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Archive for the ‘Seasons’ Category

Off Season?

With the temps below freezing and snow on the ground it’s easy to assume that the winter season is an “off season” for a farmer, but that’s not quite the case. For most farmers the winter season far from the 2 month hibernation that we wish it could be. The to-do list can often be just as long as it is during the summer season. And for us, starting Clear Creek Organics adds another list of things to accomplish.

It’s true that we don’t have weeding or harvesting that commands our attention. But the winter season is all about planning. And while we aren’t in the field physically, we are there mentally. In a just over a month we will be starting seeds in the greenhouse. By mid March, peas and root crops will go in the ground. June 3 is our first CSA pick up. That might sound like 6 months away to you, but to a farmer it’s right around the corner.

They way I plan out a farm season begins at the end. I start with the crops I hope to have available each week throughout the season. From there I count backwards, based on the vegetable, to determine when that crop needs to go in the ground. If it’s a crop that will be transplanted, like tomatoes, I need to account for the 6-8 weeks it will be in the greenhouse. But some crops, like the tomatoes, need support to grow, so I need to make sure to order tomato stakes and twine to trellis them. All the beds need irrigation, so I better make sure to add that to my shopping list.

I’ve also been working on tearing down a building on the farm to make way for a Home Occupation Kitchen. This will give us a legal space to process food and host farm dinners. Tomorrow I’m going to start putting the greenhouse up so that we can start seeding out transplants in a few weeks. Oh yeah, I need to build a small shed for some dairy goats. And I start teaching the spring semester of Urban Farm Management in two weeks. Yikes!

Off season? Hardly. But all the busyness of the winter months points to the food that my family will be able to provide for yours. And that is a beautiful thing.

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I am learning that winter is a strange season for me as a farmer. Rather than my days filled with the sun beating down on my and dirt underneath my fingernails, I am trying to familiarize myself with the muted glow of a computer screen and paper cuts. The winter season (for a zone 5 farmer) allows me to catch up on some needed rest and affords me some time to start planning for the next years farm. The seasonal transition reveals it’s effects on my body as the sun-kissed  color fades from my skin and as weight adds itself to my frame.

The physical demands of the winter season are far less than the demands from the spring, summer, and fall, yet the season has needs that are unique to itself. Winter is the season for dreaming, planning, and preparing for the up coming year. It is a time to reflect on the previous seasons and evaluate the vegetables that grew well sold quickly. It is a time to check the quality of your equipment and the supply of your seeds. The toll of the winter season is on the mind rather than the body.

A while back I picked up a book entitled, “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook” by Richard Wiswall. The book has been a great resource for challenging me to think of the farm in terms of a business– to think beyond the production aspect of farming and to think about core business decisions that can make the farm profitable. Many young farmers that I know have been drawn to farming for philosophical or ethical reasons. These aren’t “bad” reasons to pursue farming, but there must be some element of profitability involved in the farm or it can’t be sustainable. Wiswall’s book has helped me understand that. So I started to create spreadsheets of average plant yields and farm maps and planting dates. I started to calculate how much produce I could expect to grow on our little 1/2 acre. Then, I tweeked the types of vegetables to maximize my yield to profit ratio. For example, in the space that it requires to grow 2 ears of corn (about 1 sq. foot) I could also grow 12 beets, three times throughout the season. If I bunched the beets into groups of 6 and accounted for a little loss, then in the same space I could either yield 2 ears of corn or 5 bunches of beets. The market value of an ear of corn might be $.50 and the market value of a bunch of beets is around $3.00. So when I compare the two crops I quickly find that it makes more sense to grow beets rather than sweet corn.

The detail-oriented-ness that this type of planning takes does not come natural to me, but I know that this is as much of a priority as weeding is for the farmer. I am slowly learning to embrace spreadsheets as a tool as valuable as the hoe.

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Thanks @BoulderLocavore!

A few months ago I stumbles across @BoulderLocavore on twitter.  She posts a great wealth of tweets about food along the Front Range and around the country.  Along with a great twitter account, she also has a great blog!  She’s been hosting a bunch of cookbook give-aways this fall.  I won one of the contests for cookbook called “Fresh From the Garden Cookbook.”

When I got a little package in the mail I was blown away with the extra detail she added.  I’ve won a few contests before, but when the prize arrived it was in a shipping envelope.  BoulderLocavore put them all to shame!

Thanks for hosting the contests and going the extra mile in sending it out with extra care.  You all should stop over at her blog and add it to your RSS feed.  You’ll be glad you did.

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I’m excited to be able to announce some more info about the new farm.  Earlier this week we were able to get the trade name I wanted for the farm: Common Roots.  The process of naming a business can be a challenge.  I wanted a name that had a descriptive element to it, as well as being concise to avoid confusion.  Common Roots was one of the names that popped into my head early on, and it stuck with me as I thought about other names.  The bonus was that it wasn’t a registered trade name in Colorado, so it was available for us to use.

So why “Common Roots” as a name?  The unique thing about Common Roots as an urban farm is that we will be employing developmentally disabled adults to work at the farm.  My business partners are the owners of Steamers Coffee House and Jack’s wine bar. They currently have over 30 developmentally disabled adults working at the coffee shop and restaurant.  I worked with them for a short time before I went back to school, and I fell in love with what they were doing.  I hadn’t had much contact with folks with disabilities before this job so initially I was tentative about working there, but once I started working I felt at home.  That job was the most fun I have ever had at work.  While I was working there I started talking about how much fun it would be to have a market garden or farm as a way to employ more disabled adults.  We started looking into the possibility, but the timing wasn’t right.

Fast forward to this past fall.  I called one of the owners of Steamers and asked her if she wanted talk about the farm idea again.  She was excited about the possibility, and once we started talking things started to fall into place.  Shortly after we started talking we found a piece of property to farm.  The property is just under 1 acre and has an old farmhouse that was built in 1912.  We’ll be able to have 1/2 acre in cultivation, which will be a great amount of space to grow on while we explore what it will be like to farm with developmentally disabled adults.

I’m planning on having a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and also selling a Farmers Market and a Farm Stand.  Our disabled farmers will be planting, harvesting, washing, and selling the vegetables.  There’s a lot of planning that needs to happen before the first seeds go into the ground.  There’s equipment and supplies to order, a planting schedule to create, job descriptions to write for the employees, and seed catalogs to drool over.  There’s also a mess of business details that we need to get squared away.  And if any of you fine people want to donate a little time to help me with a logo, I’d be eternally grateful.

We’ll that’s it for this update.  You can find us on facebook at www.facebook.com/CommonRootsFarm. “Like” us and you can stay updated as we move forward.

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Yesterday I drove down to Wheat Ridge to get some soil prep work done at the new farm.  Our new place is on a 1 acre property, and we’ll have about 1/2 acre to cultivate.  (So does this make up a “Tiny Farm” or a “Big Urban Farm?”)  The house on the property is a small, 100 year old farm house (complete with root cellar!), and from what I can tell, vegetables haven’t been grown on the property since the house was built.

I think it’s funny/sad that right next to this tiny 100 year old house, there are massive, million dollar homes right next door.  In the space that will be farmed there is a mound of soil that we’ll need to level out and there’s a slight slope that needs to be corrected, but surprisingly, the first tilling was easier than I expected.  It took me about 3 hours to shallow till the plot with a low, slow gear and since we have clay soils here, I didn’t want to till too deep on the first pass.  I bought a used Troy Bilt “Big Red” till this week, and it worked beautifully.  It’s got an 11 HP engine and it was great to see the difference from the smaller, 6HP tillers I’ve used in the past.  After the first pass with the tiller I spent the remaining daylight hours picking rocks out of the soil.  This is a slow task, so I was grateful to have a good friend stop by and help out.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to level the soil, and till in some manure before the soil freezes or it starts snowing.  I sent a soil sample off to be analyzed and I’ve gotten the results back so I know what my goals are for building the soil nutrients.  I figured that I’ll probably need about 5-7 tons of manure for the 1/2 acre.  That might look like a lot, but when it’s applied it will look like a light dusting on the soil surface.  It just so happens that the house across the street from us has goats and chickens, so I’d like to talk with them and see if I can get some of the manure from them.

This new farm is about an hour away from where we are living now, so my time to work on the property is limited to the weekends until May when we move.  So in the mean time, I’ll be watching the weather and crossing my fingers that the weather will stay warm and dry until I can get the prep work done.  And if any of you get an itch to pick up some rock or move some soil, let me know and I’ll be happy to let you help.

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Over the past few years Thanksgiving has taken on a new meaning for me.  My time on the farm and studying food crop production has shifted the way that I think and talk about food.  I’ve seen the effects of soil properties when harvesting crooked and twisted carrots from a clay-loam soil.   I’ve seen the incredible damage that the tiny Potato Psyllid can do to a field of potatoes.  I’ve had two consecutive years of Brussels Sprout crop failures.  Throughout this time I’ve been engaging myself in more of the policy and politics that affect our food.  I’ve watched as dozens of food recalls have taken place because of food contaminated with E. Coli. I’ve watched from a distance as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have fought for years to be paid $0.024 per pound of tomatoes they harvest (1000 pounds x 2.4 cents = $24).  I’ve watched as political parties cry out against “illegals,” yet continue to support policy that drives down the wages for farm workers to a place that most US citizens are not willing to work for.  It’s hard to look at the food on my table in the same way as I used to.

I stumbled across a Wendel Berry quote the other day, and I think it’s a great thought for the Thanksgiving season.

“A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”

There is so much that goes into the food that we eat: growing conditions where the plant/animal is grown, working conditions for the farmers and processors, policy that determines what food is going to be subsidized.  All of these things play out before we set our dinning table.  I didn’t intend to write such a depressing post this morning, but these thoughts have been swirling though my mind during the past week.

I am very grateful for the food that I have in my home.  I am grateful for the labor of the farm workers.  I am grateful for the policy makers who are trying to make healthy food more available to everyone, especially the poor and “the least of these” in society.

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About two months ago an opportunity came up for me to have a farm of my own next year.  I haven’t made too many of the detail public yet, so you might have to wait for another post for some more specific aspects of the farm.  I’ve been spending a lot of time creating a business plan and hashing through big picture details that I’d like to figure out before I get into the nitty-gritty of shopping for equipment and seeds.  One of the components that I’m struggling to decide on is whether or not to become a Certified Organic farm.  I will be starting to farm next season on just over a half acre (the uniqueness of the farm will require a small amount of land to start) with the potential to add another acre if I want to expand.

I’ve spent the last two year working at a Certified Organic farm, and this past year I was involved in the certification audit.  I believe in organic agriculture.  Whether or not I get certified I’ll be farming using organic practices, so it’s not that I’m concerned about non-organic practices that I could use if I wasn’t certified.  I’m hoping to be able to have 20 CSA as well as selling at a farmer’s market, so most of the sales will be through a direct relationship with the people who will be eating the veggies.

What do you think?  Is being Certified Organic designed for the small, relationship driven farmer?  As a shopper at a farmer’s market, does it matter to you if the farm is Certified Organic?  Would you become a member of a CSA based on it’s organic certification?  Feel like the USDA has deluded the meaning of the word “Organic?”

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