Early Winter Newsletter Jan 2019

Riverbend Farm Early Winter Newsletter

Winter came early this year and stayed. It got so cold so fast that the rye cover crop, planted in early October never emerged. Now temperatures are 20° above normal. This past year was another year for weird weather.

Temperatures were 20³ below normal for late September, all of October and November. In early October We were hustling to get root crops out of the field before it got cold enough to damage them. Mostly we made it, only a few of the last potatoes out were frozen.

And of course lately it has been warm, record breaking warm. Which, really has been kind of nice except for the rain. Our yard ( the part we drive on. The grassy area is the lawn…) becomes unbelievable slick when there is a skim of meltwater or rain on top of the packed snow.

All this is erratic weather is due to blocked patterns that are a very noticeable effect of climate change. The jet stream is weaker due to the warmer temperatures in the Arctic. The weakened jet stream gets wobbly and does not move the weather patterns like it used to only a few years ago. This is the phenomena that created the cool damp conditions for late blight in August 2017, the very hot conditions that killed the pepper and eggplant blossoms in July, and the early winter this year.

The stuck nature of the weather is so new that no one appears to have a handle on forecasting the large scale blocked weather events. Part of the problem appears to be a lack of understanding of what conditions cause the weather pattern to stall and why they eventually start to move again. There are people working on it and have some interesting observations (https://www.aer.com/science-research/climate-weather/arctic-oscillation/) but the predictions are not very specific or necessarily accurate.

If we had temperatures that were 20° below normal in the spring / early summer we would have freezing temperatures well into the middle of June and 60s through all of July. As you can imagine that would raise hell with trying to grow any warm season crops here.

On the business side of the farm, our sales to local restaurants collapsed this summer. Just a few years ago restaurant sales were 60% of our business. This year they were about 30%. And 80% of that was from just four places. One of those restaurants changed chefs and the new chef is more inclined to buy off the US Foods truck than local farms.

It is possible that I pissed off everyone, but I think there is more going on. Early this summer Libby Wyrum sent out a plea to chefs to buy just a case of produce from farmers at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. I heard that the response was minimal and that 60% of the farmers were giving up. Dan Moe was in touch asking about how to maintain a relationship with restaurants. Irene and Andy at York Farm are calling quits. Patrick at Breezy Hill was sitting a huge apple crop when fruit used to be the hottest thing going.

Farming is a hard way to make a living. Our conventional neighbors can attest to this with the trade woes brought on by the Chinese tariffs on commodities. Not to mention that even in good years they need to farm 3000 acres to make ends meet. For some reason, well, probably several reasons, a lot of small organic farms have been calling it quits in the past few years. It looks like there is a shift in buying patterns happening across the board because CSA and direct market farms like us have all been affected.

I’m still trying to figure out what all this means for us. I have been talking myself into and out of doing this again next year since August but one of the things that has become clear is that I can’t continue to do what I have been doing.

As always, it is not just one thing like the market, there are several issues that are coming together to affect the viability of small farms: labor, weather, quality of life, income and expenses all are a part of it.

Labor is an issue for everyone. In the past few years it has been really hard to find help. Good bad or indifferent. Half of the people I talked to this past season either quit or never even showed up. Restaurants have been chronically short handed for several years.

Not having a reliable, hard working crew means that things don’t get done on time. And the way things work here is that there is only a small window to get a project finished. Mulching tomatoes is labor intensive and has to be done before the tomatoes are staked. Tomatoes need to be staked before they start to sprawl. Installing tomato stakes is also very labor intensive… Once those deadlines are missed there is no going back and fixing it. The next big job is waiting to get done.

CSA is a lot of fun but without the restaurant business to share the overhead of the 20 different types of crops that go into it, it becomes unaffordable. We have intentionally never had a big CSA. Having taken our members money there is a lot or pressure to produce. The way was it was we could put together bountiful shares without paying much attention to planting just exactly so many tomato plants or row feet of arugula.

Working through some numbers, assuming twice as many members, it would take close to an acre to produce the veggies for the CSA. A rule of thumb is that it takes about one person per acre for mixed veggies. Larger areas of a single crop are more efficient using labor. An all winter squash CSA would be a tough sell. With 20 different crops one acre there is no efficiency of scale. Twenty five CSA shares translates into just under $14,000 of income. Raising the price 10% brings the total to $15,000, almost enough to pay the property taxes and buy health insurance.

This fall we did try a direct market experiment with small scale orders for veggies. I sent out an availability list to the dcg email list. People could order any amount they wanted and the price varied between retail and wholesale depending on the quantity. It worked okay except someone didn’t show up for their veggies. The other thing is that all the crops on the list had been harvested and washed so I just had to weigh and assemble the orders.

Another idea that I have been thinking about is that we have a lot of land that could make nice pasture. I’m not interested in taking care of cows in the winter so pigs or sheep make sense. Nobody eats sheep so pigs could be a good fit. I have all the equipment to grow small grains and corn for their feed. We have (or at least had ) lots of produce that does not wind up going anywhere and would be appreciated by the pigs. Turkeys and ducks kind of fit into that mold too. The holdup is that other than a few hundred chickens I have never done livestock for sale.

There are a bunch of other enterprises along the value added line like smoked peppers, exotic paprika, nixtamal, etc. to be considered. Of course another option is to just get a job.

The are a lot of pieces in the puzzle and I’m not even sure that all of them are even in this box. If you have any great ideas, be sure to let me know.
All the best in the new year.