The books are closed on Edgewater Farm’s 2013 season (our tax year being somewhat different than most people’s, we have to file our taxes by March 1st). By all accounts it was a much better year for us than we thought it would be back in July when we had our onion crop and a fair amount of our strawberry crop ruined by rainy weather and flooding. That was a grim period for all NH and VT farmers and their employees . You couldn’t cultivate the weeds to have them dry out and die, and your work boots were soggy 24-7. My old hockey-skate-induced athletes’-foot returned with a vengeance, and we all got depressed from sunlight deprivation. Then August came, and summer showed its cheerier side; fall was absolutely delightful. Sales were strong, and we able to get some stuff to actually grow. So now, as we surround ourselves with catalogs and go to meetings, we can erase the memory of the bleaker times and have happy dreams of the future. Unfortunately, the future begins now as we have to make plant divisions and start seeding ornamentals this week, as well as start root stocks for the greenhouse tomatoes we graft. But it is nice to have these little seasonal benchmarks to adhere to. Keeps you in touch with the flow of the seasons, and fosters the hope of renewal.
It has been very cold thus far this winter, starting back in November. All of us old geezers are making the same comment: that this winter is more like the winters of our childhood. Cold temps and snow appeared well before Christmas, and such has not been the case the last many years. I know better than to make general statements about what may lie before us weather-wise, for it could turn out to be warm and rainy yet. After all, this is still New England even if climate change is out and about. But the single most striking thing one notices as you get older (and if you work outdoors) is the lengthening of the days. It has been brutally cold this past week (a couple of nights of -15 F ) and yet farmers notice that it seems to be much lighter outside at 4:45 PM than it was at Christmas. The change is subtle, but it captures your attention. And it brings you some cheer. I guess that the one understated benefit of farming is that you get to enjoy nature’s subtle changes. The slowing growth of lettuce in the fall, the accelerated growth of summer squash in the June heat, the muggy oppressive tension before a thunderstorm in July, the cooler drier change of the air of late August and early September, the lengthening tree shadows of November. There are more lucrative ways to make a living, but not many that let you directly feel the vagaries of the natural forces about us.
So the temperatures have abated and it’s a sunny Sunday morning, and the snow is nice and dry….good for skiing and snow shoeing. I have been at the desk too long, and with warming temps and rain in the forecast, I have decided all the greenhouse work that I should have done yesterday will await me tomorrow morning when it’s icy and miserable. And I will be happier to tackle it then….
It’s the first day of winter, at least in my book. I just came in from moving some pots of blueberries around with the skidsteer. It’s 3:30 PM, the outside temps are 20 degrees. There is a howling wind and the snow (what very little we got) never thought of melting today and it is just riding around on the wind. This is the time of year that I love my woodstove; my fingers, toes and hindquarters, especially.
We have been wading through the fall list of cleanup. Mike has been changing skins on the greenhouses while Ray, Jenny, Heat and Sam valiantly wash and pack out potatoes and carrots and try to winterize the miserably cold barn. The greenhouse crew works on plant orders and comes outside to price pottery, but daylight is in short supply these days.Farm chores are increasingly in need of moderated temperatures and a good desk lamp.
I have been spreading manure and trying to clean up around the shop. The other day I spread some of our homemade compost on the rhubarb and the more deserving rows of raspberries. On my trips back and forth from the field, I noticed a little maroon Honda driving past, very slowly. I assumed someone to be admiring my clean tractor as I loaded compost. After all, what’s not to admire about a clean tractor? It’s almost as prestigious as owning an Aston Martin, at least in any self-respecting farmer’s book. But I was wrong. A couple of trips back and forth past me later, a woman’s hand emerged from the Honda to flag me down . I went over to the car to see what might be amiss.
She was concerned with the fact that I seemed to be unaware that my compost pile was on fire. Was I aware of that and should that be allowed? Seems that after I opened up the pile with the tractor bucket she mistook the billowing clouds of steam for smoke from a fire. So I thanked her for her concern, tried to give her 3-minute course on the building and function of a compost pile, and assured her that all she was witnessing was a good thing. She then apologized for asking what then appeared to her to be a stupid question, to which I replied “If you don’t ask the question, you don’t learn anything.”
I was grateful to connect with her, even in a casual way, and to have an opportunity to address her concerns. But it brought home to me that in the last 50 years the vast majority of Americans have become removed from any form of agriculture. Perhaps that explains the uproar over FSMA 2013 and Food Safety. Most Americans don’t know how farms work, and their total personal connection to the farming community is through Fox Network or CNN News. When I was growing up (which in real time, according to most who work here was a period shortly before the invention of the steam engine) lived in Hillsboro, NH, which was small community of maybe 2000 folks. At that time there were 12 viable farms like ours in town that shipped fluid milk. There were no farm stands. Many folks in town kept some chickens or a pig, gardened, and they canned goods from their garden for the winter even though they might have had day jobs at Sylvania or Monadnock Paper. Many headed to the woods in November to get a deer to put in the freezer. Fishing was a food source or favorite pastime for me and my pals (unless it was baseball or softball season, that ran periodically year round for those of us who didn’t believe we could hurt our arms by throwing hard in the winter). The rest of the folks were either relatives of farmers, or lived near one.
Somewhere along the line the community/farmer connection deteriorated. A farmer spreading manure 50 years ago was a sign of spring, not unlike the arrival of the first robin. Today it means a potential visit from the road agent or a call from the town manager if any manure from the spreader ends up on the road, thus undercoating someone’s car. My Mom knew when it was time to call Elgin Sherk to see if he had any extra strawberries to sell from his garden, and she was a city kid from Stamford, Connecticut. Here at our farm we have witnessed the disconnect when we have had local people show up at the farm greenhouses when we first open in April with buckets in hand, looking to pick strawberries.
How did this disconnect happen? Obviously well-intentioned but destructive farm policy in the 60’s helped, as well as America’s undying belief that technology solves all problems and technology will feed all people cheaply. The farmers themselves bought into these beliefs, even though it led to their own demise. In Hillsboro in 1966 I could name you the twelve farms shipping milk by family name. Today not one farm in Hillsboro ships milk. I don’t know how many families were milking cows for a livelihood here in Plainfield in 1966, but I am sure that the number was many times the two that remain today. So there are fewer family farms, less personal and community connection to farmers, less knowledge about farming.
There has been a resurgence of small diverse family-based agriculture in the last fifteen years. Attendant to that is the development of farmstands, food hubs, CSAs and a foodie movement. From my perspective this is a very cool thing, not just for my own pocketbook but for society as well. I believe when people get involved with either food hubs or CSAs. or just come to the farm stand to pick up some vine-ripe tomatoes, they have an opportunity to understand and learn once again what it takes to produce the food we eat. Oftentimes the best support a community can offer a farmer is the understanding of how farms operate and allowing them to operate freely , despite the fact that they may be sometimes odiferous or sometimes noisy or inconvenient. Let’s hope the trend continues. Maybe someday in the future there will be twelve farms in Hillsboro providing livelihoods for twelve families. Now that would be something to see.
Its been a busy summer and here it is already September. They say time flies when you are having fun; this past summer has been a mixed bag, to say the least. The arrival of our grandaughter has been the best hoot, and she has reduced her grandfather to behavior patterns he once denied he would ever ascribe to. The arrival of Labor Day always draws the comment from customers that we must enjoy the winding down of the season. On the contrary, the “September Sprint” begins in late August, when the collegians within the crew depart to go back to school. Fall root crops have yet to be harvested; we still have another month and a half of picking tomatoes, corn, and all the other vegetables. There is much to harvest and pack out between now and Thanksgiving, and the shortening days remind you that there are myriad non-income-producing chores that also need attention before winter’s arrival.
Recently you may have noticed that the FDA sent a panel of bureaucrats and scientists into New England at the behest of the northeastern Congressional delegation, for the stated purpose of hearing the concerns and complaints of farmers, food producers and other concerned stakeholders in the Northeast. This was in response to final rule-making of the 2013 Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). On the morning of August 20 I attended the hearing in Hanover, and then we hosted a farm visit with the FDA panelists in the afternoon. There was ample press coverage, and the turnout for the morning hearing was a full house (about 300 people), predominantly farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont who generally are fearful of the onerous documentation and cost that the Act will bring to their operations. Conservationists, consumers and other stakeholders were concerned with the Act’s potentially negative impact on development of a sustainable local food web, our diversified family-farm-based agriculture, as well as on the environment here in the Northeast.
The FDA panel was polite, but by the afternoon it was apparent to me that they were, at best, only mildly interested in hearing what we had to say, and were more interested in defending their own position. They clearly didn’t grasp the diversity or complexity of small-scale agriculture, but how could they? None came from a farming background (unless you count being a Vice President of Monsanto a “farming background”). In the end, having been in the room with the panel in Hanover and then having had them visit my farm left a hollow feeling in my gut. I felt that they were here because someone told them they had to come; so they came and got some photo ops and went back to DC. Net result, in my opinion? They may just as well not have come.
There is one huge point lost amid all the minutiae that surrounds FSMA. We spent a boatload of time discussing the impact of poor science in the AG Water Regs, the huge amount of documentation that will be required for traceability, the enforcement components, the proposed “exemptions”(which have more tripwires than a minefield) and on and on. The big point that doesn’t get enough attention is that our food system is pretty safe. People get sick from food poisoning, some may die, and that is no small tradgedy. But the on morning of the hearing in Hanover, the first person to rise to the microphone was Jake Guest of Killdeer Farm of Norwich ,Vt. He quoted a report from the Center for Disease Control (based in Atlanta and a branch of the government) stating that from 1996-2010 less than 1% of the total of all foodborne illnesses were attributable to fresh produce, and most of that small fraction could be traced to large, vertically-integrated packer-shippers from out west (already supposedly under the auspices of food safety management). He surmised that perhaps there wasn’t a problem, and if there was, it probably wasn’t from small Northeastern family farms. To the average citizen it is pretty apparent that 2 (maybe 3 now) Mid-Eastern conflicts , the daily operation of motorized vehicles, the right for Americans to purchase automatic military-style weapons for their personal amusement, and ball pein hammers (see my Jan 2013 blog) constitute much greater risk to Americans than eating strawberries from Edgewater Farm irrigated with Connecticut River water.
Immediately the panelists went into defensive posture and trotted out some of George Bush’s “Fuzzy Math, ” going on at length for 10 minutes about how “the figures don’t accurately reflect…. “ and “if you look at how that 1% breaks down….” Their response, in hypnotic Washington-speak, had the expected effect ; eyes glazed over and we almost forgot why we were in the room. It may cloud the issue, but it doesn’t erase the fact that a tiny fraction of illness food borne illnesses are attributable to fresh produce. It’s a fact that Jake has been railing about ever since we first heard about mandatory food safety and the 2007 California Leafy Greens Amendment .
Your food is pretty safe, and it’s already heavily regulated. If you feel that processed food, shipped from afar in shrink wrap or poly bags with government stamps on it has less risk or is better food for you, then you already currently have plenty of choice and access to that. But don’t deny others the right to have another choice from their local farmers by choking those farmers with government regulations and economic burdens.
Many farmers today belonged to an agricultural youth organization when they were growing up. I belonged to a 4-H Club when I grew up on a dairy farm. Their club motto is: “To Make the Best BETTER.” That’s a noble endeavor in life, whether you are milking cows, engineering bridges, educating young people ,driving a dumptruck or playing in a blues band. All the small farmers I come in contact with have worked very hard at being better farmers and taking better better care of their natural resources. They certainly work hard to minimize food risks on their farms. By arguing against FSMA, they are not arguing against food safety, or trivializing its importance. But FSMA as currently written is destructive to diversified and small-scale agriculture. Education, not regulation is needed, if anything is needed at all. “To make the best better” should be an individual’s outlook into approaching a life, not not a federally mandated and regulated program.
It was in 1973 that I gave up my chair as bassist for the aspiring Ray Charles tribute band Great Baye to farm up here in Plainfield. It will be 40 years this year that Anne and I have been married. Been forty years since I graduated from UNH with a degree in Environmental Science, finishing a fairly undistinguished and unremarkable academic career.
It’s also been forty years since the town of Plainfield has had as much untimely and destructive weather as it has this year . After a sopping wet June of that year, the weather gods followed up with a storm on July 4th that dumped 4” of rain onto the already saturated earth. The result was flash flooding all about the town. Families on our road were isolated for days, due to washouts of sections of the road as well as to a couple of well -placed mudslides on the lower end of the road. Anne and I were stranded that day, trying to retrieve some calves from a farm in West Claremont, only to come to a stop with the truck and trailer on the way home when the hole in the road turned out to be 40 feet deep. We spent the night at the house of a friend of the family in Plainfield Village and were not able to get home until the next afternoon.
That was a pretty expensive weather event for the town of Plainfield. There were federal disaster monies made available, but it took months to get culverts replaced and roads back into shape. They did a good job, but little would they know for another 40 years just how well they actually had done. Didn’t effect Anne and me too much, we were only cropping a couple of acres, and those acres sat on dry ground. I didn’t have irrigation then, so the melons and corn really liked the extra moisture. (So did the weeds, but that’s another story…)
Fast forward to 2013. After planting corn with dust masks and living in what then appeared to be a developing dust bowl, we started to get rainy weather…..just about the time we started picking strawberries. It was helpful in the continuation of crop planting, but timely rain, not continuous rain, is really the order of the day during strawberry harvest. So we were doing a pretty good job of dealing with the crop for what we could pick and sell, but the PYO pickers couldn’t get into the field, or didn’t want to come out into the muggy, rizzly weather. Out of a potential 17 evenings that we were open for PYO, only twice did we stay open for our full hours of operation. We were either rained out, or the threat of lightning made us close the patch. The farm crew was doing an admirable job harvesting, and rot was minimal because we were getting just enough periods of drying and breeziness. But on July 2nd it started raining in the afternoon – 2.5″ in 40 minutes. It washed out all our farm roads and just hammered the strawberries. During that night it rained another 3″, and just when the workers knelt down to try to sort through the mess and pick strawberries, the heavens opened up and dumped another inch of rain on them. The 2013 strawberry season was pretty much over .
It has been a hard summer for all farmers: dairy, orchardists, loggers and truck farmers alike. Weather seems to come in extremes. Extreme heat, extreme rainfall, extreme wind and lighting…..There are a lot of long faces in the greater farming family, and more sad than happy stories to go around. The sun is headed in the other direction, making it too late to plant many crops with the expectation of profitability. Most all the farmers I talk to have the same resigned quote for you: “It is what it is..” The crops and dollars that we have lost to this season would make good gossip in another year, but alternately seem disarmingly insignificant to the loss suffered by some of my fellow farmers in this current year. But if there is one type of human who could be considered an optimist in this world, it would be a farmer. Couple of days of sun and things start to look normal. I look at the new strawberry plants I put in and they are looking pretty good. Not many weeds, leaves are big – I get excited all over again. We are able to forget (somewhat) the weather-induced depression and again we are “off to the races.”
I remarked once to my friend Skip Paul that I felt I suffered from some sort of ADHD or ADD- an attention deficit disorder. He shot back , “Well, isn’t that a prerequisite for being a farmer?”
It’s just about a year ago exactly that we passed papers on the Putnam Farm. I told one of the neighbors that “the scorched earth policy is over,” and indeed it looks a little like that has been our intent. Once our 2012 growing season was over, we had to get the house habitable and back in order. Jim Osterlund had to deal with some dangerously antiquated electrical issues and we had our propane guy install a new furnace before we focused on the fields and buildings. There was a lot of brush to cut back, and with the help of Leo Maslan, his climbing skills and chipper (coupled with a warmish spell of weather in January), we got a lot of brush cut from the edge of the fields back to the stone walls. Wayne McCutcheon completed a survey at the same time as a precursor to pursuing conservation easements.
April 26,2013-view from new field
We decided to open up a new field that lay unused on the river side of the railroad tracks. The folks from Oak Hill Lumber came in with their chipper and shears and logged it off. Three days, an excavator, a bulldozer and Scott Macleay and Rob Williams left us with a three-acre field to work with.
The barn, just prior to final dismantling- 4/27/2013
Many have lamented the loss of the barn. As mentioned in an earlier blog, we had given a great deal of thought to finding a way of keeping it in some portion as part of the farm. Ultimately, though, any kind of restoration looked like financial folly- even to the most ardent Eric Sloane fan. In the end, Ken Epworth and The Barn People of Windsor dismantled it for the barn board and timbers in it. They are going to re-size the timbers (due to the significant rot in the connection joinery) and reconstruct part of the barn as an adjunct to the new Artistree Art and Performance Center that is being built up in Pomfret, Vermont. So the original barn, in part, will still live. Sometime down the road when we really determine what our needs will be, there will be another barn on the Putnam Farm.
5/7/2013- a pile of dirt where once there was a barn…
The final piece of the puzzle will be the completion of a horizontal bore underneath the railroad track and state Route 12-A for an irrigation line that will allow us to get water from the Connecticut River. Once that is completed, we can focus on working with the soil and actually growing crops. It will be nice to have the money meter running (we hope) in the other direction.
Below is a picture of Eric Heaton planting up the first of one of our two tomato greenhouses on March 28.
Below is a picture of what I found on Monday morning, April 1st.
This is a vivid illustration that there is a darker face to what most people see of farms. A confluence of events Sunday between a gust of wind and our furnace igniting during the night resulted in a flash fire that destroyed some electrical wiring, burned holes through and ruined the plastic greenhouse covering, and killed 360 grafted tomato transplants that would have had a street value of $1800 if I were, in fact, able to go and and buy them, were they even available.
The upside, per usual, is that it could have been much worse. The furnace was not ruined. Because it happened during a rain event, the fire on the greenhouse plastic never really got going, thus the fire never transferred to the two greenhouses on either side. And, of course, no humans or favorite dogs were in the house at the time of the fire. And we were able to make all necessary reparations within 24 hours. We have been scavenging tomatoes from all of our friends and, with some extras that we had, we will have about half the house replanted, hopefully, by the end of the day. The only reminder will be the smell of burned earth and plastic.
Shit happens, as they say. It happens to all of us. It seems, however, that it happens a little more frequently to farmers than to real estate brokers or people with government jobs. Self-employment, especially the kind that is so weather-dependent, is not for the fainthearted. Wind events and hail can shred row covers and greenhouse plastic. Wet, heavy snow can collapse greenhouses. Floods render crops unsafe and unmarketable. Frost can undo weeks of work in a couple of minutes on a cold spring morning. So the next time you pick up a quart of berries at the farm stand, your weekly CSA box share, or peruse the local farmers’ collective efforts on display at the Coop Food Stores, remember both these pictures. They represent the true picture of farming.
I had a customer inquiry this past weekend that I probably handled poorly. Then again, maybe I didn’t. The customer wanted to know if we handled GMO seeds, or generated greenhouse transplants from GMO seeds, or by inference, use them in the field. The customer had been reading about Monsanto and they were very disturbed about what they had learned. This was my reply:
To the best of my knowledge we are not using any GMO varieties, and we would not knowingly purchase any. I have some unanswered questions in my mind as to the value of gene modification to science (I am by no means a scientist) – regarding,for example, developing a diabetic cure, reversing Alzeheimer’s disease, etc., which might be a good use, but we are not in favor of its use in food production. Monsanto developed BST and tried to shove that down the dairy industry’s throat, and my relatives at McNamara Dairy didn’t bite on that either. There are a lot of unanswered questions being ignored in the name of science and profitability, and I have personally felt that Monsanto is a bad corporate citizen. Period.
I am aware that Monsanto is acquiring foreign seed companies, and a lot of our hybrids are from these European seed houses. However, I would say that 90 percent of our seed comes from either Johnny’s or Harris in NY, both companies that are pretty sensitive to the GMO issue and buy significant lots from these seed houses for re-distribution. They are very clear and label what is GMO and what is not, as they service the smaller farm and organic community in the Northeast. We here at Edgewater are not certified organic by the Federal government, so we can save a great deal of money buying the same varieties without the federal organic certification.
I hope this is helpful information. Please feel free to get hold of me if you have other specific questions.
All the Best,
My response was crafted to be completely transparent to the customer. Perhaps if I had spun the answer thusly: ” I would never knowingly allow a GMO variety to be propagated on Edgewater Farm,” (which is also true), I would still have her as a customer. I feel I may have lost the customer because I gave her a longer, and what I thought was a more candid and thoughtful response, and I think I complicated her agenda. GMO, to me, is a huge issue, larger than Monsanto and sweet corn or tomato seed. I read that there may be cures developed through GMO for diabetes, and if a couple of my family members can make it to 70 without their extremities amputated from circulatory complications resulting from diabetes, then I think that is good thing. But I muddied the answer; she was looking for the black and white answer. Keep it simple.
Today, most every question I field from customers is in want of a simple black-or- white, yes-or-no answer. Do you spray? Yes or no. Are you organic? Yes or no. Is your produce safe to eat? Yes or no. This is the age of the sound bite. Today there is more information available than ever before to us and yet we spend less time researching and thinking about things. I have no illusions that more people look at the Edgewater Farm Facebook pictures than read the Edgewater Farm blog. I can see it in the eyes of a customer when I am asked if I am certified organic. They would much rather see a little green USDA Certified Organic sticker on the middle of my forehead that enter into a discussion with me as to why I am not or what organic methods we actually do practice . Because the federal government, through its certification process, has made the “O” word almost proprietary, I cannot even us it to to describe the crops we actually do grow organically. Thus not being certified makes it simple. If its not good (certified organic) it must be bad. Reality is, it’s like many things in life; mostly shades of gray. But for most people, if it can be viewed as black or white, good or bad, then the decision becomes easier and thus goes away quicker. More time to watch Downton Abby, less time thinking about the GMO.
I wish my world was that simple. I am often paralyzed in the decision making process, if not internally torn by the decisions I make because there are so many considerations. We are converting two acres low grade forest into field down at the Putnam Farm. Although I know that two acres of land grows a lot of radishes and green beans and that land conversion just increases the existing field, I confided to the logger some guilt because carbon sequestration that forests provide is really important to environment, perhaps more important than growing food for humans. If we made decisions based solely on business profitability, things would look totally different when people drove down River Road. Smart money would have made us move out of here back in the 80’s when the Asian gentlemen jumped out of the BMW, started waving his checkbook at me asking me to name a price on the farm. That turned out to be a simple decision. Most are not.
I realize in my conversation with the customer that maybe there can be a thing as being “too” honest. I have to become better,perhaps, at crafting sound bites. In the end, I think the former customer and I probably feel the same way about the GMO issue . But I think she made the wrong decision deciding to stop doing business with us, because in the end she may hurt Edgewater much more than she will hurt Monsanto.