35. Artisanal Agriculture

We’ve had our first freeze, and most of the leaves have fallen. Last week we had our last outdoor market of the year at Grandin Village. So the peaceful quiet of winter is looming, and that silence gives room for reflection and rumination. I came across, and then incorporated into my weekly fresh sheet, this quote the other day, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since:

Chloe, our bakery manager, is also the resident scarecrow

“With the demise of cheap oil comes the evolution of artisanal, resilient, biological agriculture. This evolutionary step is not far away; it’s just around the corner. It’s up to us to reinvent the noble profession of farming. We have not only the choice to do things differently, but the means as well.”

These words come from the pen of Jean-Martin Fortier, purveyor of les jardins de la grelinette (the gardens of the broadfork) in St-Armand, Quebec. He’s a minimal-till market gardener and author of one of a few micro-farm bibles in my bookshelf, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming.

What first struck me about this quote was the cyclical nature of the human experience that he’s pointing out here. He’s talking about biological agriculture as a new step of evolution, but this isn’t the first time man has been at this intersection before. The motives for cultivating the land responsibly to generate food may have changed slightly, but biological agriculture dates back at least 10,000 years to the Neolithic Revolution. Over the last century we may have lost our way, but that represents a small blip on the timeline of our species. And the course correction back to stasis could be equally quick.

radish-kraut in process

The cohesiveness of the community of small-scale farmers is evident in JM’s gentle call to action. “It’s up to us,” he says, “to reinvent the noble profession of farming.” Whereas a year ago, this appeal may have lofted over my head, as I didn’t count myself among the “us”, today it strikes me with a sense of pride. I am by choice a participant in this process of reinvention. And I do indeed see small-scale agriculture as a noble profession: producing and providing nourishment to your friends, family, and neighbors. And speaking of reinventing, I think this little farming business of mine is being newly designed on a regular basis. If you would have told me this time last year that one of my best-selling items would be dill pickles, I’d have scoffed at you. I don’t even love pickles! But my customers do, and going into the winter market season, having shelf-stable products to offer your patrons is invaluable. Over the last six weeks or so, I’ve spent at least a half day every week producing some sort of value-add: chutneys, pickles, ferments, apple butter. Tomorrow I’m going to try a salted caramel apple butter, and I have a feeling it, too, will be a hit. Our first winter market is this coming Saturday, November 17th in the CoLab from 10am-1pm. Come on by and start your holiday shopping off the local way!

Thumbing again through The Market Gardener, not only do I find JM’s words to be poignant in new and different ways, I also see the scribbles in the margins that I made the first time I read through the book about a year ago. I see in my notes what I thought Garden Variety Harvests would be and while I was right on target with some things, it’s amazing how quickly some of these early assumptions changed. I wasn’t always making calculated decisions as much as reactions to market forces, weather and other inputs. For instance, Fortier mentions that a detailed crop rotation plan, specifically for a new farm, often can amount to a waste of time. “You can get away with planting anything anywhere for your first season or two,” he writes. I spent at least 50 hours creating a crop rotation plan before spring came. And the last time I looked at that rotation plan was at least six weeks ago; I stopped following the plan with any dedication in June. Crop rotations became a very read-and-react task as the season wore on. I should have heeded this advice the first time I read it.

Fortier is right to state that we have the choice and the means to make calculated decisions about how we’d prefer to treat our Earth and cultivate our calories. And choosing to build thousands of localized food webs across the country will be hard work. It’ll take individuals electing over and over again to walk the road less traveled for decades to get where we want to go. But we have a chance to create a legacy this generation can be proud to pass on to the next stewards of the land.

our first batch of dill pickles

34. Anniversary

All the beds at the new house have officially been prepped for planting.

This week marked one year living in Roanoke. I am proud to say I use my phone’s GPS function less than once a week now. The amount of time I’ve spent on recreation has lacked, but I’ve still managed to find some of the best trout fishing in the state of Virginia, which goes a long way toward making this Colorado guy feel at home.

Renewals for the business name, the website domain, and the liability insurance are all coming due lately and there’s really no question whether I’ll sign up for another year. I’m doubling down on this year’s successes. We’re breaking new ground, building new infrastructure, and making new relationships in the local food industry.

Fall greens have germinated well at Wise Avenue, and weed pressure has been manageable.

I’m looking forward to having some time to relax a little bit. In the winter, maybe I’ll go back to what most would consider a normal work week for a couple months. But I have even more excitement about the time that the winter schedule will afford to make the big picture evaluations, design new projects, and decide what will be grown in the next season. I’ve done a good job of establishing a weekly rhythm to the farm work, which is something that attracted me to the market garden in the first place. I’ll be even more comfortable when the yearly rhythm starts to fall into place. I love systems, and I’m ready to systematize the hell out of this new business of mine!

All too often I end up writing this blog about lessons learned. But at this milestone, it feels only right to look back at some of the biggies:

Spicy apple chutney was a winner at the harvest festival!

  • Groundhogs are of the devil. They treat every day as if it’s a holiday feast, and if your salad greens are on the menu, they’ll eat you out of house and home.

  • I traded the occasional deep cold of the Colorado winter for the sporadic super-soaking weather patterns of southwest Virginia. To date we’ve seen over 50 inches of rain in Roanoke; that’s a number that would take three average years to reach in Denver.

  • Customers appreciate the extra effort that goes into making value added products. Granola, pickles, chutneys, dilly beans: all things jarred have been stellar sellers in year one.

  • It’s okay to say no when it seems like everyone wants you to say yes. Much of GVH’s early success is grounded not just in my choices of what good ideas to pursue, but more importantly in dropping the bad ideas at the right time.

  • The customer base at the farmers market is not a monolith. People of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds come to the market looking for calories, often along with conversation. I love the conversations, and the calories generate an income to keep my business running. The sense of community I feel as a market gardener is everything I thought it could be and more.

For me, when I dare to start something new, there’s always a bit of expectation of failure lurking in the corner. An exit plan is always part of a path toward success. But I’m delighted to say that at this point, I don’t pay the exit plan any mind. It’s full steam ahead toward a flourishing and productive year two!

Farming this close to the softball field means we have to keep an ear out for the crack of the bat