Farm Economics

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Generally, it is not a good idea to stray very far from the farm during the season. But this year has been unusual in many ways and it was time to leave the place in the capable hands of Louisa and the apprentices and take off for a bit.

So we did, heading north to British Columbia and Salt Spring Island to visit our former apprentices Zack Hemstreet and Molly Wilson. Zack proposed to Molly during their Persephone Farm apprenticeship two years ago and last year we attended their wedding back in North Carolina. Zack, Molly and Molly’s family recently bought a farm on Salt Spring. We could go on about those two and about their new island home–hard to beat seeing such energetic and talented people setting their own roots in such beautiful soil.  

But instead we’ll pass along this factoid from the Salt Spring Driftwood:About six percent of the food consumed by Salt Spring’s 10,000 residents is grown locally, according to the newspaper. We’re not sure who is keeping score, but if it is so, that is impressive. Around here, another farmer friend, Gerard Bentryn, who lives on Bainbridge Island and operates Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, has been laboring for years to convince folks to make at least one percent of their meals from local produce.

Which brings us to the issue of food miles. Buy Local advocates often cite research that says most of the food we put on the table travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there, adding substantially to the pollution of the environment. That number comes from a 2001 study by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center a decade ago and, for us, it is probably wrong. That’s because the Iowa researchers focused their calculators on Chicago. Here in the Northwest, we’ve probably got more buyers of local produce per capita than  Chicago. Similarly, our ratio of farmers markets and other outlets for local produce is probably higher. And we’re seeing an impressive number of new young microfarming entrepreneurs like Zack and Molly in this area. (We’ll have a post on this next week)

Still, there has been a food miles argument going for the last couple of years and we’ve been itching to add our two cents. We’ll focus on the research that is often cited by critics of the food-miles thesis–“Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective”which was published in 2008 by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in Virginia and written by Pierre Desrochers, a Canadian geographer, and Hiroko Shimizu, a Japanese economist. Google it and you’ll get more than 850 references, from the New York Times to Cattle Today magazine.

Desrochers and Shimizu maintain that the food-miles claim is a sham, dreamed up as a marketing ploy by Buy Local proponents and other locavores. As an environmental and economic strategy, they maintain, you’d do better buying apples flown in from New Zealand than apples picked in Yakima. Further, they maintain that specialized agriculture such as large-scale monocropping in Third World countries is more energy and labor efficient and less environmentally wasteful than locally produced food, even with long-distance shipping costs factored in.

The Mercatus study is not the first to push the economic advantages of using cheap labor, warm climates and scaled-up specialized planting to divide the world up into growers and consumers. British economist David Ricardo made that argument two hundred years ago. In 2006, New Zealand’s Lincoln University produced its own study arguing that grass fed lamb from New Zealand and sold 11,000 miles away in Britain has a carbon footprint four times smaller than homegrown grainfed British lamb. 

We’ll get to that. But before we do we ought to point out that some of George Mason U’s, and the Mercatus Center’s, biggest backers are two oil billionaires, David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers are–or were–relatively unknown, but they gave George Mason more than $30 million between 1985 and 2002 to preach their gospel of market-based economics and far-right causes, most of which benefit their own business.

The Kochs were reluctantly thrust into the spotlight recently in an article by journalist Jane Mayer in The New Yorker magazine. Mayer documents that the Kochs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing their worldview through a bunch of front groups and academic operations. They have also been major backers of  the Tea Party movement and have funded spurious attacks on President Obama and Mayer documents that they’ve also used these fronts to attack proponents of global warming.

Mayer’s reporting is her usual thorough job so there’s no need to pile on here. But we will add that Richard Fink, the Washington lobbiest for Koch Industries, was one of the Mercatus Center’s founders and David Koch sits on its board. 

As for Desrochers and Shimizu’s argument, well, we probably qualify as part of that activist locavore bunch–we grow and sell food and we are enthusiastic Buy Local proponents. You can do a lot with numbers. You can, for example, argue as Desrochers and Shimizu do that storing apples for months in a refrigerated warehouse in Yakima so they can be sold in supermarkets offseason, uses more energy than flying in fresh Granny Smiths from New Zealand in those offseason months.

But these arguments begin to crumble if you add seasonal eating to the Buy Local equation. If you crave strawberries in February, clearly those berries won’t be produced as efficiently or environmentally as they could be in the Southern hemisphere, even if you have to fly them thousands of miles to market. You could also probably grow them under heat lamps in Cleveland, for that matter, but why not wait for spring and eat them fresh from the field?

We eat peaches in September and apples in the fall, when they are ripe and ready in our orchard, not in April, after they’ve been sitting around in cold storage for months. We purchase berries off local farms in the growing season, not in the middle of winter when they have to be trucked up from Mexico.

In short, with the exception of an occasional California avocado or Florida orange–which we can’t grow locally–we mostly buy and eat fruits and vegetables that are raised right here, when they’re harvested here. We’re lucky in that regard–it would probably stretch any gourmet chef’s ingenuity and budget to buy only local produce year-round in Chicago.

(Nonetheless, another 2001 study by Iowa State’s Leopold Center measured the cost of a basket of vegetables purchased at Iowa farmers markets and found they were about 10 percent cheaper per pound than a similar basket of non-local produce from the supermaket. We also track the cost of our produce here on the farm versus the same supermarket produce and have found a similar contrast in our favor.) 

The real answer to the food-miles dilemma may be to take a new look at our collective diet. Perhaps Brits can do without New Zealand lamb and British farmers can figure out how to grow their animals without large infusions of energy consuming grain. We certainly can do without California strawberries in February. Our diets have been largely shaped by giant agribusiness companies that profit by introducing and then catering to demand for out of season and non-local produce. There is evidence that eating in synch with the seasons is healthier than the helter-skelter diet urged on us by these giant purveyers. 

This post has become awfully lengthy, and we didn’t even include any pictures. But healthy, tasty, locally grown food is what we’re about here on our farm and we think it is worth a post to remind people of that now and then.

We’ll get back to Chocolate, the horny turkey, and other topics quite soon.

Persephone

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We were pretty much ready to hang the “Summer That Never Was” tag on this one and be done with it. Chill gray mornings, faded sunlight when Old Sol has shown his face, rain on Labor Day–rain on Labor Day! We’ve gone swimming on Labor Day in other years. This year, fugeddaboutit.

That said, this weather has at least one upside–our flower gardens are blooming like gangbusters. The dahlias (those not poisoned with herbicide-tainted compost–see our Aug. 6, Clopyralid Redux post,) zinnias, marigolds and sunflowers, all are exploding in these cool, wet days.

And a good thing too, because we’ve got another crop flourishing around here now–brides. Every week seems to bring another wave of excited young women, (some with  confused-looking grooms-to-be in tow,) intent on planning every last detail of their weddings down to the last delphinium. 

It should be noted here for those readers not from this part of the country that June–the traditional wedding month elsewhere–is at best a crapshoot if you are planning an outdoor wedding around here. July is a better bet, especially the second half of the month, but if you really want to stack the weather odds in your favor the experts say stick with August and September.

Not this year, of course. This summer has been so weird that Rebecca tells brides to check in with her 24 hours before the ceremony so they can decide whether she should be making indoor or outdoor flower arrangements.

Still, the parade of brides trooping through the farm’s gardens to see their wedding flowers in the making is at full march these days.

A couple of plugs here. Our brides are often referred to us by our friends Hollis and Anne, who run The Farm Kitchen, one of the nicest and most interesting wedding venues in the area. We’ve also done quite a bit of work lately with the wedding people at Port Gamble, another beautiful spot to tie the knot.

Among her many talents, Rebecca is a floral designer and she spends a lot of time helping brides prep for what she inevitably refers to as “your special day.” During the garden tours, everyone usually ooohs and aaahs at the showy beds of dahlias and China Asters that seem to be putting on their own late summer fireworks display for the crowd.

It’s a nice break from the late-summer vegetable harvest, which can devolve into a bit of a treadmill six months into the season. The brides and their families go home happy and we generally feel pretty good ourselves. Now and then, a rogue bride will insist she must have lilacs or Lilies of the Valley or some other out-of-season flower that only blooms in Chile at this time of year, but most seem to crave the elegant simplicity of the bouquets we grow in our own gardens.

The bride’s bouquet is Rebecca’s piece de resistance and she usually takes hours getting it just right. “Only the most perfect flowers are suitable for the bridal bouquet,” she says. Bridal bouquets, in other words, are the all-star team of the flower garden.

Here’s a sample of Rebecca’s latest work done for a wedding over Labor Day weekend.

The bride was Jeannie Duncan and her wedding took place at St. Paul’s Church in the historic New England-style community of Port Gamble.

We bring all this up because one of the things that makes a microfarm like ours work is diversity. It is no secret that most big monocrop farms struggle to make money–a lot of wheat, corn and soybean operations would be in the red most years without government subsidies.

We don’t do subsidies–diversity is our profit-making secret and brides are critical piece of that mix. When the economy cuts into restaurant sales, our CSA takes up the slack. In the slow season before the CSA kicks in, the farmers market often comes through. And brides, well, nothing really seems to slow down the wedding business at this time of year.

We’re dating ourselves, but we always liked that old song that goes: “Another bride/ Another groom/ Another sunny honeymoon/ Another season, another reason/ for makin’ whoopee.”

It’s apt. We might wish  for a bit more sunshine in this Summer That Never Was, but bride season is our reason too for makin’ whoopee.

Persephone

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The popularity of virtual farming websites never fails to amaze us. You know, those sites that allow visitors to select virtual seeds, plant virtual crops, gather virtual eggs, even sell their virtual produce at virtual farmers markets for a virtual profit. Farmville.com, is probably the biggest one, claiming a stunning 72 million visitors in a month.

And while we are all for the spreading interest in small farms and farming, even through websites like Farmville’s, there is something kind of odd about millions of wannabe farmers spending their time and cash constructing virtual farms on the web when the real thing is available right around the corner.

We’re talking about Community Supported Agriculture here folks. CSAs have been around for nearly 50 years, since the idea began in Germany. Several farms claim credit for the first one in this country, like New Hampshire’s Temple-Wilton Community Farm which started its CSA in 1986. We began Persephone Farm’s CSA in 1992, which makes us one of the oldest CSAs in the Pacific Northwest.

Each week, our subscribers show up at the pickup site—the Johnson Farm on Bainbridge or our own farm here in Indianola—and pick up a box loaded with whatever we are harvesting. Sometimes the boxes are jammed, sometimes things are a bit skimpy. In effect, by subscribing and paying in advance the CSA subscribers are joining our farmers in taking a stake in this year’s harvest.

our CSA pickup site

That model sounds pretty simple, but think about it. We try to have about nine different vegetables, fruits and flowers in each weekly box. That means calculating growing times, weather changes, insect damage, and a dozen other variables, to figure out in winter how to have an even supply of vegetables, fruits and flowers rolling out of the fields in the summer and fall. Rebecca, who masterminds this effort, has been making lists, working the calculator, ordering seeds, laying out beds, tending starts, and generally organizing this year’s CSA since January. Imagine plotting an ocean liner’s course through an ice field 50 miles ahead—you need to get each zig and zag right, before you even see the first iceberg on the horizon. 

There are other CSA models—some, for example, collect cash at the start of the season, like we do, then let subscribers pick out their produce at the farmers market as it becomes available, deducting the market price from their advance payment. Others simply deliver the produce to your door and charge you for it.

We like our model best for a couple of reasons. Everyone gets a share of the farm’s weekly bounty, which means that in addition to the usual favorites like corn and tomatoes subscribers get introduced to some vegetables they may never have heard of  before, like cardoon. (We usually put a recipe or two into the boxes for the uninitiated. This year, we’ll put them up on the farm’s website, www.persephonefarm.com)

cardoon

Plus, you get about 20% more veggies with our system than if you paid the market price for them. Different strokes for different folks. Ours seems to have its fans–a lot of our subscribers re-up every year and we usually have a waiting list by the start of the CSA in June.

But the best thing about our CSA is that you get to connect directly with the farm each week. Some subscribers, like Tom Posey, who we introduced  back in early March, stick around and get their fingernails dirty, helping out. (Perhaps we’ll get Tom to tell his own story with a guest slot on this blog a little later in the season.) We’ve watched our subscribers’ kids grow up knowing where their food comes from and bringing their friends to the pickups to show them around the place. Some folks just like communing with the turkeys each week.

The thing is, with a CSA the farm becomes a real place in your life and food is more than a disembodied, shrink-wrapped package you toss in a cart at the supermarket. You can sample the peas while they are still on the vine, sniff the basil out in the field and check to see how the spinach is coming along. In the fall, you get to press the juice out of the apples and you can reach into a nesting box to collect a just-laid egg that is still warm to the touch.

After you’ve done that, Farmville just doesn’t cut it.

Persephone

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Wearing our other hat, we have posted a story on Crosscut.com about what appears to be a nascent trend–large suburban developers trying microfarms as a new amenity to lure in homebuyers, instead of the traditional golf course development. The focus is on Olympic Resources, which plans to develop about 1,000 acres of land around the historic little village of Port Gamble, in our home county of Kitsap. The piece went up on Crosscut on Wed., March 17. Take a look .

Here’s the bet we are making on this: Over the next few years, fuel costs will go up, and up. And that will lead to higher food prices at the supermarket, where oranges are trucked in from Florida and sit next to Kiwis flown in from New Zealand. Our prices will go up too, but much less since we drive our produce just 16 miles from the farm to the Bainbridge Farmers Market once a week. Of course, we’ll also pay more for gas for our rototiller and other farm machines, but we don’t do much tractor farming here and our fuel use is fairly small.

At the same time, we have most of our 13 acres in ag-tax status, which means we can carry the land at relatively low cost for some time–provided we don’t sell it off to developers. Plus, we farm organically, which means we don’t have to shell out more cash for oil-based pesticides and herbicides like many big farms do.

You can see where this is headed, right? Over time–and we think, not too much time–our produce will cost relatively less than those oranges, kiwis and other long-distance veggies and fruits on the supermarket shelf. Plus it will be safer (no feedlots near our spinach) and it will certainly be fresher.

Makes sense to us. How about you?

Now back to our usual programming. If you are still interested in turkeys, and who wouldn’t be given our previous post on Chocolate, our randy Tom, take a look at Louisa’s instructions on how to breed and raise heritage turkeys on the Persephonefarm.com site. We’ll have more about the Persephone turkeys here, later in The Season.

Persephone