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colonial farmerAs we get ready to celebrate the founding of our nation, I have been thinking about our agrarian roots. Farming is as old as civilization and the foundation and lifeblood of our country. The very first settlers had to clear land and grow crops to survive. In my lifetime, my great grandparents farmed in northern Indiana and raised their family on the crops, eggs, milk and meat produced on their farm.

With all the technology and “progress” we’ve made in the intervening years, it’s looking more and more like that simpler way of feeding ourselves is better for our health and better for our planet. Small sustainable farms barely survived, but are now more important than ever. It’s an honorable tradition; and one that not only recalls our collective past, but may be the key to our future.

The following article speaks to the challenges – ancient and new – that our small farmers face in bringing the fruits of their labors to our Market.

Nate Parks, Silverthorn Farm

Nate Parks, Silverthorn Farm

When asked to talk about the struggles our farm or others face, I think it is best to begin with all the positive reasons why we do what we do. Emily and I truly love farming, and there is nothing else I can ever imagine doing! We get to take care of land that has been in Emily’s family for over 150 years. We have a great group of CSA members who have supported us through 3 farms in 8 years, the drought of 2012, two children, and all the ups and downs of farming. We sell at only two Saturday markets, where we are lucky to have a following of dedicated customers. The fact that we are able to farm and seek a full-time living off our land is a dream come true.

But all this comes with a cost, risks, sacrifices and many sleepless nights. A farm is so much more than the land and the products grown there. The complex layers of a small farming operation are all connected and when one piece fails, changes, or is done incorrectly, the whole organism is a mess. Weather! You hear it from us all the time — right? Why such a big deal? Here is a recent example of how things are affected by weather.

You may think the issues would be immediate and sometimes they are, but more often they are weeks ahead of or behind an event. On Thursday, June 19 we had 3 1/2″ of heavy rain in less than 2 hours on already saturated ground. Fridays are harvest days here, every week no matter what. Working in soil that is saturated to that extent is hard to put into words. The fields were flooded; soil floating across beds of lettuce mix, spinach, arugula and hundreds of heads of lettuce. Not only were a large part of the heads damaged beyond harvest-able condition, but the process of cleaning and removing the debris was 4 or 5 times the normal labor. That is the immediate problem with weather.

We try to cultivate our entire farm every 10 days. This rain came right before a round of cultivation was supposed to begin. On Saturday night, another ½” fell. This meant no field work for a least a week. Cultivation stopped, seedlings in the greenhouse got root-bound, direct-seeded crops didn’t get planted on time, and diseases brought on by non-stop rain flourished. All of these issues will have impacts down the road including more hand-weeding labor, lack of product at market on specific weeks (where the plantings 60 days earlier were not completed), and losses from decreased yield in low lying areas. Weather is a balancing act that all of us who farm react to as fast as we can, usually with fingers crossed for the best case scenario.

One of the most difficult parts of our business is selling our product, ALL of it, when we have it. Thankfully we have several  outlets for our produce. Our first priority will always be our CSA customers, second is the Patachou family of restaurants whom we deliver to twice weekly, and third is the markets where we vend on Saturday mornings.  Beyond this are smaller restaurant and natural food stores and our farm store. The markets have been about 60% of our income.

While farmers markets have no doubt built our farm, they are also the most variable. We can literally swing up and down by 30-50% in sales on any given week, depending on a huge array of circumstances. Our labor and fixed costs stay the same, so making cash flow work in these lean weeks or months can be a real challenge. This year in particular has been down overall from previous years. I think many factors are at play from lack of the right product on our end to the expanding options for “fresh local” food in central Indiana. This makes for ever-changing opportunity — and challenge.

Know that your support as market customers, customers of restaurants who support local foods, and/or participating in a local CSA all have strong and lasting impacts on the farms you are supporting.

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