Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paperwork and the Farm

The concepts of paperwork and bureaucracy seem antithetical to farming, which we tend to think about as practically the most natural activity one can do, short of actually going to the wilderness and living off the land. The farmer pays close attention to her fields and livestock. She touches the earth with her bare hands daily, is far more in tune with the geography and weather than the average person, and depends upon the well-being of her beets and fennel, grass and sheep for her health and livelihood.

And yet... there is paperwork. A hefty amount of it, too. If you are USDA Organic Certified, that is. Which Brightwood Vineyard and Farm happens to be.

We must write down everything we do on the farm - and I do mean everything. We write down what we plant, which rows, how many feet. We record every "input" (e.g. compost or fertilizer) that goes on the plants. We meticulously catalog how many pounds of every single piece of produce we harvest, how many feet of each bed we harvested, the quality of the harvest, the seed lot numbers, and where it is going.

This, of course, is nothing compared to the leviathan piles of paperwork that Susan faces whenever her USDA Organic Inspection comes around, which it did last week. Documentation proving that her seeds are organic, and if they aren't, a minimum of two letters proving that she tried to find organic seeds and couldn't. Pictures of cover crops and videos of said cover crops being tilled into the field. Lists of every single seed she has purchased in the last year, if it was planted, where it was planted, and organized by a seed lot number that she assigns it. Maps of the farms, showing how they look in relation to one another, storage facilities marked, vegetable fields marked, livestock areas marked... heck, everything marked.

All this time and effort spent on paperwork appear, to me, completely anathema to the idea of farming. Most of the farmers I know became farmers because they wanted to be linked closely with the land, not so they could sit inside and stare at a computer for hours each week. That's certainly not why I chose this job.

Just how necessary is being USDA Organic certified, anyway? I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and he does an excellent investigation of two opposing viewpoints of this topic. On the one side, you have "Industrial Organic": large-scale organic farms that farm hundreds of acres of crops or rear thousands of livestock without pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics. These include such enterprises as Earthbound Farm, Cascadian Farm, and Horizon Organics - familiar names to anyone who frequents the organic aisle of their local supermarket.

Diametrically opposing these farms is Joel Salatin, the farmer who runs the now infamous (in farming circles, at least) Polyface Farm in Staunton, Virginia. Salatin does organic livestock, but he isn't USDA certified as such. He refuses to be. And Pollan provides plenty of salty quotes to illustrate this point. For example:
We never called ourselves organic - we call ourselves 'beyond organic.' Why dumb down to a lesser level than we are?
And my personal favorite:
Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians - we just want to opt out. That's all the Indians ever wanted - to keep their tepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches...But the Western mind can't bear an opt-out option. We're going to have to refight the Battle of the Little Bighorn to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, barcoded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.
So that's how Mister Salatin feels about the subject. And, honestly, I identify with him to a large degree. Big Organic has no soul - it has compromised the spirit of the organic ideal that started in the 60's.

But, if we compare conventional farming and Big Organic farming, there is very clearly a lesser of two evils. Although Big Organic farms may be "free range" in name only, may look exactly like a conventional farm from the outside, they are much more environmentally friendly. They aren't degrading their soil and polluting the land with pesticides. They aren't pumping their broilers or cattle full of hormones. Said chicken may not be living a life full of chicken enjoyment on the open farm, but at least we, the consumer, know that it is the healthier option, for us and the earth.

But honestly...the best option of all is to go to a local farmer's market and purchase food from someone you trust.

These are the farms that fall in the middle of the extremes. And the choice of whether or not to get USDA certification is a highly personal one that each of these farmers must make. Do their consumers care? Are they willing to put in the extra hours, poring over hundreds and hundreds of papers until their eyeballs bleed? (Figuratively speaking.) For some farms, it's a choice they feel is necessary. For others, not so much.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

All Work and No Play? Hardly.

Although there is no denying that I'm on the farm the lion's share of the time, I don't want to give the impression that I never have time off. I do. It evens out to one day a week - usually Sunday - but due to some creative scheduling, I had both Thursday and Sunday off last week.

And there is plenty to do here. Charlottesville is an hour's ride away, while the smaller towns of Orange and Culpeper offer shopping, restaurants and coffee shops closer to home. I'm a thirty minute drive from Shenandoah National Park, for which I purchased a year-long pass almost the instant I arrived. That's what happened Sunday - a 13.4 mile hike that included a black bear and cub sighting (wonder if it was the same pair?) as well as some time for solitude and reflection.

Normally I go hiking on my days off, but Thursday I decided to better myself and learn a little bit about Virginia's history by visiting Montpelier, the home of James Madison, fourth President and architect of the U.S. Constitution.

After touring the mansion and walking around the grounds for the better part of five hours, I headed over to Barboursville for a sandwich and to check out the Barboursville Ruins, a house originally designed by Thomas Jefferson for the Governor of Virginia that burned down on Christmas Day in 1884.

Virginia is also home to hundreds of wineries, so I took the opportunity to visit Barboursville Winery, where one may taste 23 wines for a $5 fee. A great deal, I might add.

Wineries dotting the landscape, a rich historical background, a nearby national park... these are just some of the many opportunities for enjoyment near the farm. Not to mention, I'm only 90 miles from Washington DC, where I'm headed this weekend for the 4th of July. Cheers to that!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Local Meal in the Vineyard

Saturday night, we enjoyed the company of several friends of the farm as we celebrated summer with dinner in the vineyard.

Guests brought food, of course - mostly appetizers and desserts, which were all (of course) delicious. But as a result, the meal was almost entirely from the farm!

Starting from the top left: Beet Salad (Autumn), Gnocchi with basil pesto (Brian, with Autumn and myself rolling and shaping the dumplings), Roasted Goose (Susan), beet chips (from a local store called Yoder's) and Marinated Swiss Chard (me). Not pictured: Pear Wine (Dean).

It was a beautiful evening, and a wonderful chance to eat a local meal together as a community. This is how a meal should be - a gathering, a communion and a celebration, rolled into one.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Microgreen Madness

Although the farm's microgreens production is technically not organic - Susan can't get most of the seeds organically, although we obviously raise them without any non-organic inputs - it's still a fun part of what we do.

Microgreens are exactly what they sound like - tiny versions of plants such as basil (above), mizuna, cress (below), mustard, and so on. We sell them to Fresh Link, a local wholesale operation that provides produce for DC-area restaurants. The microgreens are typically used for garnish... and no wonder, for they are lovely.

We start with plain potting soil, which we put into the trays.*

Today, we're going to plant Purple Kohlrabi.

Using our lovely little seeder, we sprinkle the seeds liberally over the dirt.

Then we tamp them down with our handy tamper.

After they germinate inside, which just takes a day or two in summer, we take them out to the nursury to join the other happy little microgreens:

Well, to be perfectly honest, not all of the microgreens are totally happy these days.

That ugly looking splotch is some kind of fungal growth that has been popping up and decimating the beautiful microgreens. Basil, amaranth and purselane all seem especially vulnerable, although it's shown up in some of the other greens too.

*Did I mention that the main reason I really like this job is that I'm allowed to play in the dirt?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mail Order Chickens

On Sunday, we recieved a box.

Whatever can it be?

Gasp! Baby Chicks!

Fifty-seven of them, to be precise - mostly Araucanas, which lay blue/green eggs, and Silver Laced Wyandottes. They all came from McMurray Hatchery, which is in Iowa, and were only one day old when they arrived.

Here is their new home, which I like to call the Chicky Red Light District:

The maroon ambiance comes from a heat lamp, incidentally, and is not actually an aura of illicitness resulting from their naughty night-time chicklet activities.

See? Totally innocent looking.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Neptune, Father of Fish Guts

Blog, meet Neptune, King of the Sea Fish Emulsion.

As I've mentioned before, we use fish emulsion* to give our soil blocks a little oomph before transplanting them. The product, which is brown and gloopy and smells strongly of fish, has all sorts of helpful nutrients in it to give those little plants a nice start. Transplanting can be traumatic for a plant, so any help we can give them is great.

The method: in a watering can, mix about 1/8 cup of fish emulsion for every gallon of water. And for the love of Pete, do NOT let leftovers sit around. Get rid of them once you're done, or you will be haunted by the scent of the sea forevermore.

*A fancy term for fish guts.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Death and the Farm

The overabundance of funerals in my family over the last month has me thinking about a lot of things, death naturally being one of them. When I returned to the farm two weeks ago, I felt much more attuned to the ebb and flow of life here - the balance of predator and prey, the birth of baby goats destined to become goat burgers, the knowledge that our Peking ducks will be ready to process in just a month.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Barbara Kingsolver notes the increasing distance between Americans and their food. She describes how few people in this country have ever processed a chicken or lamb or cow. Instead, we go to the grocery store, where we purchase the appropriate part all nice and clean in its styrofoam and cellophane packaging, beautiful beneath the flourescent lighting, bearing no hint of its messy beginning.

It’s a disturbing train of thought. How many of us can say with certainty which part of the steer originally housed our rib eye steak or chuck roast? In the store, thighs and breasts, ribs and shanks, are all completely devoid of their original context. So few people today have anything to do with their own food production, lacking even a lonely tomato plant to dot their lawn. We think of food as it appears in the supermarket: clean, unblemished, stacked neatly into tall piles and organized by color.

This separation between animal and human has ramifications that reach beyond our dinner plate. It speaks to something far more substantial: our relationship with death.

For many, the only time we encounter the dead is when a loved one passes away. Often, we do not witness the moment of their passing. Only later do we see them turned out at a viewing or funeral, the product of modern embalming practices. With rituals like these, it is no wonder that so many people find death to be upsetting, disturbing, and even traumatic.

Death and farming are remarkably intertwined. I saw my first livestock death about six weeks ago, when a sick chicken needed to be put down in case it was contagious. Brian took it and hung it upside down by its feet, before using a knife to slice the major vein running down the size of its neck. The chicken shuddered. Then it flapped wildly. Then it was still.

It was my first time to see the death of an animal on the farm... but it won't be my last.

All of which makes me wonder: does being exposed to death on a farm make it more acceptable in life? It's hard to say. I don't think it makes it any easier, necessarily. But I think that it makes death a little less traumatic.

On a farm, as in nature, death does not happen arbitrarily. The chicken is sick, Old Yeller needs to be put down, the lamb will be eaten and respected as part of our meal. There is always a reason. Death is merely one step in a long chain of events - and not necessarily the last one.

If more consumers were involved in their food, up to and including witnessing and perhaps helping with its death and processing, then I have no doubt that they would be much more mindful of how they used that animal. And if we were more exposed to death and its effects on the farm, then we might be a little better prepared to meet with it in life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy

Breaking news: I am now an official tractor driver!

Sadly, I'm too short for the big tractor. But that's okay - this tractor doesn't slip out of gear while going down hills! There's a silver lining to every cloud.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Potatoes and New Beginnings

This was a post that I meant to do last week, but due to my afore-mentioned technical difficulties, I'm just now getting to it.

The last two weeks have been full of planting things: tomatoes, peppers, okra, lettuce, cantaloupe, brassica mix and squash, to be precise. There's plenty more to put in the ground, of course. But in the midst of all this planting, it's easy to forget sometimes about what we've already planted... like potatoes, back in early April.

Yes, they are purple. They're Caribè potatoes.* And they were delicious, soft and tender and melt-in-your-mouth-y when we ate them.

And here is Brian, harvesting away:

Anyways. I just thought everyone might like to see the fruits potatoes of our labors.

*It's best if you pronounce it like Speedy Gonzales.

The Passing of a Friend: My Trusty Canon

It is with great sadness that I mourn the passing of my faithful Canon Powershot. My sidekick and friend for five and a half years - which is a long time for a digital camera - he went with me on many adventures, including all over Europe and for two action-packed years of AmeriCorps NCCC. He was a chunk, but quite a trooper.

This, of course, explains my lack of posts over the last week. I've been taking pictures with my phone, but the connection on the farm is poor enough that I'm having trouble uploading them. So stay tuned, faithful readers! Hopefully salvation will come soon.

My last pictures, taken at a CRAFT tour in late May at Twin Springs Farm. (Check the link for my write-up on the CRAFT blog about the tour.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To Market, To Market

Saturday morning is the hallowed time of farmers markets for small family farms from coast to coast, and Brightwood Vineyard and Farm is no exception.

Usually I go help Susan at the Charlottesville Farmers Market, which is down in (can you guess?) Charlottesville. But this weekend was different - I went to the Madison Farmers Market, a mere five miles away from the farm, to help Autumn set up.

The Madison Farmers Market started just three years ago, and judging by the jump in sales this year, it's really starting to take off. According to Dean and Susan, it was rare to break $100 at that location in the past. Not too hard to imagine why... it's a small market in a rural area, where lots of people grow their own food and there's not a lot of attention paid to eating local, organic fare. However, this year the market has been pulling in around $175 or more regularly... and, quite often, more.

Autumn has more or less taken the Madison Farmers Market on as her project. She has quite an impressive background in management and food services (coffee, specifically), so I don't know how much of the jump is due to her enthusiasm and marketing savvy, and how much is due to the market's growing prominence in the area. It's probably a bit of both.

One of the nice things about having two such different markets - one small and rural, one large and urban - is that the shoppers at those markets are interested in very different things, and we can allocate our different products accordingly. Vegetables do very well in Madison, for example, so if we only have a few bunches of radishes, Madison gets them. On the other hand, few people in Madison are willing to pay $5 a carton for eggs, so the lion's share of those go to Charlottesville. Folks in Charlottesville go absolutely mad for herbs, but in Madison? Not so much.

Perhaps most importantly, the Madison Farmers Market is a valuable venue for being involved in the local community. It's not only a way for the farm to get to know its customers, but to also meet other local farms and develop connections with them.

After all, isn't that supposed to be the point? We want consumers to be engaged with their food, to know where it comes from and to question it. ("Hello, I was just wondering if you feed your cows chicken blood?")

We want people to invest money in their own communities, not send it to remote corporations in NYC, LA, or across the ocean. And the more consumers visit small, local farmers markets and buy food from small, local farmers, the closer we inch to taking back our food, our power and our lives.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, say good night!

I'm back! Hopefully I won't have to get on an airplane again for a very long time.

I'll make some more informative updates later about events over the last week, but I just want to share something that happened yesterday.

As Brian and I were driving to the farm house to harvest, what do you think we saw running across the road, not twenty feet in front of our car?

A black bear and her cub, of course!

Brian managed to snap a cell phone picture of them in the woods. It's not the best quality, but you can see them. Sort of.