Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Since one of the oft touted benefits of buying local food is that you get to know your farmers, I thought I would present you with a thumbnail biography about the Farmer and myself so that you might have some small insight into why we do what we do. We have never really done that before because it is very weird to write about yourself. If you read this blog, you know that growing things is a big part of our life, so I am just going to write about the non-NMFO stuff. Hope it turns out okay...

The Farmer

The Farmer was born in 1959 and grew up mostly in Charlotte. His dad was in law enforcement and his mom worked for the school system but they both grew up in the farming community where we are presently located. His parents moved to Charlotte in the late 1950's but because their family ties remained strong, the Farmer spent lots of his weekends and most of his summers coming back to the farm where he spent much of his time helping his grandad and great-grandad work on the farm. He also spent a lot of time outdoors which is where he developed his great love and understanding of nature. One of the reasons he got into organic farming is because of the connection to that love of all things natural. To be able to make a living doing something that is such a noble venture, as well as something that is part of your very core being, is about the best job I can think of right now. Besides, he has the greenest thumb this side of the Jolly Green Giant.

In Charlotte, his family lived outside the city limits, in a rural area where there were still several working farms. When he was about 12, he had a job, before school, at the dairy farm behind their house, feeding the cows as they were being milked. He had a great big bucket that he had to keep refilling at the silo and hauling back to the barn to keep the cows happy and calm. I think he might have also done some milking when he was a teenager.

After graduating high school, he attended college in North Carolina, where he played soccer (first ever freshman to start for his team...he was pretty good) and got a degree in Industrial Design and Engineering. He then spent 15 years or so working as an engineer for a design firm that made precision and micro instruments for industrial uses. Things like drill bits the size of a human hair and stuff like that. He also worked on projects for the auto and computer industry. Eventually, he left the field of engineering and headed west to pursue another life.

All of his life, the Farmer gravitated toward to the water, rivers, lakes or the oceans, which lead him to take up sailing at a young age and he remains a proficient big boat sailor to this day. His love of wind, water and waves, sparked an interest in a fledgling sport back in the early 80's called "windsurfing". Quickly mastering this sport, he spent several years with a corporate sponsorship on the windsurfing circuit. Kite boarding came along in the 90's and the progression into that sport just came naturally. Today he continues to pursue these sports, whenever he can get time away from the farm to do so.

Gifted with an incredibly right and curious mind, the Farmer is a true Renaissance man. He has many wide and varied interests that don't involve water. He is a licensed falconer and knows a whole lot about raptors. He plays guitar, Dobro, banjo and percussion. He practices yoga. He can build just about anything from the ground up and can make fire with a couple of sticks and a strip of leather. One area of particular interest to the Farmer is the study of Native American spiritualism and culture, particularly the Hopi. He hopes to complete his spiritual healing studies someday. And he always tells the truth, even if it stings a little. The Farmer is pretty cool.

The Farmer's Wife

I had a wonderful childhood. I grew up in a small town near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that was big enough not to be "backward" and small enough so that everybody pretty much knew each other. I was a "town girl" who had grandparents with a farm just outside of the city limits. They grew a huge garden every year which fed us pretty well and that granny taught me how to cook with ingredients fresh from the garden and the value of preserving part of the harvest every year.

Besides the big garden, there were also had apple and cherry trees to climb. We played under grapevines that Granny constantly admonished us to stay away from, lest we get stung by yellow jackets or bees. I don't remember ever getting stung by a yellow jacket until this past year. They had a mangy 3 legged cat that hung around the barn most of the time and presented us with tiny kittens to play with many times. (back then nobody spayed their pets). They gave her away a couple of times but she always returned so they just gave up. I loved that old raggedy cat. I won't say I ran wild at their farm, but is certainly was a free and wonderful place to be.

My other set of grandparents lived in town but had a huge back yard that was a wonderland to me as a child. That grandmother was from up North and cooked weird and exotic things like asparagus or rhubarb pie, with ingredients from her own garden. They had a crab apple tree in the back and a quince bush covered with big thorns and she made jelly out of those fruits. They also had a couple of apple trees that I wish we had saved cuttings from because I now realize that they were heirloom varieties. There was one tree that had the absolute best apples I have ever tasted. I don't eat apples to this day because of that tree...haven't found a variety that even comes close to the flavor and I searched for years before I gave that quest up. The closest I ever came was the old time Rusty Coat.

My grandfather also had a solarium where he grew some really exotic plants, like the giant jade tree that was taller than me as an adult or the Bird of Paradise plant that bloomed almost continually and from which he sold the flowers to the local florist. He also had a full sized lemon tree in the greenhouse that he used the lemons from to make incredible lemon meringue pies for which he was well know among the local widows ( my grandmother died with I was 19).

These city grandparents were organic gardeners and I remember growing up reading Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine because there were always several issues on the coffee table in their den. They had a big compost pile in the far corner of the yard, next to the asparagus/rhubarb beds and I used to marvel at all of the worms when I "helped" my grandfather turn the pile.

That early exposure (I was probably around 10 when what I was reading in the ROGs at their house started to sink in a bit) really shaped my lifelong interest in organic growing methods. In the late 60's I finally made the connection between organics and what was happening to the environment, to health issues, etc. Reading "The Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson had a tremendous influence on my views about the world.

After graduating from high school, I worked through my life by going off to college, getting married, having kids and working my way up to a successful career. My marriage failed and I was at odds on what direction to take with my life. It was a very confusing time and I was really at a loss for where to go next. One dream I never lost through all those years was to go out West and find a commune where I could grow my own food, get back to the land, live free, etc. (Of course that was my dream! I grew up in the Sixties...).

It took me two years to make the decision but I decided to see if any of that dream was still alive. I finally quit my job in 1994 and a week later I was on the road. The reality of it turned out to be that I just needed to clear my head and re-evaluate the direction my life was taking and it worked. Through those travels, I discovered that my dream had matured considerably and that my path was not what I had envisioned at all. That is what brought me to the place I am today. The best thing about taking that dramatic step was that I found someone to share my journey.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It is WooHoo! time at the Farm

Going to the mailbox is becoming more and more fun lately because the seed catalogs are rolling in every day now. Last year, I got on some new mailing lists for seeds, plants, equipment, etc. and some of those have arrived. I haven't even opened a single catalog yet because I want to sit down and just start going through them one at a time until I have perused them all. Usually I open them as they come in but thought I would do something different this year.

Ordinarily, I would not order a paper catalog (tree hugger, remember?) but I can't compare varieties, etc. using the computer. I have a big old oak library table where I do my paperwork and I can spread about 10 catalogs around and flip one to the other. Since I am mostly looking for ethnic, open pollinated and organically grown seeds, I start there but if I see a variety that is not being produced organically I have a whole other process I have to go through. We are required to use certified organic seed (no GMO allowed in certified seed) unless we can verify that we checked all sources available to us and did not find the variety produced that way...that is a job when you grow over 100 different varieties. Also, we only use seed sources that publish a "safe seed" pledge if they are not organically produced varieties.

Sometimes, I get heirloom seeds, organic or not, from seed savers like myself and from all over the country. One particular seed friend that I trade seeds with is in Southern California, almost down to Mexico. She grows all kinds of native Mexican chiles and loves to get our southern varieties, especially okras, in trade because they will grow in her hot dry climate. Sometimes they do better, too, because she doesn't have to deal with the humidity like we do (fungi are a problem for her). She turned me onto a Chocolate Chile that has become a favorite with us and a variety I have never seen in any seed catalog. It is dark brown, mildly spicy and tastes like it was smoked, even when eaten fresh! Gotta love that! But back to the subject I was on before I took that little trek off path.

Once I get a feel for anything new that I think we might want to grow, I research the varieties more thoroughly online (the blurbs in seed catalogs are meant to "sell" on on a variety, so I like to check out the real skinny on them by looking at online blogs and forums that discuss the realities of them. Don't always find them but I would say that 8 out of 10 times, I do. Then I have to present my arguments to the Farmer for his approval (sometimes he sees something I totally missed). There is a lot more to what we do here than just picking up some seed packs at the local seed store and sticking them in the ground. It actually takes us about 2 months of research and planning to get our farm plan like we want it.

Soil and field prep will start as soon as the ground dries out enough to get anything done. Right now the ground is "sticky" meaning that it sticks to hoes, plows, etc. and makes getting any field work done nearly impossible. There was an announcement last week that the drought in Rowan County was just declared officially over (in December...) and so we will be scrambling in February to get things prepped for planting. That is also about the time we will start out seedlings for planting out in April (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, herbs) once it is warm enough to set them in the garden without fearing a hard freeze. April planting will becomes the June/July/August crop of those items.

The good news is that we have lots of things in the ground that will "winter over" and pop up out of the ground and/or start growing again, as soon as we start having warmer days, usually in mid-February. We learned our lesson a couple of years ago, when the winter was so wet we had trouble getting anything planted in time to start our season on time. We were about 2 weeks late on planting and that put us behind until summer. One thing about farming is that there are continual lessons to be learned and if you don't pay attention, you will suffer later. The weather in this region has become so unpredictable in spring and so extreme in summer that some of our growing methods have changed radically in the 10 years we have been doing this. Maybe since the drought has broken, the summer will not be so brutal in 2009. Keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

CSA brings responsibilities for the shareholders, not just farmers

" a shareholder in both the bounty and the risk, I understand that nature ultimately decides what I receive and when I will receive it."

That is a quote from the first paragraph of our CSA membership agreement and it is a powerful statement. For anyone who is considering membership in CSA (any CSA, not just ours) I would like to give some insight into what being in a CSA means. While every CSA is different in some way, the basic premise is pretty much the same.

Buying into a CSA is an investment in a working farm, not hiring a produce delivery service. No investment comes without potential risks, as well as potential rewards, and a CSA is no exception. The member's investment returns are paid with the labor of the farmer, the use of his land, water and other resources and as a portion of harvests received. There are many factors that can affect the outcome. Anything that happens on the farm affects the CSA, ergo the members are affected, also.

Nothing is ever guaranteed in any investment, especially one involving a farm venture. When a crop is less than expected or fails completely members share that outcome. There is never any way to know exactly what conditions will provide which bounties or crop losses and a CSA member should be prepared for either situation.

Members of a CSA invest in a specific year's seasonal crops and harvests, in return for a specified number of week's products during that year. Ours happens to run for 30 weeks and our growing season runs from April to April. Sometime in that 12 month period, we will fulfill our 30 week obligation to our members. We do our very best to provide it as a weekly portion for 30 consecutive weeks, but there can be no guarantee that this will be the case. The same is true for most any CSA.

Generally, the operator of a CSA knows pretty well what members can expect to receive over the seasons, but there is never any way to say exactly how much or exactly when crops will come in. Say a strain of green beans is supposed to take 65 days to produce, that is only an average and usually if growing conditions are optimal. With the weather in this region being so unpredictable and extreme sometimes, there are many many factors that weigh into a successful year's harvests. Part of the farmer's expertise comes in with being able to plan, execute and deliver crops by being able to work around these variables.

Any venture in which the ultimate successful outcome is dependent on variables like weather conditions, insect pests, crop failures, flooding rains, wind damage is stressful. It is business as usual in our region. Organic field grown crops are considerably more susceptible to any adverse conditions because of the nature of how these crops are grown. With all the factors that weigh into a successful growing year, a farmer who is bringing in a decent crop of 30, 40 or even 50 different varieties is quite a feat, yet we do that consistently here at our farm.

Food doesn't just happen. Growing certified organic food takes capital, extensive knowledge, patience, perseverance, hard work, luck and sometimes even a small miracle for any crop to come to its full fruition. The farm labor has to be done, sometimes 50-60+ hours per week, in searing heat or bitter cold ( farmers work year round to provide food during the growing season). The varieties are chosen (picking out good ones is a skill in itself), the seeds are bought and planted, the weeds hoed and pulled. Planting, picking, prepping and packing has to be done.

All of that work is done no matter what the final outcome is and nothing changes that. I think that people don't realize is how much the farmer loses when there is a crop loss. The expense, time, effort, space, effect on future plantings, the scrambling to plant something to make up for the shortfall all falls on the shoulders of the grower. We have worked just as hard and put in just as much on a crop that didn't produce but a bushel of produce as we did on the one that produced ten.

The CSA farm/member relationship is not a simple one. Being in a CSA means that you have to be willing to support your CSA farm, financially, spiritually and personally. Most people join a CSA because they want to know the person who grows their food and develop ties to that person, even if it is just to say "hi" when the share is picked up for the week. Having that supportive membership means a lot to the farmer.

Most CSA operators are extremely dedicated to their members and the expertise and skill of the farmer has something to do with the end results. Unrealistic expectations about the CSA farm usually leads to disappointment or an unsatisfactory experience with CSA membership. Going into the relationship with realistic ideas about what can and might happen and appreciation of the amount of work involved in growing and managing a CSA can make a big difference in your CSA experience.

CSA membership is an immensely rewarding experience for most people who join one. Beautiful fresh, healthy produce, sharing in bountiful harvests, feeling good about supporting a family farm and getting to know the person who grows the food you feed your family should be enough to make CSA membership worthwhile.

Helping to support a small sustainable farm is also a great way to put your "green" food forward by actually doing something pro-active to improve the environment. Most small farms pollute less, protect the land from environmental concerns and use methods that make the food that they grow much safer and healthier than anything you can buy at a supermarket. Reducing the carbon footprint related to your food supply is certainly a positive thing.

So, after reading all of that, if you think that being in a CSA might be the thing for you, go out and find one in your area. You can look on websites and or you can search the Web using keywords like CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, farm share, local produce along with your state or Zip Code (otherwise you will find CSA's from California....).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Not such a great idea...

According to serious environmentalists, one of the worst ideas of 2008: Carbon Offsets

The wanna-be environmentalist's "Get out of Jail Free" card, carbon offsets enable companies or individuals to invest in tree farms or wind power as a way to compensate for their carbon footprints. Problem is, offsets don't change behavior. They're just the green equivalent of confession, making people feel better about their eco-sins but not stopping them from committing them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wrote this a while back and never published it...

The title of this blog is "Simply Sustainable - My Life on an Organic Farm". It mostly talks about the ups and downs of living and working as a farmer. But I wasn't always a farmer. In fact, my previous incarnation was about as far from farmer as you can get. I worked in the financial services industry for over 25 years....securities and commodity brokerage, to be specific.

My epiphany that maybe that industry wasn't where I needed to be came to me back in 1992 and it took me two years to shake myself loose from it and "retire" from my long career there. I have never looked back, although sometimes I do miss the money. Of course, that only lasts for about 30 seconds because my old life always flashes before my eyes and brings me back to reality because the truth of it is that I am not sure that I would have survived another year in that business, much less the 13 years since my departure.

I have worked hard to distance myself from the reality that most people live in daily (9 to 5 job, big mortgage payment, credit card debt, etc.) on purpose. I gave up a lot by today's standards of success to get to the place I am in my present life. The money, the house, the car, the travel abroad...none of it really ended up meaning much after all, once it was gone. For a while, it was kind of like an out of body experience, but when I settled back down to earth, it was all good. Like anybody else, my life is far from perfect, but it is much closer than the marjority of people that I know. I have truly never been happier in my adult life.

Of course, I would not be honest if I didn't give a lot of credit to the people around me who have supported and loved me no matter how radical or strange my choices may have seemed to them. And I certainly could not have reached this level of
satisfaction in my life without having my best friend by my side every step of the way. Sometimes, there are people who come into you life that have a profound effect and if you have the wisdom and openess to accept what they bring to you it can change your life forever. Not to sound cliche, because I truly belive this, opening yourself up to the endless possibilities of the Universe is the most important step anyone can take to having their best life ever. We are only given one life at a time to live, so make this one count.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I hope that everyone is faring well during the recent economic turmoil that has been affecting us all. The state of the world is very fragile right now and I pray for peace and harmony every day and for the health and happiness of all. It is not an easy road to travel but if we take it slowly and mindfully, things will be brighter at the end of the road. The Farmer and I have given a lot of thought to how to do our part to help out those who want to be in CSA but who might need a little assistance with making that happen.

Trying to keep our CSA accessible and affordable is a very challenging proposition. By not raising our costs at the same level that other industries are raising theirs we have pretty much kept out prices at the same level for the last several years. This has been a tremendous burden because our production costs have tripled in many areas. Last year, we did increase the price of CSA to a level that would allow us to include delivery of shares to members but that has proven to be an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" scenario. (Who would have thought that gas prices would have spiked at $4+ per gallon right in the middle of our busiest season?) We will be going back to pick up locations for next year and have added one to the list, so now there will be three choices. In addition, we have changed the structure of our CSA to include more affordable payment options and expanded CSA overall by establishing partnership with other local farmers.

For the first time ever, we are accepting monthly payments (after the initial deposit) for membership in our CSA. We have set up a PayPal account to take credit card payments (although there is a small admin fee -theirs, not ours- to use this system).

Also, we are offering a Month-to-Month Share that requires only a one month at a time commitment. There are a couple of restrictions on the Month-to-Month option. This share is not available in May and June, during strawberry season, and it is not available as a 100% organic produce share but overall is still a great CSA option.

We had not planned on having Charlotte back in the pick up rotation next year but the demand was such that we had to pay attention. For that reason, we have added the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market back into our schedule for 2009. We will be there on Saturdays again starting in late April (CSA officially starts May 2, 2009). There will also be lots of our organic produce for sale at this market but a limited number of varieties. We are doing 2 other markets now and don't want to spread it too thinly so our farm plan includes growing some of our more major crops (okra and sweet potatoes for example) in quantities enough to accommodate all of our venues.

All of the information about these new options are published on the website at