Steve’s Weekly Update for 3/11/10

Dear members,

The forecasters are saying that this is another El Nino week!  Oh boy!  Just when the mud had almost receded enough to start thinking about repairing the road to Mesa Top Farm, the cows feeding area and coral had begun to dry out….The Climate experts say that we should come to expect a cooler, wetter, shorter winter as a consequence of climate change.  We can look for warm spring weather (and snow melt) to come earlier.  Spring (and fall) will get longer, with increased swings in temperature, meaning that we will still have late and early frosts, but will have a greater mixture of warmth and cold.  I am no expert, and frankly I wonder to what extent climatology is an “exact” science, but I do see the tendency in our weather patterns extend to greater extremes.  Our hot is hotter, our cold is colder, our wet is wetter and we sure have seen our share of dry is drier.  Recent media polling suggests that the challenges of climate change have overwhelmed many people and numbed them to the point of resignation.  While this issue generates a lot of activist energy, it seems that the public is having a harder and harder time relating.  I hope that my ongoing comments about weather and climate may be a gentle reminder that we are a part of nature, ever-changing regardless of the causal factors. We need to emphasize observation and adaptation in order to appreciate and benefit from and best manage the resources of our locale and of the planet as a whole.

This week’s update on cheese value chain and Jim Miller Ayrshire projects:

It’s all about the grass…  The struggle to keep the herd’s feed costs down is about access to and cost of grass (or pasture).  One of the reasons I got so excited about the Ayrshire herd that I am now managing is that for 95 years they were bred and selected for their ability to thrive on the variable forage of the Lincoln County Highlands.  At Mesa Top, which by Western standards is a tiny dryland farm, I have a limited supply of forage. In our landscape, a cow needs about 80 acres of land to provide a year’s forage, assuming no drought and not too much snow in the winter.  Average, however, does not exist:  to quote Bill Zeeduyk, “Average is like having one foot in a bucket of ice water and one foot in a bucket of boiling water”.  In other words average is a statistic, not an experience.  For our cows, if it depends on the grass growing at Mesa Top, it is “feast or famine”…

I have been working to increase the carrying capacity of Mesa Top’s core acreage, but that can only get me so far.  Internal fencing, brush management and forest thinning (hence the “mesa top sustainable firewood project”), re-vegetation and tree planting, development of water systems while protecting riparian areas, and rotational grazing have probably doubled my capacity.  As I multiply the herd, I need access to more grass.  Meanwhile I rely on quite a bit of hay.  I have terrific feed suppliers, but none of them are exactly nearby, so transportation costs are also a factor.

Most farmers and ranchers lease more land than they own.  That is the direction that I am going in:  Lease grass and move the cows to it rather than the grass (hay) to the cows.  I bought a big well-built, 25-year-old livestock trailer for safely moving the cows.  I need to invest in hay handling and storage equipment.  I also need to improve winter-feeding and shelter facilities at the farm.  I need to spend money to save money.

This brings me face to face with the problem that has plagued my farm and is a common thread among farms and small businesses everywhere:  access to affordable capital.  It is not available, not for me anyway.  Most farmers and ranchers access capital by borrowing against the ever-increasing value of their underlying real estate.  This scenario literally makes agriculture a “cover crop” for real estate development.  This scenario also makes farmers and ranchers vulnerable to changes in real estate value.  When property values drop, farms and ranches are pressured to pay back loans and/or lose access to capital.

I have been unable to borrow (except for credit cards) for almost 5 years.  If I want to improve the farm, I need capital.  To continue to build the Ayrshire herd I will be continuing to spend money.  I have long-planned to sell parts of the land, at the edges of Mesa Top Farm, to reduce the debt burden and to build a source of capital that facilitates continuous improvement at the farm.  This year I will pursue that plan in earnest.

Just as I have to spend money to save money, I have to sell land to increase my access to land…  If you know people who might enjoy living near a working, sustainable farm, living off the grid, living in a high conservation environment, and dealing with the ongoing access issues of remote, rural living, let me know!!!  There are opportunities in the works at Mesa Top Farm.

This week’s Veggie/Share Update:

Our special surprises this week are local garlic and mushrooms.  The oyster mushrooms are grown by Danny Rhodes of Desert Fungi in Velarde NM.  I had a chance to visit Danny last week and to appreciate the creativity, hard work, and systematic approach that he brings to his art.  Look for recipes on the blog.  We hope to continue to support Danny by including his mushrooms monthly through the spring, so this will be a great opportunity for members to share their learning and recipes with Amy at blog@beneficialfarm.com.

The garlic is also a special treat, and it carries a lesson:  Bill and Claudia Page in La Madera, near Ojo Caliente, have been planting and selecting seed from their “nativized” strain of garlic for 15 years.  It stores well and has great flavor.  Bill recently offered us the last of his 2009 harvest.  We will be early movers when the 2010 crop comes in late this summer.  Meanwhile, we learned that the garlic loses about 1/3 of its water weight between when it is first harvested and cured sufficiently that it is peel-able and ready to eat in the following spring, nearly 7 months later.  This fact would be a disincentive to a farmer who holds their crop, as the lighter it gets, the less they would earn if selling by the pound.  I did some preliminary analysis of this garlic to find that it takes 10-11 heads to make a pound.  But when it was harvested in 2009, it would have taken 6 or 7 heads.  So in order to be fair to the farmers and to accurately reflect the value received by members, we are paying the farmer according to its original weight, and have placed a “value” on each head of $1.  We are calling this “Garlic Forte”, because since it has lost so much water weight, it is very strong!  You can use it more sparingly, and get plenty of garlic flavor.  We hope this idea makes sense:  if we want to support the storage and extended seasonal distribution of local food, we need to be creative in how we value the products and support the farmers.

Just wait until you try the “onions forte” from Mesa Top farm, harvested last fall, and soon to be distributed, one time only…

Okay, that’s it for this week.  We hope to continue educating, and entertaining you with food and its story as we work through the “dry time” of spring, moving toward the greater abundance of summer.

Thank you for your support.

Steve Warshawer

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1 Comment

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One response to “Steve’s Weekly Update for 3/11/10

  1. Robert Griego

    Steve, thanks for providing us with these updates. It is interesting to hear how the climate and weather patterns affect the farming and ranching operations. I think it is important for us to understand the inherent difficulties that ranchers face to maintain working ranches. I appreciate that through the CSA we can better understand the food system.

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