Moving to Town

November 26, 2016

After 36 years at Sandhill Farm, I found myself moving to town this last summer/fall. How did that happen?
My partner, who I met at Sandhill and used to live there, moved to Memphis MO (about 2000 population and 12 mi from Sandhill)with her daughter in high school, about 5 years ago. Since then, I’ve been coming to town for regular dates at their house. Her daughter graduated a year and a half ago and is now in college.
This last summer, my partner went to NY state for 3 months to be closer to family and explore other possible places to live. I decided to stay at her house in town – just to try it – during that time. During the summer months, I was working full time as an organic inspector: typically, being on inspection trips for a week and then back home for a week to write the reports and plan the next trip. I could do that as well from town as from sandhill. I continued to be a member and using a sandhill car to do the inspections. I also continued to visit regularly and occasionally be a consultant with the new farmers there and/or maintenance issues.

During my time in Memphis this summer, I realize that I’ve never actually lived on my own: I’ve lived in college dorms, group housing, and then in community. I find that I LOVE living at my partner’s house. I love living by myself, eating when & what I want/feel like at the time. I set up my computer in front of a double window overlooking her garden (she has converted both her front and back yard to raised beds/garden. I get to harvest various garden crops: potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, peaches, plums, etc. I actually worked more in the garden than I had in years on the farm. Further, there are beautiful large trees all around us here on various neighbors’ lots. Then I ride her bike all around town every day. And I notice the freedom from the worries/concerns about everyday life on the farm/commune. At the farm, wherever I walk, I see things that need attention: building/equipment maintenance, crops to be weeded/harvested, food to be processed etc. Sometimes, it was hard for me to relax – especially, as my focus was shifting to off-farm work (organic inspections). Anyway, I realize that I feel a lot lighter/freer in my body and spirit living in town.

Then my partner returns from NY and I realize that I am not ready to go back to Sandhill; however, I also feel that she is not ready to welcome me to live with her in her house. But I am wrong: she suggests we try living together – we are still doing it and liking it.

Then I tell my sandhill community that I will be leaving. It is a big deal: for them and me. My identity is wrapped up in the community. I was instrumental in setting up many of the systems and practices here. I know the history of the evolution of how and why we chose to do various buildings, systems, etc. I designed the fields that we farm/cultivate as well as the field crops that we grow and purchased most of the equipment we have. At the same time, I have known for some time that I would eventually leave the community (to be with my partner) and so I have been transitioning my areas of responsibilities to others here. Now I just have to let go of all the things I’ve come to love and appreciate here. And the community continues to evolve with new characters and a new generation.

Sandhill and I agree that my membership will end at the end of this year – although I have been living mostly in town for the last 6 months. I finally moved all of my stuff from the farm last week. I note that one of the subsections on the sandhill website is member blogs – by Laird and me. Laird left the community about 3 years ago and now I am leaving. On the next update of the website, we may no longer be there. Happy trails to all.

Current Challenges #2 – Equipment

March 11, 2016

Crop production depends partially on the equipment that the farm can use: it varies a lot in scale but also in variety in terms of how well it is adapted to particular scale/soil/weather conditions. The greater complexity of the tools in the farmers’ tool chest, the better the chances are raising a good crop.

Equipment used/involved: tillage, planting, weed control, harvest.
Our primary challenge w/ equipment is size: we are small scale – growing crops on about 15 acres – as opposed to our neighbors from hundreds to thousands of ac.
There is an irony here: we came upon the agricultural scene here at the time when conventional farmers were upsizing – hence the small scale equipment was and is cheap; sometimes, at farm auctions, the folks bidding against us are the scrap dealers. This is especially notable with weed control equipment: conventional farmers now depend on chemical weed control; organic farmers still depend on mechanical means – rotary hoe, row cultivator, and flaming. However, due to the growth of the organic farm sector, there is now more demand for smaller equipment.
Newer tillage equipment makes a finer and smoother seed bed resulting in better germination and weed control. There is little difference between tillage equipment used on organic and conventional farms; except that many conventional farmers are no-till and so use little/no tillage equipment. Equipment used depends mostly on scale of the operation: larger ones have a variety of equipment to do the best job for varying field/weather conditions. We small scale folks can’t justify the investment in all that equipment. We make do with what we scavenge at farm auctions; however, they don’t do as nice a job.

Planters have become much more sophisticated (eg, air planters); the main improvement is that they put one seed at precise intervals; in contrast, our old 2 row JD planter from the 1950s puts seeds down int a row – but how many seeds – is more chaotic, which means that we usually plant too many or too few seeds. Of course, there are adjustments for that; the imprecision is affected by planting depth: too shallow – the seeds do not germinate, too deep – they don’t make it to the surface. This is especially true of planting sorghum – our primary cash crop. The reason is that the sorghum seed is very small, so if it is planted too shallow, the soil may dry out before the seed germinates; on the other hand, if it planted too deep, the sprout will not make it to the surface before it gives up and dies. Modern planters make population control more precise. However, they do not make 2 row air planters; further, this equipment is more expensive equipment than we can justify for our small scale.

Weed Control
Row cultivators have improved as well, making weed control more effective; however, they are also more expensive. On our small scale we find it hard to justify the price – so we make do with older equipment. During my inspection of organic farms, I have noted a remarkable increase in effective weed control due to better equipment and good management. Many organic farmers have several different kinds of row cultivators, which are used for specific soil conditions and or height of the crop. Organic farmers note that the trade off between organics and conventional is time required for weed control: it takes many passes across the fields, whereas their chemical neighbors usually hire a local custom chemical applicator.
The factor of scale: we have 2 row equipment because we have small fields. When I inspect an organic farm with hundreds of acres of row crops, they have much bigger equipment. I am used to seeing 4, 6, and 12 row equipment. Lately, I have been seeing 18 and even 24 row equipment. The larger organic farmers are adapting and when necessary, building their own equipment. For comparison of scale, we grow about 10 acres of row crops; when farmers are growing 500 and more acres, they are usually using at least 12 row equipment. The main reason for having larger equipment is that they need to cultivate hundreds or thousands of acres, which makes it more feasible to invest in larger/fancier equipment.
Another more recent innovation is the use of GPS guidance. When I first heard about this technology, I scoffed at it, thinking that it was another gadget designed to fleece farmers. Then I noted that some organic farmers were using it as well and were extolling the benefits – with guidance, the operator does not have to steer the tractor and can focus on how effective the cultivator is at destroying weeds. Further, the guidance system is so precise that the cultivator can be adjusted to be much closer to the crop row and thus taking out a higher percentage of the weeds. Seeing the results of the weed control, I am impressed. Once again, our small scale does not warrant the financial investment.

Harvesting equipment. In this category, the scale of operation is everything, ie, there does not appear to be any advantage/difference between conventional and organic equipment. The primary equipment used is the combine, the size of the combine owned/used is usually determined by the scale of the crops to be harvested. This is true for us as well. Our combine is a 2 row one that I bought at a farm auction for $75. Over the years, I also purchased several other similar combines (AC 60) for spare parts. I am told that modern combines cost around $500,000. However, for most crops, our combine does just as good a job as theirs. It is just s-l-o-w-e-r. Which is fine.

Current Challenges on the farm #1.

March 11, 2016

welcome back! I’ve felt the absence of the muse (writer’s block?).
I am writing about challenges that face farms like ours: small, oriented toward specialty crops, and organic: some issues may be specific to organic, others not. I’ve been on this farm for 36 years; in that time I’ve interacted a lot w/ local farmers and been the marketing manager on our farm. I have been active in the organic community: getting our farm certified in 1989 and being an organic inspector since 1995 – I have inspected farms in many states in this country as well as Mexico and Haiti. Dang it! that sounds like bragging – I just meant to share my background.

In this post I address issues on the production side of challenges. In the next, I plan to discuss equipment, and I thought I would explore sales/marketing challenges in another one; however, I feel I already wrote about them in previous blogs.
In these posts, I am addressing primarily what on our farm we call our field agriculture – ie, crops that we plant/produce in our fields as opposed to our garden/produce operation, even though our “fields” are relatively small: .3 ac – 2 acre fields. The main difference is that in our fields we manage crops with equipment, and in our garden/produce, it is primarily by hand.

So what about challenges on the production side? The first factor that comes to mind is soil health/fertility. I almost did not even mention it because it seems so complicated. After attending numerous workshops on soil fertility at various conference and viewing multiple slides/graphs/tables detailing soil fertility factors, I still feel at a loss as to exactly what is the best approach to increase soil health/fertility on our farm. For the first 20 years or so at Sandhill, our approach was that we should manage our land so that fertility came from on farm sources or as bio-dynamic paradigm: see the farm unit as a sustainable entity. We had a little manure (from a dairy cow, calf and a few chickens), wood ashes for potassium, but we mostly depended on green manure crops as the basis for fertility. That appeared to be working – crops were ok, but not the bounteous harvests pictured in many books and on many of the farms I inspected. So what was lacking? I got into micro nutrients: boron, zinc, sulfur, manganese, etc. We purchased some of those but I did not see a direct response. I was also using BD preparations – again, no big response. About a decade ago, we no longer had livestock (other than chickens and pets) – so we purchased manure from neighbors. It appeared to help, but along with it came weed seeds.

During my inspections of organic farms, I often see exemplary farms: crops are lush, healthy, and weed control is very good. To me, that indicates that the soil is in balance and that the farmer is a good manager. How do they do it? Re the soil: the predominating factor appears to be the use of lots of manure: in some cases, it is mostly from on farm livestock; others purchase manure from neighbors and/or from wherever. It seems that manure has a lot/most of the nutrients that make for a balanced soil. Some farms do not bother with soil tests, others test for all the nutrients and purchase the ones noted as deficient in the soil tests. In the end, there is no one approach that fits all. And so we are back to our own system.

My current kick re nutrients is calcium; in the past, the common source of calcium for farmers was agricultural lime from a local quarry; however, from doing soil tests over decades, it became apparent to me that the lime from our local quarry had too much magnesium in it. Our soils already had too much magnesium, so adding the lime would compounded our problems. A fellow organic farmer in the area persuaded me that calcium is still the limiting factor even when soil tests indicate plenty of calcium, he maintains that most is not available and that I need to get a particular kind of lime from a distant quarry – I’m planning to apply it this spring – let’s see…

Another major factor that has been influential lately is the weather. Dang it! Nothing we can do about that. But hasn’t weather always been a factor? Of course, but in the last 7 years or so, it appears that we have been more adversely affected by weather than previously.
Field Crops.
One of the landmarks for this observation is that Mica came to Sandhill about 7 years ago and in those years I have turned over managing our field crops to her. Since then, I’ve noted that we have not had an “average year”. It’s been too wet/dry/cold etc – more so than in my memory – climate change? Definitely – to what extent, who is to say? As Mica says: farming is supposed to be fun – but this is being challenging. There is nothing we can do about it; however, with this climate change, timeliness becomes a greater factor: eg, at one point last year, we had a window of half a day to cultivate row crops for weed control – it so happened that both Mica and I were on inspection trips that day. The norm used to be that we had windows of at least 2-3 days for this.

Re 2015 weather and crop yields: we did not harvest any of our wheat – it was too wet/humid for weeks and then the weeds took over. With sorghum: due to incessant rains, the seeds kept getting washed out in several fields. We replanted and it happened again – we finally gave up and did not plant a few fields. Further, the rains prevented mechanical weed control (rotary hoeing/cultivation); in the end, we harvested 117 gal of syrup compared to our recent average of 500 gal and even higher a decade ago.

Our produce production has not been as adversely affected by the weather as our field crops – partially due having many of our crops on raised beds (better drainage) and now having a large hoop house to extend the season (eg. spinach/greens in the fall/spring and peppers, cucumbers, etc during the summer). Where we had potatoes in a flat field, many of them rotted this last year.
Further, fertility is easier to manage on a garden/small scale: compost and green manure crops.

In conclusion, it feels like very little/new information from my previous posts. However, our field crop yields were decimated in 2015 – that was new/different. I still can’t explain it – just some thoughts…


November 28, 2015

Oops – I’m already late.
But it’s never too late to express gratitude/thanks.

Thanksgiving has always seemed a natural farm holiday to me. Perhaps because I grew up in Canada; we did not have the Pilgrim – Native American story of uniting for a celebration of mutual thankfulness. When I was growing up, I never thought to question the origin of the Canadian thanksgiving holiday (which is the second Monday of October). The theme seemed to be being thankful for the season’s harvest – thus a farm celebration. Although I did wonder at the timing of it: by that time, our crops had been harvested – except for the sugar beets. Why not wait until the real end of the agricultural harvest/year?

My main memories of thanksgiving was an array of vegetable and grain produce in the front of the church the day before – at sunday service. It was an assortment of products – but we got the general idea. Further, it was not nearly as big a deal in Canada as it is in the US. Or was that because I grew up in a rural Mennonite community? eg. nobody had to travel a big distance to be w/ family. My extended family lived within 10 mi of each other; however, we did not gather as the extended family – it was usually just our nuclear family having a special meal. I don’t remember any traditional special foods – except we always had chicken (home raised and butchered, of course). And I’m sure there were plenty of desserts.

For the last 40 years or so, I have been celebrating thanksgiving in the US – most of them here at Sandhill farm. Here, the timing seems perfect: we have harvested most of our crops. The only remaining ones are kale, collards, etc in the garden. This year, none of us had our thanksgiving meal here on the farm. 3 of us were at Black Mesa doing support work for Native Americans striving to keep their farms. 2 went to the Possibility Alliance to celebrate with those folks. 1 went to Red Earth farms (neighbors) to dine with friends there. 3 of us and 3 visitors went to a community meal celebration at dancing rabbit (also neighbors). I reckon this is in the tradition of an extended family/tribe. It was a large group – 50 or so? We began with appreciations. There was lots of food and good conversation.

So what am I thankful for this time around?
Since I am mostly involved with the field crops (as opposed to the garden/produce), I would usually list our good harvests from the fields. However, due to the incessant rains this spring/early summer, our field crops were very poor. But my list is abundant:
– our garden/produce harvest was great; not all crops, but enough so that we have a feeling of plenty.
– our fruit trees did remarkably well – especially the apple trees and the asian pear tree.
– although we harvested no wheat this year, we have plenty to last us from last year’s crop.
– the sorghum crop was very poor – we will not have to put any labor into marketing the crop.
– our income stream is solid and healthy: we sold sorghum, condiments, and produce, but most of this year’s income is from off farm work – organic inspections. I have been doing inspections for 20 years, but this year, Mica also began doing organic inspections, and Tyler just finished his training for the same. We also added another craft type business this year, sewing for another company.
– like minded neighbors that we feel spiritually connected with, with whom we have common celebrations.
– in general, we are in good health. We go through having colds, viruses, allergies, etc., but no one had a major illness/health challenge.
– in particular, I am 69 and still feel in vibrant health. I have/had various challenges, but none serious.
– we built a cistern to collect rain water a year and a half ago; this year we have drinking rain water from our own cistern. Our other water source is from our county public water supply. We are thankful for having rain water in our kitchen.
– we have three new members! All of them spent various amounts of time here previously (from months to years), so they were not new to us; however, the fact that they took the additional steps to become members is significant.

Gratitude to the internet for keeping us connected!

Crop Yields – again

November 16, 2015

In my last post, I wrote about our poor sorghum harvest this year and the large variation of annual yields. Recently I received a request for info on maple production in MO; as I looked over our records of how much maple syrup we’ve been making (although we’ve been harvesting maple since 1987,I have records only for the later years). I was surprised again at the large variability in annual production. When I put it into the context of my last post re sorghum production, I realized that large variations in agricultural yields are perhaps the norm – not the exception.

The following is a record of our recent maple production:
Year total syrup (quarts)
2002 65
3 30
4 40
5 107
6 43
7 115
8 80
9 104
10 10
11 58
12 44
13 67
14 49
15 10

The variation in maple yields is especially intriguing since we have no influence in the production; ie, we do not plant or weed, we simply harvest and cook it down. We have been tapping the same trees throughout this time. Still, folks keep asking: what do you think were the factors (either large or small harvests): was it the wet fall? dry fall? wet/dry spring or summer? cold or mild winter? etc. I consistently plead ignorance. But our human minds seem to want answers; we feel a need to explain.

And now I think of our other 2015 harvest experiences. We did not harvest any of our wheat this year; not because it was a poor crop, but because at harvest time we kept having rain and high humidity. The grain never dried out and then the weeds came on and we realized that with the abundant weeds, the wheat would never dry out. So we tilled it all down and considered it a green manure crop – to feed the soil.

And then this anomaly: the popcorn grew to almost normal size – but then never made any ears. Not just a few – none! We’ve never had that happen before. Other folks I talked to had no explanation. I imagine it had to do with too much rain, not enough sun, etc. but even with that, I would have expected a poor yield – but ZERO?

Once again, I come to this: “let the mystery be…”

Mystery of Crop Yields – II

October 25, 2015

I did a post with this heading in Nov 2013. A lot of it focused on our experience with sorghum syrup yields. At that time I wrote that we had just had the worst harvest in more than 20 years. Well, this year, it was worse.
Folks often ask: what is your average harvest? These days, my answer is that we don’t have one. In the last 22 years it has ranged from 300 – 1400 gal. A lot of years it’s in the 600 range – that’s about 100 gal/acre. We generally plant about 6 acres. This year our total harvest was 117 gal. Way lower than anything we’ve experienced in 30 years.

So what was it this time? With such a sharp drop, it seems there should be an obvious answer. The primary factor once again was the weather. We had a rainy spring: lots of it and it just kept coming. We finally planted about 7 acres; however, in 2 fields (3 ac) the rain washed the seed away and/or it rotted. One field we planted again – same thing happened. By the time it dried enough, we thought it was too late to plant. In retrospect, we’ve had a warm fall w/o a killing frost and I wish we would have planted again – hindsight.

Another factor: the rain kept coming, so we were not able to get into the fields with timely cultivation. When you farm row crops organically and can’t get into the field for weed control, that spells trouble. We had ferocious weed issues: especially foxtail, which likes wet compacted soils.

We had other challenges: the implement we generally use first for weed control on row crops is the rotary hoe. We have two rotary hoes; one looks good but has major problems. I quit using it about 4 years ago and used the other one – not quite as good. We had a miscommunication and the other person here who is doing most of the field crop work used the bad rotary hoe, which took out a lot of our transplants. And then row cultivation: taking out the weeks between the rows needs to be timely – before the weeks get too big. Due to the rain this year, we were not able to cultivate when we wanted to/should have. Further: both of us who do the cultivation here are organic inspectors. At one critical time when there was a 1 day window when we could have cultivated, we were both off doing organic inspections. When we came back, it rained….

And yet – in my mind, it still does not add up. We have had all of those challenges/factors in the past, and we have had lower yields because of them. This year all the factors seemed compounded and all came together in a single season. BUT – a yield of only about 20% of a “normal” year – it still does not compute.

The mystery continues…

Waiting for Spring

March 18, 2015

In my experience, one of the hardest time of the year on the farm is waiting for spring. When does the waiting begin? Feb? Mar? OK, so we’ve had our winter’s rest from the agric year. By now,the seed catalogs have arrived and we are drooling over the veggies/fruits. Nowadays, even grain crop farmers are getting catalogs for the latest varieties of field crop seeds available.

I first became aware of the “waiting for spring” syndrome from my partner, Ann, back in the 1980s. At that time, it was April/May: I would be chomping at the bit to get out to start tilling the fields for our summer crops. At some point, she would admonish: please don’t tell me again of how you don’t want it to rain and want it to warm up so that you can get in the field. She was the garden manager and had her own wishes re the weather. So I vowed not to vent my weather frustrations on her.

So here I am talking about waiting for spring – in March! Partially, it has to do w/ the winter hanging on….longer than normal? What is normal these days? Backtrack: our first harvest is maple syrup. We harvest/cook maple for ourselves and neighbors (dancing rabbit and redearth folks). We usually tap our maple trees in early February; however, the maple season is totally weather dependent (what agric crop isn’t?). Maple season is when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below at night. Oops – we had that weather in January – but not in February. So we tapped our maple trees on Mar 2 this year. Will that mean that we will have a lower yield? Absolutely NOT! As I said, it’s weather dependent: the more days we have of ideal maple weather, the higher the yield.

So – that’s maple. Also, at this time of year, we think about transitioning from gathering wood for next year’s heating to pruning fruit trees. Again, currently, it appears we are behind schedule (ie, our schedule – not nature’s…). But that’s OK, we are still bringing in firewood and the fruit trees can wait.

So what is the “waiting” about?? I reckon we humans (I in particular) are programmed to want to do things on a schedule – rather than just going w/ the flow. I am now 69 years old and feel like I am still adapting to the “flow”.

I wrote the above about 2 weeks ago; since then, the weather turned balmy and the maple began to flow. But it continued balmy/warm so the maple stopped flowing about 5 days after it started – the shortest season I’ve experienced here (28 years).

The last few years, I’ve noted another layer to this waiting; now, most of my work is organic inspections. Typically, the winter months are off season – because most of my inspections are farms, we are supposed to do them during the growing season. I generally still do a few during the winter that are not weather related. But it is still the slow season: eg, I did 2-3 inspections per month during the winter months this year, whereas I often do that many per day during the summer. Okay, that’s fine – after all, this is the “off” season, right?

However, this second layer compounds the “waiting season” for me: now, i’m waiting for spring both for the earth to thaw and our agricultural year to begin as well as for my inspection season to kick off. Again, I enjoy the off season: if I didn’t have it, perhaps I would not slow down – even though I need it. BUT after the winter, I’m ready to get back on the road and do inspections.

In the end, it always seems to come back to me: why am I so ready to get back at it? Why can’t I relax into the slow season for as long as it lasts? It seems that with the digital technology age upon us, we expect life to keep moving faster – eg, I get annoyed with my laptop when it takes longer than a few seconds to download… So now, I want my winter/down season to go faster as well?

Faster, faster, faster. It appears that is where our lifestyles are going. Yet for those of us who have chosen not the fast track, I find myself more and more on that same treadmill. STOP! I wanna get off. Perhaps I need a new mantra to remind me to relax and just “be here now”??

blessings, stan

Selling Produce locally

January 29, 2015

In my last blog, I wrote about our experiences to sell processed products locally; this time, I want to touch on selling produce locally.

Produce is very different because its shelf life is so short. For the first 30 years or so, our sales of produce was sporadic: if a customer/neighbor came by and wanted to buy produce and we happened to have extra, we would sell – but we were not trying to establish a market. Occasionally, grew for a specific sale – eg, when I attended Midwest Mens Festival (late 1980s and 90s) and was on the food/meals committee, I would bring all the extra produce we had at that time and sell it to the organization for meal preparations. Also during these decades, we would occasionally sell it to a health foods store in Columbia MO (about 2 hrs drive – usually on our way to somewhere else).

The reason we did not pursue selling produce locally was the lack of a market; ie, a market that was willing to pay for organic produce; instead, we began processing extra produce into products – tomato salsa, hot pepper relish, tomatillo salsa, etc. We were already selling prepared horseradish and mustard, and the salsas etc made our sales table at fairs much more attractive.

In 2011, we had several members who were really excited about growing produce for sale and we began growing more. Coincidentally, it was also a time when some members of our neighboring communities at dancing rabbit and redearth farms were buying produce. This was our ideal scenario: selling produce to friends whhave similar values and they are only 3 miles away! Transactions happened in various ways: they could make a weekly (or impromptu) order and/or buy from us directly at their weekly market. Further, at dancing rabbit, they have their own currency (members of redearth and sandhill are included) and so we get paid in elms. Transactions are so smooth: at delivery or at market, elms transactions are entered on a laptop which then calculates our balance.

By now, you may be wondering: why are folks at these communities not growing their own food? Many are; however, at this time, many new folks were joining – their first priority was building a home and so they bought some of their food from us.

Last year was different: not as many new folks were joining and more of the residents were growing their own food. That niche market almost disappeared. What to do with all the extra produce we had? We sold to stores: by this time, more stores were handling organic foods – eg, our local Hy-Vee store in Kirksville. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. We also sold to stores in Fairfield IA (Maharishi University), Columbia MO, and St Louis MO. St Louis is 200 miles from us (is that local?); however, some members here have family and friends in St Louis so there are regular trips there and visitors are always happy to make deliveries for us.

This year there have been suggestions of putting less energy into produce production: selling to stores is still satisfying in that more folks get to eat local organic food; however, it is not as rewarding as selling face to face/your friends.

If we lived close to a larger urban area, perhaps we would try a CSA (community supported agriculture). At this point, we are unsure as to how much energy we will put into selling produce: locally and/or not.

Selling Food locally

November 23, 2014

Local food is once again popular; a century ago, most food purchased was grown locally. Then came the boom in retail marketing, mega farms and the one-stop shopping, eg Walmart. Now the pendulum has swung back and buying your food from local growers is seen as more sustainable and politically correct – cutting out thousands of miles of shipping food to market).

Our farm/community has always been on board w/ local foods – it makes sense, for both buyers and sellers. Our signature crop over the years has been sorghum syrup – a traditional sweetener here in the midwest. For the first ten years (1976-86), we sold it all locally – mostly at fall harvest and craft festivals. Then we branched out and began selling to local grocery stores, and since we belonged to a food buying club to buy organic foods in bulk, we reached out to them and they carried it in their distribution center. It still felt local since the distribution center was in Iowa City – 125 mi from us.

We increased our production of sorghum syrup (as a community income); however, our traditional market was shrinking – the traditional market being old timers that knew and loved the product. The old timers were dying off and the younger generation had no idea what sorghum was. We were still going to fairs and festivals; we would provide taste testing and did a lot of consumer education re local and organic foods. Further, during the fall when we were producing the sorghum, we had quite a few local folks (mostly elderly) come to the farm and buy it in bulk.

At this time we were also branching out into other products that we would sell from our stand at fairs: honey, mustard, horseradish and various other condiments/relishes. Sorghum continued to be our primary on farm produced income and we continued to outgrow our existing markets. We started selling at health food stores – farther away: Columbia MO, Kansas City, St Louis, etc. as well as regular grocery stores on the way to these cities.

I somehow became our marketing manager during this time; we noted that all of us would rather stay home and grow/make the products rather than be out selling them. The exception being the fairs: we usually had enough folks volunteering to staff the booth – it was usually a fun time meeting customers, enjoying music, crafts, fall weather, etc. Marketing to stores and/or distributors was another scene entirely: establishing new accounts, making phone calls, arranging for deliveries, etc. We were always short of that kind of energy.

As a result, I enrolled our farm in our state’s agricultural marketing outreach; at first, I did not see any results. Then in about 2000, we were contacted by a health foods distributor in Taiwan – they wanted our sorghum syrup! It was hard to believe that it sell in a foreign market when we were having a hard time selling it at home. Further, what about selling locally? We happened to have a lot of inventory at the time and we rationalized: on the one hand, we have to work at persuading local folks to try our product and convince them to use it regularly, and on the other, here are folks who are asking to buy our product at our regular price plus shipping.

At first, the overseas shipping procedures were a little daunting, but I got used to it and for a decade or so, this company in Taiwan (Back to Nature), ordered about 50 gallons a year – about 10% of our total production. At the time, we kind of ignored the issue of – is it sustainable and/or politically correct to be selling our product overseas? We were too busy trying to make ends meet and again – we were short of marketing energy and this was a ready made market that we did not have to work at maintaining.

Then the Taiwan Co quit ordering. In the meantime, we had diversified our national market; at one time, we were selling to three distributors – some in the midwest and one nationally. Then we had two consecutive poor crops and were not able to meet the distributors’ orders. As a consequence, they dropped our account. It hit home then: when we got into the sorghum syrup business, our customers related to it as a seasonal crop – they came to us in the fall to buy their annual needs. The idea was for producers to be sold out by xmas time; now, the market had become a year round one (like all other food products). If we could not supply it all year, they did not want to do business w/ us.

We experienced the vagaries of a niche market: some years, we were short, other years, we had much greater production than sales. Gradually, we built up a considerable inventory (ie, old sorghum) on hand. I made some bulk deals to get rid of excess inventory. The last few years we again had poor crops and last summer, for the first time in 2 decades, we were out of sorghum for. For most of the current residents, that was a new phenomenon; as a result, we did not have to work at selling – we could not even keep up with existing accounts. Even just maintaining existing accounts was becoming difficult as I was trying to transition out of my responsibilities here and turn them over to new folks.

2014: we had an average crop; it was disappointing because for most agricultural crops in the midwest, it was one of the best crops ever; however, after 3 poor sorghum crops, an average crop was welcome to us. In the meantime, our sales had been dwindling, which was ok with us, since our production was down as well. Now, we were once again faced with production exceeding demand. What to do? Sales energy here was still low. Blast from the past: Back to Nature in Taiwan ordered a 100 gallons! The current residents are even more in favor of selling locally; some did not like the idea of selling overseas. In the end, we kind of compromised: we are selling them 70 gallons (70 cases: 12 – 1 lb jars to a case), in jars that we have discontinued using but we still had an overstock of.

The issue/debate of selling locally continues. I plan to explore more of it in my next blog – specifically, selling produce locally.

Organics – does size matter?

November 3, 2014

I was first introduced to organic certification when our farm decided to become certified in 1989. We had one wholesale market for our sorghum syrup at the time; until this time, we simply signed a statement saying that we were organic. Now they wanted proof – hence, certification. My impression in those days was that organic folks were considered esoteric or kooky. So to say that you were organic – folks took it seriously – even the wholesaler that purchased our sorghum syrup. The idea seemed to be: if yer willing to admit that you’re organic, well, you must be. It was also a statement of philosophy, lifestyle, etc.

So what does this have to do with size? First, what size am I talking about? My arbitrary delination:
small – less than 10 acres: most of these folks do not bother to certify. They are usually produce operations that sell directly to customers. If customers have questions re their management practices, they can ask the producer directly.
After all, it is often called third party certification: 1. the producer, 2. the consumer, 3. the certifier. When the producer sells directly to the consumer, there is no reason to involve #3. Certification is mostly for when the producer and consumer never meet – eg, products in the grocery story.
medium. 10 – 1000 acres. Most of the farms I inspect are in this category. Typically, these farmers are organic because they did not want to get BIG like their neighbors (many thousand acres), so to stay in business, they needed a niche market (organic); however, organic management requires more time – which is what they can do because they are relatively small.
large. more than 1000 acres; but this too is relative; eg, a farm in the midwest of 500 acres that sells a certain amount of product is usually more than 1000 acres out in western NE, KS, WY – because the climate is more arid and it takes more land to produce the same amount of crop.

Processors/Handlers (these terms appear to be interchangeable: some make products, others sell them; most do both)
I arbitarily divide them into small vs large by the number of employees:
small. less than 10
large. more than 10.
my reason for this kind of division: almost all produce both organic and nonorganic product; the proportion of organic varies from 100% to less than 1%. Typically, the mostly organic are grain cleaning and/or on farm processing (eg. at Sandhill, we process our homegrown produce and sorghum and put them in jars for sale) whereas regular processors often have less than 10% of their product being organic; in fact, some have not had any organic production for years. They keep certifying to have that option available.

Back in those good old days, all of the producers and even processors were relatively small; there was a spirit of us little folks fighting Goliath/the evil empire. The huge conglomerates were part of the military industrial complex: all huge companies were automatically suspect and not to be trusted. Back then, if you wanted organic food, you had to search out a small coop that was struggling to get by. Now those small coops are gone and we have Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and many mainstream supermarkets have an organic or Natural Foods section.

Back to organics: gradually, the same thing happened in organics as in the rest of society: large companies gobbled up small ones and became even larger. Further, organics became profitable and a growing niche market. Large companies became interested in organics – to the point where it appears that in cities, they now control the organic market.

So how to view this explosion of organics? It seems to me that there are at least two very different paradigms:
1. The organic movement has been coopted/sold out to big $; it is now similar to regular American business – motivated by the bottom line/profit. So, is it really organic? well, maybe so – but the soul/spirit has been ripped out of it. How can you feel righteous eating a salad from a plastic bag grown in California by migrant workers with water stolen from the Rio Grande river? or grapes from Chile? organic yogurt fortified with milk solids from New Zealand? the list goes on.
Bottom line: back in the good ole days, the organic food was grown by folks who were dedicated to organic principles/philosophy; today it’s a sham: it’s about money.

2. Organics has finally come of age. All those years, we struggled to be accepted as a legitimate movement – now we are there! You can find all kinds of certified organic products in so many regular supermarkets: produce, milk, cheese, grains, snack foods, etc. Isn’t it great that average consumers now have access to organic foods – rather than just the few who were somehow in the know?? OK, so what if it is processed/sold by a large company? What makes a small company more righteous than a large one? After all, they all have to be inspected and certified to the same organic standards.

And there you have it: the horns of a dilemma. We always wanted organic products to be available to everyone – but somehow, naively, we dreamed we could make it happen and still keep the soul and spirit of what originally inspired the organic movement.
Sociologists talk of it this way: a splinter movement starts that is highly motivated and idealistic (eg a new church), then it gradually becomes accepted as yet another movement, and finally it is totally accepted as part of the mainstream.

In organics, we are still fighting: we don’t want to be coopted, but we want it to be available to everyone.