Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Snap peas — Oh, what’s this? Has spring arrived? Outside, yes, although the fields are still a few weeks behind (but bursting with newly planted seeds and transplants!), but in the greenhouse the season is ahead. And, the peas we planted there many, many weeks ago are taller than all of us and bursting with fruit. We’re so thankful, because it looks like our outdoor peas are going to be way behind (it’s unfortunately not looking to be a banner pea year). This is the first picking, which means it’s exponentially smaller than the next few. But it’s a tasty start!
- Salad mix — We ate a most delicious Big Green Salad for lunch yesterday: fresh greens tossed with dressing and quinoa, topped with a turkey salad and chunks of cheese. How are you eating salads this week?
- Braising mix — You can sauté these or stir fry them or puree them into soup (or even make a hearty salad!).Mustard greens
- Bok choy
- Head lettuce
- Green garlic — This is one of our special spring treats, when we dig some of the garlic before it bulbs and eat it “green” (i.e. not dried down at all). Think of this as very garlic-y scallions and you’ll know exactly what to do. Chop the tender bits (well into the green part of the stalk), and use it in place of garlic or onions to any dish!
A farmer friend wrote on her blog recently about how they decided to invest in some field greenhouses for season extension — something they had said over the years that they would “never do.” But, in the end, they came to understand the issue differently and realized there is a place for this practice on their farm.
With farming (as with parenting!), it’s best to “never say never,” because experience, new knowledge, and changing factors do sway us in new directions at times. Certainly, it is imperative to have strong, grounded guiding principles, on which to base all decisions — but the actual details of decisions may be surprising (even when consistent with those principles).
And, so, here we are in a similar situation ourselves. Over the years, Casey and I have been vocal advocates for organic farms getting certified. We ourselves have been certified organic through Oregon Tilth since our very first year farming back in 2006. Being certified is at times a challenging aspect of our farm’s management load. But, it was a decision that made sense at the time, and every year we do reevaluate it from a practical and philosophical perspective. So far, each year, it has continued to make sense.
This year, the decision finally went the other direction, leading us to feel a bit sheepish about all our vocal advocating for certification in the past. We are realizing that there are circumstances in which certification might not be the necessary choice for a farm, even if it is farming organically — as we will always continue to do. We realized that the core value of our farm is how we farm — choosing to be certified is a variable that does not affect the health of our farm, its people or the food it produces. Being certified or not does affect our relationship with our customers and how they perceive us, which is why we gave this decision a lot of careful thought.
I’m sure you’d like to know the reasoning. It’s complicated, but here’s an attempt at some simple main points regarding the nitty-gritty details of USDA regulations and how they play out in individual farm management:
1. Our farm is becoming quite a bit more complex (by our choice), and we realized that the new level of complexity and constant change over the next few years would make maintaining our certification status very cumbersome. We would probably have to sacrifice certain farm goals in order to make it work, especially with expanding and adding animals and other new enterprises.
2. The new land is not eligible for organic certification for another few years, meaning that we’d have to be a “split production” farm (i.e. some ground organic, some conventional), and in our experience this is an extremely awkward way to operate. For example, by USDA standards, the new land would be considered “conventional” until that magic calendar date three years out from the last chemical application, so anytime we used our tractor over there, we’d have to wash it before returning back to the home farm (even though in the meantime, all our practices are organic and we are not actually applying anything non-compliant over there).
3. Our politics have shifted quite a bit since we started the farm, including our feelings about the USDA and its role in agriculture and the food we all eat (and what it costs). That’s a different philosophical exploration for a different newsletter, but to sum it up briefly: large scale chemical agriculture is not an “accident” or naturally evolved beast — it is the product of top-down, intentional federal policies that have consistently subsidized chemicals, getting bigger, and low nutrition food. This continues today, and the organic arm of the USDA is … I’m not sure how to describe it … A token gesture? A way to bring an alternative food movement into the mainstream fold? That being said, I still buy food with the organic label at the store, so I’m not discounting certification completely — by no means! But our feelings about it are a lot more mixed than they were in 2006, to say the least.
So, what does this mean for you, the people who are going to be eating our food over the next few years?
It means that you’ll have farmers who can make decisions based on values, not how well those decisions will fit into boxes on a form. That’s the very best news of all, and something that makes us so excited about this decision. But, depending on why you choose organic food, your concerns may vary from none at all to something more serious.
Probably the biggest question for people concerned with health will be the ramifications of us once again transitioning land into organic production. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, you’ll know that we’ve done this before. The home farm was not “eligible” for organic certification when we bought it, and we were certified “transitional” until mid-2009.
Regarding what it means to “transition” land. First of all, we’ve never liked the word “transition,” because it implies that our practices are “transitioning,” when the reality is everything we have ever done on our farm is consistent with organic values, principles, and regulations. We use no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, and we don’t even use any organic approved pesticides! (If we ever do add organic approved pesticides, it’s most likely to be in the orchards and berries, but we would only go that route on an as-needed basis. So far the veggies have done fine with our other preventative methods of growing food.)
What is “transitioning” is the land itself. The USDA mandates a three-year “waiting period” between the last application of a prohibited substance and organic certification. This is an interesting phenomenon, one that gives some right and wrong impressions about how chemicals persist in the soil. Honestly, I think that the waiting period is primarily a way to keep people from simply jumping in and out of certification by spraying when they “have a problem.” Most of the contemporary pesticides and fertilizers have very short half-lives, and three years is a bit excessive. However, there are others (including ones used decades ago) that do linger in the soil longer, so the three-year waiting period is also not a guarantee of clean soil.
Rather than just letting the three year mark be our safe point, Casey and I have gathering field histories and done soil testing on all of our ground. As with our home farm, all the new land was in relatively low spray crops before we took it over. Field crops such as wheat, clover, and corn do get chemical applications, but in much lower frequency than say nursery crops. Not to say the land was treated gently or sustainably, but from a chemical standpoint, we’re starting in relatively good shape for taking over conventional land.
All of the land we own, which is about half of our total acres, is free of persistent chemicals, which is awesome. Unfortunately, the land we are renting did contain measurable amounts of a very persistent relative of DDT called dieldrin. This is a pesticide that was commonly used after DDT, considered safer because it didn’t leech into water supplies (presumably in retrospect because it was so persistent in the soil itself).
It is good for us to know this chemical is present on that land so that we can plan accordingly. Unfortunately, dieldrin is “taken up” by a few families of crops: cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers) and roots. We will never grow these crops on that land, instead using it for tree fruit, pasture, greens, and the many other crops that grow in that soil without taking up dieldrin.
So, that is some of the more detailed information about what it means for us to grow organically in the next few years. Certainly, telling the story of how we grow is much more time intensive when we can’t rely on the words “certified organic,” which is part of why we’ve held onto certification for the six prior seasons. We are going to have to figure out new language for the next two years as we transition our land.
Once all our land is eligible for certification again and we feel like our farm is in a more settled, “static” place (ha!) and easier to fit back into boxes on a form (ha!), we will once again consider getting certified. This is not a forever decision, by any means — it’s the decision that makes sense for the next few years.
And, I should be clear, if certification were in our core values, we could make it work. But it would limit us in many ways, including how quickly we feel comfortable getting established and growing on the new land. Quite honestly, we just can’t wait. We are so excited about having more room on which to grow and experiment, and we have no doubt that using the new land sooner and freely will make us fundamentally better farmers.
Just one specific example is that we are going to be able to dramatically increase the number of years in our big picture crop rotation, so that each year of vegetables is followed by two years of grains and then two years of cover crop and/or pasture. Giving our land time to “rest” and grow very different kind of crops is the time honored method of achieving on-farm fertility (through legumes and manure), soil health, and reducing diseases and pest pressure.
Even though we here on the farm feel positive about this decision, we know that many of you might have questions or continued concerns. Please talk with us, at pick-up, via email or by phone.
To that end, we know that much about our farm is heading in new directions, and CSA newsletters are limited in their ability to convey lots of information and answer questions. So, we’re going to schedule a few CSA meetings in the upcoming month as opportunities to share more of our future plans and answer your questions. We will have two to start, one in Mac and one in Newberg — probably on a Saturday mid-morning. We will schedule more as needed. More details will be in next week’s newsletter.
After all this pondering and analysis, I can’t decide whether our “never say never” humble pie is bigger or smaller than our friends’ decision to put up greenhouses in their fields. I’m sure that both feel equally significant in the decision body of the farm, simply because it can be hard to change course once having been so publically vocal on a topic. But, in the end, I know that both decisions are right for right now for both farms — consistent with core long-term values and goals.
Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
… and the rest of the farm crew!
P.S. On a completely different note, and worthy of more space than I have here: we welcome some more new people and animals to the farm this week. Our new employee Kimmie started working here last Wednesday, and we are so glad to have her, especially now that the season has new urgency and our workload has increased!
On Sunday evening, we welcomed 17 new sheep into our care from my mom’s care next door. She’s been breeding this flock of Katahdin sheep for several years, and we feel incredibly honored to be starting our own flock on the basis of her careful diligent work. These are “hair” sheep, kept for meat. I will definitely be writing more about the sheep in future newsletters, but I wanted to share the fun news ever so briefly now!
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Next week’s veggies (probably!):
Strawberries • Peas • Kohlrabi • Fava beans • Kale • Chard • Lettuce • Leeks