Sunday, October 24, 2010

Passionate Pursuits

Nev-R-Dun Greenhouse
Perhaps the most telling insight I have into Tom Reinhardt of Nev-R-Dun Farm came from a brief exchange at the end of my visit. In an ill-worded question,

I asked, "so are you glad you're doing this?"
"Doing what?", he replied
"farming,... organically, I mean."
"well, I wouldn't say, glad, but someone's got to do it."
As we continued up the hill, he added, "I know I couldn't work for someone else."

I'm not sure exactly what had let me to ask whether he was glad about his work. I think in my mind it was: given all the obstacles we had discussed on the walk arond the property, it wasn't clear why he was choosing this path. And, so I wondered aloud, or meant to, is it worth it? is it fulfilling?

All the organic farmers - here meaning using organic methods - I've talked to are doing so in part on principle. They are concerned about the impact of chemicals and other synthetic products on people and the environment. But, Tom seems driven by principle. He's reserved, and he doesn't make small talk at his stand. Each week, though, he puts out an article about his farming experience in a series called, Tales of Idyllia. From these, you can get some insight into the passion he puts into his business. Ask him about something in one one of his writings, or about his perspective on organic farming, and you'll tap into a font.  He'll openly share the good and bad of his venture, as well as methods and hopes for the future. It doesn't ring of enthusiasm, though, but principle.

Tom has been organic farming for about 10 years now, having started as part of an effort to open an organic restaurant. The restaurant fell through, but the farming stuck.k Tom began selling his produce at the farmer's market and running a small CSA. He studied the methods of Eliot Coleman and kept detailed records. he began organic certification a few years ago. Now he farms his father's property outside of westminster, the home of the original Nev-R-Dun farm of a previous owner.

I guess Tom is lucky that his dad has a little land that he is willing to share. The alternative is to find land to rent or make a costly investment in property. For the average small farmer, these are options they can't afford. Almost everyone I know either is using land belonging to a family member or has some income to pay the land mortgage. But using someone else's property has it's own challenges. They might sell it, as has already happened to Tom, or want to use it for something else. You also have to deal with things like water.

Tom's farm is on a well, and his father uses that for his own needs. Tom is leery of draining that well, but in summers like this one, the plants need watering. Getting that water seems to be one of the most daunting challenges Tom faces. His own house is around a mile down the road. He owns a truck and big water containers. I think it's an 1100-gallon tank that fits on the truck.  He hauls water from his house to the farm and fills several other large containers to water the multiple fields. He's rigged drains to the two greenhouses to collect rainwater and hopefully feed the plants inside in the future. But most of the property needs water from elsewhere. It takes him fifty-four found trips to his home to fill the giant water tanks. Imagine the time and complexity of that. That's one hundred eight miles of driving for water. Ideally, he wouldn't do that much, but this Summer, it rained twice. He hauled a lot of water in that truck. With the water in the tanks, he then watered the fields by hand! Talk about carrying the water. He is rigging drip line systems, and he had one complete at my visit, to avoid the labor of hand irrigation in the future.
One of the water tanks at a field

The plots themselves seem very organized, with slightly raised 50' beds of four rows each. To be sure, there are weeds, but the layout seems particularly well planned. And it is. The crops are rotated according to family, so that a certain crop sees the same ground every 4-6 years. This cornerstone practice of organic farming helps dissuade insects and diseases. He keeps detailed records about his seeds and how they fair, both for certification requirements and to learn from his specific land. Unlike any number of folks I've spoken to who are daunted by the record keeping required for organic certification, Tom sees it as an important part of farming. I know my own efforts to track the details of my garden always seem to taper off over time, though I recognize the importance even in the home garden.

A major practice is seed saving: this are pollination cages to guarantee true seed

Another key practice is the winter cleanup. This is one area I definitely lag in within my own garden. Good thing I'm not a farmer. I usually find myself raking off the soggy leaf piles just after the crocuses have broken through, reminding me that Spring is coming. Last year though, we had three massive snow storms. The first came in mid-December and the cold and the follow-on storms prevented Tom from finishing his clean up before the perennials broke out in early spring. The consequence? Bean beetles destroyed his crop this year. And along with the rest of the mid-Atlantic, he's been terrorized by stink bugs. After my visit, I was more motivated to clean up this Winter. We'll see.

Now that we've had some rain, Tom's Fall plants seem to be coming along well. I always look forward to the bags of lettuce, and I love how he sells his cooking greens complete with roots. (I have no idea why does that, nor why it appeals!) Besides selling at the Tuesday and Sunday farmer's markets in Westminster, he runs a forty-three member CSA.

The CSA gives him some operating cash each year, but not a lot of wiggle room. A CSA isn't a very reliable business model (imho), however there aren't a lot of options for Tom and other small farmers to cope with their annual upfront costs. He juggles a lot of credit cards, rotating debt to keep cash available. In one conversation, he explained that if people thought it was tough to get a loan in this economy, it was nearly impossible for a small business like his to do so. Instead, they have to creatively manage their finances. When they have unexpected losses, like may had from the drought this year, or like Green Akeys had when a fox killed his chickens overnight - they have to absorb the loss somehow. You can only charge so much for a tomato. This year, instead of being about 75% of his income, his CSA is closer to 90% of his income. If you crunch the numbers, it ain't good. No gold is being made off this small venture.

So, I guess that's why I asked whether he was glad or not. And like he said, maybe glad isn't the word. I think passionate might be.

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