Underlying Soil

Many people think farmers are engaged in some sort of idealistically bucolic lifestyle, with the traditionally meager pay more than offset by the rewards of working outside in a pastoral setting. And, to be honest, I know a lot of farmers who hold this perspective as well: Farmers who are more than fulfilled by the agricultural life even though USDA data says that in most years most farm operations lose money, with family expenses covered by off-farm income.

I didn't get into farming because of these pastoral qualities--I happened to take a job on a vegetable farm during college, saw it to be a good fit for my interests, and found that I enjoy the work of running a farm business and the possibilities afforded by the enterprise. I have enjoyed the project of growing top-notch vegetables with responsible farming methods while providing a livelihood for myself by carefully expanding the business bit by bit. I can't imagine running this sort of farm, and then having to work a winter job just to make ends meet.

Small businesses like mine make up the the vast majority of American businesses; together, small businesses generate nearly half of US economic activity, and nearly one-fifth of employees work for a company with under 20 workers (that's me!). But these businesses aren't the ones we hear about in the newspaper. Instead, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Boeing are making the headlines. And, even though these corporations have shown their business methods lead to incredible business success, the neighborhood small business probably isn't being run in the same way as these headline-generating firms that supposedly prove the American Dream a reality.

What if I DID act like a big corporation, and measure my success on corporate metrics? As far as I can tell, big business tends to seek profit above all else--except, perhaps, that fairy-tale of endless growth. So if I were trying to sell as many vegetables as possible to as many people as possible with regard for little else but the bottom line, what would I do? Would I secretly violate your trust assuming you won't find out? Would I cause environmental harm because there aren't regulations to stop me or, if there are, the chance of enforcement is low or penalties inconsequential? Would I maximize profit at the expense of everything else and somehow earn hundreds of times as much as my lowest-paid worker? Or, perhaps, would I marry my farming roots with American big business and act like Certified Organic agribusiness, pushing my growing methods right up to the letter of the law, and then getting a seat on the Organic standards board to try to change the regulations in my favor?

Even though I think of my farm as a business, that sort of approach isn't the least bit interesting to me, and the idea that the only success is endless growth, with dollars the only metric, isn't how I set my goals for the farm. Don't get me wrong; of course I am trying to sell you vegetables. One of my main goals with the CSA is to create something you will want to sign up for again next year--the farm provides my livelihood after all. I've worked to grow the business and expand the farm, but only to be able to do more of what I enjoy, and to do it in a way that sustains a long-term farm future. I feel like I'm almost (but not quite!) to the size of farm that can support a sensible workload, sustainable income, and stable farm crew--and someday work on daydreams like transitioning to solar power.

While Amazon's customers are mined for cash and Facebook users offer up endless data, that raw material of modern business, I choose to remove my farm from that extractive business environment – in just the same way as my farm's sustainable growing practices work with the natural environment rather than destructively extracting all that is there. In our sort of farming the soil is not simply a substrate from which to mine dollars; neither are the customers simply a source for cash. And just as it is the soil which allows the plants to develop, fostering their growth throughout the season to finally bear fruit, so too it is you all, the CSA folks, whose involvement with this project allows the farm to grow and bear fruit in its own way.

Climate Action

This past week was Climate Action Week, bookended by walkouts, protests, and attempts to disrupt “business as usual” of the people in DC whose decisions inflame our global crisis. The United Nations climate scientists, the IPCC, released another dire report and, at the UN climate summit, world leaders again urged action to little effect. Here at home, we CSA farmers are coordinating this week to focus our newsletters on the topic of climate change.

I have always, it seems, been at least peripherally aware of climate change. I remember hearing in elementary school that the earth was warming—the sort of factoid someone might share at a party. We learned about the greenhouse effect and how CO2 reflects sunlight back to earth. “An Inconvenient Truth” came out and it became clear that global warming was an important issue that should be taken seriously, but only in the “Glad somebody is protesting to save the whales, but it's not something I pay much attention to” sort of way. I remember passing through a museum exhibit on “The Sixth Extinction” about how humans were causing the disappearance of the very animals that are part of our cultural history. It felt sad to know that the next generation might grow up in a world that looks quite different, but it didn't feel like this would disrupt the global ecosystems upon which humans depend—as is likely.

A few years ago, when the Paris Accords were being negotiated to try to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, we heard a lot about what that 2-degree warmer world would be like: oceans rising and coastlines receding, hotter summers and heavier rains, and climate refugees putting stress on international stability... but nothing that seemed particularly dire (even though the science says it will be absolutely dire). Even if everything comes to pass I figured I can deal with more rain by controlling the plants' climate with hoophouses, transition mostly to solar power, and sure it'll be hotter but 2 degrees doesn't really sound like very much.

All along, I just assumed everything would be okay in the nick of time. To believe otherwise was to believe that, even though we have all the information we need, the technology to turn this around, and enough time left to avert disaster... in the end we will not do so. Surely we couldn't possibly continue to sit back and just allow it to happen.

But that is what is happening. It does look like we as humans will get our comeuppance in a 2-degree warmer world, the result of our self-centered inaction. And I agree that, while all those changes sounds uncertain, and different, and a little scary, they doesn't sound unmanageable. It's not terrifying. What IS terrifying is the trajectory of that warming. What nobody made a big deal about, in the discussion of whether we could keep temperatures from warming 2 degrees, was that as long as we do nothing, the warming will continue on the same steep trajectory indefinitely—from 2 degrees, to 3, to now nearly 4 degrees projected warming by the end of the century unless we dramatically change course. I didn't understand how huge these small numbers are until googling to find out that during the last ice age, the world was only about 4.5 degrees colder than today. If earth is such a fragile equilibrium that a few degrees colder meant mile-high glaciers over New England, I can't imagine it would be no big deal to go 3 or 4 degrees in the other direction.

We may not know exactly when disaster will come, but it is certain that the global temperature graph's terrifyingly steep rise does lead to certain disaster. And so, seeing no global action, I too am beginning to take action in my own life rather than trust that everything will work out in the end. Part of that is to join other CSA farmers in writing about this topic this week. More concretely, the farm has endorsed the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act as a business, and my farm-neighbors and I are working to get our Loudoun congressional representative to cosponsor it. The bill puts a fee on carbon at the source then gives the proceeds to households, letting market forces do the work of reducing carbon emissions. It's the best method, endorsed by thousands of economists. Those of you picking up shares in Jennifer Wexton's district will receive a postcard that I hope you will write a quick note on and drop in the mail to her. No matter how small our own personal carbon footprint it's going to take government action to get us out of this mess. Our voices, combined with the voices of CSA folks from other farmers, can be enough to make a real difference.

Sliding Scale Success

I'm experimenting with a sliding-scale pricing option this year, as you may remember from when you signed up for the CSA. As I described the situation on the website, “It's a reality that our country's food system maintains low prices through environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and government programs; that subsidy and regulation favor processed food designed to sell rather than to nourish; that access to fresh healthy food is difficult for those without the financial security and education to buy it; and that wealth is largely a product of the possibilities afforded by our parents' socioeconomic situation and our education―simply, of our access to opportunity.”

On one level, the sliding scale is simply a way for someone to elect to price the CSA slightly differently depending on their present income. But, at a deeper level, the purpose of the sliding scale is to create a way to engage with historical disadvantage.

For the past few weeks, since August 20th, I've been hearing a lot about 1619 in the news. On that date 400 years ago the first Africans were brought to America, where, for the next 250 years, black people were enslaved to build our economy, and then for another 100 years terrorized and legally kept from the opportunities to gain education and financial power. It's no surprise that this legacy has not been washed away in the 50 years since the climax of the Civil Rights movement. In my own schooling I remember learning about the Civil Rights era as past history, but it's really still present history to many. Fifty years of legal equality does not erase 350 years of social inequality, especially when most of our parents―our cultural and economic starting point―were born in a time when open discrimination was accepted and black people were kept from education, owning property, getting jobs, etc.

While I didn't make a big deal on the website about linking the sliding scale idea to our history of racial inequality (since I know not everyone holds the same narrative on this topic), it is clear to me that in America generational access to opportunity and financial power is in large part based on race.

This recent article in The Atlantic described how this familiar story played out for farming: from black land ownership, to white land ownership, to―in fact―corporate land ownership.

This is what I wrote on the CSA website: “Sliding Scale pricing allows people with financial resources to elect to pay more for their share in order to make the CSA available to people who have not had the opportunity to build financial security and thus, under our inequitable food system, are unable to access the healthy, well-grown food that CSA members enjoy.”

Since this was a trial―an experiment―I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted people to consider and decide for themselves. It turned out that about 45% of CSA folks decided to pay somewhat more than retail for their CSA. That was the simple part, it turned out. Since I knew there was little chance of anyone writing in requesting to pay on the lower end of the sliding scale (and indeed, nobody did), I figured I would work with a nonprofit to find the people who could make best use of the reduced-price shares. However―of course―social service organizations focus on the people in greatest need, not people who are doing okay but don't have the resources to prioritize spending on a CSA! Nevermind the fact that there are many barriers to CSA membership besides money, like the time and energy to prioritize cooking dinner, a kitchen to cook it in, and a stable schedule with transportation to pick up the share, to name a few.

I talked with my fellow farmer friends about how to bridge these barriers, about what to do with the reduced-price shares that I, in fact, had no audience for. We talked in the spring. We talked in the summer. We talked to friends of friends and eventually we put all the logistical pieces together and tried it out. And everything has been working smoothly. The money paid beyond retail price offset the CSA cost for 12 people in Southwest DC who, for the last few weeks, have been receiving CSA shares every Friday. All are extremely appreciative of the opportunity to cook with this food.

This was one of the bigger risks I took in designing the CSA this year so thank you, to all of my CSA folks, for engaging with these ideas and truly being Community Supported Agriculture members.

Idealism is perhaps the best answer

Yesterday Greta Thunberg arrived in New York City, via sailboat after a two-week trip here from Sweden. She's a 16-year-old activist known for organizing student strikes to protest inaction on climate change and in NY to attend the UN climate summit later next month. Although personally I'd only heard of her recently, she is somewhat well-known. Still, The Guardian's live updates about her arrival in the harbor and the subsequent press conference sure did surprise me. I don't think the news story was so much about the fact of her arrival, but the method of her arrival--by sailboat! That was the only way to traverse an ocean without burning fossil fuels.

Greta's boat trip is an example of change outside the current system, rather than within the confines of our current expectations. But her trip is merely an example of that change--a way to show the kind of bold thinking we'll need in order to get ourselves out of this mess. Despite the idealistic statement of her arrival, two sailors will fly here from Europe to bring the boat back east. It seems that even an idealistic teenager can't avoid the downstream effects of something so modern as a transatlantic commute to a meeting.

I can't help but compare all this to the ideals surrounding CSA. Whether it's supporting ecologically sane growing methods or reducing the carbon footprint of food transportation, many people join the CSA, at least in part, for environmental reasons. And, just like Greta made major changes to live out her values, some people join a CSA to make a small changes in their lives to live out their own values. In turn, people reasonably ask how I can make small changes to CSA bag packing to make it more in line with our environmental principles.

In particular, people ask about plastic. We DO use plastic bags. We use clamshells for cherry tomatoes. Isn't there a way around that?

With this in mind, last year I transitioned from using plastic bags to using the paper lunch sacks in the CSA bags, which seems to be working well. I can see why opening the blue bag to find a sea of plastic baggies would be a bit disappointing. (When I asked people to return the clamshells so they could be reused, none of them came back—! I gave up on that idea.) Using brown paper bags certainly feels like the environmental choice.

But then I really looked into it... and guess what? The jury is out on whether single-use paper bags are better than plastic bags that get recycled. Or even whether using and recycling paper bags is better than using and recycling plastic bags. Paper itself is renewable, of course, but the processing is much more intense. (Interestingly, nobody's ever suggested I use more plastic bags, even though they are much more reusable at home and more recyclable too.)

Similarly, it feels ecologically sound for food travel only a few dozen miles from farm to plate compared to across the country, but my back-of-the-envelope math indicates that a full tractor trailer uses the same amount of fuel to move a vegetable across the country as my inefficient, partially-full delivery van uses to drive a vegetable around DC. People tend to think more about the fuel used in tractors, but the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel used by the farm is used to drive the food to the CSA pickup site.

We all try to live by our own values and want to feel like we’re helping to push the world in the direction we wish to see it move. Unfortunately, the reality is that while these incremental changes (paper bags vs plastic bags, driving shorter distances or longer distances, etc) are all better than the alternative, they are all fairly ineffective in the big picture.

As I see it, the real issue here is that there are no good alternatives with the way our world is set up. We can do what we can to change the inputs to the system, but the modern society we've developed is not a regenerative, balanced system. Since it's our consumptive, non-regenerative system that got us into this climate disaster in the first place, there probably isn't any solution to it that involves substituting one input for another while keeping the same system intact. If only it were so simple!

Greta Thunberg has been an accidental environmental activist for a year now, the face of the next generation of climate activism. She says, “In a way, I am more optimistic, because people are slowly waking up and people are becoming more aware of the situation. But also ... one year has passed and still almost nothing has happened.” And so, what to do? The best we can do may be to live our ideals as thoroughly as possible while not losing sight of the ways our own actions fall short of creating the change we wish to see. Even if that means throwing convention out the window and traveling by sailboat.

Farm Shark Tank

Have you ever thought about how ridiculous a business idea the local CSA farm is? Generally commercial farmers have always focused on growing large volumes of shippable commodities for the essentially limitless regional or national market. Which is to say, they focus on what grows the best at their particular location at any particular time of year. Why would a farmer choose to grow a crop that grew less well than some other crop, or to plant something at a time of year when it clearly might have trouble?

I mean, if I went to a bunch of average farmers and pitched the business plan of "grow a big variety of crops for six months out of the year, and have them all look good," they would think that's nuts! The farmer from the Northeast would say, "Why plant brassicas with such hot weather down there, when you could focus on peppers and eggplant?" The farmer from the south would say, "If you want early tomatoes, why don't you just buy them from us instead of trying so hard with your hoophouses and rowcover?" And someone else would remark that cucumbers grow great in Virginia but why are you trying to plant them past June--it's too hot! The big organic grower Lady Moon Farms (you've seen their stuff in the supermarket) even has land in three different regions--Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida--so they can maintain a greater variety of produce all grown at the optimal time and location.

And here we are deliberately putting ourselves on the hook for pushing out 6 different vegetables every Friday for 6 months out of the year, week in and week out. We keep high standards, given the constraints we're working with, but in a very real way we are competing with perfect-looking grocery store vegetables since the "global marketplace" can provide any vegetable 52 weeks out of the year, all grown in ideal conditions somewhere in the world. That's what most people are used to in their lives.

But, unlike those commercial farmers, we are constantly pushing the envelope--trying to get a crop to come in earlier or extend the season later--in order to have enough variety at every time of year. We pitch "eating seasonally," but what does that mean when farmers push the boundaries of the ideal vegetable season? I suppose what we really mean is not to eat seasonally, but in fact to eat locally--to eat the food that is produced nearby, rather than produced around the world. (If you think about it, everything in the grocery store is seasonal--it's all in peak season somewhere!)

The real answer for those skeptical farmers is that no, this business makes no sense at all from a production standpoint. But it's how I learned to farm and what I've practiced doing, not because it is a simple idea but because it is an endlessly fascinating and confounding one. What ties it together and makes it successful are the local eaters (that's you) who are drawn to the idea of getting the bulk of their vegetables from a single farm for most of the year. As a production farm, there is no WAY we could make it, even competing on just the regional scale. On a local scale though, given the sort of vegetables we can turn out, it seems like there are enough people who appreciate what we do for this to be quite a good idea after all.

American Stock Characters: The Farmer

Fisher Price Farm.jpg

Recently one of the local farmers market organizations sent out some publicity that caught my eye. It was a pitch for farmers markets, encouraging people to attend in order to “learn where your food comes from.” I found this interesting, because the very idea that touring a farmers market would teach us something about the origin of the food we eat is connected to the prominence of the “small family farm” in our cultural memory that I wrote about this last week.

As much as we'd like to believe the ideal, our food does not come straight off the iconic “Fisher-Price Farm.” Its red barn and silo represent the cultural symbol of a farm--a stock character alongside “The Cowboy” and “The Pioneer” (and perhaps “The Founding Fathers”), but the reality of these memories has always been more complex than our American narrative allows. The Fisher-Price Farm was originally released in 1968, just three years before Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz's exhortation to “get big or get out” brought us into the modern age of industrial farming. Would Jefferson be proud that the small-scale land holder is what comes to mind as the mainstay of American agriculture? Or would Jefferson be proud that American farms today are in many ways more similar to his operation at Monticello than to the small-scale farmer setting up at the local market?

If you are a regular grocery store shopper, as most of us are, you may notice the largest of the farmers-market farms showing up in the “Local” display at Giant, or an artisan product finding its way onto the top shelf at Whole Foods. But the farms at a farmers market are simply not the farms that supply our grocery store shelves. The general-audience food that Americans eat is produced on a national, industrial scale not a local farmers-market scale. And industrial agriculture has little in common with the sort of farm you might learn about at a farmers market or by reading these CSA emails.

When you join a farm-based CSA, (like you have), you have a close connection to where the food in your bags comes from, not a simple window into mainstream food production. Connecting with a local food system for your vegetables is inherently different, separate from our national food system. And so, to edit that farmers market pitch, I'd say, "Join a CSA so you CAN know where your food comes from." That possibility of unbroken connection to the source is perhaps the biggest difference here.

A Jeffersonian Fourth of July (maybe?)

If tomatoes mean summer agriculturally, certainly the Fourth of July means summer for us culturally. As a topical nod to farming and patriotism, check out this article, Why the founding farmers wanted Americans to be farmers, which ties together a number of themes we think about around the CSA. It is an accessible read that builds the narrative of how food production became a key determinant of American independence, with seeds serving as the organic capsules containing the roots of liberty. Seeds represented autonomy and independence. 

"...Farming represented a means of both procedural and distributive justice. The right to own property and the opportunity to work the land protected Americans from “the arbitrary will of another” and offered the privilege of receiving the benefit of one’s own labor directly. This sort of self-reliance and self sufficiency—at first a rallying cry against British colonialism—would become the underlying principle of our economic system today..."

This sort of small-scale family farming is still rooted in our cultural consciousness (as the marketing department of corporate food production well knows), and is at the core of our American story. As you may remember from grade school—or from Hamilton—Jefferson was a proponent of this agrarian vision, where agricultural production and land ownership forms the basis of a free country and, in fact, the basis of democracy itself.

But however universal those ideals, in practice Jefferson's agrarianism was based on the labor of people enslaved and sold to power those idealistically-American agricultural enterprises. And voting itself, the fundamental activity of democracy, was for the first 80 years of our nation restricted to white property-owning men. Our nation's agricultural origin story does not mean the same thing to all Americans. In a way, my farm is the sort of small farm Jefferson had in mind, and we could use the Fourth of July to consider how being part of a small-scale CSA enterprise strengthens the fabric of democracy, returning us to the Founders' ideals. On the other hand, we could remember that the large-scale players—for example, the Jeffersons and the Washingtons, and now corporate agribusiness—have always been the ones in power. I'd say that by supporting a small-scale farm, and its regenerative rather than extractive growing practices, and the person-to-person economic and social fabric that local business creates, you are supporting the independence of the people. As the grand finale of the neighboring town's fireworks shines through my window, I wish you a happy Independence Day

Election Day

“Eating is a political act.”

--Food journalist Michael Pollan, inspired by agrarian writer Wendell Berry

Why are you here in this CSA: what values drive your participation in this sort of agricultural, environmental, and social enterprise? Here are some common reasons people join CSAs:

For environmental or ecological reasons:you value caring for the natural world that we rely on

“Know your farmer,” the personal connection to your food:you value integrity and honesty in what you eat

For your and your family's health:you value access to what you need to lead a healthy life

To boost local small business:you value supporting the livelihoods of proprietors and employees of “main street” businesses

Eating rarely feels political, but whether you are here to make change in the world or just to buy some good food, it is very much a political act in that your choices drive social, economic, and regulatory change in the directions you care about.

You likely joined a CSA because of some of these values, and these values are front and center in our political world as well. If they are important to you when deciding what to feed yourself and your family, please consider these values when you cast your vote on Tuesday.

The adventure of farming, and, Why do we do this, anyway?

This time of year on the farm is always a combination of slowing and hustle. The days are shorter, the workers and crops growing fewer, but there is still much to be done to be ready for winter. Most of these winter-prep tasks have no particular deadline, but this season's weather constraints have persisted to the bitter end resulting in a worklist that has felt more like July than October. Which is to say, the last couple days have felt like quintessential farming days to me: a weather-imposed deadline for critical planting, resulting in a complex sequence of fieldwork and tractor work, which necessarily involves mechanical breakdown, all while managing the workflow so that essential picking doesn't fall through the cracks. Which is to say: exciting, challenging, rewarding. This time of year it isn't a cash crop we're rushing to plant, but a covercrop (in this case rye, which maintains and improves the soil over winter, before being tilled under in spring), since Friday's rain will close the window of opportunity for tractor work for a long time. Over the last two days we dismantled and tilled up quite literally half the farm, ready to seed with rye.

We prepared the long-dead cucumber and squash field, taking up the hoops that supported the fabric rowcover and pulling up the drip tape that irrigated the rows all season – a tool and tractor borrowed from a neighbor helped get it out of the firm ground. Then it was time to mow, but a few minutes to being finished with the field, I heard a disconcerting clunk and looked back to find that the shaft connecting the mower to the tractor had sheared off and broken free. Fortunately, neighbors will step in in a pinch, so I went to borrow their tractor to finish up. They were also preparing to seed covercrop, completing the same tractor sequence as me. I turned their tractor on, and it immediately ran out of fuel and died. We were surprised but filled it with fuel, I drove off, and stopping to open the gate noticed that fuel was now streaming out of the tank (from the bottom, where the drain plug should be). Well that explains why it was out of fuel! After running to find a n empty jug, calling the neighbor to help, getting buckets set up and settling in to let the 20 gallons of fuel drain right out again, I went to hook up my big disc to be ready for the next days' tillage. There's always a bit of unexpected setup and repair to do on such rarely-used equipment; this time a tire had gone flat and needed to be re-seated on the rim and a couple critical bolts needed to have the threads cleaned up with the tap&die set. I so enjoy the flurry of work that these sequences require, and the diversity of skills I get to employ – experimentation, problem-solving, equipment operation, and creative repairs to get the job done.

Today, luckily, everything went according to plan with the fieldwork. I drove the disc over half the farm, and over the one neighbor's field, and then the other neighbor's, since I have the big equipment for the tillage job and today is the right time to use it before rain. All the while the two workers were picking for CSA – but it took quite a bit longer than expected, because this season's weather and resulting lack of vegetables has forced us to rely on a couple terribly time consuming items this week. We finished the day by lifting the last two rows of potatoes with the tractor and potato digger, since waiting until after the rain would mean having to dig them out by hand.

Meeting the challenge of shifting weather, labor, and equipment logistics is always difficult, though it really is something I enjoy about this business: “Can we get this done? Let's find out!” In the end, the covercrop project will be a success, turning half the farm from crops to open ground seeded in rye, ready for the rain. However I'll have to do the seeding Friday morning, which means that I won't get the CSA packed in time, and hence the note about being late to deliver this week. In the midst of all this we did get the vegetables picked, which certainly feels like its own kind of success. I'm sorry to be off on the timing, and wanted to give you a little window here into what we're up to at the farm, so you can understand something of what's behind all those vegetables that appear in the blue bag. It doesn't always go according to plan, but farming always seems to offer an endless supply of challenges to meet and problems to solve, making it an endlessly rewarding livelihood.

We're all in the same boat, it turns out

In the last couple weeks we farmers have been talking. At times we each can feel alone on our own farms, lamenting our own personal vegetable failures and wondering why it is us who have such uniquely poor fortune. But the reality is that the weather has affected all farms equally and we're all in the same boat.

One neighbor, who usually buys in vegetables from many other farmers (including me!) to supplement their CSA, has been forced for the first time to rely solely on their own vegetables–their usual sources have nothing extra to part with.

I called a friend up the road to check in with her farm, and to see if she might have anything to sell extra later on in case I needed it; she reported, “Nope, we don't have anything here either–except a boatload of winter squash, for some reason.”

I hear tell of another farm, who was forced by lack of vegetables to give a pepper and a cucumber to some of their smaller shares, that's it. Somewhat extreme, perhaps, but an indication of the dire straights some of us were in.

It's the same story even as far away as New England. I took a trip up that way over the weekend and happened to meet another farmer, and you can probably guess what we discussed. I asked him, in the way that farmers make small talk, how the weather had been for him up there. “Oh, terrible, the worst season we've had in 20 years,” was his reply. I told him that yeah, we were doing all right most of the season--spinach even came up well in the summer, a great stand of spinach but then it rained for two weeks with the hurricane and most of it evaporated. “Same here,” he says, “Same here.” Two universal farmer complaints: weather and spinach.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Wow, well, have I mentioned the rain recently? We do our best to fend off its effects, but, as in a chess game, the weather makes moves to improve its overall position and eventually gain the upper hand. We made our own strategies for fieldwork, timing the tillage and planting to take advantage of the brief dry periods, not trusting the forecast to stay clear for any longer than necessary, and kept picking every last vegetable out of the field until long after the wet and damp had taken its toll on the plants. And, despite the early disappearance of summer vegetables and the delayed onset of fall greens, we still manage to squeak by, holding out for the relief that fall storage crops will be bringing next month.

It's almost comical--I mean, it IS comical, in the way that people smile in wonder at astonishing events--the way we think we're doing everything right and staying ahead of the weather, but then the weather takes it to the next level. For example, we have deluges every year, and wet periods are nothing new. We know what to expect and how to handle this. And, though the soil may stay frustratingly wet for too long, the days themselves return to the normal weather pattern. This is the first year I've seen where the big rains are followed by long periods (weeks!) of foggy, cool, cloudy, drizzly days where not only the ground but the air itself is saturated. This has had novel affects on plant growth--not the least of which is the salad mix, which actually got unusually tall and leggy from so little sunlight. The lack of sunlight may also have had something to do with how the peppers have given up ripening (just a hunch!), and so you have green peppers this week instead of red.

While the weather has certainly affected the plants on the farm, and thus the mix of vegetables you see each week, this is the first time out of all the flooded, rainy weeks this year that it has had a direct, physical, effect on what you're seeing in the bag. I had planned for potatoes this week, relying evidently too much on the weather forecast saying rain Monday and clear the rest of the week. Instead, it was calm Monday and rainy the rest of the week, leaving the potatoes locked underground in the mud for the time being. So, instead, you have green tomatoes (admittedly not an equal trade but they ARE great breaded and fried). On the other hand, it would usually be too early in the season for carrots this size–in general they are still too small to pick–but since the ground was so wet it was possible to select the individual, large outlier carrots and pull them out by their tops, yielding enough bunches of full-size carrots for everybody in a week where it would otherwise be too early to see such carrots. (By the way, do take the tops off the carrots if you're not eating the carrots right away; the tops suck moisture out of the carrot roots.)

The next week is looking beautiful though, with no rain in sight--apparently the first time in quite a while where we've had 5 days in a row without rain. I'd believe it!

Florence, or, the rain

The hurricane was every farmer's focus of conversation this past week. It's hard to remember now, but a few days ago Florence was a huge concern. How to prepare, how to plan, and how to conceive of yet more rain on already-saturated fields. Do we rush to harvest crops that might be blown to bits by the big event? Will fields be washed away, plants too waterlogged to grow? Should we dismantle hoophouses, lest they be destroyed by tropical storm winds?

All those decisions were relatively minor and could be made later compared to the biggest decision: What to do about Friday CSA delivery? I couldn't quite ask you all to pick up your shares during the very afternoon a hurricane arrives. So I figured we could move the delivery a full day earlier this week, though that would require some advance planning–plans that needed to be made, really, before the forecast firmed up. I was ready to make that decision Tuesday night, and then the forecast started to shift in our favor. Wednesday morning, it was looking even less dire, and I thought we might deliver the CSA half a day early but again delayed deciding. And then, in the end, the hurricane kept moving south and the early delivery plan kept moving later until we were right back to the normal Friday schedule, no hurricane in sight. We might have some significant rain and wind next week, but most likely in amounts we can cope with, and not on the CSA day. We are feeling pretty lucky.

The big surprise then, is that last weekend's unexpected 5 inches of rain is the big rain story of the week. We have already received our full year's worth of rainfall plus some, and it's only September. There was a time when 5 inches of rain was an incredible amount, but no longer. This climactic shift is indicated more by how unremarkable these rains have become than by how high the rainfall total continues to climb. Remember the two weeks of saturated ground in May, just as the summer crops were going in the ground? And the two weeks, again, of ridiculous rain in late July just as the summer crops were hitting their peak? And now we have two weeks of tropical storm rain and then hurricane rain, which is putting a decisive end to those summer crops and delaying the fall crops as they sit languishing in saturated soil under the clouds and fog.

Let's just note, for the record, that this is quite unusual. Although I've been pleased by how well we navigated the crazy weather patterns this season and still managed to get all the crops in the ground, we're starting to see the real effects now. You'll notice, for example, the comically tiny amount of tomatoes, a vegetable you will likely not see again this season. Every single zucchini, cucumber, and eggplant we picked this week went into the CSA bags.

Although in most years the shift from summer to fall vegetables is more a product of the arrival of fall crops rather than the disappearance of summer crops, we have definitively made that transition this week, and all of a sudden. Expect to see much more fall-like bags from here on out. I hope you're ready, because we sure are!

Why I am NOT certified Organic.

What do you think when you see this label ?

  • Food grown by hippie farmers?
  • Products certified to be grown using environmentally sound growing methods?
  • Food from farms that follow a USDA regulatory regime certifying that they only use products from an approved list--a list which is drawn up by the Organic Standards Board to exclude non-biological substances no matter the ecological (or, the logical) reason?

Of course, if you've read about my growing and selling practices, you know I think it's the latter.

I recently received an email that so clearly demonstrates the thinking of USDA ORGANIC that I wanted to share it with you. We use paper pots to transplant some crops, and various small-farm groups are petitioning to get these paper pots approved for use on Organic farms. You might think this would be a slam dunk, especially since the use of paper is already allowed under Organic rules. But can paper be allowed...as a pot? Recycled paper is currently okay, but what about the use of...non-recycled paper?

Here's the email I received from someone working to to get paper pots approved (edited for length and clarity):

Over the course of many phone calls and meetings, I have learned that while the initial concern regarding the paper chain pots was the resins used, a fundamental issue is that the use of paper as a paper pot is not part of the Organic rule. The Organic rule currently only addresses the use of paper as a mulch or as an ingredient in compost. So, before ANY paper pot product can be approved, the Organic rule needs to be amended to allow the use of paper as a paper pot.

The petition being submitted requests that the Organic Standards Board approve the use of non-recycled paper for use in paper transplant pots. Currently, the allowance of paper is restricted to “newsprint and other recycled paper.” It is the contention of those submitting the petition that non-recycled paper should also be allowed. Not surprisingly, a large number of additives, resins, glues, inks, and other materials are commonly found in paper. Given that “recycled paper” comes from “non-recycled paper” the petition argues that paper-use on organic farms should not be restricted to only recycled paper.

Government regulation in general serves a critical purpose in protecting things that our country values, but which businesses value less than profit. The Organic regulation serves a critical purpose in providing a financial reason for agribusiness to use less-destructive methods. In the past I have seriously considered going for Organic Certification, but I know that I wouldn't be able to put up with this kind of ridiculousness when my reason for certifying would be to communicate to customers that my farm uses non-exploitative, environmentally-sane farming practices. Unlike big business, I can talk to my customers directly, rather than communicating through the regulatory label. When you buy from big business, I do hope you look for the Organic label. But when you buy from local farmers like me, I hope you will just talk with them about what you care about, rather than finding meaning in the Organic regulatory label–a label riddled with exceptions favoring the practices of the large agribusinesses who have more “money,” ie, “speech,” a label whose meaning is being eroded by the agribusiness reps who sit on the Organic Standards Board hoping to someday permit even GMOs under Organic.

The more ubiquitous Organic products become in national supermarkets, the more customers look for that label in their local farmers market and other small-business settings. And when this increasing customer demand for the Organic label drives local direct-marketing farmers to certify under a program guided by and most appropriate for big business, agribusiness has won. This is why I am not certified Organic, and why I encourage you not to care about such labeling when buying food from people like me.

Trust your farmer, not the label.

Something I Love about Farming

Something I love about farming year after year is that past experience allows me to perceive ever greater levels of detail in the process of farming, offering the possibility of making ever more precise decisions in order to effect the desired outcome. An outcome like having spinach or carrots, for example. And spinach and carrots are two things I've been thinking a lot about these past few weeks.

In my early years of farming I read the seed catalog, picked a planting date, dialed in the seeding rate, and hoped for the best. This was met with mixed success. Even though we assume seeds will germinate into plants with some regularity, there is much that holds them back, and so naively setting the seeder according to the book and running it on the proper planting date may or may not yield a good crop in any given season.

It's been a few years since I learned to plant at the proper time of the weather rather than the proper time of the calendar. And even more years since I reluctantly had to admit, having studiously dialed in the seeder settings with ever more precision, that I had been erroneously attributing problems of spotty emergence to the easily-adjusted mechanical certainty of the seeder, rather than to the uncertain climactic conditions under the soil surface.

It was only after examining the failures of many past seasons and comparing the conditions and results in the present instance with the conditions and results of  previous trials that I could begin to tease apart the innumerable variables of these quite uncontrolled experiments. And in the classic way of “the more you know, the more there is to know,” I do enjoy being able to juggle these micro-level details and make my best gamble about how to provide the optimum conditions required.

I last planted carrots a few weeks ago, before the big rain, which I thought would be better than waiting until after, especially since if they didn't work I'd still have time to re-plant. Carrots need constant moisture to emerge (so two weeks of rain is great!) but they are quite wimpy and liable to stall out pushing their way up through firm soil, germinating successfully but never making it to the surface. Water makes the soil soft, but lots of rain compacts and settles the soil into a firm mass--a firm mass that requires even more water to loosen, which will dry and harden on the slightest sunny day. Planting shallowly offers a shorter path to the surface, but it dries out quicker up near the sun and germination can suffer. It's also hotter near the surface--though afternoon irrigation can cool the soil. Spinach germinates erratically above 90-degrees, compounding the difficulty of matching these factors to provide the ideal conditions to the seed for the 5-7 days it takes to (hopefully) break the surface.

On Wednesday I made my gambles with the last carrot planting and first spinach planting, both critical crops, and I enjoyed every minute of seeding-rate calculation with math and measuring spoons to settle on a rate that might be high enough for a reliable stand but low enough to limit the work of thinning, setting the depth (shallow) and planning to irrigate frequently--but lightly--and waiting until these cooler days which, however, have a higher chance of blasting thunderstorms that can pound the loose soil into crusty cement in an instant.

Whether all this effort and consideration will have the desired effect I do not know. And if the seeds do emerge, exactly at the right spacing, can I attribute the success to my care and precision? Who can say. Certainly I will have no idea which variable was the critical factor, although I might guess. Many years from now perhaps the trends will be clearer, and if the success rate continues to rise, only then might they hint at a causal relationship. Until that time comes I'll continue to pay attention and do my best, and enjoy every minute of it.

The true environmentalism of local agriculture

We use a lot of plastic bags in the CSA, for holding vegetables that need portioning, or are dirty, or shouldn't be rolling around loose in the bottom of the blue bag. I realize this isn't very environmentally-friendly. I've looked into waxed paper bags, which would resist the moisture from that lettuce head or those just-washed potatoes, but haven't found a good solution yet. So as an experiment last week I went ahead and tried out regular-old paper lunch sacks for the tomatoes, and so far it seems to be working.

There are a lot of environmental balancing acts in small scale farming and CSA distribution. The use of plastics is a big one, in packaging and in irrigation supplies. The use of fossil fuels is another, burned in tractors, mowers, and vehicles. We know that many people join CSA for environmental reasons, and it is true that you are doing better by the environment. But, this farm is still a product of the society in which we live. Paper and tin packaging is no longer used, I can't buy canvas irrigation hoses, and our world is measured at the scale of the car, not the horse. I drive a tractors a LOT on the farm, yet driving the vegetables to you accounts for 75% of the farm's fuel consumption. In fact, back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that driving local vegetables to CSA stops and farmers' markets in small but inefficient farm vehicles consumes just as much fuel as it would take to truck food across the country in a packed 18-wheeler.

The biggest impact you have by joining the CSA may not be my farm's specific ecological footprint, but your choice to not participate in big agribusiness. I would say that it is large scale corporate enterprise that does the most ecological damage. By signing on with the small scale local business, it is your economic action that in fact does the most good for the plant–along with supporting the kind of society that you would like to see in the world--even if some fossil fuel gets burned to get those crops to your doorstep.

CSA...and the fabric of society?

When was the last time you bought something from an actual person?  From a business run by someone in your community?  Or even from an employee who you recognize and who you knows you as one of the regulars?  I could talk all day about how fresh the just-picked vegetables are, not two days out of the ground.  Or how it's environmentally better to eat food from a small local farm than from corporate agribusiness more concerned with profit than with ecological sanity.  But consider the idea that meeting your day-to-day economic needs with businesses that are part of the local fabric of society -- having a person-to-person relationship with not only the seller but the producer of those goods -- may in fact be the most important result of buying your food from a local farm.

There's something we enjoy about the small business and the old-school main-street.  The "Towne Center" developments (Fairfax Corner, OneLoudoun, Reston Town Center, etc.) capitalize on this desire for small-town character, but in facade only.  While actual main-streets are comprised of local businesses creating a center of local culture, these faux main-streets are dominated by corporate business, islands lost in a sea of parking where even the ice cream shops and yoga studios are national chains.  Our politicians also capitalize on this appreciation of main-street businesses, with their talk of supporting "America's small business owners," but their policies have little to do with the main-street small businesses that enrich our day-to-day lives.

As much as people would like to live in this sort of world, when was the last time you interacted with a business like this?  Perhaps you stop at the independent coffee shop?  A local bookstore, or deli?  Maybe your mechanic owns the garage, or your hairdresser rents their chair.  But for your day-to-day goods, the go-to source is almost certain to be a national chain or box-store retailer--or Amazon.  These places are so convenient, and with such low prices, that it takes some real work to shop at a business owned by a real person.  We don't often have an easy opportunity to buy our day-to-day goods from the kinds of businesses we would like to see comprise the fabric of our communities, and even when we do, most of us rarely take advantage of it.

And so I encourage you to think about signing up for the CSA not because of the fantastic vegetables, or because of the great recipes every week, or because eating seasonally and sustainably increases your connection to the natural world...but because it enriches your life for something so critical as the daily food on your table to come from a local farm -- from local people.

Week 21: Surprise, low of 20 degrees!

Wow, we're nearing the end--only one more week to go! 

Suddenly, after weeks of unseasonably warm weather, on November 10th we see a forecast low of 20 degrees. When the weather report changed a few days ago, I thought this was a miscalculation. A fluke, surely to be corrected soon. Crops that laugh at 30 degrees risk real damage at 20. We had a long, wet day today in preparation for the surprise freeze--but in a way, this is what we signed up for. These sorts of days are an adventure, in a way, a test: can we do it?

We began with the CSA picking, then after lunch we covered the at-risk plants (fingers crossed!), and set into the soon-to-be-frosted pepper patch to pick as many green peppers as we could in the time remaining. We finished picking in the dark, which was rather comical, though surprisingly possible. A day of work well done--but not done yet! We still wanted to pack the CSA bags, since Friday morning will be freezing cold with 18mph winds--no time to be outside.  With the bags packed and loaded into the van, I ordered celebratory pizza for us all and, although we were cold, damp, and tired after spending 12 hours outside under the November clouds, I knew that we were quite happy to have done just that. Quite happy to have seen the challenge ahead of us this morning, to rise to the task, and to know that we accomplished the critical work right when it needed to get done. That said, dry clothes never felt so lovely!

Week 19: Vegetable life cycle complete

There was a change in the air today and nobody knew why, but we all agreed: it smelled like winter. Cold, wet ground and cold, windy air, a characteristic winter look about the farm--no longer the beautiful sunny fall days with still-vibrant plants. Though it was cloudy and cool all day we still had to work to keep the just-picked greens from wilting--not from sun and heat this time, but from the unrelenting wind. All plants are noticing this change to the cold months; nothing but the storage crops is in its prime anymore. We're just getting vegetables out of the field while they're still useful.

The individual vegetables in your share might not look too different from week to week, but over time we all get to see the full cycle of production from these plants here at the farm. Remember when the spinach was huge and meaty, each leaf picked individually from the plant? Now the leaves are small, clear-cut with a knife to get all we can.  This is perhaps the biggest difference from grocery store vegetables: the fact that the size, shape, and taste of the produce varies over the course of the season as the plants mature and then decline. Commercial farms grow precisely what works best with their soil, at the optimal time of year, harvest it all at once at the peak and then it's on to the next crop. Winter spinach from the south; summer spinach from the north. Greens from California and its balmy bug-free climate. Tomatoes from Florida and carrots and cabbage from New York, or even Canada. No commercial wholesale farmer in Virginia would even think of having this variety of crops all in production at once, but for farmers like us, that's precisely the point. You get to have a connection to what's actually happening on the farm, in real time, as borne out by your weekly "snapshot" of production. 

Week 17: The botanical roots of seasonal food

As you may know from trivia night, many of the "vegetables" we eat are actually fruits. A fruit, botanically speaking, is a seed-bearing structure from a flowering plant--such as a tomato, pepper, eggplant, or squash. Vegetables are all other plant parts, such as roots (carrots), leaves (salads), or flower parts (broccoli). Well, then there's tubers (potatoes), which are neither roots nor fruits, though they do generate new plants... but we'll leave that to another day.

To grow the fruit we eat, these plants must first grow a plant, then flowers, and then finally the food. This is a lot of effort for a plant, and plants that reproduce this way grow primarily in the summer when there is a long period of high-energy growing conditions. In the cool fall, with their seed-producing work complete, the warm-season fruiting crops slow way down. Our work turns towards the true vegetables.

We don't need to wait for vegetables to grow a fruit, since we'll just consume the plant itself. Moreover, unlike the summer crops, these plants (think spinach and kale) LIKE to grow in the cool fall weather and don't mind that there is no time to grow a fruit. They are simply aiming to get a head start on spring by producing a plant this fall before hunkering down for the winter. In March, when the weather warms, they will send up a seed stalk straight away before the competition even has a chance to germinate. And those beets, turnips, carrots? That's where the plant stores its energy for the long winter, to send up new shoots in spring. All these root crops and tuber crops are traditional fall foods because that is the time when the plants are stockpiling energy for spring. And the storage crops like carrots, beets, and potatoes are our traditional winter food since they store well through the winter when outdoor plants are frozen and dead -- precisely why the plants create those storage roots in the first place.

Week 16: On squash longevity

Contrary to popular belief (of some), winter squash does not grow in the winter, ready to be picked and eaten at will. Rather, the plants grow just the same as other squash:  in the heat of the summer. It's the fruits that persist into the winter. Summer squash (like zucchini) is an immature squash, with minimal seed development and tender flesh. Winter squash, on the other hand, is completely mature, with viable seeds and a hard rind to protect them. We're lucky if a zucchini plant stays alive for a month after beginning to produce fruit, but winter squash has to stick it out for a full 100 days. We sow the seeds mid-June and, while the tomatoes arrive, the peppers inundate us, the eggplant surprises us, the squash just grows. We work every day with those other crops, and the butternut squash--well, all we do is watch it. Finally when all those summer vegetables wane with the coming of autumn, it is time to clip and gather the winter squash. Then they cure in a warm place for two weeks to turn starches to sugars, and now, finally, arrive in your shares this week.