Monday, November 16, 2015

going from 3 acres to 6 acres of vegetables

For the past few years, we have had trouble keeping up with demand. We have struggled to get plants or seeds in on time due to the fact that there was still something growing in the desired planting area and it hadn't finished producing yet. So what do you do? Pull it out early? or get your new crop in late? I usually made the wrong decision, regardless of whichever decision I made.

I knew we needed to expand, but I just didn't know if I was emotionally up to bringing another field into production, setting up a new irrigation system, having all my crops spread out, picking up rocks for days on end and building up the soil for another few years? Could I handle managing 6 acres? 3 was about to do me in. Would it alleviate stress or add to it?

The previous season, I had spoken with my agricultural extension agent about our weed problem. Being as close to organic as possible, spraying was not an option. He suggested letting a field lay fallow for a season, tilling it under every so often, allowing weed seeds to sprout, and then tilling it up again to allow more weeds to germinate. This would rid us of some of the seed bank that had built up over the years, and hopefully allow us to spend less time hoeing, our most expensive task.

If we were going to allow half of our farm to go un-used for a season, I knew we had to expand. We had one un-used field on the corner of Pitts School Rd and Hwy 29 that was going to be perfect. I had hoped to get started on tilling it up last winter, however, my dad had a heart attack or two and we got distracted.

I was nervous to think about the amount of rocks we would have to pick up in the new field. We had been picking up rocks in an adjacent field now for almost 5 years and the problem didn't seem any better. Would this field be the same? As I got on the tractor and started to till up the new rows, I reached down to feel the soil. NO ROCKS! It was gorgeous, fluffy, organic-matter-filled soil. Had my great grandparents already picked all the rocks out of this field for me back in the 1930s? Or was this field simply devoid of the rocks that plague our volcanic-based soils around Concord?

Well, regardless, planting in the new field was awesome. It was easy and pretty painless compared to the first time we planted in our other two fields. The crops turned out great as well. I was expecting to have to build up the soil for a few years, and in turn, not receive much monetary compensation from our plantings, but it was exactly the opposite! The field (called the BP field because it surrounds the BP station) became our most productive!

And thus we had space to rotate. After having left the vineyard garden (1.7 acres behind the vineyard) fallow for two seasons, we planted it in the fall. The productivity (although un measured because we don't pick fall vegetables unless we have them sold) has skyrocketed. The Gracious Greens program that we do with First Presbyterian Church has had record yields- producing more in this garden than in the previous three combined.

We are going to have to till all the fallow/weeded areas up one more time before officially allowing it to rest for the winter. I think it might be dry enough this Wednesday. However, it gets notoriously wet in the winter and might not dry up again until the Spring.

Having 6 acres has been an awesome experience. We have been more productive this year than ever before and planted all our transplants on time instead of waiting for previous plantings to finish producing before planting directly on top. However, there is going to be one big change to how we farm. Hoeing everything is no longer an option. When we had 3 acres, we had enough people to hoe. Now, with 6 acres, we can't find the people (or pay them enough) to keep all the crops adequately weed-free. We are going to have to switch to using plastic mulch for things like our greens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, pumpkins, basically anything that we are transplanting into the field and not planting in a trenched- fashion. This will hopefully allow us to grow melons better as well. Normally the melons rot in the field before we can harvest them due to the wet, humid summers we have, and the slow draining red clay soil in which the melons grown. Maybe with black plastic, we will be able to solve some of the rotting issues.

I am currently looking into getting bio-degradable plastic so we won't be contributing to the land fill by growing 6 acres of vegetables. I've heard great things about it, so I'm pretty sure that we are going to go this route. I hope I'm up for the switch to another growing system. Every time you try something new in farming, you do your homework. However, there are always more problems than you could ever imagine or predict. Bracing myself again for the frustration that is growing pains. I'm sure to let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My lifeless blog and (hopefully) its resurrection

Well, it's been over a year since I've blogged about the farm. But believe me- I have been thinking about it. There have been lots of things I've though about writing, however, I haven't had time, energy, or even a computer to write on. Ever since my computer was stolen from the repair shop almost 4 years ago, I've been going over to my parents' house to use their computer, or going over to my dad's office. Neither of these locations was conducive to blogging. I would get there with my to do list, make a dent in it, and be called back to the field or farm stand before I got to do the last thing on the list: Blog.

Then I got a letter in the mail the other day from a marketing company. They had driven by my business on the highway and wanted to know more. They had then looked up my blog and found it to be very out of date. They said unused blogs were devastating to small businesses. They were offering their services to my business. I looked at the letter and got very very angry.

And then I knew it was time to start blogging again, and I knew what I would be writing about in this first blog on my new computer: Why I have not been able to blog for a year, and why there is no way on earth I could afford to pay someone to market my farm for me (at least not right now, at its current size and form).

Before I start this rant, it should be known that I love farming, will continue to do it, and that we are doing very well financially for a small farm that is only 6 years old.

Now back to the explanation.

Over the past year, I have increasingly become very frustrated with people who don't understand farming (despite the fact that everyone needs to eat). Granted, that's a lot of people. But it only shows up every so often when people give me unsolicited advice based on their knowledge of small businesses. I know I should be graceful and accept it, but by golly, sometimes I struggle to see Jesus in those who think they could do a better job that I do at running my farm.

I do not live in a farming community and the majority of my friends do not farm. The majority of people in my town are not farmers, although their grandparents might have been.

Here are a few things that truly make farming different to all other industries, and which make meshing it with the modern world a bona fide challenge.

1) Farming is based on the weather.

I cannot schedule my life and I cannot tell you what we will be doing from day to day, week to week, hour to hour. I can tell with some certainty about what we will be doing in each month, and if we will be doing a delivery on this day or that, but if you want to schedule a meeting with me, please know, that something may pop up and I might not be able to be there. I cannot just close the computer and walk away, or let the next shift deal with it. There is no next shift. This, for me as a person who likes to plan and has friends who are mostly high-achieving type a sorts, has been a big challenge. But it's something that I wish more people experienced in their day to day existence. Living with uncertainty is great! My schedule is never truly crowded. My job won't let me schedule my life away, and for that I am grateful. I truly have to live in the moment because that moment is what dictates my actions. Not the yoga class which starts in 15 minutes or the church meeting during lunch.

2) Farming has extremely low margins on its goods and is based on having a supply of low-paid workers.

When I first started out farming, I looked at a lot of budgets, made business plans, and talked to other farmers about the business aspect of farming. I'm absolutely sure none of them meant to steer me in the wrong direction, however, I have found out that almost all of them got it wrong. Each farm is different and the lessons learned from other farms were never ever directly applicable to my family farm in suburban North Carolina.

Every day, I compete with hobby farmers who sell on the side of the road and don't need to make a living off their crops. In a different way, I compete with huge farms in California who employ migrant workers and have economies of scale I can't fathom. If you say that I need to charge what I need to charge for my products, then you have never had to walk into a restaurant and compete with Sysco or had a customer walk up to you and tell you that they can get their product more cheaply at the Walmart. I'm not saying that we base our prices off of those companies, but the larger food industry does have a huge sway on what we, as small, local, sustainable farmers can charge for our products. If I had to actually charge the customer with how hard we worked to get those tomatoes to the market, yall would be paying around $6/lb. Am I going to be selling tomatoes in Charlotte (or even Concord) for that? Hell no. I just can't do that. So I'll take losses here and there and make up for it on higher margin crops like the wine, or strawberries.

But the fact of the matter is, because our crops have such low margins, I cannot employ someone to do my job. I cannot employ someone to help me out here and there and still make a profit. I can't hire someone to run to Charlotte and do the deliveries. Paying $10/hr for someone to deliver the vegetables or go to market means that I just lost all of the profit I would have made. I can't take an hour off here or take a Saturday off there. It costs me too much money.

3) Farming requires long-term commitment to a very difficult job for which most people are very ungrateful.

You cannot go to school to learn to farm (even if you go to NCSU like I did!! Go Pack.). The learning curve on farming is VERY slow. Every year, I learn more and more about timing, varieties, and managing employees, but the fact of the matter is, that every year is different. I can't use a lot of the wisdom I gained in 2013 (that summer where it rained almost every day for 2 months) to the problems we are having in 2015 (it hasn't rained hardly since May). I've heard that it takes a lifetime of learning to become a farmer, and that's one of the great rewards of the occupation. But in a world where people get certifications and degrees every little whipstitch, dedicating yourself to a lifetime of understanding how to grow food is a foreign experience. I make more mistakes than anyone I know. Except for other farmers. Other farmers make just as many mistakes as I do. And I love being in their company. They are the only ones who can make me feel better. How was I to know that it was going to be super hot and all my lettuce was going to bold really early before we got a chance to sell it all? Or how was I to know that a variety of grape that I planted was just going to die in two years? Farmers make a lot of mistakes, and there's not a large safety net there for you when you fall. But again, this is a blessing in disguise. Learning to forgive yourself and keep going to the next season is essential. Even if you do have to wait another 9 months to try something out again. Our modern existence has almost destroyed our ability to fail. We are not used to needing this sort of radical patience and forgiveness that forces us to embrace.

4) Farming the land yields a certain amount each season. You can not make it yield more or order more from China.

Some seasons are better for some things than others. This year, our grapes didn't produce very much at all. It was hot and dry and our irrigation system was broken for a large portion of the critical time when we needed to be getting water to our vines. We will be purchasing grapes from RayLen this year. But still, we had to take care of those vines just as if they had 10 tons of fruit on them. We got insurance, but it's not going to make up the profit we could have had if our grapes (and consequently wine) had done well this year. So even if we marketed our products more, we would not be able to sell more. We currently sell out of the majority of our produce and compost very little compared to a traditional farm. In order to increase our profits, we can't just "sell more." There is nothing more to sell. We can't do a new marketing campaign and somehow make more money. There just aren't that infinite vegetables and bottles of wine to sell. If we want to make more money, we will have to bring more acres into production, be smarter about our labor costs, and operate more efficiently. We can raise prices, but as we all know, people expect cheap food.

5) Unskilled labor is not unskilled.

Some people can do manual labor. Some can't. Some people have, what I call, vegetable sense. Others don't. Whenever someone says that farming is "unskilled labor" I wish I could invite that person out to the farm for a day. Some people can't even do it for a few hours. They get so red in the face that I worry for their health, or they get bored with the monotonous task or hoeing or weed eating. It only takes a few minutes for unskilled labor to destroy a few months worth of work. I have seen unskilled labor weed eat crops and destroy irrigation, pick a crop of spaghetti squash before it's ready, sell lettuce once its bolted, break expensive equipment, and mess up deliveries so bad that I was ashamed to even contact the restaurants afterwards. Farming requires skill. Manual labor requires skill. And frankly, very few people anymore have the skills, physical fitness, and fiscal discipline to work in "unskilled labor."

So to the person who offered to help me with marketing, do you work for $8/hr? Cause that is what I would have to pay you to keep any of the money I made yesterday. Do you understand that even if you do a great job, it will be another year before I can expand my operation to do business with any of the customers that your campaign just got me? Do you understand that I just now was able to afford a computer after being without one for 4 years? Now I'll be able to keep up with my blog. Do it on my own time, after work, on the weekends, whenever I need to vent or be creative. I know I won't do as good a job as you would do, but for now, it will have to do.

All that being said, we are making huge strides to becoming profitable and more efficient. Every year, we learn from the mistakes we make and even if we have to wait a few years before we are put in similar situations, our knowledge of farming in suburban North Carolina is growing by leaps and bounds. But in a world that is so fast paced, goal oriented, and wants it now now now for nothing, farming is a hard way of life that makes little sense. Nevertheless, in more ways that one, it truly is the key to maintaining our humanity.