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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why did Tierra Miguel Farm Close? Part 1

Why did Tierra Miguel close?  That is a convoluted question.  I was once told in my Navy career "never air our dirty laundry."  What I am writing here isn't written out of spite nor is it passing judgement.  I want to attempt to capture the salient points so that TMF can still help others - if by avoiding them.  Also when I was volunteering at La Milpa, one day I got an email from Lesley saying the farm was closing due to labor issues.  Then that was it.  There was no closure.  Perhaps this will supply some.

First, the farm isn't exactly closed at this time.  Operations have been suspended.  The limited staff is all gone or there isn't enough to complete the job.  The second to final blow was the lack of operating funds.  But before we get to that we should look at what started all of this.

1.  Location, location, location - It is probably the most important.  An hour from San Diego and an hour and a half from Los Angeles was too much.  Even though we delivered it was too much.  The amount of time it took to get the deliveries to the customers was too much.  If we got off schedule by the slightest bit it had a domino effect so that the last stop of the day we were a good hour or more late.  Then there was the cost of the gas and driver.

We did try and get customers to the farm.  But with such a drive very few people wanted to come out on a regular basis.  So to get people out we had to do something big that took manpower we didn't have.  The events we did have were nice but could have been much better.

2.  Debt - This one will kill any farm.  We had debt from the very beginning and we continued to amass more.  Most of it from the grant that we were working.  I'm going to touch on that one at the very end because, though I didn't have anything to do with it, I am not pleased with the grant in any form.  But the number two thing to do is be debt free.  You can't survive with debt hanging over your head in this line of work and be small.  You need to create an economy of scale if you want to play around with debt. 

3.  Lack of continuity and poor management - I like to look at unicorns as much as anyone.  I also like to be one with nature and let the universe take care of things for me.  But then I smack myself out of my nap and hit the Quickbooks.  A business is a business.  It doesn't matter if it saves lives or helps end them.  The rules of a free market don't care how altruistic a businesses' goals are.  They only care about the bottom line.  Period.  The type of people that gravitate to a biodynamic farm are incredible but rarely do they possess the business acumen necessary.  Then there is the problem of continuity.  Again the type of person who finds themselves drawn to a place like TMF soon finds themselves drawn somewhere else.  I think this is great, personally, not business-wise though. 

4.  Lack of a clear vision - This goes hand and hand with lack of continuity.  Every time someone new came about there were new ideas.  Ideas are great.  But ideas don't pay the bills.  Results from tangible actions do.  But rarely did a new idea blossom to completion.  Some of you out there might be familiar with the term "change management."  There are CEOs out there who get the mega-bucks and their only job is to get a business through a transformation - transformational leadership is what it is called.  These guys and gals don't run a business on a daily basis, I think some wouldn't even be that good at it.  But what they excel at is taking a business and turning it around and/or leading it through a major change.  And when it is done they leave.  That is their skill set and it is rare and very valuable.  So how could a small non-profit like TMF expect to go through constant change and succeed?

I'm getting myself all worked up so I am going to leave it at this for now.  I'll put up Part 2 tomorrow.

Monday, June 20, 2011

New Beginnings

We have completely moved to our new apartment that is closer to the beach, and nearly finished cleaning the old one for turning over.  Hopefully we'll get some of our security deposit back!  The only thing that is an inconvenience in this whole thing is we don't have internet at the new place till tomorrow night.  So we've been back and forth to the old apartment to use the internet.  In time all things work themselves out.

The new apartment is closer to Mel's work so she is biking in to work.  That with the cheaper rent will help out a lot.  I am also starting the internship with Suzie's Farm this Tuesday.  I'm very excited about this opportunity.  There are so many aspects of farming that it seems like a year isn't enough time.  Well it's put up or shut up time! 

What else is going on right now for us?  Well we just signed our contract with the wedding venue.  I'm sending that out this week with our first deposit - gulp!  It's completely worth it - especially if Mel reads this :)

Work on the book that is preventing me from drinking has stalled again.  It's a process.  Bleu is healing up nicely from her puncture wound from Dusty.  And no Erin, you don't have to pay half.  Apparently, Bleu has been howling when we leave the apartment.  Mel got a call from the office complaining about it.  We'll figure something out.  That was one of the best things about working at TMF - I could bring Bleu during the day.  One more year and she'll have her own farm to run around on.

That's it for now.  Everything is in transition and will get settled down in the next week.  Then the real planning ahead happens!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Welcome to Imagines Farm

Welcome to Imagines Farm

My heart is extremely heavy these days.  Tierra Miguel Farm is closing.  I hope to, in the next couple of days, put down in a post what exactly happened to lead to its closing.  However, when one door closes another opens. 

I was really upset about losing that part of my life.  The plan was that Mel and I would stay out here in SD for another year.  During that time I would be the Farm Manager at TMF and learn what I needed to run a farm.  With TMF closing that kind of alters our plan.  Needless to say I was, and am, apprehensive about what is next.  Earlier this week I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't fall back asleep.  My mind turned on and started thinking about all the negatives.  It is funny how you can work yourself up.  I finally stumbled onto a solution at about 5 a.m. and it's simplicity is staggering. 

I got up and logged onto the computer and bought the domain name for Imagines Farm.  Our farm in TN is only a year away.  Why not start it now?  Why wait to get to TN, get jobs, find land, then start 6 months to a year after that?  There is no reason why we can't be ready to start as soon as we move to TN in a year.  In the mean time I'm going to try and work at as many farms/orchards/vineyards as possible over the next year.  We'll finish the farm's business plan and put into place as much as possible.

So that is what this blog is about.  I'm deleting all the other "stuff" I've tried to do in the past.  I think they were just practice for this one.  This blog will be about how we build the farm from nothing, starting from halfway across the country.  When possible I'll share parts of our business plan in case someone is looking to do the same or for general critiques.  I also want to explore why farms close and the importance of organic, nutrient dense food.  Another important subject I would like to talk about is food justice and how it applies to all of us. 

How we settled on the name

We settled on the name because of its double meaning.  Obviously the literal meaning inspires one to use their imagination when they talk about the farm.  We want to create a new type of farm that combines the best of what is out there:  Permaculture, Organic, Biodynamic, Natural Farming, Grass Pasturing and on.  We believe we can steward - not create - a place that is more productive by working with nature.  This will go beyond mimicking nature, which most of the new progressive farming techniques try to do, and actually be a part of it.  We also want to integrate the human side into this farm; by providing jobs, stability to local economies, perfect food, community, and wildlife habitat protection and restoration for generations to come.  We want you to help us imagine the possibilities.

The other meaning of the word comes from biology.  "The imago is the last stage of development of an insect, after emergence from the pupa where the metamorphosis is complete. The imago is often referred to as the adult stage.  The Latin plural of imago is imagines."  [1]  It's pronounced with a long a and a long e.

I think this is going to be a fun and challenging year!  We've always been working toward this goal but now it is beginning to materialize.  We hope you'll follow us as we build a farm and a business.  Offering encouragement and constructive critiques along the way.