More August

It’s a good time of year to be a person here. It’s also a good time of year to be a chicken.

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The Cream Legbar chicks a neighbor gave us are growing up.

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This guy’s hoarse attempts at crowing are improving rapidly.

Our bad luck with broody hens continues. Once again we’ve had a total failure with a clutch. 12 eggs–zero hatched. I removed the eggs before they exploded, but the hen hasn’t given up her spot. She continues to sit there, with no eggs beneath her.

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Chickens are certainly not the brightest creatures on the farm.

On the other hand, for the first time ever we’ve had a kid born in August.

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Our goat Jade delivered a stillborn kid this winter and not long after that she went into season. Usually goats time their cycles to deliver in cooler weather. It’s a treat to have the little dude on the farm, even though he’ll have to grow up without any playmates his age.

And, in the most blistering sultry heat I’ve ever experienced here, I got the big fall garden planted.

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The Vegetable Business

Some interesting take-aways from a talk by Roland Fusami, Senior Analyst for RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness, from Vegetable Grower magazine.

–Convenience is just as important to shoppers as taste and affordability. This explains things such as bagged salads and Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes in ready to microwave bags. “Half of all eating occasions are considered snacks.” (!!) “People want more convenience in products, but we’re supposed to use less packaging because it can cause issues with the environment.”

–Only 19.7% of Millennial food purchases are at traditional retailers (versus 42% by GenX, 54% by Boomers, and 55% by the Silent Generation).

–Online food and beverage sales will grow dramatically, in a short period of time.

–The biggest supply side challenge is the labor shortage. “Even the best immigration policy will still only solve this challenge marginally in the long run.” As the Mexican economy continues to grow and improve, fewer Mexicans will come to the U.S. to pick vegetables. “Long-term, technology is our only viable solution.”

Some things we’re observing in our community:

–Farmer’s market sales and traffic are dropping. The older people who used to come and buy produce by the bushel (for canning, for example) aren’t coming any more. Many of the 20-somethings who used to do their grocery shopping at the farmer’s market aren’t either (perhaps because the trendiness has faded). Instead of buying the ingredients for a weeks’ worth of meals, many folks now just buy one or two items–a tomato or two, for example.

–Despite the push to encourage people use their SNAP benefits (food stamps) at the farmer’s market, sales are minuscule. At our market benefits are doubled. It’s the best deal in town. Yet very few people take advantage of it.

–Convenience does seem to be the number one factor, rather than taste or price. Foods that require effort to process/prepare don’t sell as well as foods that don’t. Offering to deliver the food to the customers’ homes can increase sales.

–Food prices are dropping so low that it’s hard to compete for the price-sensitive shopper. Aldi now sells eggs for less than fifty cents per dozen. Ours are $5/dozen. Aldi has also increased its organic inventory. Lidl will be opening here soon and I’m told that their prices are even lower than Aldi’s.

None of that is particularly discouraging as long as you’re not trying to make a living growing vegetables on a small scale. It’s a great time to be a homesteader. That will hopefully always be true.

Tomatoes

After a very strong start, our tomatoes have rather suddenly bitten the proverbial dust. The German Johnsons growing outside have nearly all succumbed to blight and it looks like the three varieties in the hoop house are soon to follow.

Blight is airborne and might have floated into the hoop house on its own, but I suspect the vector was me. Before I realized the significance of what I was doing, I would sometimes pick the tomatoes growing outside, then go into the hoop house and pick those. Big mistake. I think it likely that I carried the blight into the hoop house on my arms and clothes. Once I realized the risk, I always picked in the hoop house first and never went into the hoop house after working with the outside tomatoes, without first showering and changing clothes. Chalk it up as an important lesson learned.

But, in any event, I’ve eaten a lot of tomato sandwiches.

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And of course we’ve enjoyed them plenty of other ways too, and the cupboard is fully stocked with sauce and salsa.

And even as the vines die, there’s still plenty of tomatoes to keep us happy for a while yet.

August, continued.

Our cup continues to overflow.

Even as the squash and tomatoes are biting the dust, the okra is coming in beautifully.

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The purple hull peas and sweet potatoes are maturing.

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And we’ve had a nice flush of shiitake mushrooms.

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August

Yesterday I harvested the spaghetti and butternut squash.

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A little sooner than I preferred, but if I waited much longer the groundhogs wouldn’t have left us any.

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I was pleased to discover this beautiful offering at the base of an old red oak.

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Chicken of the Woods

And pleased to welcome these new arrivals.

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It’s a great time of year.

No People Necessary

Even in this age of industrialized agriculture, vegetable farming still requires lots of human labor. But maybe not for long.

Once again the most recent issue of Vegetable Farmer magazine devotes its front page story to the “labor crisis.” Even after the severe labor shortages of last year, this year’s labor force is smaller still. Estimates are that growers will only have 80% of the workers they need, despite $15-20/hour wages (and free housing).

While some operations are considering abandoning the most labor-intensive crops (like strawberries), robotics and automation appear to be the fast-approaching solution. Innovation and development of automated harvesting machines is occurring at an unprecedented pace. “We are getting factories in the fields,” says Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis.

Not only do these new machines pick the crops, they also wrap and package them, and log when and where they’re harvested, eliminating the need for humans to fill out the traceability paperwork.

Although it wasn’t discussed in the articles, no doubt scientists are also continuing to design vegetable varieties that don’t bruise easily–facilitating mechanical harvesting.

It’s probably just a matter of time until the vegetables in the grocery stores arrive there without having ever been touched by a human hand.

I suppose agribusiness will be relieved that it no longer has to rely on a shrinking labor force. Many will see this as progress. But to me it seems be yet another reason to keep a garden and shop at the farmer’s market.

 

The Wait is Over

Now maybe we can have our garage back.

Earlier this year a pair of barn swallows built a nest in it before we realized what was happening. After that we couldn’t shut the doors (as they needed access to their nest). Then when the eggs hatched we could no longer park our vehicles in the garage, because last year the cat used them as a platform from which to leap toward the nest and swat it down with his evil murderous catarm.

Finally the little swallows fledged. We waited till we were sure they were no longer using the nest before re-taking possession of our garage. But, alas, we waited too long and Mama Swallow (Ethel, to her friends) laid more eggs and started the process over again.

We’ve been watching the four babies grow, seeing the nest becoming almost absurdly crowded.

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Then yesterday they finally screwed up the courage to fly. In our a garage, a barn swallow party followed. At one point there were six or seven swooping in and out of the garage.

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Three of the fledglings, resting.

Today, doggone it, I’m parking in the garage.