Sunday, May 25, 2014

CSA Newsletter for May 25, 2014

Farm Update

Our piggies are starting to explore their new home.
This week has been a great week for plant growth, between having a lot of soil moisture and more ideal temperatures.  As the temperatures have warmed, the insects have finally started coming out and we have been fighting flea beetles on several crops. The insects appeared later this year than they usually do because of the long winter, but they are now here, and so begins the constant war we will fight with them until everything dies back in the late fall. We even have one bed of cabbage that has an infestation of ants, which we have never seen happen before.  It seems like no matter how long we (and by “we” I mostly mean Fred) do this, we learn a few new things each year.  We also turned in a lot of our cover crop to prepare the ground for our warm season crops like tomatoes and sweet potatoes, which are likely to be planted this week. Our coldframes are also in the process of being prepared for our main tomato planting as well. Also this last week,
The pigs are going to need names!  If you have any
ideas, find us on facebook and join the pig
naming discussion!
our piggies arrived at the farm!  We have six of them this year, and they are acclimating well to their new pasture.  Our chickens are also laying more eggs and are very happy feeding on the lush growth of spring.  Everyone around here (pigs, chickens, and people alike) are excited about the gorgeous weather!

Keepin’ it Local:  How we Distribute Our Produce Around Michigan

Most of you reading this newsletter are probably either past or current CSA members, or maybe you just love us enough to read our newsletter even though you live too far away to join the CSA (Hi Aunt Laura!).  Although the CSA is the main way we get our veggies into people’s homes and onto their plates, we also have other partners in getting our fresh organic veggies into our local food system. 
The evening sun on lovely green
 kale.  I'm probably a huge dork,
but I love stuff like this!
When we first started the farm, our intention was to have the CSA, do some farmers’ markets, and sell to some wholesale accounts such as restaurants and stores.  As it turned out, there was just not enough time to do the farmers’ market on a regular basis and keep up with everything else we need to do to make the farm work.  Also, selling at the farmers’ market usually involves a lot of produce waste, because whatever doesn't sell has to get thrown away (or in our case, fed to the pigs).  The CSA however, is working out well, continues to grow, and is a pretty efficient way for us to get our veggies into your homes at an affordable price.  Beyond the CSA there are a lot of other partnerships that help us get food to restaurants, stores, and even a few schools.  One of our main ways is to take our produce directly to area restaurants like The Brass Café and Camille’s on the River in Mount Pleasant, Fireside Grille in Shepherd, and Red Haven, Soup Spoon Café, and Fork in the Road in Lansing/ East Lansing.  We also sell directly to some stores such as ELFCO (East Lansing), Green Tree (Mount Pleasant), Natures Gift Organic Market and Lolande’s Market (Midland), and Mert’s Specialty Meats (Okemos).  These stores and restaurants are looking to set themselves apart from the crowd by having unique local flavors, and also by helping support local agriculture.  It has been great for us to be able to talk to and get to know the unique personalities behind these businesses and to experience some of the great foods that they provide.
Beyond these direct relationships, we also work with three different local distributors.  In the past, distributors used to have a less than stellar reputation with farmers due to poor business practices and extremely low prices for the farmers’ products. However, the small distributors we work with (Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, Earthy Delights in Okemos, and Wildroot Food Collective in Bay City) have a different focus and way of doing business from the old model, and now have enabled us to get our food into more places in Michigan than we would have the ability to do ourselves.  These partners have given us good prices for our produce, and they are able to provide their customers a great service by coordinating pick-ups from many different farms and bringing the products to the customers. All three of these groups pick up at our farm, which is really convenient for us and many other farms during the busy season. There is increasing interest in this type of model, and if you have ever heard of food hubs or local food aggregates, this is what that is referring to. 
These tiny lettuces will be
 salad mix at the first drop-off!
The CSA and our other food partnerships have been great, and we are always looking for more ways to get our food onto the plates of local consumers.  In fact, we believe one of the main hurdles to building a vibrant local food system is finding efficient ways to disseminate local foods from small producers.  One idea we are considering for the future is a home delivery option for the CSA.  We know that for some folks, going to the drop-off at the same time for 20 weeks can be a burden, and we are looking at ways to make it easier for those who are in a time crunch most of the season or otherwise have trouble making it to the drop-off.  If you have interest in a home delivery option or any ideas to share, we would love to hear from you as we consider this idea.

We hope this gives you a more complete view of how our farm works, and how we are always trying to find ways to better meet the demand for local veggies.  We are always open to ideas, and we appreciate the great amount of support we have received from the community of people who consume our veggies and appreciate the unique seasonal flavors and freshness we work hard to provide.  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

CSA Newsletter for May 17, 2014

Farm Update

The cherry trees are in bloom in
the orchard!  We're new to fruit trees,
so it will be a steep learning curve,
but if all goes well, we should have
cherries in early July.
This week was a good week to for harvesting some of our early spinach and lettuce.  With warmer temperatures in the beginning of the week it really spurred on some of our overwintered and coldframe greens.  The frosts so far have not hit us very badly (although Fred was really worried on Thursday night, and he went out in the middle of the night to cover the strawberries). Only a planting of spinach with very small leaves seems to have been affected so far. Most plantings are looking very good and healthy.  Our new cultivator that Fred designed and had constructed came to the farm this week, and it has been working out really well. This is good because we have been hand weeding more of the first plantings lately, and this new cultivator will help greatly in limiting our weeding time.  The orchard is also starting to bloom so we are hoping these cold, somewhat frosty mornings will be over soon.  The chickens are starting to lay more of their small pullet eggs.  This small size occurs for often a couple of weeks as the young hens begin laying for the first time.  They have had a good time roaming the yard, although Fred is going to build a fence soon since the chickens seem to enjoy walking on Michele’s flowers and pooping on the deck.  We are starting to get more of our summer crew at the farm, and it looks like the crew will primarily be Keegan, Nate, Joe, and Charlie, all of whom have worked for us in previous seasons.  We are really looking forward to the start of CSA season, which will be the second week of June, so mark your calendars!
Things are really coming up in the coldframes!
These are the greens of Easter Egg radishes, which
are fun and multicolored

My Farming Story, or How I Got Here From Where I Thought I Was Going

            People often ask me how I got into farming.  Probably because, truth be told, I don’t look all that much like a farmer.  “Did you grow up on a farm?” they ask.  “No,” is the short answer.  The long answer is “Well, kind of.  I grew up next door to my grandparents’ farm, but I never thought in a million years I would end up farming myself.”
            We lived about a quarter of a mile from my grandparents’ farm, and my siblings and I were constantly running up and down the path that my grandpa kept mowed in the cornfield between our yard and theirs.  Most of my cousins also lived within running distance of the farm, so we were always playing together at Grandma and Grandpa’s.  I grew up playing in barns and empty silos, running around in the cow pen, falling out of trees, and getting lost in the tall corn more often than I care to admit.  It was pretty idyllic, actually.  But it never occurred to me that that would be what I would end up doing with my life.  In fact, by the time I was finishing high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and it was not farming.  I was to be a high school French teacher.  Ever since I started school myself, I knew I wanted to teach, and now I knew what I wanted to teach.  I was a girl with a plan.
            I started at MSU that fall.  I made some great friends, studied hard, worked part-time at the cafeteria, joined clubs, pulled all-nighters, wrote papers, and more papers, and more papers.  By the time I returned for my junior year after studying abroad, I was even more confirmed in my choice of a career, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and impact those young minds, and hopefully impart to them a love of the language and culture that I had come to love.
Fred in the coldframes at MSU's Student Organic Farm
Summer 2004.
            Then, as the story often goes, I met a young horticulture student.  He was cute in sort of a nerd-boy way, earnest and principled, intelligent, driven, and uncomplicated in a way I was not used to.  Within a few weeks we were dating, within a year we were married.  Our career plans were unchanged; we would finish school, he would start an organic farm, and I would teach until we had kids and then stay home with them.
            And that’s what we did, with a few tweaks to the plan.  Instead of starting our own farm immediately after graduation, Fred took a management position at a large vegetable farm in Ohio, because let’s face it, it’s hard to get land when you’re 22.  That turned out to be a great decision, because during the six growing seasons he worked there, he got a lot of experience and learned some invaluable lessons, both in how to grow things, and in what we did (and didn’t) want our farm to look like.  And just like we had planned, I got a job teaching high school French, and I loved it.  I loved my students, I loved the school, I loved the community, and I even didn’t hate all the endless hours of lesson planning, unit writing, preparing, writing assessments, and grading.  And since I didn’t have kids and Fred worked long hours, I had enough time to do all of this to my own extremely high standards.  It was perfect.
            We also had a great group of friends who had a standard biweekly Friday night get-together, and we often saw them in between our normally scheduled events.  The group was made up of a few married couples, a few dating couples, and a few single people.  During the time we were with this group of friends in Ohio, a few of the single people started dating and got engaged, a few of the dating couples got married, and a few of the married couples started having kids.  And then we found out we were pregnant. 
There were two things I had always known: that I did eventually want to have kids, and that once I did, I would stop working and stay home with them.  Part of the reason it took us so long to have kids (we had been married five years at this point) was that I was having so much fun teaching and didn’t want to give it up yet.  Also, the fact that we had two incomes and no kids allowed us to put away plenty of money for the one-income transition we knew was coming.  Once we found out we were pregnant for Jane, we knew it was time to move back to Michigan, get some land, and start our farm.  We spent those months planning, both for the baby and for the farm.  How would we structure the farm?  Where could we get some quality land that we could actually afford?  What would be do for equipment?  Where would we live?  And of course, there were also the usual fears that you get when you are about to step off the edge.  What if we didn’t make any money?  What if we lost everything we had worked so hard to save?  Were we, in fact, crazy to leave our stable jobs and start something that was by no means guaranteed to work?
Fred, Michele, and newborn baby Jane.  October 2010.
But we were committed to the plan.  So just a few weeks after Jane was born, we bought our house, moved back to Michigan, and started preparing for our first growing season.  You know, all those changes they tell you not to make when you’ve just had a baby.  And the rest, as they say, is history.
Little Jane playing with the soil at the farm.
May 2012.
Now, three years and another baby later, I can barely remember that other life, when I was speaking primarily French for eight hours of the day, didn’t know the difference between a beet and a radish, and had the luxury of focusing on something for more than three minutes at a time without being interrupted.  (Case in point:  I wrote most of this while the girls were asleep.  Then they woke up, and I have written a total of seven sentences in the last half hour, in between diaper changes, sippy cup refills, rushing a toddler to the bathroom, and breaking up a few squabbles over toys.)  But I actually couldn’t be happier, because now I have a new mission.  It turns out that I am now as enthusiastic about providing people with (and helping educate them about) fresh organic produce as I used to be about teaching French.  I love talking with people at the CSA drop-offs and other events about what a joy it is to eat food made with quality fresh ingredients, and I love being able to promote healthy living in this small way.  So maybe when my kids are all grown up I’ll go back to my original dream job, but for right now, I’m really enjoying the job that’s in front of me, weeds, dirty diapers, and all.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

CSA Newsletter for May 13, 2014

Farm Update

Look at all these lovely little strawberry plants!
Pretty soon we'll be harvesting all sorts of yummy berries!
Hello everyone!  As the weather has warmed, the field work has become very busy and things are growing at an exceptional rate.  Most of the field is now planted and we were even able to sneak in an acre of cover crop early in the season as well.  So far we have been planting our cool weather crops such as kale, lettuce, carrots, and onions, and we also planted some basil, summer squash, and cucumbers in the coldframes last week. This week we will start putting tomatoes in the coldframes after we harvest the greens that are currently there.  These last few weeks have been great, as the warmer temperatures have spurred a lot of growth, but the weeds are coming fast and furious, so we are trying to stay ahead of them.  We are hoping that our new cultivator that is coming this week will help out a lot with the spring weeds. As for the chickens, they are now at our house and have quickly overtaken the yard.  We found the first few pullet eggs yesterday, so we expect to have a lot of eggs soon.  Our old dog Josie just moved back to the farm after staying inside with us for the winter.  She is happy to have the whole farm to explore again.  In the orchard, our fruit trees are going to bloom any time now, as will the blueberries.  We are really looking forward to another great season!

 The Many Benefits of CSA

If you’ve talked to me for even a few minutes, you’ve probably gathered that I am passionate about the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) concept.  I love CSAs because they benefit not only the farmer, but also the consumer, the environment, and the local community.
This garlic was planted last fall, and it will
                be the garlic you get in your share
                 this season.

In general, farming is a pretty uncertain, precarious business.  Traditional commodity farmers are subject to swings in the market which can make or break their seasons, and you pretty much need to have a lot of acreage if you are going to be able to produce enough crops to make a living wage.  Also, winter and early spring are when most farms incur a lot of their expenses, between repairing equipment, buying seed, etc.  So in the traditional farm model, where the farm does not actually have any income until the late summer when they harvest and sell their crops, most farms are operating in the red for most of the year.  And as anyone who has ever been in an uncertain income situation can attest, that is a pretty stressful way to live.  So one way CSA benefits the farmer is that the farm actually has income early in the year when they really need it.  Since members sign up and pay at least a portion of their membership early on, that really eases the cash flow issues that plague most farms.  Farmers also have a lot more control over their markets with the CSA model, and are not subject to the same price swings that commodity crop farmers often experience.  And growers who rely on farmers’ markets or auctions to sell their produce know that even if they have the loveliest veggies in the world, they are probably going to end up throwing most of it away if it rains on market day.  CSA also minimizes that risk, because when we harvest each morning for the drop-off, we already know where each tomato, cucumber, and bag of spinach is going.  The CSA concept really minimizes the everyday risk that is the reality for most farms.  It also allows us to be responsive to what the consumers want.  We’re experimenting with a few new fruits and veggies this year because people have asked us about them.  The fact that we get to talk to our CSA members at the drop-offs allows us to be more in tune with what people really want, which makes us better able to serve our customers.
Aside from benefitting the farmer, the CSA model also benefits the consumer.  For one thing, you can ask the farmer questions about exactly how something was grown, so you know exactly what you’re putting in your body.  Also, when CSA members pick up their veggies, their share has usually been harvested that very same morning.  Talk about fresh produce!  By contrast, when you buy veggies from the store, they have usually been harvested about a week earlier, which means that they won’t last as long in your fridge, and they’ve lost a little bit of flavor and nutritional quality during their cross-country journey.  It is also really easy to get stuck in a rut at the store, always throwing the same few items in your cart.  But with CSA, you get to learn about new fruits and veggies that maybe you’ve never used before.  When we first started doing the CSA, a lot of people would look at the kohlrabi and ask me, “What the heck are those?”  But since those first encounters, I have had several people come up and tell me that kohlrabi is now their favorite vegetable.  So you just never know when trying a new type of produce will make your life just a little bit better.
Little Jessamine playing with the produce stand at the Mt. Plesant Discovery Museum.
 She is already learning about how CSA helps connect the community!
There are also environmental benefits to the CSA model.  Most CSAs operate within their immediate geographical area, which eliminates the aforementioned cross-country trip that most produce takes to get to the store where it will be sold.  The average fruit or veggie travels 1200 to 1500 miles to the store, whereas our veggies travel an average of 28 miles to the various drop-offs.  That really helps reduce the fossil fuel emissions necessary to get each piece of produce from the farm to the consumer.  CSAs also tend to use more environmentally friendly farming techniques.  Even those farms that are not certified organic often still use organic practices, they just simply choose not to take on the expense and paperwork involved in being certified organic.  This greatly reduces the amount of chemicals that end up in the soil and water, improving the health of the local environment.  Small CSA farms are also much more likely to be doing things like rotating crops and including animals in their production systems, which reduces or even reverses the detrimental effects that conventional farming methods usually have on the soil.
One often overlooked benefit of CSA programs is the positive effect that they have on the local communities where they are present.  Often CSA drop-offs are somewhat of a community event.  If you show up to our Alma drop-off a few minutes before 5:00, you’ll see about 40 people waiting in line with their baskets for the drop-off to start, chatting with each other about recipes, articles they read recently, and a whole host of other things.  I love listening to the conversations people have while waiting for the drop-off to begin, and I’m glad that we can provide a place for that to exist.  Another benefit is that more money stays in the local economy.  When you buy your produce at a large chain store, the money you spend goes to some headquarters somewhere, and it has left the community.  But when you get your produce through a CSA or farmers’ market, the money stays in the community.  So if you’ve ever seen me at Stucchi’s having a sandwich with my girls, or getting coffee and granola at Green Tree, or picking up some bacon at LaLonde’s after we inevitably run out of our own, you can smile knowing that not only have you helped support our family, but also these other local businesses as well.
So for these reasons and many others, Community Supported Agriculture is a model that has benefits all around, for those who produce the food, those who consume it, the environment, and the community.  So thanks for being a part of it!