2013 Farmer’s Report1
At the beginning of this month I delivered the final round of produce for our 2013 season. Now that the season has ended, it’s time for me to provide you with our second annual Farmer’s Report. The annual Farmer’s Report is an exercise that helps me analyze what went well, what went wrong and – most importantly – what I’ve learned so that I can apply those lessons to improving subsequent seasons. It’s also a great way for me to share important information with our members and readers.
No One Can Stop You
Before I get too far into the ups and downs of our second season, I want to re-share a little something that inspires me to keep moving forward with this crazy idea of living sustainably.
In 2012 I wrote that:
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of supportive, adventurous people in my life that didn’t have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I first started talking about quitting my well-paid HR job to start a farm in my suburban backyard. But just like any entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of naysayers who could come up with all sorts of reasons why I should be afraid. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” No, I’m not. “You should probably know more about gardening before you do something like this.” I probably should. “Won’t that be a lot of work?” Yes, it will. “What if it fails?”
I decided a long time ago that I can choose not to stretch beyond my comfort zone because I’m afraid of failing (and then spend my life wondering what would have happened) or I can take the risk of actually putting myself out there and knowing what would have happened. Innovators don’t change the world by being safe and normal. Everyone with a special skill started somewhere – no one is born an expert. People we revere as world-changers are people who realize that if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.
When I left my full time job to begin Arcadia Farms, I told friends and family that I knew there would be both successes and setbacks ahead of me and that I was looking forward to the opportunity to grow from both of them. After studying some of the great innovators of history, I’ve come to believe strongly that ‘failing forward’ is a recipe for success. After two years of operating a start-up business, I’ve become more convinced that this is true, but also, I’ve become acquainted with the harsh reality that failing forward is painful. Painful… but worth it.
This year has been full of new improvements and endeavors. Here are four areas that played a huge role in shaping our year.
In April I brought you Chicken Week, during which I not only revealed our beautiful birdies for the first time, but I also discussed the case for backyard chickens, how to care for baby chicks, how to design space for chickens in a suburban setting and how to build a low-cost, high-quality chicken coop. Few of you know this, but our chicken ownership actually teetered on the edge of causing both a Right to Farm legal battle with our municipality and the potential of losing our farm entirely. I felt it was best to keep the situation private until resolved but it was a major time, resource and energy suck that occurred right at the onset of our CSA season. Thank God that is behind us! Despite the initial legal stress, life with chickens has been pretty darn good! (Who wouldn’t love six eggs a day?)
There is so much follow up information to share about the chickens that they really deserve their own post. I trust that the details of our actual experience compared to our initial expectations will be helpful to those of you who have considered suburban or urban chickens. Look for this soon!
In 2013 we did this wild and crazy thing called Locavore90. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Locavore90 is (was?) a free program to challenge and equip families in Southwest Michigan to incorporate more local foods into their diet for 90 days.
Buying local has been one of three major focus areas for our farm. Add to that the fact that a locavore (local-only) diet can have significant health benefits for both bodies and economies (click here for an explanation) and you can see why I was really stoked about putting this program in motion! I envisioned Locavore90 as a way to have a positive impact in the community, expand the readership of our blog and to find some fellow locavores who could encourage us (and each other) along the way.
The program began with great enthusiasm and effort. However as the season went on, the Locavore90 posts (and posts in general) became fewer and farther between. I can’t say for certain why things tapered off but here’s my best guess. My initial vision for Locavore90 was to create all of the meal plans long before the season ever began. However, our legal issues regarding chickens in the early winter and spring days drained so much time and energy that I was not able to prioritize the task. After the season started, it was difficult to find time to focus on creating quality meal plans. The time and creative energy invested in the meal plans essentially used up the creativity and time I would normally have used for blogging. I also chose to invest a significant amount of time into family relationships this summer. Mathematically, there should have been enough hours in the day to do everything and do it well. In reality, there just wasn’t enough of me to go around and although I wish Locavore90 had ended on a stronger note, I have peace (in fact, I’m pleased) about the choices I made with how to invest my limited energy and time.
Having said all of that, Locavore90 was still good! I personally gained a lot of valuable information about things like sources for in-season food and the value of raw milk. I also discovered some great recipes which will forever be go-to staples for our family. And lastly I was blessed to get to “meet” so many of you online and expand our readership. Thank you, thank you, thank you for participating! I’m not sure what Locavore90 will look like next year, but just like everything we set out to do, I’ll take the lessons learned from this experience to make it simpler and better the next time around.
This spring I also had the pleasure of announcing that we would be partnering with two other small-scale growers to form a group known as Arcadia Growers Group. This group aims to sell produce to commercial customers such as schools, restaurants, small grocers, and childcare facilities. Our first customer (a local childcare facility) has provided us with an excellent initial experience. We had a slow start due to the unseasonably cold weather this spring, but once deliveries began in July sales have been working like clockwork. Our brokerage work has been very profitable for our partners and has been a good source of supplemental income for our farm.
This endeavor has been personally enriching for me because it helped me realize something: I love sales and marketing! Or more specifically, I love selling and marketing something I’m passionate about and enjoy. This epiphany moment is helping to shape our business plans as I decide who I want to be when I grow up.
If you are a small-scale grower who uses natural methods and you’d like some help selling your veggies to a broader market, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’re looking for more partners to expand our growers group and intend to add additional customers in 2014. Likewise, if you manage an organization that could benefit from local, naturally-raised produce, please contact me. I’m sure we can help you!
Our second CSA season has been a good one. In 2012 I learned several lessons from both our successes and failures and I was eager to implement solutions that evolved from those lessons. Those solutions resulted in larger shares (more veggies each week), less supplementing, reduced waste in packaging, consistent labeling, improved pest/disease control and more consistent application of customer preferences.
Lessons Learned in 2013
Just like last year, I’m walking away from this season having learned several lessons. Following this list will be a more in-depth discussion of what I experienced and the conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences.
- Newspaper pots are not as effective for seed-starting as other options.
- Hugelkultur works… I think.
- I need to do a better job of managing weeds in my aisle space.
- The chicken paddocks need to be improved.
- I learned more about specific pest and disease management tools.
- There is a certain disease that significantly impacts several of my crops each year. I need to determine if it is really anthracnose and find a way to effectively deal with it.
- There is no end to this worry: “Will there be enough and will it be ready when I need it?”
- I have to choose between small-scale simplicity and large-scale income (profit).
- I need to decide who I want to be when I grow up.
No More Newspaper Pots
This winter I spent a significant amount of blogging time focused on the seed-starting process. I learned lots of tips that I’ve found to be effective, such as soaking seeds, chitting potatoes and planting by moon phases. Another solution I presented to you involved creating newspaper pots for starting seeds. The premise is that you turn waste into a resource by folding an origami-like pot out of newspaper, fill it with potting soil and plant your seed. Later when you’re ready to transfer the seedling to the garden you can place the pot directly into the soil since it will decompose. I also liked the fact that you can label each pot since I have had issues with being diligent in labeling. After reviewing several options for seed starting media, I decided that the benefits of newspaper pots sounded like the best solution. Hundreds of them. I folded hundreds of newspaper pots… I even paid my nieces and nephews commission to help me make some of them! Turns out that this solution didn’t work so well for me. Here’s why…
First, the soil in the pots dries out quickly and requires frequent watering. On the flip side, the pots definitely need drainage holes/slots on the bottom otherwise they get bogged down. Also there was a noticeable trend that the seedlings growing in newspaper pots were less healthy (smaller, more fragile) than seedlings grown in other ways. My presumption is that this issue is caused by a combination of the too dry/too wet conundrum and becoming root-bound. Once these limitations are added up, the fact that it takes a considerable amount of time to fold and prepare the pots becomes another negative.
I did, however, discover this season the method for seed starting that I plan to use for my future gardens. On several occasions I ran out of newspaper pots and opted to sow seeds directly into trays (like these) filled with potting soil. In every case, the seedlings grown in trays were healthier than those grown in pots. This approach takes up the same amount of space in my greenhouse. Since I have lots of trays (purchased here) and can use home-grown compost for seed starting, I now have the resources I need to operate a self-sufficient seed starting operation. Woot!
Hugelkultur Works… I Think
We have made large financial and time investments into implementing hugelkultur on our farm. The 2013 expansion of our garden is comprised entirely of hugelkultur beds. For the uninitiated, hugelkultur is a German concept which roughly translates to “mound culture.” The overall idea is that woody materials (i.e. logs, brush) buried under a mound of soil will provide both nutrients and water retention as the wood decomposes. The process is touted as a no-irrigation system of growing. For a more in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of hugelkultur, click here.
Our hugelkultur beds started the season as approximately 4-foot deep pits filled with rotting logs and then covered by 1-2 feet of compost. The beds, initially raised mounds, have all settled and are now level with the ground. All of the beds have grown healthy, thriving plants with the exception of one. That particular bed was topped with native soil and not with compost. Though I can’t say it had thriving plants, it did grow several pounds of zucchini (from struggling plants), radishes and is now growing shelling peas. Even with this exception, I’m very pleased with the results from the hugelkultur side of the garden.
And what about the no-irrigation claims attached to hugelkultur? Well, fortunately for our CSA, we had lots of rain this year. Unfortunately for our hugelkultur experiment… we had lots of rain this year. It’s difficult for me to say whether or not the water-retention benefit s of hugelkultur were truly evident as I compared the east and west sides of the garden because of the massive amount of rain we received. All the same, I did observe that the hugelkultur side of the garden appeared to be healthier than the traditional side. If I have time in the spring, I will likely convert a few traditional beds to hugelkultur and do a comparison through the next season. I also hope to convert the entire Fenceline Garden to a shallow hugelkultur bed.
Weed Management in Aisle Space
I have a major weed issue. On the west side of the garden (built in 2012) the issue is simply that the aisle space gets unruly and occasionally tall weeds are able to reach over the bed sides (one foot tall), depositing seeds as they grow. The mulch that originally covered these aisles has either decomposed substantially or has been washed away. There are enough gaps (and now enough composted nutrients) available that the aisles were quickly taken over by all kinds of plants this spring. In some areas I laid down cardboard, but I didn’t have enough to cover the whole garden.
The east side of the garden is comprised of hugelkultur beds. Although these are technically “raised beds” they don’t have any hardscape sides – they are simply mounds of compost atop a deep pit filled with lumber and organic matter. In early spring this was no problem because the aisles were still basically sand from all the hugel digging done the previous winter. My intent was to cover the aisles with cardboard and then mulch, but once the season got rolling I prioritized many other things ahead of aisle space. Weeds have very easily and readily moved into the fertile hugelkutlur beds. As you might expect, I have some thoughts on how to address this issue.
Here’s the plan: I’m looking for living ground cover that will choke out the competitors, won’t be so aggressive that it snakes in under the sides of raised beds, doesn’t need to be mowed and can handle foot traffic. And I’d like fries with that too, please.
In this blog post I shared several possibilities and asked for your opinions. Turns out there’s an option out there I hadn’t thought of at that time: Ajuga. Ajuga is an evergreen, perennial ground cover that can handle foot traffic. While touring some landscaping improvements made at my in-law’s house this summer I noticed that they had some ajuga growing in their front yard. For them it is an unwanted weed so my mother-in-law was more than willing to let me pull some up to take home. I’m currently growing the transplants in my greenhouse and plan to gather more from their place. In the spring I’ll be transplanting ajuga into the aisle spaces.
Meanwhile, I need to do something to give myself a head start in the spring. I’ve just started the slow, labor-intensive process of digging up the sod in the aisle spaces and turning it upside down. I also have a large pile of wood chips still from cutting down several trees to make room for a micro-orchard so I’m using that in some places. My plan is to plant the ajuga directly into the wood chips in a test area and see what happens. Maybe I’m crazy… we’ll find out!
The other necessary solution is that my hugelkultur beds need hardscape sides. I haven’t decided yet if I want to use cinder blocks or lumber. More on that in time.
Chicken Paddock Perfection
Our chicken coop is located in a paddock system. The original design called for four paddocks (fenced areas) each accessible from a separate door in the coop and through which the chickens could rotate. Each paddock is designed to be planted with crops chickens can self harvest (i.e., grasses, greens, berries). Though the numbers on our original design made sense per the experts, the size of each paddock just seemed too small. So instead of four paddock we have two.
Our paddock system is being implemented over time. In other words, we didn’t make time to do it all at once and we’re completing phases when we can. I don’t recommend this approach because it creates a problem… a problem that the system is actually designed to avoid.
When we first got the chickens they roamed the fenced backyard. It actually wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be to have chickens running around. The only real problem – poop. Everywhere. Especially at the back door for some reason. (Thanks, chickens…). So after a month or two of being outdoors we finally erected a 20’ x 30’ fence around the coop. It was nice to have an area to banish the chickens to that still afforded them the opportunity to forage. However, it became obvious over the next several weeks that corralling the chickens into this 600 square foot area was going to wipe out the vegetation before too long. The solution was to finally raise the fence dividing this space so that we could rotate the chickens between them. That’s when our next and most recent problem developed…
Chickens are drawn to freshly tilled dirt. So any plants I tried to transplant or any seeds I tried to sow were promptly dug up. Eventually we decided to keep them completely out of one section, allowing that paddock to grow. Because this decision was made late in the summer (or perhaps we should call it early fall) the plants have not experienced the kind of established growth they need to withstand six chickens. When spring comes, there will be so much variety springing to life in that little area – sunflowers, kale, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, peas and more!
Meanwhile the second paddock has been reduced to a poopy mud pit. Our girls are such excellent foragers that I hate it when I have to “lock them up” in there. We’re constantly playing the trade off of keeping them in the muddy paddock but not accumulating poop in the yard or letting them roam the yard and dealing with the mess. And that’s not even the problem… The real problem is figuring out how to get both paddocks “fully stocked” at about the same time. In other words, if we move the chickens to the fertile paddock this spring, there may not be enough time for the muddy paddock to catch up before we need to rotate the birds away from destroying the first paddock.
We’re not exactly experiencing optimal weather for growing at this time of the year, but our initial plan is to keep the chickens out of the paddock entirely for the next 4-6 weeks to give time for at least some ground cover to be established. I’ll talk about that plan in more detail in an upcoming post about the chickens.
Pest & Disease Management
One of my goals for this year was to implement new ideas for pest and disease management. The most prominent solution involved using neem oil. Neem oil is a natural oil pressed from seeds and fruits of an evergreen neem tree found in India. Neem oil is used as a biopesticide and to control diseases like black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust.
With consistent applications early in the year we were able to fight off large-scale white powdery mildew. Plants seemed healthier and bugs weren’t an issue. (Even though we did have some squash bugs, they never caused enough damage to be a true pest!) With the onset of frequent rain I was unable to stick to a regular schedule of spraying neem oil. Of course constantly wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for mildew and fungus. During this time white powdery mildew began to show up and spread in the garden, as well as the familiar brown-spotted disease that has plagued some of our best crops. Last year after doing some research I self-diagnosed the mystery disease as Anthracnose, which can be prevented and controlled by neem oil.
During the raining season both mildew and anthracnose had their way in the garden. Once things dried up a bit I was able to do a few more applications which helped to keep the mildew in check. Meanwhile, anthracnose has destroyed nearly all of the beans and it also claimed the cucumbers. Over the winter I’m going to work on definitively identifying this continually destructive disease(what if it’s not anthracnose?) and finding ways to address it in 2014.
We’ve done more in the garden to address pests than applying neem oil. First, I planted radishes with squashes to act as a trap crop for vine borers. Guess what? It worked! Worked on zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins and melons. I’ve always had big-time issues with vine borers, but not this year! This tactic will be a staple in my garden going forward.
I also planted borage with the pumpkins and melons. Borage is considered a magic bullet for companion planting. It is known for improving the productivity and taste of many crops. It repels several pests (i.e., tomato hornworms, cabbage worms/moths) and it’s flowers attract pollinators. I couldn’t say for sure that borage solved my pest problems, but I did have pretty good luck with my melons and family pumpkins this year (no disease or pest issues).
And as always, healthy soil is the number one defense against pests and disease. Healthy soil leads to a healthy plant. A healthy plant can do much in its own defense and adaptation. I was absolutely thrilled with the compost we received from Kalamazoo Landscape Supply this year for our garden expansion. The soil on the other side of the garden was great as well thanks to a late fall application of composting horse and goat manure. This fall I hope to add manure to all of the beds to compost over the winter. Each bed will be topped with a mulch of shredded fall leaves.
I’ve only been doing this CSA thing for two years. However during that time I have had the privilege of speaking with dozens of other producers about the joys and challenges of operating a CSA. I treasure the fact that everyone does things just a little bit differently, and in each case I’ve learned something new. At least one thing, however, remains constant. All of the farmers I’ve spoken with have this unyielding concern season after season: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” So many factors – controllable and otherwise – impact the answer to this question. On our micro-farm scale, it’s a big deal when a crop is slow to produce, dies off or brings a reduced yield. After talking to several CSA farmers, I’ve discovered that this stressor is always present regardless of years of experience, acreage or weather patterns. Perhaps someday when we operate on a larger scale we’ll be able to absorb a significant portion of this stress by sheer volume, but that day is still floating out there in the unknown future.
Don’t get me wrong – this year was exponentially less stressful than last year. This year, I knew much better what to expect. This year, I understood that occasional supplementing from other growers is industry standard. This year, I was equipped to better plan quantities and had a more realistic idea of how much yield to expect. This year, there was no drought. But this year… I still had to ask myself several times that stress-tinged question: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?”
I’ve determined that, no matter how long I operate a CSA, that question – and the stress that comes with it – will remain at some level.
Scale vs. Profit
Another lesson that I’ve learned this year is that I need to choose between two competing factors related to the operation of my CSA. Either I can do this on a small enough scale that I can manage it as a work-from-home-mom who makes a hobby-level profit, or I can grow it into a large, multi-acre operation with a small team of employees who help me bring in a sizeable profit. A small-scale operation has lots of benefits. I work significantly less than 40 hours a week. I’m able to be at home and focus on my family. My schedule is somewhat flexible. I make money doing something I like and without going into debt to do it. The main disadvantage of our small scale is that our profit is commensurately small. Though I don’t have a 40-hour work week, I work far too hard to make as little as I do in terms of an hourly figure. Also, we’re committed to a debt-free approach to business and life so growth has to be slow, steady, and paid for in cash. (In other words, jumping into a 10-acre deal is not possible for us right now.) At the end of the day, our family can pay the bills and put food on the table, but I want to make an income that contributes to my family’s long-term (and big) financial goals.
When I Grow Up
The lessons I’ve learned over the last two seasons have significantly reshaped both the purpose and the operation of Arcadia Farms. Considering these lessons, along with much thought and prayer, we have decided not to operate a CSA in 2014.
Ultimately two overarching lessons contributed to this decision. First, the ever-nagging question “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” For me, this stress robs gardening of a portion of its satisfaction.
The second main reason we will not operate a CSA next year has to do with our personal family wellness. Fortunately our family was able to enjoy significantly more produce from the garden this year than last year, but we are still receiving less than the equivalent of a half share from our own farm. Because of the small scale of our farm (and thus the small scale of our profits) we determined that it would be a better health and financial benefit to our family to keep the majority of our produce rather than selling the bulk of it. One of the joys I experienced from our earliest gardening days was the successful feeling that came with having an abundance. Though we will still sell produce from highly successful crops (through our Facebook page and mailing list) keeping our bounty will enable us to supply our own pantry and to be charitable with what we no longer have room to keep. After a year of excellent crops and enthusiastic customers, it was a bitter-sweet conclusion to make. All the same, we feel it is the best decision for our family.
We may not be continuing our CSA into 2014, but we’re not going away! We still feel passionately about natural, local, sustainable food and want to help others to experience that successful feeling of bringing in a bounty from the backyard. The focus of our farm is shifting to helping others grow their own food rather than growing it for them. Though we still believe in the CSA model, this “teach a man to fish” approach is more sustainable overall and fits squarely into our mission. In 2014 you can look forward to the following from Arcadia Farms:
- Gardening classes, especially for beginners, renters and apartment dwellers
- Food preservation classes
- A virtual farmers market through social media
- Brokerage services to connect producers and commercial customers
- Customized and affordable garden plans for those who need help getting started
- Consistent blog posts with quality content about gardening and sustainable living
Who knows – maybe someday we will return to the CSA business. But for now, it’s time for our business plan to take a new path. We remain exceedingly grateful to all of our supporters, but especially to our members. Your investment in Arcadia Farms has enabled us to explore a dream that could never have happened without you! Thank you for the enthusiasm you have shown for the work we are doing and our vision of eating natural, local, sustainable food! You and your families have our deepest gratitude.