Monday, June 13, 2011

It doesn't rain in the summer in Maryland anymore...

As we enter our 5 straight year of summer drought here in Maryland, every day I read about extreme weather all around the country and the world.

I wonder how people can still blindly deny that climate change (or global weirding as I like to call it) doesn't exist when the evidence is all around us? Of course, some of that is this misnomer of 'global warming' which oversimplifies the idea that global weather patterns will become more erratic and extreme.

All around us is news of extreme weather - tornados in Maryland and Massachusetts, flooding up and down the Mississipi River and droughts and wildfires in Texas and Arizona.

Of course for us, rain equals grass, which is what our ruminants eat. Without it, we end up having to feed hay.

This past spring, all we had was rain and more rain. But for the past month, we've had nothing but extremely high temps and no rain.

For the last 3 years, we've fed hay every July and August.

What that means of course is higher costs for us and our customers.

So far, this year looks no different than the previous four - a very wet winter and spring with bitter cold and heavy snowfall, followed by hot, very dry summer months.

This changes our business model into one where supplemental feed is require for 6 or more months out of the year - winter and summer.

Also, because our animals are coming out of a very dry summer season, they eat down the fall flush and we have no 'stockpiled' grass for early winter grazing.

As farmers, we watch the weather every day and right now, we're praying for rain!

We've had nothing but heat and dry weather for over 3 weeks now, the pastures are starting to brown, and the sheep and goats are hungry! I look forward to the months of July and August with a vague sense of dread :(

Friday, June 10, 2011

Organic certification

Recently, Will and I have been looking at our operation mercilessly to try and find a way to be profitable and more sustainable.

When I say sustainable, what I am specifically referring to is our sustainability as farmers in residence recognizing that the farmer is our most valuable asset. Too many long hours and hard work for little or no profit, and too many things we don't enjoy because they have nothing to do with farming.

One area that has dogged me since day one was our organic certification. Initially, more of an annoyance than anything else, I dutifully filled out the voluminous application each year and sent my $500 check in.

Considering that the whole 'organic' production model was the home of small producers (commonly less than 10 acres) from its birth in the 60's until about 10 years ago when it became a label regulated by the USDA (via the NOP = National Organic Program), I found the application to be incredibly annoying.

'Please record how many tons of each vegetable produced' was a pretty typical entry requirement.

'Just cross out ton and put in bushels', was the advice I gave our gardener Kyle when he asked what to do with a confused look.

Initially, our annual certification inspection involved a pleasant fellow, who would come by, look around a bit, ask some appropriate questions, and usually leave with the comment 'try and improve your record-keeping'.

Since then, there have been several well-known scandals involving large-scale producers caught cheating in their organic production.

Organic production has been increasingly annexed by the likes of WalMart and CISCO, who by their very business model, do not exemplify the ideals of organic production.

Large scale producers have gotten into the equation, trying to meet the demands of ridiculously low-prices and high production volumes of these kinds of retailers.

In response, the volume and voracity of NOP paperwork and oversight has skyrocketed, and Maryland has been no exception. The USDA regulates/sets the rules for organic production via the NOP, but the states are required for administering, regulating, and inspecting their own producers.

Our new inspector and program director for the entire state of Maryland, sort of embodies the very worst that one can associate with the words 'government bureaucrat'. Now don't get me wrong, he's a nice enough person I'm sure, but as an inspector and representative of the organic program in Maryland...well, not so much.

Very little money was provided to the states for the NOP program, despite all of the huge subsidies provided to commercial farming in this country, so there is no real motivation in seeing the success of organic production in Maryland as things currently stand.

The numbers tell the story - after the initial bump of certifications at the initiation of the program about 10 years ago, the numbers of organic producers continues to decline in Maryland even with the introduction of new producers.

In order to improve my quality of life, Will and I have decided to no longer bother with the organic certification process and focus our attention on something that no factory farm/large-scale producer can provide: high quality, locally-produced food for our customers.

Of course, we won't actually be doing anything differently than we currently do, but I figure we'll save several hundred hours of time spent filling out paperwork and ridiculous documentation to meet the NOP monster's insatiable appetite.

This is time I can spend with the animals, working in the garden, and visiting with customers, some of my favorite things!


Kent & Will