If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the spring edition of edible South Shore. As well as finding some tasty looking recipes and articles on Community Supported Fisheries, CSAs and more, you’ll see an article by Dave and I about the creation of Plato’s Harvest… as well as some great photos of the farm. We’ll have copies at Thursday’s Plymouth Farmers’ Market, so come check us out!
For those of you who can’t make it, the article (sans pictures) is included below:
Recipe for a Farm
Like so many recipes, this one varies from place to place, family to family. Ingredients and preparation change and the final dish often differs in taste, appearance, or presentation. Sometimes the differences are subtle – were the ingredients organic? – or sometimes more pronounced – how many people will it feed?
Unlike many recipes, ours was not passed down from mother or grandmother. We’ve made it up as we’ve gone along and it changes all the time.
Dave first got a taste for farming gardening with his dad, raising chickens and pigs and working on nearby dairy and vegetable farms. The smell of the ingredients, freshly turned soil and finished compost, corn silage in January, and freshly baled hay, made him yearn to prepare his own dish one day. Finally in 2005, after many years and two careers he left a stable job, a good paycheck, and a 401k to follow his dream.
Our first step was to give our recipe a name… what made our dish unique? Well, members of our CSA are familiar with our long-time pet goats: Plato and his brother Einstein. Along with the laying hens, they play a role in an integrated farm plan, recycling nutrients and providing valuable compost material. They also provide us with endless hours of amusement, and contribute to the farm environment that provides our members with a rich and satisfying experience quite unlike that of purchasing vegetables from the supermarket shelf. At harvest time the goats are quite vocal in their insistence that our bins and their contents are intended for them, and not our CSA members and market goers, thus our name: Plato’s Harvest.
So let us begin with our core ingredients without which this wouldn’t be a farm.
Commitment and Passion
Farming is challenging, unpredictable, and extremely hard work. Choosing to farm organically even more so. It doesn’t pay well, you work through wet and cold weather and blistering hot days. You must have a genuine commitment and passion for the land, the food, the animals in your care, and the community you serve.
Patience and Flexibility
If you require project plans and schedules, and expect things to happen according to that plan, farming is not for you. The weather often dictates. Pests make their mark. Weeds invade. You plan one day to plant a new bed of lettuce, prepare a field for garlic, and harvest potatoes. Instead you spend the whole day weeding carrots, spraying cabbage for worms, and fixing the fence where the cow caught his horns and pulled it off of the posts. You plant, nurture and tie 2,000 tomato plants hoping for a bumper crop and 6 weeks later mow them down due to a fungus called late blight brought on by weeks of cold, wet, miserable weather. You don’t farm without a love of farming, and unless you can take these things in stride, there would be no love.
The heart of organic farming is the soil. Unlike conventional farming, organic farming doesn’t rely on the use of petroleum-based fertilizers. Instead, the practice relies on building up healthy soils through compost, cover crop, rock powders and crop rotation to provide rich nutrients to the plants as they mature. The quality of the tomato, swiss chard, or carrots are due in part to weather, skill, luck and variety selection, but also very much to the health of the soil in which they grew.
Have you heard the joke “How do you make a million dollars farming?” “Start with two million”. It’s true that no one is getting rich running a small, diversified, organic farm operation. The reason for all the hard work, the endless days that stretch through to endless weeks and then months, is to create and support a community of folks that appreciate the farm and the food, and want to support the farm in return. Our recipe depends on face-to-face direct sales to cover the costs of operation, and a team of eager volunteers to help out with the endless tasks.
Of course there are more ingredients that go into making the farm. We need seed, equipment, soil inputs, water, infrastructure, help, decent weather, and luck. These all impart subtle variations in flavor and texture and will vary each year based on availability, time, and often the mood of the day.
Once you have gathered ingredients, where do you begin? How do you know what to plant, how do you lay out the fields, how much seed do you sow? What does the recipe call for? Unfortunately, the recipe gets more vague at this point. We gain new experience with this each season and it changes year-to-year. It’s as much gut feeling and experience, as it is planning and yield charts.
The first year we started our CSA it was guesswork. We opened the seed catalogs and started ordering. We laid out the fields with regard to soil tests, crop requirements, and rotation in mind. And we took careful notes – record keeping and observation are important to perfect the recipe.
Year two got easier. We now had an historical plan of what had successfully fed 40 members. And now we had more land. We could feed more people. So we repeated the process of opening catalogs, placing orders, and laying out fields, with an eye toward scaling up.
Each year we refer to our notes from the previous season that may indicate that 1 bed of broccoli is not enough, 10 rows of turnips is too many, or that you can never have enough garlic or arugula. We see that our organic approach to avoiding worms in the sweet corn didn’t work, but that in a cold, wet season, transplanting rather than direct seeding is key. We find out, through experience, that waiting until mid-season to start brassicas will ease our flea beetle headaches, constructed shade will help with summer lettuce, and a different feeding schedule might result in something less than 40 lb turkeys. The preparation changes, but always includes reviewing records, soil testing, and rotation. The outcomes are often surprising, but somehow enough things come together to fill our members baskets and load the market tables with varieties of colorful, fresh, healthy and delicious food.
Serving this dish is as much about personal preference as choosing ingredients and preparation. We choose to primarily serve through the CSA model as it invites the most participation of its patrons. This gets folks involved and invested in the farm, encourages conversation and relationships between members, and keeps us involved in the stories of their lives throughout the summer.
We often encourage our members to serve themselves particular items such as peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, herbs and flowers. Letting our members and their families pick their own not only saves us the work but also affords them the opportunity to enjoy some time in the field and get a better sense of how their food comes to be.
Farmers markets offer another opportunity to serve and present the farm to a wider audience. Once folks have tried the dish they become repeat customers, regulars, and friends. And a local market offers a wealth of accompaniments for the dish, be it cheese, bread, honey, jellies, fruit or baked goods. We try to include some of these for our CSA members as well by partnering with local growers and food makers.
Serving is not only what keeps the farm viable financially, but is also one of the more rewarding aspects of the entire venture. Connecting with folks and sharing the result of our hard work rewards us with a great feeling of accomplishment. Their expressions of satisfaction and support are what keep us going.