A Dispatch From the Front

Boy, I just went a month and a half without a post. Shameful. Sackcloth and ashes. All I can say is things have been incredibly busy and I lost control. So, to get everyone up to date, here’s a quick recap of our last 90 days:

  • First, to do the initial prep on our new land we called in the cavalry (we’re farming two properties this year; one is a 1/4 acre at our home in downtown Longmont, the other is 2 1/4 acres, about 20 minutes away in Gunbarrel, and is new to us this year). We hired a very experienced local farmer named George to bring his big tractor and break the land. Prior to us the land had been untended weeds and grass for decades. So, to begin George brought his moldboard plow and flipped the soil 18-inches deep. This is good practice for new land that’s thick with weeds. The plow blades cut the weedy rhizome roots a feet and a half deep, giving us a big head-start on our cultivation. (The pictures in this post are of Milo in the field right after moldboarding.)  We then let the land sit for two weeks, to dry and germinate any weed seeds. Then George came back, this time with his cultipacker and knocked the clods down to seedbed size. Now we just need to compost, till in our beds, install the irrigation and plant it up. We don’t have a tractor yet but even if we did, we’d have hired George to do this custom tractor work for us. Small tractors can’t pull heavy enough implements to do a good job of primary tillage. Everyone I know who tried to do this themselves was disappointed with the results.

  • Next, we finished and submitted the application and paperwork for an Farm Service Administration (FSA) start-up loan. Our tiny farm model is super cheap compared to starting a large conventional farm, but the expenses can still be daunting (we’re budgeting $30-$60k). Also, it’s impossible to get a start-up loan through a traditional bank. We know because we had to go through the unpleasant process of getting rejected in order to qualify for the FSA. They just don’t understand the business model and so they either charge way too much or are just not interested. Thank goodness for the FSA. It’s a branch of the USDA dedicated to financially supporting American farmers. They make low interest loans under reasonable terms to growers of all sizes. Unfortunatly, as is the case anytime you deal with the government, the paperwork is legion. Things were especially difficult for us because this year, until last week when the federal government finally approved it’s budget, the FSA didn’t have any money to lend. That meant that despite our application being complete and approved we couldn’t close the deal. Things are looking up now that the federal government has funded itself. We’ll sign the papers tomorrow and then be able to move forward with things like an irrigation system, a market stand  and a small tractor. Continue reading A Dispatch From the Front

Tofu Green Curry and Healthy Cooking

Because I’m soft and lumpy after a winter of relative leisure and because I need to harden up quick if I’m going to make it through this farming season, I’m trying to eat a lot healthier. Not that I’ve ever eaten that badly. At the house we eat fresh, local and something between vegetarian and vegan. We cook everything from scratch and we know how to do it. I grew up cooking in restaurants. My wife came up in bakeries and delis. Which is to say, we know how to make real yummy food using lots of fat and salt. We know how to pair good food with good drink. We know how to bake bread and we know a few things about sweets. Not that any of this is inherently bad. Food is important and we certainly enjoy our meals around here. But at some point it becomes about health. It becomes about having the vigor to do the things I want to do. And it becomes a problem when I need to get (and stay) “farm-lean”.

“You can pay your farmer or you can pay your doctor.” As a natural foods grocer and a farmer I’ve been hearing this for years. But honestly, for a long time I didn’t really buy it. Sure, buy organic and avoid a lot of toxins. That made enough sense to devote a career to. But food as medicine? Really? I’ll turn my organic russets into some nice pomme frites, thank you. At least that’s how I felt until very recently.

Continue reading Tofu Green Curry and Healthy Cooking

And Away We Go!

Over the weekend we started planting out the basement grow room. And now, a couple days later, we have 1,200 plants happily germinating away. We start all our plants in soil blocks because they require no ag plastic and are much better for the plant (that’s what you’re seeing in the picture above).  So far we’ve started some kale, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce and onions. Over the next few days we’ll get on the peppers, cucumbers, many more tomatoes and all the things we need for our spring market season like broccoli, rapini and chard.

This year we did a lot of work to improve efficiency and streamline things in the grow room. We added a small cement mixer and created storage to keep all our ingredients in a single location. We’ve also more than tripled our storage space. Last year we could accommodate about 1,000 plants. This year we should be able to keep more than 3,500. There’s a lot to do. In fact, I need to get back to it right now.

Seed Season Pt. 2

Golden Beet Seed

Forget love and romance. Forget chocolate dipped berries and delicate, lacy things. This year, our Valentines Day was about dirt, seeds and early onset exhaustion. In short, it was about the farm. Valentines was the day we’d set to begin our farm season. Sure we’d been building, planning and doing farm projects since New Year’s. But as of the 14th we’re putting all those things on hold. From now through November we’re in full production mode.

Early season is about seeds and long hours in the seed room (which has tripled in size since last year). Over the next couple weeks we’ll be seeding out all the plants for our first succession. Things like kale, rapini, broccoli, onions, leeks and chard all get seeded early, either to be grown for the May markets (kale and rapini) or because they have very long seasons (onions and leeks).

Continue reading Seed Season Pt. 2

On New Land and Canada Thistle

First for our biggest news ever: Last month we agreed to at least a four year lease on four acres of Boulder County Open Space land. It’s about 20 minutes from our urban, home garden (which we’ll continue to work) and comes complete with a retention pond and good ditch rights. We’re shooting to use a total of two acres this season, up from a 1/4 acre last year. Next year, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll use it all, bringing us up to 4 1/4 acres. We’ll still be a tiny farm by any sane definition, but hopefully we’ll then be big enough to be sustainable.

We’re over the moon with our news. We’ve been debating how to expand for over a year and farmland isn’t easy to find around here. It’s next to impossible to buy. In Boulder County ag land sells for at least $100k/acre, often without water. That’s way too much to ever make the nut farming. Fortunately for us, the county manages 95,000 acres of open space, much of which it leases back to local growers. This is how we got our land; through a county lease. It’s extremely affordable, has water rights and the county is there to support us through its extension office. It’s a great way to start growing on a larger scale.

All that being said, standing on the land this morning, in the freezing cold, ankle deep in snow and mud carrying a full load of t-bars was more than a bit intimidating. Four acres is a lot of dirt.  The methods and tools we used on our urban 1/4 acre aren’t up to this challenge. We need to update our system.

Continue reading On New Land and Canada Thistle

Real Alfredo to End the Year

The year’s done! The holidays are done! It’s all over and I’m tired. So tonight I’m making Alfredo, the easiest and best pasta dish I know. Way back in our primordial darkness, before our milk was full of sugar and our meat was full of corn, before everything got all cluttered up with cream and roux, Alfredo was a simple sauce of butter, cheese and pasta water. That’s how I like to make it, simple and relaxing at the end of a frantic season.

Thanks for a great year.  We’re very grateful for all the kindness we’ve received. We’re very grateful for our family and all our friends, both old and new. Great luck to you and yours in 2011 and beyond!

Pasta Alfredo

No silly cream or roux here

ingredients

  • 1 lb pasta, fresh or dry
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 lb fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (really, nothing else will do)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

method

Cook pasta in vigorously boiling, well salted water. While pasta is cooking add the butter, pepper and some salt to a large mixing bowl. Spoon the finished pasta directly into the bowl and mix, melting the butter and combining the ingredients. Add the cheese and 1 1/2 cups of the pasta cooking water. Stir for a couple minutes until a creamy, velvet sauce forms.

Some interesting things about this recipe:
  • Pasta water is fantastic! It contains some residual starch that combines with the fat in the butter to thicken this sauce. The chemistry is similar to using a roux but it’s much more elegant.
  • Parmigiana-Reggiano is a a part-skim milk cheese and thus is apt to curdle when heated. To minimize this make sure the butter coats the noodles well. Fat  tempers part skim dairy items and helps prevent curdling.

Seed Season Pt. 1

Red Leaf Lettuce

We’re deep in December and I’m dreaming of seeds. Not a feet-up, coffee, waste the morning sort of dream. Because I’m still really busy, and because I also work in a natural foods grocery, and because the holiday business there is exhausting and consuming, I’m dreaming in fits. Yesterday, with the sun beaming in on yet another unseasonably warm morning, I contemplated lettuce over a hurried oatmeal breakfast. Today I considered carrots and fed peanut butter to the boy. Lately, shower time has been for tomatoes, broccoli and herbs.

The seed order is easily one of the most enjoyable tasks on a tiny farm. Seen from the middle of winter, next year is fresh and plump with potential. Last year’s mistakes are faded and all but forgotten. Next year’s disasters are no more than a twinkle in my bumbling eye. Looking forward everything is rosy and the seed order captures that. The seed order is our chance for an unblemished start, to get organized, to finally realize our potential.

Mache - My favorite winter green

Continue reading Seed Season Pt. 1

Potatoes and Latkes

I’m two weeks late with this post, just like I was with almost everything else on the farm this year. Maybe I should give it up, shutter the farm and start a defense contracting firm instead. Over-budget and behind schedule; my laxitude would probably play better there.

Potato latkes are as seasonally appropriate to December as peaches are to August or roast green chilies are to September. Religious tradition aside, it’s just a matter of food availability. For millennia potatoes have been among our staple storage crops. In the winter, from December through March, when it’s very difficult to grow fresh food, we’ve relied on them. We’ve pulled them from deep, dark root cellars, cooked them a thousand different ways and eaten. So,  it makes perfect sense that latkes would be at home in December. They were what was available.

Continue reading Potatoes and Latkes

On Food Safety and Cut Cabbage

You know it’s time to go when the conversation turns to food safety. Even without fantastically-horrible, emotionally-crippling stories of e-coli fatalities, it’s a troubling subject. At the very least, with all the associated cramping, vomiting and loose stool, it’s disgusting. Once, to earn a food safety certification for my job at the natural foods store I had to memorize, among other things,  the primary symptoms for all the major food borne infectious agents. We were taught a mnemonic for bacteria Shigella. It goes like this: “I Shigella-ed my pants with the bloody diarrhea”. The guy teaching the class warned we’d never forget it. He was right.

Unfortunately, as disturbing as food safety is, on both my tiny farm and at the grocery store, providing safe food is my primary responsibility. So, lately, with Congress working on the Food Safety Modernization Act (s.510), I’ve spent a lot of time considering food safety from my schizophrenic perspectives of farmer, grower and parent. And, as one might expect, I’m of divided mind.

Assuming most folks have better things to worry about than the minutia of food safety legislation, here’s a recap: Last week, the Food Safety Modernization Bill(s. 510) passed the Senate on a bi-partisan vote with the Tester amendment attached (though now the whole thing is stalled in the House over procedural issues). Broadly, S. 510 grants the FDA the power to mandate recalls, increases inspection frequency and requires food producers to have and enforce an internal food safety system (of the producers own design). The Tester amendment exempts small, local, direct-marketing growers and producers like me from the act.

At the natural foods store we do a lot of recalls (though, I’m told, many less than are done by conventional grocers). We do many more than ever make the news. And while generally the recalls are over freshness or labeling issues and not at all about food safety, the number is alarming. The other piece that shocks me is how, when there is a major food safety based recall, the notices can trickle in over many days. This is a bi-product of food produced on an industrial scale. For instance, an energy bar maker isn’t buying peanuts from a single grower or even from a co-op of growers. Instead they buy a concentrated peanut paste and peanut bits from a producer or distributor. When a recall happens, it can take a while to figure out where the big bucket of peanut-ish-ness came from. It can take much longer to unwind exactly which growers peanuts went into the bucket, because the producer likely mixed nuts from many sources. So, in my role as grocer, I believe we need to improve our food safety system. We need a regulatory structure to clean up this tracking and insure all concerned parties cooperate to get items pulled promptly. There can’t be potentially hazardous items still on the shelf many days after an ingredient was recalled.

As a small farmer I’m of very different mind. I believe food produced locally, on a small scale and directly marketed to be vastly safer than food produced conventionally on an industrial scale. I have a extensive knowledge of food safety and take my responsibility to provide safe food very seriously. External regulation wouldn’t make my food any safer. Additionally, if s.510 were to be ratified without the Tester Amendment it would cost small growers like me around $2,000 per year and would require an additional out-building to store all the requisite paperwork. $2,000/yr may not be a “death-blow” sum. It probably wouldn’t put me out of business. But on a small farm with thin margins it certainly would be painful. So, in my role as a market gardener, I think additional food safety regulation may do more harm than good and I have a hard time supporting it.

Finally, as a parent and eater of local food, I’m of yet a third mind. I believe in local, small scale food. I understand all the reasons why it’s safer than the conventional alternative and in general I trust it. I also know, selfishly and perhaps despicably, that if it’s my kid, then one sick kid is too many sick kids. And while all the local growers I know are fantastic, inspiring and almost selflessly devoted to their communities, I sometimes wonder about safety. It only takes one volunteer working one local farm’s harvest day wash station with a case of hepatitis to create a tragedy. I wonder if local farms have food safety plans. I wonder if they tell their people to stay home if they have GI-issues. Take something as simple as hand washing. How many small farms have a hand washing sink available for use between collecting eggs and harvesting lettuce? I don’t know the answer. I hope it’s all of them, but I’ve toured at least a couple farms where it wasn’t the case.

At market I wonder about food safety when I see growers selling half cabbage or cut melon. These are both potentially hazardous items. They are also illegal for farmers to offer in Colorado without a food service type health department license. That being said, I see them at market with some regularity. Sure the risk is small. I understand growers wanting to satisfy a customer. But to me it’s about more than that. A cantaloupe cut and held above 40-degrees is the perfect breading ground for bacteria. Growers need to respect this and handle their food accordingly.

In the end, needing to reconcile within myself these disparate opinions I’ve reached a conclusion. I believe industrial scale food producers need to be regulated so as to allow for more expeditious tracking of their products and their inputs. Small, local, directly-marketing producers ought not be subject to the same regulation. Their products and inputs are much easier to track and they impact far fewer people. However, small producers, like me, need to take personal responsibility for the safety of our food. We need to have food safety plans that address critical control points. We need to monitor these plans for compliance and we need to make them a priority for everyone working on the farm.

Over the last few years I know of three food borne illness outbreaks that occurred locally and involved small scale producers. In all three cases they could have been avoided had the farmer or processor been monitoring their operation more closely. Local food is fantastic. It’s intrinsically less risky than the industrially produced alternative. And it’s up to us as growers to keep it that way. One sick kid is too many period.

Brussels Sprout Washout

Brussels_stalk

We failed with brussels sprouts this year. We failed bad; like a teamster trying to squeak his 19-ft trailer under a 17-ft viaduct. It was a total disaster. Brussels were supposed to be our primary fall crop but now it’s mid-November and I don’t expect to harvest a single one. It’s a huge disappointment. And we aren’t alone. Almost everyone around here struggled with brussels this year. For most folks, us included, the problem was aphids. October was unusually warm, allowing aphids to survive later than normal. At the same time it was cold enough to chase off all the wasps and ladybugs – the aphids’ primary predators. Unconstrained, the aphids quickly overwhelmed our brussels. There was little we could do.

I love brussels, whether I can grow them or not. Luckily, a couple local growers were able to bring in a crop. (Need I mention they were the most experienced growers at our market?) They were successful while we were not, because they grew their brussels for an earlier harvest date. Like most local growers we shot for an October/November harvest, transplanting our starts in late July. This left us in the field for the October aphid apocalypse. The two successful and experienced growers harvested in September, missing the aphids completely. Well, live and learn. Fortunately, I was able to buy several pounds of fantastic, local brussels from them.

Brussels_cooking Continue reading Brussels Sprout Washout