Tag Archives: farmer

do your farmers a favor

 

I want to bring up the idea of food consumers doing things to help their farmers.

Why should we help our farmers?  What’s at stake?  The fundamental answer comes in two simple parts: 1) the global food system is fragile; and 2) food is vital to human success and happiness.  Relying on a complex and unstable global food supply is risky business, so we should do what we can to help build a strong web of local food suppliers in our local regions, wherever they may be.  As oil prices shoot up, food from far away becomes less viable.  We need strong local seed banks, a diverse seed-saving network, and a deep local knowledge of how to grow our food.  So support your farmers, especially the ones nearest to you.  It might make a big difference in your life in the not-too-distant future.  If you think about it, doing a favor for your farmers really amounts to acting in your own self interest.

What can you do for your farmers?

I use the phrase “your farmers” because anyone who grows the food you eat can be considered your farmer… in the same way that the person who delivers your mail is your mailman, the person who leads your yoga class is your yoga instructor, the person who collects your garbage is your garbage man.  Talking about “our farmers” encourages a closer relationship between food consumers and food producers (Slow Food’s Carlo Petrini calls consumers “co-producers“).

The first thing you can do for your farmers is get to know them. And if you find that this task is easier said than done, maybe you ought think twice about the food you’re eating. Where does it come from? Who grew it? Is it healthy? Reliable? It’s your sustenance, your routine nutrition, your daily bread–so it doesn’t make sense to rely on far-off, unknown agribusinesses to grow it for you.

The second thing you can do for your farmers is to buy directly from them whenever possible. Direct purchasing usually means more money going straight to the people raising and caring for your food supply. It also means you get to know more about the food you eat.

The third thing you can do for your farmers is to pay them fair prices. If you’re buying directly from the farmer, fair prices don’t necessarily translate into expensive food, since you’ve cut out the middle man. Without making a decent living, farmers are tempted to turn to other livelihoods. And each time this happens, our food supply is less secure. If it’s hard to pay those prices being asked by your local farmers, think about cutting out as much expensive processed food as possible. According to a Seattle Times article, shopping at the farmers market is cheaper than the grocery store.  And by building your menus around fruits, vegetables, grains and basic animal products, you can eat affordable, healthy, fresh (and tasty!) food. Oh, and you’ll be doing a favor for your farmers.

Finally, I have a personal favor to ask of farmers market shoppers. Stop and talk to your farmers! Even if you don’t buy anything, it makes my day a little bit better when you sidle over and say hello, have a chat. As a farmers market shopper, I used to hang back from the stalls and scope out the produce and prices from a distance, not making my move until I knew what I wanted.  I was a lurker.  But now that I’m a farmer–selling at the market–I know that I much prefer shoppers who come right on up and say hello, even if they don’t buy a thing.  So please don’t be a lurker.  Make a farmer happy, and don’t be shy at the farmers market!

-Emmett   (usually Lynda is the blogger, but I (Emmett) will chip in now and again…)

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is slow food expensive food?

The end of August is going to turn San Francisco into a foodie haven (more so than it already is). Even the New York Times, which was a little slow to pick up on the CSA trend, is taking notice.

They‘re turning the front of City Hall into a Victory Garden full of food. They’re taking citydwellers on local food trips throughout the Bay Area. And while some of the events are free — including a concert that appropriately (for SF) features a Grateful Dead band member — others are a tad on the pricey side. $160 for a “slow dinner” in Walnut Creek, $140 for the “bounty of the Russian River,” a “slow journey” in our area. That sort of thing.

On one hand it’s a little annoying that as a local farmer growing heirloom varieties of produce, I can’t afford to fully participate in the “largest celebration of American food in history.” Slow Food Nation trips and dinners, at those prices, aren’t in my budget. On the other hand, I charge my customers at the farmer’s market more than Safeway does because I’m trying to earn a living. So am I really allowed to complain? (Please note: it would not cost you $160 to cook yourself a lovely slow dinner from my farm stand. I’m just pointing out that I do benefit from higher prices for local, farm-fresh, organic produce.)

This little conundrum begs a bigger question: Must slow food necessarily be expensive food? What about the expanding grow-your-own movement? I wholeheartedly support it, especially for people who can’t afford to throw down $30 at the farmer’s market every week. (Not to mention, it’s a great thing for people to be outside in their gardens, and a great form of exercise.) But what if the grow-your-own movement grows such that it drives down farmer’s market prices — can small farmers survive on lower prices for fresh organic produce? At the same time, this might be a far-fetched idea (it would require a lot of Americans to change the way they live and how they allocate their time), especially with costs of conventionally-grown food rising thanks to higher fuel prices. At some point in the future, there might come a time when the local food economy expands even further because it’s actually more cost-effective than transporting produce from Argentina and trucking it in from the nearest American port.

Also, when it comes to farmer’s market prices: if you’re really shopping on a whole food (not Whole Foods) basis — no processed, added-value stuff — I find that you can eat pretty cheaply… and even spring for organic, most of the time. Emmett and I pretty much live off a few basics that we buy in bulk: beans (various types), lentils, quinoa, rice, flour, sugar, salt, oil. We make our own bread (and bagels!), except when we trade for it at the farmer’s market, but we do buy pasta. One of these days I’m going to have to add up the cost of weekly groceries at my house (including the value of the food we grow ourselves) and try to compare it to a more processed diet. (OK, so we’re not perfect: we don’t make our own soy ice cream.)

But back to the big themes. Is it possible to have a Cheap Slow Food movement? How much do farmers need to be paid for it to be worth their time?

(I don’t have the answers, I just ask the questions.)

(The picture above is a mix of our beans, with some of the garlic we grew tossed in, and a bit of olive oil. The yellow ones aren’t quite ripe yet, but the purple ones are beautiful! They’re kind of like the turkey that comes with the little pop-up button: when the purple beans turn green, you know they’re done.)

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farmer’s market recession

For the past 6 weeks — since we first started attending the Windsor farmer’s market — we’ve made more money each subsequent weekend, because we’ve brought more (and a greater variety of) produce each time. Every weekend, we sold out of our pre-bagged baby red-and-green leaf lettuce mix before the market closed. We kept telling ourselves, Gosh, we really need to bring more!

This weekend, things changed.

It started yesterday, Saturday, at the Healdsburg market. Now last weekend we brought several harvest-tubs full of Bright Lights rainbow Swiss chard to the Healdsburg market, and sold every bunch but one. This weekend, we brought the exact same amount of the exact same quality produce, and we sold maybe 1/3 of what we brought.

We were pretty shocked, not to mention distraught over the thought of all of this highly perishable food–well, perishing I guess, and in particular perishing without doing anybody any good. Emmett ran the excess chard over to the local food bank, only to learn that it’s open just 2 days a week: Mondays and Fridays. Then he did a “drive-by charding,” leaving his office refrigerator full of chard. (His boss, an environmental writer and publisher for whom he works part-time, has pigs & chickens, so anything not eaten by humans will still find a belly-home.)

But one refrigerator can only fit so much. A pile of sad, sad chard still sits on our kitchen floor. (See above picture, taken last night. It’s still there, only it looks even worse. We’ve been too busy to pick it up.)

Then came today. For the first time, we were prepared for our red-and-green salad onslaught. We brought 49 bags of the lettuce mix….

…And sold considerably less than we’d sold in previous weeks. At the end of the day, we had a bit under thirty bags left.

We drive-by lettuced fellow sellers at the farmer’s market, giving away $3 bags of salad mix to neighbors, volunteers, and people we’d never met before. Still, it was depressing: all that lettuce bed weeding and early-morning-snipping-and-bagging and hoped-for income just disappearing into thin air.

To make matters worse, it was just one of those days. Over the course of my 14-hour workday, I stubbed my toe twice. I slammed my finger between a car door and a support beam. I whacked my head getting into the pickup truck. Even caffeine couldn’t seem to rouse me from my stupor.

And the insult on top of the injury: I’m pretty sure that today I made the same amount of money as the young girl with the lemonade stand at yesterday’s farmer’s market. How do I know this? Having sold out of her lemonade, the little girl walked by our stand to bring 10% of her day’s earnings to the manager for her stall fee. (It was an adorable sight, and even without knowing her, I felt proud of her.) Clutched tightly in her little hand I could make out a $10 bill and several ones — less than I paid to the market manager yesterday, but about what I paid to the market manager today.

(Let’s not even go into how many more hours it takes to grow organic vegetables than to boil lemon juice, water, and sugar to make lemonade. Clearly, I’m in the wrong business for working a sane amount of hours while still earning money, and this depresses me. Ah, if only I were cute and young, maybe with freckles, I’d totally jump ship and get into the lemonade business while the gettin’s good!)

One more sad story, and then I promise I’ll draw this tragic tale to a close: at the end of the day, when we were pretty beaten down at the thought of all our un-purchased bags of lettuce, Emmett was told by someone what he would be paid for our produce. This person, a well-dressed older woman with coiffed hair and pretty necklaces, said, “I’m only paying $1 a pound for zucchini. That’s what they’re selling them for at…” [At this point, her voice trailed off; neither Emmett nor I could figure out what she said. Whole Foods? Safeway? Wal-Mart? Who knows.] Then, a command: “Here, weigh these.”

This, despite the fact that we don’t have a scale and do have a sign posted with fixed prices for “small” and “large” zucchinis. We price the really small zucchinis higher than $1/pound, because they’re more tender, are tasty eaten raw, and are harvested as a special item, sometimes with blossoms attached. There’s an opportunity cost associated with these guys: we could let them grow into ginormous one-pounders and get our money’s worth out of each female blossom, but we like to offer customers a variety.

It seemed a little absurd to watch the woman walk away with 6 beautiful, perfect baby zucchinis (a couple with still-fresh, edible blossoms!) for a dollar. At that price, it isn’t really worth my effort to harvest them, let alone grow them. But honestly, we were too tired to fight it. And $1 is better than nothing… although I’m not so sure about that, actually.  Sometimes dignity is better than $1.

Sigh. We got home after 7 p.m., having left the house in the 5 a.m. range. We cooked our classic Sunday dinner, which is (if it isn’t burritos from the local Mexican joint because we’re too pooped to cook)… drumroll… whatever’s left over from the market!

Over our dinner of market leftovers (lots of salad!) we discussed ways of genuinely making money as a farmer. I’ll keep you updated if any actually work.

Now, it’s time for bed. As always, tomorrow’s a new day.

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why farm?

I was talking to my mom on the phone today, describing The Flood. “It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying farming,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m just describing the event. I don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood, is all.”
But then I thought about it. And on some level, I do like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood. I kind of enjoy disasters, although I rarely admit it at the time. (During disasters, I prefer to swear profusely — another secret delight — and perhaps pout.)

That got me thinking about the appeal of farming. What, exactly, is the appeal of long hours in the hot sun, modest wages and the imminent threat of disaster? Is it the romance of the thing? The challenge? The simple pleasure of growing? The drama? All of the above?

In English class multiple choice questions — and essays, for that matter — the answer is typically (e), all of the above. [NB: this does not hold true for science or math; my hypothesis is that English teachers are simply too kind-hearted to throw in a red herring (e), while many math and science teachers are pure evil.] If you’re guessing that I’m more of an English teacher than a science teacher, you guessed right. Extra credit goes to those who answered “all of the above”: farming’s got back-to-the-land romance, honest physical challenge, a certain life-giving zen, and something of the theatre, too.

Still, if I had to pick one choice to defend for 5 paragraphs, I’d go with the drama. Every day on the farm is a mortal struggle: Beans v. Bugs. Lettuce v. Sun. Tomatoes v. Inexperienced Farmers. There’s the hopeful joy of a young bean rearing its head from the ground, the subsequent struggle as the young, tender leaves are attacked by diabrotica. And then hope again as the plant puts out leaf after leaf, faster than they can be eaten; and then finally sends out a climbing runner which whirls in a slow-motion dance, looking for something to grasp onto. Every vegetable’s tale is different, but common in its struggle to survive — a struggle that means a good deal to a farmer, who relies on its survival for income.

Another way to weigh drama is in its value as instant feedback. Very few jobs today permit a person to tangibly experience the error of his ways. In farming, there’s no gentle upbraid courtesy of a manager or boss. You forget to water the salad bed, you’re in deep doo-doo. All of your investment — time, energy, emotion, and money — will disappear tragically in a bunch of withered, flatlined greens. You don’t know your way around heirloom tomatoes? Don’t be surprised when (as has happened at The Patch) they end up with some weird, unidentifiable withered-leaf disease. Didn’t prepare for an invasion of flea beetles? You end up with “Swiss” bok choi.

For someone who can’t remember facts to save her life but never forgets a good story, farming offers potent narrative. It also offers an alluring combination of instant gratification — wilting greens, with a little water, perk up within minutes — and delayed gratification. Our first yellow zucchini, maybe 1/2 an inch long, appeared on a plant today — a plant that we grew from seed, transplanted, watered, and weeded.

I couldn’t be more delighted.

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Farming 101.

Welcome! This blog intends to give you — a person who undoubtedly eats, and maybe even grows some food yourself — a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of growing healthful produce. What’s it really like, in this day and age, to farm the land?

It was definitely my romantic streak that got me into this business in the first place, and I’ll bet you harbor some romantic sentiments about farms, too. Big red barns. Romps in the hay. Fields of sheep baa-ing into the morning. Hens clucking merrily as they wander around in the tall grass, trailing a dozen little fluffy chicks behind them. A big ole John Deere tractor, shiny and green, in the driveway. That sort of thing.

That was my vision, too. And then there’s the reality: early mornings, no weekends, down and dirty, nitty and gritty, besieged by plague, pestilence, drought, fire, and flood. Invasions of cucumber beetles hell-bent on eating every last seedling. Forget the big red barn barn and fields full of sheep — you’ll be cultivating whatever tiny scrap of land you can afford (or are permitted to squat on.)

This is the behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of a first-year farmer. I hope you enjoy it.

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