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Monday, September 19, 2016

Putting Our Hoes Down For Now - A Question For Fellow Farmers


“I don’t have any great ambition. I just want to be an organic vegetable farmer.”
 – Todd McDonald, 2001

My husband Todd and I were –are– first generation farmers. This means we started our operation from scratch. Starting in 2007 we slowly built up equipment, knowledge, and infrastructure that included systems for growing, harvesting, and selling. Each season we supplied 100–250 CSA members with a weekly share of our crop, harvesting twice a week June through October. Last season (2015), one that the federal government officially declared a Disaster in our county, we decided we had to stop. 

We were out of money and energy and had forgotten why we started farming to begin with. For years we had lived in a state of constant stress that comes with the unpredictability of farm expense, seasonal labor, and weather. 

In more hopeful times, I’ve called this business of organic farming gratifying, because we supplied our members with organic food and were part of a movement that felt –feels– big and important. As a Community Supported Agriculture farmer, I felt like a grassroots activist. I hosted “awareness-spreading” events in the city, spoke about the significance of CSA in interviews, and even cofounded a CSA Coalition. I am still a fan of both CSA and organic food production. The ongoing issues of chemical pollution, the state of organic seed, and global corporate control of food are still big concerns of ours. We have just realized that martyring ourselves is not the way to go.

“I was living my dream. And it was a nightmare.” 
–Todd McDonald, 2016

I will now let you in on a dirty little secret among first generation [organic] vegetable farmers. I think it should be made public. The secret is this: This is not an idyllic life. We are not making money to sustain our families. In fact, we are losing money year after year, investing our own savings or using money generously donated by other family members only to discover we may not be able to wait long enough for those investments to pay off. Many of us receive Medicaid. We will be paying off debt for years to come.

SO, as farmers, is it “sustainable” if not one of us says out loud, “This sucks. This isn’t working”? In our silence do we perpetuate the myth of the idyllic family farm? Picture a wholesome couple working side by side along smiling goats and baskets of perfect heirloom tomatoes in trim, abundant rows. Their white farmhouse gleams while a rooster crows in the gentle breeze. With this beautiful picture firmly in place in the minds of new farmers, the cycle begins afresh. New farmers begin their businesses, struggle to convey the picture of idyllic farm life for the sake of their customers, run out of money, use up all their credit, and finally quit. Just in time another new farmer steps up – having been told only of the beautiful myth – and falls into the same trap. Again and again until the system appears to be working. But it’s not. I know a lot of farmers like us. I am not making this up.

Why did our farm lose money? Did we not love it enough? Are we not skilled or smart or tough enough? Is the problem in our country so deep it is unfixable? Is it a question of reorganizing farm subsidies? Controlling monopoly within the food industry? Educating consumers?  Educating farmers? Is it just a regional problem? Climate change?

My husband and I are smart. We wrote a business plan. We went to Farm Beginnings classes. Between the two of us you’ve got a high school valedictorian, a college graduate, an experienced gardener, a Master Gardener, a self-made fine woodworker, a mechanic, a carpenter with experience building houses, two creative problem solvers, an extrovert, an introvert, a good planner, a fast reactor, and the former captain of an award-winning flag corps. We have an extraordinary tolerance for chaos, dirt, and debt. We are also these things: an artist, a musician, a snowboarder, yoga teacher, massage therapist, husband, wife, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, and two people that want a little basic comfort in life.

We are looking for answers to the question of how to keep being farmers without losing all the other pieces of ourselves. Personally I still can’t talk about kale without my eye twitching, but I do want this conversation. Farmer friends, what is your reaction? Can we stop what I perceive as a cycle of martyrdom while continuing to farm? Or…am I wrong in my perception?

In the meantime, here is what happens when we put down our hoes. Labor Day Weekend 2016:

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Blue Sky is coming!

Here's a reminder to get your tickets today to our beautiful collaborative event between us and Blue Sky Bakery (a non-profit that helps train youth with barriers to employment) and our partner yoga studio Bloom Yoga Studio!  Get tickets for September 20th!

And now, just because I'm a farmer, I'd like to bring it down a notch again and talk about the weather.

Weather is gorgeous lately, yes, I will concede that (aside from near tornado miss yesterday).  But we are still suffering from the devastating affect of rain early in the season.

Illinois lawmakers and Gov. Rauner have asked Obama to issue a disaster declaration from the USDA for counties that have seen heavy rainfall this season, such as our own Kankakee county. The declaration would allow farmers to get low-interest emergency loans.  As most of you probably can deduce, Peasants' Plot has not been able to acquire much cash flow from market, an important part of our business plan this season. We are harvesting everything we possibly can to our CSA, our much appreciated loyal members.  We wish we were able to give everyone more and have more to sell at market.

The "disaster" of this season feels just as financially acute as a tornado, although I recognize every single day our great luck to have dodged any human or property casualties. June was the wettest month on record in Illinois (since 1888). An average of 9.37 inches fell statewide. In Kankakee specifically we got 17.22" in June when the average is normally 4.14 inches. For farmers this is indeed disastrous and hard to bounce back. Many vegetable farmers haven't been able to finish planting crops or have had to replant flooded fields. Late plantings or reduced plantings mean lower yields. Commodity crop farmers of soy and corn are hurting in the same way but will receive some subsidies from the government and are generally well insured. Crop insurance for our type of small vegetable farm is not yet a viable investment.

We appreciate our members' decision to support the expansion of more organic vegetable growers in Illinois.  It is a tough world for this new farmer generation and we couldn't do it without our CSA.  We are hoping that all our CSA members are with us in the long run--in the commitment to support our efforts to grow organic vegetables just a few miles from home.
The truth is....who else is going to do it?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


So many peppers!  They got in very late due to the monsoon rains,
 but they are looking healthy!

Other plants, also planted or replanted late in the season, include
KOHLRABI. Lots of direct seeded veggies like turnips and radishes and more!

Tomatoes look GOOD!! I was premature in my
prognosis!  They are recovering nicely from
being underwater in June.

First of all, before I get into all the political stuff, thank you all so much for your continued support during this very challenging farming season. We are sharing similar stories of damaged crops and delayed plantings with our friends of Gray Farms, Beets + Beats, Three Plaid Farmers and Deer Creek Organics, among others, commiserating on Facebook and over the phone. And we keep hearing of other small local veggie stands down by us closing early or not opening up at all. It is hard to be a vegetable farmer, people!  We appreciate our customers all the more for showing us that they care about small family farms and local organic food. So thank you again and again.

Here's the political stuff:

The DARK Act is in the Senate. It stands for Deny Americans the Right to Know and would make illegal any label about anything GMO in your food products.

Polls have shown that more than 90% of people want food to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. Several states have already passed laws requiring labeling starting next summer, unless this bill passes through Congress.  This bill has been called the DARK act by those who oppose it. We oppose it on Peasants' Plot because, as a USDA-certified Organic farm (officially certified since June!), we are concerned about the state of organic seed.  GM seed is NOT "organic." We also just think that people should know what is in their food.

Question: What's so bad about genetically engineered foods?

Answer: Maybe nothing. We don't know their longterm consequences except to say that, once GM seed is introduced into the marketplace, the organic seed supply of that crop is endangered with great risk of contamination.  For example, in 2004 foreign DNA was detected in 100% of canola seed tested.  In other words,  the canola seed supply has been completely contaminated by foreign genes. Basically this means, once a crop is approved as GM, we can never turn back.  Right now, zucchini, alfalfa, yellow squash and apples are among the fresh produce items that have a GM counterpart.

Some more Q & A assembled in an email last week sent out by The Food and Water Watch:

Question: What is a genetically engineered food or GMO?

Answer: A genetically engineered food is a plant or animal that has been changed by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another species or altering the DNA in a way that could never happen through traditional cross-breeding or in nature.

Question: Aren't genetically engineered foods safe?

Answer: The approval process for new GMO crops in the U.S. is extremely weak and relies solely on the safety tests done by the corporations that are creating these crops. Right now, most crops are approved by federal regulators under the "generally recognized as safe" provision, which means that if a GMO corn variety looks and "acts" like the non-GMO version of corn, it is approved.

Question: But don't farmers need genetically engineered foods to feed the growing world population?

Answer: Over 99% of the GMO crops that are being planted today are engineered to withstand strong chemical applications, or to produce their own pesticides. Often, the chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont that create GMO crops also create the chemicals that have to be used with the crops, so the main benefit of these patented crops is for the companies and their profits. Additionally, most of these GMO crops — like corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — are not grown as food for direct human consumption, but rather for animal feed, or to create ingredients in processed foods.

Question: If over 90% of Americans support the labeling of GMOs, why hasn't Congress or the Food and Drug Administration done anything?

Answer: What we eat and feed our families has a direct impact on our health and well-being, and we have a right to know if the food we're eating has been altered in a way that could never happen in nature. Unfortunately, the big food industries spend millions lobbying Congress and federal agencies to keep labels off of GMO foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the biggest food and chemical companies, has spent over $50 million to defeat labeling initiatives in multiple states.

Question: Why should I take action and ask my Senators to oppose this legislation?

Answer: Genetically engineered crops are in most processed foods but are unlabeled, so many people who wish to avoid foods with GMO ingredients don't know where they are lurking. GMOs are untested, and it's unknown how these engineered foods may be impacting our health and the environment. At the very least, shouldn't we have a choice to avoid them if we want to? The legislation that Congress is considering will prohibit any states from labeling GMOs and will make federal labeling voluntary, which is what we have already.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rain is bad BUT the beets look good!!!

It is official that we here on The Plot do not like rain.  (see previous post "Rain is Good, Right?")  We realize it seems like farmers are never happy. One year it is too dry, another too wet. We just heard on the radio that it is now the wettest June in Illinois recorded history.  Not surprising:  we haven't had a dry field for six weeks.  Let me repeat that:

We haven't had a dry field for six weeks.  

(I wrote that last week.)

Since we normally plant all June long and continue into weed-oppressive July, this is a huge setback for us; however it does not mean we have failed our CSA members.  No!  It just means we are pushing the season back and possibly doubling up shares in later months.  We have all kinds of schemes in our heads.  (At the height of one particularly creative brainstorming session--when no idea is a bad idea--infused vodka was part of a pantry share.)  We still plan on cucumbers and squash and potatoes and brussels and more.  We also have a good-looking broccoli crop this year, one of the few crops that made it in before the deluge.

We are not the only farmers suffering the rain this year.  Among us is Genesis Growers, down by us, who has had many of their crops washed out by the rain.

What can you do to help?  Just stay patient!  You may also try forming in your mind's eye a beautiful tomato growing in the hot sun.  Tomatoes are, turns out, in a particularly low part of our field.... So we need all the positive thinking we can get.

Todd is working like a maniac today to plow as much as he can while others plant.  Any attempt at interaction prompts his only reply "Every single second counts."  Off he goes!
Me too!--Thanks to all our CSA members who are essential to growing a local food economy, alongside us, across the cyberspace,

Please enjoy this montage of happy (mostly) and sad (just one) photos from the farm last week:

Beets!  Next time you see us you will get beets!

The broccoli!
The tomatoes.  High tunnels are pretty great for mitigating rains,
unless you get 10 inches in a couple of days followed by 4 more
and then 2 more and more and more....

And kale! Of course kale!

We can store lettuce in our walk-in cooler now!
Thanks to Kickstarter last year!

We have a lot a lot A LOT of seedlings waiting for a dry day to go in .

These went in today.
Todd and Lucy!