Saturday, January 18, 2014

This Was The Year That Was

This Was The Year That Was

Be the ocean when it meets the sky
            “greek freighters are dumping crap somewhere right now"
 be the magic in the northern lights   
            "the ice is melting!"
 be the river as it rolls along    
            "toxic waste dumpin' from corporate farms"
be the rain you remember fallin'    
            "be the rain, be the rain"
save the planet for another day    
            "be the rain, be the rain"    
be the river as it rolls along    
            "be the rain, be the rain" (Neil Young)

When this blog was started there were two main purposes. One was to provide a general sense of what small farmers go through, especially start up farmers. The other was to create a semblance of a written history of David’s life as a farmer. This blog started in 2007 when he was the farm manager at Gravity Hill Farm. This documentation has covered David’s three years at Gravity Hill and now through four years running his own farm, Z Food Farm. For various reasons there has been a lack of consistency in staying current with events at the farm for season 4 (2013). There were a few posts early on, but then there has been silence. This post is intended to be an end of the year summary of farm season 2013. Cheers!

To borrow from Dickens, it was the best of times it was the worst of times. (Actually, the full quote is pretty amazing; take a moment and look it up.) While it is a stretch to compare the events of Dickens’ novel with a farm season, this was marked by a significant dichotomy between the start of the season and the end of the season. The beginning of the season was reflected the notion that if it could go wrong, it did go wrong. Starting late July/the beginning of August, about the time tomatoes started coming to market, circumstances took a turn for the better. From that time through the end of the season the farm continued in a positive vein. Ultimately, despite the myriad of problems during the first months, the season, as a whole can be viewed as successful. That’s the broad overview. Here then are some of the specifics to provide a synopsis of the year; for you to get a sense of the challenges that all farmers face and for David to have some documentation to look back on so that one year doesn’t fade into the next.

Heading into the season there were a couple of minor things that David decided to have repaired on the tractor. The process of this repair took about two weeks longer than anticipated. This delay prevented David from doing initial field work- mowing the fields, tilling the soil, forming beds. This delay reverberated throughout the season. While seeding started on time, the first, and most subsequent plantings was delayed. This resulted in some vegetables not getting planted and some not doing well once they were planted having spent too much time in their seeding trays.

And then, once plants were in the ground, there were the deer. Ah, the deer. Not dear deer. But those damn deer. The deer, at the beginning of the year, ate the first plantings of beets, Swiss chard, and lettuce. Thus, when markets started, those items were not available for sale. While it is hard to guesstimate the actual cost of the damage, it is safe to say that the deer had very expensive dinners at the expense of Z Food Farm. As a reminder- Z Food Farm, as do many smaller, local farms, uses an electric fence as a means of defense against the deer.  (insert picture) The charge in the wires of the fence is not enough to do any harm to the deer nor is the charge strong enough to shock the deer if they touch the wires with their body. The way the fence acts as a deterrent is to bait the fence with peanut butter, which is intended to lure the deer to the wire. The goal is for the deer to lick or sniff the peanut butter and to get a shock on their tongue or nose and thus teach them that the fence is to be avoided; an example of operant conditioning. While deer have been a problem in the past, this year was the worst. In addition to making sure the fence was baited on a regular basis throughout the season, David used row cover (which the deer tore through) and some netting that is advertised as an effective means of keeping deer from eating crops. It is hard to discern what, if anything, worked, but over the course of the season deer damage was reduced. Please notice that I did not say ended. Hungry, hungry deer. Angry, angry farmer.

Then there was the weather. All farmers are at the mercy of the weather. Too hot. Too cold. Too wet. Too dry. Frequently checking the forecast, not because there is anything that you can do about the weather itself, but hoping that there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the impact of the weather by knowing what is coming becomes a daily preoccupation. Sometimes there are steps to be taken, and sometimes the weather gets the better of you. The later of these two being the case this year. The month of June saw a record rainfall for Mercer County. July was not too far off of that month’s record. Though plants need water to survive, too much water is problematic for a number of reasons. One is that if the soil is too wet it is not healthy for the soil to do any tractor work. To be healthy, soil needs to ‘breath’. This condition requires there to be spaces within the soil. These spaces allows the earthto breath and to allow for life- insects and bugs that help maintain the arability of the soil.  Wet soil is easily compacted by the weight of a tractor. When this occurs the soil is unable to breath and the life within the soil is, for lack of a better word, squashed. Thus when the soil is wet, small, sustainable, organic farmers, farmers who have a love and respect for the land they are toiling, are unable/unwilling to do tasks that require the use of their tractor. For David this led to his being unable to form beds into which he would do his planting. By being unable to form beds, seedlings that were ready to be planted had to wait in their seeding trays until the beds were eventually formed. While there is a margin of error for how long plants remain healthy if their planting is delayed, at a certain point the delay becomes deadly. An example to illustrate this would be the winter squash. Winter squash need to be planted in June. Due to the wet soil, their planting was delayed some four to five weeks. By the time they were planted the majority had died in their trays. Many more died shortly after planting. The end result was that having had the best ever winter squash harvest last year, this year’s harvest was the worst. Winter squash was not the only crop that was impacted in this manner, but it is the most glaring.

Another specific example of the impact of rain is on the health of the plants. In general, organic plants are more vulnerable to disease than conventional crops. This is due to conventional farmers having access to a variety of substances that can be sprayed on their crops to prevent/minimize the affects of plant diseases. While the organic farmer does have some items that can be used, they are not nearly as effective. In this context wet and windy conditions help to spread a variety of diseases. Thus, even those plants that were planted on time, or only a little late, did not produce as they otherwise could have. This led to problems with cucumbers, the second planting of summer squash, and sweet peppers and eggplants. In other words, the beginning of the season (June and July) was marked by an unusual number of challenges and frustrations. The problems resulting from excessive rain impacted all of the small farmers in the area, but not being alone does not lessen the frustrations that any one farmer experiences. In the midst of all the rain, there was one additional situation that made circumstances even more problematic.

As mentioned earlier, David had some maintenance done of the tractor and that this took longer than expected. During the time of rain, the clutch on the tractor broke. While the ground was wet during part of this time, there were windows of opportunity that David was unable to take advantage of due to his not having his tractor. While David was able to borrow a tractor (thanks Matt), the damage had been done. By the time David got his tractor back there were many tasks that were backed up. The priority was on forming beds in order to plant. And despite working dawn to dusk some tasks remained on the waiting list throughout the season.

One last tale of frustration- the air conditioner for the walk-in cooler broke. Well, without a cooler it is hard to keep your produce fresh. Fortunately we already had a large number of coolers, they are what David uses to bring his produce to market. However, in order to keep the produce cool enough in the coolers we had to use ice in the coolers. Without going into the specifics, it took a couple of weeks before the walk-in was back up and running. That required a lot of ice. If you want to know the best place to purchase ice, the least expensive place, let us know and we’ll be happy to tell you.

There were various other trials and tribulations, but you get the general idea. Throughout this period there were circumstances that provided opportunity for gratitude and hopefulness. In this vein some thanks are in order. Thanks to the CSA members of the farm. Your patience, understanding, and words of support and encouragement gave David an emotional boost to keep pushing forward. Speaking for myself, as the one who does the farm market and gets to see the members on a weekly basis, I enjoyed spending some time with all of you and getting to know you within the structure of the market. Thank you so very much.

Thanks to our customers both at the farm and in Philadelphia at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market. As consumers there are many choices available as to where to purchase your produce. That you choose to do some of your shopping at Z Food Farm is not taken for granted. (This notion also is applicable for the CSA members.) The goal of David is to provide you with a high quality product. That we see so many of you on a weekly basis provides a sense of acknowledgement that we are doing at least a satisfactory job.

Thanks to Karel. Yes, we know that you appreciate David for the assistance that he provided to you for your project, but your friendship and handiness eased some of the stress. Not just the stress related to the big problems, but the stress that comes from the day in and day out factors associated with farming even in the best of times.

Thanks to Farmer Matt who through the years has continued to provide David with practical support in the form of loaning various pieces of equipment. Most importantly thanks for being a friend.

Well, this is rather lengthy. Trust me, it could be longer. As mentioned earlier, this is for the reader who has an interest in what goes into farming. While this is of value to whomever might read this, for me the value of is a documentation of what took place, a historical record.

With this in mind, some steps are being taken in preparation for the coming season. An inventory has been completed of seeds leftover from the past season. Also, David is scouring the various seed catalogs looking for new things to grow. Hopefully you enjoyed some of the new things that were offered this year, such as the purple sweet potatoes and the Jerusalem artichokes. The goal for next year is to continue with tried and true and the new and different.

Note- within the next couple of days some pictures will be posted to show some of what took place. (I promise!!)

Support local farms. Support sustainable farms. Support organic farms. To one and all, happy and healthy eating.

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