Monday, May 3, 2010

Insights From A Farm Down the Road

Dear Blog,

This past Wednesday, me and the farm class ventured to the Sonoma-Marin borderlands to visit County Line farm. Zoe, an employee at County Line who started as an WWOOF intern 18 months ago, gave us the rundown on the farm experience. Many comparisons could be drawn between the 10-year-old Petaluma farm and our 1-year-old Indian Valley and many lessons were to be learned, so we flooded into the greenhouse to take cover from the torrential downpour that started just as we all arrived. As we huddled in the greenhouse, we stood in rows, separated by cradles of baby tomatoes, our little heads germinating with ideas while torrential rain pelted our shelter.

Zoe, who manages a lot of the office work and financing for County Line, planted big thoughts in my little head as she talked about her experience on the 35-acre vegetable farm. It's good that Kellan and I share the blogging responsibility because I think it gives you guys a well-rounded report from the class; Kellan works on the farm several days a week and attends the class while I am more involved in applying my knowledge from the class at home on a smaller scale. She is definitely more accustomed to the world of marketable farming, as some of the class already is I'm sure, and I'm totally knew to this world, as many of my classmates are as well. The general realization I've had since my introduction to high production farming and our meeting at County Line is of the multidimensional balancing act it takes to operate a farm. Obviously, this is quite a big step beyond domestic gardening. Even the basic steps to getting a farm running are heavily reliant on a well-balanced financial system. Once the scale of work increases and the price of production becomes a larger, cost effectiveness becomes far more important.

Many things need to be considered when financing a farming operation. The first obviously concerns the land that you intend to farm. Depending on the area, it may or may not be more reasonable to buy the land you want to work on. In Marin County, for example, the price of renting a piece of land may be much more desirable, especially considering the flexibility in a non-committed, monthly space holding agreement. If the land isn't working for you, pick up and try somewhere else. The earth is a patchwork of interwoven variability; there are many chances to settle down of poor quality soil and when you are just starting out, it's best to make less work for yourself so you can sink in your roots and get to your feet, so to speak. There are ways to utilize different sizes of land to get the most productivity. We've been studying this concept in micro-eco-farming. (Something I've been increasingly interested in is the concept of forest farming. Here's Cornell's site on the subject. How, When, and Why of Forest Farming.) The highest cost to the working farm is, first and foremost, the work force. This means that there needs to be an appropriate balance of employees based on the amount of work (which in the farming business is largely based on season). Seed is the second highest cost, which is why saving seed can be a valuable technique for those who can fit it into their work plan.

Another factor in keeping a farm in business is making sure there is year round production. A good way to ensure that there is income and a way to compete with other local farms throughout the year is by using methods such as transplanting from greenhouses and rotating crops. Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to seasonal production techniques and every farm will have a different plan to make it through the slow months. So what does a farmer do to market her produce during the busy season? Head to the farmer's market of course! County Line sells at five Bay Area farmer's markets every week in the summer. It's typical for a farm to work five to six farms in a week. Zoe told us that the pricing is based on matching other competitors, not undercutting. This helps keep the market friendly and functional. The customer choice is based on quality and preference rather than making a deal. Any healthy system works to keep all the functioning parts healthy as well. It's a self-sustaining practice.

Zoe was able to give us an extremely insightful and personal overview of what goes into a farm, as well as what she gets out of it. Working on a farm is a full time job. It's not like you go home and leave your work behind. The farmer has a lot invested in the crops, and I use that word in more ways than one. The job goes home with you. Zoe told us about getting home and witnessing a storm or a frost set in and worrying about crops or greenhouse plants or equipment that was left out, so she goes back to take care of things. A farmer's mind becomes very attached to the well-being of the farm; any mutualistic relationship would have this affect. I come away with this with a huge respect for the time and care that farmers put into their farms. Only by getting to know who grows the food I eat do I find such a deep appreciation and satisfaction.

Thanks so much to Zoe and County Line farm for sharing these insights with us. May the local markets be always abundant with their produce. I hope this little porthole into the huge realm of small scale farming was helpful.


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