know why it takes so long. Then there are the slightly unusual choices…oh, look, butterbeans! “Acclaimed as the finest in green vegetable soybeans”….that sounds good! 5 lbs for $12.80? I can do that! And look, “prolific” and “relatively easy to shell”, that’s great! So after all the weighing and deciding, we made the commitment to go with the butterbeans……but nooooo, when it’s time to place the internet order, they are already sold out!! (Insert cuss words of choice). And trust us, that won’t be the only time that happens! Want to buy some snap peas? Bwahahaaaa, You May Not. Try a less desirable variety, maybe your second or third choice? DENIED. No Peas For YOU. It’s like trying to negotiate a garden with the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. Well, I could go on for days, but the important thing is that the seeds are arriving and we’re going crazy planting them.

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…..

September 10, 2009

It’s over 96 degrees outside, there is a ton of work to do….fuhgeddaboutit. It seems like more fun to write about….outdoor cooking!

Last summer some well-heeled neighbors constructed an outdoor kitchen that local gossip claims cost over $60,000. As anyone who knows me can attest, spending money on Ritzy things seems just silly, and life should be all about gloating over what one accomplished for little or, better yet, free. Oh yes, I too will have my outdoor kitchen, and right now I’m working on keeping the price tag right around $20. Here’s the first part:

This is my firepit. Guys, move over. I built the whole thing by myself. My farming partner donated the firebrick, the one inch rebar, and the chain and hook…..okay, and some manual labor to dig out the earth when I was taking too long to do it myself….but the design and execution were all by moi. The pit was dug about eight inches deep, and I used a pickaxe to trim the edges to close to a 90 degree angle. The tripod was then set up temporarily in the pit, and using a very cool app on my iPhone that allows the phone to act as a sophisticated level, the tripod arms were set at about 60 degrees. Some galvanized inch-and-a-half pipe was cut into foot-long sections and driven into the earth. The tripod legs fit into these, and then the tripod was wired together (there IS a proper way to tie a tripod, see your Boy Scout Manual) with baling wire. All metal was then sprayed liberally with WD 40, a magnificent and often underappreciated chemical. In winter, if we want to take down the tripod, it’s a breeze to set up again, just stick the rebar legs inside the pipe. And most importantly, the legs of the tripod cannot slip when holding that Dutch oven, or if someone carelessly knocks into it….it’s solid. Next I laid out the firebrick after giving the ground a decent soaking with water. It was recycled firebrick with plenty of chips, so it was easy to find pieces to fit into the odd sized spots. If I needed to level the brick, a mallet was able to tap the brick into the softened earth below. After all the bottom bricks were laid, I left it alone for a few days so the dirt could turn back into Arbuckle cement. Next came a filling of sand swept between the bricks….the usual. Lastly, brick was used to make two concentric circles to line the edge of the pit. Extra free bricks were used in the middle. They can be stacked as seen here, to protect the fire under the Dutch oven from drafts. They can also be restacked on a whim to hold a grill that was salvaged from a crappy gas barbecue, so the pit doubles as a sort of Weber kettle too. Here are some discoveries to date….grilling is easy. The tripod can be left in place, and never heats up enough to burn skin (I checked). It is incredibly easy to cook in the Dutch oven. Food doesn’t burn because the cast iron distributes the heat evenly. Things cook faster. Controlling the heat is easy….some kindling and two small logs are all that’s needed for 45 minutes worth of cook time. Start the kindling, hang the pot, add ingredients. The iron is already hot, so the meal is underway. Dumplings steam perfectly. If more cooking time is needed, add one more small log. Glorious. But wait, there’s more.

What kitchen doesn’t need an oven? So the next project–construction of an earth oven– can be summed up in this elegant video with lilting music There is a concrete standpipe just sitting out back that needs to be rolled into place by our firepit, this will be the base. Junk for fill is everywhere, alas. My farming partner has more firebrick. And I think we can manage sand, mud, straw or sawdust. It shall be mine….. How does that thing work, one may ask? A fire is lit inside for a few hours. The interior superheats to around 700 degrees. The coals are raked out and the ashes swept. Bread, pizza, whatever, is placed right on the firebrick. The heat bakes the bread via convection evenly and rapidly, with a crisp crust. Millions of Italians can’t be wrong. After the bread bakes, other dishes can be placed in the oven, which takes some hours to cool down. The heat of the oven can even be used for drying the next batch of firewood. This is basically the same setup that people pay thousands of dollars to have someone build out of brick, for el cheapo. It’s a Frugalist’s dream come true…..we’ll write all about it when I get some time to actually build the thing!