Organic Prices

In May the USDA released a report on the price differences between organic and non-organic foods. The summary of the report is HERE. I find it interesting that the most recent data available was from 2010. That strikes me as ridiculous. But leaving that aside, here is chart representing the price premium for various organic foods:

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In the case of spinach the price differential is modest. In the case of eggs and milk, it is dramatic. Interestingly, the “organic premium” for spinach fell from over 60% in 2004 to only 7% in 2010. I’m not sure why.

A few thoughts on this. If the concern is pesticide residue, keep in mind that not all non-organic foods are equal. Sweet corn, cabbage, onions, asparagus and eggplant, for example, have relatively little pesticide residue. (See the Environmental Working Groups’s “Clean 15” list HERE). Apples, potatoes and celery on the other hand have high levels of pesticide residue and justify the organic premium. If you buy conventional apples, it’s important to peel them. As for strawberries, I honestly don’t think it’s safe to eat them unless they’re organic.

Eggs are a special case. As I’ve mentioned in several other posts, most of the time consumers who are trying to do the right thing when buying eggs in grocery stores are being misled and ripped off. Eggs labeled “cage free,” “free range” and “organic” are almost always coming from factory-farm chickens being raised in CAFOs. My advice to those who can’t keep chickens themselves is to get eggs at a farmers market from farms raising chickens naturally. You will have to pay significantly more for them, but they will probably be less expensive that “organic” grocery store eggs and they’re still fairly inexpensive considering how many meals you can get from a dozen eggs (and of course they compare very favorably to the cost of breakfast cereals).

Also keep in mind that it is not legal for farmers to identify their food as “organic” unless they have been organic-certified by the USDA. Many farms (including ours) grow their food organically, but do not seek USDA certification. Chances are that you can find high quality sources for food at your farmers market without having to pay the high premiums charged for organically-certified food at grocery stores.

This will be my last blog post for awhile. We’re leaving this weekend for a long overdue vacation. Notice that I’ve now linked our Instagram feed in the right-hand column. You can click on pictures to view them and you don’t have to be an Instagram subscriber. If possible I will post some pictures there during our trip.

Au revoir y’all.

 

Labor Crisis?

Reading an article about pollinator loss in The American Vegetable Grower magazine (an industrial ag publication), this sentence caught my attention: “The bee issue may not be as in your face as solving the labor crisis, but these beneficial pollinating insects have an important job: they help increase yields of fruit and vegetable crops.”

The labor crisis? What labor crisis? I wondered.

I consulted the Google and discovered that there is indeed a critical labor shortage on industrial vegetable farms. These mega-farms have traditionally depended upon undocumented (“illegal”) farm workers from Mexico for their labor supply. And with the recent steep drops in illegal immigration, now they’re not able to get their crops harvested.

Consider this, from a Wall Street Journal article (HERE):

Last year, about a quarter of Biringer Farm’s strawberries and raspberries rotted in the field because it couldn’t find enough workers. Samantha Bond was determined not to let that happen again.

Early this year, Ms. Bond, human resources manager for the 35-acre farm in Arlington, Wash., offered 20% raises to the most productive workers from the last harvest. She posted help-wanted ads on Craigslist, beside highways and on the bathroom-stall door at a church. She also successfully lobbied local high schools to broadcast her call for workers during morning announcements.

Despite Ms. Bond’s efforts, Biringer again faced a worker shortage and typically drew fewer than 60 of the roughly 100 employees it needed on harvest days. “There was definitely hair-pulling going on,” she said.

Ms. Bond’s travails reflect a broader struggle by U.S. fruit, vegetable and dairy farms to secure farmhands as illegal immigration from Mexico declines and a strengthened U.S. economy makes it easier for people to find less backbreaking work, often in areas with cheaper housing costs. In an industry notorious for poor working conditions, farm companies are wooing employees by raising wages faster than inflation and enhancing medical and other benefits. Even so, many farms say these efforts have failed to meaningfully address their worker shortfalls.

Overall in the U.S., the decline in workers is reducing fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, or $3.1 billion, a year, according to a recently published analysis of government data by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that supports a looser immigration policy.

The problem started years ago and was temporarily exacerbated this summer by a glitch that snarled processing for seasonal-worker visas and delayed the arrival in the U.S. of thousands of legal farm laborers, leading to millions of dollars of crop losses in California and other states.

More broadly, growers say they are bearing the brunt of the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, as they lack a suitable alternative workforce. U.S.-born workers unaccustomed to farm labor abandon the job after just days during harvest, farm owners say, and the supply of mostly Mexican laborers that made up for them has shrunk in recent years. That is partly due to tighter U.S. control of its southern border and a declining Mexican birthrate that has decreased the number of young workers heading to the U.S.

Nationwide, the average hourly wages for crop workers hired directly by farmers have climbed 5.3% to $11.33, adjusted for inflation, in the past four years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That runs counter to the overall long-term trend for low-skilled work in U.S. retail and other industries, where there has been little real-wage growth.

Meanwhile, U.S. crop workers’ average age has risen to 38 years old, from 33 in 2000, according to federal data, making them less likely to seek out the most arduous jobs.

The article gives examples of companies paying $16-17/hour for field labor in Arizona and California, and still being unable to acquire enough labor to get their crops harvested.

So without a steady and reliable supply of desperate immigrants willing to pick their vegetables, these industrial operations are losing crops (and therefore revenue). And that situation isn’t likely to improve, as the average age of field workers continues to climb. The back of a 20 year old can handle bending over to pick strawberries all day much easier than the back of a 40 year old can (I can personally attest to that fact).

Commodity agriculture is becoming so automated and roboticized that it doesn’t have to depend upon much human labor. Not so with vegetable farming. At least for now, harvesting still requires manual human labor and there is increasingly less of that available.

So along with pollinator loss and drought, we can add “the labor crisis” to the list of things that are making industrial vegetable farming unsustainable.

Incidentally, according to the Vegetable Grower article, between April 2015 and April 2016 U.S. beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies, up 3.5% from the previous year.

Shifting gears now, for any who made it this far, I’ve added a link to our Instagram feed in the right hand column of the blog, for those folks who enjoy seeing pictures from our place. I got the idea from Melissa of Evergrowing Farm, whose excellent blog (HERE) also has a link to her equally excellent Instagram Feed.

Wishes Matured by Thoughtful Choice

My youthful wishes all fulfilled
Wishes matured by thoughtful choice.
I stood an inmate of this vale,
How could I but rejoice?
Dorothy Wordsworth

Six years ago this month I went into my office for the last time. I was a senior partner in a prestigious law firm, with all the advantages that come with that. Later that morning I packed my car and drove to Virginia, leaving behind a law career I’d been building for over 25 years.

My youthful wishes had included breaking out of this vale that held me inmate–to a life among the educated and affluent. But those youthful wishes mercifully matured by thoughtful choice.

So I came home.

Now I’m a goatherd and a gardener, an inmate once again of this vale–my youthful wishes all fulfilled, in ways I couldn’t have guessed back then.

How can I but rejoice?

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Figs

We’ve had no luck trying to grow figs here. We’ve planted trees several times, but none have survived.

Meanwhile, just a half mile up the road, my mother has a fig tree that is in her way. So every year or so she cuts it down. But it always springs back to life, heavy with fruit, mocking me.

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I recently came across a fascinating article about figs (HERE). Here’s an interesting excerpt from it:

Although many people dismiss figs as a geriatric delicacy or the sticky stuff inside bad cookies, they are, in fact, something awesome: enclosed flowers that bloom modestly inward, unlike the flamboyant showoffs on other plants. Bite a fig in half and you’ll discover a core of tiny blossoms.

All kinds of critters, not only humans, frequent fig trees, but the plants owe their existence to what may be evolution’s most intimate partnership between two species. Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination to reproduce, but, because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree. (One species of wasp, in Africa, travels ten times farther than any other known pollinator.) When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

Wasp mummies don’t sound appetizing to me, but there’s no denying the deliciousness of a freshly picked fig. I highly recommend the linked article for more interesting cultural, scientific and historical fig facts.

I’m more determined than ever to grow figs here, so we’ll plant again in a few weeks.

Riding Our Horses

My siblings, first cousins and I all worked on my grandparents farm, from the time we were old enough to do anything useful. For me that was about 6 years old. This was in the mid-1960’s.

When I was a kid we weren’t called that. We were children (sometimes pronounced chillen), young’uns or chaps. It was a while before I  learned (from television) that children were “kids.”

There was always a large gang of us chaps on the farm and once the barn was full we were free to play. When we were playing, we usually were riding our horses. Not Champ, the giant Clydesdale who pulled the slides of tobacco from the fields to the barn. We rode him of course, but not during our play time. When we were playing, our “horses” were tobacco sticks with corn-twine reins. We straddled the sticks and drug them around, pretending that we were riding horses.

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A tobacco stick. The tobacco leaves were tied or sewn together and hung over the sticks, which were themselves hung in curing barns.

Sometimes we raced. We’d build racetracks in the dirt and push smooth stones around the track, pretending they were race cars, driven by Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, David Pearson and the other NASCAR heroes of the day. Better yet, we’d race Dr. Pepper bottle caps, collected at the the nearby country store. They had numbers in them, and the ones with numbers that matched those of the famous (to us) race cars were especially prized.

That was 50 years ago. Good memories.

 

 

 

Living with Pests

The question we get asked more than any other is “How do you stop the (insert name of pest) from eating your (insert name of vegetable)?” Often we’re asked this by people who are just starting out, are trying to grow their food organically, and who are distressed because their plants are being eaten by bugs. Sometimes we’re asked this by people who have been gardening with pesticides for many years. Either way, they usually find our answer hard to believe.

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Japanese beetle eating an okra blossom

We’ve never used any pesticide of any type, whether organically approved or not. Aside from rotating our gardens, trying to keep our soil as healthy as possible, and squishing bad bugs when we find them, we don’t do anything to keep pests off our plants. We rely on nature to keep pest populations under control. I suppose I can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll have to change our ways someday, but after 13 years here we’re feeling pretty confident that our chemical-free method works.

Sure we’ve had problems with bugs. This year for example the Mexican bean beetles were the worst we’ve ever had. They did a lot of damage to our beans. In other years we’ve had terrible infestations of aphids, Japanese beetles, Colorado potato beetles, cabbage worms, etc. But we’ve discovered that if we take our lumps for a season, nature will react to the imbalance and the pest problem will cure itself.

For example, one year pea aphids suddenly appeared on our peas, for the first time ever. They’re very difficult to remove by hand and they seemed to be decimating our garden. But after a couple of weeks ladybugs started showing up. Before too long the garden was crawling with ladybugs and the aphid problem was solved.

Just about every year flea beetles descend on our eggplant seedlings, skeletonizing the leaves. To all appearances it seems the plants are doomed unless we spray something to kill the flea beetles. But what we’ve learned is that the plants always survive the onslaught, grow through it, and end up just as healthy (perhaps healthier) than if nothing had happened.

Last year we had a terrible problem with potato bugs. This year, despite no chemical intervention, we had hardly any. I don’t know how that problem was corrected naturally, but it was.

So I’m predicting that next year we won’t have much trouble with bean beetles.

Sure organic pesticides are preferable to the more sinister poisons. But we can’t kill the bad bugs without killing the good bugs too. And we don’t want to do that. We prefer to try to live in harmony with nature and trust her to work things out.

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Pollinators on an okra blossom