Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Farming Has Changed Us

There is a scene in the new movie Bridesmaids where the lead actress gets out of the car and begins to walk home along a highway flanked by fields. It is an important point in the story, and she’s wearing a cute outfit. But, I couldn’t help wondering, “What is growing in that field? Are those potatoes? What season is that? Maybe late spring?”  

Oh. My. Gawd. What is happening to me? Six months ago, I would not have even noticed that there were row crops in the picture! Now, it is what I saw in lieu of everything else. On the ride home, I mentioned this disturbing thing to Rich, who admitted to seeing them, too. 

So, we made a list of all the ways farming has changed us in the last four months. It turns out it is more than just noticing crops instead of outfits. (Although that is becoming a trend with me. On the way to the outlet mall, I saw that corn over in Saunders Settlement is about 18 inches higher than ours. It was as exciting as the 40% discount at the Gap Outlet.) Okay, here goes our list:

  1. Hands are becoming stronger, with many more calluses
  2. Can tell a Rome apple from a Northern Spy, a Bosc pear from a Bartlett
  3. Have sat on a lawnmower (actually a tractor with a 52-inch deck) more than in entire life previously
  4. Know where items are located in Home Depot – like 3/16 inch galvanized cable, aisle 8, safety gloves, aisle 5.
  5. Apply  100+ sunscreen everyday
  6. Growing obsession with OPG – other people’s gardens
  7. Forgetting what a cubicle looks like
  8. Adjusting to not talking for hours or interacting with only one other person
  9. Forgetting what 9-6 feels like
  10. Understanding how to ‘be our own boss.’ Getting to solve problems and be creative - like saving an old farm by planting hops, which is a new crop for Niagara county
  11. Learning that ‘being your own boss’ also means ‘being your own employee.’ Those 28 post holes are not going to dig themselves.
  12. Realizing that seasons change every few months, but nature changes every week. New signs pop up everywhere when you are watching. There is a new type of flower blooming, last week it was wild climbing roses, this week it is tiger lilies. Or a new insect. In June, we have seen grasshoppers, ladybugs, wasps and Japanese beetles emerge.
  13. New reading material, like “Cornell Guidelines to Commercial Fruit Tree Production 2011”
  14. Forgetting what days off feel like
  15. Getting mentally stronger so as to not sweat the small (and big) setbacks and know that the other can look to you, to depend on you for motivation and to make the experience fun and worth it

Farming has brought new meaning to our lives. The old meaning of work is still there, but we’re slowly adjusting. We don’t feel as compelled to sit in front of the computer after coming back from the farm. For so long, that was our work space. Completing a project was done by hitting the ‘Send’ button. Now, we are adjusting to this new work place, where sitting is rare and nothing is virtual. We are restless when we haven’t been outside. I even get a little antsy if I haven’t gotten some dirt underneath my nails (Oh, for the record, they’re still painted. I haven’t changed that!)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Visions of the Past

The other day, I finally got around to cleaning out several dozen crates that had been stacked precariously against a wall in the packing shed. To my surprise, I found them still filled with petrified pears.  They looked dried out and old, but I didn’t realize how old until I dumped them out and noticed newspaper lined the crates. The date read 1987. I was 10 years old when these pears were picked and left to rot. What happened that season that these pears weren’t sold?  Why were they kept here, only to be discovered 24 years later?
Pears from 1987 still in their crates
Mysteries like this abound on the farm.  From early 1900s wedding photos stacked in the tractor shed, to equipment abandoned in the field.  They all beg the question “why?”  There are fewer and fewer people left to answer those questions.  As we get to know our neighbors and the Lockport community, some answers are starting to surface.  For instance, the other day, the farm manager who had worked for my great-grandmother as a boy told us that the pile of 100 some-odd stone blocks that lie in a jumble between the orchards was actually salvaged from the Lockport Union School when it was demolished in 1952. The blocks were re-used to build this decorative wall along the front lawn.

Lockport Union School (1891-1952)
The old school entrance is now farm's front archway

Realizing that so many questions about the farm can never be fully answered, I resolved to clean up the place and put things back where they should be. It’s the right thing to do to move ahead. While still on my cleaning binge, I entered the muddy, dank basement of the packing shed. There I dug out the following:
Under the tractor shed

  • 41 apple cider jugs (that had all exploded with fermented apple cider)
  • 10 bushel baskets
  • 11 empty buckets of paint thinner
  • 9 grape crates
  • 2 cat skulls
  • A container of antifreeze and an old shovel

I don’t know why all that stuff was abandoned down there. But, I cleaned out the space, salvaged and stored what was worth saving, and threw out the rest.  I admit, it felt great.  There is something strangely therapeutic in cleaning up messes left by your ancestors. 
What a mess, ancestors!
There will always be more questions than answers about the farm’s history. But the importance of these questions will diminish over time as we change our sights from the farm’s past to its future.  The best we can do now is document our progress and leave a record for future generations about what we’re doing and why.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marketing Sweeter with Jam

We have gotten our first taste of marketing the farm. And, it is sweet!

These are definitely organic
After planting, we had a lot of questions on how to market a farm. What is local demand like? Who are the local farmers? Is there a market for organic? We needed more local knowledge to generate our own ideas and marketing. 

To be fair, there is some marketing and media help out there for farmers, like CauseMatters, and more awareness about urban farming is emerging, like BuffaloRising reporting on farming within in the Buffalo city limits

But, what better way to learn about the local market landscape than at the local farmer’s market?
We visited the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market – in Buffalo’s happening neighborhood – to observe and take notes.  Oh, and eat delicious whole-wheat cinnamon buns from Five Points Bakery

For the first time in decades, corn pops up in rows on the property.
Is That Non-Organic?

When I think of a farmer’s market, I think of the established markets in places like San Francisco, Washington DC, Monterey and Durham that offer lots of variety, 99% of it organic. Now that I’ve read it, too, I realize that those farmers all read Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know and printed “Organic” in big letters on their signs and put flowers in front of their stalls as a way to drawn customers’ attention.

The Elmwood market is a bit different than we expected, but nonetheless a great market. First, and most surprisingly, organic produce was not a big selling point. We were told that people around here were more into their fruit looking perfect. A certain amount of consumer education is still needed. Also, produce was very seasonal. By that I mean, northeastern. Unlike California where strawberries and artichokes are offered almost year-round, these sellers were just beginning to offer spring potatoes, rhubarb and asparagus. It made me respect WNY’s distinct seasons and appreciate local customers who know what grows when. They have new fruit and vegetables to look forward to every few weeks.

Be A Friendly Farmer

The Elmwood Market was definitely more casual, low-key and unhurried than others. That was great because we got to meet and actually converse with local growers and companies that offered everything from organic and non-organic produce, cheeses and baked goods to craft beer and wine.  

Great label
We got to see how a similar farm to McCollum Orchards is succeeding. Blackman Homestead Farm had a great display with pear and apple preserves and juices chilling in tin buckets. Turns out, they are located in Lockport and used to sell grapes to Rich’s old family winery, Chateau Gay. The owner took several minutes to chat with us about their farm and gave us good tips. They take their fruit to be processed at a nearby Certified Kitchen run by a Mennonite family. Their apple juice was delicious and came in lovely jars with their pen-and-ink sketched log on dark-green labels.

We also met local organizations and businesses in related niches. The guys at Community Beer Works tent signed us up for their home-brewers meetings as a way to learn about local  demand for fresh hops. When a bee-keeper heard we want to put a hive in the apple orchard next spring, she told us where to find good equipment. A goat-cheese maker suggested who we might call for goats to use as mowers in the field. That would make the 6-hour weekly mowing job a lot easier!

Every Tweet is a Pitch

Our foray into the Twitter world has given us much marketing practice, too. Every Tweet is like a mini business pitch where you only get 140 characters to convey your message. McCollum Orchards has connected with several local farms and businesses, like Lake Effect Ice Cream – an artisan ice cream shop based here in Lockport. Our own local artisan ice cream shop? Count me in! They are looking to use local fresh fruit and herbs and offer all sorts of interesting flavor combinations, like Rosemary Vanilla. I can’t wait to try them all. 
Follow us to the farm @mccollumorchard
Meeting local farmers and foodies, growers and goat-herders in person and online has been fun. We are forming our role as the “new face” of McCollum Orchards and learning how to market a farm. I’ve checked out the recently updated USDA Farmer’s Market Directory to see where others are located because, really, the best part about farm marketing is – every new contact offers something delicious!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rooting out Giant Hogweed: Our Tax Dollars at Work

Last Thursday, workers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made a special 3-hour trip to our farm. They came equipped with hazmat suits, chemical sprayers filled with herbicide, blue dye and garbage bags.  Their mission: to eradicate Hercaleum mantagazzianum, aka Giant Hogweed, a particularly nasty invasive species known for its beautiful large flowers and propensity to cause 3rd-degree burns.  For the second year, DEC has hunted down these prehistoric-looking plants in the woodlot behind the orchard. It is one of 900 sites they work on in WNY – they definitely have their work cut out for them!

Welcome to the Jungle!
What is Hogweed?

Giant Hogweed is related to cow parsnip and looks like Queen Anne’s Lace. It was brought over from Asia to the U.S. as an ornamental plant. (Isn’t that how most invasive species start?)  With the ability to grow up to 20 feet tall and have leaves over six feet wide, it was once the pride of ornamental gardeners. One of Rich’s relatives must have planted it on the farm in the early 1900’s.  Now it is the bane of our existence. It turned out to be a very invasive species spreading across the Northeast and Canada and classified as a Federal Noxious Weed. 

What makes it evil incarnate is that the sap causes a severe, skin-darkening rash and blistering sunburn that lasts up to six months, and scaring that can last for years!  For the painful rash to occur, the skin must be moist (sweaty) when it comes into contact with sap, then exposed to sunlight.  Rich, being an adventurous 11-year-old and not knowing what they were, once attacked a whole grove of them on the farm with a machete and had scars for over two years. 

People Actually Eat It?

Interestingly, giant hogweed is originally from the Caucasus Mountains and the seeds are used in Persian cooking, where they are called golmar.  How they learned to eat the seeds without getting major rashes from the sap is beyond me!  These plants are not dangerous to animals. The deer on our farm have been doing a good job controlling it in some areas.
The DEC guys used an herbicide spray on the infested area. The spray included a blue dye so they could tell where they sprayed. They also cut off and bagged the flowering heads of some of the plants to prevent seeding. The herbicide sure isn’t organic, but the alternative is to have an entire farm of Hogweed.

These guys mean business
So, if you see this weird-looking plant anywhere – beware. But, if you can think of way we can make money with it, please let us know!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

We have much farm news to share. Apologies for the lag time, we’ve been so busy that we haven’t stopped to write about it until now. 

After all fear of frost passed, the garden was finally planted in early June.

Quick updates: The garden is planted and the pears and hops are growing. Last week, we took a quick but much-needed trip to Durham, North Carolina to visit Rich’s sister and bro-in-law, check out their new digs, meet their dog and swim in their pool. We stopped in Washington D.C. and New York to see some friends. So great to catch up! More on the marketing insights we learned from the Durham Farmer’s Market later. 

Farm, Inc.

The best news is…[insert drum roll here]… we got our LLC from New York state! This means the farm is an official business – McCollum Orchards, LLC. If twelve-hour days didn’t already do it, this stamp of approval makes the job all the more real. Next steps are to finalize the operating agreement and business plan. Of course, there are thousands of ideas for the space – U-pick operation, farm stand, farmer’s market circuit, restaurant supply, wholesale, B&B, cafĂ©, historic tours, farm leasing, specialty crops, premium processing. (If you have any more, please share!) 

One thing we intend to do is to constantly evolve. Staying flexible is critical for success and avoiding getting in a metaphorical rut. Yet, high capital investments and the slow nature of growing things make it challenging to change production quickly. This makes the business side of farming a really interesting puzzle. We envision finding a “bread and butter” model to run with while always developing one or two ideas on the side that could shift to become the central focus.

Hops Update – Playing Hopscotch

The first month for the hops has been eventful. The hops have drawn much curiosity from the deer, raccoon, feral cats and other furry farm friends, who’ve come to see what all the commotion is about. Almost every day, we find hoof prints poked through the fabric row covers. I even chased away two fawns in broad daylight! Luckily, there’s no munching…yet. The Cascade and Centennial hops (40 count each) are thriving and climbing, as are the Fuggles and Nuggets (10 count each). However, a chipmunk has it out for the Perles (8 count) and the Goldings (6 count). Here’s the story:

A few days after planting, we found some Perle rhizomes dug up with telltale chipmunk paw prints around them. The disturbance killed the roots. So, Rich decided to pull out the Perles and replace that row with six Goldings that had been growing in starter pots. The very next day, we found four of those six rhizomes dug up! That darn chipmunk was at it again! No other varieties of hops were touched, just the Perles and Goldings. And, they weren’t munched or carried off. They were just dug up and left to dry out.

No Goldings or Perles growing in this row b/c of a curious chipmunk

Side note: Next week, we will construct the intricate 18-foot tall trellis system for the hops. Also, Rich – the plant doctor – tried to resuscitate the Perles as a last resort. He placed the rhizomes on wet paper towels in ziploc bags under a grow light (like a little greenhouse) to try to stimulate growth. We’ll let you know how it works, but don't tell the chipmunk!

How does your garden grow?

The test garden is already two weeks old. As a first-time gardener, I am hooked! It is a lot of work. Our test garden plot is 30x60 feet with thirteen 6x6 foot plots and foot/wheelbarrow paths between them. So far, the hardy growers are the heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and pepper plants. Carrots, cabbage, kale, cantaloupe and beets have also spouted. Shallots, onions and leeks are taking off, too. The basil – both Thai and Italian is growing, but the other herbs are suffering. Of course, we’re already planning for a greenhouse type building for next year. And, we are thinking through the logistics of taking the high-producing crops up to scale for selling. It will take a lot of work, cleared land and more tractor attachments.
Potato Pride!
Each plant reminds us of the economics of farming that we must learn. We find ourselves more interested in learning about the food systems and how we fit in. My perspective on the support structure has changed. This week Congress voted to save ethanol subsidies in a controversial debate. Cutting them at the end of 2011 would have suddenly put many farmers out of business. At the same time, increased support for small-scale farms and organic produce is much needed, too. 

In searching for garden plans for our garden, we checked out the White House Kitchen Garden. Raised beds, beehives, volunteers, official garden gift packages! What an amazing array of fruits and veggies! Illustrating the contrast farmers deal with, an intriguing graphic came out this week on what the White House garden would look like if it were only subsidized crops. A big difference! 

"What if the USDA subsidized gardens?"
The questions we grapple on our little plot are reflected in the larger agricultural context: Will the U.S. population find a balance between crops that are good for us and crops that keep farmers in business? It might be too early for us to tell. We’ll just keep growing healthy produce, learning from our trials and efforts and making the best plans we can for the future.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Photos from around the farm

This decorated hitching post in front of the farm gate stands as a reminder of the past. The fruits climbing up the post are fitting symbols of the orchard.

Pics from around the farm

The farm gate is made from antique school desk sides that make a cool pattern welded together. Can you see them?

Little pears

The pears are coming along nicely!