Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Day in Idyllia

                On October 9, few clouds spotted the clear blue autumn sky, as the sun warmly toasted the farm to a high of 79.5 degrees Fahrenheit. After a month and four days of horrific weather, fall had descended upon the farm in a delightful fashion. Birds flittered from the tree branches, scurrying around with spring like glee. And the intoxicating aroma of German White garlic consumed that autumn day of continued farm activity.
                I was sitting on top of the two steps that lead to the back porch of the farm house. The activity for the day was to plant the German White garlic cloves for next July’s harvest. The first task was to break apart the large bulbs of garlic into the individual cloves. Ah, what a refreshing task! There is something about the scent of garlic that greatly enhances one’s mood, and as each one of those multiple bulbs that I had saved for specifically the reason to plant as seeds were broken apart, a sense of relaxation enveloped me as that warm fall sun continued to illuminate the farm.
                The next step was to plant the cloves. I drove over to Kirk and Jen Robertson’s R&R Farm with the garlic planting stock. Their farm is .7 miles away from Nev-R-Dun Farm, up the dirt road of Hughes Shop, then around the corner on Murkle. When I arrived there was plenty of activity going on; Kirk and his father in law were installing irrigation line, Jen was helping, and their kids were running around like little kids do.
We quickly set upon the task of planting the cloves. The row that we had designated for the garlic planting had been tilled earlier, the one up against the fence to the cow and chicken pasture. Jen helped in the process, where we took the cloves and pressed them three to four inches into the loose soil down theoretically straight rows. There is not much involved in the process of planting garlic, but as the aroma of those delicious cloves waft in the air, the task is oh so pleasant!
In that one row, which is about five feet wide, four strips of garlic were planted about a foot apart. While I was planting the first strip, with my back literally up against the cow/chicken pasture fence, chickens constantly neared my activity out of curiosity. And the sun still shone brightly in the sky.
Garlic is such a wonderful, and somewhat unique plant. It is one of the few that gets seeded in the fall for a summer harvest. Theoretically, after seeding the cloves, in a week or two, green sprouts will break through the soil and grow until the hard frosts and full on freeze, but the growth of the plant has been started! Once the soil thaws and warms in the spring, the garlic plants revive and quickly grow into quite beautiful plants. While almost nothing else in the early spring garden shows sign of life, a green stand of garlic promises a wonderful July!
But of course, we are in the land of Idyllia, which means whatever can go wrong will. In our case, for that particularly warm day, nothing did go wrong. However, garlic, which is such a delicacy to humans, is also quite desired by other creatures that infiltrate the farm, especially groundhogs! Oh, how I hate those despicable creatures! And that was precisely why a row of German White garlic was being planted next to the cow/chicken pasture on R&R Farm. The chance of a groundhog attack is slim in that vicinity, but I have probably just jinxed that situation…
As my back was against the fence, slowly moving down the row sticking garlic cloves in the ground, I felt a presence behind me. I was squatted down in a baseball catcher’s position, and as I turned my head to investigate the presence, I found myself face to face with one of their larger cows, separated by a couple of inches… and a fence. What a startling site to see! The cow’s head was bent down toward the black crate I had the garlic in, apparently sniffing that powerful aroma. Do cows like garlic? Hmm. Perhaps groundhogs aren’t the only mammals to be worried about! But that is for a later day to investigate. (Kirk has assured me he will reinforce the fencing there to make sure he doesn’t wake up one day to his cows in the middle of the row chomping on fresh garlic!)
So, the day proceeded in quite a peaceful fashion. There was a time when the young kids, I believe the oldest of the two is seven, the other possibly three, decided that they wanted to help Mr. Tom plant the garlic. Kids really don’t know how to help, but the day was peaceful, the weather serene, so the “new helpers” did not get in the way… too much.
After planting the row, I drove back to Nev-R-Dun Farm to plant another garlic row there. The sun was descending in the sky at that point, and the temperature was falling as well. As birds skirted about the fringes of the field that should have been mowed months ago, and others sang from tall trees that surrounded the scene, the rest of the cloves were planted. The work was done.
It is sometimes strange when a day as peaceful and uneventful as that befalls the farm, for so many of the other days involve… an earthquake, hurricanes, tropical storms, groundhogs, rabbits, etc. But then the thought of having to leave the farm to find employment arises… No, I will take Idyllia, with all the hardships and unforeseen disasters. And on such an extremely peaceful, warm and sunny day in fall for planting garlic, I will drink up that day like the finest of wine. Some of the days in Idyllia ain’t half bad.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's This?

                The other day, I was over at my neighbor’s, R&R Farm, helping to clear some feed corn stalks from their vegetable garden. The intention was to till up the row nearest the cow and chicken pasture, then replant it in German White garlic for next year’s crop. It was somewhat cool, but the ground was dry enough, finally, to be able to till.
                Before continuing, it seems more description will help here. The area of their vegetable garden is a little over a hundred feet long, and it is bordered on one side by the aforementioned cow and chicken pasture, which is separated by metal fencing that keeps both the cows and the chickens on the other side of the fence, that is, in the pasture. Now, throughout the year, Jen and Kirk, the owners of R&R Farm, toss random vegetables and weeds into the pasture, where the cows or chickens eat up those scraps. As a result, when they see human activity in the vegetable garden they mosey on over to see if any goodies will be acomin’ their way.
                And mosey they do… at least the cows. The chickens tend to sprint. While I was pulling out those confounded dead corn stalks, in what seemed like only a couple of minutes, there were two cows up against the fence watching my activity. One minute there were none, then, multiple spectators. And not to forget the chickens, they were there too. They are always near. But anyway, there I was with dead corn stalks in my hand and animals looking for a treat only feet away. Surely they wouldn’t want a corn stalk, would they? On one of the stalks there was an ear of dried corn still attached, so I pulled it off, and thus my experiment began…
                The vast majority of beef cattle in this country are raised, at least the last portion of their lives, on CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These operations have as many as a thousand cattle that are penned in cramped lots of concrete, where they are fed mostly a diet of corn, (genetically modified, of course), so as to fatten them up as quickly as possible for slaughter. (If you would like to see how they operate, watch Food, Inc.) The situation of CAFOs is both cruel and very unusual punishment for the cattle, where they are fed an unnatural diet, in cramped and disgustingly unsanitary conditions. But without getting too much into that topic, suffice it to say, that that type of farming is completely opposite to the type of cattle raising on R&R Farm, where the cattle are raised on… grass!
                The reason I bring this up, is that on CAFOs, corn is the main, if not only, source of nourishment for the cattle. The thing is, corn is not part of a cow’s natural diet. Grasses are there natural diet. Some genius figured out that since corn growing is subsidized by the government, and is endless in supply, why waste land for cattle to pasture, when you can pen a thousand of them up and feed them all the wonderful subsidized corn they can eat, which does fatten them up, and since they are sold by the pound…  more cashola! And the cattle form of factory farming was born! Agriculture became more about money than health, for humans or the cattle…
                But enough on that. The issue for that particular day on R&R Farm, was that I was standing near a couple of cows patiently awaiting a treat, and I had an ear of feed corn, albeit not genetically modified, in my hand. So, I pulled back the husk to reveal the golden kernels and stuck it over the fence toward one of the cows. The cow did not seem to be too interested in what I had to offer. After a minute, I dropped it on the ground near it to return to work.
                After the ear of corn was on the ground, the cow bent and sniffed.  “What’s this?” was what it seemed to question. It brushed it with its nose, then stared at it for a while,… then slowly mosied away. I was actually stunned to witness that. For some reason, I thought the cow might actually lick the ear of corn, if not nibble on it. But no! Nothing doing! It had absolutely zero interest in that product which is almost exclusively fed to CAFO cattle. (Of course, the CAFO corn is genetically modified…)
                Before the cow had mosied too far away, I felt guilty about my experiment. The cow had anticipated some treat and all it was offered was junk food, that is, food to it that is junk. I saw a lambsquarter weed that was only about three feet tall, (they don’t grow the eight foot weed variety I produce on my farm), and pulled it from the ground. The cow saw my activity and paused. As I walked to the fence with the greenery, the cow approached. It sniffed what I offered, and promptly bit into it! Cows like lambsquarter!
                I am simply amazed to watch the different animals on R&R Farm when offered the different types of vegetation. If their senses tell them it is good, they devour it quickly. If the senses deem the food not desirable, they leave it alone. In a similar way that is how I grow my vegetables. Instead of concocting some formula for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to add to the soil for a certain crop, I add lots of organic compost, which has all kinds of healthy minerals in it… and let the plants decide what to eat!
                Over the year, I have watched and learned some of the animal’s dietary preferences. While pigs love wild chicory, especially the root, they will not touch bell peppers. And while cows like pig weed and lambsquarter, they won’t touch corn, unless, of course, they are confined in tight quarters with corn as the only option for food!
                And as for that lonely ear of corn abandoned on the grass of the pasture… fear not, for there were chickens on the pasture as well. Chickens love grain, especially corn!


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Watch Where You...

…land, stink bug! Those were the words I verbally spoke when a Brown Marmorated stink bug alighted on my t-shirt by my left shoulder over a month ago. It was not the first or only stink bug to land on one of my shoulders, nor the only type of bug, but, nonetheless, they all met the same fate.
                Now that it is October, and after experiencing an earthquake, hurricane and tropical storm, not that those natural occurrences have anything to do with the topic, it seems to be an appropriate time to report on the state of stink bugs on the farm, and in particular the Brown Marmorated stink bug.
                First off, there are many, many types of stink bugs in our region, and this year in particular, the rainbow display of varying types made their appearance in full force. From the normal brown variety, to the Southern green, to the Rough stink bug, to the vibrantly colored Harlequin stink bugs all made a solid appearance in 2011. They feasted on… everything! This year the populations were larger than normal, but it was by no means in epidemic proportions.
                Second, as for the Brown Marmorated variety, the non-native, Asian species, that was feared to defoliate the east coast… Okay, maybe that is going a bit far, but nonetheless, they were feared to appear in incredible numbers this year. I am only speaking of Nev-R-Dun Farm at this point, which has quite a healthy bird population, and bird’s love stink bugs… to eat that is, but while there were noticeable numbers of those beasts, those numbers were not significantly higher than in past years. In doors, now that is another situation entirely.
                So, after 20 weeks of harvest, the assessment is that stink bugs are relatively in check at the farm. For the most part, they thrive amongst weeds that act as protection from prey, such as birds, or me. Once weeds are removed, the numbers are significantly lower. In other words, weed removal needs to be improved. But that will have to wait until next year.
                But now back to the beginning of the entry. “Watch where you land, stink bug!” I have witnessed a couple of new things this year about stink bugs. The first I will come back to in a minute, but the second reflects upon the title of this entry. At least a half a dozen times this summer, I heard the familiar “buzz” sound of a stink bug draw near, and then witness that creature land on my shoulder! It did not happen only once. Through my scientific approach to all things natural, if events or situations repeat themselves, those events or situations are most likely not random. But why do they land on my shoulder? It is quite strange.
                Before I continue, at least a half a dozen other times this year, I witnessed the same situation with squash bugs. They too landed on my shoulder. Squash bugs are closely related to stink bugs, so, deduction would state that something with those particular type of bugs are attracted to a human’s shoulder. But perhaps it is only my shoulder that attracts them. (Don’t tell any of the Extension Office people. They’ll start wheeling me through every orchard on the East Coast hoping for a new means of extermination. Ugh, what a thought!) Perhaps also, it could have something to do with my wardrobe, which for the entire summer consists of a white t-shirt. Are they attracted to white?
                Oh so many questions arise, with little hope of drawing a significant conclusion at this time. Nonetheless, this strange trait of theirs has been noted. Perhaps in the future more conclusions will be drawn. As for now, I will return to the first new situation I witnessed about stink bugs this year. All but one of the stink bugs and squash bugs that landed on my t-shirt met a quick death through the use of TFF. (For those unfamiliar with TFF, that stands for “thumb and forefinger”, which is completely acceptable by organic standards.) The first stink bug to land on my shoulder this year met a different fate. Allow me to explain a little first.
                I have researched stink bugs many, many times over the years, and on more than a few occasions I read that a person should wear gloves when dealing with those creatures because they can burn a human’s skin. Preposterous! I have squished countless thousands of those things, and countless thousands of their kin the squash bugs. Burn the skin? Never! Whoever wrote that obviously does not know what they were talking about!
                Those were my thoughts before this year. In fact, to back up those thoughts, stink bugs are considered a delicacy in different areas of the earth… that is, a HUMAN delicacy. They are a bird delicacy everywhere! If dealing with those bugs caused irritation… how would the activity of eating them work? Something like hot peppers?… Ah… perhaps something just like that, but back to that first stink bug.
                Let’s say it was late July. It was hot, the sun was “beating” down, and the sound of a stink bug in flight neared. My activity was that of weeding a row of beets, those delicious red and gold beets, that… Where was I? Oh yeah. Thoughts were aflutter as a stink bug landed just below my left shoulder on the white t-shirt I was wearing. Damn stink bugs, I thought, and without a moment’s hesitation, my right hand smashed the bug against my t-shirt, thus killing it instantly as its carcass fell to the dirt as future fertilizer. One less stink bug in the world. Hurrah! And then, a minute or so later, I felt a slight burning sensation just below the top of my left shoulder. Why that was exactly where I smashed that stink bug! I lifted my T-shirt to look under it, but saw nothing. However, later that night, as that slight burning sensation still lingered, there was a noticeable red spot on my skin, sort of like a grave stone for that dead stink bug. And that red spot remained visible for over a week!
                Could it be? Could it really be true that squashed stink bugs can cause skin irritation? Perhaps all those I scoffed at were correct in their assessment of stink bug goo. It burns! I would love to concretely deposit a law about stink bug innards causing skin irritation, but, alas, I only smashed one on my more delicate skin areas. I learned my lesson too quickly! But nonetheless, it does make sense about the skin irritation. And the reason why the TFF approach, that is the smashing of stink bugs between one’s fingers, does not cause skin irritation would be along the same line as chile peppers. They do not burn my fingers. Either through calluses or something else, I can pick and squish chile peppers without any sense of burning as a result. Others merely touch them and they feel their burn. So, perhaps, just perhaps it is true, stink bug innards can cause skin irritation. (If anyone wishes to do a test on themselves with this, please let me know your results.)
                But now back to the beginning again. After all, this entire entry to this point is completely superfluous to my initial intention. That intention was to alert the stink bugs, and squash bugs for that matter, that all landing zones in a garden are not necessarily safe places to alight, such as my t-shirt. Really, the whole point of this entry was to alert those damned stink bugs, “Hey, watch where you land!”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Supply and Demand

                There have been countless times in my life when I have witnessed a person talk about the economic  “theory” of “supply and demand” in absolute awe, as if standing before some famous idol or relic. Personally, I have never been so struck by such a simplistic analysis of economics, but then again, and I admit this quite freely, I have spent little time contemplating economics in general. I would more prefer to screw my thumb to the table for enjoyment, but I digress.
                Supply and demand… what is it? The answer is quite simplistic actually. Let’s take a bag of fresh, local organic spinach as the example. It all starts with the supply. If there is a small amount of fresh, local organic spinach available and there is great demand for that fresh, local organic spinach, the value of that fresh, local organic spinach raises. If there is a large amount of fresh, local organic spinach and low demand for that fresh, local organic spinach, the value of the fresh, local organic spinach lowers. It should be quite easy to figure out the other possibilities by deduction at this point.
                So where does that get us? More specifically, where does that get us in the world of fresh, local organic vegetable production? Nowhere. Here I shall elucidate a little. Over the ten years I have been producing organic vegetables in and selling to Carroll County, Maryland, the demand for the organic produce is quite large in comparison to what is actually produced. Now any true capitalist would be making “bank” selling that produce, as the saying goes, realizing the rule of “supply and demand”. The equation would look like this: small supply + large demand = “bank”. But that is not at all how it actually works. And before I move on, the possibility of an oversaturation of organic produce is almost non-existent. Therefore, the approach to pricing to follow is not one led by fear of future competition. (But here I seem to have added one form of complexity that “supply and demand” does not. I have digressed again.)
                My intent has always been to offer organic produce at prices similar to conventional produce in the stores, which as any successful organic farmer knows, is idiotic. However, that has always been my “intent”. The reality of farming organically has caused me to raise some prices to justify the extra difficulties involved. But, nonetheless, I have continued to try to offer my organic produce at a “fair” value to the “local” customer. The reason for this, mainly, is for the customer to realize what a great deal they are getting by purchasing from my local organic farm. For if they purchase directly from me, that relieves me from having to travel with the organic produce to far off places willing to pay the higher prices justified by the extra effort in farming organically, thus also incurring travel expenses. When taking into account all the factors of travel, etc., the lower prices charged for selling locally has tended to be worth it. And the customer gets produce day fresh, which will have much more flavor and last quite a while longer than anything that can be purchased in a store.
                “Supply and demand” will scoff at this approach, for sure. The point for “supply and demand” is to make the most money while the supply is small, before the competition arrives that will force the prices down due to the now greater supply. And it is precisely here where I come up upon the wall I refuse to scale. That wall needs to be destroyed. What wall is that? The wall of “supply and demand” when it comes to fresh, local organic produce! Oh, I realize that the words I write are quite blasphemous, at least to those who hold ideology to be more important than actual reality… but I have digressed yet again…
                Before I relay my thoughts on the previous paragraph, I will describe one example of “supply and demand” that occurred recently at the farmer’s market. And the example this time is… fresh, local organic spinach! How perfect! About a month or so ago, I harvested a few bags of organic spinach from Field 1. This was the result of an experiment to see if I could get spinach to grow during some of the hot months when spinach is definitely not available locally. To explain, spinach loves colder weather and abhors the heat. In the heat, seeds will not germinate and the plants, that is, if the seeds had actually sprouted, bolt, which means those plants immediately grow to produce seed stalks instead of the delicious leaves. However, as the result of my multiple years of experience growing organically, I suspected that I could trick the seeds to germinate in the heat of the summer, and then keep them somewhat cool in order to produce those delectable leaves. I had success, albeit very minimally. Nonetheless, that which was harvested was brought to the Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market to sell.
                So, there I was at the farmer’s market with fresh, local organic spinach, a product VERY much in demand, and absolutely for certain, I held the only supply. The demand I have known for many years, for customers constantly ask me whether I have spinach regardless of the month or season, and as soon as I set the bags out on the table, they tend to be purchased instantly. So, again, there I was with fresh, local organic spinach. What should I charge? I thought. And this was when I decided to test the law of  ”supply and demand”.
                When the first lady approached my stand, a long time customer of many, many years, she asked if I had anything new that week. “Spinach,” I replied. “Really?” Her interest was piqued, for she knew that spinach that time of year was… unheard of!  “How much?” she asked. “150 dollars.”
                It was quite a hearty laugh that followed that rather serious reply of mine. But why was that? Supply and demand dictates that since I had THE ONLY fresh, local organic spinach anywhere around, since the supply was so thin, and the demand was so incredibly great, $150 was surely not too great a sum to request for a product that would normally sell for $5.
                When the next customer approached the stand hearing that I had fresh, local organic spinach for sale, she laughed at the $150 price tag as well. Hmm. It seemed to be a trend. Why did that price evoke laughter? Then, Regina, who is the owner/baker of The Farmer’s Daughter, sent her very young son over to my booth to say she would like a bag and asked how much. Since her booth is just across the center aisle from mine, I could hear her son tell her the price. “I’m almost willing to pay that,” she stated. Progress! Of course, since Regina is a business woman, she gets the “supply and demand” rule, BUT, for her as well as the others mentioned, the price eventually settled upon was the normal $5. (As a small aside, my neighbor, Kirk, has suggested that if I had asked for $100 I probably would have gotten it. Perhaps I was a bit TOO greedy…)
                Alas, there goes my vacation to the… Riviera. Who am I kidding? I may as well say the Riviera is going to vacation at Nev-R-Dun Farm. There is an equal chance of that happening. (Digressions, digressions…)
                The point that I am attempting to make here is that when it comes to farming fresh, local organic produce, “supply and demand” should have nothing to do with the pricing. To take such an approach would be to sacrifice integrity, and one does not get into farming fresh, local organic produce if one does not stand by one’s integrity! The situation described above was, while true, as in it actually happened, it was all in jest… and the customer’s knew that. Those customers realize that I sell my produce for fair prices, and they also realize how hard I work to deliver those goods.
                That said, the prices that I ask for my fresh, local organic produce is actually not as random as it may sound at this point of this entry. The value placed upon those crops is a mathematical equation that takes into account all that goes into producing those crops, most of which is labor. Since I am also not one of the greedy types, I do not place the value of my actual physical labor at… a billion dollars, like many CEOs of colossal companies do for sitting behind desks, or perhaps golfing. No, such an approach… to food is ludicrous. And yet, somehow, those CEOs of Big-Agriculture still make those billions even from the cheap produce found on supermarket shelves!
                Ah, but I do not want to get into all of that. The stand that I wish to make, that is to disintegrate that looming wall of “supply and demand” in regards to fresh, local organic produce is to simply state, that all I ask is for the customer to pay me for that produce’s actual worth, as in, to pay for the effort that went into producing it. And this is where “supply and demand” comes in. If it is mid-August, and tomatoes are stacked high on every farmer’s table at the market, don’t expect for the value of the tomatoes I have to sell to diminish due to a burgeoning supply. It still takes the same amount of effort to produce those tomatoes. Tomatoes are a perfect example of where “supply and demand” can kill a farmer’s efforts. And we farmers must stand united in our approach to this situation. Instead of lowering prices to “get rid” of excess tomatoes, stand proud, and sell those tomatoes for what they cost you to produce them! Food, especially fresh, local organic produce should not be subjected to such silly whims as “supply and demand”. It takes too much effort!
Finally, if “supply and demand” truly dictated the value of tomatoes this year at the market, when a hurricane, followed by a relentless tropical storm, followed by extremely low temperatures for the end of summer/beginning of fall fell upon the local farms, the price for a fresh, local organic tomato… if you could find one… would surely be $150!