What Has Happened to Organic Food?

While the market for organic products has never been larger, there are worries in the organic community. Right now there is some terrible fighting going on between the old guard of organic producers and the larger, corporate, organic providers who are increasingly in charge as the USDA has become more tightly aligned with large agribusinesses.

While there are still many fine certified organic farms, many small farms are no longer getting certified. There is a growing plethora of other certifications as folks try to differentiate themselves. Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Biodynamic, Certified Humanely Raised, and a host of others now adorn farmers stands and products on the shelf. It is rather confusing and sad for us . “Organic” used to be a short cut to know that the product was relatively free of bad stuff like pesticides and higher in good values like sustainable soil practices or ecological diversity. The organic program was always risky since the federal regulatory system is so vulnerable to corporate lobbying. Sadly, the program has slowly been weakened. The organic certification has now been so compromised that over half of the vegetables labeled organic are from overseas, most from industrially scaled farms, and more and more of the organic meats and eggs are coming from certified organic, industrially sized CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

There are real questions for us on what “organic” can mean in this context. Clearly soil health and biodiversity are barely connected to the certification anymore. Hydroponic vegetables are now certified even though they are grown in a nutrient broth derived from conventional soybean production. Where is the healthy soil component of that? The list of “approved” materials for organic production now includes some pretty potent pesticides and herbicides. I bought some fertilizer for my pasture that was “organic approved” and was disappointed to find out that it came from regular chicken production and only became “organic” once it was processed and turned into pellets at a Perdue factory. It takes three years of organic production before soil is considered organic but apparently chicken manure from a CAFO is magically organic after a few weeks of composting, and right after it is ground up, wetted, and dried into extruded pellets.

Now that large industrial enterprises are making organic products according to these new cheaper standards, the price of organics is dropping. On one hand, those lower prices broaden the market and more and more consumers are substituting organic products for conventional products. But there are questions about what the consumer really gets from this new industrial “organic” production. What happens when the “good” organic producers cannot survive these new lower prices. Labor costs are rising in a much tighter labor market. Land prices near viable markets are generally rising too. The actual cost of producing good food is still going up not down and many small organic farms are going out of business.

I read an article this morning from a farmer who is facing collapsing organic milk pricing as the organic CAFO’s are coming on line for Walmart and Costco and others so they can sell organically certified milk at much lower prices. He explained that there is a requirement that organic milk come from cows that are pasture raised with minimal requirements that a certain percentage of their food come from roughage (grasses and hay) rather than corn/soybean/wheat industrial foods. Milk on pasture has a number of health benefits not found in industrially raised milk. Fundamentally, healthy cows produce healthier milk. Cows on pasture are eating the foods that their stomachs were designed to efficiently turn into nutrition. Not surprisingly, they are healthier and happier cows. That was the promise of “organic” milk. But as this farmer pointed out, these new enterprises cannot be raising pasture raised “organic” milk. You simply cannot have 15,000 cows and move them from a milking station to pasture each day. As he pointed out, cows just do not move very quickly. To get them to a viable fresh pasture each day on that scale would require thousands of acres and it would take way too long to move them across those distances and then back again to be milked. But there are many 15,000 “organic” herds of milk cows supplying “organic” milk to our food supply chain. As a result, there is now an oversupply of “organic” milk, prices are dropping, and organic dairy farmers around the country are going out of business. Most sadly, farming has now become the profession with the highest suicide rate, over twice the rate of veterans. Small farmers are clearly losing hope.

With the organic label meaning less and less, how can you find good and nutritious food if you cannot use that label to help you anymore? Where can you turn to find good food you can trust? This is a frustratingly hard question. Who has the time to spend on researching their food sources?

This is the reality – if you care about good food that is raised to be nutritious and not just low cost, you have to buy from a local farmer you trust. There is no other way. And even then, you have to watch that farmer that they are not seduced by industrial methods that lower costs and nutrition. It is much easier to raise cheap food than good food. It is not easy to grow truly healthy food. This is the core of why we do what we do at our farm. It is what we have always strived to provide our customers. It is also why we work to convince more folks to try farming or at least have their own garden. It is why we love having young folks working on our farm who then leave to “spread the word”. We are convinced that agriculture needs a major reset to move it back to a realm that is more sustainable and healthier. We hope our farm makes a small contribution in this community to move food production in a better direction, towards healthier, more nutritious, and tastier vegetables. And we hope that you realize when you buy from us that you are truly supporting that effort.

Thank you.


Allowing Our Plants to Defend Themselves


This morning I read a fascinating article on plants that I would like to share some thoughts on. It was a study on bean plants and their reactions to a predator – aphids. We have long known that plants under attack from pests communicate to each other and the non-infected plants are able to mount their defenses to prepare for the spread of either disease or predators. But we have not understood how that communication worked. Most researchers assumed it was chemical – that distressed plants exuded a chemical signal that the other plants around it picked up and reacted to. Dr. David Johnson of Aberdeen University was focusing on the roles of fungal networks that naturally surround plants grown in undisturbed soil. In their natural state, these networks and their plants live symbiotically. As you may know, plants give energy to the fungi in the form of carbohydrates that the plants form from sunlight with photosynthesis . For that stored energy, the fungi exchange needed nutrients and elements that plants cannot acquire on their own. Both species need each other for their success. Dr. Johnson separated the plants from each other with plastic bags that were designed to prevent any airborne chemical transfer. He also surrounded some plants with mesh rings that prevented any root contact since the holes were too small for roots of the plants but large enough to be penetrated by fungal networks. Finally he surrounded some plants with mesh that he rotated, breaking off the fungal networks. He then infected the center plant in each group with aphids and watched what happens. The infected bean plants began producing a battery of chemicals that repel aphids. They also produced other chemicals that attract small wasps that are aphid predators. Pretty slick. What was interesting though was how the surrounding plants reacted. If the plant had a fungal network connection with the infected plant, it began producing the same defensive chemicals. But plants with no fungal network connection remained fully vulnerable and attractive to aphids. In other words, the fungal network communicated the threat between the plants. It makes sense does it not? Those fungal networks depend on healthy leaves in the sunlight. Insect pests represent a threat to the plant but also to the fungal network below. So that communication is in the best interest too of the fungi.

 There are two conclusions that I want you to draw from this research. One is the valuable insight that our natural world is so complex and so little understood that we all need to approach this stuff with a lot of humility. But the other is how important all these interconnections are between the visible world of plants and the invisible subterranean complex underneath that is the source of healthy growth. On our farm we have a number of strange practices in our growing methods. One that mystifies many is why we do so little tilling of the soil. We prefer mulching in everything and hand pulling weeds to tilling and cultivating mechanically. It is not a perfect system. Sometimes the crab grass gets the better of us and we have to till it under just to keep going. But generally we move from crop to crop without tilling. The reason is our belief that it makes a difference in the quality of our product. All those fungal networks and bacterial rhizomes take time to establish around a root system. They react poorly to chemicals and particularly to soil disruption. As that new research seems to show, the fungal network helps plants defend themselves. But as important to our operation as that is, I believe our minimally invasive methods lead to better nutrition for our customers. All that microfauna make an elemental smorgasbord available for the plant’s roots. When the plant has maximum access to the parade of nutrients and elements that rich soil contains, and when the plant is producing in a healthy, lower stress environment, I think it produces the best food for us. So I minimize my tilling and hope that you can taste the difference these practices make in our vegetables. It is more work and more costly in labor. I cannot prove to you that it makes a big difference. But I think you can judge much of this on taste and how eating this food makes you feel. The rest, as they say, we just take on faith.

 Thanks for all your support. Here’s to your good health and good eating.


As The Sun Breaks the Sky-An Intern’s Pick Day Reflection

As the sun breaks the sky, the farmers rise. Today is a pick day—a day where we harvest vegetables and fruits for CSA baskets and market. I’m usually rushing out the door, even though I live so close that the view out my bedroom window exposes the dirt on the white panes of the barn. As the crew arrives at the barn, we pay our morning dues to each other with a limp smile, except Cricket; he is usually jolly in the mornings for reasons unknown, but still a joy I aspire to feel early in the mornings.

Usually I begin by reordering the baskets and labeling them for our CSA customers. This takes some time because each week there is an oddly different pattern for the same customers. One day there will be a system we can pass onto the next Copper Cricketers.

Hours pass as some harvest and others package the vegetables. While picking, we weed the vegetables rows to maximize productivity. Nevertheless, the process includes moving efficiently through the vegetables, greens, and fruits and picking the ones that look edible. Sometimes the quality can vary because as workers, we can eat greens such as the kale that first belonged to a harlequin beetle; this type of hand-me-down food is better known as farmer food. Cricket and Carol are most generous to the customers and remind us that our standards are too low for customer quality.

Next, the vegetables and greens are brought into the barn to the packaging person. This is usually me. I have dominated the packaging role because at least one person should know what is going on to ensure consistency; otherwise, headless chickens might as well run the farm. The vegetables or greens are dumped gently into the sink to soak in cool water. Cricket once said that cold water does wonders in reviving vegetables, so I let them sit for a few minutes feeling like a hero watching the them come back to life. After the greens are reborn, I begin my monotonous work: open a bag, place a paper towel, add greens in the bag until the desired weight is reached. I have become annoyingly persistent with the weight, as I only allow a maximum of .1 oz. difference in weight between each bag. I do this about 200 more times. Usually an hour before noon we all decide to pick up our pace to make sure that all the swiss chard, cabbage, beans, potatoes, celery, radishes, and many more edibles are packaged and placed in a tetris-like manner inside the refrigerator. Ten minutes before noon, we become hungry fanatics tumbling around to ensure there is enough food for the baskets and the market. However, this is not even the most hectic part of the day. Luckily, Cricket and Carol feed their staff before the next step—they knew what they were doing.

After lunch, we pack the baskets. This means one person calls out who gets what in each basket according to their preferences, while another places the vegetables in the appropriate baskets. Meanwhile, some crewmembers peacefully arrange flowers in an extravagant bouquet for each basket. Carol comes in to check each basket and carefully displays each vegetable and positions the finishing touch—the flowers and a mist of water. As the baskets undergo beautification, they are loaded into the truck to be delivered to the customers. We wave our truck goodbye and breathe while looking at the mess in the barn.

New Chicks!


This past week, one of our barred rock hens hatched out nine chicks from her own eggs (and likely a couple layed by her peers)! It all started when we noticed a couple of our hens acting broody. They sit in the nests all day and become extra protective of their eggs as we try to reach under their rear ends to collect them. One in particular was extremely determined, so we let her keep her eggs to incubate them. We have two rare breed roosters with the flock who do their jobs well; thus, we knew that the eggs were fertilized. One rooster named Flanagan, due to his heavy (water) drinking habit as a young bird, is a Black Minorca, and the other, Top Hat, due to his feather “hairstyle,” is a Golden Polish. Both are associated with hens that are pretty good layers. Therefore, our new chicks are either Barred Rock-Black Minorcas or Barred Rock-Golden Polishes, but either mix should lay well. And if not, we can always eat them!

To return to the farm-born chick saga, we then separated the soon-to-be-mother-hen into her own pen and a few weeks later, the chicks started hatching. They are mostly black, so we think that Flanagan, the Black Minorca, is their father. We are mostly elated because the mother hen is now doing so many jobs that we don’t have to worry about. We didn’t have to rush to the post office to collect the chicks, we don’t have to be concerned that a few will die from being shipped, we don’t need to have them inside with a heat lamp making the air dusty and poopy, and the list goes on. She will protect them, teach them, and we hope, generally help them to lead healthier lives. We feel as though we should be paying her!

Winter into Spring

One of the most common winter questions I get from folks is “are you enjoying your vacation over the winter?”. Or perhaps more telling is “What do you do with all your free time over the winter?”. So this month I thought I might share a little flavor of how we are spending our time at the farm during our December through April hiatus from delivering your veggies.

We do slow down quite a bit over the winter months. We really focus on Christmas and family time in December. Decorating the house and barn. Cooking up all the holiday fixings. But we also spend time cleaning up after a long and hectic picking season. December is the month we begin planning what we will plant next year. We start by reviewing the whole year together as to what worked, what did not, and what we are going to try to do this year that is different. We look through all of your customer surveys to see what you are trying to tell us you liked or did not like about the service this year. Then we start making our lists of crops – for each variety we determine how much we will plant and when. We go through all the catalogs trying to figure out what new varieties we would like to try. Then comes the fun part – trying to fit it all onto the map of the garden by month with long crop rotations. We try to make sure that crops from the same family do not go in spots where they were planted before . Long rotations are critical for us because each plant family shares certain pests and diseases as well as somewhat similar nutritional needs. If we put the same family in the same spot, we risk moving pests from year to year and may end up with soil that is deficient in something that this particular crop needs. But rotating crops does make life a lot more complicated. I read a comment from another Virginia farmer who described it as a vegetable sudoku. I like that. It really feels like a similar problem. You put in a member of the night shade family (tomato, pepper, potato, eggplant, etc…) only to realize that you put it in the last available row for cabbages….so they have to be moved- but then you realize that the new spot messes up your plan for follow up crops of fall spinach….and so it goes. It actually takes several days of mucking around at the computer screen to fit everything in and make sure that we have the longest rotations we can. Once that is done, we send out the seed orders. Like all folks who work the soil, December and seed orders are a time of wonderfully extreme optimism. Nothing is more fun than looking at all the gorgeous pictures and reading the incredible crop descriptions in the seed catalogs while planning without any bugs, diseases, or weather challenges. It is a delightful interlude of fantasy before having to deal with the real world of vegetable growing. I love it!

January is usually our only travel month for us where we can visit friends and family.  January is also the month where we start getting serious about our winter time projects. This year we focused a lot on building a new movable chicken coop for our newest layers. We finished that project in late January and moved the chickens from the greenhouse to their new “digs”. They like the space but were not happy to move out of sunny warm greenhouse into an outdoor pen. They complained a bit about the lack of central heating and too much ventilation in blowing snow! It also took several days to slowly clean up the mess they had made of our green house. We also spend time in January to start getting in our “winter” mulches – mostly leaves that we rake and bale and move into the garden. That process usually extends into March since it is weather dependent and we need dry weather to work with leaves. This year we spent a fair amount of time cutting timber – mostly oak trees that had died this year around the farm. Brian Irminger is planning to come in February or March with his mill to get us a good inventory of fresh lumber for new projects. In January we also go through our box inventory – repairing boxes and applying fresh finish where needed. We also start cutting box parts to build this year’s supply of new boxes. Each year we add new customers. For every three new customers I need four new boxes to have enough for deliveries (assuming they are all on different days and everyone always returns their box!). It takes a surprising amount of time to fabricate and assemble all the parts of a box. Of course much of that effort is because I am using our local lumber and mostly scrap wood left from other projects. Each piece needs to be milled and cut to size. Carol thinks I mainly create sawdust in the workshop! That process continues in the background usually right up until the season begins. We never have enough boxes!  Also in January we start creating our big fat list of activities to make a successful start to the season. Each crop goes on the calendar – when to plant, when to transplant, and when the row in the garden needs to be ready and cleared of weeds. This year we are expanding our space a little so we need to move our fence out to accommodate adding one more row of beds. With our winter weather this year, that project has so far been on hold waiting for the ground to thaw and things to dry out enough for us to start installing the new fence line.

And then, before we know it, February is here and it is time to start planting. We make our own soil mixtures by screening compost and peat moss to make a good soil medium for our soil blocks. That starts off slowly but ramps up quickly as soon as seeds start sprouting. As I write this we have already planted 1500 onion plants, 1500 leeks, 600 broccoli plants, 900 spinach plants, 900 parsley plants, 900 kale, 300 fennel, and 100 calendula flowers. Whew! We will see how our germination turns out – germination is always a little bit of a miracle and always a little mysterious with seeds. We start most of our seedlings in ¾ inch dirt squares. As soon as they sprout, we have to move them into 2 inch dirt squares. That is where mixing soil mixtures gets more serious! From February on, we have to focus pretty intensely on our seedlings and planting to get everything ready to move into the garden. We do have one trip planned to pick up our potato seed down in North Carolina hopefully visiting some friends along the way. We are also  teaching a master gardener class this year. But most of our energy is focused on your farm and getting ready to start the season. It is one of the things I love about farming – the connection to an annual cycle. Somehow having a job that follows each season of the natural world feels pretty wonderful. I stop every now and again and listen to the swans passing overhead on their way north and feel very lucky to be doing this for you. So thank you all for your support. Now….time to get back to work….

Our Working Chickens


I wanted to talk a little about our chickens and their eggs this month. There is a lot of confusion relating to eggs and their nutrition levels. The egg council and its incredible edible egg campaigns would have you believe that eggs are a wonder food that you should eat every day. But many doctors, particularly heart health oriented doctors, focus on the relatively high fat and cholesterol levels and counsel against eggs entirely. The USDA does publish a guideline on nutrition that is based on “average” values they found when they did their testing. But the USDA values raise more questions for me than they resolve. My big issue is what is an “average” egg? And is that representative of the eggs we are raising?

Most eggs come from large industrial operations. The focus is on the efficiency of the operation. Their size maximizes economies of scale with large confinement operations buying supplies in bulk. Food costs are minimized by utilizing surplus materials from many sources as feed ingredients. Nutritional content is scientifically determined to minimize costs while maximizing production. Breeds are carefully selected for their egg production and ability to survive an industrial setting. Modern layers actually lay so many eggs that typically their health is under pretty severe stress and they are very short lived. Feathers, muscles, bone structure are all compromised to some degree to get more eggs. Confinement conditions usually require de-beaking or removing beaks to prevent chickens from damaging each other by pecking. Food, while cheap, must also be medicated to help survival rates in close confinement conditions where disease and pathogenic bacteria easily spread and thrive. It is a remarkable system that allows eggs to be sold for a couple of dollars per dozen. Just for fun, I looked up egg prices back before all these efficiency improvements. Back in the 1920’s, standard egg prices adjusted to current inflationary prices were approximately $12/dozen or $1.00 per egg. Hard to believe. In some ways, it makes sense when you consider that a couple of eggs make up the protein of a meal for an adult. $2.00/serving of protein is not far off from many other fish and meat products today. But it is clear that the efficiency of the industrial egg operators certainly has changed the dynamic completely. Eggs are incredibly cheap today. One need only look at the fast food menu to see how inexpensively they can be prepared as an egg sandwich.

The egg producing industry groups steadfastly maintain that all eggs are the same regardless of how they are raised. But if one looks closely at this language, what they are really saying is that the nutrition of a chicken’s eggs are highly dependent on the chicken’s diet. Producers make claims of more nutrition by changing the diet to add more beta carotene for example. “Free range” legally simply means that chickens have access to the outdoors. But if the diet is the same and the “outdoor” access is to a dirt pen or a concrete pad, the eggs produced are nutritionally the same. Similarly, “organic” eggs mainly means that the feed used is organically based. Again, if the nutrition of the feed is the same, the eggs will be the same. The bottom line is that the only way to know if the eggs you buy are “better” is not their price but rather knowing what the chicken eats when it is producing its eggs. Not easy in a grocery store with tons of brands at widely different prices all touting some “benefit” that may be marketing hyperbole rather than real.

So what can we tell you about our eggs? We raise them in a way that is not very efficient at all. We give them ridiculous amounts of space to hunt and peck about in. Our chickens eat lots of greens and love every kind of bug that comes anywhere near them. The feed blend we give them is an organic mixture of grains and legumes that we purchase from a Virginia grain mill called Countryside Organics. Unfortunately, it costs about twice what “regular” feed costs and probably many times the cost of the commercial mash fed at a more industrialized operation. But honestly, if they could, I think our chickens would ignore their food rations completely and just eat the “stuff” they scratch up and find. I am amazed at how much grass they eat. They eat it like spaghetti noodles. Typically behind each tractor, it looks like everything has been mowed. If I leave them in place too long, they take everything and leave a bare dirt area.

Our eggs have never been nutritionally tested. The best I can do is report on some testing results on other flocks that I think are more closely related to ours and how they are raised (http://www.motherearthnews.com/uploadedFiles/Eggs%20chart.pdf). For the last couple of years, there have been several research studies on the impact of pasture and varied diet on egg nutrition. Here is what they typically find – eggs raised by chickens with free access to pasture and a varied insect diet typically have fairly dramatically more nutritious eggs. Almost all nutritional elements were enhanced. Vitamin E levels went up nearly 4 times over commercial eggs. Vitamin A doubled or tripled. Beta carotene levels were nearly 8 times that of commercial eggs (not surprising given the color of the yolks). All the while saturated fat declined by about 25% and Cholesterol levels dropped by about 1/3 or 33%. In short, the “bad” stuff that we worry about declined and the “good” stuff went way up. I know I am biased, but I think they taste better too!

I am not sure what our eggs are “worth”. We currently charge $4/dozen. So far, that is not yet covering our costs. To be fair, that is largely because our second group of hens is only just starting to lay now. We are hopeful that with spring and bug seasons coming, their feed levels will drop low enough that they will begin to pay for themselves soon.

But clearly we do not raise laying chickens for their profit potential. We have chickens for what they bring to our farm. They do clear beds for us when we drag their tractors down the rows. We have to be careful that this is only in the winter so the ground has plenty of time to compost their droppings before we grow crops (we allow 120 days of “rest” before we harvest any food crops where the chickens have been). This year we are experimenting with bringing the hens out to the pasture and letting them “free range” to add nutrition to our pastures and presumably our hay mulch that we use throughout the farm. We will have to see how many we lose to hawks and predators. But more than all of this is the richness that having chickens adds to our farm. From the roosters crowing, to the happy cackling when each hen lays her egg, to the truly strange noises the hens make when they are excited to move to new pasture or get new foods from us. It all makes our farm seem more real and a more exciting place to be.

We hope you enjoy our eggs. Please let us know if you want to be added to our “egg” waiting lists. We hope to keep adding layers until our production is enough to satisfy all our customer needs. Right now we have about 50 layers producing about three dozen eggs a day. That means we only have space for about 20 customers each week. But if you think you might be interested, please let us know and we will start planning accordingly.

Thank you as always for your support. If you have any questions or thoughts on this subject – I would love to hear from you. Until then, I hope you stay healthy and happy.



Why We Farm

People often ask me why I farm. Or perhaps more directly, why would I work in a profession that generates little respect because it almost never creates monetary wealth for its practitioners. It is not a trivial question. Carol and I spend a lot of time justifying our lifestyle to each other. The funny thing is, everyone who asks us this seems to have some sense that we are doing something incredibly positive. People thank us all the time for doing what we do. They regale us with stories about great meals, great times, and great memories connected with our humble vegetables. And usually, they express at least some desire to join us- “I would love to do what you do someday”. Right now, our farm works partly because we get so much “free” help from others. We have two wonderful women who are currently working on the farm one morning a week together. Ostensibly they are doing it to learn our techniques to apply to their own gardens. But I think they are enjoying getting their hands dirty“farming”. It helps to balance out some of the rest of life that is so disconnected today to our natural world. There seems to be something positive for the human spirit working at a diversified farm. The image is so powerful it is used everywhere in food marketing – ad campaigns often start with a beautiful morning sunrise, a rooster crowing in the background, and misty fields and woods with grass fed cows or sheep, and nature in abundance all around. What is fascinating for me is that most of the time, the products being sold are a long way from the reality of that beautiful farm. Most farming operations are not pleasant to see or visit. “Modern” farms are industrial operations scaled up to a mind boggling size. They do not feed the soul the way a smaller diversified farm seems to. A big part of why we farm is because it feels right. It is beautiful. It is great exercise. But more than these, it is healthful to live life simply in nature’s seasonal rhythm. It is spring now and we are planting seeds and nurturing baby plants. In a few weeks, we will start to plant outside and begin building for the first harvests in April or May. Our activities mirror Nature with her gradually building crescendo of birds, insects, frogs, and plant life waking up after the winter quiet. It is a wonderful pattern that is central to our motivation to work on our small farm.


We also farm the way we do because we think we are meeting a community need for good food. Our modern society’s science and growing and processing methods have dropped the cost of producing calories to mere pennies. Despite selling a rotisserie chicken for a few bucks, that chicken represents significant profits to be split between all of those who provide the feed, chemicals, industrial production, processing, transport, and finally the place of sale for the chicken. But how nutritious is that bird? Nutrients are hard to come by in food unless you use expensive methods like quality feed or lower yield techniques that allow the development of complex nutrients. Ironic isn’t it? We think of food as fuel and calories are the measure of food’s value as fuel. But in reality a human being needs a prodigious number of nutrients to stay healthy. We eat plenty of calories. In fact, generally we eat too many calories. But nutritionally, we are often poorly fed. Even if you try to eat well by eating “fresh” fruits and vegetables, if you do not know their source, they may or may not have the nutrition you expect. Since these complicated nutrients are so expensive, it is not surprising that they have been gradually disappearing from our basic foods like fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, most of these ingredients are poorly understood or even measured in our food. Our regulatory framework prohibits marketing vegetables as “better” based on how they are grown or harvested. But we know that a tomato picked ripe off the vine, bursting with flavor and complex sweetness, certainly has a different nutrition profile from the supermarket’s hard, green tomato “ripened” with ethylene gas processing and picked weeks ago in Mexico. I have always believed that most of our health issues in our society originate from this simple fact – we eat too many calories from low nutrition foods. Without that complex of elemental nutrients, complex amino acids, anti-oxidants, and all the other long list of “stuff” we need to be healthy, we become sick. This is the second reason we farm – to try to create a paradigm of more nutritious food. We are raising our vegetables in a way that enables people to know what they are eating again. We work hard to create the conditions to maximize the nutritional value of our vegetables and other products. We think it shows in the tastes of the product. But it can be subtle. There is no good scientific evidence that what we do works. It is largely an act of faith in us as farmers. We hope that we can be a working farm that you can trust for your food. Our model is clearly to be a farm that you know and understand. It is why I drone on in these messages to you because I believe it is important that you know what we are doing and why. Our long term dream is to be another model someday for other similar farms to more broadly improve our food. Until then, we just want to grow good food for our customers to eat for their good health. So we farm for our customers. And we love it.

Take care. Stay healthy. See you again soon.


Small Farms Can Work-Biologically Managed, Sustainably Grown

This morning we  attended the very first Small Farming Mini Conference on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, sponsored by the Eastern Shore of Virginia Land Trust. It was wonderful to see such a large crowd out to talk about local food on a cold Saturday morning. Cricket participated on a panel of local farmers.  In case you missed it, I thought we would share how he introduced the farm at the conference…

We started the Copper Cricket Farm in 2007 with a couple of guiding principles – a motto if you will that goes something like this – Sustainably grown, biologically managed.

Let me talk first about the second part – biologically managed. This reflects our belief that healthy plants create healthy food for us. Healthy plants come from a successful collaboration with plants and the soil fungi and bacteria that enable the roots to take in a broad range of minerals and elements that create the flavor and nutrition for us. They also allow the plants to shrug off insects and disease successfully. The neat thing is that, if you are sensitive to the system, it largely works automatically. Pick varieties that are not supersized or ridiculously bred so they have lost natural resistance and vitality. Let your soil work itself by mulching and not tilling or cultivating. Space your plants for their health, prevent weed competition and water stress, and everything else pretty much works well on its own. The only thing I want to emphasize here is that fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides represent a industrial paradigm that works well when it works as a system. But do not try to use one part of this system and expect success without the other parts. You cannot cherry pick – its all or nothing. In other words you cannot just fertilize and be successful. Fertilizers require insecticides because fertilized plants are vulnerable to bugs because of how it makes them grow. Insecticides, even sporadically used, wipe our the beneficial predators that keep an insect system in balance. So we strive to create a balanced system and then, largely, we let things go. We lose some crops to pests. But most are beautiful and the taste is amazing if I do say so myself.

Our second principle is sustainability. Sustainability is one of the most overused words today. But five years ago, it was a useful concept. Because we focused on making a farm that could would work over time. I have a background in corporate finance. So not surprisingly, sustainable includes elements of financial sustainability – the ability of the farm to sustain both itself and Carol and I as farmers. But there is another element that tries to capture an old indian principal that sustainable means it can last seven generations of man. That meant that we would focus on practices that are, in some sense, renewable from our land. We are not perfect by any means. And principles can bankrupt if you are not careful in how and when you apply them. They are not absolutes but guidelines. But as our guideline, this is useful. Our big push is to reduce outside inputs to an absolute minimum. The lower my cost of inputs, the less revenue the farm has to generate to be sustained. When I first began to think about how we might farm, I knew we needed a completely different model from a modern industrial farm of today. The motto of farming has pretty much implied that only the biggest can survive – get bigger or die. As I studied farming over the last couple of decades, it appeared that this was more and more a motto that maximized profits for the producers of inputs to farming and not for the farmers. I was curious as to why the most profitable farming community by far was the Amish farmers who had relatively small farms by modern standards and did not use internal combustion engines at all. It appeared that modern farming had become an enterprise where a million dollars of revenue might generate $25k in actual average free income for the farmer after he frantically invests in all the equipment, genetically superior seeds, fertilizers, and herbicides, and loans from banks and government to keep expanding. Worse, that farmer only receives a tiny fraction of the final consumer value of what he is producing – less than 20 cents on the food dollar goes to farms and only a small fraction of that goes to farmers. That is amazing. So we set out to find a different model that could work for a small farmer.

The key parts of our model are selling direct to consumers in order to capture nearly 100% of the food dollars spent on our product – that is not to share the revenue stream with distributors, processors, and retailers. We keep costs low mostly by substituting our labor for inputs and using inputs that are available for “free” from our farm. For example, we deliver in boxes made from scrap lumber left from other farm projects like our barn construction. That took huge amounts of time – but they are almost “free” and we have been using the crates for five years now without problems.

These are the rough parameters of our farm– we farm 8 acres of rented land. But most of that is simply in pasture mix that we harvest hay for mulch to concentrate nutrients in the soil and improve soil tilth of the remaining 1 ½ acres or so that actually produce our crops. We rent the land for $100/acre. We have minimal equipment since this is sized so it can almost be done by hand (albeit it is a lot of work). Mostly we use a walk behind tractor with a few Italian implements that help us do small scale haying for our mulch. We are almost exclusively a CSA on the Eastern Shore. We market almost completely by word of mouth from our existing customers. But with a small customer base, we know our members well and create, hopefully, enduring relationships with them. We are left with a reasonable surplus income for us to manage on. Its not perfect. I would like to make more still. But the farm also produces most of our own food now. And the lifestyle is one that most people cherish. But we are still working on improving our model – I guess that is always a work in process for every farm. But so far, it works and I think can be a basis for new folks that want to get into farming. I am over 50. As I often comment to my interns that come through each summer, if I can start this at this age, what could you do with some more youthful energy and power? Small farms can work. As long as they do not pretend to be large farms in their spending, equipment, or marketing.

Thank you.


New Links

Check out the category on our website called “In the News” for what we have been reading lately and interesting tidbits for foodies.  This week we posted an article on why a little bit of dirt is good for you, a list of the fruits and vegetables most commonly contaminated with pesticides, and a foie gras parable from Chef Dan Barber.

This Just In!

After sitting without growing for a nail-biting amount of time, our zucchini is finally ready!  You may notice that you received some in your basket for the first time this season.  Check out Barbara Kingsolver’s recipe for zucchini chocolate chip cookies on the recipe section of our website.

In other news, we are looking forward to eggplant and are just beginning to put a few in the baskets right now.   We will be dusting off our recipes for eggplant and sending them on to you in the coming week.