A small update // A big conversation

We were able to start working in our field last week, allowing us to get a head start on all of the early season field work. We’ve prepped the new section of our field, seeded our first rounds of outdoor carrots and salad mixes, and set ourselves up to hit the ground running with our first round of transplants that will go out at the end of the week. The weather, always a concern, has us slightly on edge. It’s chilly, damp, and windy. The truth is, though, that at this time of year, when we know we’re about to be extremely busy, we tend to start overthinking everything in our anticipation. So, we know that by this weekend we’ll have lots of brassicas and beets in the ground, they’ll all do just fine, and by the last Saturday in May we’ll be ready to harvest a wide variety for our first markets.

Taking a step away from the granular details of our farm, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change. This isn’t just millennial angst - this is what’s on the minds of farmers around the country and around the world. Pick a weather event and a record has probably been set for it recently - heat, drought, rainfall, you name it. The flooding in the midwest has been all over the news - livestock drowning and topsoil washed away. Our mentors and friends in Vermont - the owners of Evening Song Farm - first started their farm on the bank of a river. That farm was on a 500 year floodplain - which roughly means that every year that area has a 1 in 500 chance of flooding at a certain point - and within a short time of them farming that land, hurricane Irene tore into the Northeastern US, and that river flooded and carved out their fields, destroying their farm (to read about their story and how they moved forward, head over to their website).

They’re now farming on land at a higher elevation in the same small Vermont village, and this Spring they’ve seen their old farm, again, completely flooded. This is one example among many of what we’re told are once or twice in a millennia events that are happening with alarming frequency. In a recent newsletter, Kara, co-owner of Evening Song Farm, wrote that we as a culture are continuing to fail to, “discuss climate change as the 5-alarm fire that it is for the planet,” and she’s planning to use her newsletter to address the observable ways that the environment around Evening Song is changing as the global climate changes.

I hope to do the same. Having only lived in Chatham for a year, it’s hard to know if I’ll see these changes myself right away, but I plan to discuss the issue generally. It’s hard to confront a problem that we don’t, as individuals have a lot of control over. Sure, we can switch to LEDs and buy more fuel efficient vehicles - but the plastic on those LEDs is still petroleum based (not to mention the coal that’s burned to supply the electricity), and fuel efficiency still implies fuel that, ultimately, we need to leave in the ground.

What we need are not individual choices to slowly change, but systemic changes. Despite the immense amount of farmers markets throughout the country, we do not have a localized food system. There’s been an idea in US agriculture for decades that we can feed the world. As outlined in Eric Holt-Giménez’s In These Times piece, “The Solution is Agroecology,” overproduction of food by US agribusinesses drives food prices so low that small farmers are driven out of business - not just US small farmers, but farmers around the world - and those small farmers join the ranks of the poor and the hungry. Food prices go down, meaning that giant farms have to produce even more food in order to maintain profitability (and pay down their often enormous debts). Overproduction gives rise to the need for chemical inputs that destroy soil microbiology. Land is used to exhaustion and topsoil erodes. And topsoil holds an immense amount of carbon, so erosion is no small issue.

The need for a localized food system couldn’t be clearer. It’s hard to imagine it happening. It’s hard to imagine people starting to farm in the numbers required by the problem we face, especially when the average age of US farmers is somewhere around 60, and while food production goes up every year, the number of people producing that food goes down.

The agriculture system we currently have in the US has only been around for a few generations - but we don’t have another few generations to change it, we have this one, right now. Part of the reason I’m writing about this is because I’m passionate about it, and I believe that, as Kara says, we as farmers have a responsibility to talk about how climate issues affect us. Part of it, for sure, is flailing around, wishing I knew more about all of this, wanting to somehow solve something, knowing that individually no one will solve it. And so I’m going to talk about it. And I’m hoping others will also talk about it. And maybe the more people talk about it, the more will be done to address it.



On the verge

It’s about that time - Spring actually seems to have arrived in Chatham. Our field doesn’t have any more snow on it, and it’s almost dry enough to start working the soil. We didn’t plan to be in the ground until the first week of May, and our to-do list for that first week was incredibly intimidating after a long winter of completely falling out of shape. It looks like we’ll get into the field next week, though, which means that first week’s to-do list will stretch over two weeks, instead.

We’ve got tarps to move around, beds to prep, new beds to make (adding a quarter acre this year), cover crops to seed, and all kinds of other things - along with some tasks I’m sure we’ll find for ourselves along the way.

Can’t. Wait.

Can’t. Wait.

Looking forward to growing more herbs this year!

Looking forward to growing more herbs this year!

Over the past few weeks we’ve been seeding quite a bit in the greenhouse, and our tables are filling up quickly. I’m not sure how many years of farming it will take for me to observe seed germination and early plant growth and not get all weird and giddy about it, but there’s something incredible about taking a couple of small boxes worth of seeds and turning them into thousands of pounds of food. One of the things we’ll be doing better this year is tracking our yield, and I think it will be pretty cool to know the weight of food we produce overall.

Most of our 2019 seeds fit on our coffee table

Most of our 2019 seeds fit on our coffee table

Lil’ brassica babies

Lil’ brassica babies

This time last year we didn’t quite know what to expect. We were confident in our skills as growers, but had no sense of the local market, didn’t know any of our future customers, and all of our planning about how much of each crop to grow was pure guesswork. This year we have a lot more data to work with, which is fantastic. We have a year’s worth of feedback from customers, and a year’s worth of notes on what went right and what went wrong. Something Kate and I both struggle with is putting too much pressure on ourselves, and going into our second year we’re both feeling quite a bit of pressure to improve on our first season and knock this one out of the park. Don’t worry, though, along with the pressure comes a huge amount of excitement to be back in the field, and to have the first markets right around the corner.

This year we’ll be at the Munising market on Tuesdays from 4-7, and the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market on Wednesdays from 5-7 and Saturdays from 9-1. We’ve been putting in a lot of work over the last month or so, along with fellow farmers from Chatham, to get the Wednesday evening market started, and we’re so happy it seems to be working out. We’re also offering a free choice CSA, which you can read about (and sign up for) here, with pick-up options at each market as well as at our June-October farm stand in Chatham. A little later on I’ll write a post updating you with the stores and restaurants where you can find our produce.

We’re crossing our fingers that these carrots seeded in a high tunnel will make an appearance at our first market this year

We’re crossing our fingers that these carrots seeded in a high tunnel will make an appearance at our first market this year

We’re growing so many different varieties of tomatoes this year!

We’re growing so many different varieties of tomatoes this year!

For three weekends in a row (May 17th-19th, 24th-26th, and 31st-June 2nd) you’ll be able to find our plant starts for sale at Rock River Farm from 10-6. We’ll have lots of tomatoes, peppers, basil, broccolini, cucumbers, kale, zucchini, and more - and Rock River will have all kinds of flowers and herbs and perennials.

Oh yeah, and we have this neat little fig tree. Can we keep it alive long enough to get figs in five years?

Oh yeah, and we have this neat little fig tree. Can we keep it alive long enough to get figs in five years?

Some little piggos, just an hour or two old. Pigs are incredibly cute the minute they’re born - no squishy weirdness, just fuzzy cuteness.

Some little piggos, just an hour or two old. Pigs are incredibly cute the minute they’re born - no squishy weirdness, just fuzzy cuteness.

The middle of April is a funny time of year for us - we’ve just finished working our winter jobs, but we’re not quite full time on the farm yet, so we’re a bit antsy. It’s giving us a lot of time to prepare things like a new irrigation setup, and a trailer for our bikes to carry around tools and transplants, and all kinds of other little things that we won’t have any time for come May. Fortunately, we are taking as much time as we can to enjoy the beautiful natural spaces in the Central UP, and we were even able to watch a mama pig give birth to a whole lot of little piglets.

Oh yeah - and we’re planning our wedding! It’s not until 2020, but we’re excited about it, of course.

Your humble narrator

Your humble narrator

We're Certified Organic!

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been putting together our application to be certified organic, we had our inspection last week, and we received our certificate this week. We’re pretty excited about it.

So, why did we do this? Well, a few years ago when we were starting to put together what we wanted our future farm to look like, we didn’t put a lot of thought into certifications. We thought that when you go to market and sell directly to customers, you have the opportunity to talk to and develop trusting relationships with customers, and if you can do that then you don’t need a certification for people to feel comfortable buying your produce. To a certain extent this is possible, and our first year was a testament to that. However, we can’t talk to everyone. A lot of people come to market in a rush, or just don’t want to have to question the origins of every carrot. Being able to put up a sign that says “certified organic” means that everyone who buys our produce will know that it’s chemical free, non-gmo, and safe.

What it means that we’re certified organic is that in any given year when we’re inspected (we’ll be inspected annually), our records will be audited. We must have documentation for every step of what we do with every crop from seed to sale. How did we prepare the bed it went into? What date was it seeded? What date was it transplanted? Did we add fertilizer, compost, or any other amendments? If so, we have to provide receipts or product labels for each of those inputs that we use to verify that they’re organic compliant. What was our yield? Where did we store it? How is the area that we store it maintained? How did we transport it? Where did we sell it?

In other words, every crop has to have a paper trail. So if you’re buying our produce, you know that everything we do is being independently verified as falling under organic guidelines.

With regard to organic guidelines, we were both a little skeptical in the past of whether the organic program was strict enough, we didn’t really understand how organic integrity of products was verified, and we thought that we were holding ourselves to a much higher standard than the organic program would.

Well, understanding the number and kinds of records that must be maintained for every organic operation helps me understand how difficult it would be to fake it. There have been a few large cases of fraud - both with things grown in the US and things imported from elsewhere - but they were caught and stopped, and the people responsible are facing serious consequences. And the organic program has tightened up since then. After going through this process, it’s my opinion that the federal organic guidelines set a high bar. We regard that high bar as our minimum standard, and while there are still methods allowed under organic standards that we personally choose not to use (organic pesticides/herbicides/fungicides for example), that doesn’t mean that the organic rules are lax. Quite the contrary.

It’s important to remember how the organic program started. In response to a demand from farmers and consumers, the government passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 to develop a national standard for products labeled as organic. This came after decades of work done by organic farmers advocating against the rise of chemically dependent farming practices. Farmers adhering to environmentally sound practices, who controlled weeds and pests and diseases through better soil management and crop rotation instead of through synthetic chemicals that harm the soil, kill beneficial insects, and leech into the food we eat, these farmers demanded to be regulated. They fought for a label that would differentiate them, and it has. I believe it’s a worthwhile system to buy into as a grower, and an important standard to expect as a consumer.

Now, the fact that we’re certified organic does not mean that we don’t still welcome and encourage and look forward to conversations with our customers about our growing practices. We do! We have not had to change anything about the way that we grow food in order to become certified. We were already keeping most of the records that we need for certification moving forward, we just have change how we track our harvests and sales. The record keeping component is often cited by growers as incredibly daunting, and when you look at what’s required it truly looks like large chunks of time that would normally be used for growing food will have to be spent toiling away with spreadsheets. However, all of the records required fit into the normal day-to-day work on the farm. And having accurate records of how we grow everything, how much we harvest, how much we sell, etc, all will result in us having much better information to base decisions on in coming years.

If you have any questions about how we do what we do, specific questions about organic requirements, why we chose to go organic versus other certifications, or anything at all, please don’t hesitate to comment below or send us an email or social media message.


Reflections on our First Season

It's hard to believe our first season has all but come to an end, but here we are with two months of 2018 to go, all of our storage crops harvested and in the cooler, and only a couple of beds of hardy greens left in the field. I'm not going to try to document every little thing that happened between the last post from May and right now, but I'll try to sketch an outline.

We started going to markets right after the last post, Marquette on Saturdays, Munising on Tuesdays. Toward the middle of June the Negaunee Market Manager reached out to ask if we would like to try out that market on Wednesdays, and being totally gung-ho about our first year we decided to do that one as well. So, Kate took on the Munising market, I did Negaunee, and we switched off going to Marquette. We both love going to market and sharing what we do with people, and we're grateful for the relationships we're starting to develop with customers who are as passionate about local food systems as we are. Negaunee ended in September, Munising in October, and the last outdoor Marquette market was just last week, but this Saturday we're moving inside for seven weeks of indoor Marquette markets. 

Mid-September at the Marquette Farmer’s Market

Mid-September at the Marquette Farmer’s Market

Our intensive planning for this season really paid off. It's hard to believe, but pretty much everything went according to plan. We had a couple issues here and there, and there was a learning curve to timing and densities of our plantings, but nothing major. Turns out we're pretty good at growing food. The Chatham Co-op, which we can see from our farm, regularly carried our scallions as long as we had them, Superior Culture flavors some of their kombucha with our beets, and both The Marq and The Delft in Marquette feature some of our veggies on their menus. Wholesaling is a part of our business we would like to grow, for sure. 

If you squint, you might be able to see the Chatham Co-op in the distance.

If you squint, you might be able to see the Chatham Co-op in the distance.

Seeing how the North Farm operates as a wholesale-only operation has been eye opening - we guess each week about how much to harvest to take to market, we wash it and put it in the cooler, and then after market we bring a fair amount back. Some of it we can take to the next market, but certain things we'll only take when they're fresh from a day or two before. With the North Farm, everything has been ordered in advance, so they know exactly how much to harvest, they fill up the cooler one day, and the next it's completely empty, and nothing comes back. No wasted labor, and less wasted food. It seems obvious, but we've never seen a wholesale-only farm. We don't want to stop going to markets or having a farm stand, but finding more wholesale channels is definitely a goal for next year.

Peaceful early morning harvest.

Peaceful early morning harvest.

As far as food waste goes, we didn't have a lot. Sure, we had a fair amount of food come back from market that we couldn't sell, but we ate as much of it as we could, preserved even more for the winter, and the rest either went into a compost pile to eventually go right back into the soil, or it went to our neighbors who raise livestock. Their pigs ate a whole lot of kale this year. There's a lot of concern about food waste on farms, and there should be, something like half of all food grown in the US is left in the field, not because it's inedible, but largely because it's cosmetically damaged. That's an issue, for sure. But what's missed in that statistic is that, at least on the small farms we've worked on and now on our own farm, most if not all of that excess or unmarketable food is fed to animals, turned into compost, or turned directly back into the soil. Turning excess food into compost and then applying it to the soil is ideal, as the nutrients in composted plant matter are more readily available to plants growing in it, and compost improves soil tilth, but even turning plant material directly into the bed that it grew into adds nutrients, organic matter, and returns to the soil some of what was taken. None of this is waste - it’s all a part of a cycle. Food in a landfill is waste, food that’s burned is waste, food that goes right back into the ground it came from is a vital part of a living soil system. 

A few critters who enjoyed our leftover salad.

A few critters who enjoyed our leftover salad.

FullSizeRender 2.jpg

We learned so much this season. We learned how to better deal with stress, and to not beat ourselves up over mistakes we made. After four years of farming I finally started to learn how to use seeders (Kate’s the real direct seeding pro, though). We came into this season both wanting to do everything, but knowing that we would have to divide responsibilities up between us, and we figured out what made the most sense for each of us to take on. We built a lot of confidence this year, for sure, and that might be the most important thing. It sounds silly, but at the beginning of the season, whenever we seeded or transplanted something I was always a little surprised when it grew and we were able to harvest it and people actually bought it. Knowing that we can do this, that we know what we’re doing, and that we know how to make changes to do it better in the future is a great feeling. 

Summer beauties!

Summer beauties!

IMG_7530.JPG

So we're really happy with our season, and we're already starting to plan for next year (we're nothing if not planners). As for the rest of 2018, we still have the Marquette market every Saturday through December 15th. We have lots of carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, watermelon radishes, and kohlrabi in storage, and until we get some snow accumulation or super deep freezes we'll have arugula, parsley, cilantro, salad turnips, and a small amount of salad mix coming out of the field. We have some spinach and other salad greens growing in a tunnel, and we're crossing our fingers that it will grow quickly enough to harvest for the last few markets. 


We're also offering a holiday box special. Any market between the one prior to Thanksgiving (the 11/17 market) and the last market (12/15) we'll pack a box with whatever amount of carrots, beets, potatoes, and onions you'd like, as long as it adds up to at least $15, and have it ready for you to pick up. We're offering wholesale prices on those items. We just ask that you email us with your order a week before you want to pick it up, or fill out one of our order forms and get it to us a week in advance. This can be for a big holiday meal, or, if you've got the space, it could just be to stock up on some storage items for once the market ends. We're also happy to come into Marquette and meet you at the Marquette Commons (where the market is), on Friday, December 21st with a box in time for Christmas (time TBD). Find out what’s available here or come see us at the Marquette Market for a paper copy of the order form.

We are so lucky to have access to this root barrel washer, which gets our roots super clean and saves us a lot of time.

We are so lucky to have access to this root barrel washer, which gets our roots super clean and saves us a lot of time.

Very clean watermelon radishes.

Very clean watermelon radishes.

Although we aim to support ourselves with our farm business year round, it will be a few years before we can do that. So we were just approaching this winter with the attitude that something would work out and we'd be able to find jobs to sustain us until next season, and that's exactly what happened! I'll be working at The Marq, and Kate will be at Superior Culture. It's incredibly gratifying to be working for local businesses intent on showcasing local foods and flavors, and to see our own food going into delicious creations for people to enjoy. 

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to write about Chris Blanchard. We didn't personally know him, but he influenced our farm in countless ways, and his recent but way too early passing is a real blow. He created the Farmer to Farmer podcast, through which he interviewed nearly 200 farmers around the country. Each episode dug into the nuts and bolts of a given farm operation, from how much land they grew on, to how they marketed their produce, to what methods they used for weed control, or tillage (or non-tillage), or any number of other things. It's an amazing resource, there's nothing else like it. So many little things from that podcast have influenced our farm and the way we do certain things. On top of that, listening to other farmer's stories on a weekly basis helped Kate and I to believe we could do this. If you're not a farmer, but you'd like to understand on a granular level what farmers do, check out his podcast (farmertofarmer.com). 

Two tired farmers who are so grateful for your support this year! We can’t wait to do it all over again.

Two tired farmers who are so grateful for your support this year! We can’t wait to do it all over again.

Holiday Box

FullSizeRender 5.jpg

Pre-order for your holiday meal needs and receive a discounted, personalized box, packed and ready for you to pick up at any market between 11/17 and 12/15, or a TBD pickup location on 12/21. $15 order minimum. Drop off this completed form at our stand at least one week before your pickup date, or email us at mightysoilfarm@gmail.com with your order by the Monday before your pickup date. Happy Holidays!




Carrots, $2/lb ______lbs     

Beets, $2/lb ______lbs  

Onions, $1.50/lb  Yellow ______lbs  Red ______lbs

Potatoes, yellow, $1.50/lb ______lbs

Carrots, baby, $2.20/lb ______lbs

Beets, baby, $2/lb ______lbs

Name _______________________________   Pickup Date ____/____

Contact email or phone number ____________________________




Into the field

We've been working in the field nearly three weeks now, and we're making lots of progress. We started out by staking out our beds, and making our first ten raised beds by hand - shoveling out aisles. This was our plan for all 50 of our raised beds, but Collin, the North Farm manager, told us he thought he could put together a makeshift bed shaper for the BCS (a pretty incredible two wheel tractor, check it out here). 

Some handmade beds with a fresh layer of compost on top

Some handmade beds with a fresh layer of compost on top

Kate using the BCS to shape beds

Kate using the BCS to shape beds

The bed shaper, a couple of disks clamped to a cultivating bar, worked great. We spent about a day shoveling those first ten beds together, and the BCS finished the other 40 beds in about a day and a half. It saved us so much time that we were able to focus on some other things we hadn't thought we'd have time for. We laid out tarps over 10 beds that will remain covered for 4-6 weeks, enough time that weed seeds will germinate and grow and then die when they can't find sunlight. We also had extra time to seed plant starts for market, something we'd decided not to do this year. So, thanks Collin!

The broadfork is our preferred bed-prep tool - it's like a giant garden fork that we sink into the ground a pull back to aerate the soil and loosen it up.

The broadfork is our preferred bed-prep tool - it's like a giant garden fork that we sink into the ground a pull back to aerate the soil and loosen it up.

Compost is our only soil amendment - check out  The Soil and Health  by Sir Albert Howard if you want to learn all about why compost is the absolute jam. A page-turner of a book on soil if ever there was one.

Compost is our only soil amendment - check out The Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard if you want to learn all about why compost is the absolute jam. A page-turner of a book on soil if ever there was one.

Getting our transplants out and direct seeding crops has been so gratifying - we're really seeing our farm take shape. We have about 45% of our field planted so far, and sometime in the next two weeks we'll be switching our tunnel beds from spring crops to summer crops. Little things, like putting together a sprinkler setup and experimenting with different ways to prepare beds (meaning the steps we take after shaping the bed and before planting), are just as satisfying and rewarding as seeing our first round of veggies grow. 

Direct seeding! Some freshly transplanted kohlrabi in the background.

Direct seeding! Some freshly transplanted kohlrabi in the background.

We covered our kale transplants, along with our other brassicas, to protect them from wind, frost, and pests

We covered our kale transplants, along with our other brassicas, to protect them from wind, frost, and pests

We knew in theory coming into this season that the first year would be filled with learning opportunities (a more optimistic way to say that we knew we'd run into a lot of unexpected challenges) - every plot of land acts differently, with different soils, different drainage, different weeds, etc. We spent the last two years on heavy clay soils in Vermont, so we hadn't put a whole lot of thought into irrigation. Our half acre is really sandy, and drains so fast that after we turn off sprinklers we can actually hear the ground sucking up the water. It's been ultra dry and windy since the snow melted, so we move our sprinkler setup around three or four times a day to keep our plants happy. We've got lots of quack grass, which is challenging our intention to only minimally work the soil. We're working in the North Farm's greenhouse to seed our transplants, and it's always at least 65 degrees in there; the heat combined with the long days we enjoy at such a high latitude mean our transplants grow about twice as fast as expected. 

As I said, these are learning opportunities, and even though my hair has a lot more gray in it than when we moved here (seriously), we keep reminding each other that we're just going to get better and better, and with every hurdle we'll dial in our systems a little bit more. And despite the challenges, maybe even partly because of them, we're loving what we're doing and still can't quite believe we get to go out and do it every day.

When we start stressing we just look at how happy the beets are. I mean just look at 'em.

When we start stressing we just look at how happy the beets are. I mean just look at 'em.

This weekend we start going to market, and we'll be at the Downtown Marquette Farmer's Market from 9-1! The spring crops we planted in our tunnel are thriving - we'll have baby lettuce, beet greens, mesclun, cilantro, and pea shoots, plus a variety of vegetable and flower plants for sale. Going to market is always so fun, and now that it's our own farm, and we'll be meeting our very own customers, it's just that much more exciting. Next Tuesday we'll be at the Munising Farmer's Market from 4-7, and then every Saturday and Tuesday until winter that's where we'll be. 

We’re still getting the tail end (hopefully) of the last big snowstorm (knock on all of the wood) of 2018. Not quite sure how much has fallen, but it’s more than 18 inches, maybe two feet, in just a couple of days. So we’re as antsy as ever to be done with winter and get on with the growing season, but we’re rolling with it. Supposedly it’s going to be in the 50s later this week and sunny, so that’s a plus. 

We peeked in our tunnel about a week and a half ago to see if it was thawed and dry, which it was, and discovered lots of little quack grass sprouts all over the place. The horror! For those of you who don’t know, quack grass is like the Hydra of the weed world. Its rhizomes, or underground stems, are strong enough to grow through potatoes or even asphalt. Each rhizome has nodes every inch and each node can grow its own roots and stems. So if you break a rhizome into pieces, each of those pieces will become its own plant. This makes eradicating it very difficult. The Latin name, Agropyron repens, means “sudden field of fire,” so you can see why we were worried. 

A small pile of rhizomes that quickly grew into a giant pile. 

A small pile of rhizomes that quickly grew into a giant pile. 

With our field still covered with a thick layer of snow, we had some time to devote to the tunnel. We  spent five days digging out every bit of the rhizomes we could get our hands on in the top four or five inches of the soil, doing our best not to break them, and removed more rhizomes than either of us had ever seen before. We’re guessing over two hundred pounds. It was a lot of work, and we know that we couldn’t have possibly gotten it all, but we should have much less of an issue with it than we might have otherwise. We will faithfully keep the tunnel weeded and mulch it when we put our summer crops in to prevent the quack grass from getting reestablished. 

Before

Before

After

After

We’re now starting to fill the tunnel with our spring crops, which will be ready for our first Farmer’s Market at the end of May. We transplanted beets and cilantro and direct seeded salad turnips. In the next couple week we will also direct seed baby salad mix, mesclun mix, and radishes. Now we have our fingers crossed the beets and cilantro will make it through these snowy, cloudy days. 

Planting our first bed of vegetables as Mighty Soil Farm!

Planting our first bed of vegetables as Mighty Soil Farm!

We have a small amount of covered space, so these cilantro babies got squeezed into the ends.

We have a small amount of covered space, so these cilantro babies got squeezed into the ends.

Beets, looking pretty upbeet. 

Beets, looking pretty upbeet. 

Everything all tucked in. 

Everything all tucked in. 

The ground is still snow covered but inside the greenhouse, our little seedlings are growing and thriving. This morning we started our first round of tomatoes and peppers, which is exciting as these warm season crops love heat and their beginning must mean that winter is ending. Right?! The greenhouse is filling up with onions, scallions, cilantro, kohlrabi, kale, parsley, swiss chard, and beets. The beets will be the first thing to be transplanted into our tunnel, destined to be baby beets at our first farmer's market. 

Beets a week ago.

Beets a week ago.

Beets today. 

Beets today. 

We seeded our tomatoes and peppers in soil blocks in the hopes of giving these finicky and long season crops the best start. Soil blocks are ideal for transplants. They contain more growing medium than cells of the same size in plastic trays. And plants air prune themselves instead of becoming root bound, so when you plant them out in the field plants establish themselves faster. Joe and I are always looking for ways to make our little farm more sustainable and self sufficient so we are also pretty excited about avoiding plastic trays, which although they can be reused, will fall apart after a few years. Soil blocks do have disadvantages, namely that it takes much longer to mold all the soil blocks than to just fill a tray with soil. They also use more soil, which is an advantage for the transplants and adding fertility to the field, but can be a debilitating cost for a new farm. So this year we are growing many crops in both soil blocks and plastic trays in order to see for ourselves what the difference is in the health of our transplants and determine what crops most benefit from soil blocks.

Making mini blocks.

Making mini blocks.

Tomatoes! Almost. When they germinate the mini blocks will be put into 2 inch blocks, which will eventually be put into 4 inch blocks.

Tomatoes! Almost. When they germinate the mini blocks will be put into 2 inch blocks, which will eventually be put into 4 inch blocks.

We thought that we would be able to use plastic bottom trays to hold the soil blocks, but because soil blocks are so moist and dense they are pretty heavy, and we don't think they'll be able to handle the 4 inch blocks that our tomatoes will soon be potted up to. The bottom trays are also wrong size for the soil block maker and so it was taking even longer than normal to fill a tray. So this week we made our own soil block trays out of 1x2 cedar pieces and hardware cloth. This design is based on the trays used at Earth Sky Farm, thanks for the inspiration and guidance! 

Our homemade trays. These 1.5 inch blocks are ready for parsley seeds. 

Our homemade trays. These 1.5 inch blocks are ready for parsley seeds. 

We are in awe of this beautiful region we now live in. Last weekend we went for an icy hike on Presque Isle. 

We are in awe of this beautiful region we now live in. Last weekend we went for an icy hike on Presque Isle. 

And so it begins

The past month was pretty hectic, as any big move tends to be. Oh wait, actually, it wasn’t! We expected the move to be stressful, and we prepared ourselves by stressing about it before we even started. All in all, though, this was the smoothest move I think either of us has ever had. We were packed up and ready to go on time, the drive from the Detroit area to Chatham was uneventful, and when we got here five other people materialized to help us unload. Loading up took us a few hours, unloading took about twenty minutes.

The North Farm! Buried in snow.

The North Farm! Buried in snow.

This is the first time I’ve been to the UP, and it’s beautiful. It reminds me a lot of where I grew up in New York, north of the Adirondacks, so I’m quickly settling in and feeling right at home. We’ve tried to get out every day to explore. We’ve been snowshoeing around the MSU property, as well as walking around the Pictured Rocks area in Munising and trying to get to know our way around Marquette. While we were driving just outside of Munising a bald eagle flew overhead, the first one either of us has ever seen.

Munising Falls, frozen.

Munising Falls, frozen.

Heading out to snowshoe through the woods and fields. That's our house on the right!

Heading out to snowshoe through the woods and fields. That's our house on the right!

So we’re settling in and enjoying ourselves. We’ve also been hard at work getting through the tasks we left until we moved. Things like legally establishing our business, getting a bank account, and ordering supplies. Most exciting, though, was starting our first seeds. All of the other stuff we’ve done - the planning, setting up the website, even legally registering our business - though exciting, was all preamble, whereas actually putting the first seeds into soil felt like the true beginning. 

The very first seed

The very first seed

The very first sprout

The very first sprout

We’ve started scallions and onions so far, and this coming week we have a few more things. We’ll have a slow start to real farm work over the next month or so, but soon enough we’ll easily fill our days with the work we’re most excited for. In the meantime, the lovely people who run the MSU North Farm put the plastic on our tunnel, and by the time the snow inside melts and the ground thaws and dries up a bit we'll be ready to prep our first beds!

Our tunnel, next to the big prop house. 

Our tunnel, next to the big prop house. 

Melt! Melt! Melt!

Melt! Melt! Melt!

Until then we have house projects to work on, more farm planning and supply ordering to do, and a little bit of calm to enjoy before the season gets underway in earnest.

Farming in the News

I read a lot of stories in mainstream media about agriculture, our food system, and nutrition, but an episode of On Point on NPR a few weeks ago was the first time I’d heard an in depth story about farmers of my generation. The episode was inspired by an article in the Washington Post I’d missed by food policy writer Caitlyn Dewey, who On Point host Anthony Brooks had as a guest for the show. Usually the food and agriculture related news I consume is about industrial agriculture, wide swaths of GMO corn or soy, the latest driverless tractor technology, the latest food replacement product (Soylent, etc.), or something about how much farming has changed over the decades and forced farmers to get big or get out. These reports tend to fail to present alternatives to the grave state of industrialized agriculture, and the failure to outline alternatives suggests that there are none. 

So I was pretty excited about this episode of On Point. The whole show was digging deep into what they labeled a trend, but what I prefer to think of as a movement, of millennials leaving cities and desk jobs for a life on the land. Anthony Brooks opens the show saying, “For only the second time in the last century the number of American farmers under the age of 35 is increasing.” Think about that. It seems silly and obvious, but farmers are responsible for our food. Supermarkets disconnect us from that fact, but every bit of food we eat comes from a plant or an animal that someone took care of, most likely a farmer, and this statistic tells us that new farmers are, by and large, not really a thing. Another statistic on the show, highlighted by Dewey, is that the average age of American farmers is nearly sixty. If we want to keep eating, we’d better change that.

Well, look at these spry, young farmers!

Well, look at these spry, young farmers!

The jump in farmers under the age of 35 is exciting, even if the number is tiny (2.2% according to Dewey’s article, which reveals some other much less exciting statistics regarding how many farmers are going out of business, but I won’t get into that today, read for yourself). Brooks calls it a boomlet, and discusses the kinds of people being drawn back to the land and the reasons behind it with Dewey and guests John and Halee Wepking of Meadowlark Organics. Dewey cites the appeal of the culture of small farming, and the way young farmers quickly feel a spiritual connection with the land and their work.

That’s a feeling I can relate to. Within a couple of weeks of my first farming job I knew I’d found a true calling. Something I’d never felt before. And when I started meeting other small farmers, young and old, I knew I’d found my people. 

Dewey also explains that these new young farmers have a different approach to farming than their forebears. They’re more focused on organic practices, limiting fertilizers and chemicals, Community Supported Agriculture, and largely local sales channels like farmers markets and small restaurants and grocery stores. They want to de-industrialize farming and re-localize it, bringing people closer to the food they consume and the people who produce it. 

I would clarify that the movement away from industrialized agriculture doesn’t mean a movement away from efficiency. New tools and methods are developed all the time for small-scale farmers to improve efficiency and help increase profit margins, and they’re shared at countless small farm conferences around the country every year. (Speaking of tools, check out this amazing example, the Paper Pot Transplanter, modeled by a suave French-Canadian who's something of a small farm celebrity). The answer to inefficiency in farming just a few decades ago was to scale up operations, move away from diversified vegetables and livestock to monoculture, and use big, expensive machinery and infrastructure. The problem with that is that machinery and infrastructure and land costs have all gone up at the same time as food prices have gone down, trapping farmers in a cycle of debt. Efficiency on a small scale can be achieved with simple tools and smarter operations layouts. 

Anyway, back to the show.

They discuss the main obstacle to beginning farmers: land access. Agricultural land is often prohibitively expensive, and the student loan debt that sometimes seems to define my generation often precludes access to other loans. The Wepkings share how they happened to find an ad from a farmer nearing retirement who didn’t have children to pass his operation on to, but wanted to find young farmers willing to work with him and eventually buy him out of his business, and that’s how they’re currently running Meadowlark Organics. This kind of situation is difficult to find - for farmers nearing retirement their children often don’t want to take over the business, and it can be easier and more profitable to sell off their equipment and then sell the land for development. The Wepkings were lucky to find someone who was unwilling to go that route, or at least who wasn’t pushed into it yet, and he was just as lucky to find them.

One caller, a farmer, brings up the fact that farming is near the top of the list of most dangerous jobs. This list from USA Today has farming at number 7. He says farmers deal regularly with livestock, high voltage, welding, vaccines, heavy machinery, chemicals, and even firearms. I would add chainsaws, tetanus risk, and ladders to that list (I’m not a huge fan of ladders…). When Anthony Brooks asks him if he still feels passionate about farming, if he’s still glad he’s a farmer, the caller says, without missing a beat, “absolutely, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” 

I mean, tractors are cool and all, but they're super dangerous.

I mean, tractors are cool and all, but they're super dangerous.

Another caller, not a farmer, says that of developed countries, the US spends the least amount on the dollar on food, especially compared to European countries. He suggests that undervaluing food has undervalued farmers, and I tend to agree. Remember what I said before about supermarkets disconnecting us from farmers? Well it’s right along the same line. You don’t have to think as much about things that don’t cost as much, just like you don’t have to think about the farmer when you can go into a supermarket to buy perfectly packaged and presented food. When organics started hitting stores and people saw how much they cost it was all they talked about. I know first hand - I worked in food co-ops for years and never got through a day without multiple customers complaining about how expensive organic food is. But over time that mostly died down. The price difference has stayed pretty much the same, but the organic label got people talking and thinking about their food and where it comes from, and I would argue that wouldn’t have happened without the price difference. The caller goes on to say that because food and agriculture are the basis of our society (he says this is the case because, “without it we’d be dead,”) devalueing it and the people who produce it is at the core of the staggering economic inequality we see today. An interesting thought.

This show was encouraging to me. It covered more than what I’ve written about here, including advocacy groups for small farmers, ideas about a Farm Bill that would include small farmers, how to incentivize a new generation of farmers to bring that average age down from what should be near retirement age, and there’s all kinds of related reading from Caitlyn Dewey, who has a whole lot of articles about food policy and modern farming in the Washington Post. 

I think that the conversation that started with complaints about prices of organic food and turned into more thoughtful grocery shopping, which reflects an understanding of how unhealthy and unsafe conventionally grown crops and livestock can be, will turn to a conversation about how to promote and support the small scale, localized farming that will keep healthy food available. And I think that this episode of On Point, and a smattering of stories by Caitlyn Dewey and others like her, is a great place to start.

Winter Planning

One of the things that I love about farming is the rhythm of the season, which becomes much more apparent when you’re in the midst of it. There’s nothing like the appreciation you gain for the sun on your skin after a spring spent transplanting in the pouring rain, or the taste of the first juicy tomato after months of waiting. And because we live and farm in the North, that means we have a period of rest (at least for us vegetable farmers) in the winter. After a hectic Spring, Summer, and Fall, I enjoy having the time to cozy up with a good book or knitting project in the Winter. But it’s also a time to reflect on last year’s successes and failures and plan for the coming season. In our case, this means setting up our business, in addition to the regular seasonal planning.

We started our crop plan months ago and just completed it a few weeks ago. Although, I hesitate to say we completed it, because everything on a farm is constantly moving, and I’m sure we will continue to make changes to it. It may seem not seem like such a big project to decide what vegetables to grow, but we also needed to choose varieties (sometimes 3-6 varieties for each vegetable), amount to plant, seed and transplant dates, number of successions to plant, and then how many seeds we need to order. This data will also help us figure out how much potting soil and how many seed trays of each size we will need. This sort of planning will get easier in future years when we can adjust our previous year’s plan to account for growth or changes, instead of building it from scratch.

A small sample of our crop plan

A small sample of our crop plan

On the business side of things, there are countless tasks that are foreign to us as new small business owners. My project this morning involved setting up a way for us to track our expenses. Thankfully, the amazing farmers that we worked for the past two years have been an enormous help in sharing their systems, so it just involved a little tweaking to make it work for our specific needs. We have managed to create a budget that we hope is semi-accurate and set up a website that we are quite proud of. There is still a lot to do and I’m sure there are a few things that we haven’t even thought of yet.

When Joe and I first started talking about starting our own farm, we were both in agreement that we needed to start small. We liked the idea of starting with something manageable and growing our farm slowly as we developed our systems and honed our business skills. As we formulate our plans this Winter, which sometimes just feels like a vaguely educated guessing game, we appreciate our foresight. I can’t imagine trying to start with a bigger operation. We’re also grateful that the incubator program at The North Farm will allow us to put our plan into action, and get our hands dirty, without going into tons of debt. Access to the infrastructure and tools that would normally require loans allows us stay very small and focus on the farm. We will be growing on just half an acre, a manageable plot for two farmers while still producing a bounty of vegetables.

As the winter winds down (we will be moving to The North Farm in just a month) and we scramble to get all our ducks in a row, we are starting to get antsy with all this computer work. I can’t wait to spend my days outside and bury my hands in the soil. But I try to appreciate this season as much as all the others and take my Netflix breaks while I can.