Steve’s Weekly Update for 10/20/10

Dear members,

Climatology 2010: Still no serious signs of fall/winter.

Steve’s Soapbox: I am attending the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) Conference in New Orleans.  I was a presenter in a short course on food safety and liability insurance issues for small farms.  This course was one of the outcomes of a collaborative process lead by CFSC and funded by a grant from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA).  Improving on farm food safety for small farms has been a stated target area for RMA grant support and more grants were invited for this area of research.  But in the end, none of the grant applications submitted by regional or national groups working to advance food safety capacity building and understanding at small farms were funded.

Go figure.

Anyway, the program that we delivered on Saturday to CFSC members was well attended and very well received.  I feel comfortable now saying that there is a solid consensus among the small farm community that we ARE responsible for continuous improvement of food safety practice on our farms.  That being said, like our larger cousins, we do not want to come under any FDA regulatory scheme to assure that we fulfill that responsibility if we can possibly avoid it.  The better way is voluntary programs, which I continue to work on and advocate for such as GlobalGAP Option 2 (group certification).

RMA is hugely invested in stabilizing US agriculture, largely through its various crop insurance programs.  Crop insurance is a crucial “support system” for large and commodity farms that unfortunately has no impact or value for small farms.

The reason is that insurance awards and benefits are calculated based on statistics and data which are nearly impossible to produce for diverse/small farms in general.  In contrast, USDA can tell us county by county what the average yield has been for corn for almost 100 years, across the US.  This data allows a farmer to have a meaningful and accurate assessment of loss if damage occurs to their corn crop.

Up to this year, no addition crop value was added for organic growers, which means that if a farmer insured their organic crop, and had a loss, they were paid at the conventional rate.  This year “organic option” was added to 4 crops, meaning that organic growers of those crops could buy insurance for them based on their higher, organic value.  This means that sufficient data is now available for USDA to begin insuring organic practices in these crops.

In contrast a small, diverse farm, especially one which markets directly to end customers,  through a CSA or farmer’s market or farm stand, has pretty widely fluctuating data about production, but also has a much higher aspiration in terms of what value they will receive for that crop.

This approach, diversification and value added, relationship based marketing, is in itself a risk management strategy.

But it does not change the fact that damaging losses to crops happen.  Imagine that the 4 hails storms that Mesa Top suffered this year occurred in a context where reasonably priced and effective insurance for our crops was in place?  In rough terms I would estimate that Mesa Top lost $500-1,000 with each hail event.  I’d say $3,000 was the total.

In other years Mesa Top has had larger losses, and in some years it has had less.  What would I pay for crop insurance if it a relevant insurance was available?  Maybe $1,000 per season to insure up to $20K worth of crops?

Over time, we can hope that USDA RMA will develop metrics to help insure small diverse farms.  I think it is an important concept and makes sense.

Small farms also need a stabilizing influence against uncontrollable hazards.


This week’s Cow stories:  update on Mesa Top cows, Jim Miller Ayrshire projects and more:

Last week I wrote about the life cycle assessment of the Ayrshire cows.  I want to add a little more to the picture.  Weaning age for the calves is 6 months more or less.  Weaning is stressful on the calf no matter when it happens, but 6 months of age is reasonable.  Up to that point all calves, regardless of gender, run together with their herd of momma cows.  But at weaning we have to separate the boys and the girls because otherwise breeding will start far earlier than we want it to.  The heifers can start cycling as early as 10-12 months, and the bull calves are happy to begin fulfilling their only purpose in life.

So currently at weaning all of the boys are coming to Mesa Top where they run around, with our Tarentaise momma cows as their “teachers,” on our spacious but low quality pastures.  There they grow to maturity, even if slowly.  There is nothing really to gain from hurrying a bull to maturity.  Keeping the feed cost down is very important and Mesa Top pasture is the least expensive that we have.  At an age of between 1 and 1.5 years, the bulls who will be “employed” as breeders need to be chosen, and others need to either be sold as bulls to other farms, or turned into steers and raised for meat.

In an ideal world we would have a second farm/ranch which would also have some smart, momma cows, preferably momma milk cows being milked, and the heifers would go there for the entire period of their growing up, and being bred for the first time, an then they would go off to the dairy where they would be milk cows as soon as their first calf is born.  This “heifer ranch” would have to have better quality feed and pasture than what we have at Mesa Top.  Raising the heifers this way would cost more than what is being spent on the bulls, but it would be a better controlled environment where the heifers could be readied for their life as milk cows.  They could be trained to stanchions, trained to stand for handling that is similar to what will happen to them as milk cows, and trained to the rhythmic life of a dairy cow.

I am looking for a place for this heifer life cycle to be lived out.


This week’s cheese share update:

This week the cheese share will be a variety of Ayrshire and other artisanal cheeses.


This week’s Veggie/Share Update:

Mesa Top Salad Mix is on the menu this week only in smaller amount.  Look for tips and recipes in the Thursday blog post.  We will also have chickory from Vida Verde Farm, a strong salad green.  From Mesa Top we will also have bunched hakura turnips along with the one more harvest of chard.  Although this MAY be the last of the chard, I must say that the plants are very healthy and there is a good chance that in a couple/few weeks we will be able to harvest again.

We will have super sweet Mesa Top delicata squash again also.

Gemini Farm’s “watermelon radish” will be in the share this week.  Just a single large radish per share – these are beautiful, large radishes; be sure to peel them as they can be extra hot this time of year and most of the spiciness is in the peel.  Serve sliced with a dash of salt.

We continue with tomatoes from Virgin and are expecting a full pound per member this week.  We are hearing that there is a good chance of frost in Albuquerque later this week, and the toms are probably winding down.  We hope you are enjoying them as they have been terrific.

We also continue with the incredible San Juan apples.  This week we also add poms.  Our plan is to deliver poms every other week for a few more weeks, and then they will be done.  If you like them enough, you may want to buy extras.  They store very well and for months if kept refrigerated.  Even if the skins are tough, the fruit inside is fabulous.

Membership news: We continue to grow at Santa Fe Prep – please continue to refer your friends and neighbors for a $10 addition to your Farm Account.

Thank you for your continued support!

Steve Warshawer



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