Sunday, June 30, 2013

Meet the Farmers, Part 1

Dave and Jeremy, at The Land Institute back in 1994.
When Dave Tepfer and Jeremy Plotkin met on a frosty February night in Kansas, back in 1994, they had no inkling how intertwined their lives would become. Dave came from a graduate program in agricultural economics at Colorado State; Jeremy came from a liberal arts school in Indiana. Dave grew up on a family farm in rural Minnesota, learning to drive a tractor before age 10; Jeremy grew up in Brookline before his family set out to live a homestead-ish life in rural New York state, where his mom ran over the family car with their tractor. They came together for an internship program at The Land Institute, an agricultural education and research non-profit in Salina, Kansas, because they were both passionate about how agriculture in America could be done in a way that is sustainable for the land and for human culture. For many years, The Land Institute ran a year-long internship program for college graduates that involved readings and discussion, work to keep up the place and research projects to support the mission to develop a grain agriculture modeled on the mixed-species perennials of the native prairie. It was an intense program that forged some long-lasting relationships (note from the editor: I know, because I was there as an intern in 1993, then as junior staff-person in 1994, and that is where I met Jeremy also -- but that is another story!).

The intern group admired Dave for his thoughtful commentary on the readings, and his practical skills in areas such as fence-building. Jeremy’s unbounded enthusiasm for everything new, and good cheer brought good energy to the group. A tradition in the work-day of The Land Institute of rotating lunch preparation inspires our current Farm Lunch model, in which our apprentices take turns making a hearty lunch for the crew.

Dave and Jeremy shared memorable occasions, from the beautiful experience of sitting in a living room listening to Wendell Berry read aloud one of his short stories, to watching a thunderstorm roll in over the vast Kansas sky, to sometimes-absurd adventures. After that year, Jeremy (and Audrey) moved back to the Northeast, while Dave stayed at The Land Institute for a couple more years before he, too, moved to New England with Marci. Over time, we have become like family to one another. It was with much history, then, that Dave and Jeremy became partners in farming this land in 2006.

The year at The Land Institute gave Jeremy and Dave much of the theoretical footing on which our farm system is based. I think the mission statement of The Land Institute puts well our highest aspirations for Simple Gifts Farm:

“When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.”

Thank you once more for joining us in this life’s work.
All the best from Audrey (farm family & essay editor)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Meet the greenhouse structures part 2: Caterpillar Tunnels ( a rerun of our Spring Share Newsletter from April 18th 2013)

            We view our crop protection structures at Simple Gifts Farm as representing a pyramid of increasing levels of protection.  The more elaborate and permanent structures at the top of the pyramid get us through the coldest months of winter.  Two weeks ago, I talked about our low tunnels, which are the bottom of the pyramid for the winter months.  Today, I’m going to talk about the next step up the pyramid—caterpillar tunnels. 
            We bought and built our two caterpillars last fall with the help of a loan from Common Capital, a local business-support non-profit. These caterpillars are very low-tech greenhouses.  The main structure consists of a series of posts that are used for the top rail of a chain link fence.   There are benders available which can bend these fenceposts into a curve.  Two curved fenceposts are linked together to form a half-round.  Then we drove smaller posts into the ground every five feet(the hardest part of this construction project, which we expect to get a lot easier once the jackhammer we ordered arrives in the mail).  The half-rounds fit into the ground posts, and then secure a sheet of plastic on top with a zig-zag pattern of ropes. Within a day, we had two 300-foot long greenhouses constructed.  They are called caterpillars because they can follow the contours of the land rather than having to have a nice level spot for construction.  Here’s a picture of the tunnel soon after it was constructed last fall:

We built this tunnel over some crops that were planted last fall with our usual field planting equipment: kale, spinach, and salad lettuce.  We also planted in, later in the fall, some onion sets that we will harvest as scallions and some leftover seed garlic that we will be harvesting as green garlic.  In future years, we will use these structures to protect late fall plantings of things like head lettuce and baby bok choy for harvest in November and December, and then start new crops in the middle of the winter for spring harvest.  Here’s Jeremy in the tunnel last fall.  That’s the same kale that we are harvesting today on the right.

One of the beauties of these structures is their flexibility.  It takes some effort, but we can take them down and put them up somewhere else.  Yesterday we took down our caterpillars, leaving the spinach and scallions to fend for themselves (at this point, they can take the frosty nights we are experiencing with just a little bit of row cover to protect them.).  We will be re-building them to protect an early planting of cucumbers that will be getting planted today or tomorrow.  The early cucumbers we have planted in the past have been a welcome reintroduction to “solid food” in the early summer—this year we will have about 4 times the ground area in early cucumbers than we have had in previous years, due to our caterpillars!  Here’s a picture of the caterpillars’ deconstruction process from yesterday:

That nearest crop is the scallions, which should be coming to the share next week!

Of Broccoli, Cucumbers, Love and Spreadsheets

People often ask what we do all winter, perhaps imagining that farmers hibernate, or take a 2-month vacation. We do indeed ramp down the intensity of the labor, but winter is also when we put on our thinking caps and do our homework to build on our successes and near-misses to make the next growing season better.

This past winter, Farmers Dave and Jeremy did some helpful homework – in part, because they worked with a farm business planner to give some structure to their planning – and developed enterprise budgets for many of the component crops we grow. Not surprisingly, some crops produce better than others, and some crops are more labor-intensive than others. We have enough knowledge of this land now to put some site-specific numbers into these analyses, and learned a whole lot about which crops work well for us, which crops could be profitable with a bit more focused attention or change in technique, and which ones just don’t add up.

Over the course of the past several years, we have recorded pages of information on how many rows of each crop we planted, how much we harvested out of those plantings, how many people came to the CSA on a given day, how much lettuce they took, etc.  This year we used that data to generate some real numbers on the costs and yields of each crop we’ve grown.  This has helped us to develop a truer picture of which crops are the most profitable per acre.  Another way to think of this, if you are lefty enough to be uncomfortable with the term “profit” is  which crops help us get the best value and highest yields to you, our shareholders out of our limited land base and effort.

We are putting these analyses into practice on the farm this year in the form of some adjustments to our crop plantings. Cucumbers, potatoes, summer squash, and tomatoes are consistent winners for us in both the profit and taste categories, and we are expanding these plantings. We realized that with a bit more focused attention, we can increase our yield and profit on carrots and greens, and add some more diversity to our storage crops like rutabaga and parsnip. We had a near-disaster with our sweet pepper starts in the greenhouse this season, so will be growing about the same amount of these delicious vegetables this year, but we plan to expand this crop next year. On the other hand, some crops just don’t add up for our farm that has a limited land base. Broccoli and melons are two crops that we reluctantly decided to grow less this year. These two crops work better on a larger-scale, lower-labor farm model, as their yield per acre isn’t that high but on a larger acreage can be grown and harvested efficiently. Rather than trying to have a consistent supply of broccoli by putting in five plantings, we’ll be focusing our effort to get two plantings to do really well. Similarly, we’re planting one larger melon crop, rather than two.

If our marketing was to retail outlets, we would specialize more. With a CSA, we know that diversity is key, so our refinements are more about adjusting proportions. We also love to eat broccoli, and I think our children might just run away from home if we stopped growing watermelons. Wendell Berry advised, “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.” We are working to bring better balance between the things that we love and do compute and those that we do solely for love in the continuing adventure in our life of farming.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Meet Little John

Farmer Jeremy with Little John
We know that many young members and visitors at the farm have a particular interest in our tractors, and that perhaps many grown-ups do as well. So we thought you would like to be introduced to Little John, our new John Deere 6200 tractor. Yes, we do name our tractors, and even some of the trucks. Maybe we name them because the engines of these great machines are something akin to a heart, and maybe it is because these mechanical beasts require a fair amount of TLC to keep them running well.

Little John will be replacing Klementine, the big orange Kubota 5640 we’ve had for the last 2 ½ years. Now, Klementine is a good tractor and we know some children will miss her. She’ll make a great tractor for another farm, but we’ve realized that the Kubota doesn’t work for the row spacing we typically use in our planting beds.

The John Deere tractor is something of an American icon. Ask a kid to draw a tractor, and most would reach for the green and yellow crayons. Part of that is smart marketing, and part is that John Deere tractors are well-built machines. Our beloved tractor mentor, the late Arnie Voehringer of White Oak Farm & Farm Shop, was passionate about the classic two-cylinder John Deere tractors manufactured prior to 1960. With skill and care, these older tractors kept working, and their distinct putt-putt-putt-putt earned them the nickname “Johnny Poppers.” Our first tractor was a John Deere 1010 from 1961, one of the first of the 4-cylinder models. It is an integral part of our current tractor team; this year, we refitted its spacers for our 6-foot planting bed system.

Little John is a circa 1993 model, ridiculously old for a car, but in its prime for a tractor (also, unlike cars, tractors log hours of use rather than miles). We love that it is designed to handle our 6-foot row-spacing, has a bucket, can drive super-slow, and can handle heavy implements. Little John will be called on for many general farm tasks include plowing and transplanting. The super-slow creeper gear is especially helpful when transplanting.

The giant round red and yellow thing attached to the back right now is a bale shredder, which we’re using to chop up round hay bales and lay down a nice layer of mulch in many of our plantings. Paul and Amy from Sidehill Farm (the yogurt people) loaned us this great implement in exchange for some of our sausage (at the rate of one-half-pound of sausage per round bale shredded)! Check out the mulch in the you-pick flower beds. This machine saved us much time and back-ache from hand-spreading mulch, and will help us keep weeds under control.

Little John joins our tractor fleet, which also includes the John Deere 1010, Deutz 6206 (who even has a song, composed by Annie from our 2011 crew!), Farmall Cub, and Farmall 140, as well as the Kubota, which we are keeping for our spring planting rush and will be selling later this summer. While we ask that you not climb up on the tractors, you are always welcome to pay them a visit.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Two minutes in the front you-pick garden (clockwise):
 daisy, oregano, chive blossoms, marjoram
Two Minute Meditation in the Herb Garden
I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt beyond frazzled lately and stopping by the farm for produce sometimes feels like yet another chore. But, if I can convince myself to slow down for just two minutes, I always find something there that brings me into the joy of the moment. One of my favorite moments is in the you-pick herb gardens. Today, I waded out into the front you-pick area for oregano, marjoram, chives and thyme, and then headed past the peas (promising tasty pods soon!) for cilantro and dill. At home, a simple dinner was elevated with dill and chopped chive blossoms. Even plain pasta tossed with butter or olive oil is transformed with a generous sprinkle of fresh-picked herbs. The moment picking herbs extends to the kitchen and table.

To store fresh herbs for a few days, you can use a variety of methods. A particularly pretty way to enjoy your herbs is to trim the stems and place them in a cup (or vase) of cold water. Dill and cilantro do best stored in the refrigerator (loosely place a plastic bag over the top of the herbs). Sage, oregano, marjoram and mint (and basil, when it comes in) prefer to stay at room temperature. Or, wrap the herbs in a wet paper towel and store in a resealable bag in the crisper of the fridge. A clean, wet dish towel (rather than the paper and plastic) works too, as long as you check every couple of days to make sure the towel is still moist.  You can find out more from this article.

Back out in the front garden, I wonder about marjoram and oregano. What is the difference anyway? According to, “marjoram is oregano's calmer, sweeter fraternal twin. Oregano = zesty + peppery + lemony. Marjoram = delicate + floral + round.” Why not explore this yourself?  Stop by the front herb garden, and pick a sprig of oregano. Tear the leaf and take a sniff, and notice the piney, sharp aroma. Let that sink in, then choose a sprig of marjoram. This time, you might experience a mellow perfume. At home, try one or the other in a dish – they are often used interchangeably, but enjoy exploring the nuances.

Your CSA share includes a variety of you-pick crops. There are herbs throughout the season, and other crops as each comes into season. Right now, there are the strawberries, and we have peas, green beans, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, flowers and more growing in the you-pick fields. To find out what is available, check the big whiteboard on the wall in the distribution barn. That has a map of the various you-pick locations, what is ready now, and any limits on quantity. You are welcome to you-pick anytime. We encourage members to pick a little bit extra for those who are physically unable to get out and do their own picking. We find that this is can be a nice way to teach kids about community service. We hope you enjoy a moment – or many moments – exploring the you-pick gardens with all your senses.