Riverbend Farm Winter Newsletter
Winter has finally arrived. The long warm fall made it easy wrap up the season and get a little caught up on things I should have been doing last summer. We had a tremendous crop of potatoes. I was able to finish digging, washing, and store them before the ground froze. It was the best potato crop that I have ever had. Pole beans that were looking like they would be abandoned did get harvested. Cover crops were planted. Potting soil was delivered and stored in the greenhouse. All the tractors got an oil change, battery charge, and were parked in the shed. I had time to go get a combine engine to replace the one that had blown up last summer.
All this wildly variable weather makes me wonder how the weather will play out next year. It is kind of remarkable to think that 20 years ago we had very predictable summers. About 10 years ago things started to get a little wonky and now every year is completely different than the year before. These few below zero days are comforting in a way.
Over all, last year turned out to be about average. And truth be told, I would just as soon have a string of average years rather than surf the waves of boom and bust. Last summer was generally cool and wet. Just about the only time we used irrigation was in late May. After that we had very nicely timed rain all summer. June was cool and we never had the big heat in July and August. Very comfortable. But the heat loving crops got off to a slow start and never had time to catch up. Around here, vine crops almost universally suffered from rot. Cucumbers had soft spots on the bottom and one half to one third of the winter squash rotted in the field. Pole beans started flowing like mad in late August, usually much too late for them to make it, but they did.
On the mechanical side, you may recall, the engine on my Massey Harris combine broke a piston last summer and the piston pin gouged the cylinder wall. Finding a replacement engine has been difficult. A guy a few miles away has one that would work, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to sell it or something. I did find an engine down in Iowa that had been sitting for ages and was seized up. After finally melting the pistons out, the block was junk. The exhaust pipe was off and a couple of the valves were open. Sitting for so long, the exhaust manifold, ports and one cylinder were full of sand. The amount of corrosion was phenomenal.
Just before it started getting cold I pulled the blown motor out of the combine. Now it is all apart and the block is up at John’s Precision Machine in Buffalo to be cleaned up and have all the cracks located. John is confident that he can bore the bad cylinder and drive in a new sleeve. After all that it will get reworked for new pistons, a valve job, and rebuild. It is a lot of fooling around for an old small combine, but it does a great job on small grains and I am looking to expand the amount of grain that I grow.
Besides regular maintenance, the other big project has been to revive a ’92 240 series Volvo station wagon. This car was given to our daughter as a parts car (a very thoughtful gift…) but she didn’t have a real need for it. After sitting in the grove for a couple years it was better than the one I was driving so I pulled it out and started working through all the problems that caused the previous owners to junk the car.
I already know that next summer will bring some big changes around here. I have been growing the same amount of stuff for several years and have not found a happy medium between production and overhead. Everything that was on my to do list in May was still there this fall. That does not work.
I have decided to scale back our vegetable production to just a few acres. There are several factors driving this decision. One is that the physical demands of the work are taking their toll. If I want to be able to close my hands in five years I have to quit bunching radishes and greens. I can still feel the ache just going through the motions of making a bunch. Probably not a good sign.
Another issue is that even if I hire people, I still don’t have time to keep up on maintenance much less make progress on any of the myriad of projects around here. It seems I spend more time managing people than I do farming. I’m not under the illusion that doing a greater proportion of the work by myself is going to be any easier, but I won’t have the overhead of a bunch of workers to keep busy.
Perhaps the biggest reason to scale back is that a friend of ours died suddenly. He was only a few years older, active, and seemed in fairly good health. It was kind of a wake up call. Maybe Mary and I should do some of the things we have wanted to do now, before we are so old and beat up that it is no longer possible.
Scaling back will have a big impact on all of our markets. Our farm has been known for all our bunched greens and radishes. When we started out, they were our way into the co-ops. The bunched items opened the door for a lot of our other products. Without them our sales to the co-ops will be less, greens and radishes are still the bulk of what some stores buy from us. I expect the number of co-ops we sell to will shrink as well as the volume of sales.
To keep the CSA in proportion with the new size of the vegetable production, it will be much smaller too. This year CSA shares will only be available for pick up on the farm in Delano. I’m going to start by limiting the shares to current CSA members with a maximum number of about 20 shares.
Additionally, this year’s CSA will be in a farmers market style rather than picking up a prepacked box. On pick up day there will be a display of veggies in bins and crates with instructions like: One of these, three of those, etc. You will pick out the items for your share like you were shopping at a farmers market. There will be a swap box at the end so if you don’t like broccoli, you can put yours in the box and take out some tomatoes or something.
I don’t have all the details worked out but there are a couple new things I would like to try. One would be a garden share in the spring where you can pick up your starter plants like tomato, peppers, cucumbers, etc. Another would be some pick your own for larger quantities for canning and freezing. Crops like peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes would be in that mix.
If you are interested, please let me know in the next few weeks. Like I said, I’m still working out the details and could use your input.
For CSA members who can’t pick up their share at the farm, our friends and neighbors have CSAs that drop off at the same locations as we did or nearby. They all do a great job and without reservation I can recommend:
Heather and Jimmy Bauman at Farm Farm
Nick and Amelia Neaton at Sweet Beet
Red and Nina Kirkman at Fox and Fawn Farm
All the best in the New Year