Thursday, February 19, 2009
While the cold weather of the last few days seems to indicate that winter is not nearly done with Minnesota, for me, it is rapidly approaching its final days. Twelve mornings from now I will wake up, knock back a few cups of high-test coffee, and commit my first act of farming for the 2009 season; I will plant our first successions of leeks, onions, celeriac and some herbs, in one of our greenhouses. By late March I will be the only guy in Milan sporting a serious "natural" tan. In truth, the beginning of my farming season began in early January but, until now, mostly it has involved phone calls, spread sheets, and speaking engagements. Not nearly as thrilling as planting but vitally important.
Like many people who did not grow up on a farm, when I first entertained the idea of farming thirteen years ago, my sense of it mostly involved planting and harvesting. The idea that farming was, in addition to being a lovely lifestyle filled with reaping and sowing, a business that would require a variety of non-horticultural skills really did not occur to me. My vision was terribly pastoral and involved a great deal of communing with nature, living off the fat of the land and not overly much reality. While farming does afford me ample opportunity to witness the "goings-on" of the natural world, the soils teaming with life, the cycles of the seasons, the amassing of dark tumult in the sky, it, like all vocations, is also filled with things far more mundane. In order for our season to run smoothly I have found that it will not suffice to just plant when feeling inspired to do so. With 18 weeks of boxes to fill for 275 shareholders a great deal of planning is necessary. In early January, once I have determined the budget for the year and how many shares we will be selling, my first job is to develop our greenhouse planting schedule. A majority of our crops begin their lives in one of our greenhouses and spend between 4 and 8 weeks growing before they are transplanted out into our fields. This allows us to get a jump on the season and harvest many things over a longer period. Additionally, many of our crops require multiple plantings in order to have a steady supply of them over the course of the season. Broccoli, for instance, gets planted 7 times during the season; five times in the spring/summer and twice in the fall. In order to accomplish this, we must start around 1000 plants in flats every two weeks in the late winter/spring. Suffice to say, over the years, creating a greenhouse schedule has required me to put together a fairly serious set of spreadsheets filled with little macros to help extrapolate how much seed we will need, when the plants will need to be transplanted, and what sort of yield we should expect. This has involved spending quite a bit of time in front of the computer... not exactly part of that farming dream of yesteryear! Additionally, there is marketing work, book keeping, maintaining machinery, purchasing supplies, hiring workers... like any small business, the list is extensive. The funny thing is that, at least some of these tasks, I have discovered, I enjoy as much as the plowing, cultivating, planting, etc... There are few things I enjoy more than conversing with our many members and the challenges posed by developing field rotations and planting schedules or fixing the occasional busted piece of machinery keep my mind feeling nimble. While I do not really enjoy many of the tasks involved in keeping our farm's books, I do enjoy thinking about the economics of what we do and comparing them to the way conventional agricultural systems work (perhaps i will blog about this in the future).
While much of the last month has been spent in the office developing the plan for this year, and visons of perfect fields inhabit my dreams, twelve days from now will commence the enactment of those plans and, truth be told, I am unbelievably anxious to get started, to smell the moist earthy air of the greenhouses, and plant that first seed.