Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Week 4 Newsletter

The wet weather has caused the vegetable farmers in the Northeast to go on a late blight alert. Late blight is the disease that caused the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. We experienced it firsthand in 2000 on our tomatoes. After the spores arrived (with a thunderstorm), it blackened the plants in a matter of days, transforming them into slimy, moldy skeletons as the mold consumed all the tissue. It is a disease feared by both organic and conventional farmers, because there is no cure once it has been detected. The only thing a grower can do is preventative treatment. We have been advised to spray moderate amounts of copper, though it is generally considered too mild of a treatment when the infestation level is high.

In last week’s letter I stated that many crop failures are human failures. In the spirit of that I will quote a variation on this by John Mitchell, an Irish political writer of the 1840s: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.” His observations were considered treason by the English and he was exiled to Bermuda. Two and a half million people starved to death because the landlords regarded the land as a source of income from which to extract as much money as possible. During the late 1840s, peasants were evicted from their properties and landlords burned down their modest cabins (shacks, really), to use the land for grazing and grains. While millions of people starved to death, food continued to be exported to England.

There are some lessons to be learned from this experience. Not unlike the new wave of young farmers, born and bred in the city, who venture into agriculture these days, the average Irish farmer leased a farm of one to five acres in size. We are in the middle of an enormous land transfer from active multi-generational farmers to wealthy landowners. Organizations like the Columbia Land Conservancy and the Open Space Institute recognize the need to create a link between these new landowners and farmers, understanding that there will only be a fruitful relationship when the two parties get along and there is an ironclad agreement describing mutually agreed-upon terms. There is an influx of city folks in the Hudson Valley in love with land, both rich and poor, and not only around here. A while ago, a young farmer in California wrote on a blog:

“Then there is the issue of land access. There is no doubt that the owner of our ranch is doing the best that she can, with what she has. But why are we still in a situation where the rich get to decide the best uses for land, while hard working, intelligent, compassionate, humble workers just do what we’re told? Most opportunities that I hear about for young farmers in this area involve farming for someone with land, and that someone is no doubt rich, and almost as likely, they KNOW NOTHING ABOUT FARMING. We get told to mow the lawn with a fossil-fueled machine, instead of having it grazed by sheep. We are told that floating row cover looks tacky, ‘can we not use it?’ ‘Well, maybe not, if you don’t mind grubs in your radishes’.
My point is this: the sustainable food system will never truly exist under the currently existing conditions around land ownership. It’s not just enough to create local markets for organic food. If we truly need 20,000,000 new small-scale farmers to make this thing work, then those millions of farmers need secure access to land. No matter how many well-intentioned ‘progressive’ rich people there are in the Bay Area who want to see a farm on their land, tenant farming, sharecropping, or—as they used to call it—‘serfdom’ isn’t going to cut it.” (By Antonio Roman-Alcalá of San Francisco)

While the land-loving city folks have little in common with the greedy English Counts of the 1840s, we need to encourage thinking outside the box. Antonio’s writing underscores the need for new ideas regarding land ownership. While Roxbury Farm served as a model in 2000 when we moved to new land, few have followed our lead. Our transition was largely made possible by charitable gifts from the CSA members and the Open Space Institute. Simply stating that every farm needs 1,200 members and an Open Space Institute isn’t going to cut it; there isn’t enough gift money earmarked for land preservation. Something fundamental has to change in our approach to land ownership, something far more radical than philanthropy. We sympathize with Antonio in his hope that something better is still to come. ~Jean-Paul

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Week 3 Newsletter

The weather appears to form a pattern. Reviewing last year’s newsletter by Jody was titled; ”Gone to Hail”. The hail hit again, except this time it spared Roxbury Farm. Little Seed Gardens, Golden Harvest, and Yonder Farm (only a few miles north of us) were hit hard, losing a majority of their crops. Yonder Farms supplies the farm with fruit and this is the fourth year that they will apply for crop insurance for their apples. There is a bittersweet side to this as one consequence is a drastic reduction of their spraying regime. Damage from hail is mostly cosmetic but the global market excludes any fruit that shows a blemish. For four years we have been able to purchase “low spray” fruit not by design but by default.

The sudden wet weather has changed everything on the farm. While only a few weeks ago we were occupied with irrigation and haymaking; now we deal with muddy harvest conditions, and the challenge of staying on schedule with the succession plantings. Each vegetable is seeded in successions to ensure a steady supply and optimum quality. Some folks believe that having a CSA is less demanding as it reduces the risk to the farmer. I don’t agree; we feel a tremendous pressure to ensure that every week we have a great share to deliver. Once we have the down payment in our hands we have made a promise to you. If your main outlet is a farmers’ market and you lose a lettuce planting or two, you miss a few sales. But as a CSA you can’t afford to miss any succession or experience any crop failures because your members put their trust in you.

We all understand that the members share in the risk of any possible catastrophe like hail, flooding, or windstorm. But notwithstanding those acts of God, farmers have a lot of influence in the outcome of a crop. Most crop failures on farms are still human failures. Sometimes it is a matter of poor planning; planting parsnips in a weedy field whereby the weeds become twice as tall as the seeded down parsnips, or planting a crop like broccoli that requires a lot of nitrogen in a low fertility field. The other most common mistake was pointed out to me many years ago by my friend and colleague, John Peterson of Angelic Organics.

The irony of it all is that I was confronted by John during a session I taught to other CSA farmers about equipment. I explained to the group the methodology of properly sizing your equipment to the scale of your operation. This can be a relatively academic exercise. John became very agitated with the exercise and at the peak of his frustration screamed out: “This is wrong, you need to take these numbers and multiply them by at least two”. “But John, not too many people can afford that” I replied. “It is more expensive to undersize your equipment” was his final word on it as he continued to sulk during the remainder of my presentation. While John has a real love relationship with his farm equipment (read: Farmer John on: “Glitter and Grease”) he is also rational and in retrospect I had to admit he was correct. The crop losses that were due to equipment breakdown or inability to get the work done during small windows of opportunity changed my perspective. Collecting the many pieces of highly specialized equipment (you won’t find many pieces of our equipment on the local equipment dealer’s lot) took many years and a lot of research to collect. When John visited Roxbury Farm last year I accomplished something I never dreamt would happen; he not only approved our choice of equipment, he was almost envious.

Last week was one of those weeks where this foresight paid off. We only had one day to put all our plants and seed for the week in the ground and to plow up ground for future succession plantings. Unfortunately that day was on a Wednesday; our busiest harvest day of the week. That day showed us that people are still the most important resource as the majority of the harvesting (even on a large scale) is done by hand. Our crew of nine, with exceptional focus harvested and washed 400 bunches each of turnips, radishes, broccoli rabe, and scallions, 400 lbs each of salad mix and braising mix, 400 heads each of lettuce and bok choi, 2400 scapes, several boxes each of cilantro, parsley and sorrel, and they were able to harvest the daily picking of summer squash and zucchini. In addition to that, we were able to mulch about two acres of plasti-culture, stale seed bed 2 acres of raised beds, plant 6000 sweet corn plants, 3000 broccoli plants, 3000 Brussels sprouts plants, seed down 7000 row foot each of salad and braising mix, cultivate two acres of potatoes, four acres of sweet corn, and work up about four acres of new vegetable land. Yes, it was kind of late when we were done that day but when it poured buckets of rain again the following morning we knew none of our efforts had been in vain.

The common mistake most CSA farmers make is that they penny-pinch when purchasing equipment. While equipment is very costly, a breakdown can be far costlier as a farmer potentially loses the opportunity to get his crops in the ground. What I learned from Farmer John is that it is better to oversize your equipment as it allows you to take advantage of small windows of opportunity. One of those small windows was last Wednesday. With John Middleton keeping the equipment in tip top shape, with a harvest crew moving in high gear, and the foresight that you can hardly have too many pieces of equipment around, we have a little more peace of mind. That, and headlights on the tractors. ~Jean-Paul

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pick Your Own Strawberry Farms

Thompson Finch Farm: Ancram, NY (southern Columbia County) Organic Pick Your Own Strawberries and Raspberries and a Farm Stand. Always call ahead to check on picking conditions at 518-329-7578. For directions visit their website at http://www.thompsonfinch.com/.

Indian Ladder Farms: Altamont, NY Pick Your Own Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, and Apples and a Farm Stand. Call ahead at (866) 640-PICK. For directions visit their website at http://www.indianladderfarms.com/.

Stone Ridge Orchard, near New Paltz, NY Sustainably Grown Pick Your Own Strawberries, Pear, and Apples and a Farm Stand. Call ahead 845-687-4379 or visit their website at http://www.stoneridgeorchard.com/

Samascott Orchards, Kinderhook, NY Pick Your Own Strawberries, Blueberries, and Sour Cherries. Call ahead at 518-758-7224 or visit their website at http://www.samascott.com/.

Yonder Farms, Valatie, NY Pick Your Own Strawberries. Open most weekends during strawberry season. Roadside stand is on Route 9 just north of Valatie.

The Berry Farm, Kinderhook, NY Pick Your Own Strawberries and Blueberries and a Farm Store. Call for information at 518-392-4609

Week 2 Newsletter

So far, the weather has been great. Temperatures have been balmy and we’ve only had a few days that reached into the upper eighties or lower nineties. While April was an extremely dry month for us (hardly any precipitation) and May moderately dry, June has brought quite a few welcome showers. The dry weather in late May and early June allowed for great field conditions to plow and plant and to bale up most of our straw and first cutting of hay. Finishing the first cutting before the first vegetable delivery greatly reduces the stress on the farm. Most of the hay is sold to a local beef farm, some of it is stored for winter use for our sheep, and the rest is saved to use as mulch in the vegetable fields. We grow hay not only for the animals: it is an integral part of the farm.

The farm is about 300 acres, about 90 of which are devoted to vegetable crop production, 100 to hay, and about 50 to permanent pasture. To maintain fertility on the vegetable land, we import compost and plow under a significant amount of green manure. Green manure is basically a crop that is specifically grown to be plowed under in order to provide fertility to what we call a cash crop (a crop that is exported off the farm). On other farms, sorghum, buckwheat, soybeans, oats, barley, rye, field-peas, red clover, crimson clover, and ladino clover are strictly grown for feed or sold off the farm. At Roxbury Farm you will see those crops cultivated (as well as chickling vetch, hairy vetch, sweet clover, and bell beans) but strictly to help build soil fertility. True, we don’t plow under all of our green manure crops – the rye and hairy vetch are cut and pressed into 900-pound, round bales.

All of our green-manure mixes consist of a member of the grass family combined with a legume. Cereals, such as rye, contain a lot of lignin, which brings stable carbon into the farm, while the legumes, through their symbiotic relationship with rhizobia, help fix nitrogen. Like the green-manure plots, hayfields consist of a mixture of grasses and legumes. That particular mix is nature’s way of being most efficient.

About seven acres of vegetables are planted in non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms), corn-based mulch. At first glance, the product looks just like regular plastic, but over time it behaves quite differently. At the end of the season, it breaks down and becomes part of the soil. The dark black surface of the plastic absorbs heat more readily than bare soil, holds the moisture, and helps maintain the organic matter level. Naturally available nitrogen and phosphorus are better available in relatively warm soil. Cold soils do not allow naturally occurring nitrogen and phosphorus to become available to plants, which greatly reduces our ability to produce early crops in the spring. So we fool nature with the use of black
plastic and row covers by increasing the temperature of the soil.

Weeds in between the plastic can be a great problem, as the wheel tracks do not get the proper shade needed to suppress weed pressure. This can be a real dilemma; we space crops such as peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, etc., widely enough to increase air flow and light, but all that light allows weeds to continue to germinate. Once the peppers or tomatoes reach a certain height, we can no longer cultivate the wheel tracks with our tractors. Before you know it, you have a jungle in between the vegetable rows competing with the vegetables for light and nutrients, and creating moist conditions that induce plant diseases.

Conventional growers use an herbicide in between the plastic while organic growers generally despair and seek their cleanest ground for plasti-culture. It is therefore a myth that organic growers use plastic mulch as a form of weed control; yes, it is very effective around the plant, but it creates a huge problem in between the beds. We have experimented with all sorts of solutions, including the seeding down of annual rye grass and Dutch white clover. The thinking is that providing shade by growing another low-growing crop will reduce germination of new weed seeds. This is called living mulch, as opposed to dead mulch like straw, hay, or woodchips.
The suppression works well, except in wet years when the grass and or clover become so vigorous that they become a problem too. Lately, we have switched over completely to the application of dead mulch. At first, we bought in straw bales from a local grower. When that became cost prohibitive (about $1,500 an acre), we started growing our own rye straw. When we don’t make enough rye straw, we alternatively use an early first cutting of hay that is free of weed seeds. The hay mulch has proven to be a great alternative to the use of rye straw.
Last fall, we only had a few bales of rye straw left and Jody wanted to keep some in the barn for bedding for the sheep and pigs. As a result, the garlic was mulched partly with straw and mostly with grass-based hay. This spring, we were pleasantly surprised with the result: the garlic has never looked this healthy. While straw tends to steal nitrogen out of the soil in order to break down, the hay proved to be a source of nitrogen, creating lush growth while suppressing the weeds. The disadvantage is that it takes about twice as many bales to provide the same weed suppression as straw, because the hay tends to break down faster – but, on the other hand, we don’t have to apply any other fertilizer, because the hay feeds the crop.

Hay fields are self-sufficient in their need for nitrogen and carbon. Vegetables take a lot of nitrogen, while they generally exhaust the soil carbon. Removing the hay and applying it as mulch on the vegetables, along with the cultivation of green manures, greatly helps us to reduce our dependence on imported compost and other fertilizer. ~Jean-Paul

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Photos from the Farm

This spring we worked on updating our washing and packing areas. We poured cement for a new washing shed for the root washers. We will start on the walls and the roof soon. We also built a new completely washable wall in the washing and packing barn and installed new lights.

Week 1 Newsletter, June 8

Welcome to the 2009 season! We are excited for the first harvest after months of preparation. We have had a busy and productive spring and look forward to a great year.

Over the winter we received many concerned emails from you about food safety bills being debated in Congress. H.R. 875 was one that brought about the most controversy as we heard that the bill would outlaw organic farming and backyard gardening. We also heard that in order to grow greens we would soon have to plow up all of our grass strips and cut down the trees around the fields to prevent wildlife from coming into contact with our produce. We are supportive of stricter food safety guidelines, especially for the industrial sector of agriculture, but we were and are worried about how those laws could affect farms like ours. So, fearing the worst, we decided to educate ourselves on exactly what food safety guidelines and laws would mean for our farm.

In April, I attended a food safety workshop with four other organic farmers in our neighborhood and about 20 conventional farmers. Our regional Cornell Cooperative Vegetable Extension Agent, Chuck Bornt, organized the workshop to answer all of the questions that farmers were asking him. The food safety regulations, at this point, are only required by certain grocery store chains and large produce wholesalers and not the federal government. These regulations are called GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) Standards and are only concerned with microbial or chemical contamination of the produce. Some farmers’ markets in the Hudson Valley may also soon require GAP certification. There are many private institutions as well as the USDA that will certify your crops as GAP certified. Each crop a farmer grows needs to be individually inspected up to three times each season and the inspection costs $92 an hour plus driving to and from the farm. To be certified you need a written food safety plan that covers all aspects of harvesting and handling of the crops grown on a farm. A food safety plan is a good thing and most of the GAP guidelines are common sense and practical. At the workshop we had the chance to discuss our farming practices with GAP inspectors and food safety specialists. We will soon post ours on our website at www.roxburyfarm.com.

The five organic farms at the workshop posed unusual questions for the certifiers and experts. Such as, how do you feel about CSA members harvesting crops for the whole membership (i.e. when you come to a member workday to take part in the garlic, potato, sweet potato, or winter squash harvest)? They don’t like that idea as they see this as a huge risk for microbial contamination. We asked about written guidelines for incorporating animals into a farm. There aren’t any that address the needs of a farm to be more self sustaining with their fertility. One farmer asked about certifying a farm that grows 60 crops. Presently each crop would need to be certified individually. This is unpractical and unaffordable for most of the organic growers in our area. At this point there is no other alternative to the crop by crop inspection. This needs to be changed if farmers’ markets are going to require GAP certification or there won’t be any farmers at the market. The inspectors were open to a discussion about how we farm and said they will need to be educated about sustainable farming practices in order to certify our farms.

Our fears about the end of farming as we know it were unfounded (so far). There are no laws that require us to become GAP certified, although we do follow the guidelines that exist at this point. Educating ourselves about food safety helped us to make some changes on the farm. The food safety experts don’t want soil buildup in the packing barn. Our washing line for the greens, broccoli, peas, etc was in the same barn as the washing line for the root crops. They also want plastic walls that can be washed down. This spring we poured cement for a new washing shed for the root crop washers. We will begin construction on the roof and walls this week. We built a new wall in the washing and packing barn that is covered with white vinyl that is completely washable. We also installed new lighting in the barn that will allow us to do a better job of inspecting the produce. We hope these changes will result in a better product and at the same time has the benefit of a much more pleasant working environment.

We need to continue to be aware of what is going on with food safety legislation. We need to make sure that food safety experts and the lawmakers understand what it means to be sustainable and to look at a farm holistically. We need to make sure that they are just as concerned about the application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides as they are about compost and organic soil amendments. Our attention to food safety is not only to prevent microbial contamination. We are also concerned with growing food in a way that improves soil health, provides habitat for beneficial insects, rare plants, and other wildlife, protects water quality, and allows you to have a connection to the land and people that grow your food. We hope you will continue to let us know about your concerns and that we can all be part of the dialogue to improve not only food safety but the sustainability of agriculture in the U.S. ~Jody