Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Field Notes From The Farm -- May, 2009

Here's the third in my Dad's "Field Notes from the Farm" series:

May, 2009

Field Notes From The Farm

We mark the passage of time by celebrating major events.  Nationally, the Fourth of July comes to mind.  On a personal level, it might be a birthday or anniversary.  In the microcosm of our farm, we have two dates of significance since the last Field Note.  March 3, 2009 we made our first sale.  On April 27th, we mailed the completed application for organic certification of our farm.

The sale of our greenhouse produce is to the Santa Fe store of La Montanita Co-Op.  Richelle Elder runs the produce department there and she has been most supportive of our efforts.  Personally, we have been members of the Co-Op since 1993 when we first moved to New Mexico.  As a member owned market, the Co-Op functions on a community level and stands as a beacon of transparency, responsibility and fairness.  We have enjoyed the benefits of membership these many years and now have the opportunity to be a contributor as well as a consumer.  Valorie and I often joked in the past that we aspired to being peasants, but didn't have the cash flow to support that life style.  Well, we have turned the corner.  Our next objective is to turn a trickle into a flow.

Our application for organic certification ran to 82 pages plus a map of the farm.  Our thanks to Joannie Quinn of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission whose workshops and cheerful responses to our many questions turned an imagined nightmare into a rational production.  Piece of cake?   No.  Doable?  Yes.  However, it was an arduous process, but of great benefit.  We had to be explicit in developing our Farm Plan.  What crops are we going to grow?  Where is each crop going to be planted?  How are we preparing the soil?  What bugs are we going to get and what are we going to do about them?  There are many other questions that need answering, but they all come back to demonstrating a working knowledge and compliance with the rules of the National Organic Program (NOP).

Some growers choose not to become certified even though they may (or may not) be following organic practices.  We see the organic certification as an independent, third party endorsement that we are following NOP.  Granted, it is rule driven process, but it is an assurance to you, the consumer, that what you are eating has been raised and handled in accordance with strict guidelines.  NOP does not make the claim that organic food is better for your health, but that is the underlying assumption.  The federal government has usurped the word organic and it has now become a legal term.  No one is entitled to use the word unless they are certified to be in compliance with NOP.

Two quick examples of NOP approved practices in dealing with pests.  This falls into the classification of biological warfare.  We do have grasshoppers and they can be quite destructive.  Last year, and again this year, we are spreading Nolo Bait on the farm.  It is a biological insecticide approved by the EPA for use on grasshoppers.  It is actually a protozoan, Nosema locustae, which is ingested by the grasshoppers, reproduces inside the grasshopper and brings about their death.  Our other venture into biological warfare was to introduce a small parasitic wasp, Aphidius colemani, into the greenhouse to control aphids.  Each minute wasp lays hundreds of eggs, each one on a separate aphid, After three days the egg hatches inside the aphid and the wasp larvae starts eating the aphid from the inside.  Needless to say, the aphids do not last very long.  This will work well until late summer when our "good" wasp is in turn parasitized by a "bad" wasp.  The term for this is hyperparasitism.  I had no idea before that such complicated life styles even existed.  These biological remedies are completely safe from a human point of view.

Tis Spring.  Seed flats have been started and we will soon start our field planting.  As beginning organic farmers, we have not had the time to develop the full tilth of the soil.  This means we have to buy outside inputs, i.e. fertilizers.  Since we are adhering to organic practices, we have to use organic fertilizers that are certified to meet the NOP.  The cost is about $4,000.00 per acre.  In two fields,we will be planting a green manure crop of buckwheat and chickling vetch.  We can plow this down in 60 days, and in one field we can do this a second time before planting an over wintering crop.  The legumes will fix about 100 lbs of nitrogen per acre and the biomass will raise the organic content of the soil while lowering the pH.  We average about 8.1 pH, which is way too alkaline, and we need to bring it down to the neutral to slightly acidic range of 6.5 to 7.0 pH.  Natural soil sulfur is also used to lower the soil pH.

Obviously, such high input costs are not sustainable over the long run. In our country, industrial agriculture consumes ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food.  With the advent of "peak oil" (masked at present by the economic downturn), energy inputs are going to become progressively more expensive.  Industry professionals expect inflation-adjusted, baseline energy prices to triple or quadruple within ten years.  Can you say $10.00 for a gallon for gasoline?  $15.00?  Petroleum products are used to run the farm equipment, manufacture the tons of fertilizers and pesticides consumed and produce the fuel for the average 1500 miles from farm to table. There are going to be major displacements and changes of priority in our society as we internalize these price shocks.  Farm input prices will increase; food prices will increase; local agricultural production will become more important; discretionary income will be redirected to the necessities of fuel and food.

Nitrogen as a fertilizer does not have to be bought.  It is in the air we breathe.  Friendly soil bacteria in a symbiotic relation with legumes fix the nitrogen and release it into the soil.  It is the main task of the organic farmer to feed the incredible variety of soil organisms that build the soil, that nourish the plants we eat that nourish our good health.  John Jeavons of "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine" fame has calculated that you need to place 60% of your land in compost crops to be able to sustain a farm without outside inputs.  The information to achieve this goal does not exist.  We will help discover some of this know how in the years ahead.  Our plans for the future also include an active solar farmhouse, a wind generator on the property and an algae farm to grow our own biofuel.  A fully integrated, self-sustaining, organic farm holds great appeal for us.  We are excited and optimistic about the future.

David and Valorie Hutt
Earth Echo Farm, Tecolotito, New Mexico

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