Newsletter – 15 August, 2013



The Alleged Farm News – 15 August, 2013

This weeks share: Beets, Bok choi, Cucumbers, Dill, Escarole, Garlic, Lettuce
Onions, Potatoes, Squash, Tomatoes

Perhaps, like so many of my neighbors, you wonder where the hell all your hard earned (why are they always hard earned?) tax dollars go. Well, they go to me. All right, not all of them. There are a few other piddling public expenses for things such as clean water, drug research, foreign aid and stipends for a few noncontroversial poets. But a surprising number come my way. And just what sort of scam am I running here? One of the oldest: I am a farmer.

Actually, I am not doing the right kind of farming to enjoy the full benefits of this arrangement. I should switch to sugar cane or rice and grow that one commodity as far as the eye can see. Well, further than the eye can see around here. As far as the eye can see some nice flat place like Iowa.  All these hills in Washington County really cut down on the distance to the horizon. And the field sizes too. Nobody around here has a thousand acre field. If you want to farm on a large scale in this county you had better be prepared to spend a lot of time driving your machinery up and down the road, which the big farms do. There are operations around here with a lot of small fields spread out over twenty or thirty miles.

Vegetable notes:  I feel a little better about our tomatoes knowing that many other farmers in the area are still waiting for the fruit to ripen and are getting a lot of blossom end rot. But only a little. It is reassuring to discover that we have not screwed up in some way, but that is rather meager compensation for the rather meager tomato crop. In a normal year we would harvest about 30 flats of tomatoes a week. This week we had the largest harvest yet, 8 flats. And one of those came from the outside tomatoes. There is plenty of fruit on the plants, and the plants are quite robust, but it is taking a strangely long time to ripen, and more than half of the tomatoes that had were rotten. Even the tomatoes in the field house are underperforming, but at least they are performing. This just increases my desire for more field houses.

You may be grateful to see that the squash is underperforming at the moment. I have plowed in the first two plantings–at some point they start to run out of energy and the bugs and diseases catch up with them–and the last two have not started to produce yet. Which can be taken as a warning that at some point we could have a lot of squash again.

The onions have performed admirably. We brought in the bed of Candy onions (plant breeders love sugary names) on Monday afternoon and filled two twenty-bushel bins. That is probably our best variety, but they have all done well and we still have ten or eleven beds to pull. 

I don’t know what to think of how this potato variety, Strawberry Paw, has acted. I like the way the potatoes look, but the yield was fairly poor. It could be because they were not on very good ground, or it could be the variety. I have not grown it before, so I don’t know what it would do in better circumstances. The more important question, though, is how it tastes. I have not tried any yet, so you will have to do the taste test for me. Which is as it should be since I am growing them for you.   

I have to drive down the road to get to one of my fields, but it is not much of a drive, a minute maybe, and I am growing seven crops in that field (plus several cover crops), and none of them is rice or sugar cane–though if the early season rain had kept up I might have switched to rice–and none of them is part of any federal subsidy program I have ever heard of. Sadly, the big federal programs are not directed towards the small scale production of eggplant. This could have something to do with the USDA’s clear preference for large farms. And perhaps also with the American public’s clear preference for sugar, which we on average eat about 157 times more of than eggplant per year. Of course, that annual sugar consumption is in part a matter of cost and availability. Those federal subsidies make sugar cheap and plentiful. Sure, we love the stuff, but we would eat less of it if we had to pay more for it and it did not turn up in everything. If the USDA worked to promote eggplant in the same way we would eat more of it–eggplant, that is, not the USDA, which would not taste good no matter how you prepared it. Not that we would eat 157 pounds of eggplant a year, but more than we do now. Unfortunately, the eggplant lobby lacks sufficient clout to make that happen any time soon.

And so I must pick up the scraps of tax dollars that fall through the cracks of our national agriculture system. Which is not nearly as bad as it sounds. The cracks are relatively large and the amount of funding showered on farmers is vast enough that even the scraps can start to amount to real money.

Start with the fact that I do not have to pay sales tax on anything I purchase for farm use. That’s just a few dollars when I buy more fiber glass electric fence posts to keep the deer out of the late season carrots. It is $1500 when I get a tractor. That’s $1500 of sales tax revenue the rest of you get to make up for by paying a slightly higher rate. 

And then I get the help of Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service and ATTRA, which you all kindly chip in to support. Thanks. They can be a big help. They have surveyed my fields to plot the tile lines, helped with soil testing, offered advice on pond construction, consulted on various disease issues, led seminars on garlic production and soil health, drawn up field maps, done a farmland appraisal for our easement, helped me find workers and provided technical manuals. 

You also pay for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. You should be proud of yourselves for that. It is a great program, and not just for us farmers. Low income women (mothers and seniors) get books of coupons that are good only at farmers markets and only for fresh produce. They get the good food they need and cannot otherwise afford from us local producers, and we get paid to provide them with that food by you. It is money extremely well spent, benefitting a range of people in the community–including, though admittedly in a somewhat less direct manner, you.

In addition to all the advice for farmers, there are oodles of funding opportunities: for greenhouse construction, solar power, fencing, erosion control, farm-based sustainable production trials, grassland habitat maintenance, mentoring, poultry processing, food safety training, and who knows, maybe even for small scale eggplant production. And these are all programs paid for with public money, by which I mean your tax dollars. There’s even a program to cover half of a farm’s expense for building a produce cooler. Which is why Louie and his employee Jeff are spending this morning insulating our store room with soy-based spray foam and I have a 24,000 btu air condition and a Coolbot controller (which can make an air condition cool a room to 38 degrees) waiting to be wired in. Thanks to your generosity we will be able to keep the produce in your shares even fresher and organize our picking more efficiently so we can do our job better. Paying for half our cooler may not have quite the social impact of some of your other work, such as the FMNP, but it should offer you fairly direct benefits, such as crisper lettuce, as well, of course, as the good feeling you get when you know you have, however unwillingly or unwittingly, given to a good cause. By which I mean me. And if you think that’s just not fair, well, take up farming.