Friday, January 26, 2018

I'm back!

To the blog that is...I never left the farm! In fact, I was probably on farm more hours last year than any previous year, since I was home with baby Emma and had the farm's employee, Michelle, making the vegetable deliveries to the GTA all season.

So, having a baby and managing the farm during the wettest and coldest season ever, was a challenge. I was super lucky to have found an amazing farm employee in Michelle. She's the reason why vegetable CSA members still got vegetables for the whole season, despite our many challenges in the field. A short list of challenges...the soil was almost always too wet to till, so we ran out of bed space to plant vegetables. Michelle had to give up maneuvering space and plant right into paths and between row cover trenches. The vegetables took forever to grow because they were so stressed from cold and wet. It probably rained on average 5 days out of every week, so poor Michelle was almost always wet. Production was down for almost every crop except lettuce heads, fennel and kohlrabi. Eggplants and sweet peppers were a complete bust, as were many of the winter squashes. I was very happy to come to the end of October and wish good riddance to the growing season of 2017. Thank you to 2017's vegetable CSA members for eating so many leafy greens :D

I'm definitely looking forward to getting back into the field this year, though with Emma still being so young, I'm planning to hire part-time help to make sure everything is planted, weeded and harvested as needed. I haven't made any big changes to the vegetable field for this year and will be mostly trialing the same varieties I picked to trial last year as 2017 wasn't the best year for any plant to shine. As usual, I'm super glad that I do grow so many different things or 2017 might have been a complete bust.

The big changes that happened in 2017 (other than there being a new human member added to Black Sheep Farm!) were in capital infrastructure, with the fencing of the south end of the farm (January 2017), and the building of a structure on top of the cement pad so that portion of the barn foundation is finally roofed again (November 2017). Filing my taxes for 2017 will be fun, with my lowest income and highest costs since moving to the farm ;P But it was time. The fence gave peace of mind for keeping the sheep contained (there's no way I could run after sheep while carrying a new baby) and the new building means the barn foundation will stop rotting (and now really bad bits can be replaced). And it also means I'll be putting in a proper cold room for vegetable storage this year. Construction should be completed before spring (thanks Skyler ;P).

New south fence

Emma and I looking at the framing of the new barn building.

Will I also be better at writing blog posts in 2018? I certainly having a long list of topics I'd like to write about, but we'll have to see. The farm animals and vegetable production take priority over writing about the farm, and Emma takes priority in terms of life, so here's hoping there will be time enough for all that is truly important :D

Friday, March 17, 2017

When being cheap isn't worth it

Today, I got the south end of my farm fenced. 1000+ feet of cedar posts and page wire. All installed in one day by my neighbour, a professional fencer, with his crew and a back hoe mounted post driver. They finished the entire fence in one day.

I could have put in this fence myself...bought cedar posts, rented a post driver, stretched the page wire from post to post...but it would have taken more than a day, and there would have been lots of trial and error, swearing, the possibility of injury, destruction of equipment, etc. And the fence may have turned out a bit wonky. Not to mention that I'm 8 months pregnant and should probably not be lifting 8' long, 7" diameter cedar posts or handling strange heavy machinery for the first time ;P This definitely wasn't a DIY task that I wanted to take on. So I am very pleased to hire reliable professionals to do the work. I just regret that I hadn't done this sooner!

Why did I not put the fence in sooner? Because the cost seemed prohibitive. It would take more than 5 years of successful sheep product sales to even begin to cover the cost of the fencing. I convinced myself that with proper electric net fencing and grazing management, the sheep would stay secure within the moveable fencing. And for most of the summer, I was lucky and the sheep did stay in their electrified pens. But then last October they got spooked, jumped their electric fence and took off through that wide open south end of the farm and caused much stress before they were all (very luckily!) retrieved. I could have saved myself the low level of anxiety I felt all summer subconsciously worrying that they'd get out of their electric net fencing and the hours spent tramping around neighbours' fields calling for the last 2 missing sheep while 3 months pregnant.

I definitely admit it...I'm cheap. Spending anything in the range of thousands of dollars makes me hem and haw for ages. When I first moved to the farm in 2009, it took me 6+ weeks to decide on buying a rototiller which cost around $2500! And this is an essential tool for the farm which I couldn't have done without, especially in those first few years.

Lately, I've been rethinking cheap. Maybe it's the current political climate and what this makes me think about the future, or maybe it's having gone to my first farm conference in years and being inspired to invest in new infrastructure, but I've decided to spend on the things that I think are important now, instead of hoarding for a rainy day, or so called retirement.

Other than fencing the south end of the farm, the other big investment that I've been trying to avoid, has been fully fixing the eastern half of my barn. Before I bought the place, that half of the barn had fallen down, leaving an exposed bottom level/foundation that was deteriorating from water damage. When I first moved here, I spent $10,000 putting an additional beam and posts into the bottom level, and pouring a cement pad (about 40'x 40' in size, 3-8" thick, almost 3 cement truck loads of cement) on top, thinking it would stop the water damage, but for various reasons, it has not. At the time, I wanted to protect the bottom level, while maintaining an open space on top (it has great views of the farm). In hind sight, a building with a roof should have gone up instead, but back then, I didn't know what all the resources were in my area yet, and was told that a building would cost me $25-50K to put up. So I took the cheaper option which no one told me wouldn't work (surprise, surprise!).

Over the past 8 years, I now know many of the resources in my area (including my partner's family of timber frame barn restorers ;P) and have concluded that though a building would cost more than $10K, it could have been done for less than $50K, and I wouldn't have a foundation that now requires more repair and reinforcement. The cement pad did buy me these 8 years of time at least, but now I won't wait any longer. The choice is to tear down that section of the barn (at a cost of $5K or more), or finally fix everything and put up a building with a steel roof for around $20K in materials (lumber and steel roofing) and a whole lot of sweat equity.

So I'm going for it. In probably my lowest income year (will be paying for full-time staff for the first time), while learning to be a new mom, I think it's time to do it. After all, the new covered space won't start paying for itself in productivity until it exists, and I'm sure each year will have its new set of challenges that need to be addressed. And that foundation's not getting any sturdier in the meantime. But where I am now, instead of 8 years ago, newly moved to the farm, is surrounded by supportive extended family and friends, so maybe taking a larger financial step doesn't feel quite so risky anymore :)

I'm hoping this new covered space (1600 square feet!) can be used for all sorts of enterprises in the future, including a wash station and cold storage for vegetables (with a cement pad already in place...which seems to be a prerequisite for any decent vegetable processing area according to the conference I was at), and...a fibre studio! This winter has been exciting for me on a fibre level because it's the first year I've gotten yarn spun from my sheep's wool, and sheepskins tanned from their hides. While I certainly enjoy growing vegetables, there's also a reason this farm is named Black Sheep Farm, and it has everything to do with sheep and their wool. Add to this my sister-in-law Brittany's circular sock knitting machine enterprise ( and love of wool; my sister Benita's design experience with clothing and accessories (House of Hsueh); and even a new neighbour, Emily, with a wool dyeing enterprise ( there be more fibre synergy possibilities???

I've been told that new motherhood involves a lot of sitting around while breastfeeding, watching a screen, so I've decided to take that time to watch YouTube videos on how to set up my floor loom and hopefully absorb how it all works. Plus, Emily already knows how to use it and has said she would help me figure out how to set it up :) With this year's sheep shearing scheduled for this coming Wednesday, there will be many many pounds of wool available to be processed into different weights of yarns and rovings for spinning, dyeing, knitting and weaving. This time, we're going to undertake some preliminary washing first to try and cut down on processing costs, and Brittany and I got some expert guidance on what to do right after shearing to make sure the fleeces don't get any dirtier than they need to be. many possibilities! And a new baby to throw into the mix too. Life couldn't be more wonderful and exciting :D

Thursday, February 16, 2017

New farm manager hired for 2017!

After some phone interviews in January with some delightful applicants, I'm happy to announce that Michelle Lawrence will be joining me at Black Sheep Farm this year to make sure lots of veggies are planted and harvested for this year's vegetable CSA members! Michelle comes highly recommended by another vegetable farm in my area, so luckily she's already familiar with our climate, soils, and social possibilities ;P

I'm very relieved to have checked this crucial item off my to-do list before the baby's born. Otherwise, the vegetable seeds have all been ordered and received...except for my favourite edamame, Beer Friend, which is still not available for ordering yet. Fingers crossed that there will be seeds available to buy! This variety was a crop failure for the grower(s) last year, so I really hope that the same didn't happen for this year. I'm going to plan my edamame plantings this year with some seed saving in mind so that I won't be in a seed variety shortage again! Now seedling/direct seeding start dates need to be planned and the field laid out on paper so all will be in order for Michelle to implement when she gets here in May. And at some point before the sheep go out on pasture, the page wire fence for the south end of the farm needs to be put in!

The fence was originally planned to be put up before the end of 2016, but the snow came so fast and furiously in December, that this hasn't been possible. My hope now is that the field will dry out enough in April for the job to get done then. There's really no way to tell how dry or wet a spring we'll be having this year...including for getting into this year's vegetable field for rototilling! Fingers crossed that all will work out ;)

In the meantime, my days are full with business plan writing for a contract I'm working on, and March will see me back in the tax office for 4 days a week. So back to number crunching for me!

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017's going to be one exciting year...

Happy New Year everyone! As usual, it has been much too long since I last posted here, but I doubt that frequency will improve for 2017 ;P I'm currently 23 weeks pregnant and expecting my first child at the end of April. Skyler and I are definitely super excited and doing what we can to prepare for becoming parents...including having to hire someone to live and work full-time at the farm this year! The job posting details can be seen on the 'Job Posting' page.

2016 was definitely a tough year for weather here at the farm, though I'm very lucky to have fared much better than most. The cover cropping of the vegetable field from 2013-2015 must have improved the soil's capacity to hold water and also improve microbial life, because there was actually pretty great vegetable production, despite the hot and dry conditions. Cooler weather crops, like leafy greens, didn't hold well in the heat, and flea beetle pressure was the most I've ever seen, essentially decimating all brassica plants, even with row cover in place. Almost everything else just soaked in the added heat units and produced like crazy, especially the tomatoes, eggplant and peppers! I've never harvested so many eggplants in one season, which was amazing. And tomatoes came on heavy and steady right until frost when I was more than ready to take a break from harvesting them ;P In fact, I developed an aversion to tomatoes pretty much within the first couple weeks that they came into aversion I now know to blame on early pregnancy ;P

Pretty much the whole end half of the 2016 season was a bit of a slog for me. It was so hot outside, with no shelter from the sun, and I was extremely fatigued every afternoon from being in my first trimester. But, I made it through, and thankfully, some more regular rains came down come September and the fall brassicas (collards, turnips, daikon, etc.) started growing well and were delicious at harvest in October. We had a very long and extended fall...quite warm right until the end of November, which gave me some time to more leisurely clean up the field.

While the vegetable field didn't give me the trouble you'd expect in a drought year, sheep troubles certainly made up for that ;P The drought meant pastures were not regrowing after grazing and we had to move the sheep further out into fields we hadn't originally expected to graze. The flock definitely ate a lot of goldenrod and weeds in July, which luckily seemed to give them lots of protein as they certainly maintained excellent body condition. In fact, the two ram lambs born this year were so fat from their mothers' milk and grazing on goldenrod that they were pretty much fully grown by the time we had to wean them from their mothers in mid July. The hay field also grew really slowly after first cut hay was harvested in late June, and after consultation with Tony, my haying expert, we decided not to expect any second cut hay this year but rotationally grazed the sheep there instead.

The hay field was much easier to manage for grazing because I didn't have to struggle with the lawn mower in the heat of the day to mow the lines for the portable electric fences to be set up. But the sheep did have to be moved every second day to keep them on fresh pasture and not overly deplete anything. You could easily see the positive effects of intensively managed sheep grazing on the hay field over the next 10 weeks, where the very first pens had regrown very lushly compared with the ungrazed parts of the field. Unfortunately, the sheep made one last break out for the season 3 days before they were scheduled to be put into the barn with hay feeding for the winter. We think they were spooked by the passage of a herd of deer, who were themselves perhaps spooked by coyotes? Anyway, they all jumped the fence, except Spot, who was caught in the electric netting and left behind by the others, who went through the unfenced south end of the farm, across Side Road 8, and into the neighbour's field. When the neighbour's father stopped by my place to ask if I had any sheep missing, I rounded up the troops (Skyler's family) and we went looking. The main flock was found pretty quickly and persuaded to run back to the farm and into their pen, but in the process of running amok, three had gotten separated from the others, Bowtie's twin (yet unnamed), Beatrice and Snowball. We managed to find Bowtie's twin and chase her back home, but Beatrice and Snowball remained at large for the next two days.

I had canvassed the various neighbours with my phone number to let me know if they saw any stray white sheep. I got a call around lunch on harvest day so had Brittany with me to go and round up Bea in a laneway across the river. Snowball was collected later that evening after a call from another neighbour. One thing's for sure, spooked sheep don't come to you for grain...we had to corner each one to capture her and haul her up into the truck to drive back to the farm. After this episode, all the sheep went into the barn and have been contentedly eating hay since then. I've also decided after this that I definitely have to fence the south side of the farm, an additional cost that just has to be paid...especially with the additional responsibility of a baby on the way! I can deal with sheep running around my own farm, but don't want the added risk of them running around on roads or neighbours' properties.

At the end of November, I spoke as part of a panel of market gardeners at the the EFAO's ecological farming conference in Kingston. It was great to be able to share some of my experiences over the past 8 seasons and also hear about how other operations run. I also attended the conference the next day...the first farm conference I've been to in a while...and was really energized and encouraged by the speakers I heard and farmers I chatted with. I was reminded that it's good to get out every once in a while ;P That said, getting out in the latter half of December hasn't been so good for me as I ended up coming down with a cold on Christmas Eve, and then some sort of gastro bug on New Year's Eve. I'm still recuperating from the stomach bug and feeling like a January cocooned at home planning for this coming year is probably a good thing for me.

Any of you with farming experience or knowing anyone with farming experience, please pass the word about the farm manager position here! I really have my fingers crossed to find the right person to fit in here for 2017.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A tough, hot, dry season

I'm not going to lie, this growing season is hard. It's hard because it's soooo hot! I know most people like a hot and sunny summer, but for those of us who work outside 8-10 hours a day, this summer has been brutal.

And it has also been dry. Drought dry. My area is better off than the more southern parts of Ontario, and this is definitely the year when I'm thankful that my vegetable field has a high water table, but there just hasn't been enough rain. Even with regular irrigation, many plants definitely look droopy in these blisteringly hot afternoons.

And flea beetle has been having the time of its life. Hot and dry since the end of May...I've never seen so many of them and am already planning on strategies for next year to counter their increasing numbers and voracious appetites. I'm not going to throw in the towel on Asian greens. I like eating them too much to stop growing them!

Pasture for the sheep has not been growing back. Last year, an exceptional grass year I've been told, the sheep flock grazed rotationally on an acre of pasture right in the middle of the farm. This year, they grazed there, then we had to move them to the marginal back fields (mostly goldenrod and strawberries, super difficult to fence with the electrified netting because the fence lines were so much effort to mow) and finally, are grazing them on the hay field about 6 weeks after 1st cut hay. Depending on how much of the hay field we have to graze, there may be no 2nd cut hay this year. Our fingers are crossed that the middle pasture will have grown back enough to graze once the hay field has been eaten.

And the sheep have been very baaaaad this year! (I have to laugh or I'll cry ;P) They've broken out of their portable electric fence pastures 6 times since we starting pasturing them in May, and even made it across the road to the neighbour's once. Other times, we've just caught them before they could run for the road again. We've put up gates for the barn yard and tractor road to block them from the paths of least resistance, but the whole south end of the farm (about 1000 linear feet) is un-fenced and there are certainly points of egress from the farm even for the three fenced sides if the sheep really want to find a way out. I'm constantly anxious that they'll get out and cause an accident on the road, so I check on them and the fences obsessively. With a full vegetable field to care for, all this added sheep work and anxiety hasn't helped my workload. It also means that someone has to be at the farm pretty much 24 hours a day. Skyler had to take Thursdays off from work so someone would be here while I'm out delivering vegetables once a week, or we've had to find someone to come here and check on things if Skyler can't be at the farm that day.

Phewf...that's a long litany of complaints. Glad to get that off my chest, because otherwise, it's actually a great vegetable year! The season started out really strong with lots of tasty greens, even with the heat, and has progressed with a great cucumber crop (my first truly successful one at the farm), and today, I see lots of tomatoes with colour so I know that tomato harvesting will start in earnest this week. I've felt really on top of things with my vegetable field this year, getting all planned seedlings started and transplanted on time, and even getting beds wheel hoed before the weeds got out of hand. The beds all have drip line laid for irrigation, the tomatoes are also mulched and trellised, and I managed to keep the peppers and eggplants relatively weed free this year. I've already been rewarded with more eggplants than I've harvested in all previous years, and pepper plants that are laden with fruit that I'm now just waiting to turn red. Fruit is setting on the various winter squash and pumpkin plants, though the plants themselves are looking rough from the heat. Now I just need help rescuing the carrots from the weeds (a volunteer helper crew is on its way for Monday!) and have my fingers crossed for rain this weekend. I'm hopefully looking forward to some cooler temperatures as we come to September.

But all this has definitely been the result of a lot of labour on my part. I've been working full tilt outside since the end of April and have so far taken one Sunday afternoon off to visit some friends (after I finished off some field work that morning!). For the first time that I can remember, I got sick in the summer, last weekend, with some sort of cold/flu. It's probably been decades since I last caught a flu (those achy muscles and joints are real nasty!).

And with regards to sheep, I've been second guessing whether I should have them at all. For ultimate safety and peace of mind, the entire farm needs to be securely perimeter fenced. The portable electrified fence netting is not a structural barrier to the sheep, just a trained/mental one, that can be breached whenever they get spooked or just feel like getting out. I can't even cull whichever sheep is the fence breaching culprit since we've never caught them in the act. And when one sheep gets out, they all come out. We've got a portable solar fencer this year, that under ideal conditions, puts a 5000V pulse on the fence. Ideal conditions do not include a drought. The fencer is grounded with two galvanized steel grounding rods, which I regularly pour water on to make sure the ground has moisture for conducting electricity. In these dry conditions, I need to check the fence posts daily for loosening in their holes (wind blows on them all day, soil is super dry, hole for fence peg gets bigger, post can get pulled out super easily). Aside from the work required for managed intensive grazing, I need to figure out if I can securely perimeter fence the farm. The 1000' south end of the farm would cost $7500 to permanently fence with page wire and cedar posts (quote from 2015 was $5000...material costs have gone up quite a bit in the last am budgeting high for 2017). Then there are various holes around the other three sides of the farm that need plugging with new posts and page wire, potentially adding up to another 1000'. So fencing could set me back $15,000. It would take maybe 10 years of significant lamb meat sales to cover that cost. Friends and family have pointed out that the cost of fencing the farm is a property necessity that shouldn't be calculated into cost of production, but given that over 85% of my yearly income is derived from farming, fencing has to figure in to cost of production.

When I run the numbers, I want to cry. When I think of giving up my flock of sheep, I want to cry. I'm hot and sweaty all the time, so I want to cry.

On August 1, I attended a managed intensive grazing workshop led by Sarah Flack at Ventry Hill Farm and sponsored by the National Farmers' Union - Grey Local 344 (my local, of which I'm a member of the board). I was reassured that managed intensive grazing really does work and remediates land, bringing life back to soils that have been depleted and producing meat that is fed by non human-digestible plants. This is the kind of meat I can get behind for environmental reasons. These are happy sheep. Anyone who has seen my flock can see that. Every time I have had to lead my sheep back into the fold after one of their breakouts, it's been quite a sight to behold for bystanders as the flock clusters around me to go back to where they're supposed to be. And taking an afternoon break from this longest heat wave of the summer so far, I've been reading through the Summer 2016 issue of The Canadian Organic Grower magazine, with articles about carbon sequestration from managed intensive grazing, and comparing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of organic vs. conventional cropping. There's even something called Fibershed, which is heading a movement "towards creating localized clothing systems that have the potential to become carbon beneficial."

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!!!!

This is why I farm. This is why I farm organically. This is why I slave away in the sun day after day. Climate change is very real. I'm on the frontlines of the weather, I know everything's changing. This is my 8th growing season at my farm, and not a single one has been like the other in terms of the weather. This drought isn't even like the 2012 drought (which was dry, but not this dry or this hot). I farm because I truly believe that if farming the world over could change, we can slow and stop climate change so that humanity itself can survive in the long run. Because mitigating or stopping climate change isn't about helping other endangered's about keeping the human race alive as one of Earth's species. Because make no mistake, the Earth will survive long after human beings manage to kill themselves off.

So, in light of the carbon sequestration benefits of grazing sheep at Black Sheep Farm, that $15K looks like a small price to pay in my fight against climate change. I just wish the cost could be shared by the whole of society which is responsible for climate change to begin with. But there is absolutely no government funding out there right now for perimeter fencing of farms. There's money to fence cattle out of rivers/waterways to preserve water quality (bluntly, this is money to stop bad farming on the part of cattle livestock should be allowed to poop in public waters). I have no idea which steps the federal or provincial governments are going to be taking to mitigate climate change, but I think that farmers should be paid for environmental services. There is great potential for significant carbon sequestration and overall, an increase to environmental health, with the right kinds of farming (and in case it's not very clear, that's not corporate, industrial farming). Along with divesting from all things fossil fuels, we should be investing in all things agroecological farming. But who knows when, if, any real changes will take place, if I were waiting for the rest of the world to change, I'd still be working in Toronto ;P

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Vegetable CSA membership...Value proposition?

I do not market my farm's vegetable CSA membership as a financial value proposition.The pricing of individual vegetables in the boxes are never as cheap as vegetable prices at No Frills, though lately, seem to be a better value than vegetable prices at mid/high level grocery chains (Loblaw, Whole Foods). The point of joining a CSA is to have a direct relationship between food producers and food eaters, such that we're all invested in local, ideally organic, financially sustainable food production

Currently in Ontario, most of the food in grocery stores is imported, not just in the winter months, but also in the summer/fall. When the various regions around the world that grow the produce experience any fluctuations (drought, flooding, etc.), food prices go up. Import prices also go up when the value of the Canadian dollar goes down. Under current conditions, signing up for a local CSA vegetable box starts to become a value proposition based on price. But pricing shouldn't be the reason you sign up for a CSA. The actual value proposition in CSA membership is participating in your own food security. You are actively choosing how you want your food to be grown and investing in that cause.

The prices assigned to the various vegetables produced at Black Sheep Farm are based on cost of production. The farm needs to break even financially, or it cannot survive. It is a small scale, almost 100% manual operation, with all labour supplied by your farmer, Brenda, and part-time help (Brittany's back for 1 day a week this year!). The planned purchase of a tractor this year will replace paying for outside tractor work, which for the vegetable field, involves disking of the fields that are not in vegetable production for the year, harrowing after they've been seeded with cover crops, and mowing in early fall. The vegetable field is rototilled completely by a neighbour on a small tractor at the beginning of the season, with any subsequent rototilling done by Brenda with her BCS rototiller (walk-behind). Otherwise, all bed preparation, seeding, transplanting, row covering, irrigation set up, weeding and harvesting, are done by hand with non-motorized tools (Earthway seeder, collinear hoe, spade, digging fork, wheelbarrow, wheel hoe, harvest knives, bins, water hoses, and most importantly, hands!).

The choice of manual over mechanized labour is a personal one. On an environmental level, minimizing motor use (tractor, rototiller) decreases the farm's use of fossil fuels. Deliveries to the GTA are made with a full minivan, delivering to various pick up locations that are close to people's work/residences, so as to minimize mileage to food pick up. For my downtown Toronto deliveries, I park centrally and then walk the packages to various office buildings, which works out to approximately 5 km of walking for me on Thursday mornings every second week.

On a physical level, I really enjoy the manual labour involved with growing vegetables. I've never liked motorized machines (noisy, smelly, sticky with oil, super scary when moving blades are involved) and even as a teenager, would only mow the lawn with a non-motorized push mower. Working in the field with my hands, squatting beside a bed to weed or harvest, is totally meditative. Anyone who practices 'mindfulness' would recognize the mental and physical benefits. The various tasks I undertake in the field are not seen as a burden or somehow intellectually beneath me, but rather as a privilege. I get to farm this way because I want to. And though I may not produce as many pounds of food per acre as a farmer with a tractor just growing potatoes, I harvest, package, deliver, preserve and eat around $1500 worth of vegetables each week of the harvest season, grossing around $24,000 per year in vegetable sales from 1 acre of vegetable production. That may not satisfy the federal government's scale of farming for export, but it certainly works for me, feeding my household and around 30 other families each week.

Production could go up if I had more labour or mechanization, but then I'd have the stresses of increased management (of people and personalities ;P), marketing, delivery logistics and machine repair. And frankly, increasing production and sales probably wouldn't increase net income by too much as more labour involves higher labour costs and good machines are not necessarily cheap. Things may need to change in the future as life changes, but at least for 2016, I will stick with this happy medium for work life balance and hope to ride out this year of the fire monkey relatively unscathed ;P Sign up for your Black Sheep Farm vegetable CSA membership today and see what it's all about :D

Friday, January 29, 2016

It's a tractor year

And here I am, in another year. 2015 went by in a flash! The year hit sprinting speed in March, when I started working part-time at a tax office for two months, while also farm planning, starting seedlings and doing other farm prep. Then May came, with the fastest and earliest rototilling of the vegetable field by my neighbour on his small, but powerful, Kubota tractor. This then led to lots of early transplanting, trying to get a jump on field work since I knew I was going to be away for two weeks at my busiest time of year.

While I had a wonderful trip to my partner's family reunion in Tofino and also got to visit with my sister, brother-in-law and new niece in Seattle, I'm never planning to leave the farm in May again ;P The two weeks before the trip were extremely work intense, and then trying to catch up after I got back was even worse. It didn't help that at the same time, I was also contracted to work on a project writing and reviewing business plans for the Grey Bruce Centre for Agroecology. Talk about biting off more than I could chew...I managed it all, just barely.

The rest of the growing season unfolded very well, with a moderately abundant vegetable yield that kept me on my toes and working hard for the whole season. The tomatoes did get late blight, which definitely made for many unharvested varieties, but it also showed me which varieties could stay healthy and producing despite the blight, which I have to assume is here to stay (airborne disease, arrived in my area in the last few years). I paid for the months of constant work by coming down with some kind of laryngitis after my last vegetable delivery mid-October, that left me essentially without a voice for almost three weeks. While voiceless, I got hit with a strange painting bug and repainted my dining room, some interior doors, and the lower cabinets of my kitchen. I also wrote five blog posts for FarmStart on farm financial planning ( Then came cedar wreath time when I made more wreaths than I have any year so far. Merry Christmas indeed :)

So now I'm at the end of January, with all numbers for 2015 reconciled and ready for income tax time in March/April, HST filed, seeds ordered and starting to arrive, and today, first email to previous farm vegetable CSA members sent out for 2016 sign ups. My fingers are crossed that the CSA fills up easily this year, especially as this is the year that I'll be looking to buy a tractor for the farm. While writing my fifth blog post for FarmStart, "Planning for the Future", I did exactly that. I crunched the numbers to see if it made sense to buy a tractor instead of hiring in tractor work, and the numbers, and my aging body, said it did. While the vegetable field won't now be converted to all tractor work for tilling/seeding/weeding, there's a wheat field in rotation to think of (disking/seeding/harrowing/harvest), unpredictable snow clearing needs in winter, fence posts to push in, more sheep and their hay and manure to think of, piles of things to be moved...the list goes on. After living on a farm for almost seven years now, I finally have to admit that a farm needs a tractor. There's just so much land to take care of! And so many things to move around! I've mostly just left non-crucial property management tasks on the back burner, or paid for outside help (ouch!), but it's time to stop being limited by my lack of equipment.

Provided I can find the right tractor in my budget, 2016 will be the year of the tractor for the farm. I'm looking for a small/mid-sized tractor, with 40-50 horse power, a front loader, and less than 3000 hours of use. I list these things like they mean something to me, which they don't really, but luckily I have family/neighbours who know about tractors and will help me find the right one. Believe it or not, to this day, I haven't even sat in the seat of a single tractor. It's going to be quite a learning curve!

As part of that financial planning blog post, I mentioned potential funding sources for the tractor, one being getting vegetable CSA members to prepay for the next year. Some Facebook and personal comments back to me were encouraging on that front, so I've done exactly that. I'm hoping a handful of the farm's members will be willing to prepay for the 2017 vegetable season to help provide cash flow for the tractor. Hopefully I'll have the time to blog about the results before another year has passed. Facebook has definitely taken over as the quick updates arena for farm news, to the detriment of blog writing :P