A Collection of Farmers’ Passions and Projects

This time of year, I have the privilege to read about so many farmers’ hopes and dreams, and their thirst for education.  I read these testimonials as part of the NOFA-NY Winter Conference scholarship application decision-making process.  We read each application fully, multiple times with multiple criteria in mind.  We hear from people exploring the idea of farming to seasoned farmers who know how much farmer-to-farmer education means to their farm’s success.  In light of the approaching scholarship award deadline (Midnight on 12/1/14), I’d like to share a few quotes that remind me of the passion and projects that farmers share willingly, in hopes of receiving one of our scholarships.

When asked what you hoped to get out of attending the conference, you answers were along these lines:

“I have one season of farming under my belt. Most of what I have learned has been by trial and error. I hope to gain as much knowledge as I can from those with far more experience so I can make this upcoming season a success. I also hope to meet other farmers in my same situation to see what steps they have taken to get to where they are and the steps they plan to take to get them to where they want to be. Being a novice, my book is full of blank pages. I would like to start filling up those pages with useful information. There is so much I want to learn but do not know where to start. I thought this would be a good place!” -2013 applicant

“Being able to exchange ideas about different growing practices with other organic farmers. Specifically looking for a better cover crop rotation for my farm. Want to learn more about the expanded marketing venues available to us for local retail and wholesale sales. Want to learn more about saving our own seed. Want to learn more about how our farm can help new farmers become established.” -2014 applicant

It’s so interesting to find out what people identify as their short- and long-term goals in the moment they apply for a scholarship–these goals are in flux each year, so this really shows the mindset of a farmer.  These goals range from lifestyle aspirations to technical specifications:

“I would like to expand the farm to six acres and acquire another good market. Eventually I would like to install a commercial kitchen where my sister in law can make prepared meals for value added production. I am planning at least two more acres of fruit trees and small fruit to round out the farm stand. I am very curious about primocane raspberries in combination with movable high tunnels. Eventually, I would like to have a mixed marketing strategy with some direct sales and some wholesale accounts. I see no reason to have a vow of poverty with this life based on the farmers I have been exposed to.” -2013 applicant

“In the short term, I will continue to work on farms with vegetable CSAs, continue to gain machinery skills, attend workshops, CRAFTs, conferences, classes, etc. to learn and to meet other farmers. I am also looking for land to lease and potentially buy. On my future land, I will run a vegetable and herb farm that utilizes sustainable and organic agricultural practices while managing the space that is not cultivated for wildlife conservation.” -2014 applicant

“I want to raise Certified Organic pastured poultry including ducks, and Certified Organic berry crops. I want to work towards the absolute minimal use of fossil fuel inputs. On-farm composting of poultry manure, bedding and ecologically sound composting of poultry carcasses. I want to bring to the customer a healthy, earth-friendly, superior tasting product at a fair price. I want to maintain the natural aesthetic of my property, while moving towards farming as my full-time passion.” -2013 applicant

“[Our farm] is a small family operated fruit and vegetable farm. We sell our products at farmers markets and to farmers market vendors. This year we are leasing land across the road and expanding to offer a CSA harvest share. We are currently Certified Naturally Grown but hope to complete the organic certification process this year or next. We are still only field farming but hope to have infrastructure, such as a high tunnel or greenhouse, in a few years that will facilitate our desire to be year round farmers in upstate New York. We love farming and we love the farming life-growing healthy food for us and for others.” -2014 applicantLuke and Cara inspecting window

And while some things show up in almost every application (and are probably on every farmer’s mind), I love seeing the interesting combinations when we ask farmers what three topics they are most interested in learning about at the conference.  For the 2014 conference, that elicited these responses:

  • “farm business planning, soil science, compost”
  • “Food Safety, Cover Crops, Sustainable Financial Planning for the Farm”
  • “Small-scale farming, how to address food insecurity, and value-added production”
  • “grains, pigs, and business sense”

No, copying these answers won’t guarantee you a scholarship.  But I hope that reading these inspires any potential applicant and ALL our community to evaluate where they are, and where they’re going, and how farmer-to-farmer education can play a role in that.  Each attendee at our conference adds to its value, whether an eager learner, a presenter, a trade show participant, or someone involved behind the scenes with NOFA-NY.  You each contribute to the greatness of New York (and Northeast) organic agriculture when you open your ears and minds to information during workshops, when you fill pages of notebook paper with ideas and contact information, and when you bring your energy to the larger group for a few days each year.

YayForFarming_ErinBullock

No matter if you apply for a scholarship, I hope you participate in this year’s conference.  Here are a few things to remember:

Apply for a winter conference scholarship by 11:59pm EST on December 1st

You may contribute to our NOFA-NY scholarship funds when you register yourself for the conference!

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How My Locavore Breakfast Measures Changes in the Local Food System

I eat oatmeal almost every day, with fruit and yogurt.  Eating my breakfast on the second day of Locavore month, I had a moment of realization.  This was locally grown food, and it was not the struggle to source my oatmeal that it was on September 2nd, 2013 (and 2012 or 2011).    In years past, September meant an alternative porridge made from New York cornmeal or buckwheat groats; or cold pre-cooked wheat berries, barley or Freekeh bathed in yogurt and fruit (very cooling during a September heat wave).  Great as those breakfasts could be, I did always miss oats in September; it seemed a weird thing to give up in the spirit of going as local-foods as possible, because I knew oats were and are indeed grown in New York (I was always on the hunt for rolled NY oats in bulk, grabbing them when I could).  It’s not as though I was pining for the mangoes and bananas I ate when I lived in the tropics…So, what’s changed that’s made my breakfast more easy to source locally?  It’s not really about a shift in the amount of oats planted in New York (maybe a little shift, but not that much).  Rather, I can pinpoint two important factors, which affect every locavore in some way.

Nectarines thanks to K & S Bischoping Farm in Williamson, NY; Oats grown at Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY; Yogurt cultured in my apartment in Rochester, NY, from cows raised and grazed in East Meredith, NY and bottled by First Light Creamery

Nectarines thanks to K & S Bischoping Farm in Williamson, NY; Oats grown at Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY; Yogurt cultured in my apartment in Rochester, NY, from cows raised and grazed in East Meredith, NY and bottled by First Light Creamery

Factor 1.  Value-Added Production.  This is a broad group of processes and actions that turn today’s harvest into tomorrow’s shelved products.  It could be as simple as labeling and packaging a ready-to-go food, or as complex as a certified commercial scale processing of fruits into jams or milk into aged cheese.  Value-added production allows for farmers to offer more than a raw, fresh product; from the locavore’s perspective, value-added processing done by small-scale producers and artisans allows for eaters to have locally grown versions of the foods and products they regularly eat: from syrup to pancake mix, jam to bread, a lot of foods fall into the value-added product category.  These processes allow for products to be sold in a greater range of venues, from farm stands to grocery stores.  Because of value-added processing (specifically, farmers being able to roll the oats, and a local bakery packaging them for sale) I’m able to reliably find bags of organic, New York-grown oats in at least one supermarket in Rochester, NY as well as at several farmers’ markets.  My brain is happy because I’m able to reconcile my love of oats with my desire to support local organic farms; my mouth and belly definitely notice a difference in the sweet, fresh flavor of the oats.  This is not a food I just eat during locavore month (which would be something hard to source reliably or economically throughout the year).  This breakfast absolutely has a superior flavor and is now just as convenient for me to source as any alternative.

RFIT_ABCS of preserving2Behind the increased visibility and availability of many foods made with local ingredients, there is a bigger story.  Farmers choose to add value to a raw product, anticipating being able to sell it differently (at a different price, scale, venue or time of year).  Consumers pay a different price for that same amount of good produced at the farm, hence the term value-added, but it’s not necessarily easy for a small-scale producer or food artisan to make investments in the technology and marketing effort to get that product made (or simply packaged according to the end sellers’ requirements) and sold.  Last week, the USDA released its list of Value-Added Producer Grants for 2014.  I had not paid much attention to this grant in the past, but this year it really hit me because many of the farms I work with (and that NOFA-NY works with) were on the list of recipients.  The USDA funded investments for Ashlee Kleinhammer (North Country Creamery) to quickly label her yogurt containers (a major labor-saver); for hops processing for McCollum orchards (again, ensuring quality and labor efficiency) and to support marketing and processing support for many growers who want to produce and sell hard cider from their New York fruit.  This grant will boost producers across the US so they can sell more than a raw product, and put that product into markets that normally could not or would not accept a raw product.  Even without a grant, producers seek ways to add value to their raw products, giving those farmers sales opportunities beyond the growing/producing season, sometimes beyond the farmstand, and sometimes beyond a one-on-one relationship with a customer (which happens to be Factor 2 below).  They are able to use beautiful, descriptive labels to tell the story of their farm from shelves of an independent cheese shop or natural food store and reach customers who are quick to gravitate to a highly flavorful, thoughtfully crafted food or ingredient to include in their meals.

Factor 2. Direct Marketing.  Direct marketing and distribution opportunities bring farmers and their customers in direct contact, without many of the traditional buyers, brokers and sellers involved in large-scale movement of food from farm to tables.  Examples of direct marketing are Community-Supported Agriculture, farm stands (wherein the products sold at the stand are the farmer’s own), and farmers’ markets.  The direct marketing option often (not always) allows for the local eater to get to know farmers, to tell them what they’re looking for, to hear what’s going on at the farm, and put a face and a story behind the food on the table at home.  Extremely important to both producer and consumer, direct marketing ensures that the most possible money is going to the farmers because the food hasn’t been bought and re-sold by a number of middlemen.

garlic_DavidTuran_AtTheMarketThis direct from farm to consumer marketing works for farmers at a certain scale, but isn’t the only way that farmers choose to make their living (in other words, don’t read this as a directive to never buy local products sold outside of direct marketing channels).  While value-added can open up opportunities for farmers to reach consumers indirectly, direct marketing benefits farmers and consumers to similar heights; case in point: the fruit and yogurt on my oatmeal.  In my own fortunate situation of living in Finger Lakes/Western New York, there is never a week I’m without local fruit.  True, about half the year it’s apples and whatever fruits I froze or dried from the summer (I admit to eating out-of-location bananas and mangoes during the winter).  I am buying those apples from farmers during the winter, thanks to recently-established winter producers’ markets; I could go on for hours debating my favorite summer fruits, so ripe and tender because having traveled only a short distance from farm to the market, and I’m pretty sure the farmers near me used to think I was feeding a family of four on the amount I would purchase (nope, just me).  The milk that I turn into yogurt is available at farmers’ markets, too, though I have pre-paid the farmers who own the pasteurization and bottling facility (again, value-added products) for a weekly half gallon of cream-top grassfed milk along the lines of a vegetable Community Supported Agriculture share.  In short, I invest up front and hope for all to go as planned, but understand that product loss might happen and I’m not getting a refund in exchange for the fact that the farmer continues to farm.  I’m putting my grocery money directly to the farmers in these instances, receiving satisfaction and major flavor rewards.  This is not a challenge for me in the sense that I have to make myself do this.  It happens year-round, thanks to the people who recruit producers to sell directly to consumers.  Have you thanked your farmers’ market manager lately?  Put that on your to-do list (I just did).

Direct buying is an alternative grocery shopping option.  For example, I could buy yogurt under the label of Ithaca Milk Company, Maple Hill Creamery, Evans Farmhouse Creamery (also recipients of a Value-Added Producer Grant), or several other creameries that stock the shelves at stores in Rochester.  I’m fortunate that these brands were created, turning hormone-free, often grassfed milk into yogurt which I can reliably find and providing dairy farmers a way to transform their raw product for slightly longer shelf life and higher value.  Yet, I love to get my half gallon of creamy Jersey Cow milk from First Light Farm & Creamery (I’m one of the customers who “asked for it for years” thanks to regularly seeing the farmers at weekly markets) and devote part of it to yogurt and part of it to some other delicious cause (lately, that has been sherbet and ice cream).  Since I’m not allowed to keep a cow in Rochester, I’m glad that direct marketing (and in a pinch, local grocery stores partnering with farms) provides multiple chances for me to secure a half gallon of top-quality organic milk.

Farmers’ markets have rapidly increased in number, and many have increased in size/diversity of products, over the past few years.  Grants and incentives now make it possible for farmers to accept EBT (SNAP, WIC and other benefits programs) in New York, meaning that those beneficiaries can get to know farmers and flavorful foods.  CSA is an increasingly popular way for farmers to distribute their produce, with a rise in participation of local organizations and partnerships that help bridge the price for lower-income consumers.  Farmers receive their asking price, and customers enjoy quality, seasonal foods.

Yes, this whole blog entry started in a revelation that came to me over sleepy bowl of post-long-weekend breakfast porridge.  A lot has changed since my first official locavore challenge (though I’d been a local eater for years prior, my first challenge caused me to examine what more I could be doing as a locavore).  Locavores, what’s changed for you since you first discovered local eating?  Was it yesterday, last week, or last year?  Let’s all take our moments this month stop and enjoy the positive trends in our local food culture, and get out there and keep supporting the diverse and growing options for local food enjoyment!

Further reading:

Don’t (just) let your children grow up to be farmers.

It took me about a week to sit down to read the heavily-circulated New York Times Opinion piece by a Long Island farmer named Bren Smith, entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.”  I read many social media reactions and thought about what that title could possibly mean.  Farmers and farm supporters were not across-the-board siding with or against the opinions in the piece, so I was glad when someone handed me an actual paper copy of the piece.  I could mark it up, and read it undistracted by the many tasks of my job as Chief of Letting Children Be Farmers (also known as Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator).  I had been occupied each day of the week planning educational opportunities so more farmers would learn to be strong business owners, and contacting leaders of the current new farmer community with information they’d requested to further strengthen their skills as meat, vegetable, medicinal herb and dairy farmers.  I was not sure what I’d end up writing, but I wanted to highlight a few points of the article from my perspective of working nearly 4 years on this singular goal of getting more people to be on the path towards farming success (as they define it).  I’m leaving it a little raw and unedited, so forgive the stream of consciousness.  This is merely a blog post, after all, not a letter to the editor (many have been written in the past week).

First, that title.  Oh, that title.  As a lover of words and debate, I love the title.  It sparks interest, engages the reader to read more, and is subject to interpretation.  I actually agree with one interpretation.  I say, of course we shouldn’t let children grow up to be farmers.  We don’t merely let a child become a doctor, a lawyer, an electrician, an astronaut or a senator.  We nurture them.  Thus, we should HELP our children LEARN to be farmers if we want to eat.  A farmer who came from a family of farmers did so through an intention by the family.  If I (and many of my colleagues in the farm-education world) had my way, each family would spend a decade training the next generation in farm business management and allow the next generation time to explore farming practices away from the family farm.  We call this “Farm Succession Planning” and there are organizations and training programs for farmers on this topic.  Transfer of assets can happen over the course of a year, or through a signed legal document, but it’s generally agreed that there is indeed work to be done to keep family farms going, and that work is in transfer of management.  So, family farmers, don’t just let your children take over your established farm.  Teach them, guide them, encourage them to reach their potential as your farm’s next great leader and business owner.  Allow them to have major setbacks, absorb their costs of learning, and incubate them before the risk is entirely theirs.  The older generation can retire, and the younger can run the farm with a solid grounding in the history of the farm’s management and decision-making process, but with a new perspective for modern marketing and methods as well.

Farming is a career choice, and a viable one.  It is no accident. The majority of the aspiring and beginning farmers I work with are not family farmers.  They want to farm, and have chosen it.  I believe we can call our farmers as trained and professional as anyone else with a prefix or a suffix.  Shouldn’t we call them Farmer ____ as we’d call a priest Rev. _____?  Or, shouldn’t they sign their names, Mr. _____, Farmer as we’d call someone Mr. _______, Esq?

Many come to farm after other careers, or after an education in a different field. and so they come to it intentionally, planning to farm for some reason.  More often than not, I hear that my generation (I’m 29, college-educated and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer) wants work that allows them to add value to the world around them.  They want to improve a situation for others and live simply but healthily, and see farming (as well as craftsmenship and culinary trades) as a means to those goals.  Who are we to stop this group?  I’ll mention that we can’t be stopped, so why not join in supporting us?  Some will farm for a long time and see success in those goals.  To help, we (meaning the world of farmers, family members, supporters, politicians and advocates) must not let them slide into farm business ownership or management casually, without acknowledgment, without helping them find an education in production, business, marketing and self-care.  We must give them the chance to dabble and experience farming by providing healthy, safe, respected and affordable options for practical and academic education.  There are excellent farms that teach their motivated employees more than just the daily tasks that must be accomplished; these training farms provide an immersive experience so that aspiring farmers learn to make decisions about production, purchases, marketing and labor management.  There are “incubator farms” sprouting up that allow new farmers the opportunity to test their production and marketing skills in a somewhat risk-protected environment; equipment may be shared, land is available, and the farmer can make sales, invest in smaller purchases that can be taken with them, and grow their earnings before moving to independent farm ownership.  There are countless farmers who educate new farmers over the phone, through online forums, through consultation services and through mentorship programs.  This is the right way for our community of farmers to grow.  No mentor is about to give an unrealistic perspective on the realities of farming.  They have told me, time and time again, they don’t want the next generation to repeat mistakes.  They want farming to continue into the future.

Farmer mentorship in the field.

Farmer mentorship in the field.

We need more farms who don’t let “children” (which I use to mean “aspiring farmers” to reflect on the article’s title) grow up to become farmers.  We need more farms who enable children to learn to farm.  There can be more of these farms if we embrace the concept of training farmers in a professional manner.  Many of these “children” will decide farming is not their passion, as it is a hard and unpredictable life.  Given the right opportunity to test their interest, aspiring farmers can self-sort into the producers-for-life and the farm-supporters-for-life.  Increasingly, there are farm training programs which a family can encourage their high school senior to seek out and apply for.  The Sustainable Agriculture Education Association compiles a list of degree and non-degree programs that teach production and business, often rounding that degree out with an education in food justice or rural development issues and economics.  When the author of last week’s article talks about organizations and supporters, who better to grease those wheels and get farmers’ ideas moving than those who have tried out farming or who have studied it in a focused way?  I’ll count myself in that group.  I hold a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Cornell University (I focused heavily on sustainable agriculture and rural development issues), I have farmed and may farm again one day.   For now I’m involved in helping many many aspiring and new farmers get the education they need.  I refuse to let them grow up to become farmers.  I will fight so that anyone who might become a successful life-long farmer knows exactly their career pathway to that end, and that they are neither discouraged by their community nor underprepared for the challenges ahead.

We must not look the other way, lest aspiring farmers be fooled into thinking that farming is not a serious career and a serious decision.  Worse yet, if organizations do not intervene, our promising aspiring farmers and children may fail to find the right education or support program (government or otherwise) to catalyze their success.  To this end, I was confused by Farmer Smith’s words that farmers must start organizations to get what they want, and that their stories must be told.  Farmers must make use of organizations and support and tell them how more they can help.  These organizations are eligible for grants for which farmers are not eligible, in many cases.  They can do the work that can’t be done by farmers who want to be in the fields, producing food and selling it and enjoying the lifestyle they have knowingly, willingly, eagerly entered.  There are organizations, from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition to The Greenhorns to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to the one I work for, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) that are there to help farmers find their community, to organize, and to come out a step ahead.  National Young Farmers’ Coalition runs an excellent blog, called Bootstrap, which follows several young farmers per year on their journey.  Those are real stories.  The Greenhorns is involved in everything from storytelling to compiling best practices into fresh, readable and useful literature on topics such as cooperative farming models to land access success stories.  These organizations regularly and reliably connect with farmers to enact policy change.  NOFA-NY also lobbies and supports policy that affects farmers.  Based on members’ positions, we take on a few policy initiatives each year, inviting all in our community to participate in political action on legislation that affects small-scale organic and sustainable farmers.  Moreover, we organize on-the-ground education and networking opportunities for farmers on topics ranging from organic fruit pest control to scaling up equipment to meet the farm’s ultimate vision for size and sales.  Research organizations like SARE provide grants for farmers to try innovative practices and guide research with university personnel, and share their findings with their community.  This research often has a bottom-line-assessment component, asking questions such as whether a certain labor-intensive practice impacts volume of production enough to change the farm’s profit/loss numbers for the better.

Farmers teaching each other, in community, about business practices.

Farmers teaching each other, in community, about business practices.

Reflecting back on the whole article (as I’ve mostly just reflected on the title and a few points that really struck me), I see that the abrasive title doesn’t exactly match the content of the piece.  It catches the attention, but when I read on, Farmer Smith and I certainly agree that more must be done to help farmers find success, especially when it comes to sales, marketing and policy.  I think the title of the article might be better with a few more words.  “Don’t Just Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers: Find a Way to Help Them!”

Further Reading (Farmer Blogs):

Jenna of Cold Antler Farm reacts to “Don’t Let…”

Letters to the Editor in response to “Don’t Let…”

Learning from Expert Host Farmers

Our Beginning Farmer Program is always a little tough for me to explain to people.  I’ve created an extensive set of inter-linked pages back at the NOFA-NY website, to which I’m happy to direct anyone who’s seated at a computer, but it still doesn’t quite tell the underlying story about what it is I do!  Nope, NOFA-NY doesn’t run a training farm for beginning (or experienced farmers), but we do provide a suite of support services and programs that help beginners (and experienced and transitioning-to-Organic farmers) get the information, experience and boost they need to continue in their farming careers.   Just as importantly, we provide resources for experienced farmers, often simply lifting up the best practices that farmers have developed for training beginning farmers, so that more farmers will be skillful and encouraging trainers to the up-and-coming set of aspiring farmers.  Better trainers will mean better-equipped and more beginning farmers!

For the past nearly 4 years, NOFA-NY has been a part of a project with 6 other Northeast states (5 other NOFA state chapters and MOFGA in Maine) to develop several distinct programs or services, all within a broader “Beginning Farmer Program.”  We rely on farmers’ expertise and experiences to develop broadly-applicable and useful information for beginning farmers.  Sometimes they teach workshops for other host farmers, and sometimes they teach directly to beginning farmers.  Recently, they were teaching me and my interstate colleagues!

farm tour panorama

We went on a daylong learning retreat to discover and be inspired by the on-farm training practices of some of our region’s respected host farmers.  Sure, there are legal issues regarding on-farm labor that each NOFA provides resources and trainings about (the laws vary by state), but the core design and intention of any on-farm training program is critical to successfully train new farmers.  It must be fulfilling to both host and aspiring farmer, and increase the aspiring farmer’s preparedness to take a next step in farming without dropping the productivity of the farm to an unsustainable level.  Not easy, but not impossible.

We visited Indian Line Farm, Caretaker Farm and Cricket Creek Farm, all in the Western Massachusetts region.  Elizabeth (Indian Line) and Don (Caretaker) both have nearly a decade of training aspiring farmers on their farms.  Suzy (Cricket Creek Farm) is newer to that role, though has developed an excellent structure that works for the less-experienced host farmers among us (more structure is better in that situation, to establish clear chains of command).  They shared specific details about how they assign the work on their farm (good lessons whether or not a farm is trying to train the next generation of farmers) but also about how they discern and decide about aspiring farmers to bring on to the farm.  Some best practices I noted, which are generally good practices for having anyone working on your farm.

Clear, central, visible task lists accompanied by permanent guidelines for tasks.  The guidelines (or Standard Operating Procedures) are taught, but all workers can refer back to them in the central location.  So while apprentices may be harvesting or weeding for the first time, they have a standard to refer to, lessening the likelihood for mistakes that can be avoided.

Chore list bulletin board and Elizabeth Keen

Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm shows off the task board, complete with instructions and the Chore board (each apprentice plus Elizabeth rotates between being responsible for the big 4 areas: Watering, Driving the Truck (and managing the greens, just because those tasks seem to go together), Unloading, and Spraying/Nutrient Management.

Captains/leaders rotate through roles.  This helps the farm run smoothly and forces each apprentice or worker to think about all the little things that need to happen under their watch.  The crew becomes invested as they are accountable, but the manager/lead farmer is never so removed that the tasks can’t be explained until the crew is comfortable.

Don in apprentice book library

Don Zasada at the Caretaker Farm lending library.

A priority and emphasis on learning aside from daily tasks.  All farms we visited were members of a CRAFT group, so the apprentices are provided with a schedule of farm tours on other farms.  It’s a chance to make a group of apprentice friends, get off the farm, and learn new ideas and methods by seeing the way other farms do what they do.  This particular CRAFT group enforces a “no penalty for going on CRAFT farm visits” policy.  The farmers explained that it is good for the morale of the apprentices, gets them excited to think about problem-solving on the farm, and helps lessen the load to teach everything or represent more farming methods than the farm actually employs.  A lending library and apprentice-captained research or building projects allow apprentices to dig even deeper.

Scheduled Checking In and Communication.  Each farm does this differently, but each farm we visited did one thing the same: they scheduled communication meetings to talk about the way things were going for education goals, for farming production goals, and for interpersonal issues.  At Caretaker Farm, each meeting takes a slightly different structure so feedback is given all around, in a way that makes sense for that point in the season.

Whole-Farm Perspective.  Farmers give the apprentices on-farm “workshops” or learning opportunities to talk about the business aspects of farming; everything from keeping good records to calculating budgets and financial statements.  Apprentices must learn these skills to know how they would manage a farm for themselves.  Regular farm walks and discussions allow apprentices and workers to understand the flow of all the aspects of the farm, especially as they begin to specialize in one area or a different area is less visited during the season.

Caretaker farm panorama1

A Three-Journeyperson-Farm Bonanza!

Last week, I found myself walking fields with some very awesome, very smart, very hard-working new farmers.  I was in the Hudson Valley, where we have a “cluster” of Journeyperson farmers thanks to some generous funding from the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project.  There was an added effect I hadn’t anticipated, visiting three farms in close succession: I could see a few recurring themes (similar to what I talked about with Ben and Courtney a few weeks back) like the challenge of keeping good notes and records, like feeling limited by equipment, of wondering how to farm and recoup investments, of having enough income to save for bigger ideas and scaling-up infrastructure, of distributing food effectively to those who want it, etc.  Of course there are a lot of common positives, that the farmers are finding solid guidance with very proactive and hands-on mentors, that they are indeed producing lots of good food, they are indeed finding eaters to purchase their food, and they are all finding joy in the daily success, despite the uncertainties.  I thought I’d share a little about what each are up to:

Peter Harrington, Ten Barn Farm in Ghent, NY

Peter’s growing a lot of food–that was my first big takeaway!  I of course was happy to see and munch on my first peas of the season (my odd travel schedule had me miss a few farmers’ markets at home), but could sense that Peter is producing much more food than he’s able to move at his current markets and through his small CSA membership.  He’s learning (that’s the point, to accompany these farmers in their learning process) about how to spread the word to more likely buyers, and is finding out how to be flexible with late sign-ups.  While the initial boost of income before a season helps the farmer make investments, a farmer like Peter might plant a good deal extra to protect against crop failure–that means that when things are going well or if not enough people signed up before he made a decision about how much to plant, he’s got an amazing, unsold harvest!  Though Peter sells at nearby farmers’ markets, casual purchases are note the same kind of security as the support of a CSA.  I promised I’d remind our readers that you can definitely still help him earn back his investment in materials and labor by signing up for his CSA, late!  I reminded Peter that he should be flexible with the commitments, enough to give people a sense of CSA, but he shouldn’t let the logistics of prorated/short-term membership detract from his actual farming.  So, the lesson is that he must keep good notes about planting, harvest, distribution and customer accounts and be firm in his limits with sales options.

What a perfect head of lettuce!

What a perfect head of lettuce!

Peter's mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to "the kids."

Peter’s mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to “the kids.”

Kohlrabi, already.

Kohlrabi, already.

What a dreamy fence.

What a dreamy fence.

Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables!

Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables!

Jalal Sabur, Sweet Freedom Farm

Jalal draws connections between growing food, youth empowerment and a better life for many more people than you’d think could be reached by the action of one farmer.  Food that Jalal grows is added to other local farmers’ vegetables, eggs and fruit in a box that a person can purchase.  The big bonus?  Someone purchasing this box is part of the Victory Bus Ride CSA, which includes a ride from New York City to upstate correctional facilities.  The price is less than other prison bus services, and it builds a community around healthy food and healthy lifestyles.  Beyond his farm fence, Jalal works with youth at River City Gardens in Hudson specifically as a food system educator via Roots & Rebels.  The focus of my visit with Jalal was hearing how these all combine into a unified vision (he’s still hammering out his “elevator pitch”), which he can market and gain support for.  He explained some deep connections between the abolitionist movement and maple syrup (maple producers historically rejected slave labor), which is just one example of what he brings to the surface for youth, adults, and anyone who has a conversation about the food system with this great beginning farmer.  Jalal has no equipment, which has made doing all this work especially challenging.  Thankfully, many of nearby farming community friends and all the people he helps out are pitching in as they can.  I hope you would also read more about this important work and see how you might be able to learn, get involved, and actively support farmer-led food justice projects.

Michelle and Jalal hard at work weeding.

Michelle, Jalal’s mentor, and Jalal hard at work weeding.

Jalal was proud to tell me he'd built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic.

Jalal was proud to tell me he’d built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic.

Michelle, Jalal's mentor, regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm.

Michelle regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm.

John Agostinho, Fatstock Farm

This world of cute/funny farm animal videos (a world I’m happy to live in) hasn’t completely ruined my sense of wonder at watching a livestock farmer in action.  John has a relationship with all the animals on his small multi-species farm.  The sheep herd is one he’s slowly earning equity in: the first year he had the flock he made 1/3 of the investments, earned 1/3 of the income from the meat sales, and owns 1/3 of the remaining flock.  This year, he’s a 2/3 investor-owner, and next year, the flock is entirely his.  This is a simliar arrangement to what is called “sharemilking” and is very useful to transfer livestock and dairy farms to new hands–animals and good genetics are very expensive, so this allows a beginning farmer with the right knowledge and experience to get started much faster, with less initial investment.  John also has lots of experience with pigs, and I was introduced to some very happy, very chatty (yes, chatty) pigs, including one about to give birth (I didn’t get to stay for that part of the day, though).  Again, this farmer is thinking every day about how to best market his product; with meat, there is the added question of humane, USDA-inspected and accessible slaughter and processing facilities.  John sells via a CSA model in conjunction with two farms that distribute in Queens, which helps reduce some of the logistical stress because he knows exactly what is sold, how many animals to process, and how it’s going to reach customers.  Still, he is bound by regulations and the availability of infrastructure.  This is a huge issue in the organic community at large, and is an acknowledged roadblock to success for small-scale organic meat farmers.  Once the animal goes to slaughter, the farmer loses their control, so they must trust the facility and its practices.  The type of slaughter facility, and subsequent processing facilities, determines how the farmer can sell their meat.  If you’re interested in some simple, complete definitions about livestock slaughter facilities, I’ll direct you to the Cornell Small Farms slaughterhouse map.  So, back to John at Fatstock Farm.  I saw how John is attentive to the sheep in the field, plus got to watch Ella the sheepherding dog do what she is clearly always interested in doing–herd sheep!  One got away, all the way back to the house, which was pretty funny to watch.  Seemed like she wanted to hang out in the barn with her friends–John’s been keeping small groups in the barn on rotation so he can monitor and treat a hoof concern.

John Agostino and a soon-to-be proud pig mama.

John Agostinho and a soon-to-be proud pig mama.

The sheep that made its escape.

The sheep that made its escape.

Boars definitely smile.

Boars definitely smile.

 

NOTE: The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall.  Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!

Bread, from Wheat Field to Millstone to Our Bellies

Group behind wheat and weeds3
Last Wednesday, we had a farmer-education event* all about growing grains that are good enough quality for milling into flour for human food.  This is the holy grail of grain-growing, and an important topic for newer grain growers.  Elizabeth Dyck from OGRIN (an excellent, thorough teacher) joined farmer Ashley Loehr at her Sparrowbush Farm on a clear, sunny day in Hudson, NY.  Our own Robert Perry, Grain and Field Crops Coordinator, joined in the processing discussion, showing the components of our mobile grain processing unit that small-scale growers can use.  (The unit is currently parked in the Hudson Valley to support the network of small-scale grain growers involved in our Value-Added Grains Project).

Over 25 farmers (and a few bakers and extension agents) attended to learn about the impacts on quality that various factors can have.  We learned about wheat and grain varieties, crop management, weather, disease as they relate to the milling quality.  For instance, a weedy field means that grains are harder to harvest and mill because the weeds clog the equipment, or weed seeds “contaminate” the pure grain.  Planting dates, weather, cover-cropping practices and mechanical tillage all impact weed pressure–so, a farmer can be doing plenty of the right things and still find themselves with a weedy wheat field.

Grains are scored for quality by a processing facility, but a grower will have a sense of the grain’s final destination (human food/milling, distilling, animal feed) based on:

  • The amount of weed pressure observed in the field: weeds can be separated out, but through extra processing and care;

    Red Fife weeds and clover

    Though farmer Ashley has done everything right, the ragweed and lambsquarters have outcompeted her underseeded cover crop of clover.

  • The weather: warm, moist weather during grain flowering can lead to diseases like Wheat Scab (Fusarium graminaearum) which at a certain level causes the grain to be considered unfit for human consumption.
  • The weather, again: humidity and wet weather leads to other diseases which reduce a crop’s eventual development into full, heavy grains.  So the amount that the farmer harvests and sells is less than they’d anticipate in a disease-free situation.
    Elizabeth Dyck with discolored and smutty Red Fife wheat

    Elizabeth Dyck shows a Red Fife wheat stalk with a few disease issues (note the discolored leaves and black grains)

    Harvest and post-harvest conditions:  Even out of the field, a farmer needs to ensure that the grain stay (or become) dry to at most 12% moisture.  There are machines and methods for this, and it’s so important!  A perfect crop can be ruined for human consumption if left too moist during storage.

Ashley Loehr in wheat

Ashley Loehr, who farms a lot of vegetables and is making use of her land to grow these amazing grains, too!

So, a grain farmer takes those things into consideration.  An organic grain farmer can’t rely on the arsenal of chemicals that a non-organic farmer would use for weed pressure and disease control, so their best practices include crop rotation, using very clean (weed-free, disease-free) seed from reputable sources, and a lot of good timing for everything from planting (to let the crops establish during the right time of year) to harvest (when the grain is ripe and the weather is dry).

A harvested batch of grain has its berries separated from the stalks, and then sent to be processed.   Grains are tested for:

  • Moisture content: for storage quality and as a preliminary measurement of quality

    Frederick wheat

    Frederick wheat: a lower-protein variety that makes a great “all-purpose” flour.

  • Test weight: a high weight-to-volume ratio indicates high quality and full grain development
  • Protein content: while not the only factor a baker needs to know, protein content largely dictates what type of flour–pastry, all-purpose, “bread”–a flour is considered.  Milled grains are often blended for a consistent protein content under a brand or label)
  • “Falling weight”: important measurement of how much pre-sprouting activity has happened (and therefore how much enzymatic activity has happened prior to processing).  Too much enzyme activity means that the grain will create a sticky dough, or in the case of malted grains, won’t germinate at a good rate to create the desired result.
  • Vomitoxin: amount of a particular contaminant; vomitoxin causes sickness, so the threshold for it is very low; disease and storage conditions affect this level.  NOTE: no grain is sold for human consumption if it exceeds the threshold; it may be re-purposed for animal feed or distilling.

Then we ate bread and had a discussion about the benefit of direct marketing.  For a small-scale grower, the ability to add value to the grain by milling it, working with a baker and offering bread to customers, or another arrangement, means that the effort is financially rewarded.  That’s why small-scale processing infrastructure is so key–growers need to be able to test and mill their grain locally and control what happens to their grain.  From the perspective of a baker, locally farmed grains offer the chance to elevate the flavor of baked goods, and developing a relationship with grain farmers might even result in custom-grown varieties.  Antoine Guerlain was the day’s resident baker (he bakes loaves with local wheat for Camphill Community–Copake) and he did an excellent job advocating for working with grains and flours because of their interesting “personalities.”  He had baked a variety of loaves, using a consistent formula (except for the 100% rye breads) to showcase the qualities that can be coaxed from different grains.  There were even differences between two strains of ancient wheat–Arapaho and Banatka.

Banatka wheat bread2Arapaho wheat bread1Spontaneous levain2Roggenvollkornbrot3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources:

Wheat Quality Indicators Fact Sheet by Elizabeth Dyck

Equipment Sources in the Northeast

The Wheat Flour Book

Bread Baking Classes at Wide Awake Bakery (Trumansburg, NY): Instructors provide a day of instruction, focusing on understanding the variability and interesting qualities of local, freshly-ground grains

*Our in-field farmer education events are called Field Days.  Check out all the NOFA-NY Field Days listings

Ben and Courtney: Journeyperson Farmers at East Hill Farm

On June 2nd, when Anne was visiting Maryrose and Donn (and Bob the donkey), I (Rachel, Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator) was on my own field visit!  I spent a sunny morning with Ben Pino and Courtney Sauer, who moved to the long-established East Hill Farm (where the Rochester Folk Art Guild lives and works) this past winter.  As farmers in our Journeyperson Program, Ben and Courtney receive educational and business planning stipends, support of a paid farmer mentor, educational and networking opportunities and a specific commitment by NOFA-NY to ensure that we help them find footing during their first few years of farming independently.  This visit is part of that commitment–nothing replaces real-time observation of the farmers on their farm.  I witnessed how Ben and Courtney communicate with each other (very well), keep records (okay, I encouraged them to record their evening day-is-done conversations on their phones to listen to later), and how they react to seeing fields (they’re a little concerned about the late timing this year).

Though Ben and Courtney have plenty of farming experience and grab at educational opportunities as often as they can, they’re experiencing what many beginning farmers deal with: how to apply what you know to a new place, with its obvious and subtle tendencies and quirks.  Ben and Courtney now know more than they did months ago about the condition of the soil at East Hill Farm, which has a high clay content (so when it’s wet, it’s really wet, and when it’s dry, it’s very dense).  They’re discovering that though they have irrigation and tillage tools to use, their preferred method of production might not sync up with those tools; they ask themselves, their peers and their mentor (and me) about what to do to accomplish their goals, and what impacts new methods will have.  For instance, they are currently wondering if they should abandon the old Allis Tramers G tractor because it works with a bed setup that seems too wide to manage, in favor of bed spacing that they don’t have equipment for, but would give them a more comfortable hand-labor situation.  On top of that sort of thing, they are dealing with the challenges of the floods last month (they’re just a stone’s throw from Penn Yan, which you’ll remember was greatly affected by flooding).  I loved seeing how they were thinking about these topics from a practical and idealistic perspective!

Some brave greens surviving through flood-erosion-drying soil conditions.

While East Hill Farm’s legacy of farmers and gardeners have built up the soil through incorporating plant matter and compost into the ground and utilizing crop rotations to let nutrients and organic matter build up between years of crops, Ben and Courtney are thinking about more ways to encourage healthy, better-textured and nutrient-filled soils.  It’s a long process, but since they are planning on building up the farm’s soil and being around for a long time to manage this the long-term vision of soil health.  Their mentor, Nathaniel Thompson, has been giving them great advice about producing high-quality greens (you can learn from him at our field day at Remembrance Farm on July 10th).  This goes along with their dreams of diversifying the farm to use its large acreage for grazing livestock and growing more grains.  Enjoy a few photos, and if you’re visiting the South Wedge or Penfield Farmers Markets this summer, say hi to these farmers!

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The Journeyperson Program is so rewarding for me, as the Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator, because I get to witness the passion, pain and personal growth (I had to go for an alliteration there) that these high-potential farmers go through.  I get to flex my muscles and work my knowledge to come up with the appropriate training and technical guidance options for these farmers!  While their mentors and the classes they take can give them so much technical knowledge, my job is to facilitate connections, and to reflect back to the farmers about what else they might want to learn about, practice, connect with, etc.  This program has me learning alongside the farmers, in some cases; at other times, the Journeyperson farmers communicate a need for training or resources that don’t exist, and that’s when NOFA-NY sets something into action (planning a conference workshop, writing a fact sheet, encouraging other service providers to offer a service, etc.)

The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall.  Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!

Dreamy Spring Greens

So it’s greens season!  Here’s a little info to help you dive in and enjoy what’s out there this spring.

cropped-farm-pics-nov-04-007.jpg

First, figure out what kind of greens you’re dealing with (or just looking at).  Knowing which plant family your greens belong to gives you a clue about their flavors and complementary seasonings and preparations.  If you know you like spinach prepared a certain way, you’re likely to be able to substitute chard.  The only trick here is to sort out the vegetables that aren’t as enjoyable in their raw form (cooked vegetables are generally a direct substitution, with attention to when the vegetable is cooked to your liking).  Bold words are the plants’ taxonomical family, followed by the most popular leafy foods within that family.

brassica seedlings3

Brassica seedlings before transplant.

Brassicaceae (brass-ih-kay-see-ee): “Mustard” greens, kale, arugula, bok choi, pak choi, komatsuna, mizuna, anything labeled “asian greens,” radishes, turnips (the tops of Haukeri/salad turnips are a great addition to your greens collection); the brassica family also includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi.

The brassicas all have a bit of a spicy/mustard-y bite to them, which is mellowed in cooking.  Growing conditions (heat and rain/drought) greatly impact flavor, so one bunch is never like the next bunch!  Because of this, many farmers will let you try before you buy (and if you received a mess of greens from a CSA or subscription box, just get to work sampling!).  All are safe to eat raw, but cooking might be more pleasant for the novice greens-eater.  Pair well with: sesame, soy sauce, miso, black pepper, hot pepper, mixed vegetable sautees, garlic and onions.

Chenopodiaceae (keen-oh-poh-dee-ay-see-ee): Chard, spinach, beets (thus, beet greens), lambs quarters, quelites

Chard (we'll forgive it for not being 100% green, as it's certainly leafy)

Chard (we’ll forgive it for not being 100% green, as it’s certainly leafy)

This family of greens (which translates to “goosefoot” because the leaf supposedly has a similar look as a goose’s foot) cooks from often-giant raw form into just a fraction of its size.  So don’t be alarmed at what seems like too much vegetable for you or your family–cooking will wilt it significantly.  The stems of chard and beet greens, as well as the “crowns” of spinach are worthy edibles, but need a good chopping and cooking to tenderize their fibers.  They pair nicely with creamy-textured foods, so try a nut butter sauce or salad dressing; or stir in yogurt, cream or cheese to cooked greens; of course, they’re a natural fit for making a few eggs into a main dish (and a great way to make your breakfast healthier).

Asteraceae (ass-ter-ay-see-ee): Lettuces, dandelion greens, endive

Though we tend to only think of lettuce as a raw food, give grilled or stir-fried versions a try.  The lower and inner parts of a head of lettuce are often sturdy enough to hold up under a quick, high-heat cooking situation.  Lettuce that’s harvested when it’s hot mimics its more bitter relatives, the dandelion and endive–all of which can be mellowed out with good olive oil, salt, pepper and a little sweetness (think of a honey or fruit vinaigrette and a wilted salad).  With an abundance of lettuce greens, it’s time to perfect a house salad dressing.


 

Storage:  According to sources like How to Keep Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Longer with Less Spoilage, by Tracy Frisch, greens will keep up to two weeks (and we notice that they keep even longer when they’re very fresh) under high humidity and very cool temperatures.  Some great advice can be found at the blog Food in Jars.  In short, keep the atmosphere around the greens moist using damp cloth or paper towels, but avoid directly wetting or compressing wet leaves.  Store greens and the damp towels in containers or the drawers of your fridge to contain the moist air.


Recipe Resources: New York Times’ Recipes for Health: Chard, Beet Greens; Food52’s Greens Contest; Saveur’s cooked greens recommendations; one amazing recipe for getting greens at breakfast (or any time of day you want to eat eggs: Alexandra Cooks Crustless Quiche, Loaded with Kale)