Confessions of a Beginning Farmer....
yet to come :)
.....Ok, so I confess, I can't do it all! While I set out with grand intentions and this image in my mind of somehow being wonder woman, I am obviously not wonder woman. Farming is like trying to juggle 20 balls all at the same time, and every now and again some of those balls are simply going to drop. Eventually one realizes that while juggling the rest of the balls, it's impossible to then pick up the dropped balls without a little help.
My original intentions with this blog was to document some of my major emotions, hurdles and successes as a means by which to relate and connect with other beginning farmers. Farming can be a lonely occupation at times and doesn't leave much time for conversation with other farmers. It was my hopes that by sharing some of my journey here, other beginning farmers would not feel so alone in their journey as well. It's nice to feel like you're not crazy for deciding to become a farmer, that you're a part of something bigger, a movement, a revolution! It's nice to know that we are all in this together, as a community of support and encouragement.
Going forward I will do my best to document my progress. I hope, that even if I'm only able to submit a few updates throughout the year, such morsels of motivation will be enough to help keep another beginning farmer on the right track!
The Numbers Are Finally In: December
While crunching numbers is not exactly my favorite past-time, I’ve anxiously been waiting for some of these results all season. The most important and stressful number was of course our total sales. I’m happy to announce that we achieved our financial goal, yippie!!! Looking back at my estimated projections determined through the farm business planning course at the beginning of the year, I was almost dead on. Not bad if I do say so myself. The other big number I wanted to see was exactly how much food could be produced on this tiny, approximately 1 acre, piece of agricultural heaven. Drum roll please….I harvested nearly 7,500 pounds of vegetables! That’s 3.4 tons of food! What an accomplishment. It can only get better from here. This year I was able to establish a baseline understanding of what is feasible on the scale of just one person. I know what worked, what didn’t, what I need to do better and what we need to do in order to continue on this path of success. Most importantly I know that even with just a little bit of weekly help the farm will grow exponentially (no pun intended). I’m looking forward to diving in head first all over again with even bigger and more defined goals. I extend my sincerest gratitude to all of you who helped make this happen. I could not have done it without your help and support. We are all blessed with abundance!
Winter Markets: November
The regular farmers' markets have come to a close and it’s time to figure out what to do with the abundance that I still have left. Unfortunately the local winter market only takes place every other week, which does not provide enough sales opportunity to make the work worth the effort. The next best winter market option is in Brighton, but it’s already full with the farmers that have been selling there all season. We’ve had an amazing fall with my last harvest dating to the very end of this month. Attempts at growing through the winter are possible, but given my half-hour drive to the farm again, it’s just not financially feasible. So I guess it’s sadly time to consider selling what I have left, closing down the farm and figuring out what I’m going to do for the winter.
I was able to sell all of my cabbage (105 lbs) to a seventh grade boy who was going to make sauerkraut for a Boston trip fundraiser. I was glad to contribute to such a project. I wish more kids had the opportunity to explore such unique ways of learning. Luckily, the kind folks at Small World Food took everything else that I had left (150 lbs of black radish, kohlrabi and rutabaga) for their fermentation process and also distributed 60 lbs of vitamin greens as part of their winter CSA. I really enjoy such win-win arrangements. Farming is truly a collaborative experience from start to finish and it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with my life. While I’m definitely ready for the break that this change of season brings, it is with a heavy heart that I put the farm to rest.
Farm-based Education Inspiration: October
Thanks to the generous support of our local community members, we were able to raise enough money to attend the Farm-based Education Forum at Shelburne Farms, VT. Wow, what a beautiful and amazing facility! I was absolutely blown away by their 1,400 acre operating farm as well as the dedication and enthusiasm of their employees. It was two fun-filled days focusing on, “Agritourism, Education and Economics on Your Farm.” I left with a renewed sense of direction and confidence to begin the next stages of creating such a farm-based education center of our own. While this year’s goal was to focus on learning the ins and outs of vegetable production and establishing appropriate sales outlets, the ultimate goal is to provide educational opportunities through various events, workshops, fieldtrips and retreats. I want to provide hands-on learning experiences which use food as a tool to draw connections between our daily lives and the environment we depend upon. The educators as Shelburne Farms have developed a diverse toolbox full of farm-based activities, many of which we participated in during our time together. Not only were they meant to be engaging for young students but many of the activities shed light on farm concepts appropriate for adults as well. I can’t wait to put some of these ideas together for our farm. It’s the sharing of knowledge that really brings out the joys of farming. What an inspiration!
“What are you going to do for the winter?” September
It was strangely like clockwork, as soon as Labor Day came and went, this became the question of the day, “What are you going to do for the winter?” Winter?!?! Really?!?! It’s just the beginning of fall and I’m nowhere near starting to think about what I’m going to do for the winter. Heck, I’m still gambling with putting plants in the ground, the weekly harvest is bountiful and there’s still another month of the market yet to go. However, it was really as if a light switch had gone off and the general misconception was that fresh, local produce was suddenly out of season or no longer prolific. This is hardly the case, as I harvested nearly 2000 pounds of produce this month.
While I kept going about my daily routine it soon became obvious that things on the outside world were changing. Market shoppers drastically declined, kids went back to school, moms may have been too busy to make the extra stop, seasonal lake dwellers went back home and tourist dependent restaurant orders plummeted. Ugh, if it wasn’t hard enough to make a living on a seasonally dependent occupation, the marketing window of opportunity seems to be even smaller yet. While the technology and practices exist to both extend the farming season and even make it successful year round, if the marketing outlets and consumer demand are void then farmers will continuously struggle. We’ve got to the change the question from, “What are you going to do for the winter?" to "What produce are you going to have available for the winter?"
Will the Tomatoes Ever Ripen? August
The first half of August felt more like October with much cooler than normal temperatures. These relatively chilly days and nights really delayed the maturation process of all the heat loving plants. While the tomato plants were large and lush and heavy with hundreds of green fruits it seemed like they were never going to turn red. Every day I’d show up to the farm wondering if today was finally going to be the day. As I talked with other farmers I realized that I was not the only one with this problem and my worries began to cease. I planted 303 tomato plants, to be exact, consisting of a multitude of heirloom varieties and while these plants had given me plenty of extra time to prepare for the onslaught of sudden ripeness I was still not prepared. What was I going to do with all these tomatoes? Who was going to buy them? How do I find bulk outlets? Panic started to set in as the first official batch of red tomatoes came off the vines. Unfortunately nature decided to solve these problems for me. I missed one day on the farm for a friend’s wedding and when I arrived the next morning all of my tomato plants had turned brown, collapsed nearly dead from late blight. It was absolutely heartbreaking. So much time and energy lost, approximately 20% of my total business. This was a devastating hit for a small farmer. I salvaged what I could, picked my head up and charged forward as these are the risks you take as a farmer. They are also the challenges that force us to become more adaptable, more creative, more determined and ultimately more successful in the long run. A hard but appreciated lesson learned.
Let the Bounty Begin: July
I have still been busy trying to recruit more restaurants to collaborate with us, but unfortunately I have found myself with much more produce than the handful of local restaurants are purchasing. Due to time constraints and logistics I had hoped to simply sell to restaurants this year, but I have ultimately been forced to diversify into farmer’s markets as well. This month we added the Cheshire market on Thursday’s from 2-6 and the Honeoye market on Friday’s from 4-7:30. Given the small size and rather isolated location of both markets I was skeptical at first but luckily I was pleasantly surprised. Putting everything out on display really made me realize how much produce I actually had, both in quantity and diversity. I came to enjoy this process as a weekly work of art, a bountiful arrangement of shapes and colors. Watching the tables become empty with each purchase was a bitter sweet sense of both loss and accomplishment. I quickly gained returning customers and seeing their smiling faces each week became the most rewarding element of being a new farmer. While the conversations with my customers are enjoyable I have found that the interactions with other farmers are just as valuable. It’s a weekly opportunity to check in with everyone, to see how their vegetables are growing, to hear about issues on their farms and most importantly it serves as a form of reassurance that I’m on the right track!
Rain, Rain and More Rain: June
While much of Ontario County received nearly twice as much rain than average, and many farmers’ fields were flooded with pools of water, it seemed as if our farm was blessed with ideal conditions. Sure, there were a few days when the rain altered my plans or pushed back planting for an extra day or two, but for the most part the timing was nearly perfect. It would rain a day or two and then it would be sunny for a day or two. As long as I could stay on track with the weather schedule and plant accordingly, nature did the watering work for me! (Confession: this worked out great as I never managed to find time to set up irrigation lines). While the rain was good for my plants it was also good for the weeds. It seemed as if I could see them popping up by the minute. While I tried my hardest to fight the battle against weeds with simple hand tools I eventually caved and relied on the tiller. It is definitely going to take some time with proper rotation and cover crops to get these fields back in order, but it will be fun to watch the progression.
May Day Blessings: Month of May
This year marked my first experience of what was the 17th annual May Day Celebration. While this holiday has held many meanings and traditions throughout history, at Shimmering Light Farm it serves as a celebration of springtime fertility, renewal and growth. The festivities include a community gathering and creation of personal May Crowns to be worn through a traditional May Pole dance. Such a dance involves the weaving of ribbons around a pole through rotating groups of people. The pole then remains erected at the farm for the rest of the year as a symbol of community interconnectedness and blessings upon the farm. Having never been through such a ceremony before it was not until the end product was created that I saw the true meaning of such an event. What an intentional outpouring of love and support. I was overtaken with a sense of knowing that no matter what struggles I may endure in my first year as a new farmer I have an amazing support system. I have gazed upon that pole many times since then as a reminder of my blessings and it never ceases to provide a source of strength.