Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I'm Off!

image from heatherbullard.typepad.com
I'm headed to the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center in NY!

I'm SO excited to spend time with other young famers and learn lots of cool farming things!  I'll be back Saturday with a full report!  :-)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beauty

image from middlechildcomplex.tumblr.com/
Sorry for the rant yesterday.  It was uncalled for.  I let all of my frustrations from the day pile up onto my disappointment over the unexpected challenges of the state-owned land.  But I'll find a way around the state policy.  That's what farmers are good at.

And I ate TWO cupcakes for dessert, which certainly made up for the rest of the day.  :-)

I'm still waiting on the disclosures from the North Stonington property before I can put in an offer.  Hopefully next week - I'm desperate for some peace of mind.

I spent the day surrounded by hundreds of beautiful people.  Granted, most of them were under the age of three.  But children are the best reminder that there is happiness all around - I just have to stop worrying and let it in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Frustration: State-owned Land Use

I try not to write letters out of frustration.  As a person who LOVES getting mail, I find that almost always feels better to write a thank-you note or a congratulatory letter than a rant about something that's gone wrong.  Postal service workers should feel good about their job delivering mail from me.

Except for tomorrow.

This afternoon I FINALLY heard back from the State's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) about leasing the 25 acres of state-owned pasture adjacent to the North Stonington property I am hoping to purchase.  The two properties are one large field (formerly all the same farm), with three posts pounded down the center to mark the line.  For the past few years it has been used for haying by a very elderly dairy farmer down the street, simply keeping it as open space.

In my proposal to the state I described my interests in sustainable agriculture and desire to use rotational grazing to manage the land.  Experts everywhere agree that rotational grazing is one of the best land uses.  The animals eat the forage and simultaneously fertilize the land.  There is no manure build-up, no arsenal of fertilizers, no chemicals needed.  Grazing is how farmers and ranchers fed their animals, up until the advent of industrial agriculture.

Well, apparently the (insert adjective of your choice) folks in the DEEP do not allow grazing on state-owned land.  There are other management practices that may be allowed, if I call back tomorrow between said limited hours, which they would be happy to discuss with me.  I look forward to learning more about what is allowed and what is not allowed (having been warned by fellow farmer friends and the folks at NRCS), but I can nearly guarantee that their suggestions will not involve what I would consider sustainable land management (which involves both plants AND animals working together).

Bah.

Which brings me to my greater frustration - the one that inspired writing a letter.  I will NOT take time now to discuss all of the challenges of being a young, female farmer attempting to purchase land and start a farm business.  I will simply summarize by saying that it is an incredibly challenging project that lacks government support.  Or support in general.  There just aren't that many folks in CT silly enough to take on such an enormous project, so the infrastructure to help isn't there.

What frustrates me is that I have worked for the past several years advocating for farmland preservation.  I thought it was an important way to prevent overdevelopment, preserve a local food culture, and keep land in the hands of farmers.  And for many farm families, selling off the development rights for their land has been the saving grace that has allowed them to remain a farm.  Goodness knows that in the tough times it can be appealing to have such a simple out as selling off the farm to pay for all of the debt that has piled up.

I still very much support farmland preservation.  My definition of farmland is land that can be used for agriculture. Much of the farmland in CT has very good soils, but on sloped terrain (which can be difficult to work with a tractor and increase the risk of erosion)- perfect for grazing.  I support farming practices that have a triple bottom line - social, economic, and environmental - and farmland that provides a viable business for farmers.

And the economics don't compare.  You can get paid $100 an acre for someone to hay your fields.  Maybe.  But you can make a few thousand dollars in meat per acre by grazing a variety of animals (cows, pigs, chickens).

I do not support the preservation of farmland just for the sake of it.  I've never been one for collecting things without a purpose.  Collecting farmland without providing the means for it to be farmed is pointless.  You can't support farmland preservation without supporting farmers.  Otherwise it's just open space (which has certain benefits, as well, they just aren't agricultural).

And I'm not trying to discredit the work that's being done to encourage the state and municipalities to lease land to farmers.  UConn Extension and CT Farmland Trust recently put together the Farmland CONNections Guide to help walk both parties through the complicated leasing process and to encourage landholders to lease their land to farmers for agricultural use.  It's a great start.

But allowing rotational grazing on state owned land will require a policy change.  I feel exhausted just thinking about that lengthy process, and about all of the other policies that need to change in order to support farmers.  I hope my letter to the organizations that support farmland preservation will inspire leaders to think more specifically about how to preserve farmers.

Phewf.

Thank goodness it's MY BIRTHDAY!  And after a long first day of work, and then getting all fired up over land use (must remember to breathe!), I came home to these:


Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  I don't care what anyone says: cupcakes make everything better!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Back-up Plan

image from aresohappy.tumblr.com
I emailed my real estate agent yesterday to make an appointment to draft a contract for the North Stonington Farm. The thoughts of whether or not my offer will be accepted are consuming too much of my energy.  I'm ready to know if the farm will actually be mine come spring (pending all of the other details fall into place, of course).  I'll be putting in an offer that I feel comfortable I can afford (regardless of the asking price), ignoring any phone calls from the homeowner trying to "teach" me about real estate, and keeping my fingers crossed.  I even saved the wishbone for Thanksgiving, just in case I need an extra jolt of good luck.

Waiting will be the hardest part.

I'm really trying to work on my patience and my worrying.  Much easier said than done.

Part of that work involves developing a back-up plan.  I have several already (of course) but none of them really compare to having a farm of my own, they are just temporary living/working/learning situations for the next year or two.  So I started looking at property again.  The good thing about real estate is that it's always fluctuating and I actually found another potential property in Salem, about 30 minutes from my parents.  The location isn't ideal and the house is TINY (but cute), but the 43 acre property has a lot of potential.  And the owner is desperate to sell, so it could be very affordable.  I hope to tour it next weekend.

To help take my mind off of things today, I began working on all of my Christmas craft projects.  Even though I now have a job, I've been without pay for a couple of months.  Actually, my finances are always pretty tight, because I save every penny I can towards going to a farm of my own.  Plus I feel like homemade gifts carry an extra care of thoughtfulness.  And I love being able to create beautiful things.  It's been a very relaxing way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Leftovers

photo from ancagray.tumblr.com/
Today I am thankful for Thanksgiving leftovers.  I just LOVE good food, warm sunshine, and time with my family.  My favorite holiday weekend!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

image from dinneralovestory.com

Happy Thanksgiving
from my family to yours

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cold Feet

image from sahalie.com

I hate to admit it, but I'm getting cold feet about putting in an offer on the North Stonington Farm.

I'm certainly still going to go through with it.  But now that we're just a few short weeks away from when I had planned to put in an offer, my fear of rejection is setting in.

The only thing that's really causing me worry is the owner's sister-in-law (who's sort of the "real-estate agent" for the house).  She's expressed several times that they are not willing to budge on the price of the house (something unheard of in this market, in our area), but it's currently priced at $51,000 over the appraised value of the home.  Not only would it be crazy to pay way more than the house is worth, but I can't get a loan for that amount.

I was doing a really good job of not letting this detail get to me, until yesterday when I looked at the calendar and realized that my loan application is nearly complete.  I still need to do some work on my business financial plan (ironing out details), but the rest of the pieces are completed to the extent that I need to turn it in.  The only thing that's missing is the housing contract, which I was hoping to settle before Christmas.

I'm trying not to worry too much.  Thankfully I have the holidays and a new job to help me to keep my priorities in check.  There's no sense worrying about things that are out of my control.  I will work my hardest, put in an offer I am comfortable with, and then hope for the best!  Needless to say, I will be doing a lot of finger crossing the next few weeks!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Job

My girl Pokey. 

I accepted a job offer today.  A (nearly) full-time position as a kitchen director at the local preschool.  I don't have too many of the details yet, but the pay is decent and the hours (9-3ish M-F) would work well with part-time farm work (plenty of time for chores during the daylight before and after work).  The school has a commitment to serving healthy, organic, vegetable based meals to its students.  My primary responsibilities will be to prepare breakfast and lunch for about 200 students, as well as frozen dinners for their parents to bring home.

We'll see how it goes tomorrow morning, when I meet with the staff and learn more specifics.  I enjoy working with kids and working in the kitchen.  There is also a school vegetable garden, and they are looking to add cooking and gardening classes to the curriculum once I get adjusted, which would be a lot of fun.

I'd love to say that I'm really excited, but I'm just not.  It's a job.  And even though it has the potential to be really fun and to provide a stable contribution to the mortgage (more than 1/2 of the annual payment), it feels like a step away from the farm.  I think it will be really good and hopefully only for the short term, but it delays my dream of farming full-time on my own land.  And it puts a bit of a damper on my retirement.  I've been really enjoying all of my free-time the past two months!

Saphera (the grey chicken) is recovering fine!  She spent the morning grazing around the yard with the rest of the flock.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Farm Visit: Sweet Acre Farm

image from sweetacrefarm.com
This afternoon I visited Sweet Acre Farm in Storrs, CT as part of the winter farm tour/potluck series hosted by the New CT Farmer Alliance.  The tours give new farmers in the state the opportunity to meet and learn from each other.

Charlotte and Jonathan have been running Sweet Acre Farm (named for the one acre plot surrounded by sugar maples) since earlier this year.  They found the property on Farmlink, a program run through the Department of Agriculture that (supposedly) matches farmers with farmland owners.  It was great to see an example of the success of the program, especially after using the program myself and feeling like there were very few viable farmland opportunities.

Sweet Acre Farm is a great example of what can be done with limited resources and limited land.  It was really impressive to see how many vegetables they were able to produce from their land.  It just felt...manageable.  And the farmers were happy, despite the challenges of planting late in the season and then having to deal with the wrath of hurricane Irene and the October Nor'easter.  They are proud to be running their own business, excited to improve, and set on not growing too quickly beyond their means.

The best part of the evening?  The potluck with friends.  I'm not often surrounded by "my people" - other young farmers doing their best to make a living off of the land.  It's one of the best parts of slowing down during the winter (despite the fact that I'm already growing weary of so much travel).  They are all wonderful farmers, incredible chefs, and just plain inspirational people.  Can't BEET that!  ;-)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Holiday Cleanup


My parents had a great holiday party this week.  We spent the past two months planning the menu, preparing the house, and decorating with LOTS of pumpkins and squash.  It was gorgeous weather today - on last fall hurrah - so we loaded up the car with leftover pumpkins to bring to the pigs at Footsteps Farm.


The piglets were so excited for a treat.  We smashed the pumpkins open and they stuck their entire head inside, chowing down on the seeds and then the flesh.


The pigs at Footsteps Farm are raised in 1/2 acre wooded pastures, in groups of 10-20 pigs that move around the farm.  This time of year their diet is comprised largely of acorns and whey (from a neighboring cheese farm).  Thats the stuff really high-quality meat is made from.  Footsteps Farm is a special place.

The best part of today's visit was that my mom tagged along.  She is UNBELIEVABLY supportive of me starting a farm (I think she may have even finally given up hope that I will become a lawyer :-)), but still trying to learn a lot of the details.  Like the difference between organic and conventionally grown, free-range and pasture-raised.  Our food system has grown so complex that it's difficult to navigate.  She just knows that she wants to support local farmers, and healthy food production.

Visiting neighboring farms is the best way to learn.  The pigs today were running around, rooting in the forest, and showing just how much personality pigs have.  The pigs are not organic, but they are fed GMO-free (genetically modified organism) feed and forage much of their diet.  The pigs we visited yesterday, on the other hand, WERE certified organic (fed organic grain), but were living in a crowded muddy pen.  Both farmers are local and both are raising a quality product, they're just going about it very differently.

All I know is that I had a great time outside with the pigs today.  They are so curious and friendly.  Even after just an hour it was easy to learn several of their names and their quirky behaviors.  Like Eddy, who broke his jaw as a piglet but made a complete recovery and loves to get an ear rub.  Or Josie, who just weaned off a full litter of piglets and prefers cinnamon bread to plain bagels (leftovers from a local bakery).  It's that connection with the animals that really makes me feel connected to the land.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

American Meat

image from brilliantp.com
Just got in from a screening of the new film, American Meat. The film exposes the meat industry from the farmers' point of view - beginning with larger, confined animal operations and featuring Joel Salatin, the lunatic grass farmer.

The evening began with Chipotle burritos made with humanely raised meat and ended with a panel discussion of local farmers.  It was nice to see and talk with area growers, to hear their successes and challenges raising local, sustainable meat.  The film was nothing revolutionary for me, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless.  I particularly enjoyed hearing the story of American meat through the voices of the farmers, without the gruesome PETA footage meant to scare people away from eating meat.

Earlier today I toured the Pendleton Hill property for a third time - this time with my dad and brother in tow.  More eyes exposed more challenges than I had seen on previous visits, especially with the electrical wiring.  Nothing major, but certainly an additional cost.  Add that to the feeling that the owners may not be ready to negotiate a lower price that I could afford, and I left the farm feeling a little insecure.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

So the work continues.  I also had a chance this afternoon to tour Stonyledge Farm, an organic meat and vegetable farm also in North Stonington.  The owners of the farm are very sweet.  Their parents run a vegetable farm with a commercial kitchen and their sons are beginning a dairy also in North Stonington, so it's a true family business.  Building a community and gathering inspiration from neighbors - that is how you start a farm.

Friday, November 18, 2011

From Internship to Ownership


 
The New Connecticut Farmers Alliance announces the beginning of its winter series of monthly farm tours with a visit to Sweet Acre Farm in Mansfield on Monday November 21.  For more information visit www.newctfarmers.com.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Dirt on our Soil


That (above) is the soil map of Full Heart Farm.  The USDA's Natural Resource and Conservation Services (NRCS) has a Web Soil Survey (WSS) tool that allows you to learn more about the soils on a given property from the comfort of your home computer.

I know I'm a farm nerd, but I think that's pretty awesome.

I had played around with the web soil survey after looking at a few of the properties, but like any tool, it's only valuable if you really know how to use it.  Today I met with a soil expert at NRCS who was able to explain to me what the soils of Full Heart Farm are mapped out to be.

First off, I have to admit that I was a little nervous.  FInding out about the soil on the farm felt, well, personal.  There was no grass to cover up anything that might be bad.  And I was worried that learning there were poor soils (something helpful to learn early on in the process) would mean that the property is essentially worthless.  Even soils that are just okay may mean more work than I would be able to put in, or a lack of government assistance in working to conserve the land.

But the report was good! (Lesson learned this week: worry less!)

The soils by the homestead of the property (upper-right on the map) are classified as Canton and Charlton soils.  These glacial soils are generally well-drained (with a water table 3-4 feet deep) and good for growing vegetables.  Which is great, because the one-acre fenced in pasture by the house is the one I sent to be nutrient tested for growing produce.  I would like to have a nice large garden by the house.

The soils up behind the barn (which extend into the state-owned portion of the property) are a Sutton Fine Sandy Loam.  These soils can also be good for growing veggies, but not early in the season.  The soil is pretty well-drained, but the water table is much higher (1 1/2 feet deep), so it's much wetter.  This soil is also usually much stonier (hence North STONington).

The majority of the lower pasture land is Ninigret and Tisbury soils.  This also has a seasonal high water table.  There is a portion of the pasture that slopes down, and on a wet year this is going to be very wet, but on a dry year the pasture will stay greener.

Having a diverse selection of soils is really good because it creates different growing environments.  Some plants may do better on one part of the farm than another because of the soil quality and moisture.  Learning those details will take time (and lots of trial and error).

The next part of analyzing the soils is to work with a scientist to take samples in the field.  Unlike the small samples that I took to test for different nutrients and organic matter, the NRCS scientists use an auger to dig much deeper holes and examine the soil structure (all of the different layers of the soil).  This double checks that the soils described on the map match the soils that are actually on the farm.

I'm visiting the property for a third time this Saturday and I'm hoping to arrange a time with the landowners when this can be done.  NRCS will also take a look at the brook (and I'm hoping to learn more details on the well) so that we can discuss irrigation and fencing as part of their incredible cost-share programs, when the time comes.

On a separate note: Saphera is doing well.  K even sent over a photo of her standing, so I think her leg will heal just fine!  Thank goodness!  I sure as well don't need any more special needs chickens!

Meet the Newest Vegetable!

photo from mypizzabrothers.com
That's right!  Pizza!

On Tuesday congress ruled that the tomato paste spread on top of pizza served in school lunches (about 2 tablespoons), counts as a vegetable.

This ruling comes in response to a USDA's proposal earlier in the year to limit the amount of potatoes served in school lunches, reduce sodium, and increase servings of whole grains.  The USDA had also wanted to increase the serving size of tomato sauce to 1/2 cup (to match other vegetable servings), all in good effort to improve the nutrition of school lunches and the health of American youth.

Apparently that's just too much to ask.  And while I marvel at the lobbying power of the frozen pizza industry, this decision is just plain embarrassing.

You can read more on the provision HERE. 

If only congress published a seed catalog, so that all farmers could grow government-approved vegetables, like pizza and sloppy joes.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicken Hospital


It's never good when the day begins with an emergency phone call.  Saphera, my blue andalusian hen, was in the chicken hospital.  

Back in July, Saphera had disappeared from the flock.  I spent days searching all over the farm for her, refusing to believe that she had just been taken by a predator.  Two weeks later I found her sitting on a clutch of 18 eggs underneath the manure spreader in the equipment garage.  A week later Eragon hatched, and for weeks the two were inseparable.  Then in early October, Eragon disappeared and Saphera returned to join the flock.  She spends all day hanging out with Speckles and the girls, but at night she sleeps still high in the pine tree in the run instead of safely in the coop.  She just can't break the habit of living in the wild completely.

I'm not sure exactly what happened this morning, but instead of safely hopping out of the tree, Saphera somehow managed to tangle her foot in the blueberry netting that covers the run.  K woke up to find her hanging upside down, caught in the netting by her leg.

And of course it was the morning that K had a very important early meeting.  He put her in the hospital (a metal dog crate bedded with straw) and called me from the road.  I spent the early morning immensely worried about her.  All I knew was that she couldn't bend her leg, was breathing hard, and wouldn't eat or drink.

And the thing is - I'm very good at worrying.  A professional.  It's hard enough being away from my girls on a daily basis, but it feels torture-some to be so far when something goes wrong.  And I felt terrible to leave K by himself to deal with things.

Later in the morning, Saphera was doing better.  She had eaten some scratch, so K let her out of the hospital and into the coop.  I'm still not sure if her leg was dislocated or if it's just strained, but we decided it's best for her to be with the other chickens as long as they aren't picking on her.  Luckily she has Pokey (my other special needs chicken, who broke her hip as a chick) to keep her company.  And if anyone can make it through a challenge, it's Saphera.

Man, does that chicken give me grief.  I felt debilitated thinking about her all day.



And then I checked the mail and the newest hatchery catalog had arrived, a clear reminder to stay focused on the future.  No amount of worrying can help Saphera heal.  And while I wish immensely that I could be there to check in on her, I know K has everything under control.  I can't get too down about not being with K and my girls, because I know that leaving them in search of a farm of our own was ultimately the best decision.

I just can't wait until "checking on the chickens" doesn't mean driving an hour and a half across the state.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homegrown Fair


Last week I posted a guest blog about my chickens onto HOMEGROWN - a website for homesteaders and farmers to share their experiences growing (and eating) their own food.  And today I found out that I won the Homegrown Fair!  So exciting!  A t-shirt and a prize pack are in the mail on the way to my house!  All thanks to my beautiful flock and their adventures in last winter's snow storm.  :-)

Soil Health Workshop: Cover Cropping Basics


Yesterday I spent the day at a workshop on improving soil health through cover cropping.  I was especially excited that the focus of the class was on livestock and row crops, as I am eager to develop my ideas on an intense rotational grazing system for pastured pork that incorporates diverse forage crops.  Plus it's just fun to be in a room full of people that get jazzed talking about dirt.

To start with the basics of pasture grazing (for those that need a quick primer)- animals are fenced in on pasture and harvest their own grass to eat.  In the winter, or other times of the year when there is little or no grass, the animals are fed hay (which is grass that is harvested and dried).  Lots of studies have shown that animals raised on pasture are healthier, produce healthier products (meat, milk, eggs), and are better for the environment.

In an intense rotational grazing system, the animals are kept in small paddocks or fenced in areas and are moved around the pasture.  By concentrating the feeding areas, and then allowing the pasture to rest (or recover) while the animals graze in another portion, you can greatly improve the quality of the soil, and therefore the quality of the pasture.

But there are ways to improve this system even MORE, by attempting to imitate nature.  In a natural prairie setting, there are hundreds of different species of plants growing on a plot of land and the ground is always protected by a thick layer of roots and forage.  Traditionally, large animals move through the prairie in densely concentrated herds, not returning to a certain area until the grasses have fully regrown.

This can be emulated on a farm by planting a diverse array of plants and mob grazing - moving herds of animals in tight groups through a rotational grazing system.  Scientists have found that the more diversity of crops that you plant, the better off you'll be.  Crops like alfalfa, buckwheat, chickpeas, soybeans, sunflowers, amaranth, corn, cowpea, triticale, hairy vetch, millet, sudan grass, clovers, turnips, radishes, and beets all get planted in one area.  In this system, the plants are able to feed each other, as well as the soil.  When the animals come through and graze the top half of the plants, this triggers the plants to release root exudates and feed the organisms in the soil.

You can also use this system of planting diverse cover crops to extend the growing season.  Brassicas (like collards, kale, and even mustards) will grow well after the first frost and provide lots of nutritious food for the animals.

One of my favorite presenters travelled from North Dakota to share his experiences using cover crops and diverse forages on his 6,000 acre farm.  I can't even imagine managing a farm that large, but it was really inspirational to see photos of his farm and the results of his research into improving soil health.  It's exciting to imagine how his ideas could translate to a smaller-scale operation to produce an extremely high-quality product and improve the environment.  Cover crops are a win-win!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Progress Report: Two Months

photo by yes and amen photography
I can't believe it's already mid-November!  We're halfway through my favorite month of the year, and the holidays are just around the corner.  Overall, I've had a very enjoyable and productive past month working towards having a farm of my own.


Things I've Accomplished


1.  Continued to visit local farms: Old Friends Farm, Hunt's Brook Farm, Footsteps Farm, Ocean Breeze Farm, Firefly Farm, Scantic Valley Farm, Hurricane Farm, White Gate Farm, Yale Farm
2. Continued to tour potential properties to BUY: Stonington Bungalow, Picturesque North Stonington Farm (x2)
3. Continued to tour potential properties to LEASE: FRESH Farm
4. Began the Beginning Women Farmers Program (first two classes)
5. Worked with the New CT Farmers Association on winter plans
6. Continued to apply for Jobs: UPS, Precious Memories, Stoneridge, Mystic Seaport
7. Met with Loan Providers
8. Attended a farm financing workshop
9. Named our future farm
10. Began the loan application and business plan for Full Heart Farm!


Things I'm Still Working On
1. Finding a home for my chickens
2. Finding a job
3. Meeting more area farmers/taking farm tours

4. Completing the Full Heart Farm business plan and loan application
5. Trying to keep my options open (despite committing myself to pursuing Full Heart Farm)





Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Morning Breakfast on the Farm

photo from dailycandy.com


"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
"It's the same thing," he said.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Holistic Farm Planning: Time Management

image from smallequals.tumblr.com
Today was my second class through the Holistic Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers.  I was excited to attend, homework in hand, and continue to improve my holistic goals and work towards a solid farm plan.

The morning session focused on Testing Questions.  When faced with an important decision (or even a less-than-important decision) testing questions can help give you the information you need to make a decision based on your Holistic Goals.

The testing questions are:
  1. Cause and effect: Does this action address the root cause of the problem, or merely a symptom?
  2. Sustainability: If you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in your holistic goal?
  3. Weak link:
    • Social: If you take this action, will you encounter or create a blockage to progress?
    • Biological: Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of the organism you're trying to control or promote?
    • Financial: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production?
  1. Energy/money source & use
    • Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal?
    • Will the way in which energy or money is to be used lead toward your holistic goal?
  1. Society & culture:
    • How do you feel about this action now?
    • Will it lead to the quality of life you desire?
    • Will it adversely affect the lives of others?
  1. Marginal reaction: Is there another action that could provide greater return, in terms of your holistic goal, for the time and money spent?
  2. Gross profit analysis: Which enterprise contributes more to covering the overheads of the business? (Use this test when comparing two or more enterprises.)
We used this process to make a variety of imagined decisions, from where to eat Thanksgiving dinner to how to manage 18 acres of pasture.  Not all of the questions always apply, and at the end you don't have a clear answer.  The process is meant to focus your thoughts on considering how different outcomes would play into your holistic goals.  A lot of the time you're just providing yourself with the confidence that you're making the correct decision.

In the afternoon we discussed time management.  In general, I'm pretty good at managing my time.  Or at least when I'm not, I feel like I have the tools to be better managing my time.  But now that I'm "retired," I sort of view time differently.  I have plenty of hours to do the things I want to during the day and I'm enjoying my more relaxed pace of life, with plenty of time to visit with friends and family, travel to classes and workshops, and cook delicious food.  It was still nice to discuss time management challenges with the other women in my class and to think honestly about what my life will be like managing my own farm, business, and having a family.

Up next, financial management!  A topic I certainly need help with!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Holistic Goals

photo from starsandsunshine.com

Everyone has different advice as to where to I should begin with writing my farm business plan. Some suggest a mission statement, others suggest researching markets and finances, and others have just advised me to write down all of my thoughts and to reorganize them into some sort of business plan format.

It's all wonderful advice, but I've still felt stuck all week. I KNOW that I just need to get started, but unfortunately that just seems easier said than done.

So I have taken the advice of my advisors of the Beginning Women Farmers Program and decided to begin with my Holistic Goals. These statements reflect the quality of life that I want to lead (beyond just the business aspect) and therefore become the reference point when I'm making important decisions. They seem simple, but it took several small pockets of time working with K to develop this list, and I'm sure that it's still incomplete.

Here is the initial list:

1. We value time with our family and time with friends.
-       balanced life
-       clear set of priorities

2. We value good food.

3. We value laughter and fun.

4. We value free time.
-       creative thinking + individual projects
-       learning
-       vacation
-       time off the farm and in the community

5. We value healthy minds + bodies + souls.
-       time for sleep
-       time for laughter
-       time to enjoy the farm

6. We value building a healthy future.
-       planning for marriage, children, and retirement
-       sustainable land management (for ourselves and the environment)
-    care for our plants and animals

7. We value financial security and a viable, profitable farm.
-       create profit
-       practice good financial planning and management

8. We value clear communication.
-       cooperative decision making
-       listening + understanding

9. We value community outreach.
-       education
-       community support + interaction

Make a Wish

photo source unknown
It's 11:11AM on 11.11.11.

I figure I can use all the luck I can get in wishing my dreams come true.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Foraging

photo of foraged mushrooms from awelltraveledwoman.tumblr.com

Have I mentioned how much I love mushrooms?  I just haven't been able to get enough of them this fall.  I love them simply sauteed in butter.

So while I'd like to share that I spent the morning foraging for mushrooms, I was ACTUALLY stuck inside, foraging for paperwork for the FSA loan application.

My first phone call was to Farm Credit East, the other main lending organization in the state for purchasing farmland.  In order to apply for the Beginning Farmers program, I had to be denied a loan through Farm Credit.  The FCE office has been closed for the past two weeks because of the snowstorm, but today I got through.  I expected to have to travel to meet with them, but the woman on the phone was more than understanding and happy to discuss my denial over the phone.  I don't have enough savings, equity, or support to qualify for a traditional loan on my own.  My letter of denial should arrive in the mail next week!  I don't think I have ever been so relieved to be denied!

I also copied my tax paperwork from the past three years and ordered a tax account report from the IRS.  I even requested a copy of my transcript from the university (which is necessary because my degree in agriculture education substitutes valuable farm management experience that I need in order to be eligible).  Typing this list makes it seem very nonchalant, but foraging for this small amount of paperwork required almost 4 hours of phone calls, emails, and searching through boxes of paperwork I never unpacked.

Phewf.  Now I wait for the pieces to arrive in the mail, while I work to write and develop the REST of the application.

Building a Future with Farmers

image from http://www.youngfarmers.org/


The National Young Farmers Coalition recently published THIS report on the current needs of young farmers in the US, based on a survey of over 1,000 farmers (including me!). The report findings include:

~ 78% of farmers ranked “lack of capital” as a top challenge for beginners, with another 40% ranking “access to credit” as the biggest challenge.
~ 68% of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.
~ 70% of farmers under 30 rented land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.
~ 74% of farmers ranked apprenticeships as among the most valuable programs for beginners.
~ 55% of farmers ranked local partnerships as one of the most valuable programs, and 49% ranked Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as a top program.

The report also suggested detailed strategy for improving the number of young farmers and the likelihood for success. The report represents the efforts of a hardworking team of young farmers and will be an invaluable resource as we move into the future.  A great resource!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Right to Farm (and the Regulations that make it Difficult)

photo from betterphoto.com

North Stonington has a Right to Farm Ordinance, to "recognize the importance of protecting prime farmland, to identify those parcels for which preservation is a priority, and to foster farming as a way of life by declaring this municipality’s support of the farmer’s right to farm."

A good thing, right?  Support and encouragement for farmers!

Except that the right to farm is restricted by the town zoning and planning commission.  And while the commission is "urged to adopt regulations consistent with this ordinance," there are a lot of zoning regulations that make the right to farm difficult for many landowners.  The zoning regulations are meant to keep neighbors happy (ie, minimize noise and smell) and the town looking beautiful.  These considerations are extremely important, but how does that translate into enforceable details?

I called the Planning and Zoning Commission this morning, after searching the internet last night and this morning for "understandable" details (which, to me, means regulations that I can read without having to then search 15 million other code numbers before I actually understand what is being said).  The friendly woman on the phone directed me to section 1406: Agriculture Zoning Regulations.

I was pleasantly surprised that I feel unrestricted by the zoning regulations when writing my business plan.  Hooray!

The biggest detail is that the Full Heart Farm property is over 10 acres (11.3, to be exact).  Properties less than 10-acres have very specific animal-density regulations (ie the number of cows, chickens, or sheep I would be allowed to keep on the property would be limited).  However, "no limits shall apply to farms having ten (10) acres or more."  Rejoice!  Even pigs are allowed (something that I'm learning is not allowed in most of the towns around here.

The other details of Agricultural Zoning that would pertain to Full Heart Farm involve agritourism (we hope to have several community-oriented classes and events), waste management, signage, and roadside stands.  In a nutshell, agritourism activities are allowed as long as they are appropriately scaled, provide ample on-site parking, and follow all noise/public health/event town ordinances.  Very doable, as long as we make a friendly first impression and gain the support of our neighbors (or at least the tolerance).

Waste management should not be an issue.  Animals kept on pasture poop on the pasture and their manure is readily absorbed into the soil, rather than being built up in a building year-round.  I will work with Natural Resources and Conservation Services to develop a management plan that protects natural water sources (including the beautiful brook) and properly composts waste from the barn (from brooding chicks or keeping young animals in the winter).

A roadside stand smaller than 50 square feet doesn't require a permit, and stands up to 200 square feet are allowed, provided there is ample parking.  This is great news, as direct-marketing our produce from an on-farm stand could be very profitable.  The farm is off a fairly busy road, and a farmstand offers the luxury of not having to leave the farm to sell our products (once we become established).

A permanent, free-standing sign no larger than 16 square feet per side is allowed (following setback and illumination guidelines).  We are allowed one additional seasonal side (not permanent) for every 300 feet of frontage off of the road, and we could also hang a sign on the barn without regulation.

I'm sure there are important details that I am missing from reading through the zoning and planning regulations that will impact Full Heart Farm, but my initial understanding of the policies leaves me feeling not-limited by the current laws.  I hope that positive relationships with local politicians can help establish good rapport and leave us without the nightmare-ish struggles I've heard other farmers tell.  But I guess we'll just have to wait and see.


Details on North Stonington Agricultural Zoning can be found HERE.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding Dollar$ Workshop


Errands always make me feel productive.  This morning I bustled around to several different stores for some pre-Christmas shopping.  I'm particularly budget-concious this season and felt overwhelmed at the amount of "crap" available to purchase, but was nonetheless excited to partake in the holiday spirit.



My favorite errands were the ones that were free.  No surprise there.  I dropped off the soil samples from Full Heart Farm (I can't help but smile at how official that sounds) at the CT Agriculture Experiment Station.  The scientists there will analyze any soil samples for CT residents at no charge.  They look at soil nutrient levels, organic matter, and a slew of other factors that can tell you about the quality of your soil.  You can also note a particular crop you are interested in growing (ie. blueberries, sweet corn, pumpkins) and they will make recommendations for soil amendments (ie fertilizer, lime, compost) to help improve your production.  It's a really wonderful service.

After dropping off my soil samples, I headed down the street to the Yale Farm - a small student run farm right in the middle of New Haven (perhaps not geographically, but that's how it feels to me).  Earlier in the spring I had sold the university a half-dozen of my best and brightest pullets (ivy league, teenage-chicks) to raise as egg-layers.  They were a huge hit and quickly became an important part of the farm.  At the end of the summer, when I was looking to move to Mystic and needed to downside my flock, they graciously adopted 5 more of my girls.

Even though they are just chickens, I have been wondering since that night I dropped the chickens off if I had made the right decision.  I needed to make more space at home and make things easier for K, the chicken babysitter, but it was difficult to choose who would leave.  Yesterday any residual guilt was lifted.  Buckeye, Stripes, RoadRunner, Barrington, and Rosie had adjusted beautifully and looked SO happy.  At the Yale Farm they have the constant attention of visitors, lots of tasty dining hall leftovers, and plenty of space to explore the gardens from their movable coop.  The farmers there are so happy to have them and I couldn't be more happy that they have a good home.

In the afternoon (to help offset my morning shopping spree) I attended a workshop offered by UConn Extension and the CT Women in Agriculture Network on Finding Dollar$ in Tough Times.  The workshop outlined the basics of loans, grants, and cost-share programs.  Though there wasn't a lot of new information, it was nice to attend with a specific farm (and therefore specific funding needs) in mind.  Attending the class also gives me the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship on a grant or loan project, which I'll certainly need to take advantage of this winter!

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's in a name?

photo from http://weheartit.com
My self-assigned homework project for the day was to name our future farm.  This is something I've been thinking about for years, but the time has come to pick a name (for the purpose of the loan paperwork and business planning) and stick with it for a while.  A name gives a sense of purpose, an understanding.

I knew that I wanted something simple, not too specific (so that I would feel tied to growing a specific crop), and easy to pronounce and spell (for check writing purposes).  I also wanted something unique (to the extent that it doesn't show up on the first few pages of google as being the name of another farm.

And so K and I spent the past two days bouncing ideas off one another.  Pretty much everything we did, ate, and heard inspired the name of a farm (Nacho Farm was my personal favorite for a while).  We came up with hundreds of (mostly humorous) options.  And then finally one felt right.

Full Heart Farm.

At first I thought it may be a little too...mushy...but I actually think it holds our sentiment quite well.  The name is inspired by one of our favorite TV shows, Friday Night Lights: "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."  We're pursuing this property with full hearts.  We know that starting a farm together, despite the numerous challenges, will be a wonderful way for us to build a family and a community.

Full Hearts.  Full Minds.  Full Bellies.

Life doesn't get more simple than that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pokey's Big Adventure

With the fall harvest season complete, I decided to spend the weekend visiting K and the girls at the farm.  I missed everyone so much, but especially little Pokey, who relies on me for protection, good food, and friendship.  I'm beginning to think that she doesn't realize she is a chicken.  And in turn, I'm beginning to treat her less like one.


She hasn't really spent time outside since the nor'easter last weekend, so she was very curious about the snow.  She, and the other chickens, chowed down on the last remaining strip at the end of the driveway.  A snow buffet.  Pokey has learned where I spend most of my time (in the house) and now has the strength to fly/walk all the way to the doorway to sit and wait.  She peeps and peeps until I come outside and pick her up.  While we were making breakfast she enjoyed grapes and a pear core, along with some lettuce roots from last night's dinner.


The feast continued this afternoon when Pokey and I walked out to the abandoned corn maze to harvest some of the field corn for "chicken candy."  She is so content traveling under my arm, trusting that I'll protect her.  She pecked around the field (enjoying a break from getting picked on by the other chickens) while I harvested a box of corn.  The bigger girls enjoy the challenge of pecking off the kernels one at a time and even though the corn doesn't have many nutrients, the extra calories help to keep them warm during the chilly evenings.

I made stuffed butternut squash (with ground pork from this summer's pigs) and apple turnovers for dinner.  All the girls enjoyed the squash seeds (which can act as a natural de-wormer) and the apple peels and cores.  There is very little waste with a bunch of hungry hens in the backyard.

With daylight savings, the girls were in bed by 5PM tonight, a welcome change that means we also settle in earlier in the day.  The shorter days mean fewer eggs, but everyone deserves a little break.

Dogs may be man's best friend, but little Pokey sure is mine.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Autographs

Cook Farm in Hadley, MA

I felt like a celebrity yesterday.  Well, minus all of the glitz and glamour.  And the fans.  And the paparazzi.  It's just nice to pretend that signing important papers is like handing out my autograph.  It takes away some of the anxiety of committing myself to legal documents.

Yesterday I signed a contract with a real estate agent (the same woman who has been accompanying me on house tours in the Stonington area).  The contract is general, but still held a lot of meaning for me.  It states that I cannot purchase a house without her in the next six months, and that she is here to support me in purchasing a house for the next six months.  The second part is really the key.  I have decided to invest my time in pursuing the North Stonington Farm in hopes of putting in an offer in January (I will need about 2 months to complete my business plan and loan application) and closing in early April (it will take another 3 months to process the loan application and nail down all of the details).  It's still a long shot, but I just have a good feeling.

And if I've learned nothing in the past twenty years, it's to trust my instinct.

I feel overwhelmed with everything that needs to come together in the next couple of months before I can make this a reality.  I need to meet with a second group of loan providers (who are unfortunately still without power because of last Saturday's big storm).  I need to finish my Holistic Management homework.  I need to take my soil test to the lab.  I need to develop a concrete business plan, crop plan, and grazing plan.  I need to figure out a mess of financial information for the loan application.  I need to find a job to supplement my farm income the first couple of years (another source of yesterday's "autographs" was submitting letters of interest and resumes to some local businesses).  I need to make sure all of the key investors and decision makers are on the same page.  It's a lot, but it's doable.  

And in the back of my mind, I still need to have a PLAN B, in case this doesn't work out.  I think that will come a little later, after I've indulged in the fantasy of making this farm my own enough to develop a real plan.

I still can't believe this is actually happening.  

I better work on perfecting my autograph, because I have a feeling I'll be signing a lot of important paperwork in the next few weeks.

Heritage Lawn Mowing

photo by Randy Harris for the New York Times
I love creative agricultural endeavors.  Like THIS young farmer, who rents out his sheep for a dollar a day to mow neighborhood lawns.  It's innovative ideas like this that will bring exposure to the farming movement and create excitement about agriculture.  Fantastic.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pig Latin


One key aspect of my business plan will be raising pigs.  I love their temperament, their foraging abilities, and most of all - their meat.  I've raised pigs for the past few years and visited lots of different pig farms.  What I didn't realize until trying to explain the whole system, was that their is a good deal of hog-specific lingo that comes with being familiar with raising pigs.  Pig Latin, if you will.

Here are a few key vocabulary words (I use the word pig in the definitions as a substitute for "swine," which is actually the correct term):

Piglet - young pig from birth to weaning
Shoat - young pig from weaning age to 100 pounds
Hog - pig that weighs more than 120 pounds
Butcher/Market Hog - pig that weighs 220-260 pounds and is ready for slaughter
Feeder - pig that weighs 40-70 pounds and is sold to a farmer to be raised and fed to market weight
Finishing Hog - pig that weighs between 100 pounds and market weight
Barrow - castrated male (males intended for eating are castrated as piglets because in a mature boar the hormones taint the meat, making it nearly inedible)
Boar - adult male used for breeding
Gilt - young female
Sow - adult female used for breeding
Farrow - to breed pigs
Finishing - toward the end of a market hogs life it is often fed corn, nuts, or high-calorie foods to enhance the layer of fat around the meat
Hog Panels - long, metal strips of fencing
Daylight - a pig with good leg length (so you can see daylight under its legs, important for some breeds used for authentic-style cured meats)

I'm sure there are others, but learning these basic terms is definitely a good start!

Main Varieties of Hog Breeds: Berkshire*, Chester White, Duroc, Hampshire, Hereford, Large Black*, Poland China, Red Wattle, Spotted, Tamworth*, Yorkshire (amidst hundreds of others, * indicates breeds I would select because of their good mothering, foraging skills, and lean growth).

And, while we're reviewing pig basics, below are the basic cuts of meat:

image from http://www.90meat.com/productspork.html
Now you're all ready to talk hog!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dollars, Dirt, and Decisions

photo from http://madamecupcake.tumblr.com
Yesterday was a full day for me - equal time spent enjoying the beautiful weather with family and time spent working toward my goal of having my own farm.

In the morning I drove up to Norwich, CT to the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) FSA (Farm Service Agency) Office.  I met with the loan provider there, who patiently explained all of their different programs and my eligibility.  Because of my degree in agriculture and 2 years of experience managing a farm, I qualify for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loan Programs.  The average age of farmers in the US is nearing age 60, with not nearly enough young farmers to take on the burden of feeding our country.  This federal program is designed to assist young farmers in starting their own farm business, through purchasing and operating loans.

There were two loans programs that could make purchasing the Picturesque North Stonington Farm a reality.  The Down Payment Assistance Program loans young farmers capable of putting 5% down on the property 45% of the appraised property value.  I would need to source the other 50% of the cost from another loan agency.  The benefits of this program are 1) a very low interest rate (yesterday it was 1.5%), 2) I would pay an annual mortgage instead of monthly, which fits much better with the finances of agriculture, and 3) I would only need to put 5% down on the property, leaving more of my savings to pay for initial operating costs.

The second program is for Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership.  This program would lend $300,000 towards the purchase of the property.  If I am able to negotiate the price of the farm down and secure additional funding from my family, this could potentially cover the cost of the farm.  Through this program I would also pay an annual mortgage at a fixed interest rate (yesterday it was 3.75%).  After crunching the numbers for a while and factoring in off-farm income, this could be something we could reasonably afford.  We could actually own our own farm!

The program is not without challenges and logistics.  First, I need to be denied a loan through Farm Credit East (the other farm-lending program in the state).  I will also need to be investigated to be sure I don't have any hidden inheritance or wealth that would bump me from the low-income bracket (I don't think this will be a problem!).  After a full background check (into my degree and farm experience) and an appraisal and inspection of the farm and house, I would need to meet with a board to review my business plan and ten-year growth.  They are looking for details and specifics - a thorough understanding of growing practices, business management, and marketing in this area.  It's the real deal.

Being a female puts me at an advantage in the program (where young women farmers are considered socially disadvantaged).  But my experience puts me on the cusp of the program (which really looks for three years of management experience).  Should it become an issue, I may need to form an LLC with my partner K (who has 4 years of farm management experience), where I am the primary operator and own 51% of the business.

Is your head hurting yet?

Even though it's a bit of a mess of logistics, that sort of just comes with buying a farm and a house.  And I feel ready and supported enough to dive in.  The process will take several months, but between K, my family, my real estate agent, and the loan provider, I feel like we can actually make this work.  There's a lot standing in the way, but it wouldn't really be an adventure if there wasn't a challenge.  Right?  Please nod yes.

I left the meeting feeling empowered.

And when I got back home, K and my mom were there with smiles and excitement.  I've been working on this project mostly by myself (especially the past couple of weeks) and it was nice to finally share that this could be a reality.  We could get attached just enough to want it make it work.

And it was made even more real in the afternoon when I took K to see the property and the house.  I was eager to get his opinion, take a second look at everything with clear eyes (and a full heart), and to do a soil sample.  I couldn't help but smile while I was standing with a shovel in the middle of that gorgeous pasture with my partner and a handful of really dark, good feeling soil.  We could make a home for ourselves there. We both agreed.

And we even found a shortcut to my parents house on the way home!

I've got my work cut out for me.  But I don't feel rushed.  It will take time to be thorough.  I feel as though a lot of the planning specifics will come more naturally now that we have a specific spot in mind.  And our plan is just that - a plan.  There's no reason it can't change if it doesn't work out - it just needs to be good enough to get us started.

I can't help but smile today.