Life Never Goes as Planned

Today when I woke up, I groggily walked to the kitchen with the house lambs under my feet demanding their breakfast. It’s the same routine—run water into the kettle for my morning infusion of Zeke’s coffee and then make fresh bottles for them. They eat while the water comes to a boil and nap on full bellies while I enjoy a peaceful start to my day. But when I turned on the tap nothing came out.

As a livestock farmer with hundreds of animals, many of them being lactating mothers, losing water is a daunting prospect. It requires a full-stop to any plans for the day other than the most pressing matters. Despite plans for a trip to town to run errands, a visit to Mom and a much-needed pedicure, I had to remain on site for when the well company and backhoe operator arrive. These are logistics of necessity, something every farmer and small business owner must learn to embrace.

That’s why after six years of running a successful farmers market in Merrifield, Virginia, Central Farm Markets is moving a new location. We didn’t plan on making this change, but something akin to turning on the tap and finding no water occurred earlier this spring.

Wasting no time, the management of Central Farm Markets got straight to work finding a new location that has also precipitated a new name. Only four miles from the former site, the market will now be located at the George C. Marshall High School, 7731 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA and called NOVA Central Farm Market.  An event that first garnered frustration has resulted in a market location closer to 495 with better parking. The new location will also be more accessible for the McLean, Falls Church, Fairfax, Vienna and Arlington customers.  Starting April 7, 2019, the new market will operate every Sunday April to December from 8:30am-1:00pm and January to March from 9:00am-1:00pm.

Just like my waterless spigot, to rectify this matter in order to keep everyone happy, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that must take place. Recognizing how much both farmers and customers depend upon the Central Farm Market family, founders Mitch Berliner and Debra Moser got to work to ensure a regular season market would open with the close of the winter market at its current location.

Dedicated to the communities in which they operate, Central Farm Markets will donate 5% of the market’s proceeds to the Booster Club on April 14, 2019 for Marshall HS Griffin Day, host local non-profits and continue the gleaning partnership with Food For Others.

Is it a hassle? Sure, unexpected change always is. Both market management and vendors will have to adjust websites and social media as well as create new literature and signage. But there continues to be a bright side—room to grow, new vendors.

However, unlike the opening of a new market location, when the water starts to flow again there will be no live music, balloons, prizes and fun—only a bunch of thirsty animals crowded around several empty stock tanks. And when the dust settles from all this then I’ll really get to dish some dirt.

NOTE: The location of the Bethesda, Pike and Westfield markets will remain the same.


We All Eat

I farm in a rural Pennsylvania township that is populated by less than six thousand people, 97.96% white. On Sundays I travel a little less than 90 minutes to Bethesda which hosts six times more residents who hail from all over the world.

Nothing is more fun than bringing along a young farmer who hasn’t ventured far from their rural roots except for maybe a trip to the shore for summer vacation. Being fortunate enough to have traveled and been exposed to multiple ethnicities, religions and orientations prior to my decision to settle down and farm, heading into the metropolitan markets wasn’t quite the shock for me it was for the ride-alongs. I can, however, honestly say that my marketing skills and knowledge of international politics have been stretched further than I could have ever imagined thanks to Central Farm Market customers.

I vividly recall a conversation a few years ago that lingered on for nearly an hour between two women, one from India, the other just returning from Qatar after living in Doha for a year. Their discussion was about a new crown prince. Feeling woefully ignorant, I listened as they discussed lineages, royal family quarrels, and geopolitics. The take-away became obvious as they both agreed the young ruler would ultimately cause problems in the world. At the time I thought to myself, “What do I care?”

How very wrong I was.

The divisive politics and outright aggression currently taking place in this country and throughout the world pains me as I encounter rural farmers who sneer at my choice to trek down into the city to sell to those people while they bemoan the price of commodities, wishing the government would help them out instead of helping those people.

The words, those people, linger in my mind and can’t be ignored. Those people are my customers, they’ve become my trusted friends, my beloved family. I see those people week after week, providing food for them without concerns as to what flavors will be added or for what feast it will be served.

If it is one thing The Constitution and farmers markets have in common, it’s we the people. Everyone eats. We may not all eat the same things, but when food is served, we all sit at the table.

Despite my homogeneous upbringing among Methodists in a small blue-collar town, when one of my Hindu customers grabbed my hand and leaned her head toward mine whispering a brief prayer into my ear before moving on it was one of the most moving moments in life I have ever experienced having come at the end of a most difficult day. Our customers heal us at times more than they will ever know.

And speaking of customers, the melting pot at the farmers market helps make adventurous farmers more successful since many other cultures have different definitions of culinary delicacies. When picking up my processed lambs at my USDA butcher shop last year a fellow customer howled in disgust at the neatly vacuum-sealed heads as I loaded them into coolers in the van. “That’s just gross!” he said followed by an extremely offensive comment about who was buying them. He thought he’d had the last word until the owner of the butcher shop informed him that my customers have called the shop, thanking him profusely for cutting and packaging products they have been unable to procure in the United States, but are staples in their culture abroad. The ultimate dig? I get paid for the parts the other farmers routinely throw out. After all, if a farmer can’t make a profit how can they keep farming?

Similarly, international customers’ requests have forced me into learning the Code of Federal Regulation for Animals and Animal Products which determines what parts of the animals farmers can legally sell for human consumption. Post-it tags adorn the pages for quick reference to diffuse arguments with USDA inspectors for unusual offal such as cow udder and caul fat.

Several years ago, a customer shared his borek with me, tearing the delightful savory pastry in half. I thought of him last week when I chose my breakfast from Yufka Bakery, a delicious triangle of flaky phyllo stuffed with spinach and feta. I thought about the Korean buns and rice bowl that had been my Sunday morning staple all last summer and fall and I am so thankful that those people are my people whom I have the fortunate experience to have in my life every week.

There are many ugly events and discourses taking place throughout the world, including here in the United States, but my faith in humanity is restored each week when I roll into Central Farm Markets. For four precious hours there are no those people (except for the rude customers who show up an hour early and demand to be served even though the vendors are barely set up). There is only us.


Manure Happens

Last week I had a customer ask if I would sell her some manure. The last time I was asked to sell poop it was back in the late 90’s to a rose gardeners’ club when I raised meat rabbits. Delivering the bags of bunny beans that had rolled down under the cages into gutters which were emptied into buckets, I felt guilty taking money for manure so one of the club members gave me a gift certificate to her restaurant. I joke each spring I give my mom a load of crap that makes her happy, unlike when I was a teenager.

But as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not manure that should be put on the garden, it’s compost. There’s a difference.

Everyone thinks that manure is animal waste…not true. Green manure, commonly referred to as cover crops, are plants grown to protect the soil during non-production and then plowed under to increase organic matter prior to planting. Sometimes cover crops also serve the additional purpose of fixing nitrogen in the soil.

Is the nitrogen broken? No.

“Fixing” nitrogen refers to the process that turns the nitrogen gas in the air into compounds that plants are able to use. Plants that have the capability to fix nitrogen have nodules on their roots that convert atmospheric nitrogen into water-soluble nitrates. Nitrogen is the most used element by plants on the planet. Without it, nothing would grow.

As a livestock farmer however, my manure is brown. It’s also hot, not only in terms of temperature, but in the amount of soluble nitrates, mainly ammonia. To combat high nitrogen levels in manure and urine from animal waste carbon is needed. Herbivores, such as cows, horses, goats, sheep and rabbits have a lower amount of nitrogen in their manure as opposed to omnivores such as pigs, turkeys and chickens.

Living in rural Pennsylvania where industrial hog and poultry barns dot the landscape, I’ve learned to tell the difference between species when the wind blows. It’s not hard. When the dairy farm spreads their liquid manure, I might light a scented candle or burn a stick of incense, but when hog sludge or poultry litter gets spread, I need to close the windows…fast. Blame it all on the nitrogen breaking down into ammonia.

As a pasture-based farmer, the animals spread their manure themselves except in the winter when they are kept out of the pastures due to the damage they can wreak on dormant grasses with their hooves and over-grazing. Manure collects around the hay feeders and in the barn where the mommas and babies are sheltered.

In order to control the ammonia build-up, carbon must be regularly added. Carbon can be straw or sawdust. While sawdust is more effective at reducing ammonia, straw keeps the animals warmer during inclement winter weather and funnels away moisture.

Why don’t I clean it up before the nitrogen breaks down into ammonia? A few reasons.

The decomposition of manure is temperature dependent. During bitter cold weather the breakdown is extremely slow. However, it is still decomposing which is an exothermic reaction, meaning it gives off heat. A good bedding and manure pack will help keep animals warm and build up what amounts to insulation between them and the bare ground or concrete.

The biggest reason, though, is logistics–where to put the animals when I clean out the areas in which they are housed. Mucking out a single pen housing a ewe with a few lambs is easy, requiring only a pitchfork, a bucket and a few minutes, but hundreds of animals means heavy equipment and several hours.

“I bet you’re happy the temperature is warming up,” is a common greeting from my customers. Yes, lovely. For the next few weeks my life will revolve around moving tons of manure from the winter pens and paddocks to long windrows behind the hay barn where it will continue the process of breaking down into rich, dark, moist compost that can safely be spread on the fields and crops without overloading the plants with nitrogen which will either stunt their growth or kill them.

In addition to manure and soiled bedding, my compost piles include mortality. Mortality composting is the safest way to properly dispose of dead livestock and butchering waste. Small ruminants can be reduced to little more than bones in a few weeks, calves and pigs in a few months and larger animals in a year.

All compost needs to be turned to incorporate air to allow for the microbes, bugs, beetles, fungi and worms to do their jobs. Occasionally when I’m doing this my neighbors will hear me squeal like a little girl as the skid loader bucket turns over a nest of freshly hatched snakes who like to lay their eggs in the warm piles.

How hot do the piles get? Plenty hot.

A good pile of compost can reach 170 degrees Fahrenheit, but the average temperature hovers around one hundred degrees. These temperatures not only reduce the nitrogen in the manure, but also break down the cellulose into soil, and bake weed seeds to prevent gemination.

Innovative farmers collaborating with chefs have been experimenting with building giant sous vides by vacuum-sealing whole vegetables in bags, packing them in a sealable drum with water and them burying it in a compost heap a few days ahead of the big party. I guess you could consider that a vegetarian’s version of a pit-roasted pig.

Spring means spreading the old piles, making new piles and yes, even giving a few bags away to a customer. I hope she owns a restaurant.

Who Needs Vegas?

Photo credit: Bending Bridge Farm

One of my favorite agricultural mentors once told me that farming is the oldest form of legalized gambling.

“Do you think they could build all of this if the house lost more than the bettors?” he asked, sweeping his arm toward the strip of casinos lighting the desert night as we passed through without stopping to try our luck with what else, a one-armed bandit.

“If you’re going to farm, remember that no matter what you do Mother Nature is the house and she will always win more than you.”

As the years have rolled by, I realize old cowboy Jack’s wisdom, especially as I don my union suit reserved for brutally frigid temperatures to do farm chores this morning. My outside to-do list sits idle, as do my fellow farmers’ tractors, as we wait to get started on the 2019 season. No where was this more evident than the pictures from Bending Bridge Farm between this time last year and this year. You can’t plant your fields when they are covered in snow.

The gamble to farm is more than just betting against the weather. While most people would welcome a burst of warm weather in relief from winter, fruit growers hold their cards against such events that signal their trees to blossom prematurely only to lose to a late spring freeze killing off their crops (and your cobblers) for that year.

In addition to Mother Nature, farmers are increasingly forced to bet against the government. There are more federal, state and municipal regulations and oversight hefted upon farmers than the average consumer realizes. Much of it is under the guise of food safety despite the reality of food-borne illness outbreaks coming from large-scale, multi-national conglomerates transporting goods across multiple levels to reach the consumers.

My livestock is required to be processed under USDA inspection in order to be sold across state lines and by the cut at a public farmers market and I’m ok with that. But the niche slaughterhouses and meat processors who bet on the growing demand for locally grown and processed meats are losing against the insurmountable bureaucracy treating them the same as their industrial counterparts. Forced to maintain a mountain of paperwork, much that pertains to none of their business, small processing plants are buckling and closing creating less access to locally produced and processed meats.

Similarly, small-scale farmers wanting to attend community markets may need to obtain permits from multiple agencies—state, county, borough/city—in addition to their market fees and liability insurance. Want to sample your products? That means you’ll need a ServSafe® certification and an additional license.

Add into that the 22 assorted commodity statutes known as “check-offs” that require farmers to pay into a pool to fund research, promotion and lobbyists. Beef, pork, lamb, eggs, fresh-cut flowers, dairy, watermelons, and honey to name a few.

See how it feels like someone is swiping chips from the farmer’s pile?

To hedge their bets, farmers are moving away from a single specialized crop. Dairy farmers are dropping like flies, but the ones holding on and even succeeding, such as Rock Hill Orchard, are who have diversified, be it bottling their own milk, making value-added products like cheese, ice-cream and yogurt or adding non-dairy crops to their operations.

Losing the bet on an early spring means I’ll be playing chicken with the hay supply meaning will I have enough stored hay to get me through until the pastures are ready. With snow-covered fields in March, that’s a bet I’ll most likely lose. At one time, that meant choosing between buying hay or heating oil, a dilemma I’ve come to find I am not alone in talking with other agrarian gamblers.

But the biggest bet of all is the customer. Will they show up to market and buy what we grow?

When I was a kid stopping with my dad at a seasonal roadside stand in the summer to buy cantaloupes and watermelons, we went for the largest ones we could find in the bin. When those same farmers started attending metropolitan markets, they found that their customers didn’t want to carry gargantuan melons and placed bets on growing heirloom versions that were smaller, easier to carry. Sure, their bets paid off well until Mother Nature offered up one of her wettest growing seasons in years flooding the fields, floating the melons to rot in standing water. The house won again.

Every step of getting food on to your plate is full of bets. Bets against changing climate. Bets against increasing regulation. Bets against competition with box stores and resellers. However, unlike traditional gambling problems, there is no treatment or Twelve-Step program for those of us with addictions to agriculture. We will gamble with our last dime and then some when it comes to producing food. Some call it a sickness or mental defect, others refer to the desire as a calling, a passion. I think it’s a little of both as I continue to lay down my chips in the pasture betting that I’ll beat the house this season safely getting my products to market.