May 11 Co-op update

I’m sure you’re all aware that we’re in our third week of rain without a break.  We really did need some rain but if you know who’s praying for rain, you can tell them to stop now.  I irrigated 5 times in April to try to get the greens going but they just did not like being in bone-dry ground resulting in heavy losses with the early crop.  I got a second crop out ahead of the rain and they’re doing well.  The last week of April I also got some warm- weather seed planted: sweet corn, green beans, yellow squash, zuchinni, cucumber, watermelon and some cantaloupe.  Last I checked, none of them have germinated.  They generally like to have a soil temperature around 80 and it’s no where near that.  If the rains do not stop, they will rot in place.  So with the early dry spell followed by the constant rain, it’s been difficult to get an early crop of anything out.  We planted 3,000 tomato plants in the field on May 2, which is early, but they are fine.  I tell folks that when it is cool out, tomatoes just sit there and pout….they just don’t grow.  We’ve had the sweet peppers out nearly as long, but they’re similar to tomatoes that like it hot.  If the weather changes to something more seasonal soon, I’ve got a lot of seed and plants in place that should blast off!

The rain saved the hay crop.  Had we not gotten the rain, the hay crop would have been very meager this year.  The 2,000 tree seedlings we planted in March are responding well as are the 80 fruit trees we planted in April.

I had plowed about 20 acres of new ground before the rain.  We’re stuck not being able to do much now as we cannot get on the fields as they are too wet.

Rest in Peace, Lynn

Lynn helping in the greenhouse
Lynn helping in the greenhouse

I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Holmes while we were open for Farm Tour September 26, 2015.  It was her energy, assistance and quest for an outlet for local organic produce that led the the formation of the Co-op this year.  She was here helping with pumpkin and tree sales most of last year.  It was by her insistence that I started the orchard this year.  Her cancer returned with a vengeance and she passed on April 30.  We will all certainly miss her vibrant personality and endless enthusiasm.

Headed to Farmer’s Market?

Many have asked why I don’t do the Farmer’s Market.  I’ve tried but most markets just are not farmer friendly.  Many charge steep fees and require you to be there (like now, the last of April) when produce is not available.  One might reply, “I see many farmers there so what’s your problem?”  As a correction, you see many vendors there but the farmers are few and far between.  Most of the vendors in our metro area have no clue where the produce was grown.  They buy at produce auctions and resell at farmer’s markets…every day of the week.  If you see tomatoes this time of year, they’re not from around here…most likely Florida.  Most markets set fines and penalties for not stocking produce during the off-season.

Back in the late 90’s I stopped operating the pumpkin patch for a few years but kept growing pumpkins on a small scale.  The registered vendors had the locks on the Manassas market on Thursdays but it was open to anyone on Saturdays so I took a truck load of pumpkins in on a Saturday in October.  I was one of twelve selling that day.  The young lady next to me was very friendly and inquisitive.  She was curious where I got the pumpkins from as they did not look like a variety that anyone else had.  All the vendors knew each other well and knew where each got their produce from.  She told me that I was the only one at the market that grew the produce.  If I had not been there that day, there would not have been a single farmer in the lot.  I got a newsletter yesterday from Local Harvest News that outlines the same situation in Florida….it’s nationwide.  I will paste the newsletter below.

How can one tell the difference?  By asking the right questions such as: What kind of green beans are those?  What variety of tomato is this?  Is it determinate or indeterminate?  If they answer green, red and yes, they’re faking it.  What is the address where your farm is located?  Or will pay a modest sitting fee if I could come to your farm and paint a painting of your produce.  Make no doubt about it, the imposters will get ruffled feathers.  I’ve been know to go through a market and ask such questions just for fun and see the tension rise.  It’s kinda like going through the apiary and hitting each bee hive with a sledge hammer (no, I wouldn’t do that!).

I bring this up because I believe in food honesty and traceability.  The supermarkets are quite diligent about food safety with the food-borne illnesses that have come through in the past 20 years.  If a bunch of folks get sick from cantaloupe from a store, they can track it down pronto!  Not so much from a farmer’s market.

As far as I know, I’m still on the wait-list (5 years) to be the only Certified Organic farmer in the Falls Church and Fairfax City Farmers Markets.  Not holding my breath.

LocalHarvest Newsletter, April 29, 2016
Keeping Markets Honest

Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.

Unlike the calm blue water lapping at its Floridian shores, the latest series in the Tampa Bay Times is making some giant waves. The “Farm to Fable” series written by restaurant critic Laura Reiley exposes some unsavory issues that shake the foundation of the local food movement. The first article points out dishonesty in the restaurant trade about the provenance of their so-called “local” ingredients. The second article in the series exposes pervasive and egregious fraud in the farmers markets of the Tampa Bay region. This is by no means a “Florida thing”- I have experienced first-hand similar issues when I farmed in California and heard about it from others farmers around the country. What may be one of the most important and financially viable ways for farmers to sell their freshly harvest goods may also be a place where consumers are being lied to in some cases. That is not a story anyone wants to tell, but keeping an industry honest is important for both the producers and the consumers.

I wanted to find out if the problem of produce resellers posing as farmers was in all farmers markets in Florida so I called a friend of mine who has a 60 acre mixed organic farm up near Gainesville and sells at 6 farmers markets a week. Amy Van Scoik of Frog Song Organics, a Local Harvest member since 2011, says that she attends some “producer-only” markets such as the Alachua County Farmer Market, where growers are only allowed to sell items they grew or raised themselves. Reselling is not allowed. Consumers frequent this market because they know they are supporting Florida growers and getting some of the freshest food around. Farmers must possess a growers permit issued by their local Extension office to even sell there, which is written documentation of the farming location and the items that the farmer grows or raises. Although it’s not a perfect protection against fraud, Amy feels pretty confident that nearly everything sold at that market is locally produced.

Other markets her farm attends do allow some resellers. Amy figures that as long as the resellers are being honest about where and how the produce is grown, she thinks it probably helps to attract more customers to those markets. It’s when the resellers lie and say they grew something or when they label something “no spray” and then sell it for cheaper than her certified organic produce is when she believes it is unfair competition. That is beginning to change as some market managers are no longer allowing unverified production claims on produce or meats.

Her farm, unlike the resellers or the fake farmers, is open to the public a couple times a year for a farm tour. She likes it when her customers ask questions and come out on a tour- it builds their trust in her farming business and begets more loyal patrons. She encourages them to ask questions of other vendors too.

But for some fledgling farmers markets or ones located in areas with few farmers, they often have little choice but to invite some produce resellers if they want to actually have fresh produce at their markets. Amy also thinks that practice is fine as long as everyone is being honest and food is accurately labeled. Some markets that have removed the resellers have then found themselves with no produce vendors and consequently, a dwindling customer base.

On the other side of the country is the Portland Farmers Market, which is actually a non-profit association of 8 different markets. Oregon does not have a growers permit system like Florida, or the more cumbersome Ag Department certification that farmers have to go through in California to ensure they grew what they sell. The Portland Farmers Market works hard to build relationships with their vendors and aims for more of a personal vetting system rather than farm inspections. Their Executive Director, Trudy Toliver is not a fan of more regulations, licensing, and fees for farmers and food producers. She thinks their system works and eliminates nearly any chance for fraud.

Trudy believes more in a self-policing strategy in which customers or farmers that suspect a vendor did not grow or make something themselves can simply report it to the market management. The markets have a clear complaint process and follow up on every written complaint that somebody may make. Likewise, each vendor must reapply every year and fill out a lengthy application listing where they farm, what they produce, or in the case of prepared foods, where their ingredients come from. The PDX markets also require that value-added foods (prepared or processed) contain at least 25% Oregon ingredients. This has really amped up the demand for Oregon grown foods and helped many farms scale up. With more than 700,000 shoppers and 240 vendors, these markets are having an impact of more than $8 million dollars in sales annually. They are especially proud of the numerous small businesses that got their start there.

We at Local Harvest love the concept of farmers markets- a marriage of public space, community-building, values-driven commerce, and agrarian ethics. We think that most farmers markets and most vendors are honest and work hard to follow ethical procedures and management. So don’t let a few rotten apples spoil the bushel- keep supporting your local farmers markets, ethical farmers, and just keep asking questions.

-Rebecca Thistlethwaite


Warm season seeds planted

Despite being a bit below average in the temperature, we’ve got the first batch of warm season seed planted; sweet corn, string beans, zuchinni, yellow squash, cucumber and watermelon. One of the dangers of planting too early is the seed will not be worm enough to germinate and will sit in wet ground and rot. The ground is so very dry this year, I don’t think that will be an issue. Another danger is that all of these crops will get frosted since none of them will tolerate frost. Our last two late frosts were May 10, 2010 and May 14, 2013. We’re going a little light on the first planting…just in case.

What does “Organic” mean?

In the most basic terms, Organic means that something is grown in a natural state as intended by nature.  This would exclude all synthetic products including fertilizer, pesticides and GMOs.  In the 20th century, ‘organic’ was arbitrary and poorly defined so the USDA got involved early in this century and set up guidelines.  They virtually put a patent on the word, “organic”, in that the only people that could use the word to describe their product were those that were “certified organic”.  The NOP (National Organic Program), a subsidiary of the USDA, has authorized over 50 entities to be ‘organic certifiers’.  None of them are based in VA.  The certifiers are continually monitored and audited by NOP.  To become certified organic, the farmer must keep a bunch of crop and field records.  Any field must have a 3 year history of organic practices.  There is about a 50 page application that needs to be filed with a certifier along with payment.  A lot of the application is somewhat repetitive  but it is very precise to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.  If the paperwork is good, they will send out an inspector that will gather information on records, field layout and verify buffers.  The authorized person back at the main office will issue the certificate if everything is clear.  If not, they could ask questions or re-send an inspector.  I was the first grower to be issued an organic cerfificate in PW County on August 1, 2011.  To maintain an organic certificate, the grower must fill about 30 pages of renewal and submit to inspection every year.

Once a grower gets an ‘organic certificate’ they can call their product organic.  The only exception is for gardeners that wish to sell small amounts with gross sales under $5,000/year.  They are still subject to all the record keeping requirements.  If a grower violates the rule and labels product as organic that is not, they are subject to a $10,000 fine.  Unfortunately, NOP is very lax on enforcement.

You may have heard folks say that organic products still get sprayed with junk.  There is a sliver of truth there.  NOP rules allow products to be applied IF they have the OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) approval label and IF it is preappr0ved by the certifier.  All the materials approved by OMRI occur naturally in nature…somewhere.

So how do you know if your potential purchase has OMRI stuff on it?  You’d have to ask the grower.  A lot of it does, mine does not.  I do have some OMRI products but I have never used them.  I also have a clean dedicated sprayer that has never been used.  I even have permission from my certifier to apply my OMRI stuff….but don’t.  My inspector has renewed confusion every year when we broach the subject.  I simply tell them it is my safety net.  An analogy is one driving around with a spare tire in the car.  You hope you never have to use it, but when you need it, it sure is nice to have it on standby….same thing.

Everyone that has received my Co-op proposal also got a copy of my latest Organic Certificate.  I am a big proponent of visibility.  I believe it is very important that you can see where your food comes from.  More on that in another post.


Planting for the future

We’re so excited about our new Organic Co-op, that we’re already trying to load new produce into the future.  This past week, we planted 35 peach trees and 45 apple trees.  Unfortunately they won’t bear for another 5 years.  We don’t want to wait 6 or 7 years out to see what kind of production we’ll get before planting more so at this point if they just survive through the year, we’ll plan on doubling down on the trees.  These are located in the first field next to the neighbor’s llama fence.  We’ll keep you posted on how they do.

Another produce item into the future is asparagas.  I’ve maintained a small patch of Mary Washington asparagas for about 25 years.  In the past couple years I’ve tried establishing a larger patch by planting seed.  It seems I’ve been spinning my wheels so this year, the week before planting the trees, we planted 3,000 asparagas crowns.  1,000 are purple passion and the other 2,000 are Jersey Knight.  These are located in the third field where the lane meets the creek.

The third try for the year is the most difficult to grow.  Rhubarb likes a cool climate with very cold winters.  We’re pretty much south of the “happy range”.  In an effort to reduce some of the heat stress, I planted most of it on the back side of the Mary Wash. asparagas next to some trees to shade it half the day.  I found some seed, which is much cheaper than starting from crowns and started 400 in the greenhouse back in March.  So far it is hanging in there.

All produce will be certified organic, of course.