I was walking the youngest child around one of our markets recently and saw a sign posted by one of the newer vendors. The sign contained the name of the product they were selling, the price (much higher than you would usually think of as ordinary for that product, but it seemed fair to me given the specialty nature of their product), and then the following phrase “You obviously don’t know how good it is, because you’re not buying any!”
As a farmer, I sometimes share this frustation. We hear from customers that they want the freshest, pasture raised eggs and meats. They say they prefer to consume animals given only organic and/or soy-free feed. Yet we can have trouble selling such products once they’re raised. The perception that healthier food is “too expensive” is a battle we all face. However, this particular farmers market is located in the 35th-wealthiest county in America. The majority of our customers are wealthy by any standard.
The problem may not be in the price of the food but in the mind of the customer. When you’re used to cheap food, anything that costs more makes you think you’re getting ripped off. A recent Mother Jones article points out how Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country by a substantial margin. If you truly care about how your food is produced, you have to be willing to spend more, because it costs more to produce better food. We small farmers are, with rare exceptions, not making a fabulous living raising our animals or produce.
Some call this “voting with your food dollars.” Even on a tight budget, there are ways to eat better food. Often great savings are available by purchasing in bulk. Buying a whole or half pastured hog or grass-fed beef provides substantial savings over buying individual cuts. We are able to offer special deals to customers who purchase 5 chickens or more, or who buy eggs regularly in quantity. If the struggle is more mental than financial, think of it as spending money on your health, as well as improving the health of the land. If you can eat better food and stay healthy, that’s priceless.
Ready to think summer? We’ll be offering the following tomato varieties for sale as plants this spring. It’s a good idea to pre-order. They will be available starting in May.
- Amish Paste: 85 days, indeterminate. Slow Food Ark of Taste variety, with good reason! Oblong with a pointy tip, these have an acid, complex flavor, are dense without the overly dry and mealy texture of many paste types, and even in a bad tomato year make really tasty tomatoes. About 2 – 2.5 times larger than a typical Roma.
- Opalka: 82 days, Indeterminate. Another large (3 x 5 inches), dense, tasty red sauce tomato. 2013 will be our first year trying it. Seed catalogs say it does well in heat, is also good for drying, and has unusual, crinkly foliage.
- Aunt Ruby’s German Green: 88 days. Enormous green slicer, ripe when the color lightens a bit and the blossom end softens. If you wait until the blossom end gets a tiny bit of yellow and pink striping, the fruit will probably have cracked, but what awaits you may be the best tomato ever. Fruit tend to be catfaced and otherwise gnarly in appearance. Your caprese salad will look better than ever with a few of these slices in it!
- Black Krim: 80 days, Indeterminate. The Fedco seeds catalog says: “Krims should be harvested when half green and still firm. They are dead ripe and perfectly delicious at that stage. If you wait till they are fully purple, you will not be able to get them from garden to table intact (to say nothing of market) and they will disintegrate like a hunk of road-kill. Krims are strikingly iridescent purple on the outside, usually with dark green-black shoulders and noticeable catfacing. Interiors are part black, too, with an unusual juicy yet meaty taste and texture, described as having “…a smoky flavor like a good single malt scotch.” Fruits average 12–18 oz. Heirloom Krim hails from Krymsk on the Black Sea in Russia.”
- Cherokee Purple: 80 days, indeterminate. This is what most people think of when they think of an heirloom tomato. Cherokee Purple is round, pinkish-purple, and often has green shoulders when ripe. Fairly dense, when sliced it looks kind of like a steak inside. Not the most productive tomato, but it sure tastes great.
- Rutgers: 75 days, Indeterminate. Two different tomatoes are sold under the name “Rutgers.” One is this one, the other is actually the determinate “Rutgers Improved,” which, in my opinion, is NOT an improvement. Both are round, red, 8 – 12 oz tomatoes, but the original Rutgers has a great old-fashioned tomato flavor and has the ability to still taste pretty good even if picked green and allowed to ripen at room temperature. (All tomatoes have a soft, unappealing texture after this mistreatment and it’s why grocery store tomatoes are usually so unappetizing.) Several years ago, I was selling tomato plants at a garden center and an older gentleman told me, “There aint no tomato worth growin ‘cept for Rutgers.” Compared to all the new hybrids the shop was selling, he was right!
- Paul Robeson: 78 days, indeterminate. 6 – 12 oz rounded brownish-maroon tomatoes, the same color as Black Prince, but larger and tastier. In the heat of 2013, many of our field tomatoes yielded very little and what they did yield was sunburned, cracked, or otherwise unmarketable. While harvesting and culling, I offered one of these to a retired fellow who was helping me out on the farm. At first he didn’t want to eat it because of the odd color, but after a taste he declared it one of the best tomatoes he’d ever eaten, and he enthusiastically consumed any subsequent culls in this variety.
- Cosmonaut Volkov: 65 days, indeterminate. Who needs Early Girl when you’ve got Cosmo? Fruit size and flavor very similar to Rutgers, but in my hoophouse the plants were larger, much earlier, and more continuously productive. Like all the Russian heirlooms, favors cooler weather rather than months of 90+ degree heat.
- German Johnson: 80 days, indeterminate. Known as “The Brandywine of the South,” which is all the endorsement I needed to see before trying it.
- Eva Purple Ball: 78 days, indeterminate. Pink/purple perfect spheres, tasty and productive even in summers like 2012. German heirloom.
- Moskvich: Early pink slicer with round fruits. Good for setting and ripening fruit during cool springs. Like all Russian heirlooms, not good for hot summers like 2012.
- Costoluto Genovese: 85 days, Indeterminate. Red, lobed fruit that varies quite a bit in size depending on soil fertility and weather. Intense flavor, amazing flower-shaped slices, can be an adjustment if you’re not used to a tomato that is not round!
Striped & Yellow Tomatoes
- Copia: 85 days, indeterminate. Large yellow tomatoes with red stripes. A recent cross of Green Zebra and Marvel Stripe, the latest in my quest to find a yellow tomato I like eating.
- Striped Cavern: Red and yellow striped tomato with big lobes for stuffing, it looks almost like a striped bell pepper. Not a shining star in the hot summer of 2012, but normally should produce big, juicy fruits.
- Goldie: Indeterminate, 90 days. A 1977 introduction, this is a huge yellow tomato which is supposed to be really delicious once it gets yellow-orange. In our fields they rarely stay unblemished, but maybe those of you with tomato cages and time to pay closer attention to individual plants will have better luck.
- Black Cherry: 75 days, indeterminate. Dark purplish-black colored cherry tomatoes with all the heirloom deliciousness you’d expect from their color. We grew this tomato in 2011 and not in 2012 due to a germination problem. I got more requests for it than anything else, for good reason!
Tomatoes we are growing, but not offering as plants
These tomatoes get grafted onto special rootstock which makes them crazily vigorous and disease resistant, then we plant them in our hoophouse. We don’t sell them as plants because the seeds, rootstock, and grafting time add up to make them much more costly than regular tomato plants. This extra “oomph” is rarely needed in a backyard tomato. We also like to grow cherry tomatoes in the hoophouse because they don’t have problems with cracking in the rain like cherry tomatoes so often do when grown outdoors.
- Rebelski: European style fresh market tomato with slight ruffling at the top. Large, perfect fruit in great abundance. They taste good enough to sit on the table with the heirlooms and ensure that we’ll have some tomatoes in super hot summers!
- Montesino: Red grape type cherry tomato. Really, really sweet flavor, and when grafted onto a good rootstock they climb to the roof of the greenhouse in no time.
- Toronjina: Orange cherry tomato. So far, the best orange tomato I have ever eaten. Still looking for the full sized orange or yellow tomato that is their equal!
Join us for 16, 20, or 24 weeks of produce in 2013. If you have any trouble downloading the application, let me know in the comments.
2012 was an interesting summer, with 51 days over 90 F and rainfall way below average. We are offering 50$ off a 16-week share to all returning members. This includes those who were members before 2012.
Mr. B. got up around 4 AM today, and 2 teenaged helpers pulled in the driveway just before 5. They headed out to the pasture to load up 118 9-week old broiler chickens. They arrived at our processor a little before 7 AM, the first birds of the day. The teenagers took a nap in the truck on the way back to our farm!
I went back to the processor at 4 PM to pick up a portion of the batch that had been pre-ordered fresh. The owner came out and told me that the processing staff thought they looked great, nice and clean. Based on the meat I picked up this afternoon, we have our meatiest batch ever, weighing an average of just over 4.5 lb each.
We have always raised our meat birds on pasture, moving them daily or more often if needed. The learning curve increased last summer, when we increased our batch size from 25 to 125. Broiler chickens are nowhere near as weather-tolerant as their less inbred, egg-laying counterparts… we must be fastidious about dumping rain off their roofs, making sure the tarps don’t blow off, and getting heat lamps out into the pens if it’s too cold or wet. We switched to certified organic feed last spring, and the additional feed cost (more than double) made us eager to get the birds to the processor as soon as they were ready.
When raising 25 birds for ourselves, we processed our own. So it was feasible to process the male birds at one time, then process the females a week or two later, when they looked ready, and the exact bird size was not all that important. Additionally, we only raised one batch, in late spring when the weather was fairly favorable. After upscaling to 3 batches, 125 birds each, we noticed the great differences in weight gain between birds raised in 70 degree weather versus birds raised in 100 degree weather! So we now plan on 9 weeks (instead of 7 or 8) to avoid ending up with a batch of 2 – 3 lb birds. It is very easy to over or under-feed broilers, so keeping close track of daily feed weights and weekly bird weights in each pen helps us estimate just what the birds need. This way we can avoid leg problems (caused by too much feed) or insufficient weight gain and stress (too little feed).
Even with our current management system, the chickens in the smaller pen (30 birds) tend to gain more than the birds in the larger pens (40 birds). We believe this is because in the smaller pen, there is more feeding trough area per bird. They also nibble on grass, devour clover, and enjoy grasshoppers. We are amused by how large and slow they are compared to egg layers, but appreciate their rapid growth and great feed conversion! Even the so-called “combination meat or egg” breeds take twice as long to raise, eat twice as much feed and don’t ever get quite as meaty as these cornish-cross “meat birds.”
The meat chickens you get at the grocery store are raised in buildings by the tens and hundreds of thousands, in 30 – 42 days. We think it’s worth taking an extra few weeks to use organic feed, get the chickens out on grass, and then end up with a healthier bird at processing time.
The rental portion of our farm was seeded for hay about a month ago. It’s finally rained enough to see some green out there. We’re looking forward to watching oats grow (this spring) and seeing the alfalfa mature. Year-round green is a beautiful thing.
Broiler chicks are just over 2 weeks old. We plan to get them out on grass next weekend, if the weather cooperates. They are growing feathers, eating like mad, and are already the size of 6 – 8 week old layers. We’ll be taking them to the processor around the beginning of June.
The early greenhouse tomatoes are just starting to bloom. I don’t believe we’ll have tomatoes by May 19th, when our Saturday market resumes, but things are looking promising for early June.
Our laying hens are finally out of the garden perimeter and into the “real” pasture. They wiped out the early kale and tore up some garlic in the mean time. Occasionally a hen wanders into the greenhouse (about 3 acres from where she belongs!) and I do my best to discourage her with the watering hose..
Many times, we do something because we know it’s the right thing to do, even though we don’t get a lot of immediate positive feedback.
Today, I was looking to see if I could see a satellite picture of our greenhouses. When I saw the picture of our farm, I quickly forgot about the greenhouses.
I saw the fire ring I set up for cooking down maple syrup. The fence row that is now cleared was not cleared in the picture. I noticed that the chickens were in their winter quarters. The picture is from February or March of this year. If I dug through emails and my calendar, I could probably pin it down to a particular week, or maybe even a specific day. (Of course, the exact date doesn’t matter.)
Among other things, I noticed that the paths our chickens took through the pasture last summer were still very visible. They’re green! The entire pasture greens up later in the spring (it’s all very green now), but these images show how our mobile chickens fertilize as they go. The layers have a less continuous track since they wander around much more. You can see that I plowed up a new vegetable plot on the north half of the area fertilized by the broilers.
Besides being useful for recordkeeping, we now know where to start this year’s chickens. The north half of the pasture is ready for their attention!
This warm spring has resulted in an egg-stravaganza. There are more eggs on our farm than we have ever had. We have been able to provide eggs to local food charities as well as having plenty of eggs for new customers, old customers, and our own consumption.
We are one of a very few farms in Central Indiana that provide pastured eggs from hens that are given certified organic feed. The organic feed is a substantial portion of the cost per egg, but I love knowing that pesticide, herbicide, and GMO free grains are going into our eggs! It takes a bit more labor to move the chickens around pasture and to gather eggs by hand. However, the dollars you spend on our eggs are going right back into our local economy- our feed comes from a local mill, and, of course, we hire local people to help out on the farm.
We live in a rural area with a pretty low cost of living, but unlike many farms I do not take advantage of the reduced minimum-wage ($5.15- $5.50 per hour!) that the IRS allows agricultural businesses to use. For one thing, my employees have to drive several miles to come to work. I prefer to treat folks fairly and pay them something for their time.
If you have a strong stomach, The New York Times has another article talking about the hideous nature of commercial egg production. It’s the usual- dead hens, rodents, ammonia fumes, and salmonella.
I really take issue with the producer in this article stating that the other hens “don’t notice” when dead birds are laying around. On our farm, occasionally a hen is killed by a predator, dies of natural causes or illness, or meets with an unfortunate accident. The other hens DO notice this, and if the hen dies in the henhouse, will usually avoid going into the henhouse. The difference? My hens have outdoor access 100% of the year and get moved frequently to new locations. They do not HAVE to stay next to dead birds. And, since we are not raising millions of birds at a time, we are able to notice and quickly remove any birds that are sick or dead!