Friday, May 6, 2016

Planting tomatoes on a gray May day

8:25 A.M. Tomatoes planted with the transplanter

9:40 A.M. Driving posts for the  caterpillar hoops
 (any kid can tell you, Jackhammers are cool!)

10:40 A.M. Bows start going up! 
Starting to look like a greenhouse now!


1:30 P.M. Pull the plastic out with the tractor

2:30 P.M. The plastic is on.

5 P.M. The ropes have been deployed to secure the plastic to the tunnel, the tomatoes are safe in their new home, and we can all go home!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What's new for 2016?

It's December now, and it's supposed to be winter! This is the time to curl up with a cozy computer and crunch numbers; somehow it's harder to chain myself to the computer  when it's 50 degrees and sunny, and especially when there is a puppy in the house!

Nonetheless, the first round of number crunching is done, and the results are in:  The value of the share this year was a stunning $793.84, even before factoring in the Pick-Your-Own crops! That is based on the amount of produce that left the share barn times our farmer's market prices (which are based on grocery store prices) divided by the number of shares.  If you had above-average attendance or if you took full advantage of the Pick-Your-Own crops, this fantastic value would be even better.  We gave out 6420 pounds of tomatoes, 3078 heads of lettuce, and 5200 pounds of salad greens this season.  With this first round of number crunching done, we are ready to announce our changes for the 2016 season.
What will change for the 2016 regular share?
I think that many of you will be happy to hear that the answer to this question is "Not much!"  By far the majority of our survey respondents said that they like the share just fine the way it is.  So our basic share format will stay the same.  The price will increase to $600, which is comparable to most of our neighboring CSA farms and which still amounts to a 24% discount over the retail value of the 2015 share even before factoring in the value of the PYO garden.  You can lock in the $525 share price if you sign up and pay a deposit before December 31st.  We are eliminating the large share as an option. It is not possible to calculate exactly how much produce the large share members get, but even estimating something less than double the value of the regular share, we just can't afford to give away something like $1200-1400 of produce for $800.  If you use a large share's worth of produce, you can purchase 2 regular shares.

The other thing that will change is that we will be building a new farm stand.  Once this is open, you will be able to come in to the farm stand any day of the week, and pick out a share-bag's worth of produce from a subset of the produce in the stand.  We will be supplementing our offerings with produce from other farms, so you don't need to worry about our running out on a given day; in fact, we hope to have a more consistent variety all the time.  The wheels seem to be turning slowly on this project, so we aren't able to promise when the stand will open, but we are currently hoping it will coincide with the start of the share season at the beginning of June.

What's new for 2016
We are offering 2 new ways to get a share in 2016.
1) The Flexible 10-week pass.  This allows you to purchase 10 share pickups for $285.  You can come in any time and fill up your bag, ten times during the season.  If you use up your 10 pickups, you can just get another pass; this option will start in June 2016 , but will extend into the winter next year.
2) The Pick-Your-Own pass for $200. This will allow people to get access to the PYO garden who don't want to commit to a whole share.  The PYO garden will include the same crops as in the past: strawberries, cherry tomatoes, beans, herbs, flowers, etc. This could be a great option for those who have their own garden but want to supplement or those who don't eat a whole share's worth of produce but really like to come and pick.
3) The PYO pass and the 10-week pass together are available for a discounted price of $400.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Meet the Farm Crew Part III: Erika Allen

Long-slanted afternoon light fills the Barkowski meadow as I walk out to meet Erika Allen last Friday afternoon. She drives up on the John Deere tractor, its bucket filled with fence posts.  It has been a long week for us humans, but the cows are excited to move to a new section of pasture, and a bovine chorus serenades us as we work and talk.

Discovering farming as a potential career saved Erika from a lifetime of lawyer jokes. I’m sure she would be a good lawyer: smart, personable, and ready to advocate hard for environmental good. After graduating from Appalachian State University in her home state of North Carolina, she worked for several years in the non-profit sector, doing grassroots campaign work for environmental and social justice issues. She took the LSAT and was working on applications when her best friend – who just began a farm apprenticeship in Puget Sound – started sending her photos. At the same time, Erika visited her grandparents’ farm in Ohio and got a glimpse into their life, looking at old family photos. The opportunity to work for the environment without spending all her daylight hours in an office beckoned, and soon Erika was off to her first apprenticeship on a small, diversified farm in Milbridge, Maine.

Simple Gifts Farm came highly recommended when Erika was searching for her next farm apprenticeship. She appreciates the opportunity to work at a somewhat larger scale and learn how to operate tractors and their implements. Working with livestock (as she pounds in fence-posts to anchor the electric fence around the cows’ eagerly anticipated new paddock) is another skill she is glad to learn. Sometimes the larger scale does overwhelm; she described how, earlier that day, the crew was weeding the big field of strawberries and finding it difficult to see the progress. However, the camaraderie of the crew helps everyone to power through such Sysiphean tasks, and eventually get the boulder to the top of the mountain (that is, get the weeds to stay out of the field. . . until they grow back).

Although the apprenticeship year wraps up at Thanksgiving, we are happy that Erika will be here over the winter and for next season. She is looking forward to a winter out of the slushy city; she recalls coming out in the snow to interview here last year and finding the farm-in-snow ‘majestic’ (I know, the snow last year was challenging, but it was beautiful!). Next year, she intends to focus on expanding the flower plantings at the farm. This is something we’ve long had on our list of things we’d like to do, and we like second-year apprentices to have an independent project that helps the farm.

Long-term, Erika would like to own or manage a farm that focuses on flower production. The family land in Ohio is a possibility, although it is fairly isolated from markets. Alternatively, Maine has a strong draw, as Erika really likes the ‘salty but kind’ people there. Wherever it is, there will be masses of fragrant peonies, her favorite flower. In the meantime, we are glad to have her as part of the work and community of Simple Gifts Farm.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The economics of the CSA share

At one time in the history of the CSA movement, the conception of what a CSA share meant was that the farmer makes a budget at the beginning of the year, divides it by the number of shareholders the land can support, and that is the price of the share.  The farm itself may be owned by a group of consumers who hire the farmer to manage the farm for them, or the consumers might contract with an existing farm to grow their vegetales for them. The customers have a "share" of whatever the farm produces; it's a nice and simple idea and the vision of a cooperative and mutually beneficial economic arrangement between eaters and growers.  This problem with this vision of how community-supported agriculture should work is that there have been few if any farms that actually structure their shares this way.

I worked on my first CSA farm in 1995.  By that time, what many farms were offering and calling a "CSA share" was really more like a subscription service than a real "share" of the farm's total harvest.  Customers pay at the beginning of the season for the promise of vegetables every week.  The inflow of cash early in the season is beneficial to the farmer, and the customers share some of the risk.  Many already-existing farms got into the CSA market as a way of diversifying their marketing. There were also a great deal of idealistic young farmers who saw a CSA as a great way to start a farm, and then found that it was harder than they thought to provide a steady stream of vegetables every week (some of those young farmers are in their forties now and are still going strong). This type of arrangement is great for both the farmer and the eater; there is a real connection between the two, and the risk-sharing and early payment are a real boon to the farmer.  But it does differ from the older conception of a consumer-driven Community-Supported-Agriculture.

At this time, there is a wide variety of share types ranging from the urban box share where the farm drops off a box of produce somewhere in the city to an online ordering system where you customize that box. Some farms maket purely through a CSA-type outlet, others mix CSA with farmer's market, restauant sales, or wholesale sales by the truckload. What all of these share types have in common is that they are a way for farmers to sell produce and not so much the cooperative relationship between farmers and their eaters that was at the heart of the original CSA vision.  What the farmer grows and puts in the share is a decision of the farmer based on what they can grow well and what they think their members want to eat.  And the price is based on supply and demand; what other farms in the area charge is more important than the actual cost of production.

Our own farm is a hybrid, as many small farms are.  When we came to North Amherst in 2006, we thought we would transition over time to do all of our marketing through CSA shares.  The share format made sense for a farm that had been successfully preserved by community effort.  Our original business plan called for us to grow to 400 or 500 shares and stop going to farmers market by the third year.  We tried for a couple of years to advertise our shares widely and wean ourselves from farmer's market, but were unable to attract more than our current level of 250 to 300 shares.  We found that with all of the great CSA farms in our area, people shop very judiciously, and our base of people who like what we do and who are in our neighborhood is somewhat fixed.   Our share price is constrained by the price other farms charge; and while we might be able to achieve some economies of scale and reduce our costs by selling to a larger base of CSA members, we haven't been able to increase that base.  We also have found that some of our loyal customers who shop at our stand at market try a share for a year or so, and then go back to shopping at market because that fits how they want to do things better.  So we have kept going to market, but our goal has always been to sell most of our produce at the farm.  It has always seemed silly to us, with 10,000 people who live within a mile of our farm, to pack everything up, drive 3 miles to the center of town, unload everything, sell for a little while, and then pack it all back up again to go home.

Our current project to build a farmstand on the site springs from our hope that we can bring together all of our marketing into a single unified effort.  We hope that if we pour all of our energy into that one effort that is accessible to more people, we can increase the total output of the farm, and achieve more of those economies of scale.  By increasing our marketing volume, we can also grow more of those crops which are more profitable for us and let other farmers specialize in things they do well. This doesn't mean we will be turning the farm into a monoculture, by the way.  We just might leave potatoes, for instance, to a larger farm who can afford the specialized equipment to really crank out potatoes more efficiently than we can.  We have started this year buying potatoes from Atlas Farm, who sells them more cheaply than we can grow them.  We are contributing in this way to increasing the efficiency of our local food system.  And even a larger farm like Atlas has many different crops and is rotating their land through a diverse cropping system.

We are excited about the potential for this new farm stand to increase how much of our community we reach, while also providing a more sustainable income for Dave, myself, and our crew.  And we haven't even started talking about phase 2, which would be starting a kitchen to cook some of our great food for you all to take home to eat!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Meet the Farm Crew Part 2: Maggie (Margaret Ranen)

Margaret Ranen is our home-grown apprentice. She attended Wildwood Elementary School and first visited Simple Gifts Farm as a high school senior. Ben Wells-Tolley (many of you probably remember him!) showed her around. Margaret and many of her Amherst friends have worked at farms, as the farm economy depends on gigajoules of young people’s energy. Her parents have patronized our stand at the Amherst Farmers’ Market for years, and when she staffs the CSA and market, she knows many of you.

She worked on the weeding crew at Brookfield Farm near her home through high school, and weeding – especially herbs and carrots – is still her favorite job. As an apprentice at Simple Gifts Farm, Margaret deeply appreciates the opportunity to learn every single day. For example, she notes, every apprentice has a particular crop to scout every Wednesday, when UMass Extension specialist Lisa McKeag visits to survey the farm for crop pests and disease (Margaret’s crop is potatoes, host to many interesting and annoying pests). She had also never driven a tractor before this year, and now knows that she loves tractor work. She operates the John Deere 5055, with which she uses the finger weeder (see here for more on this awesome implement) and the plastic layer. Experiencing the full farm system also has its surprises; she hadn’t considering how much time goes into processing the produce post-harvest – indeed, much time is spent at the wash station.

As we wade through bright stems of chard, I ask Margaret for her perspective on the growing up in Amherst.  She said that she really appreciated the abundance of the local agricultural scene.  She also has been disappointed in the lack of connections between the colleges and the local community.  She felt that from both sides.  As a youngster, there were many resources from the colleges that were inaccessible to her;  as a student at Hampshire, she felt that her and other students’ experiences suffered from the isolation from the local community.  She has been excited to see the real connections between Simple Gifts Farm and UMass students as we host classes and have a number of students who have shares at the farm.

Margaret is quick to catch on to all the new skills needed to navigate a farm season, and brings a good sense of humor along, too. In her spare time, she loves to sing and play guitar, on her own or with her family (her dad is local celebrity David Ranen, chorus director at ARMS). As for cooking up the farm’s bounty, beets are her favorite: “I love them so much.  Our beets are beautiful.” She loves them steamed, fried, shred in salads, baked . . . all the ways are good.

As I’m about to head in from the field to begin my own work day, Margaret has one more thing to say. “Something I really, really appreciate at this farm is that. . .  when you are in your 20s, you are always worrying about what is next. This job forces you to be in the moment.” Whatever does come next, we know Margaret will bring her quick wits and kindness to the task.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meet the Farm Crew Part I. Keith Neijstrom

It’s 7:30 a.m., and the farm crew is in full swing, picking peppers. Keith Neijstrom carefully plucks ripe peppers and places them in his bucket. It’s a far cry from his life a year ago, working as an Industrial Hygenist at a corporate environmental consulting firm in Syracuse, NY. It was a good job, but after seven years, he was ready to take a chance and try a new career. An apprenticeship was the natural way to give farming a try and to gain the knowledge needed to decide whether it is the next step for him.

Of all our apprentices, Keith stands out for how deeply he engages with the education offered. The day-to-day practice of farming is a rich learning experience; Keith takes this farther by documenting farming techniques and projects with photos and notes. He also reads agricultural books and bulletins in his spare time, and is a dedicated participant in the CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program; Simple Gifts is one of 17 farms that offer apprenticeships and take turns hosting farm tours and educational programs each season. He has experienced several apprenticeships – mainly while in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology – and he feels that the experience at Simple Gifts Farm has more general applications than others.

Overall, learning vegetable growing techniques is the most valuable thing he’s learned, says Keith. He also appreciates getting experience working with tractors and tractor-driven implements (his assigned tractor is the Farmall 140 that we use with the basket cultivator), and projects like building the new greenhouse. He enjoys the animals, too, particularly how excited they are when you come to feed them in the morning. Although the pigs are really selfish, “I don’t blame them for that,” he says.

By now, we’re in the caterpillar tunnel, harvesting tomatoes. The alkaloid smell of tomato plants fills the long archway filled with foliage and ripening fruits as the discussion turns to the farm community. I’ve noticed that farm-kid Rachel has developed a friendship with Keith. “I think she’s cool,” he agrees. He also particularly likes how the barn cats greet him early every day at morning meeting, and again when he returns home at the end of the day.

In his spare time, Keith enjoys tinkering – he is learning bicycle repair, and his creation “Picnic Table Man” greets the crew in the farmhouse yard. He also enjoys NFL football and movies. For cooking, he prefers hardy favorites like carrots and potatoes.

After this apprenticeship, Keith is torn between returning to environmental consulting and continuing the farming dream. Land in central New York is affordable, and with careful management, he thinks he could get started. Organic practices that prioritize soil health, and zero waste principals, would be guiding sustainability principles of his operation. Whatever his next steps are, we know they will be carefully considered. In the meantime, we are glad to have his steady presence at Simple Gifts Farm.

Monday, June 15, 2015

June crop report

As of June 15th, here's how things are looking in the crops department:

We usually get 3 good weeks of strawberry picking, with a not-so-great week on either end.  The crop is looking great so far, after the first good week.  Don't wait too long to get out and pick--the season always comes and goes so fast!

Cucumbers and squash:
We are just starting to get a trickle of cucumbers out of the hoophouse.  We brought a few pounds to market on Saturday (there just weren't enough to give every shareholder 1 cuke), but we are hoping to have enough to put them in the share soon.  Out in the field, the first few baby squash and zucchini are trickling in, which means that we might have full-size squash by the end of the week.

Onions and Garlic:
 We had a nice success with our early spring onions.  Those plants were started in flats last August, planted in the field last September, and then over-wintered under the cover of an old piece of greenhouse plastic.  They over-winter onions for spring harvest a lot in the South, but this is a new system for our latitude.  We hope you enjoyed them! They're all done now, and we will have scallions for a little while before we have some "superstar" white bulb onions coming in, probably by mid-July, to hold down the allium.  Our garlic is looking the best it has in several years. We had lost our garlic seeds a few years ago to an infestation of root knot nematode, and the varieties we bought in to replace them where just not big enough.  It looks like the seed we bought in last fall from Next Barn Over may be hitting the spot--the stems sure seem to be sizing up nicely!

We had another overwintering success with our carrots this year.  Many of you probably saw the little "low tunnels" in the fields off Pine Street that we had out there, buried in the snow, all winter.  There were some little tiny carrot seedlings in there that took off growing once things warmed up this spring.  There wasn't 100% survival, and there are a lot of weeds, but 4 long beds of somewhat sparse and weedy carrots should still be a lot of carrots!  If they are big enough, we'll start digging them this week.  Our first spring-planted carrots are also doing nicely--they have been weeded and thinned, and should be ready about 3 weeks after the overwintered carrots.

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant:

We have a bunch of blight-resistant varieties in the field this year, including some plums and cherries in the pick-your-own area.  After several years in a row of problems with late blight, we are trying resistant varieties.  We will also be keeping up with our organic disease control program, but we don't want to spray even the organic materials in the PYO section.  And with luck, maybe we won't have as wet a summer, which would hold the blight at bay.  But we should have a decent supply of tomatoes regardless.  We have a few peppers and eggplant in the hoophouse and in the field, too; those plants are looking very healthy and advanced. We are building a heated greenhouse this year, which will be used to produce some extra-early tomatoes--this time next year, we may be picking tomatoes!

Kale and Chard:

Our kale was hit by a wicked outbreak of Cabbage root maggot.  This little fly goes and lays its eggs at the base of cabbage-family plants.  When the eggs hatch, the maggots go and eat the plant roots!  We lost a whole planting of cabbage to the buggers (no roots, so the plants just wilted and died,) but the kale was just weakened.  We are sparingly picking leaves off of the kale plants, and hoping the second planting, which was planted after the influx of root maggot flies, will be a little more vigorous. We also had a big problem with an insect called leafminers in the chard, along with some plantings of spinach, and beets.  The leaf miner larvae burrow through the leaves of plants in that family (Chenopodia, for the botanically inclined).  They usually cause a little problem, but this year it was bad enough that we had to strip a bunch of bad leaves off of the chard and start over. We think that these two pests were partly worse this year because we didn't put row cover on those early greens because of the relatively warm weather.

 Both the salad lettuce and the head lettuce are fantastic this year!  We are getting just enough rain to keep it nice, and we are so pleased with the way our finger-weeder keeps the weeds down--we have lots of nice lettuce lined up, and haven't weeded it by hand at all!