Farmer John Writes: Is the Weather Your Friend?

 In Farm News

Harvest Week 1, June 23rd – 29th, 2020

Welcome to Our 2020 Season, Our First Week of Deliveries
I’m not the sort of person who says “the weather is unusual this year.” If a spring is typical, that’s unusual, but I’m not sure, in 63 years of farming, that I have ever seen a typical spring. Some members of the farm crew say “you can’t trust the weather report anymore.” It would be unusual if you could trust it. Yesterday morning (Saturday), we planned to be inside the barn (aka. bagging emporium) all morning, preparing for our first pack on Monday, because of the relentless rains that were forecast. All morning long, however, we were out in the hot June sun, weeding and seeding, watching the west as it teased us with dark, brooding clouds, then glistening blue sky.

If Weather Were a Person, Would You Be Friends With It?
Do you think weather cares about what you want, that it takes you into consideration when you plan a weekend at the beach, a cookout, a ball game? Is weather your foe, your friend, your ally?

weather rules

The Weather This Spring and Your Share This Week
This spring was very cold until mid-May. We got our crops in the ground in a timely way, and there they languished, because they need heat to grow. Then some rains came and some heat came and then the rains stopped and there sat your crops because the heat came but the rains stopped.

Normally (if there is such a thing as normally and I suppose there might might be, sort of) the summer squash, cabbage, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, spring carrots and beets would be further along by now. The past three springs they were mired in mud; this spring, they are delayed by drought and heat (well, first cold, then heat.) Yes, we have irrigation, though the past few years, due to flooding, it has been folly to go to the trouble to set it up. We’ll set it up this week (unless it rains early in the week. Rain is predicted, but so what?)

When Local is Sometimes Not Poetic
Because we kept expecting rains and did not set up the irrigation yet, and because the temperatures have been so high, the broccoli is not pristine. Spring broccoli in the Midwest often succumbs to excessive heat. The broccoli heads start separating when they are still small, and either we harvest them small, and a little tattered, or we lose them. (One way to know which shareholders read this newsletter is to notice which ones complain about the spring broccoli.)

COVID-19 and the Season
We plant a lot of Asian greens—arugula, mizuna, baby choi. They have to be covered, due to flea beetles. We couldn’t get the row cover delivered on time this season, due in a certain labyrinthian way to COVID-19’s impact on the supply chain. The cover came very late, by which time your baby Asian greens were eaten by flea beetles.

That’s Not All
But there’s more—the last several years of flooding have created an astounding proliferation of weeds, more weeds than can possibly be controlled by our crew of over 20 hard-working people. Our weeding costs for labor here are about $2500 per day. To control the weeds in those baby greens would cost probably $7500 per day. Buggy and weedy, these crops that would normally be in your box have been tilled back into the soil. I elaborated about weeds in an earlier edition of Farm News this season:  Important Update about Your First Delivery. If you missed it, please check it out; it will connect you more to your farm (which I consider to be the most important part of the CSA experience.)

half of the crew weeds spring carrots

Now we have the row cover to protect future seedings of Asian greens from flea beetles. Also, the weed pressure begins to diminish around this time of the year, so I have recently seeded many beds of baby greens for your future boxes.

Radishes and Turnips
If you chose to receive radishes or turnips in your share this week, know that their leaves suffered the same fate of no row cover. They were too tattered from flea beetle damage to bunch, so we cut off the leaves and simply bagged the radishes and turnips. Some of the radishes also suffered from the heat and became a bit tough or pithy—sorry if you receive some of these. In general, the radishes are crisp and juicy, but not all. Wondering again, Is the Weather Your Friend?

This week’s cilantro is not stellar. The drought and heat made it bolt prematurely, and some of the leaves are not pristine. However, it tastes great, so we have made it available for your share this week.

Beyond Weeds and Weather
I realize that my farm report so far might seem a bit dismal, but really, the fields have not looked this good in years. Except for the fields of baby greens, where we had to let the weeds and bugs win, the rest of our fields are splendidly weed-free and, though a bit late in development, they are robust. It’s a breathtaking sight to tour the fields, and to notice that somehow the weather and the crew cooperated to offer a picture of an idyllic vegetable farm.

The Value of Your Box
Some of our shareholders decide that the value of their box is determined by calculating the value of extras that are available to purchase. The items that go into your box are assigned a value that is not the same as the value of the extras that you might choose to add to your box, or that you might choose to swap for an unwanted item that gets assigned to your box.

The extras are usually priced at less than the vegetables that are automatically assigned to your box through the customization process, because the extras are in surplus, and they might even be a different quantity than what is assigned to your box. For instance, this week’s default lettuce quantity, for someone whose share is customized with lettuce, is 2 heads of lettuce (the nicest lettuce we have raised in years.) The extra lettuce that is listed is for one head of lettuce, not two.

first lettuce harvest

Further, there are about 12 radishes in each bag we are offering. If the radishes were bunched, there would be 6 to 8 radishes in a bunch. So, the portion of radishes this week is about twice the number of radishes you would normally receive if we bunched them.

Back before we began to customize boxes, it was not possible to monetize the various items in the box. That was more in the spirit of Community Supported Agriculture (and much easier on the farm.) Of course, value is an important consideration for how people spend money, but the social, cultural and freshness value of a CSA share and the value of having a thriving organic farm in the community are hard to assign dollar amounts to.

Volume vs Value, a CSA Conundrum
We used to provide our shareholders with un-customized boxes, full to the brim. Some of what was in a box was not what a shareholder wanted and it might have gone to waste—waste, a moral, ecological and economic issue. So, we went to box customization. It’s much less fun on the farm to customize boxes, poring over harvest estimates, squinting at box labels to figure out what to include in the box and what to exclude, maybe running out of an offered item due to some inventory glitch and then not being able to easily substitute an un-customized item. Further, when a box contains mostly high value items like garlic, garlic scapes, herbs, or heirloom tomatoes, it can seem like a skimpy box, because it’s maybe half full, but it’s half full with items that are twice as expensive or valuable per unit of volume as say kale or bunched carrots or Chinese cabbage.

A full box implies bounty, but it might contain items that will never be used, leading to waste. But to look at waste through a different lens, the cost for the farm to customize your box is astounding. Renting the Harvie platform to customize is bewilderingly expensive—many tens of thousands of dollars per year. Further extra cost to the farm of customizing due to micro-management, inventory control, and tedious harvest projections amounts to many more tens of thousands of dollars per year. We took this customization process on as a service to our shareholders. Some love it; some simply accept it; some don’t like it at all.

I personally prefer filling a box above the brim and challenging our shareholders to learn to use it all. I used to say something like, “we need 500 bushels of mixed produce to fill our boxes this pack.” Now I say, “we need 530 bunches of cilantro, 490 bunches of flatleaf parsley, and make sure you count exactly—actually, harvest 30 extra bunches of each- or we might run out on the pack line and everything will then come to a halt until we run to the field to get more. That’s 17 people on the pack line standing there, while some of the crew runs to get a few more bunches of parsley—that’s if we still have parsley.”  It’s ironic that the way we customize boxes on the farm so that shareholders can avoid waste is by harvesting extras of almost everything, so that we don’t have the drama of running out of items on the pack line. In the past, if we ran out of parsley, we’d just add another item that we had on hand—simple, elegant, sane.

A friend said to me recently, “you know, you wouldn’t have needed to customize your boxes this year. You are sold out. You would have sold out without customization.” Interesting, but it’s hard to know how popular CSA’s will be in a future year, and what level of service we will need to provide to our shareholders to keep them happy.

Safety Precautions for Those Who Pick Up at Community Sites

  • We will stack your boxes in columns 2 to 3 boxes high, when possible, instead of the previous column heights of 4 or 5 boxes, to reduce the amount of handling, as long as we have adequate space at your site. 
  • We will stack your boxes only one row deep for easier access to your respective box, if there is adequate space at your site.
  • Please wear gloves and a face mask when you pick up at a community site.
  • Touch other boxes as little as possible, when retrieving your box.
  • Physically distance from other shareholders, if you are picking up your boxes at the same time.
  • If you are sick, please send a friend to pick up for you. Make sure that your friend has the pickup instructions. (Occasionally, a friend or spouse picks up at a site and comes home with the wrong box.)

New With Your Box This Season—a Liner
This season we will line your box with a food grade, biodegradable insert so that you do not bring your box home. Instead, you retrieve your vegetables with ease via the insert. Then leave your box at the site for us to pick up the following week. This added layer of protection will create a barrier between the inside of the (possibly re-cycled) vegetable box and its contents. It will also help to keep your box contents cool.

The liner should not be returned to the site. We are not able to re-use the liner, but we do want to re-use the pricey boxes (about $2 each.) We realize this bag insert will lead to an extra step on the pack line, an extra expense for the farm, and an added packaging material for you to manage. We have had a bit of pushback from a few shareholders on this plan to insert a box liner.  However, given the government’s increasing concern about food safety, I suspect it will soon be a requirement to insert a liner into your box, so as to keep the box itself sanitary enough for additional uses.

We’ll do our best to safely supply you with fabulous vegetables and herbs this season.

We Now Do Our Own Home Deliveries
We have rented a refrigerated Sprinter van and lined up a driver, so we can do our own home deliveries. We feel the personal service we can offer to our shareholders and the opportunity to have their shares arrive cool will outweigh the considerable drawdown of figuring out how to execute the home deliveries, and the expense of actually doing them ourselves. We are maxed out with the current five scheduled routes/days for home delivery, so at this point we are unable to take on more home deliveries.

Zdenek Zverina Will be Doing Your Home Deliveries
Our neighbor Zdenek Zverina, whose charming accent derives from his childhood in the Czech Republic, will be doing your home deliveries. Because of how many home deliveries Zdenek will be making, he is only allotted one minute per stop. Due to both of our sociable natures, neither Zdenek nor I like this one minute restriction, but that’s the requirement if he will be able to make the round trip from here and back in the required amount of time (which will still make for a long day.) If you meet Zdenek, you might want to invite him in for a cup of coffee—he is quite the charismatic fellow—but please restrain yourself so he can get home in time to rest up for his next route. If we can somehow get the allotted stop time increased, make sure to chat with Zdenek a bit. We want our farm to not just fill your stomach; we want it it to also fill your heart.

as weather permits,
Farmer John

Recent Posts
Showing 29 comments
  • Marian Lobo

    Thanks for all the info!

    FYI, I am happy to have a box of vegetables without preferences.

    It sounds easier and less expensive for you!

    It’s fun to open the box and see what’s inside and then decide what make with the contents.

    Maybe send out a survey to your shareholders to see if they want to choose or not.

    Is it possible to have 2 sets of shareholders choosers and non-choosers?

    Anyway, thanks for growing the vegetables!

    • Farmer John

      2 types of boxes–customized and randomized–interesting, but would probably even make the process more complicated. Thanks for your idea, though.

  • Beth Gabriel

    My first ever pickup will be this Thursday the 25th. My wonderful daughter bought me a share this year, and I am so grateful and excited to begin with my first box, tattered leaves or not! I found your newsletter very interesting and informative. I have gardened with my husband first, then my daughter for many years; this year I only have a couple of tomatoes, so the box will be a godsend! And yes, Farmer John, I will find ways to use it all up, promise! Thanks in advance, and kudos to you & all your workers! I Know how Hard your work is!

  • Peter M Grimmer

    I love what you are doing and will do whatever i can to support the farm and team. I’ve no objections to removing the customizations, my family will eat whatever the farm can provide.

    I am concerned about the extra strain and chaos of self managed deliveries on the farm and management, but appreciate the needed service nonetheless.

    This work is meaningful and important. Thank you!

    • Julia Budde

      This is my first year with Angelic Organics and my second year in a CSA. I was a supporter of Red Fox Farms, however, farmer Cathryn (lovely childhood friend of my daughter) has moved her operation North and out of easy reach for me. As a member of Cathryn’s farm I was accustomed to being surprised each week by what I found in the box. That’s a big part of the fun, I think. I researched and experimented with veggies that were new to me. The point is, I can certainly do without customization. If all I had to go from were my Mama’s recipe cards it might seem a hardship to figure out what to do with a mystery vegetable. With the internet close at hand there’s really no excuse. Recipes abound. I understand that it must be a constant juggle to determine how best to allocate resources on behalf of the farm. In that spirit I felt it best to share my support for non-customization. Thank you, Farmer John and thanks to the entire crew for growing our vegetables!

    • Farmer John

      Home delivery is really challenging so far, but I think it will smooth out. I am much more attracted to home delivery than to customization. Customization takes up about 1/2 of my time, which does not leave enough room for managing the rest of the farm. Just putting the labels on boxes takes up about 50 person hours per week.

  • Rich

    You’re a great writer! Looking forward to future dispatches 🙂

    • Becky Haase

      I, too, find the fun in opening a box and discovering what I will be eating. I have no objection to doing away with customization. Thanks for 10 years of fresh veggies.

    • Farmer John

      I have two half finished books of memoirs and sometimes I think I could extract enough from the past 600+ editions of Farm News to create another book. No time for any of this, though. The farm gets all my time. Anyway, thanks for your nice comment.

  • s m smoley

    me too….i’d buy without customization…did so for decades

    • Farmer John

      Decades of satisfaction with un-customized boxes–wow. Thank you for letting me know.

  • Heidi Spoor

    We also would be fine with no customization. I don’t think we made use of it at all at first, but do periodically now. Still, it wouldn’t bother us at all to go back to the surprise box and the occasional mystery vegetable.

    • Farmer John

      Thank you for chiming in, Heidi. Not customizing would seem like a cake walk–sort of. (I wonder if most people know what a cake walk is.)

      • Farmer John

        Cake walk was what we did in one of the rooms at the grade school carnival when we walked around in a circle and landed on a number pulled out of a box to win a cake.

  • Patty Lloud

    Farmer John- it seems possible that a large % of your shareholders do not care about customization, myself included. It seems like a big burden- I agree with the previous poster- it is possible that you could have a large labor reduction if you had a % that didn’t care about customization.

    • Farmer John

      The biggest challenge of customization is not packing or harvesting; it is micro-managing inventory and predicting harvest availability. It takes half my time. Weirdly, there seem to be more complaints about the customized boxes than back when we didn’t customize. Maybe customization raises shareholders’ expectations.

  • Marian Lobo

    We are new subscribers and these vegetables are amazing!! I was taking them out of the box one by one and showing my husband. Look at this broccoli!!…aren’t these beautiful scallions?… look at all these pea shoots!! and on through the whole box. And then eating them, delicious!! Thank you so much for this wonderful food!!

  • Margy LaFreniere

    Thanks for all your work, year after year, to connect people with the farm. Heartfelt appreciation.

  • Ian Ornstein

    I vote for no customization and surprise! Save your money and get off harvey! Thank you!

    • Farmer John

      Well, there is no ambiguity in your post. You are a straightforward sort. I appreciate it.

  • Lynsey Wollin-Casey

    Love reading your posts and have for years. I have to say that I also fall in the camp of no need for customization. Thanks for all you and your crew are doing!

    • Farmer John

      Customization is getting a lot of “nay” votes. Interesting. I think it would feel like being semi-retired to not customize, to only work 60 or so hours per week and to have a bit more fun.

  • Ann Dillemuth

    Thank you Farmer John! I have worked on a CSA farm long ago but this is my first year as a CSA shareholder. Thanks for taking the time to share what is happening on the farm this year and your thoughts on the mechanics of CSA administration! I also am all for “get a box and then get creative with whatever you get!” but I totally understand that not everyone is like that. (And the anise hyssop is going to challenge me this week!) Hoping to get out to the farm for a volunteer day helping out if you are still open to that sometime this summer!

  • Farmer John

    Anise hyssop–make tea with it, or shred the leaves unto vanilla ice cream. Here’s a way to volunteer: I like that you have worked on a CSA farm. Thank you for letting me know that.

  • Colleen Wade

    I kinda like the surprise of the “un-customized” but I am ok to customize too. Haven’t gotten any “time to customize” emails this year yet so I guess it hasn’t started yet?!

  • Farmer John

    Write email hidden; JavaScript is required if you don’t get a customizing notice soon for an upcoming delivery. Before doing that, check your junk mail folder. -Farmer John

Leave a Comment