read about in this blog.

For a few years, our family has tended to a small slice of heaven in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The rolling hills give the land beauty, and our animals and crops help contribute to its life. Garlic is our primary crop and will be a frequent topic of this blog.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Article on young farmers in the Roanoke area

I apologize that it's been a couple of weeks that I've been away from the blog. I spent most of that time working on a story about the financial struggle of young farmers in the Roanoke, Va., area. (No twiddling of the thumbs for me!)

Here's the link:

I hope that you enjoy it and share it with any agricultural resources you have.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ag classes begin again for fall 2011

Today is the start of a new semester at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. My class for the fall is Agricultural Marketing Policy and Business Strategies, adding yet a new component to my overall studies of the agricultural industry. I'm looking forward it and actually wish that I could take more agribusiness classes. However, this is one of the last of my core classes for the master's program, and everything save for one class after this will be focused fully on my food safety area of concentration.

I'm especially excited about this class because I hope it translates into some agribusiness reporting opportunities at the newspaper where I work. We shall see!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Peeling back the food label

Audubon did a very interesting article earlier this year on how to dissect the verbiage on your supermarket food labels. Check it out!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Immigration and farming

McClatchy-Tribune offered up an interesting story on how immigration -- in many cases illegal immigration -- impacts the agriculture industry. It’s easy to see both sides of this issue, which is probably indicative of balanced reporting.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Financials of a start-up farm

Most businesses don’t make money in their first year. The initial investments in property, supplies, utilities, and other product materials can be significant.

Farming is no different. I’ve spoken with some farmers who have spent almost a decade trying to turn a profit. It’s even more difficult for many of the sustainable farmers who don’t benefit from government subsidies in the same way the conventional farmers of the Midwest do. One farmer in Bedford County, Virginia, admitted to me that he would not be able to do what he does now if the land wasn’t already in his family’s name. Trying to lump that kind of property cost onto him (in addition to the machinery and other things he pays for) would have buried his farm.

I understand this now better than ever. I’ve said in other posts that farming is not my primary source of income, so financial impacts don’t hit me as hard as they would full-time agrarians. While we have sold some of our garlic and other produce in seasons past, 2011 is the first year that we have truly looked at this as a business, along with the marketing, inspections, certifications, etc. that go along with an energized business (it’s part of the reason you’re now reading this blog).

Despite our business-minded focus, our revenue stream remains small. We expect less than $1,000 this year in income from our produce. That is, if we didn’t have to occur any up-front costs. But this is essentially a start-up business, so costs abound. I’ve tallied our anticipated numbers, and once we account for holding back a part of our stock to use in the next planting, we will get back in sales only 50 to 60 percent of the money we have put into farming this year.

That means hundreds of dollars that we will lose. The notion isn’t entirely unexpected. Farming is something that my wife and I love, and like any passion (whether it’s skiing, boating, bowling, hiking, automobiles, etc.), people have to spend money to pursue it. We do hope that as our investment costs go down, that gap between what we spend and what we make in revenue will close ever more tightly. Someday, our spreadsheets may even go into the black.

But as part-time farmers, making money isn’t our priority. Getting good food -- grown in the best ways -- to people is important. It goes back to the idea of being stewards of our land, of the environment, and of society. That mentality does pay for itself.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Will more acres of corn translate into greater yield? We hope so.

Opening the business section of a newspaper over the past couple of months, it’s a safe bet that you will have read about rising food costs and their link to one of the most basic ingredients in our food supply: corn.

Last week, The Associated Press reported some good news for consumers on that front. U.S. farmers planted their second-largest crop in 67 years. The implications of this are that we could see a greater surplus of corn come harvest time and the possibility of lower food prices.

Yes, it’s possible. Yet it’s wise to lock into the uncertainty of that word.

We are also in the midst of a treacherous and devastating meteorological year, during which tornados have already killed hundreds and destroyed miles of property, and flooding in some parts of the country seems to be counterbalanced by drought in other parts. The Associated Press is reporting on the optimism of the food industry as its article begins by saying, “U.S. food prices may ease later this year …” I , too, appreciate optimism, though I am also aware of the brutal honesty of agricultural life.

After hearing about the woes of farmers in my native Midwest struggling to get seed in the ground because of the wet weather, I am surprised at this latest report of the 92.3 million acres being planted. I also wonder whether getting the seed in the ground as late as many did will create a new reality of what 92.3 million acres mean. For example, if all other factors were equal, 1 million acres under a normal planting schedule would certainly yield more crop than that same land would under the abbreviated time frame.

Food inflation is something that should be of concern to people at all economic levels. More corn would give all of us a reprieve from rising prices -- but there are so many factors still to come that it’s prudent to keep your optimism at least a little guarded for now.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Accepting farming in many forms

Everyone has an agenda, but not everyone makes their agenda apparent. And a good journalist does what he or she can to set aside any bias and write factually and objectively on topics for which the writer may not agree.

In many parts of my life -- especially my work professionally in print and online journalism -- I seek out that balance both in my own work and in the work of others. Last night, a colleague and I had a brief, but important, discussion about our feelings toward different farming methods.

My bias, as it may come out in this blog, is in favor of sustainable farming, which often incorporates organic and organic-like processes (such as the grass-roots Certified Naturally Grown). However, I did grow up in Indiana, where corn and soybeans are abundant -- as are the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to encourage their growth and easy harvest. If I could call the world a perfect place, we wouldn’t have any of those chemicals being sprayed onto our food.

Of course, the world is not a perfect place, and I have come to accept these things that I perceive to be imperfections. Conventional farming is solidly ingrained in society and supported by our government through federal subsidies. Authors and advocates such as Michael Pollan have highlighted the links between chronic health problems in America and the rise of processed and chemically altered food. They have also shown us that conventional farming produces crops that are less nutritious for the current generation than they were for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

The key, though, is that conventional farming produces. Period. It’s not what it produces, it’s simply that it does produce. Without this method of farming, people would starve. Usable farmland is being devoured by development as the population of the world grows and grows. That forces the agriculture industry to seek higher yields and to make those yields more affordable to consumers. Pollan gained my respect when, after chapters of promoting his vision of the ideal agricultural society in his book “In Defense of Food,” he did make concessions that the ideal won’t work for everyone.

Sustainable farming can’t survive against the rising price of land, and people without a farming ancestry rarely can afford -- or would choose -- to become first-generation farmers.

Accepting things for what they are doesn’t mean standing idle while the environment and health of society deteriorate. Speaking for change is good. Telling the government to spend more encouraging sustainable agriculture projects and less on conventional ones is good. Walking to the farmers market and buying the fresh produce there is good.

And realizing that conventional farming has its role in our modern, populated world is okay, too. We don’t have to love it, but failing to acknowledge it is simply irresponsible.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Another pesticide for our pastures

It’s used to combat the emerald ash borer, so why not the brown marmorated stink bug as well?

That’s certainly part of the thinking of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has given the green light for some farmers in Virginia to use the pesticide dinotefuran. Stink bugs have decimated crops, and one of the materials that would typically be effective against them, a product known as DDT, has been banned by the EPA for roughly three decades.

So as an alternative, farms will apply sprays with the active ingredient dinotefuran, which, according to the U.S Forest Service, has a low potential for risk to humans. In a report -- based on an analysis of stakeholder reports submitted to the Forest Service -- the agency said dinotefuran “is rapidly absorbed and rapidly excreted in mammals and will not accumulate in mammals with long-term exposure.”

Based on what Virginia is seeing, it’s in for a long fight. Stink bugs have “caused approximately $37 million in damage to Virginia's apple crop in 2010,” said a statement from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Some experts worry that the pest could spread to cotton, soybeans and corn, major crops in Virginia.”

That’s bad, hands down. Yet dinotefuran is a toxic and potentially dangerous tool in the agri-chemical arsenal. Federal regulators say the bug problem is far worse than the hazards of the cure, so the emergency exemption was granted for dinotefuran, which other states apply to vegetables and grapes more often than they do to stone and pome fruits.

Advocates of sustainable and organic farming will say the dinotefuran path is a treacherous one to go down. But then, what chemical isn’t. I don’t farm the fruits in question and won’t pretend to know the financial quagmire that stink bugs have cast upon these farmers.

As someone who hopes to be a steward to the environment and protect people from both acute and chronic health hazards, the application of dinotefuran is worth keeping an eye on here in Virginia.

Food safety is more than four little words

It sounds simple, right? Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.

Perhaps it’s too simple.

Not long after dozens died in Europe because of an E. coli outbreak, the U.S. government launched an awareness campaign to help Americans understand how to handle food safely in order to prevent food-borne illnesses.

It’s long been known that the kitchen is the largest source of food-related contaminants, so it’s highly relevant to address this. But good kitchen habits aren’t going to prevent consumers from all physical, chemical, and biological contaminants in their food. The process begins well before the kitchen stage. And people need to understand that fact, too.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the four little ad-campaign words -- clean, separate, cool, chill -- will catch on the way that some of the other government awareness campaigns have. This latest one is spearheaded by the Ad Council, which The Associated Press notes in its report was “behind other famous government ad campaigns like ‘Friends don't let friends drive drunk’ and Smokey Bear’s efforts to stamp out forest fires.”

But this isn’t like those “other famous government ad campaigns.” Things like not playing with fire and buckling your seat belt and not drinking and driving are straight-forward and simple concepts. In most of these cases, too, the consumer is in complete control of how the cause-vs.-effect plays out. Food safety is far more complex. The levels of cleanliness, the thoroughness of cooking, the details in how food is handled, it’s all much more intricate than “Click it or ticket” will ever be.

Like any rules, there needs to be a balance between delivery and depth. Too much information, and there runs the risk that consumers won’t retain much, that is, if they opt to read it all in the first place. Too little information and people may fail to see the gravity of the situation and the reasons for larger threats (for example: why deli meats or ground beef carry higher risks of certain types of contamination). The government on Tuesday put out its latest message -- a message that has good intentions -- but the four little only scratch the surface of what consumers face from their food.

The government put it out there; it’s for us and for media and for our leaders to help guide the fullness of the information distribution. Go to the website to get some context and real understanding of what it means to clean, separate, cook, and chill. In too many cases, the sanitized message makes the rounds while the meat of it grows stale on some Internet shelf. Don’t let that happen here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Keeping the garlic high and dry

Nearly eight months of working, weeding, and waiting has led up to the past couple of days, during which time we got the bulk of our garlic out of the ground. (A collective “woo-hoo!” would be appropriate now.) As I mentioned in my previous post, Cherry Lane Farm are a very small operation, growing only a couple hundred bulbs -- as opposed to the thousands or tens of thousands that full-time commercial farms produce.

Still, the work is considerable for just two people.

And anyone who has grown onion-like crops can attest to the fact that removal from the ground is just the beginning of the end. For garlic, the next two to three weeks will be critical as we dry the bulbs, toughening the skins with the intent of sealing in the cloves’ flavor and freshness. Drier skins also mean that the bulbs will store longer and are less likely to succumb to mold.

To accomplish this, I recently finished building my first drying rack, which uses an unusual construction compared with what I’ve done in the past. In prior years, I have simply grouped maybe 8-12 bulbs, tied them together, and hung them. This year, drawing from the ideas of the folks at Heartsong Farm in New Hampshire, the drying trays I built require the bulbs to be hung upside down, which you can see in the photos.

The rack allows for each bulb to be strategically placed to maximize airflow around it while maintaining efficiency of space. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be able to cut back the stalks (which will shrivel considerably) and trim the roots off. From there, the bulbs will be ready to be sold to friends and to a couple of restaurants in the Roanoke, Virginia, area.

We primarily sell three varieties:
Siberian: A milder-flavored Marbled Purple Stripe garlic. I used this two years ago in a batch of tzatiki, and it was the best tzatiki I’d ever made.
Inchelium Red: A medium-flavored Artichoke garlic. This is the first year we’ve grown this variety, but it has an award-winning history dating back to the early 1990s.
Persian Star: A medium-flavored Purple Stripe garlic, though I personally believe this is border-line strong-flavored. Expect a very distinctive taste and beautiful bulbs that have purple streaks on them.

Read more about any of these varieties at Gourmet Garlic Gardens.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Selling stewardship from the start

I am currently reading “Just Food” by James McWilliams, who argues about flaws in the locavore movement. The environmental underbelly of the process, he says, is that agricultural pollution isn’t primarily caused by the final transportation of the product but rather is compounded during the planting, harvesting, and processing of the crops. His early points suggest that larger, commercial farms are much more efficient than local (often, smaller) farms during many of the production stages and that their impact on the environment is considerably less than your farmer down the road.

There is a lot to be said for this approach to understanding the locavore movement, and I do take to heart some of the things that McWilliams is presenting. However, there are many questions to be asked, and I am still too early in the book to see whether I will receive answers to them. Here and now, the biggest question, as a small farmer myself, is: Why indict “the locavore movement” when some of us might be doing things right?

At Cherry Lane Farm, we have begun to harvest this year’s garlic. Over the past couple of years, we have planted more and more of our crop, meaning that the effort on both ends of the production process has become more time consuming and more difficult. What hasn’t changed with that expansion, though, is the structure of how we do things.

While I understand and accept that there is little chance sustainable farming will become the norm -- especially as global population growth fuels the need for commercial agriculture -- my wife and I at Cherry Lane Farm promote agriculture that has little-to-no impact on the environment and is healthful for the consumer. We are stewards of the land and of society. Machinery is kept to a minimum; muscle is maximized.

This week, as I began to dig up our garlic bulbs one-by-one with a shovel, I also thought back to when they were planted in October and November of last year. I took a spade and other hand tools and painstakingly dug the trenches. The only machinery used over the past eight months was a shallow hand tiller, which created trace amounts of erosion. Even looking a couple of weeks back, the garlic scapes were cut from the hardneck varieties with hand clippers -- patience being the most important part of the harvest.

Pulling the garlic from the ground, brushing the dirt away, and carefully setting it to dry is an intimate process. You become more in tune with what you’ve created and you don’t relinquish that connection to the cold metal of a machine.

Since I’m employed full-time elsewhere, my livelihood doesn’t depend on what I grow. The riches are spiritual instead of financial. And the method in which I harvest becomes impossible once a certain scale of production is reached. But as a grower and seller locally, I feed the locavore ideology. Environmentally, there are drawbacks to elements of the movement. But economically (and often nutritionally), the perks abound.

And when garlic or other produce is harvested with the simplicity of sweat and a spade, environmental stewardship becomes sound as well.