News From the Farm | October 31, 2016

We have been enjoying rain and the forecast for unsettled weather has created a marked difference to the start of this fall rainy season compared to the past 5 years when there was no fall rainy season. We have surpassed 3 inches here, creating a hue of soft green emerging from the straw-yellow hills. All edges have come alive as warm temperatures double plant growth in a great start to Fall.

Fall work includes tomato fields to clean up, cover crops to plant, hoeing and cultivation of our greens and winter crops, hard squash in the fields to be picked up, pruning, early grasses to till in ahead of November grain planting, and repairs to equipment that is limping toward the year-end finish line.

This rain is a blessing that requires a bit of adjustment on our part. The more that it rains, the more the calculus changes. Little or no rain means that we adjust with pumped water, providing the moisture needed to grow crops. A lot of rain creates muddy fields where the crops that we harvest are carried to the edges. Picking slows down, tractors stop and raingear-clad crews carry 5 lbs of mud on each boot. 

This morning I received an update from a wonderful farmer who was an intern here at Full Belly.  Jack Hedin and family now farm in southern Minnesota in an operation that grows a wide variety of fresh market vegetables that serve the upper Midwest marketplace. His organic farm, Featherstone Farm, has settled into a corn and soybean region where there is little or no vegetable production. Vegetables from Mexico and California have displaced local food producers like Featherstone.  Jack’s carrots or tomatoes need to compete with desert grown crops where the vagaries of weather aren’t a production factor. In a desert environment, rainfall is a momentary disruption rather than a prolonged challenge. The ability to grow and ship large acreages of vegetables, and the economies of scale therein, along with inexpensive fossil fuel that can move those crops across the country puts Jack’s modest 250-acre farm at a pronounced disadvantage.

Featherstone had a rough year. Rains in July and August ruined his storage cabbage, cauliflower, onions and brassica crops. There was so much rain that the resulting diseases wiped out a springtime of work and investment, and put his farm in position where economic failure looms. Full Belly can usually produce year-round, risking crop loss from cold and rain in the month of December. But Midwestern farmers need to have their crops in the barn if they want to have cash flow in the wintertime. Jack built his business model on the ability to sell crops harvested and held in storage—cabbage, carrots, hard squash and other hardy brassica crops like kale and broccoli were the keys to his winter cash flow.

Why is this important? Featherstone represents a movement to farm diversification and local fresh vegetable production in a part of the country where corn and soy are dominant.  It is an attempt to diversify the local rural economy with new jobs, keeping employment and the circulation of money local. Featherstone represented a model for other farmers by producing a variety of organic vegetables and extending the season with new crops. Regional local vegetable production is creating other options for access to fresh produce in a market dominated by the ability of west coast and desert growers to continue using inexpensive fossil fuel and increasingly scarce water to grow and ship produce long distances.

The uncertainties of a changing climate and weather patterns that create the conditions for farm failure require our attention.  The Federal Government declared the counties surrounding Rushford Minnesota disaster areas as weather related crop losses were widespread. It is not clear that Jack’s county will receive that designation.

According to Jack, “Two things are unique about the losses of 2016, in historical context. First, generally crop losses are offset by a very few crops that will perform above expectation. In the past, bad news in crops x and y has been offset by good news in crops a and b. This is the essence of risk management on a diverse farm. In 2016 however, income from ‘good crops’ (kale, and cherry tomatoes) was dwarfed by losses in ‘bad crops’.

“Secondly, the losses we’re experiencing in 2016 are at both a depth and breadth that I believe to be unprecedented in 20 years at Featherstone Farm. In the past we’ve had big issues with a few crops, say, or moderate level issues with a broader set of crops. But to have deep losses on such a wide range of plantings…

“The reasons why this is happening are as diverse as the crops themselves. Many, of them are rooted in the near constant wet we’ve experienced all summer. Not just the 2” downpours (there have been lots of these…), but the hot, muggy weather between, in which soils and crops simply could not dry out adequately, spreading Black Rot and other diseases. But other things have gone wrong as well… It’s in the nature of farming that we have to invest money for months and months in plantings and in people, on the assumption that crops will produce at a certain level. When it becomes apparent (often at the very end of the growing season) that productivity is low, there is less expense that can be cut. Production costs are 90% sunk, even if yields are not there to pay for them. In 2016, this may be as much as a $300k shortfall.” For more information see Featherstone Farm and prospectus.

The essence of the organic food system is to think in terms of a system. Our relationship with other organic farms is a network of learning, and support of these goals. We will support Featherstone with a donation because they are part of a network of farms bringing new ideas and good food to the heartland of this country. Their work is important, we hope that you might also consider some level of support. Thank you.

— Paul Muller