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 year...so 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 species...it'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 farmers...no 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 (http://store.farmstart.ca/blogs/farmerreviews). 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