Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Market, To Market!

My paternal grandfather worked at IBM, so my earliest memory of the concept of shared risk and reward was in TV news broadcasts of the ’70s and ’80s, noting the rise and fall of the Southern Tier's tech behemoth. It wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in the early ’90s that I learned about Community Supported Agriculture, a business model that brings a taste of Wall Street to the kitchen table. Customers pay ahead for a season's produce; as members in the farm enterprise, they assume both the risks and rewards of the growing season. Back in the early days, there was an extraordinary volume of kale involved. At Tree Gate Farm, the 2012 season promises cut flowers, green beans, beets, berries, broccoli, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, ginger, herbs, horseradish, leeks, lettuce, lemongrass, licorice, onions, peas, peppers, plums, potatoes in shades of the rainbow, rhubarb, spinach, tomatoes, tomatilloes -- and kale.

Across town, CSA offerings across town have expanded to include meat, bread, arranged and u-pick flowers, fruit, and produce. They come as shares for a single person or a large household; include spring, winter, and summer options; even prepared foods -- known as Community Supported Kitchens, an idea we think is just brilliant. There are so many options in this area that for the last few years, Cornell Cooperative Extension has organized a late winter CSA fair to bring together prospective customers and CSA farmers all in one place (mark your calendar: this Saturday, March 3 at Boynton Middle School).

Like everything else at Tree Gate, we're modifying the standard approach with our own special twist. With most CSAs, the farmer sets the parameters, filling a box with the week's harvest or detailing choices available to members. We've decided to offer something we're calling "on-demand." Other farmers call it a "market share." Members pay $100 for a $110 credit for the season. In addition to insider scoops on what we're harvesting and special discount offers, they can choose from among our Friday afternoon happy hour offerings at Felicia's Atomic Lounge. The model works best for folks who are as quirky as we are -- they want a lot of tomatoes, or no kale, or just a bouquet of flowers every few weeks, or they know that between out-of-town travel and house guests, their needs ebb and flow through the season, making a weekly distribution tough to handle. We'll also offer $25 gift cards good for the Friday afternoon market -- the perfect birthday present or hostess gift -- and we'll be selling shares in our pastured pork.

As beginning farmers, we learn a new set of skills every year -- OK, every day. It looks like 2012 will be the year for getting serious about marketing, customer outreach, and . . . maybe even weed management.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Skeleton Crew

On Sunday afternoon, a dozen willing workers descended on Tree Gate Farm to help us erect the frames of two USDA-funded hoop houses. Dean took care of all the paperwork -- we certainly couldn't have afforded the houses otherwise. Yet while we paid the Mennonite farmer who fabricated the components when he delivered them late last week, the USDA releases the grant funds only after the houses are built and inspected by USDA reps. That's where the work crew came in: Like an old-fashioned barn raising, assembling a greenhouse is emphatically not a two-person job.

Mark (TGF's official director of acquisitions) shuttled back and forth to the shop for sundries demanded by the work crew while the rest of us picked up at the farm gate, where the fabricator had unloaded all of the components from his flat-bed trailer.

Once the pieces were laid out, roughly in place, we tackled assembly. Think some combination of Tinker Toys and paper dolls: Stand up the end walls, then drop tabs on the ends of the arches into pre-drilled holes in the tops of the end walls. Each (rather heavy, rather awkward) hoop took five sets of hands. Assembly was the easy part. Our clay-rock soil made twisting the ground anchors a two-person workout, as did attaching the tracks that hold the wiggle wire that anchors the plastic. Turns out steel frame isn't quite as accommodating of a tek screw's self-tapping spire as the aluminum track. Even so, with a half-dozen power drills and at least as many bits, we finished in time for an early chili supper.

Mom served as official event photographer (thanks, Amelia, for catching a shot of her, hard at work):

The chickens came out to help, too:

Like a red barn or a black-and-white holstein grazing rolling, green hills, the welded-steel frames of the hoop houses cry out that this is a working farm. The view will change again once we've built the end walls and hung the plastic in place, a chore that can only be tackled on a day so calm even the gusts never exceed 5 mph. In the next few weeks, we'll create "hot beds" of raw horse bedding and manure hemmed in place by square bales of mulch hay. On top, we'll lay trays of seeds to germinate. As the piles begin to decompose, they'll generate the soil heat that crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants demand to kick-start germination. Also slated for plasticulture: ginger, licorice, lemongrass, cucumbers. Oh, the fresh flavors of summer -- they're six months away, yet, but we can taste them already!

More photos available here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kicking off the new season

While we nervously wait to see if this weekend's cold snap will kill the stage 1 (and beyond) buds on our apple, plum, and cherry trees, we're also getting busy with early-season annuals. This week I'm finishing construction of shelving mounted with hanging lights -- appropriated from the shop -- for starting seedlings in the mud room. Thanks to Dad for salvaging the lumber from discarded pallets, we haven't had to part with any cash for the project and actually sowing the seeds will be super efficient thanks to Mom, who loaded the trays with potting soil during a balmy day in December.

At just under 8 feet long each, the three shelves will allow us to tend 24 trays at a time of onions, leeks, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants (plus Sharon's flowers) in the house. In another month, as the risk of super-low temps falls, we'll move the seedlings out to the benches in the 15-foot by 20-foot half hoop house on the back of the shop. Despite having purchased a propane heater with the half hoop two years ago, we haven't actually heated it, yet. Instead we've used old 4-gallon jugs from Greenstar filled with rainwater to collect heat during the day, then radiate it back out in the evening, as the air temperature falls. We cover the trays at night with plastic or row cover as further insurance against chills the more tender seedlings might not tolerate. Someday, we'll deploy a 336-square-foot solar hot water heating array to warm a larger tank of water, but locating a pump and drain-back system (to prevent freezing in cold evenings) still languishes on my "to do" list.

But for now, I'd better go finish hanging the lights. Sharon is itching to start planting her new flower seeds.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Feeling Lucky!

Last January, the daily high temperature was 31°. This year, just nine days failed to reach that target. The other 22 soared regularly into the 40s and even 50s. Yesterday, the high was 58°. The mild weather has been great news for runners and cyclists, not to mention those of us who pay to heat our homes through a Northeastern winter. Yet as delighted as we farmers are to work in shirt sleeves -- shirt sleeves, in January! -- we're starting to feel a little off kilter.

On Sunday, Dean launched our newest experiment in soil amendment: hugelkultur. The execution is simple: create a trench, fill it with a combination of tree thinnings (or other bulky, carbon-rich materials) and compost, then cover it back up with the topsoil removed from the trench. Result: a raised bed. Come
spring, plant into the tops of the mounds. If the mix of materials below has been done right, the pace of root growth from the plants above and decomposition below combines to fuel plant growth for seasons to come. Effectively, we'll be composting in place, realizing all of the benefits we already know and love -- increased organic matter, improved water retention and drainage, enhanced microbial activity. (An added bonus: the wood you see in these trenches came from trees we thinned several years ago; dropping the logs in the trenches allowed for some much-needed farm tidying.) In a few weeks, we'll place the new greenhouse over these trenches.

What does all this have to do with the weather? Dean had a plow -- not the snowplow, but the middle-buster -- on the back of the Jeep on January 29. He was using it to dig trenches. Just the surface of the soil was frozen; below, it was neither slippery nor sodden. We're happy to have a head start on soil preparation for a site that will be planted to myriad varieties of such Mediterranean crops as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and savory herbs. But we're starting to wonder about the orchard.

Apples, in particular, require a period of dormancy before the buds begin to swell in anticipation of spring pollination. It looks like we'll just squeak by with the number of chilling hours our trees require. What's looking increasingly unlikely, however, is the possibility that the buds would remain dormant until early May, after the hazard of killing frosts has passed. This past month's warm temperatures have coaxed trees throughout the Finger Lakes into behaving as though it's late March or even April -- yet two more months remain in which temperatures will almost certainly plunge to the depths at which tender blossoms blacken and the promise of fruit fades.

Farmers have a way of grumbling about the weather -- too hot, too cold, too sunny, too cloudy, too dry, too wet. But perhaps more than the moaning over extremes, it's coping with uncertainty that threatens to wear us down. At Tree Gate, we've determined to build resilience and redundancy into our farm design. We can't do anything to stave off the prospect of an apple crop lost to freakishly high January temperatures, but we can continue expanding the variety of perennial crops we've planted in hopes that some exhibit greater resilience in the face of changing weather patterns. We're taking the same approach to the farm's income streams. Annual vegetables fare poorly in a wet fall, for example, but the pigs and fruit trees don't seem to mind. You don't see many Muck boots or Carhartt jackets in the casinos of Atlantic City, because we've got all the gambling we need right here on the farm. Every season's weather is like another spin of the Roulette Wheel.