“The goldenrod is yellow,
The corn is turning brown…
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.”
― Helen Hunt Jackson
Well, the goldenrod around here is already dead and releasing little puffballs of seed, but the corn is definitely turning brown and apple trees are still hunched over with the weight of their fruit. I actually love this season–as well as the one that follows–but farming in the fall tends to get a lot more complicated. At least, it does for us. How so? Well to give you one example of many, there’s that whole ‘birds need to drink water’ thing. You see, the effects of Fall are a little accentuated this year since we’ve still got nearly 2,500 birds out on pasture, but even if we had fewer birds we’d still have to be getting water to them. Normally, we just run our pex tubing (hose) out to the birds and let the automatic system do its thing. We can’t do that as easily now though because we’re well below freezing every night. So, before it gets too cold each evening, one of us has to walk out to pasture and disconnect the pex tubing in several different places so that it drains. There’s one very low spot too, so once you’ve disconnected the lines, you need to lift the low area(s) up and drain the water out of one end or the other. The other night, I neglected to do that and ended up having to wait until well past noon for water to flow freely. That mistake ended up looking like the picture below…once the ice had melted enough and the water pressure could push its way through.
Little ice tubes shooting out of the end along with green water, made green by the dying algae that has flourished in the pex all summer long. Resilient stuff that algae, and it causes plenty of trouble when it tries to squeeze through the filters on the waterers that hang in each shelter. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that everything takes a little longer to get done now given the inclement weather and freezing temperatures. What was once automatic is now an hour or so of my time…every day. Annoying? Yep. Anything I can do about it? Nope, hahaha :)
There are other downsides to this near-favorite season of mine. Rain, for instance, is far more problematic these days. I love the rain, my home is the great Pacific Northwest, but now when it falls it lingers far too long. Then you get a week of rain, and while the aquifers are slowly filling underground (one would hope), the pasture becomes a muddy mess that makes simple things like feeding animals a lot more, um, slippery. Another factor at play is that most of the pasture is now dormant, so there’s no real re-growth of alfalfa or grasses. That’s ok because we give them a very large area, but at the same time the pasture looks pretty brown in comparison to just a month or so ago. Here you can see the turkeys, ducks and chickens hanging out together.
Some birds also end up getting soaked because they opt to stay out on pasture during a storm rather than under the shelter. This isn’t normally a problem, but then the temperature drops down to 24F at night and the poor decisions those birds made are highlighted in the most dramatic fashion possible. We can help out here by moving their feed underneath the shelters, but it’s no guarantee. There will still be birds who opt for the cold soak. Granted, pretty soon you notice that everyone is under the shelter when it rains. I still don’t know if it’s because they’ve learned a lesson, if they’re just lingering around the feed, or if all of the bad decision makers are simply gone now.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to complain so much as explain how this season affects the day-to-day on the farm. It can be very frustrating, but one needs to get used to that in a hurry if he or she wants to farm because this is a career track that you ultimately have very little control over. You do what you can–and you do a lot–but Ma Nature has a funny way of occasionally making your well thought out plan look like a fool’s errand. You do have your victories though, and when times get harder it tends to make the animals a bit less wary of you. So they get closer, run up to you a bit more because they know you’ve got food, water, or a shelter fix, you know…basic needs stuff. I also find myself being less sarcastic with the birds and more sympathetic. Here we are discussing the latest pasture drama at one of the seasonal water coolers.
There is a great sense of urgency to get to the end of the season because, by now, we’re pretty tired. You can’t linger too long in the light at the end of that tunnel though because there is still much to do. Plus, every day reminds us of some sort of winter preparation that we’ve forgotten…a memory that was washed clean months ago by the Spring.
We’re getting a grain bin!
Here’s where it’s going to go, and thanks to Maria’s Dad and our friends the Bronks, we cleared the space in no time.
It seems so simple to say we’re getting a grain bin, but there’s so much that has and will go into this. It’s a good example of what smaller farms like ourselves have to go through when they are starting out, trying to grow and expand AND trying to sustain an existence let alone the environment and everything else. You see, people often ask questions about why aren’t you doing this, or why don’t you do that yet and they’re great questions, really. The hard part about answering them is that we want to be these things, but so many of the decisions that come with starting any business–let alone a farm–boil down to money. Can we afford it? Is it even worth it? Does it help us become more efficient, save money or meet some other goal or set of goals?
So, let me answer some of those questions for you and illustrate what this will mean for us. First, we can afford it. We’ve paid off the loans we had out for our walk-in freezer and our high tunnel, and the farm is doing well enough that taking on another loan won’t be a major issue. That is, other than being able to throw that chunk of money into the profit zone, haha. Which brings us to the fact that this grain bin is very worth it. Sure, it will be the biggest loan we’ve taken out thus far for equipment, but it will allow us to store the corn we grow. Hence, we will be more efficient because we will have taken some degree of control over a chunk of another chunk of our expenses (see under: “Feed”). It will also help us save money because it costs us a LOT less to grow non-GMO corn than it does to buy it on the market and have it trucked to the mill……if you can FIND non-GMO corn that is. How much less? Well, it’s often said that non-GMO corn on the market is about 150% the cost of the round-up ready varieties. If we went off of today’s price for next year’s round-up ready corn, say May 2014 corn, then a bushel of that corn will go for $4.65. To give you an idea of how volatile corn and other commodities are, corn you buy today is around $6.00 per bushel and last summer it set a record at over $8.35 per bushel. Anyway, we’ll stay conservative with the $4.65. If we take that price, 150% of it is $6.98 per bushel for non-GMO corn. In case you were wondering, organic corn is often 200% the cost of round-up ready corn, sometimes more.
On our farm, we are smalllll potatoes. Well, small corn. We’re growing 13-14 acres this year and hopefully every year from now on. If we assume a harvest of 100 bushels per acre, we could get 1,300 bushels of corn. It will probably be less, but let’s roll with that number. 1,300 bushels of non-GMO corn trading at next year’s price that is currently $6.98 per bushel means we have $9,074 dollars of corn in the field. What did it cost to grow that corn?
All figures approximate (i.e. based on memory)
$550 for seed corn
$1350 for spreading Environmentally Safe Nitrogen (ESN) and Potash & starter fertilizer
$250 for fuel (this is high because the disc we used to till worked at ~65% and required more passes)
$500 for custom tillage, planting & cultivation (our neighbor helped us out with his tractor)
$500 for custom harvest (we’ll have to hire a combine operator)
We’ll also have to borrow a couple of gravity boxes to transport the corn from field-to-bin, hopefully borrow a grain auger to get the corn into the bin and borrow a grain cleaner to run the corn through before we put it in the bin. If we can’t borrow the auger and cleaner, that will likely run us another $1,000 or so depending on what we got. A good gravity box can cost a lot, but if we went with a couple of smaller versions, we could probably get them for $2,000-$3,000. This year, we’ll borrow them. This is equipment we’d reuse for a long time too, so we shouldn’t include it in the costs above (it should be counted overall though!). Of course, we also had to buy a corn planter (4-row), a cultivator to weed most of the field, and a disc to till with. I got great deals on all of those, so we ended up spending $2,750 on them.
Anyway, we’ve got (eventually) $6,000+ in equipment that we need to actually be in this corn growing business, and $3,150 spent to plant, weed and harvest the corn. So, the corn we planted this year will net us $24 in savings, assuming we purchase everything I listed above and get smoking deals. If we just look at input costs though, we would save $6,024 with this year’s corn. That’s not bad at all! I should add here that the corn price per bushel I listed above is pretty low. It’s not devastatingly low, but let’s just say that it has a lot of major corn growers pretty anxious since they may end up making 50% of what they did last year when corn was setting all-time highs. I should also add that there have been a lot of bad years for cash crop growers and farmers in general too. There is a lot of news about how much money they’ve been making recently, but this is most likely an anomaly and this bubble will also pop, but I digress…
So now we’ve got the bin to take into consideration. How much is a grain bin? Well, based on the numerous quotes I received this year, a bin in the neighborhood of what we wanted ran anywhere from $21,000-$27,000. Holy Corn! Granted, this price includes everything one needs to store the corn (the bin itself), dry the corn (fans, heaters if you buy them, stirators if you buy them), all of the ‘small stuff’ involved and eventually what you need to unload the corn so it can be used. It also counts the labor involved, and I’m definitely paying someone to put it up since I never have and there tend to be these little clauses in manufacturer’s warranties about how valid they are if you put it up vs. they put it up. It also counts the concrete, rebar and fill gravel one would purchase. It certainly doesn’t help that metal costs a lot more than it used to.
This is a brand new grain bin too, and it will last as long as I’m alive…probably longer. One can buy used bins if they can be found, but finding the size you need is pretty difficult. A lot of them are HUGE or very small…not much in between. This is the plight of the modern small farm in America for almost all of the equipment they use. Anyway, if you find a bin, it tends to be in North Dakota or something like that. So, you also have to drive there, take it down, put it on a trailer or a semi, transport it back to the farm and then pour the concrete (etc) and put it up. You can hire that labor out too, but that will still run you at least $2,500 unless your uncle is a grain bin putter upper. You see, it is possible to save money this way, but you have no warranty, you’ve bought someone else’s problem and you’ll still have to buy fans, dryers, stirators, unloaders and many other things. It all depends on the ‘deal’ you manage to find.
Ok, so now we’re getting to cost recovery on this thing. If we’re saving $6,000 per year, we can pay it off pretty quickly with money we would’ve spent buying the corn we grew on the market. Four years or so seems reasonable. If we assume that this year’s corn buys the equipment and covers the costs, we can buy lottery tickets with the $24 we net in savings, hope for the best and pay it all off in five years.
Does it meet one of our goals? This is probably the most important one for us, and this has been a goal of ours for quite some time. We just weren’t in a place where we could actually do it. Now, we can grow most of our own feed, and we have a bin that will hold two-and-a-half times the amount of corn that we need per year. That means we can either grow into the bin’s capacity, or we can use that space for something else. We could play the markets and buy/sell grain with that space (ugh), we could buy non-GMO corn on the market when it’s cheap and use ours when it’s expensive (yay), we could even help people by drying their corn or other crops and/or storing their corn with ours. This last one is great because if we can help other people, then we can help them get to a spot where they too can buy a bin, or they can keep using ours and use the money they didn’t spend on a bin on expanding their farm.
In the end, no matter how you look at it, getting a grain bin is a major step for our farm. There has been an incredible amount of research, talking with those who know and hand-wringing over this all too, but we’re excited about getting this bin and we wanted to share the news with you. The reason this post is so long is because I wanted to try and give you an idea about everything that goes into something that can seem as innocuous as “We’re getting a grain bin!”.
Cool, wet and overcast October days like today remind us all that tomatoes are on their way out. Ok, I’ll admit it…they’re basically gone. Sure, you can find them here and there if someone has a heated greenhouse or a seasonal high tunnel–like us–that they’re growing tomatoes in, but now all we really have to look forward to (?) are hydroponic versions of this red fruitable that many call a toe-may-toe (i.e. what many of us will be buying at our local supermarket soon/now/ugh). No, not the tomtato (<--check that link out) but the watered-down version of the essence of summer, Italy and patio gardens. I respect hydroponic agriculture of course, but I'll never be able to convince myself that their products taste the same as those that spent most of their time out in the weather and in the dirt. You know, 'REAL' tomatoes! But I digress..... Who or what is this Salmorejo Cordobés? Well, a good friend of the farm let me know that such a thing existed, and when she described it to me I was instantly hungry and eager to make this dish. First of all, I should give credit where it is due, so for the full details on Señor Cordobés please head over to Bon Appetit.
What is it? Soup. Soup? Yes, but to call it a soup really doesn’t do it any justice in how your brain and/or taste buds will interpret it. It might be helpful to know that “Salmorejo” is a Spanish synonym for “Gazpacho” and “Cordobes” is referring to Cordoba, a city in southern Spain where–funny enough–Gazpacho originated. Buuuut, there’s just something more to it. It ‘is’ simple as delicious food goes, and it fits nicely into the newly discovered culinary world of ‘simple’ that seems to be focused on allowing you to taste what, exactly, is in the dish. In the end though, for me, it is one of the few recipes that really got me excited this summer and boy/girl did it deliver!
I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it, if you can find any tomatoes anyway, and I know that you can make it. Yes, even those of you who think you can’t cook at all or you burn everything (did I mention you don’t cook this soup?). If you do try it, let us know what you think. I’m sure your soul will thank you.
In closing, a BIG “Thank You!” to Magda who brought Señor Cordobés into our lives.
No, that’s not a typo.
What it stands for is, “Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers”, and this committee is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture since, “The Committee provides recommendations to the Secretary.” Why am I writing a post about this? Well, I learned today that I—Chris, in case you’re still wondering which one of our voices you’re hearing on our website, Facebook, etc.–was appointed to this committee, and I am REALLY excited about being able to serve in this position for the next two-year term. You see, we got into farming not only because we thought it was an area with a lot of potential that we could do well in, but because we really want(ed) to affect change in our food systems. This has been a real guiding force in the way(s) we farm, and it has also led us to get involved in local-, state-, and now national-level groups that are doing their best to improve things for farmers, local food organizations and the public in general.
The committee is made up of 20 individuals who are pulled in from all over the country and who represent a diverse array of groups involved with Agriculture. Surprisingly enough, farmers and ranchers are not required by the statute to be a part of this advisory committee, though they are listed as a group that people can be appointed from. Since I’ve made the cut as a farmer *WOO HOO!* I’ll be doing all that I can to bring farmers’ voices to the table and to help improve the situation for beginning farmers (and ranchers) and farmers in general. I’ll learn more about how it all works over the next few weeks, so until I know more I’ll leave you with the basic blurb that describes what the committee’s mission is:
“The Agricultural Credit Improvement Act of 1992 (Pub. L. 102-554) required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers (Committee). The purpose of the Committee is to advise the Secretary on (1) the development of a program of coordinated financial assistance to qualified beginning farmers and ranchers required by Section 309 (i) of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (this program consists of Federal and state beginning farmer programs that provide joint financing to beginning farmers and ranchers); (2) methods of maximizing the number of new farming and ranching opportunities created through the program; (3) methods of encouraging States to participate in the program; (4) the administration of the program; and (5) other methods of creating new farming or ranching opportunities.”
You can find out a lot more about this committee at the following link: ACBFR
As some of you know, Maria’s folks have an acre of hops that they put in three years ago, and we help them out with that from time to time. One of those times is when the hops need to be harvested. Actually, three of those times since there are three varieties that they’re growing (Cascade, Columbus and Nugget). It’s year 3 of the hops operation, so the plants are well on their way to maximizing their potential. Given the drought last year though, we may have to wait for year 5. We’ll see.
In any case, harvesting hops can be quite the ordeal. Year 1, we picked everything we harvested by hand. We also helped a friend down the road with their hops, and they had a lot to pick by hand. If you’ve never picked hops by hand, you won’t appreciate the videos posted below as much as someone who has. Why? Probably because you didn’t realize that picking ONE hops bine can take up to 45 minutes. On an acre of hops, you’re looking at around 1400 plants. That gets labor intensive in a hurry!
Needless to say, we no longer pick by hand. Instead, we cut the bines (not vines) off of the top and bottom cables and stack them onto our hay wagon. Then, once we have our full load we drive that down to our previously mentioned friend’s farm. There, we are lucky enough to be able to use their Wolf Harvester, which can strip up to 100 bines per hour.
Once we’re at our friend’s farm (Bronk Family Hops Farm), we each take our positions and the fun begins. Usually there are two people unloading bines from the hay wagon and loading them onto the harvester. The harvester then pulls the bine inside where there are a series of choppers and ‘filters’ that separate the hops cones from the bine and then ultimately spit the (mostly) clean cones out of the bottom and onto an elevator. The elevator runs them up into the barn where they fall into some sort of container, usually a small tub. As they move along the elevator, a couple of us are grabbing any leaves, stems or other ‘trash’ to make sure that what gets to the container is only hops.
In the videos below, we’re helping the Bronks harvest their hops. They’ve got us and a small army helping out, and that is ALWAYS a major plus :)
Once we have the hops cones, we head back home where they are placed into the oast. The oast is what dries the hops down to the appropriate moisture content.
In order to ensure that you have the right moisture content, you have to do a lot of sampling, heating/cooking of the hops and…math. Once you have everything at the right place, you bag it up and place it into some sort of humidity-controlled environment until you transport the hops to the brewery, the hops exchange or some other end user.
Hops are an interesting plant to grow, as they are very vigorous once they’re established. They also require a lot of nitrogen when they’re in their big growth stages. It’s said that some days you can see the hops growing. They do require a lot of work, but if you enjoy a good beer it’s hard to complain too much about what all goes into it. There’s a lot more one could say about hops too, but this–at the very least–gives you an idea of what we’re doing when we say we’re harvesting hops.