Monday, September 30, 2013

Picnic at the Farm

Here are some pictures from our member potluck!  We had a great time--hope to see you all next time!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Road Trip!

Farmer Jeremy talks up organic farming at Farm Aid 

Over the weekend, Farmer Jeremy and I took at field trip to Saratoga Springs, NY. While we didn’t have the chance to visit any farms, we spent time with thousands of farmers, farm advocates. . . and rock stars. Farm Aid 2013 was a sensory overload, with 25,000 concertgoers, a ridiculous number of beer vendors, giant pixilated screens, a rainstorm, and some excellent tunes.

Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp started Farm Aid in 1985 in response to the farm crisis. At the time, farm foreclosures were epidemic. Now, after 28 years, these musicians (now joined by Dave Matthews) put on a benefit show each year, and Farm Aid helps to fund and coordinate a variety of farming organizations.

In 1985, as a suburban teenager, I heard about Farm Aid and imagined that farmers were all Midwestern white men, with faded wives, like Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. I saw those folks at the concert (as of 2007, only 14% of farm primary operators were women). Much of New York state is more Midwest than Midtown – I know this first-hand, having grown up in Rochester. The big-screen images on the main stage reinforced the American archetype of farm: round hay bales dotting flat country, sunflowers, a silo next to a red barn, Holstein cows crossing a lonely road, a John Deere tractor.

Farms and farmers encompass much more than this stock image. At the concert, I also met young farmers, a Cornell Ag Extension agent dressed as a carrot, a sparkle-eyed woman with a plan to strengthen urban-rural connections in New York called “Milk Not Jails.” I saw these groups from differing fields talking about their shared passion for family farms. I paid $2 for a concert-priced NY state apple at a stand next to the corporate beer stalls. I read Neil Young’s press statement connecting how we farm with exacerbating or mitigating climate change.

Farm Aid supports many organizations who work to strengthen family farms, and who advocate and build support for local and organic food. For those who wanted to know more, a tent full of organizations advocating for farmers had the chance to share their passion with the crowd. Jeremy was there to talk up the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), as a farmer and board member. He spoke with people from traditional family farms who were considering a transition to organic farming, as well people who already farm or garden organically.  OFRF supports research on organic farming methods, as well as pro-organic policies in Washington, and other efforts to advance organic farming in the nation.   

At 6pm, the booths packed up and it was time to join the throngs for the big party. It was fun, though we didn’t last to the concert’s end. Willie Nelson, age 80, came on well past Jeremy’s farmer bedtime.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunshine Power on the Farm

As our swiftly tilting planet zooms from summer solstice toward autumnal equinox, I increasingly appreciate the light and warmth of our sun. I’ve been reflecting on this most basic of forces and how we make the most of it at Simple Gifts Farm.

The greenhouse effect, in the original sense
Happy plants in one of our hoophouses
The greenhouse effect has a negative connotation, when used in the context of gases in the earth’s atmosphere absorbing and scattering thermal energy, thus allowing the earth’s CO2-enriched atmosphere to hold extra heat. However, using the greenhouse effect in its original sense is critical to powering a local food system. Short wavelength light energy passes easily through the hoophouse plastic, but once converted to longer-wavelength heat energy, reduced airflow inside the structure holds in the warmth. Our array of hoophouses, caterpillar tunnels and greenhouses allow us to extend the growing season. At 42 degrees North, we receive enough sunlight for plants to grow for about 10 months of the year, but heat is more limited. Given protection from the cold, we can harvest some crops year-round. We carefully plan fall hoophouse plantings to take into account slowing growth into late autumn, and very little growth in the dark days of December and January (which Eliot Coleman poetically calls “The Persephone Months”).

As a side note, the ability to keep plant foliage dry and control the amount of water the plants receive is also really important. In a wet summer with high disease pressure, like this one, this is possibly an even bigger advantage than extending the warm season.

Photovoltaic and solar thermal
Our farm is not a closed energy system, and some of the largest energy inputs are used to power our electricity needs. In 2010, we installed a 9.8 kilowatt array on the share barn roof. This supplies approximately 60% of our power needs.

We also have a solar hot-water system that supplements the heat in the greenhouse.  During this time of year, we are trying to store some heat in hot-water barrels that we can draw on during the colder months.  In January, the level of heat from the solar system is small, but we circulate that warmer water through a radiant heat system so that the heat goes right to the plant roots. By March, the days will be longer and we will be starting our first seedlings of 2014, so we need more heat to get those seeds to germinate and grow.  At that point, the solar hot-water system will provide a significant supplement to our wood-pellet boiler,

This intricate biochemical dance of photons, water, electrons, chlorophyll, and Rubisco is Nature’s true alchemy. The crop plants of the farm make their own food, given sunshine and water. Pasture-raised cows are one step removed from these producers. Need a photosynthesis review? Check out this rap!

 Techno-geek bonus!
In reviewing my facts on photosynthesis and photovoltaics, I came across some provocative lines of research into artificial photosynthesis. I’m a forest ecologist, and know that the wood and food, carbon removal from the atmosphere, beauty, and habitat provided by plants is something that we won’t trump in a lab. However, with the global energy and environmental pressures, an all of the above strategy may have a place for this approach.

Here are a couple of links if you’d like to find out more:
This article from Science magazine in 2011 received a fair bit of attention – here’s a popular write-up from Scientific American, and this article from February 2013 in Optics and Photonics News gives a nice overview of the overall effort.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Meet the Crew, Part III. Chris Link

My boys think Chris Link is a cowboy. He does wear a big hat sometimes, but is more likely to be found talking vegetables at the distribution barn or tinkering with a tractor than riding the open range.  I think Chris is a natural entrepreneur. Rather than a corporate business model, I mean this in the sense of a strong desire to create his own work that uses his mechanical skill, interest in improving work processes, and enjoyment of people.

Chris grew up in Salisbury, Maryland, home of mega-chicken grower Purdue. Monotonic corn and chickens dominated the farming landscape in this rural area. His family had a large garden, though, and he especially loved helping harvest produce, peaches and pecans on visits to his grandfather in South Carolina. He attended Clemson University there, and earned a BLA in architecture.

After some time working behind a computer for an architecture firm in Asheville, NC, he realized that this was not a sustainable life for him. Chris loves tinkering and fixing things and knew he felt better mentally and physically when he worked outdoors. He began to develop a passion for community health and food security, and was influenced by the writings of sustainable agriculture thinkers such as Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. When Salatin noted that farming involves a large measure of mechanical skill and effort, Chris began to wonder if agriculture might be a good career. He began volunteering at community gardens and CSA farms.

A couple of summers ago, he came to the annual NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference in Amherst, and was inspired by the farming models presented at the conference. He also (like so many of us!) found the area really appealing. So, when he decided to pursue a season-long apprenticeship, he looked to the Pioneer Valley.

At Simple Gifts Farm, he appreciates the diversity of the work in a day – from transplanting vegetables to tractor work to staffing the CSA distribution. He particularly enjoys interacting with the CSA members and others who come to the farm. He loves introducing the CSA model to a potential member, or introducing a new vegetable to a member. When I asked what his favorite vegetable is, he couldn’t chose just one. The sungold cherry tomatoes! The peas and beans! The Easter egg radishes were so beautiful! Onions and potatoes!

Chris also enjoys CSA distribution because finds satisfaction in seeing people pick up the great vegetables that took so much work and care to produce. For example, he remembers his least favorite job of the season – staking and stringing the tomatoes. The weather was hot, the rows seemingly endless. But – it did get done and tomato season is sweet.

He was surprised by how much he appreciates the animals of the farm. To him, they make the farm feel alive, and his days are more enjoyable because he sees the animals out there, enjoying life. The cows in particular are very calming.

After this season, Chris would like to begin his own farming project. The shape of this is yet to be determined, but he’d like to include elements of market gardening and education. His enthusiasm for growing, tinkering and people will serve him well as he creates a sustainable livelihood and community.

For all of us sustaining Simple Gifts Farm,

Monday, September 2, 2013

Farmer Dave ‘s Pasture Vision (first printed June 8, 2010)

Imagine the sun shining on a wide expanse of grass, clover, wildflowers and a few scattered shade trees, dotted with cows and calves quietly grazing. Later, the animals lay in the shade and ruminate. A pasture – classically pastoral. If you are lucky, you’ll see a calf newly born and hiding in the tall grass. The cow, finishing her grazing, moos her own particular “moo,” and the calf responds to his mom’s call, jumps up and gambols over to her. He hungrily head butts her udder, then nurses away with his tail wildly twitching, maybe with a few drops of milk dripping from his chin, while the cow contentedly swishes her tail and chews her cud.

The cow births her calf on the pasture, and the cow and her calf graze daily as the calf grows to maturity on nothing but what is eaten from that pasture. Ultimately they provide nutritious, delicious food for humans in a food production system that relies on natural processes and requires no petroleum or chemical inputs.

From the consumption end, the health benefits of grass fed beef are well documented. I also believe the beef tastes better and is better for you from an animal that is personally known and cared for by the farmer who raised it. Although not everyone eats beef, for those who do, pasture-raised beef can be part of a healthy diet. On land suitable for tillage, other farming systems can produce a lot more food from an area of land, but require more labor and external inputs and embody less potential resilience to changes in weather or climate.

The grazed pasture can be a sustainable ecosystem, becoming more productive over time, building – creating – soil by the nearly magical process of photosynthesis: the sun shining on the plants, the plants growing, using the minerals in the soil and the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen in the air above them. The diversity of perennial plants harbors a multitude of animal species – microorganisms, invertebrates, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals – vibrant and resilient. This is an idealized vision to be sure – perhaps the ultimate in sustainable food production. It is exciting to participate in and beautiful to watch unfold.

In most places, lots of careful management and a few compromises are needed to come close to this ideal. We need fences to carefully manage where the cows are, and more importantly where they are not – recovery between grazings is one key to the whole picture. We need the inputs of some salt and minerals from somewhere “out there.” We may also need some grass and clover seeds.

Around here, we need hay for the winter. Producing it uses some petroleum and big machines that take a lot of energy to manufacture and operate. With careful grazing management, we can graze tall standing grass through much of most winters, but we will always need hay for backup. One advantage of hay feeding is that the hay can be fed in a spot where the winter manure, with all its nutrients, can be captured, composted, and used to produce lots of vegetables.

The biggest input to pasture grazing farming may be the farmers’ time. Good grazing management takes time and attention. I am not sure whether this is a cost of a benefit. It is deeply fulfilling work for some of us.