Friday, September 2, 2011

A few thoughts on the "food movement"

I received a comment about one of the posts I made on why Tierra Miguel Farm closed.  The commenter made some salient points.  But they got me to thinking about the food movement at large.  Here's my response since I believe those thoughts are worth sharing.

I. Chang,

Thank you for taking the time to not only read what I wrote, but to leave a comment as well.  It may be too late but let me offer you an apology.  I can assure you that not making a public announcement was not the direction the management wanted to go.  In the end it wasn't the management's choice.  There is always "more to a story" and some things may never be resolved.  But at this point they will all seem like excuses for past actions.  I can only say I empathize with you deeply.  My faith in the "food movement" has changed as well.

I've read and re-read your comment.  Something in it just isn't sitting right.  It's not the criticism but much deeper than that. 

I always renewed my CSA membership with the maximum dollar amount, both to get maximum discount (we are of modest means, and the produce at TM was expensive) and to show my support of the farm. I did so early this year again as usual, despite feeling that the quality and quantity of the boxes of late had been suffering.

I agree with you that the quality of the boxes had suffered, and by quality I mean variety.  But I disagree that quantity and price was lacking.  In fact we undercharged for our produce while the costs of delivering to LA kept going up.  This brings up an interesting point about the "food movement."

To be certified organic a farmer must be certified by a certifying agent.  A certifying agent is someone the USDA has certified.  So the USDA doesn't do the actual certifications.  Sounds like typical bureaucracy doesn't it?  What this means is that farmers are dealing with private business to get their certification.  These certs are usually based off a percentage of the sales.  Typically starting around $2,000 and they sky rocket up from there.  Then the state of CA imposes an organic certification of around $300.  Now along comes Demeter for the Bio-dynamic certification which is another couple of thousand dollars.  These are only the certifications.  But these aren't costs that a chemical farmer has to deal with.

Additionally, the majority of the labor is hand-labor on an organic farm, not mechanical.  We do use tractors but much of the weeding and harvesting is by hand.  All those beautiful heirloom varieties aren't uniform enough to pick with machinery.  So by the time we pay our workers a living wage, the worker's comp taxes, and the payroll taxes, our labor costs are at least double a chemical farmers.

I only mention these to show the disparity between a chemical farmer and an organic farmer.  Here's where I have a problem with the "food movement."  Why does providing food that protects the environment, protects us, and is how we produced food prior to the 50's cost more than coating it with poisons?  Why do I, as an organic farmer, need to map out my watershed, and keep detailed records of everything I use, and pay for all of these upfront certifications?  It's not me poisoning the water systems.  It's not me making the air unfit.  It's not me depleting the nutritious density of food so that it is expressing itself in our children's health - diabetes, obesity, autism to name a few.  Yet if I were to go and spray my produce with toxins I don't have to do any of that and incur any of those costs.  I wouldn't have to show were my chemicals run off to. 

Organic produce costs more because we've allowed the system to be set up backwards. We've allowed the system to be set up backwards because we all (myself included) look to the "food movement" as something to be a part of; just another cog.  In fact WE are the "food movement."

Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, makes the point that we have become specialists.  We have chiropractors, optometrists, dry cleaners, and mechanics.  Along with giving them the work we also give them our responsibility for our backs, our eye sight, our clothes and our vehicles.  Don't get me wrong, I want to be your farmer.  I want to be responsible for the land I use.  I want to be responsible for growing the best food possible.  But I don't want to be solely responsible for your health.  When you make a choice to buy organic that choice should be driven first and foremost because you want to ensure perfect health for yourself and your family.  Then it should be because you want to protect the environment for yourself and your family.  Lastly, it should be to protect your community for yourself and your family.

Just purchasing a CSA share from an organic farm is an important step.  But it is only the beginning.  WE each need to be responsible for our food.  Why are we leaving it up to Michael Pollan to tell us are food system is screwed up?  Why are we leaving it up to Eric Schlosser to tell us fast food is bad?

The fact is that only those who farm care to read the farm bill.  Yet the farm bill lays out who is going to get subsidized, how the food stamp program is going to work, and who is going to get aid to take farming in new directions.  These are issues that are important to all of us.  I'm not trying to single anyone out because I've done exactly the same thing.  I thought that just buying organic was all I had to do when I first got started.  Then it morphed into all I had to do is grow organically.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  There are a lot of huge companies now going organic.  That is good but they still aren't doing the best for their workers, they aren't taking care of the soil, they aren't caring about much other than the bottom line.

Only buying organic food is going to continue to keep organic food pricey.  What we need to do is not just support our farmers but become their allies.  Help them fight the fights that need to be fought.  Why is it illegal to sell raw milk?  Have you heard about the CA Leafy Green Handler's Marketing Agreement; the LGMA?  Look at the restrictions they are trying to impose on farmers in the name of food safety.  And now the USDA wants to make it a national policy.  You think organic is pricey now?  We are having laws and regulations put into place by people who don't know squat about farming.  Nor do they know squat about a healthy environment or producing food that is meant to keep us healthy.

I understand the frustration with feeling like you have to compromise ethics with competence.  The sad truth is that most people who feel driven to grow food for others don't possess the skills required for business.  In fact they seem polar opposites. Most of the businessmen work for Monsanto and Tyson and Cargill.  There are those who are successful - Joel Salatin for example.  But, and I love what he does, he's a business man who farms.  However, if we ally ourselves with those who produce our food and really become invested in our health, together we can create the relationships we both want. 

Having the food that provides us with the nutrients we need to build our bodies and to have perfect children is our birthright.  It's being taken away from us in the name of profits.  But to only have a few stalwarts guarding over our health is ridiculous and it will fail and our children will be the ones who lose.

I appreciate greatly the fact that you commented.  I appreciate your dedication to TMF.  I am sorry for how that relationship transpired.  I am not trying to shift blame nor am I trying to call anyone out.  As I have said before I am to blame to.  What I want to do is make organic food the cheapest food out there. I, and all the organic farmers out there, can't do it alone.

My deepest regards and respect,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Simply Beautiful

     "There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge.  It is a practical art.
     But it is also a practical religion, a practice of religion, a rite.  By farming we enact our fundamental connection with energy and matter, light, and darkness.  In the cycles of farming, which carry the elemental energy again and again through the seasons and the bodies of living things, we recognize the only infinitude within reach of the imagination.  How long this cycling of energy will continue we do not know; it will have to end, at least here on this planet, sometime within the remaining life of the sun.  But by aligning ourselves with it here, in our little time within the unimaginable time of the sun's burning, we touch infinity; we align ourselves with the universal law that brought the cycles into being and that will survive them."

Wendell Berry "The Use of Energy" from "The Unsettling of America"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I need more than 24 hours in a day!!!

So it has been weeks since I wrote anything for the blog.  I need to get to it today but all I can say is I have been busy with setting up SoCal Shrooms.  Not an excuse for slacking but definitely a time consumer.  If you get a chance check it out on FB.  It's in its infancy so there's not much going on but building.  However it's mission is a great one so check it out!

What is SoCal Shrooms?  It's a for-profit business based at Wild Willow Farm & Education Center, a non-profit teaching farm whose mission is to teach the next generation of farmers. 50% of SoCal Shrooms’ profits will directly fund their educational programs, while also providing their interns valuable experience and employment learning to run a small independent business.

We will be providing gourmet oyster mushrooms to the San Diego area; farmer's markets, restaurants, and maybe a CSA! 

Our slogan - "A Gourmet Trip."

This is a very exciting opportunity that has presented itself and one I couldn't pass up. There will be many chances for me to blog about the intricacies of running a farming business, so stay tuned. Needless to say there is only 24 hours in a day. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Work/Life Balance is Bull$@#!

If you don't love your job then quit!  Because if you don't love your job then you are on the losing end of a bad relationship.  In fact if you are constantly upset, worried, bitching and unhappy - you are wasting your time.  I'm not talking clinically here.  I'm talking you're worried about finances, you don't like your job, you don't like the way you look, you're constantly angry, you never have enough time to do X, and the list goes on.

The problem with being upset, worried, bitching, unhappy and a whole slew of other crappy words, is that they give the illusion of doing something about it.  It lulls us into a false sense of "since I feel this way I am doing something about it."  The worst part about that situation is that eventually feeling bad becomes the norm.

I say that is BS! Feeling good is the norm.  Being happy is the norm.  Life is for living.  Sure we'll all have those off days.  Of course we all will have times to worry - we're only human.  But if they become regular then there is a problem that needs to be fixed!

The solution to being happy... is YOU.  Crazy, I know.  But only you can make you happy.  That totally sounds like fortune cookie BS.  So what's the alternative?  To pin your happiness to other people, your job, your clothes, your car, your bank account.  I don't know about you but the only thing I have control over on that list is ME.

How do you find the happiness that is inside of you?  Do something!  Action.  If you are tired of worrying about bills then make a budget and stick to it.   If you are tired of the way you look then go for a 5 minute walk.  Just do something.  That something will lead to more somethings.  Just make it small at first and measurable.  However, don't put it off.  We're only human and delaying gratification isn't one of our strong suits.  

What caused this wild hair up my...?  It's the fact that I feel like I know some great secret and I'm not telling anyone.  It's the fact that I see great people every day who aren't where they want to be.  It's the fact that for a lot of things I may have accomplished, there are still areas of my life were I sit back and bitch and get jealous and unhappy about (talking about writing and publishing a book here.)  And this is the crux of the problem.  We segregate our lives into these lanes - be damned if these lanes happen to cross!  Some overlap for sure but it is more like a highway overpass for the majority of us.  What lanes am I talking about?  All of them.  Every single label you can think to give yourself.  Dr, lawyer, mother, brother, father, son, boyfriend, starving artist, chef, farmer, surfer, employee, writer - can I stop the list?

The point is that when we create these multiple lanes we are trying to multi-task our lives.  We've set up a system that facilitates adult ADD and guarantees us failure.  But failure is not bad.  Failure is good.  Failure is ONLY bad if we don't learn from it and keep doing it over and over and over.  Sounds like most of our days.  Well how mine used to sound. 

Every aspect of our lives should be moving us closer to our dreams.  Is your dream to have an incredibly tight and close family?  Then your job should help you achieve it not something you need to balance against.  Is your dream to cure blindness in Nepal?  Then your monthly gym membership should be getting you ready to be in Nepal.  If it isn't cut it and apply that money to moving to Nepal earlier. 

How you are as a sibling or a parent should be how you are in your business, at the gym, hiking, sailing, whatever.  The underlying principal here is character.  That is who you truly are; not some kind of label.  Don't identify with those labels because if at some point - hopefully not - they go away you'll lose yourself with it.  I know, I've been there and it took me nearly a year to get out of my depression.  I didn't even know I was depressed till I started to feel better again and realized life shouldn't be so damn hard.

There is nothing wrong with singular focus.  In fact, multi-tasking doesn't work anyways.  As long as we try and create a work/life balance we'll be forever stuck trying to balance our life instead of living it.  And that, unfortunately, is good thing for companies.  They need customers and employees.  We can't have everyone gallivanting off to live out their dreams.  I say it one last time the idea of a work/life balance is bull$@#!.  Do Something!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The new Turkeys & Guinea Fowl at the Farm

These little turkeys look like chocolate bananas with their little yellow heads.  The turkeys have also begun postering.  Meaning they will drop their wings and raise what little tail feathers they have to show off. 

Here we have everyone together.  Mostly these are guinea fowl - gray, white, dark brown.  The guineas have stripes on their heads and the turkeys have a little ridge at the meeting of their beaks and foreheads.  The little all yellow turkeys run up, jump into your hands, and fall asleep. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Capital vs Income: An Economics Argument for No-till and Beyond.

     Economists and businessmen understand the difference between capital and income very well.  However, the predominant actions of business over the last few decades would tend to suggest they don't - like the majority of us.  This is from not having a complete picture of the production cycle or rather the omission of certain parts of the production cycle.  

     Let's draw the distinction of capital from income.  Income is what the majority of us receive for doing work.  Income is an operating cost to the production cycle.  Capital is what is invested into the production cycle to get it started.  Income to a business is synonymous with profit after all operating costs are paid, and capital investments are recouped.  Income has a bit of flexibility to it and so it is able to fluctuate.  Capital is more rigid and is a fixed cost.  Technically, income could go away and the business would still operate (basically a non-profit model) but if capital goes away the business will shut down.

     Wendell Berry, if you don't know of him you need to, is one of the smartest men we have alive.  In his essays, he makes the point that we do not consider Nature as part of our economic equation.  More specifically the process in which Nature uses to create the assets that we use.  So I'm going to borrow a term coined by E.F. Schumacher in his book "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," called "natural capital" to combine their similar points of view.

     The easiest example of "natural capital" is to talk about fossil fuels.  Schumacher states, "No one, I am sure, will deny that we are treating them as income items although they are undeniably capital items.  If we treated them as capital items, we should be concerned with conservation: we should do everything in our power to try and minimize their current rate of use; we might be saying, for instance, that the money obtained from the realisation of these assets - these irreplaceable assets - must be placed into a special fund to be devoted exclusively to the evolution of production methods and patterns of living which do not depend on fossil fuels at all or depend on them only to a very slight extent."[1]

     Students of permaculture will be familiar with David Holmgren's book, "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability."  For those not familiar with the idea of permaculture it comes from the joining of several words:  permanent culture and permanent agriculture.  In his book he makes the statement that we have squandered the first half of our fossil fuel supply.  Essentially treating it like income.  When we should have been using it to build solar panels and wind turbines and such.  The idea is that it takes a great deal of fossil fuel to produce the energy to produce these sustainable items.  That's the catch 22.  So waiting till we run out of fossil fuels to start building them is not going to work.

     Using fossil fuels as the example I'd like to look at another "natural capital" that we have overlooked - top soil.   1/32 of the earth is suitable for growing food.  Of that 1/32 only the top 3-4 inches of that land is considered top soil.  Check out this link at the American Farmland Trust. It views the world as an apple as it divides it - very poignant.  Each year we lose billions of tons of topsoil due to erosion from chemical and mechanical cultivation.  Even organic farming practices uses mechanical cultivation to turn the soil for planting and weed management.  This exposing of the soil allows for it to dry out and it then becomes vulnerable to wind and water erosion.  Not to mention it is nearly void of microbiological activity which has been proven to enhance plant growth.

     This happens because soil is seen as an input into the production process and not as part of the capital investment.  Therefore we "spend" our topsoil as if it were income in the process.  Relying on amending the soil with fertilizers and compost, which becomes part of the operating costs, rather than figuring out how to conserve our capital asset.  The fable of the "Goose who lays the Golden Eggs," is very apt here. This process's only rational ability to continue is to continuously increase the amount of compost and fertilizer that is applied to maintain a sense of fertility.  Thereby increasing operating costs which will be translated to the consumer in the price of food.  Not to mention this has minimal effect on the erosion that is occurring because the field will soon be tilled in again and exposed to heat, wind and water.  Take into consideration that it has taken thousands of years and the movements of glaciers to create our current top soil and you can see that, even with the addition of compost, we won't be replacing the lost top soil anytime soon. 

     The first step in solving this crisis is to minimize the erosion and even try and stop it.  This is done in several ways.  First the soil needs to remain covered at all times.  The vegetative growth will act as a protective layer against wind and the harsh rays of the sun.  The vegetative cover will provide a layer that reduces evaporation as well.  The soil being cool, shaded, moist, and protected from the wind will promote microbiological activity in the soil which will translate into healthier soil and therefore healthier plants.  The root structure of the vegetation holds the soil in place from water erosion.  The stalks of the vegetation will also slow down the movement of the water preventing it from gaining the momentum to cause wide-scale damage.  The slowing down of the water also allows the water time to percolate into the surrounding soil.  This not only feeds the vegetation and keeps the soil moist it also recharges the groundwater systems.

     The second step, and much harder to convince in modern agriculture, is the planting of perennials.  I've always had trouble with the words annuals and perennials when it comes to plants.  Think of annuals as having to be planted annually or every year.  Where as perennials are planted once and live for many years.  This allows for a sophisticated and complex system of root structures to develop.  Even perennial plants will have roots that die and when they do they decompose deep into the soil supplying much needed nutrients.  Additionally the deep root systems can transport nutrients to the soil's surface from many feet down. Nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to shallow rooted annuals.  Lastly, the deep and complex root system creates a natural and complete irrigation system to water the soil and recharge the ground water supply the most effectively.

     So how can modern agriculture produce food and conserve it's topsoil.  Ideally the best way would be to inter crop vegetable and grain crops in between the best perennials of all - trees.  This is called forest farming.  However, forest farming is not compatible with modern harvesting techniques which make it inefficient on a commercial scale.  At least for now.  Another solution is to plant only perennials.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute is developing a perennial wheat.  You plant it once, harvest it, and it grows back again.  Very similar to mowing your lawn.  But we don't have perennial   everything and with  most of the vegetables we eat the very act of harvesting kills the plant.  Enter no-till.

     No-till, in my opinion, is still at best a transition process.  It is a very good process and one we need to switch to now but it is only a bridge to the ultimate solution of forest farming.  In no-till the crop is planted without tilling and in between the crop is planted a cover crop.  A cover crop acts like a living mulch - choking out weeds and helping to retain moisture in the soil.  A cover crop will also add nutrients to the soil.  Ideally what one plants for harvesting should have a symbiotic relationship with its cover crop.  When it comes time to harvest, the crop is cut and the waste is left in the field.  Then the cover crop is cut and also allowed to decompose in the field.  After a certain amount of time of being left fallow, the field will be planted again without tilling the soil.  The previous crop and cover crop provides a mulch/compost into which the new crop will grow.  This is vaguely simulating how Nature would rebuild soil.  The only problem, and hence why I only consider it a transition process, is the cutting of the cover crop still opens the soil up to some erosion.  Albeit a minimum amount.  However until the agricultural industry can make the mental shift from concentrating on efficiencies to concentrating on effectiveness, this is what needs to happen.

     Once we start treating the top soil like a capital investment and begin conserving this limited resource, we will see considerable savings in operating costs.  No longer will we have to import compost and fertilizer into the fields.  (This brings up another interesting subject of nutrient loss.  When we here in California expend our dwindling water resource and our compost and fertilizer to create nutrient rich food, then ship it to New York where it is consumed and disposed of, we have effectively shipped off our water and nutrients as well.  Requiring us to import more nutrients and water which drives up the costs for everyone.)  The amount of water usage can be, by my estimates and they are only based on experience not empirical data, effectively cut in half.   In areas of good rainfall I believe irrigating fields could be stopped all together and reserved for cases of severe drought.  Interestingly enough if we were to plant more trees we could effectively alter the weather pattern preventing such droughts.

     The ultimate goal is to produce nutrient dense food sustainably that is the most affordable and available to all.  This can only happen when we start taking into account the "natural capital" into our production process.  By conserving our soil we can eliminate most operating costs and thereby increasing profits.  Profits that then should be translated to the customer in the form of cheap, healthy food.  Effectively creating a sustainable solution to the food justice issue. Such an economic model would also make chemically grown food too expensive to produce and usher back traditional organic farming.  Not to mention it would make our world a better place.

[1]  E.F, Schumacher. "Small is Beautiful:  Economics as if People Mattered," 1973.  Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Basics

           Anything under seven feet is a short board and anything over nine feet is a long board.  The two feet in between make up a fun board.  If you want to learn how to surf get a fun board.  Preferably in the eight foot range.  If I had it to do all over again I would have gotten one of those Nerf-like boards.  They don’t hurt as much when they hit you.  

Don’t do like I did and buy a short board thinking you are going to tear up the waves.  I bought a sweet little 6-3 fish.  6-3 means its six feet three inches and fish refers to cut of the back of the board.  My short board has a triangular shape cut out of the back that resembles a fish tail.  This thing is so light and is curled like a pringle.  I affectionately call it the “potato chip.”  The problem with the potato chip is that I’m not light.  It takes a big wave to push that light board with my heavy body on it.  

Foot placement is less forgiving on a short board.  A surfboard planes across the water.  To do this it has to be perfectly parallel to the water.  This allows the board to become a part of the water in the wave.  If it doesn’t the wave will either pass under the board or pass over the board.  If it passes under the board you miss the wave.  If it passes over the board its not fun.

To get your board to become part of the wave takes balance.  You have to find the center of the board.  That point where you and the board can balance one another.  Too far forward and your nose will go under and you’ll pearl - picture pole vaulting.  Too far back and you put on the brakes and go no where.  That’s the perfect analogy.  Perfectly balanced is putting the board in drive.  Moving forward gives it gas and moving back applies brake.  That’s the finesse.

A long board on the other hand is said to be just as hard to learn as a short board.  The bigger the board the smaller the wave you can catch.  But just like a short board, forward is gas and back is the brake.  The only problem now comes from pesky physics.  With a short board too far forward pearls you and too far back stops you.  Its not hard to get frustrated on a short board and not catch a wave.  The reason for this is, because the board is short, any small change in your weight has large consequences.  Unfortunately the same thing is true on a long board.  A long board creates a large movement arm.  Every board has a center of balance.  This balance point can be thought of as the fulcrum of a seesaw.  Try standing over the center of the seesaw and balance it level.  Pretty hard to do.  So even slight movements forward or backward has large consequences when translated over the large movement arm.  I will say that transitioning from a fun board to a long board is easier than fun to short.
Now comes the fun boards.  Their name is very apt.  They are built for buoyancy.  So it is not uncommon to find these boards two to three inches thick.  Their buoyancy compensates for their center of balance.  Effectively making the balance point very large and therefore more forgiving to new surfers trying to learn how to stand up. The same rules apply as far as forward and backwards go but these guys allow you to at least get up once.

And getting up once is all it takes to hook you.  What an incredible feeling to be a part of the ocean.  To feel the wave building behind you.  You paddle and paddle and there’s a slight moment where you feel the wave start to accept you.  If you stand up in one fluid motion, if you have your balance you’ve done it.  You’ve become part of the wave.  The crest behind you is building and your nose begins to drop.  This is the drop in.  You slide down the face of the wave.  Shifting your balance to stay on.  Shifting your balance to steer.  The wave is crashing behind you.  The whitewater of the foam races across the top of your board.  You’re ankle deep and you lean back and your nose rises out of the water.  You lean forward and your board settles out on top of the water again.  You lean a little more forward and you speed up.  You’re out in front of the whitewater now.  You just rode a wave.  Its addicting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Homemade Banjo Picks

So they aren't exactly a work of art - well maybe they are!  I used scrap pipe banding from a job a did.  I made a rough shape with some cutters.  Then I quickly filed down the edges so they were smooth.  I think 15 minutes in all.

And to think I was going to order some today too!

Here is the beautiful bane of my existence.  The banjo is down right hard!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Good Work

 This is the opening to one of many book ideas that I have.  I don't know if it is my ADHD or just a fear of failure by not being published that makes it that I have half a dozen of these such starts.  None of which are even close to being finished.  There has been a growing trend of farm stories in literature.  Maybe just in the literary circles that I tend to read.  So this was me jumping on that band wagon.  The plan - yes present tense - is to write about how Mel and I created our successful farm.   Since that is essentially what this blog is I figured why not put it here.  I think the title of the book will be called "Good Work" and I want to share the joys of farming, surfing, and finding the one to build a life with. 

When I touch the soil my heart pounds with hope.  When I hold a brand new chick I smile.  When I sit down to a meal that my labor provided I am content.  When I lay my head down at night, after a day of labor and drift quickly to sleep, I am at peace.  All of this is provided by good work.

    It took facing a bad economy without a job and a pile of debt for me to open my eyes.  I was working a job I hated and it was fortunately and unfortunately coming to an end.  Fortunately, because I don’t think I would have survived had it not come to an end.  Unfortunately because it paid good money and it was the only career I had known.  I had no trade.  My job had taken over my life.  I worked long, long hours and it never seemed to make a difference.  My marriage had collapsed and I was going no where fast.  I had over $350k in debt.  This sounds like the story of many Americans.  Sadly it is
    I met Mel in the summer of 2009.  She was a friend of a friend and our meeting was by chance.  You see Mel does not drink and yet I met her in a bar.  I joke with her that when I tell our children how we met the story will start, “I was the designated driver and I was sitting, talking with friends, and I probably would have never noticed your mother if she hadn’t started dancing on the bar...”  Of course that isn’t how it happened.  A buddy had just gotten out of the Navy and was heading off to pursue his dream of going to graduate school.  The rest of us, three more buddies, were still in the Navy.  One of the guys was my roommate on the ship and it was him who was friends with Mel.  We all went out to celebrate a friend who was leaving the Navy.  Something all of us talked about doing but hadn’t gotten around to.

    “Hey guys this is my friend Mel.”  My roommate said.  She had arrived after we had been there for about 45 minutes.  Mel had been up in LA visiting friends.  She was staying with my ship roommate as her home base for her California trip.  A trip that was almost over.  I have to be honest and say it was her beauty that I noticed first.  I was attracted to her right away.  But it wasn’t love at first sight.  

    “What do you do?’ I asked her.

    ‘I’m a dolphin trainer at Miami Seaquarium.” And right then I became enamored with her. 

    That Friday night didn’t last much longer but we made plans to go surfing on Sunday.  She wanted to learn and I wanted to teach her. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The new goats at the farm

 One is named Thelma and the other is Louise.  Not sure which is which.  But man they are cute.

And this here is Erin.  We all named her because she is the only one of the chickens that actually will come up to you expecting to be pet.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

For What It's Worth


When I was younger this was my favorite song.  Well, for that matter, it still is my favorite song.   I first heard it on vinyl from my stepfather's collection.  The album cover had a woman covered in whipped cream so perhaps that is what made me pick up the album in my pubescent years.  The song's beat, guitar, and lyrics all do it for me.  It picked up some more life in several movies a few years ago and so I think it is a pretty mainstream tune.

I remember the first time that I heard it and really listened to the words.  "Battle lines being drawn," "nobody's right if everybody's wrong", I thought to myself wow what a crazy time that must of have been.  I am so glad that we worked all that out.   Things like that aren't happening anymore in our country.  But the truth of the matter is that this song is good because it is timeless.  It's words still ring true today.  And so for what it's worth, here is my two cents post my 35th birthday. 

Maybe it is a prerequisite for birthdays past 30 to become reflective about life.  Or maybe I am just melodramatic.  I think it is the latter.  Nevertheless here are a few points that I pondered this weekend.

True Wealth

True wealth is having good health - both mental and physical.  It is having good relationships, and it is about being happy.  I mean the true happiness, the kind that resonates in your soul, like your first kiss happy, or Christmas time as a kid happy.  The stuff money can't buy.   I believe two things when it comes to happiness.  1) We all control our own happiness, and 2) if you have good health and good relationships happiness happens.

Our country touts itself as the wealthiest nation on earth.  But as you can see, until all our citizens have access to good health we aren't even close.   True health isn't going to come from a Dr.'s prescription pad either.  So even though I believe it incumbent on our country to provide health care, I believe it is up to each citizen to take responsibility for their own health.  Quit smoking, exercise daily, and eat right.  Let's treat ourselves with respect first and stop trashing ourselves and then maybe our government will treat us with respect.

The point of life is to be creative

Why are we here?  What is my purpose?  Heavy questions to ask yourself and for me I think the point is for us to express our creativity.  For the most part this is a positive thing so let's not split hairs and talk about the A-bomb and such.  What I am talking here is art, music, literature, good healthy cooking, artisans, poetry, dancing, singing, architecture, etc.  Of course I think all of these things need to be done sustainably but the end state is still the same.  We, as a species, are the most beautiful when we are the most creative.  Yet so many of us toil away, day after day, to make ends meet.  Take the time to work on something that expresses who you are.  If you can share it with your family and friends that is even better.  We should all be masters of a craft of our passions.  

Things aren't great and it's our fault

Battle lines are being drawn.  Or rather they've been drawn and we are just starting to see them.  There is no magical race of super wealthy puppeteers pulling all the strings.  The mythical "They" who are calling all the shots is, in reality, is US letting things happen through our ambivalence.  Sure there is a super wealthy elite who is benefiting from our collective do nothing attitude, but they are only doing what we let them.  In our system there is an inherent flaw of "looking out for one's self."  If I look out for myself then for me to get ahead you have to lag behind.  Or in a more economic sense.  For me to make money I need to separate you from yours.  The more I separate you from yours the more I get.  My motivation is to repeat that with as many people as possible.  Now add a thousand of me doing that to as many people as possible.  What you get are millions of tiny one-sided transactions.  Collectively they add up to create the world in which we now live.  We've allowed the world to go so askew that no one - without extreme lifestyle choices - can live without being a hypocrite.  

I took the back lot tour at Universal Studios and saw a billboard for a movie with the handsome leading man with a woman scantily clad on each arm.  I thought to myself that we still objectify women, then I thought to myself I'm just being anal about this.  But I'm not.  I'm no hard line feminist and I'll probably watch the movie on Netflix when it comes out and there is the rub.  Deep down I know it is wrong but it doesn't really matter or so that is the pervasive thought that we all have.  Same thing goes for Styrofoam, plastics, bottled water, natural gas fracking, pollution, oil use, war, debt, poverty, obesity, child diabetes, crumbling education, shitty politicians, crooked businessmen, bailing out Wall St........ 

I visited a friend that works at the Aquarium of the Pacific today.  Mel and I dropped off the dogs at her apartment because she graciously offered to watch them as we went to the aquarium.  After they gave us free passes.  They live up in Long Beach, next to L.A..  We were talking about allergies and she was saying how bad her's was there in Long Beach.  "Really, I asked."  "Oh yeah there is Diesel dust on everything from being so close to the port."  She lifted up her bare feet and they were black.  Black I tell you and that stuff was in the air landing on everything.  And we were still 7 miles from the port.  She said it as if it was an expected part of life.

We need to take back responsibility

We need to take back responsibility for living.  It is so easy for us to live today, in this country.  All it takes is the ability to fork over money - or in its absence credit - to pay for every service that we need.  Then when we are done with it we throw it away and let it become the problem of someone else.  Well we are all each others' someone else.

Learn how to do some of the things you pay others to do.  Learn how the plumbing in your house works.  Learn how to sew your clothes.  Learn how to cook at home with vegetables and animals you raised.  Learn how to repair something vice throw it away.  Put some effort into life.  Feel the sweat of chopping your own firewood then the coolness of the soil as you plant two replacement trees.  Think about that next throw away cup of coffee, even if it claims to be recyclable.  

Think about the times when we were all younger and right and wrong were black and white.  When our decisions were being made based on principles we were taught.  When going against those principles wasn't even an option.  Think about how wonderful the world would be if we all had that view point again.  Now just know that it can be like that again, for what it's worth.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Herb Drying Room

Here's the latest project at Suzie's that I started on Tuesday.

It's an insulated CONEX box that used to belong to the Border Patrol.  Suzie's Farm picked it up with the hopes of turning it into an herb drying room.  So I gutted the darn thing to start and began laying out the stacks for the drying racks to go.

Once I got all of the stacks framed out I had to cut the individual slats for the trays to rest on.  There's 153 spaces for trays.  Each tray needs two slats to sit on.  306 slats were cut.

Then came the fun part of attaching each slat to the stacks, all 306 had to be leveled.  Plus each slat has two screws.  612 screws driven just in the slats!

But I finally got the thing done today.  

Not bad if I do say so myself.  Mel and I were affectionately calling that box the hot box.  It was ridiculous.  I was getting my redneck on by working without a shirt.

I still need to build the trays.  4 pieces for each tray.  153 trays.  612 cuts I have to make next week!  I need to rest up my sawing hand! 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'm so jealous

A capybara

A groundhog

A kangaroo! 
I'm so jealous of Mel's job.  Well maybe not of the groundhog.  When I was a kid on the orchard we couldn't get rid of enough of those guys.  We had this collie named Alex.  Alex was allowed to roam all over the orchard.  He had this dislike of groundhogs.  He'd mess with them.  Finally, one day, we heard this horrible moan/howl from the edge of the pear orchard next to our large vegetable garden.  There in the tall orchard grass was Alex, flat on his belly, head stretched forward, and howling with his mouth on the ground.  He couldn't open his jaw so the ground was muffling his pleas.  The reason he was so prostrated was a groundhog had a hold of his nose.  Bit right threw the black fleshy part and he wasn't letting go.  My grandfather had to help poor Alex out and, well, the groundhog was worse for ware.  From that point on Alex hated groundhogs.  He'd go miles out of his way to hunt them down. 

That's not this guy of course.  I think his name is Digger.  Mel says he will pull and pull on his harness till he realizes he's not going anywhere then plops flat on his belly with his legs sprawled out.  Then when whomever is walking him relaxes on his harness he darts forward to gain a little ground.  Pull, relax, dart, gain some ground, and repeat. 

We had another bonfire on Tuesday!  Hopefully this turns out to be a weekly thing.  I made some homemade marshmallows.  Check out this link: .  It's from Smitten Kitchen.  DO NOT mistype it and put in Smitten Kitten!  Those marshmallows where great.  They don't catch fire and char like I like them, but they melt beautifully for smores.  Plus they actually have a flavor to them.  So easy to make and a great treat.

Cabbage??!!  Yes, I have a new friend in cabbage.  I love cole slaw.  I even liked the steamed cabbage on the ships.  But I am in love with Cabbage Strudel.  This one comes from Suzie's Farm:, and the blog is aptly titled "WTF?".  It is amazing hot or cold.  I cut it into 1/2 inch thick slices and served it cold at the bonfire.  So good. 

Last one I promise because I am making myself hungry.  Padron peppers, the little ones that is.  They do come a little bigger but I am digging the little ones.  I picked this recipe up from the peeps at the bonfire.  Seed them and de-rib them.  Fill with cream cheese.  Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes in a pan semi-heavily coated with olive oil.  Delicious! 

Enough with the food talk.  I've made some great friends with the other apprentices at Suzie's and each of them is incredible.  Hopefully I'll get more recipes that I can share here!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Business is Farming 2: Vision Statements and Core Values

We sat down and made a list of all the things we wanted to do on the farm - how is that list by the way? - and we narrowed it down to our core enterprise.  This is our money maker.  The enterprise onto which all of our other farm enterprises will be built and funded.  We need to think about what we want to do with our core enterprise.

This is where a mission/vision statement comes into play.  We need to dream big here.  What is it you want your farm to be?  What do you want to provide?  It can be several things.  Here's what we want to do at Imagines Farm.
  • Make organic food the most affordable food out there.  This is the only true way toward food justice.  Additionally it will force chemical growers to abandon their ways as our way will be more profitable.
  • To follow Nature's lead and help her produce that food.  Not imposing our will and forcing things to grow but allowing Nature to do what it does best.  
  • To create and improve our local economy so that it directly benefits the community in which we live and do business.
  • To steward a place of beauty for our family and yours.
So how do we boil all that down into one or two sentences?  Typically the visions statement is one sentence of about 15 words.  I say try and get it in no more than two sentences and you'll be doing great.  Besides you can always refine it as you get going.  Plus you want it to be inspiring.  This is your beacon that you'll start measuring everything against.  How does doing this on the farm contribute to our overall vision of the farm?  That is an important question and one rarely asked.  By not asking is how a farm ends up with a bunch of enterprises that are disjointed and aren't producing the maximum income if any.

Our first shot at it we came up with:  "To change farming for the better and create a healthy family, farm, and community along the way."  Will it stay?  I don't know.  We'll see how we feel about it when we start looking at our guiding principles and setting goals.  But the important thing to know here is that it is OK to change it if we need to. 

This is also a good place to take a look at your core values.  What qualities about life do you value the most.  What things, if they didn't exist in your life, would make life unbearable?  Our list included:  self sufficiency, freedom, environmentally conscious, frugality, social responsibility, stewardship, integrity, and honesty. 

Every successful business has been able to meld their core values into their business dealings.  It helps define your business and it shows.  We all know businesses out there who seem like they don't stand for anything except to get your money.  Doing business with them is never a pleasure.  In the end everything we do is about building relationships.  We want to make sure that we build positive relationships.  Identifying your vision and core values is a great start!

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    Egg Mobile

    So here's the finished product of my first project at Suzie's Farm. 

    I can't take full credit for this.  It wasn't my idea.  Plus the big set of boxes near the front were all ready done.  I added the ones over the wheels.  I also did all the boxes on the other side.  The shade doors needed to be reworked as well.

    The floor had been removed and partially wired.  I finished that, chicken wired the windows, and added the roosts.  It might be too steep of an angle for the roosts but it's an experiment.

    Lastly I fixed the door so that it keeps them nice and secure.  Look at the little hatch on the bottom left of this picture.  It will be hooked up to a battery and it is on a timer.  That way it will open in the morning to let the girls out to forage and lay eggs in the boxes.  Then it will close up after they've all gone to bed for the night.  Keeping them very secure.

    Pretty neat all around.  We'll be able to move them around pretty easy so they can free range. 

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Happy 4th of July!!

    We hope everyone has a great time and enjoys today safely!  Thanks to all those that can't celebrate because they are taking care of us. 

    The 4th is one of my favorite holidays - cookouts, fireworks, parades, lazy summer day, and family and friends.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    A Good Tired

    I like to wake up early.  There is something about being alone, moving around while everyone else sleeps.  You don't really feel alone because you know everyone else is asleep.  Sometimes I spend the time writing.  Other times, when I have the motivation, I like to go for a run.  I never really want to go for a run but when I get to the beach, no one or almost no one else there, I feel the cold sand under my feet, the low tide in the marsh exposes the holes of the ghost shrimp, I am glad I did.

    These past days we've started work early and I find myself only a couple of miles from the Mexican border.  Tijuana is straight ahead of me on the hills.  The ocean is two miles to my right.  The sun rises many miles to my left in a mixture of marine layer and summer haze.  We've started early to beat the wind.  We're laying drip tape, for irrigation, on a piece of earth the size of a football field without the end zones.  Each piece of drip tape is long enough to make you cup your hands to your mouth to yell, "Pull it tighter."  The day before we started coming in early the wind had a piece of drip tape humming a mix of a didgeridoo and electric wires in a storm.  We only have till 10 a.m.. By then the sun has forced us to wear straw hats and heated the land to start the winds.  We'll move into planting by 10.

    Plugs are just transplants.  Plants we started in trays, let grow a little, then move them to the fields.  You can poke or do plugs.  To poke you walk down the rows, using a chisel or a butter knife to poke through the plastic at the spacing your plugs need.  Lettuce is every four to six inches on both sides of the drip tape.  Careful of the drip tape.

    To do plugs you have a tray of plants in one hand and you push them into the holes that were poked.  Make sure the roots are covered.  You don't have to be so gentle.

    Whichever one you do keep your butt in the air.  Higher than your head.  No sitting.  Keep up the pace. Your back and legs will get used to it.  Your big toes never will though.  Poke after poke, tray after tray.

    "How many rows?"
    "Till we're done all the trays."
    "At least they aren't beans, beans are the worst."

    By 10 a.m. the next day we do 25 rows of beans.  Closer then lettuce, you direct seed these - no plants.  This means you poke with one hand and drop a seed in with the other.  Poke, push the poker forward, drop a seed, pull the poker back to cover the seed with soil, remove and repeat.  Your legs and back have turned on you.  Keep your butt higher than your head.  My hands are too big to dispense a single bean into the hole.  You need to become a human Pez dispenser.

    "At least these aren't cucumbers.  Cucumbers in the wind are the worst!  They are so small they blow away."  After lunch we plant 10 rows of cucumbers in the wind.

    The third day we finish our mock football field.  Drip tape marks every two feet.  A little more than a line at every half yard.  A game played here would go on forever.  The second crew needs help thinning tomatoes for trellising.  The plants are planted about every 18 inches.  Stakes, six feet tall, are in the rows every six feet.  The tomatoes are bushy plants nearly two feet tall.  We need to thin them to only two limbs.  The other crew are all Mexicans.  They graciously slow their pace to show us what needs to be done and make sure we don't screw things up.

    You are looking for the main stalk.  More specifically where that main stalk branches into a green "Y."  In the middle of that "Y" will be yellow flowers or at the end of where the flowers were, green fruit.  The beginnings of a tomato.  All you want is that "Y", the fruit, and any flowers on the "Y."  Everything else is ripped off.  Pruning is a more descriptive word of the task but ripping is what is done.  There's a black, sticky residue that gets on your hands so wear latex gloves.  We've gotten the gist so the second crew out paces us.  It's a puzzle.  "Where's my "Y?" "Where's my fruit?"  The other branches just rip off.

    "It's like the plant is telling you which one to take," Elle says aloud.

    The smell of unripe tomatoes, that chloroplasty, bitter smell, from the ripped limbs.  I think of pizza, of basil, of pasta.  I miss living in Italy.  What interesting paths life has for us.  It's Friday and I'm off tomorrow.  I won't be getting up early.

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    My business is farming

    What's the first step to starting a farm?  Writing a business plan of course!  Now a days it would serve you better to get a business degree than an Ag degree.  Especially since main stream agriculture is usually funded by all the big names we love to hate. <cough, Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, Tyson, etc., cough>  But, and I hate to admit this, they're successful mostly because they have a business plan and stick to it.

    Hold on there!  Having a business plan doesn't mean you're selling out nor does it mean you're lumped into the likes of those above.  I'm a farmer first and foremost.  Because I want to be a farmer for the rest of my life I also need to be a businessman.  Here's where the labor of love comes in when people talk about farming.  Growing the food and meeting new people at the farmer's market, that's the sexy part.  Planting all that food and harvesting it, that's the strenuous part.  Sitting down inside, when you'd rather be planting, doing the books, cutting costs, managing labor, working certifications, thinking about marketing, planning expansion, and a ton more, that's the hard part.  Organic farmers sure do love farming.

    I like to think of farms as the original small business.  So let's talk business plan.  At first it doesn't have to be a detailed masterpiece.  However, it eventually HAS TO BE a detailed masterpiece.  Just start out with what your core business is going to be.

    You need a strong core

    When we first wrote down what we wanted Imagines Farm to be Mel and I filled the front and back of two sheets of yellow, legal paper.  That is a great way to start and eventually all of those things will become part of Imagines Farm.  The hard part was looking at which ones we could successfully start a farm with.  Which ones could start paying the bills.  Joel Salatin lists out a bunch of core businesses in his book "You Can Farm."  I highly recommend it because there's an honest look at what it is going to take from you to farm.  But I don't want to be as specific as him and suggest pastured chicken, pastured beef and such.  Nor do I want to rehash what he said.  I want to put down the criteria that Mel and I used to narrow down our core business.  Also I think that a person's success is largely dependent on my number one criteria.

    1.  Be passionate about it.  If a person isn't completely devoted to their core business all else will fall around it.  Eventually it will fall to.

    2.  Is there a market for it?  I am a firm believer in that you have to have a product to sell before you think about selling it.  That said, start small.  I am also a believer that someone who is passionate about their product can create a market.  But that takes time and is good if we are talking about your hobby, not your sole source of income.  So do the quick research (we'll hit the deep numbers way down the line) and see if people are buying.

    3.  Stay away from fads and the fringes.  Fads come and go and so will your business.  Stick with something that is going to be around and useful for awhile.  The fringes can be exciting.  You either make it or you don't.  I've never been a good gambler so I stay where I can control my odds as much as possible.

    4.  Can it be scaled up and down easily?   When times are booming can you increase production easily to keep up?  Conversely, can you slow down easily to minimize your loss?

    5.  Can it be built upon?  Multi-use everything.  Will the equipment you build or buy be used elsewhere and thereby amortizing costs over several enterprises.  Or will it all be single use?  Another aspect to look at is can your product expand into new markets you didn't originally plan on?  Having as many income streams from the same product is the name of the game.

    6.  Low cost of entry.  Very important.  Don't break the bank because you will need to have a reserve.   One of the top reasons new businesses fail is under capitalization at the start.  You should plan to start it out of pocket.

    7.  Low cost to maintain it.  You will have to front the money till your first crop is sold.  Then those sales carry your product forward.  Don't get stuck with hidden costs.

    8.  Low cost to produce it.  Again you will have to front the money.  Plus with a small business you don't want to commit to an expensive harvesting operation right up front.  The business might go away but the debt won't.

    9.  Can it be stored/transported cheaply?  Often overlooked.  No use doing all that work if you can't afford to get it to market and sell it.

    10.  Does it provide feedback?  This is the other side of the coin of "can it be built upon?"  How does it feedback into your farm?  If the waste can be used for another enterprise then you are cutting costs.  Cutting costs is the quickest way to give yourself a raise/increase profits.

    The list can be much longer but things begin to over lap.  Besides a lot of them will be answered as we build our business plan.   So spend some time and create a list of everything you want to do or grow on your farm.  Then start looking at each one and see how they stack up.  In the end the goal is to have a farm that pays for itself and provides income for you and your family.  You also want to enjoy the work! 

    Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    Life is Good

     Roasting marshmallows over a bonfire at the beach.  Live music going with the guitar, banjo, and later came a bongo.  Beautiful weather, a more beautiful ocean, and an even more beautiful person to spend it with.  Maybe this should be a regular thing.

    Doesn't that smores look delicious?

    This is Seth's dog, Hund.  He was a little chilly.  

    Tuesday, June 28, 2011

    Laundry in the tub?

    Our new place doesn't have a washer and dryer in the place.  It does have a laundry facility that we have to pay for.  In my quest for ever more frugalness, I took an idea from the documentary "No Impact Man." 

    I placed my clothes, as Mel wanted no part of this till she sees how it turns out, into the bathtub filled with cold water and homemade laundry detergent.  Only afterwards did it occur to me that I could have finished up our regular laundry detergent.  I did this yesterday morning and I let them soak all day.  When I got home from work I tried the "walking around on them to agitate them" method and nearly had a heart attack from the cold water.  Afterwards I wrung them out and placed them on our meager clothes line on the balcony. 

    What I learned

    I noticed that some of my work clothes needed a lot of agitating as they were covered in dirt.  I think a brush being added to the process might help.  Can you still get washboards?   I also only used one tbs of my detergent.   My friend Seth threw in a load as well and together it was just too much.  I need to keep the loads small and manageable.  Not only was it just a time suck I ran out of clothes line space.  I hung the clothes up near evening so of course they are still wet this morning.  Which means I really need to plan ahead. 

    Another concern is the amount of water I am using.  I'm only using the amount of water needed to soak the clothes so I am very sure I'm saving there.  However, the rinse has me thinking I could do better.

    The jury is still out on this one.  But people washed their clothes before there was washing machines.  I just need to figure it out. 

    As for the homemade laundry detergent I used this recipe from the No Impact Man website.  I added another tbs of liquid Castille soap.  I think when I make it again I am going to use liquid soap and just dissolve the washing soda and Borax into the bath water as it is running.

    Laundry Detergent

    1 cup soap flakes
    1/2 cup washing soda
    1/2 cup Borax

    Soap flakes can be made by grating your favorite pure vegetable soap with a cheese grater.  Mix ingredients together and store in a glass container.  Use 1 tablespoon per load (2 for heavily soiled laundry), wash in warm or cold water.

    This standard recipe can be adjusted for soft water by using 1 cup soap flakes, 1/4 cup washing soda and 1/2 cup borax.  For hard water, use 1 cup soap flakes, 1 cup washing soda, and 1 cup borax.
    Note: Borax should not be ingested.

    Tips: Add 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar to rinse as a fabric softener.  For a whitener, use hydrogen peroxide rather than bleach. Soak your dingy white clothes for 30 minutes in the washer with 1/2 cup 20% peroxide. Launder as usual.

    Sunday, June 26, 2011

    San Diego County Fair 2011

    I love going to Fairs!!

    I have since I was a little kid and now that I am a big kid I love them even more.  My favorite part is the livestock barns.  But I do love all the Ag displays and the shiny new tractors.  Even though I believe in no-till those tractors sure are pretty.  Tonka for adults! My favorite ride at Disney World is that calm boat ride through the farming display at Epcot Center.  Mel makes fun of me for it. 

    I fell in love with this horse.  He's a draft horse and my dream is to have a beautiful pair of them.  My vision is to buy 50 acres in TN that is completely forested.  I'm going to sustainably harvest some of those trees to build our home.  A timber and frame home put together with pegs and joints.  I want to use two of these magnificent animals to help me drag the fallen timber from the woods.  They'll do less damage getting in and out than a tractor will.  It's going to be amazing!

    Speaking of horses look at the size of this one!  He's a Belgian which is normally big but this guy, named Hercules, is off the chart.  1 1/2 tons of horse = 3000 lbs.  Three times the normal Belgian weight.  Granted Mel is short but this guy is crazy!

    They had a steer there named White Mountain that was incredible too.  I got a little too close to the backside!  Amazing.

    They had Turkey races which I want to do in TN.  I still need to convince Mel.

    Pig races which have to be some of the cutest things.

    Who couldn't forget the food!  Nasty, greasy, fair food!  Why is it that the food itself is an attraction?  We're sensible eaters and really try to take care of ourselves but when we go to the fair all bets are off.  We had:  chili cheese hotdog, seasoned fries, soft serve icecream in an M&M cone, deep fried thin mints, pulled pork sandwich, caramel apple, cotton candy, funnel cake, and hot chocolate.  I think I just got sick typing that.  

    There was no animal call contest to enter this year.  Well there is but I have to work on that day.  So I won't be around to defend my title.  But just to allow me to relive my former glory one more time.  Here's a clip from the fair last year.

    Saturday, June 25, 2011

    Monkey Bites

    Mel with Daphne, an owl monkey
    Some of you know that Mel used to be a dolphin trainer at Miami Seaquarium.  That's what she was doing when we first met.  When she decided to come to San Diego - because that was what she wanted to do, not because of me - she wanted to work with the Pet's Rule show at Seaworld.  She had started working with the whale at Seaquarium but didn't want to pursue that at Seaworld.  I'm actually very thankful for that forethought.

    What she did want to get into is training dogs and cats.  I think when we get to TN she'll probably start her own training business.  I really hope she does.  In the interim, working for Pet's Rule is a great opportunity.  This summer she was afforded the chance to work the new exotic animal attraction that Joel Slavin's Professional Animals, that is the company that produces Pet's Rule, is putting on at Seaworld.  Besides working with the normal cats, dogs, pigs, pigeons, ducks, emus, kangaroos, and parrots, she now works with llamas, miniature horses and donkeys, porcupines, capybaras, groundhogs, a binturong, and owl monkeys.  I'm sure I missed a few.

    But that brings me to the owl monkey.  Mel comes home one night and has all these bites on her arms.

    "What happened?"
    "I got bit by a monkey." Nonchalantly she says.

    Maybe I've just lived a sheltered life but I find the fact she has monkey bites on her arm mind blowing.  I mean monkey bites!  Considering my last run in with a monkey was with this guy.

    Blue balls would ruin anyone's disposition

    Unceremoniously called the Blue Ball Monkey.  We were in the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation area in Tanzania.  We just stopped to use the restroom and this guy jumps into our LandCruiser.  Not wanting him to make off with something important I shoo him out.  He gets out of the truck runs about three feet and turns on me baring at least 3 inch fangs and holds his ground.  It looked like he was about to charge.  I was drinking a Fanta orange soda in the old glass bottle.  The first thought that came to my mind was to smash the bottle on the truck and use it as a shank against him.  "There's nothing like the pure joy of watching a monkey knife fight."  Ridiculous.  Luckily for me it was all bluster and bravado and he relaxed for this picture.

    So Mel assures me that Daphne is a sweet girl and only started acting up because she was hungry and was getting antsy from that.  In the end they made up and are still friends - monkey bites and all.

    Thursday, June 23, 2011

    Why did Tierra Miguel Farm Close? Part 2

    This is the continuation from yesterday.   I want to stress that this isn't meant as a rant.  Nor is it meant to place blame.  I was at Tierra Miguel.  So naturally I have to shoulder some of the burden of the place closing.  This is only me trying to find some good out of a terrible situation.  I need help understanding how something so good could go away.

    5.  Loss sight of core business - There were just too many extras.  We forgot that the CSA paid the bills and we allowed it to dwindle to a point where it was not even covering operational costs.  There were too many distractions - namely the grant.  See below.

    6.  Operational costs exceeded revenue.  There was a whole host of costs incurred by the farm that shouldn't have been there.  We bought in compost because an effective composting program wasn't in place.  Our irrigation was old and leaky which was essentially throwing money out the window.  Our soil needed extreme love.  We were constantly using it which meant it needed lots of water and compost.  Having too big a presence in Los Angeles and not locally added to our delivery costs.  The chickens, sigh, the chickens.  We got them without a clear plan or budget for them.  Nor did we have the infrastructure in place - prior- to help us realize sales from them.  So they became something we had to pay for rather than a viable enterprise on the farm.  Salaries were too high.  It was a nonprofit.  Granted some of the salaries were paid for by the grant but the grant was reimbursable.   So we had to make the money first.

    7.  No significant advertising or marketing.  We couldn't afford to hire a marketing pro.  Plus as you drove down 76 or Cole Grade Rd there was no signs advertising our place.  We hit up Facebook but that had such a limited audience.  We were starting to get word of mouth but that was due to the flurry of energy given by all near the end.  Word of mouth is the best form of advertising but it requires excellent customer service and a great product.  Both of which we had been lacking till several months ago.  Too little too late.

    8.  Non-profit model - fundraising.  This was something we did not do.  Technically, it was also part of our core business.  We had lost our relevance in the community.  By not being out there, every day, showing and telling people what we were doing for the community, they forgot about us.

    9.  Lack of people - It is 85 acres.  It is also a teaching center and the grant home.  There was too much work for the small staff.

    10.  Decrease in quality / undervaluing product - The quality of our product declined over time.  This is an effect of losing sight of our core business.  But when we did have a decent product we undervalued it.  We needed the sales because of our large operating costs and debt.

    11.  Wholesale - This is the death of a small farm.  Whenever you add a middle man you are devaluing your product.  Not only do wholesalers want your product cheap they also demand you use their packaging which adds to your cost not theirs.  I'm very angry about this and since this is my blog here it goes.  Wholefoods isn't as great as they make themselves out to be.  Remember what I said about a business is a business?  The free market doesn't care.  Well Wholefoods understands that very well.  A second place I dislike and will never do business with is Moceri.  We got into a position where we owed them money.  They threatened collections unless we sold them cases of strawberries for almost half what we normally sell them at wholesale.  The labor costs for picking them was barely covered.  They had us over a barrel and they took advantage of the situation.  The sad thing is that the guy who owns it used to be a farm manager at TMF.     I want to add some changes here.  First I was mistaken about Moceri.  I did not know the full situation.  Moceri is a family owned company that has been in business for generations.  They did not threaten collections.  One of their buyers, who used to be the farm manager at TMF, was the one who threatened collections.  Legally he could not do that - only the owners can.  So this just adds to the character of this man or more aptly detracts from it.  Second, wholesale has its place.  I still feel that wholesale is the death of a small farm if that is its only means of income.  It is dangerous to generalize situations.  Each business transaction for each product one produces should be scrutinized and generalizations should be avoided.  That said, I believe wholesale should be something that a small farm does after it has created retail markets for itself and perfected the quality of their product.  This way it is just another diversified income stream.

    I feel myself getting more angry at the second.  So forgive me if I lose objectivity here.

    12.  Dysfunctional Board - I've seen less people at a $1 black jack table in Vegas then on our board.  That was till lately.  Then the board consisted of two people.  One who was too vocal and the other non-existent.  We tried to get new members onto the board that could help us with building relationships, fundraising, marketing, and straight up business savvy.  But the existing board was like the worm in the apple.  Rotting the fruit from the inside.  No one wanted to be a part of that and I don't blame them.

    13.  Rent - This is what it came down to.  We were so far behind in rent that our landlords finally said enough is enough and they weren't renewing our lease.  I can't blame them.  They put up with us for so long.  We didn't cultivate a good relationship with them.  Life is all about relationships, nurture them and you will succeed.

    14.  Grant - I concede that I don't know much about it.  But here is what I do know.  It was a grant from the CDC to help fight childhood obesity.  From the grant grew the San Diego Growers.  The problem is that most places (like wholefoods) and institutions (like schools) require their sellers to have large insurance policy.  In the neighborhood of $5M.  Large distribution companies have these insurances and this is why they exist.  The small farmer can't really afford this.  So TMF acted as the umbrella for the SD Growers to become started.  This was all good.  UCSD administered the grant.  This means the CDC gave them the money and they then held onto it (and got and administration fee) and we got paid for all our grant work through them.  They made it a reimbursable grant - it didn't have to be, the CDC had no requirements for this.  So we had to spend the money, pay the bills from our operating income, then invoice UCSD to get paid back 3-4 weeks after we invoiced them.  You see how the problem compounds?

    So the problems that TMF faced where many and they fed into one another.  Also there were a lot of cohorts in the eventual demise - it wasn't just the staff.  In fact we tried very hard.  We just made mistakes and the farm wasn't in a position to bounce back from them.  Running a business is a complex thing to do.  I am sure that I missed more lessons learned and I'm also sure that some of what I wrote people will disagree with.  That's fine.  That's good even.  The important thing is to look at the situation and learn from it.  Take what you will.  This experience has been invaluable to me.

    I've tried not to be emotional about this post.  But I don't apologize for being angry.  A very wise woman told me it is ok to be mad at everyone involved.  Because it is those things that you care about that you are mad about.  Sit back and examine what they are and you'll see the things you value.  I'm very mad about Tierra Miguel closing.