On the Allure of Specialization

Maximize efficiency! Maximize profits! Get big or get out! For decades, those first two exhortations led directly to the third, made famous by bumbling 70s USDA boss Earl Butz. Bigger farms, bigger machinery, bigger subsidy checks, bigger debt. Economy of scale! We’ve got to fed the world, and industrial agriculture was the answer. Industrial agriculture is at its core based on one simple principle: to maximize efficiency (and therefore profits), you have to get very good at once specific step in the assembly line that is our modern food system. One farm to birth the calves, another to feed them, another to finish them. Whole swaths of the country planted in alternating corn and soy. Buildings as big as city blocks stuffed with chickens, animals bred and fed to produce meat as quickly and cheaply as possible. You also get forty thousand acres of organic lettuce, millions of overgrazed acres from grass-fed beef, and more huge buildings full of “all-natural” chicken. You find your part of the chain, buy what you need and sell it for pennies more, relying on scale to maximize those pennies into a living. You build your buildings, buy your tractors, and hope you’ll be able to pay off those loans eventually. Maybe you always wanted to grow up to drive a gleaming green tractor, or maybe it’s just a job you fell into because that’s what you do when you’re rich in land and little else. It’s not hard to see how our food system became what it is today, and it’s hard to point fingers at individuals who made these types of decisions along the way. 

The CSA vegetable farmer of today positions herself as a diametric opposite to this industrial model. She knows her customers by name, and they know exactly where their food comes from and how it was grown. She packs her waxed cardboard boxes each week in the summer and fall, and each week her members unpack the box, challenging themselves to use another cabbage, or a whole daikon, or to try and like mustard green this year. She specializes not in one small task, but in a whole experience. She doesn’t grow one thing, she grows 40! But at what cost? At the small scale that most CSAs operate (and too often, fail to operate), this means efficiency goes straight out the window. She’s trying to be an expert in everything - from the actual planting, cultivation, harvest, and processing of dozens of different plants with different needs to marketing and customer service and delivery, and sometimes even accounting and grant writing. She tries to instill a sense of efficiency in herself and her employees, but in the end she’s stuck using a blunt tool for every job. She can’t buy that specialized potato digger when potatoes are just one small piece of her pie, and a relatively low-grossing one at that. She never gets the timing quite right on her greens in the spring, because she’s busy juggling twenty other hot irons. Maybe someday, after fifteen or twenty years of hard work and lessons learned, she’ll have hundreds (or thousands!) of satisfied CSA members, dozens of well-trained employees, a tractor for every job, and a system for every crop. She’ll still be a sparkling alternative to industrial agriculture, working against the odds to create her own well-oiled machine out of whole cloth and cannibalized parts. For some people, this is the goal when they start out with a few dozen shares and a box full of seed packets. In some ways, it certainly is appealing. For others, including myself, this model leaves something to be desired.

As crazy as this might sound, that CSA farmer hasn’t eschewed specialization enough. She grows dozens of different vegetables, but she’s only growing vegetables. Her systems, while edging towards efficiency, are all high-input. Not just in knowledge and labor, but in resources and nutrients. She might be certified organic, but she is in all likelihood relying on composted manure from outside livestock operations, whose practices may or may not align with her ethics. She tries her best to feed the soil, but at the end of the day, she tills her fields at least once per season (more likely three or four times). She delivers waxed-boxed bounty, but her share amounts to less than half a family’s meals for less than half a year. So what’s the alternative to the alternative? An even further step from the common-sense efficiency of industrial agriculture: the diversified farm. 

The most ambitious version of the diversified farm is the year-round whole diet CSA, the very antithesis of the industrial model. In this case, a farm attempts to grow everything a family eats for the entire year: vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, dairy, etc. There are a few examples of whole diet CSAs, the most familiar of which might be Essex Farm in Essex, NY, which was the subject of Kristin Kimball’s memoir The Dirty Life. I was lucky enough last fall to spend a week volunteering at Essex, where I learned the most I’ve ever learned in a week. Most importantly, I learned that growing all the food eaten by 80 families takes a gargantuan effort by a large and dedicated crew week after week. Mark Kimball said himself that by choosing to grow everything, they were never going to be experts in growing any one thing. They have a dedicated crew of young farmers who each head up one aspect of the farm for the season, but with high employee turnover and the obstacles each new season brings, the learning curve is steep. As Kristin writes on the farm’s blog, “the difficult part, as always, is keeping the whole complex machine running without going broke or burning out.” That is bound to be the complication that arises when the inputs that keep a farm running are not chemical, but human. Whether you’re one farmer feeding twenty people on a quarter acre or fifteen feeding five hundred on ninety, the threat of burning out is always nearby, in the foreground or the background. Every CSA farmer works the hardest they’ve ever worked for six months out of the year. On a diversified farm, your livestock have year-round demands, meaning that your winter never tapers off to the comparative hibernation of the vegetable farmer in winter. If you’re trying to supply your members food all year round, you’re always trying to extend your season, perfect your storage, get the scale just right. Nobody wants to spend February eating nothing but cabbage, and there’s no customer that doesn’t require some level of education, whether that’s someone who’s never canned tomatoes or an old-timer who just doesn’t get the appeal of boc choi. 

It sounds so far like I’m advocating for a return to the hard lives that our grandparents worked so hard to supposedly save us from enduring. In a way, that is entirely possible. There’s no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the sustainable farm endures. I use the word sustainable here not in the buzzy way. I use it to mean the farm (and farmer) that can support itself ecology-wise, nutrient-wise, labor-wise; a farm that can support the farmers, meet the nutritional needs of the customers, all while sustaining a level of animal welfare and soil health that keep everyone on the right side of history. It’s a tall order, and there doesn’t yet seem to be a right way to do it. I think the folks over at Essex have a great thing going, but I’m wondering whether the same thing might be attempted on a much smaller scale. What if you could convince fifteen a dozen or two families to rely on you to supply everything they eat for a year? It’s an intoxicating thought. I think that somewhere in that range is a sweet spot, a scale that would enable one family to live a good (if hardworking) life while feeding a small community the best food one could ask for. Playing with the numbers to find that sweet spot is the grand puzzle, and where you’ll be able to find me all winter, squinting at spreadsheets and multiplying enterprise budgets to come up with a solid business plan. I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly what kind of puzzle I’m trying to solve.


Farm Week: May 26, 2014

This week was an intense week on the farm, in a few different ways. On the one hand, we got quite a bit done. Our greenhouse tomatoes are pruned and trellised! Our fields keep filling up with transplants! We are (so far) keeping up with the cultivation! The sun came on strong and hot this week—we are apparently skipping spring for the most part this year. Our first CSA boxes went out this week, which included over-wintered leeks, pea shoots, asparagus, rhubarb, and mint. The relative scarcity this early in the season will be compensated for with some very heavy, full boxes later in the season. For now, though, we have a few spring delicacies to offer. 

The other thing that made this week intense was that we lost the family milk cow, Frida, very suddenly to bloat. Bloat usually occurs in the spring when cows return to the pasture after eating hay all winter. You can mitigate the risk of bloat by not putting cows out onto wet grass and by limiting access to very rich or high-nitrogen pasture until they become slowly accustomed to fresh pasture again. We did both of these things, and we still weren’t able to prevent it. It happened the same day that we had to deliver CSA boxes and drive feeder pigs to another farmer a few hours away, so we were all pretty busy. We brought the cows in after less than two hours on pasture, and there were no warning signs. Hours later, when we went to do the evening barn chores, we was gone. Once a cow is bloated there are a few last-ditch things farmers can try to save them. A risky approach is to use a needle or a thin knife to puncture between the ribs and let the air out. This comes with quite a risk of infection. Another option is to lubricate a length of garden hose and force it down the cow’s throat until it hits the rumen and expels the gas. Not a pleasant task, but you’d be willing to try it if it might save the family cow. But it’s a moot point, as we missed any window for action. It’s a sad thing to lose any animal, but a family milk cow is closer to a pet than any other livestock on the farm. Looking for that silver lining, we did just gain a milk cow in Redtop, so we won’t be without milk. Also, Frida’s calf from last year is a young heifer, almost ready to be bred. By this time next year, she’ll have a calf of her own, and Frida’s legacy will continue on the farm.

Thinking about: constant vigilance, setbacks, progress

Eating: asparagus, ramp, and morel omelets; homemade oatmeal and flax seed cookies

Reading: Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Farm Week: May 19, 2014

It has been an amazing week here, weather-wise. One day you’re looking for another sweater, and the next you’re reaching for the sunblock and floppy hat. Spring is here in full force - everything is green again! Fruit trees are blossoming, the dandelions are out, and color has returned to the world! It happens so gradually that sometimes you have to just stop and look around to soak it in. The cows are certainly happy to see the green again, and they’ve started their grazing rotation. Using portable electric fencing, they get a new swath of pasture every morning, forcing them to graze more evenly and completely, which improves the pasture while providing them steady rations. 

We’re also feeling the impact of all the new grass, with Frida, our little Jersey, actually producing even more milk now that she’s on grass. We feed the excess skim milk and whey to the growing pigs, so the wealth is shared all around the farm. We also welcomed another friendly face to our barnyard: a new cow by the name of Redtop. She’s a Brown Swiss-Holstein cross, which mean’s she’s much bigger than Frida and will produce much more milk, though with a lower cream content. She arrived at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week, she had added to our little herd yet again! Ringo, a little bull calf, was waiting for us one morning, with legs almost as long as Frida’s straight out of the womb. I don’t have any pictures at the moment, but I promise to get a good one this coming week. 

The first farmers market happened in Green Lake this past Friday, and this coming week will see the first CSA boxes go out. As expected, the boxes are a little lighter this early in the spring than they will be in a few weeks, but the bounty of August and September will even things out eventually. My parents came up for a visit over the long holiday weekend, and we took that opportunity to go for a hike with Danielle and the boys in her family’s glen, where we found a few morels and some ramps. More spring delicacies! 

Thinking about: perennial planning, chlorophyll, vitamin D

Eating: even more asparagus, homemade pitas, homemade hummus, baigan bartha, some made sour cream, foraged ramps 

Reading: Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Farm Week: August 12-16, 2013

It was a beautiful week here on the farm, with nights cold enough to snuggle deep under your covers, mornings cool enough for down vests, and days warming to the gradual shedding of layers. The crops, however, don't seem to have received the memo. Our harvests this week really scraped bottom; we cleared out the beet crop halfway through the week, and Friday's replacement was bunches of fennel that we cobbled from a crop we had written off because of all the weeds. Our greenhouse tomatoes are slow producers this year, and the outdoor crop, 400 plants instead of the normal 2000 planted late due to early season losses, have yet to show us a ripe red fruit. Even zucchini, a crop so prolific it's regarded as something even the faintest of green thumbs could manage, is barely producing this year. Our first planting was so swamped the plants never got big enough to really start producing. The second planting did noticeably better, with only about one third of the plants unhappily wet. Even with the weather as beautiful as it's been this week, we're still feeling the repercussions of an immoderate June. We harvested the onion this week as well, wind-rowing them on top of the black plastic rows to cure. When they're nice and dry, we'll load them into plastic bins and stack them in a nice dry place.

The most momentous event this week was the departure of two seasonal guests, Biscuit and Gravy. In other words, our pigs were slaughtered. Early Friday morning, we gathered by the pigs' enclosure with Joe, a man who has been performing this service all over the area since he was a young man. He used to keep animals himself, and he still makes and sells hay, but now he gets calls year round for his skills as a tidy dispatcher of farm animals medium, large, and extra-large (he's done buffalo!). We were his fifth appointment this week! When Joe does a slaughter on the farm, there's no stress about getting the animals packed in crates or trailers; he just goes right into the field with his gun and waits for the animal to come up to him before he shoots it squarely between the eyes. He bleeds it out with a cut to the neck right after the shot, then hoists the carcasses up on the tractor to move them to a more convenient place. He lays them on the ground to take off the head and feet and skin the underside of the animal. He then opens the cavity with a knife and then cuts the sternum with a bone-saw. He then hoists them up once again on the tractor, this time by the rear legs. In this position, he finishes skinning them, empties the body cavity, then fires up the bone saw again to complete the bisection. With that, we transfer them to the bed of a pickup truck lined with a plastic sheet for transport to the semi-local meat-locker, where they charge by the pound to process and freeze them in serving sizes. The meat will come back to the farm freezer next week for sale to the CSA members and our own consumption. I took one of the jowls to dry-cure into guanciale, and we're planning on slow-roasting a shoulder in a wood fire/coals for a get-together on Labor Day weekend. The bull is supposed to meet the same fate within a month or two, and I plan on more hands-on involvement with the slaughter process that time (minus the gun part at the beginning). Once again, I've come a long way from vegetarian in under five years

Thinking about: life cycles, temperate bike rides, flavor

Reading: Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, Terry Ryan's The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Willa Cather's My Antonia (again), The Best American Essays 2008

Eating: homemade Indian eggplant, lentils, and cucumber-yogurt sauce over basmati rice; roasted chicken with homemade bbq sauce; chicken salad on sourdough

Farm Week: July 15-19, 2013

And now for something completely different! This week was a whole lot different than weeks past for a few reasons. First of all, we had a mostly rain-free, absurdly hot week. That means our fields are drying up, and the puddles and mud pits are shrinking. The main reason this week was different than most other weeks is that we put ourselves at the mercy of the CSA shareholders. After weeks and weeks of rain, mud, and lightning keeping us out of the fields, the weeds were winning the war. With harvests taking up three of our five workdays, we were at the mercy of the weather to be left the last two to do our battle with the weeds. We could have harvested some great veggies for our members this week, but if we had there's no way we could promise that we'd be able to deliver on that promise come August or September. The weeds were winning, and we couldn't even make it to the battlefield. So put the CSA on hold for one week and did battle with the weeds. During what I'm sure will turn out to be the hottest week of the year, we grabbed our hoes and our hats and attacked some weeds. We uncovered beets, basil, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pepper, onions, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, and more. We finished harvesting the garlic and put it out to cure in the greenhouse. We pulled so many weeds we pulled weeds in our sleep and woke up with our hands balled up, grasping at imaginary pigweed. We're not all the way caught up, but we're only a normal amount behind now, and we lived to fight another day. Nobody got sunstroke, and they're promising that the weather will break this weekend. Boy, I hope so. I've got more weeds to kill.

Thinking about: ambition, friends, ounces of prevention

Reading: Lisa Cohen's All We Know: Three Lives, The Greenhorns' 2013 New Farmers Almanac, Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Eating: more bacon and tomato sandwiches, tomato and cucumber in olive oil and balsamic, green beans

Farm Week: June 17-21, 2013

Sun, glorious sun!! After a few short but heavy showers early in the week (what's a week without rain this season, after all), we finally had a few days of sun! Our fields are by no means up to code yet, and the tractors are slowly taking back land from all but the muckiest lowlands on the farm. There are still areas with standing water, some of which has been there for about a month now. That means the heat and sun this week also brought out some new visitors: mosquitoes! It's gonna be an itchy summer!

This was only the second week with a full harvest-load, but we're already getting faster at the whole process, which means more time for the all-important fieldwork that has been neglected for these past few soggy weeks. At long last, we were finally able to use the tractor in some fields, so we started clearing the docket of our seed and transplant backup. When the ground is too wet to till or cultivate, you don't only stand to lose crops under water and weeds, but you're pushing back the harvest of all of those crops you aren't able to put into the ground. Our CSA members have been so supportive so far, voicing for the most part how impressed they are that we're delivering them full boxes of vegetables after all this weather. We can only hope that all of this understanding carries over into late July and August, when the boxes might get a little light from all of the crops that were hit so hard this past month or had to wait way too long to get into the ground. Today was a long day of transplanting, the first in a long time. It was at once exhausting and exhilarating. At the end of the day, we were all hot, tired, toasted, and covered in mud. But looking over all the rows and rows of squash, cabbages, tomatoes, greens, celery, etc., that we planted today, we all had the same feeling of accomplishment. Things are starting to look up again!

The solstice is this weekend, and I'm heading upstate early tomorrow morning to spend the weekend celebrating the occasion with other young farmers in the northeast, courtesy of the Greenhorns! I love living and working on the farm, but it will be great to have a change of scenery and meet a bunch of other like-minded people. So look out next week for some pics and inspiration from the event!

Thinking about: movements, expectations, sun-warmed strawberries

Reading: Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, David Sedaris' Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Eating: foraged oyster mushroom and bacon omelette, local all-beef hot dogs, last year's beet chutney with local goat cheese on crackers, fresh-picked strawberries

Farm Week: June 10-14, 2013

Soggiest week thus far. We've had about 25 inches of rain in a little over three weeks in our little green valley. With only a handful of dry days in between the wet ones, the fields haven't been passable with the tractor of hoe for more than a few hours at a time in the past month or so. We put in about an acre of large summer crops in one day last month, and then the deluge started that very night with a memorable hailstorm. For a look at what 25 inches of rain and a month without a hoe does to a stand of tomatoes, look at the greenest photo below. The fields have standing water (these past two days, even running water!), and a few crops seem to have melted right into the soil. In the next week or two, we're going to have to make some decisions about what crops to try to save and where we'll have to cut our losses.

In situations like this, the CSA model can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you don't stand to lose large portions of income like you would were you relying on farmers market sales. On the other hand, the 250 people who pre-paid for their weekly vegetables are expecting full boxes all season long. Over the past few days and weeks, almost every shareholder we run into around town or on the farm has had the same reaction to the weather: they notice it! Someone picking up their produce at the grocery store might only be slightly inconvenienced by some inclement weather, but our shareholders have been looking forward to fresh vegetables all winter and spring, and were just getting ready to pick up their first share of the season. But as they start to anticipate visiting the farm (or their local CSA drop-off) for their first time this year, they start to notice that it has been raining quite a bit recently. Everybody seems to be thinking about us when it rains these days, out there slogging through mud and rain in our boots and bibs. That personal connection with the farmer is what makes it possible for our members to understand why the box might not be filled to the brim for a few weeks this summer, and that is the beauty of the CSA model.

Despite the weather, this was our first week harvesting a full load for delivery and pickup, and we most definitely improved in speed and efficiency as the week progressed. My stint as the only person who hadn't cut themselves with the sharp harvest knives came to a close on Thursday in the cilantro, and I'm hoping that will tide me over for awhile. I drove the White Plains route again this week, a task that both reminded me of the joys of rural living and provided an opportunity to practice the ancient art of zen traffic-sitting.

Next week, we can only hope for a sunny, dry version of this past week, in which we harvest so quickly and efficiently that we have oodles of time to finally transplant the crops that have been waiting out this weather and to save some of the potential losses from the past month's saturated excesses.

Thinking about: dry heat, time management, trade-offs

Reading: David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, George Saunders' Tenth of December, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Eating: chicken I personally killed, plucked, gutted, cleaned, and cooked a variety of ways, homemade refried black beans, kale risotto, rainbow chard, small handfuls of fresh ripe strawberries

Farm Week: April 1-5, 2013

My 2013 farm season has started with a cold front of frigid nights and mornings, combatted with a never-ending rotation of layers and plenty of greenhouse work. The heated greenhouse is full of trays in all states of germination - the earliest of spring greens, plus onions and their relatives ready for transplanting, and tomatoes getting a hot head start. Outdoors, the winter rye is waking up on the untilled fields, the chickens are starting to lay more eggs, and the peepers are signaling spring by the end of the week.

The week was mostly an introduction to Chubby Bunny Farm, which is a fitting way to start the "Farm Week" series here on the blog. Chubby Bunny Farm is located in the small hamlet of Falls Village in far northwestern Connecticut. Dan and Tracy are in their twelfth year running the business, and their tenth year on this land. The farm sits in a valley on the south side of Canaan Mountain, with 12 out of 50 acres currently in production. This year, the farm will provide over 250 weekly CSA shares starting the first week of June and running through the end of October. Besides the 12 acres cultivated for row crops, the farm includes a 60' heated greenhouse for starting transplants, and 60' and 100' hoop houses for season extension and some heat-loving crops in season. While the vegetable operation is the bulk of the business, the farm also houses a small laying flock, a family cow, and a few feeder pigs each summer. The tilling and some cultivation is handled by a pair of tractors of about 50 horsepower each, but all of the seeding, transplanting, most cultivation, and harvesting is done by hand. This year, I am one of four full-season apprentices living and working on the farm; besides all of our hands-on learning opportunities, Dan is very open about the finances of the farm and the reasoning behind his farming decisions. We'll also be participating in the Western Connecticut CRAFT program, which includes visits to plenty of nearby farms.

I also spent the week getting situated in my new living arrangements! We apprentices are living for the season in decommissioned campers on the edge of the farm. We each have our own camper, complete with a little mini kitchen, and we share an outhouse, utility sink and an outdoor shower between us. We're constantly making little improvements, like constructing a covering over the sink, laying out a stone floor outside the tub, cutting a path to the neighboring stream, or digging a fire pit. Right now, we're relying on space heaters, sleeping bags, and layers for warmth, but as the weather warms up we'll eventually be grateful for our placement in the coolest part of the farm. We have mostly no cell service in the valley, and our internet is limited to the twice weekly overlap of hours of the local public library and our free time, so there will be plenty of time for reading, writing, and reflection.

Thinking about: flannel, thrift, imminent spring, leafy greens

Eating: fresh, delicious, rich eggs; spiced chickpeas and carrots with fresh ginger; seeded rye and gorgonzola cremificata

Reading: Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture