Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sneak Peek

I updated this site yesterday, including the sign up information for 2013. That means you can now officially sign up for the spring 2013 through winter 2014 seasons (and take a look at what the plan is projecting). I'm putting this out there in a low key way because the name of the farm is changing soon, very soon, and so when that happens there'll be a big announcement. But you don't need a big announcement do you?

The other thing that will be changing is that I'll continue to add new pick up sites as options, no timeline on that one yet though. If you have a spot you'd like to have vegetables delivered definitely let me know. And let all of your friends know, we've got a lot of shares to sell this season, plenty to go around.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Post Freeze Harvest

A few days late, but still looking pretty good. The parsnips look better than I've ever had them, big and fat and a nice bunch for the shares. This is all of them and they keep well in the fridge if not used right away. For example, we've had a mass of parsnips in our fridge for about three months now, which we are slowly making a dent in, and they are still delicious. There's a leek in there for some allium goodness, and also a small bunch of collard greens and a head of sugarloaf chicory, also known as pan di zucchero. 

The sugarloaf usually keeps pretty well but it definitely has signs of frost damage. I ate one earlier and it was delicious, but they may not keep very well. Some of them have a little browning on the leaf tips, which can just be torn off. There may also be translucent sections, which if eaten right away are fine, but are essentially dead and will allow decay to start if stored warm for too long. Sugarloaf is very much like other chicories, good raw, but also a fine candidate for cooking either by roasting whole or halved, or tossing into a stew. 

The collards are small and haven't grown well, mostly due to slugs. This cold weather should have sweetened them up quite a bit. They are like kale but I find them tougher and so they need a bit of extra cooking.

If you haven't had parsnips before they are like an incredibly sweet, soft carrot. I don't know anyone who eats them raw, they're slightly fibrous for that, but cooked in almost any way they become very sweet. Before sugar was commonly available I've heard that parsnips were used to sweeten pies and I believe it. I also like making latkes with them, either alone, or mixed with potatoes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2012 Financials

No photo today, just a few cold hard numbers. Every year I try to do a little analysis of how the farm did the previous year. This year the numbers are a little warped due to the extra work of starting the farm move, but they're in the ball park I think. As an average of all hours worked on the farm, including field work, harvest, deliveries, and office time in 2012 I made about $7.50 and hour - definitely not hitting my goal of $11/hr.

It is somewhat unusual, in my experience, for new farm owner/operators to keep track of their hours and I talk to a lot of young farmers who have no idea how much they're making per hour. I also meet with too many farmers who don't pay themselves at all, and all they have to show for their significant labors each year is whatever value their is in the business and the assets that the farm owns. I can understand if folks aren't making money in the first few years as they invest in the long term success of the business, my understanding is that this is common in many business start ups. Regardless, it's been important for me to track my numbers so I can understand how I'm doing with some level of detail, and what it is that I need to do better.

This years number of $7.50/hr was definitely impacted by extra work developing new beds in town for the winter harvest and having to rework the plan mid season to accommodate the move. Adding bicycle delivery to the mix was probably the biggest single piece of downward pressure on the dollars per hour numbers. It's interesting to note that if I took out just the extra time spent on the bike and instead considered them recreation (isn't that what going on a bike ride is?) my hourly income for 2012 would be closer to $8.50 per hour. Even knowing that, I'm much happier taking the pay cut and riding the bike, which goes to show you can't just look at the numbers.

2012 was also my heaviest administrative cost year. I scaled back the farm this year, which didn't significantly change the planning work required, but did reduce the number of shares paying for that planning. Next year, 2013, that trend will reverse as we quadruple in size, and it will be interesting to see how much it saves the farm.

For comparison, in 2011we had a good year and made about $9.50 /hr, which is talked about in this post. In 2010 we doubled the farm size from the previous year, but didn't do a good job of selling the extra shares, and in fact we reduced our delivery range which also made it harder to sell more shares. That year we only made about $6.50 per hour. On paper 2009 was our best year with an income of $9.80/hr.   I think one of the major contributing factors there was that we did a good job of selling all of our shares and not having extras. We also really scrimped on tools and supplies that year and so while we made a little extra money because of it, we suffered a bit physically as a result. To put it mildly our set up was not very ergonomic in many cases that year. We paid for that a bit in 2010 as we upgraded systems.

A couple of other interesting numbers, at least to me. The farm grossed about $60,000 per acre in 2012, and expenses were about 25% of the gross. With a little work I think we can actually drive that gross per acre up a bit, although in 2013 I think it will go down, as the new site encourages us to spread out a little more than we would have in the past. I'm also guessing that our expense as a percent of gross will continue to grow, as it's quite low right now, and has gone up slightly every season.

Looking ahead to the 2013 season, we're being very optimistic with our projections. By taking advantage of some of the equipment available to us on the new property and by increasing our labor to management ratio I'm hoping we'll be able to come close the $11/hr average that has been my goal since starting the farm. I'll let you know how it goes next January.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bicycle Deliveries

Bike share station in Washington DC

"I got hooked on biking because it’s a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures. But it does all these things, too — and sometimes makes us a little self-satisfied for it; still, the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does."I ran across this great quote by David Byrne today from an excellent article he wrote in the New York Times last May and I immediately connected with it. 

If you've been reading this blog you know that I started delivering all of the CSA shares by bike this year. I've been doing this in all kinds of weather, with all kinds of loads, since I got the bike in June. Doing a straight forward cost analysis of bicycle delivery vs. car delivery there's no way it makes sense over the distance I travel, not that's it's particularly expensive, but my car was just so cheap the way I used it. Like Mr. Byrne, I got hooked because it's a pleasure, and I appreciate all of the other benefits as well, none of which come with doing deliveries by car. 

In 2013 the farm is moving, and expanding, and even though the ride will be a little longer I'm still planning on doing deliveries by bike. Some folks think I'm nuts, and maybe I am and I'll realize my folly. Probably some of the shares will end up being delivered by car, just because of the expansion and I won't be the only one doing deliveries any more. Those details are still being worked out, but I'm optimistic and I think we'll be able to deliver most my bike.

I just got back from Washington DC where I was really impressed with the bike share program they have there, and that folks seemed to actually be using it (based on a short walk I took where I saw two separate users within just a few blocks). It's incredible to see the change in bicycles and bicycle culture here in the US in the past decade. Change like that makes me very optimistic for the future, not just that folks will live in a more environmentally responsible way, but that they'll live more pleasurable lives. Part of the thinking behind the farm is to not only look at how we can produce and distribute good, clean, fair food, but also how we can do it in a way that's more pleasurable for everyone involved. 

Monday, January 21, 2013


The above photo was taken on the ground in the "fields" at 1pm, still frosty. This means I'm rescheduling this week's harvest for Thursday and hoping that it thaws by then. I can't really assess the crops until things thaw out, and the yards aren't getting a lot of sun these days so they really need it to warm up for a few days before they can come out of this extended freeze. The forecast isn't clear on when that'll be, but right now Thursday looks like our best bet. 

Meanwhile, planning and set up for the spring continues with office work and more seed orders being delivered all the time. I'm a bit late on announcing 2013 prices and availability, but let me just say that my target is to have it out by the end of January, and we're quadrupling the number of shares available in 2013 so I'll be looking to all of you good readers to spread the word when I get that posted. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Farm in a box

I just unpacked three of six of my seed orders today. It's like Christmas all over, very exciting. Always crazy to think that basically all of the plants for the entire farm will come from that box of seed. 

I got a nice little note on a sample pack from Dan at Seeds From Italy. I've actually tried the variety in the past and if you're looking for stand out radicchio check out the special selections from Franchi available through Seeds From Italy. I'm still waiting on some of my other chicories from my friend Frank at Wild Garden Seed - not as flashy, but they've been solid performers, especially in the cold. 

Now I've just got to get the propagation house up and running so we can start seeding.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Winter 2013

The first winter share of the year, the first share of 2013, and the first Slow Hand Farm share harvested entirely inside the Portland city limits. As a transitional strategy between the Sauvie Island farm location and the new Sherwood location, I planted the winter crops in my backyard and my neighbor's backyard. Today's harvest was interesting, figuring out new little systems for packing the shares in a new space, and figuring out what survived the wet, warm fall and the holiday freeze. Winter harvests are always the biggest guess of all the seasons. I already have seen some crop failures, which is par for the course every year, but I can never really tell what's going to be good until it's actually harvested. Today's share has leek, escarole, radicchio, kale and a sample of salsify. 

Salsify is probably the most unusual vegetable in there, although I do grow it every year. It's also called oyster root and typically I scrape off the skin of the root with a knife (at which point it bleeds white, sticky sap that browns easily) and then I either chop it up and boil it until tender, or slice it and fry it until golden. Boiled it does taste a bit like oyster. Fried, it's very sweet and you have to be careful not to burn it.

The escarole, radicchio and kale all have a little freeze damage, dead spots on the leaves which can easily be torn out before cooking. They should be dealt with right away as they will shorten the storage life of the vegetables. The freeze did help sweeten them up though. I really like the escarole and radicchio in salad. They are slightly bitter, slightly sweet, and crunchy. I liked them sliced fairly thin. Soaking in cold water helps crisp them up and remove bitterness. Oil, lemon and salt makes a great dressing. I like kale sauteed and for that it helps to cut out the stems, chop them up and cook them a little longer than the leaves.

Leek, excellent sauteed like onion, used in soup, baked in bread or biscuits, baked whole by itself... It's just a fantastic vegetable.

I hope you all had a great holiday. I'm excited to be back to harvests and there's lots of work coming up getting the new farm site up and running.