<![CDATA[From our farm to your table... - Farm News & Blog]]>Wed, 07 Feb 2018 07:52:20 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Our Featherstone Farm 3.0 Report]]>Wed, 18 Oct 2017 20:50:02 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/our-featherstone-farm-30-reportPicture
​It was one year ago that Featherstone Farm launched its second “campaign for survival” in a decade, after suffering crippling losses due to chronic rains in the second half of the growing season.  The first campaign was 10 years ago exactly, in the wake of flash flooding in August 2007.   We are celebrating a pair of inauspicious anniversaries this fall!

And yet, Featherstone Farm is as healthy and strong as ever, thanks to the efforts and contributions from community members and customers near and far.  This brief report is part of our effort to be accountable to this community;  to explain how we’ve used the “second and third chances” that you’ve given us, to shore up all aspects of Featherstone Farm’s foundations for long term stability and sustainability.
Since last winter we have been referring to the 2017 season as “Featherstone Farm 3.0”… a new (hopefully final!) paradigm for a business that has grown and changed so much over the years.   As part of last year’s campaign we outlined (5) areas of focus and change in the “3.0 era”.  This report will summarize steps we’ve taken in each of these areas.
Top Level

This area is all about how we think of ourselves and our overall purpose at Featherstone Farm.  After 2 decades of “startup atmosphere” (read: chaos!) and high minded idealism (read: distraction, albeit very well intentioned!), the Featherstone Farm 3.0 paradigm is all about focus on productive, profitable vegetable farming in a professional atmosphere.

I’m very pleased to say that the 3.0 paradigm shift has been very successful in this area so far.  We have all managed to keep our “eyes on the prize” of normalizing operations and sticking to plan.  The mantra “right thing, right time” has been the guide for all of our decision making; we have turned down or delayed opportunities and “distractions” of all kinds- even when we felt they were valuable and even important- rather than let them get us off track in any way.

I’ll be honest and say that this has been among the greatest challenges of the 3.0 paradigm for me, personally.  In the current atmosphere of national (even state and regional) politics, it has been very tempting for me to get involved in advocating for immigrants, for the environment, for any number of other important causes.  But avoiding “distractions” like this is commitment #1 at the top level of the 3.0 paradigm;  I believe we are upholding this commitment well in 2017.

Farm Team

Here we have seen the strongest advances of all in the 3.0 paradigm. 
The lack of sufficiently resourced, focused crop management was among the greatest shortcomings of the 2016 season (after the spring departures of 2 key Hort Team members).  Rebuilding and resourcing this team was therefor among the most pressing imperatives of 2017, and here I believe we succeeded beyond expectations (and boy, did the health of the crops this season reflect this!!).  Crop management- identifying, prioritizing and implementing the dozens of decisions about each succession planting of every crop on the farm- is now among the great strengths of Feathersone Farm. 

But it is not just this the Hort Team that is to thank for all of the progress we made “in the field” this year;  we have continued to build a great team of equipment operators, warehouse workers, repair shop techs and fieldworkers of all kinds, to get the results that we are now getting.  All of these folks are working at a higher level than ever before, thanks to the accumulated knowledge and experience they have acquired in 3-4-5+ years of work here.   We have continued to build and emphasize diverse leadership within the Spanish speaking parts of our crews, and this has yielded great results.

One part of the farm team that has taken a step backward in 2017, however, has been the business’s front office administration.   Featherstone Farm lost long term financial co-ordinator Emily Babbit in the spring (wanted to be home full time with her young sons), and then 2 other PT staff in the early summer.   The result was a months’ long pressure cooker for the 2 remaining FT front office people… but also an opportunity to re-make this part of the farm team into a more manageable, sustainable unit.  This re-build will begin in earnest at the start of November, when the front office welcomes a new FT administrator to the team.  We hope to see much more progress in this area of the business in the 3.1 era (2018 and beyond).

Farm Land

The start of the 3.0 era (spring of 2017) saw the single greatest drop in the number of acres managed by Featherstone Farm- and number of separate farms on which these fields are located- in the history of the business.  Becoming leaner, more focused and more productive was and is a key part of the new paradigm.   This season the farm managed approximately 15% fewer acres of vegetables and, in particular, of “non veg” crops like grains and hay.

Even more important, the farm entered a new era of investment in soil health.  Featherstone Farm’s gradual move away from “best best” soil management practice over the years- for a variety of practical and even philosophical reasons- is one of the unfortunate legacies of the “2.0 era” here.  In the fall of 2016 we made a complete break with this history and began once again to invest substantial time, energy and money in mineralizing soils with micro amendments (balanced microchemistry is the foundation for healthy microbiology, which in turn is the foundation for healthy, disease resistant crops).   I am very pleased to say that this focus on soil health and soil building is proceeding nicely (I have never seen better fall cover cropping at FF, than we have established this year…).   There is real risk in investing hundreds and hundreds of dollars per acre in micro amendments- many of which take 6-8+ years to have full effect in soil- when we have only year-to-year leases on many of these fields (see below).   But we will continue to make these investments this fall and beyond;  soil mineralization is one of the real commitments we have made to stability and sustainability in the 3.0 era.

Vegetable Crops

The wide diversity crops of crops we raise at Featherstone Farm-  warm season and cool season, vegetative and fruiting, quick maturing/volatile and slow growing/stable- is both a strength and weakness of our business model.  Yes, it provides a certain level of risk management, when crop insurance is not available or relevant (see below).  But the sheer complexity of all of these crops- and the mind boggling range of different needs and management considerations for each- also presents a huge challenge at all levels of a farm like Featherstone.

In the 3.0 era we have limited and/or eliminated certain crops- onions and potatoes, parsnips and rutabagas, among them- in an effort to become “leaner and more focused” at the Hort Team level… to give more attention to getting good at disease management in cabbage, for example, or pest prevention in peppers.    And we have emphasized different practices in the field (isolating cauliflower, for example, or growing cabbage in “8 blocks”) that will help us prevent and manage many of the “issues” that plagued us in the 2.0 era (foliar diseases, insects etc etc).

I am very pleased to report that these investments are paying off handsomely in the first year of the 3.0 era.  Not only do fields look and feel better managed than ever, the objective data we are collecting on productivity and crop health are quantifying the gains nicely.   We are doing much better in the first year of the 3.0 paradigm, in large part because we have reduced the ambition of what we are undertaking (scale and diversity, both).

This last area of the “3.0 Stages and Plan” outline is where we have seen the least progress in 2017, but where significant opportunity remains in 3.1 and beyond (starting with this winter planning…).   In particular, I am sorry to report that two very significant efforts of last winter (November 2016-March 2017) came to naught.  

First, my research into Whole Farm Revenue Insurance (what we thought to be a reasonable alternative to crop insurance) determined that it is not useful for the FF model of diverse vegetables, for a variety of complex reasons.  Had we had this insurance in 2016, the premium would have been over $70k, but our “payout” less than $15k, despite the losses.   WFR is truly a catastrophic loss type policy, and would not have helped in a “near catastrophe” like 2016 (many analogies here to the current health insurance debate, I think:  simply having a high deductible healthcare policy does not necessarily prevent a family from going bankrupt, as the deductibles, co-pays and non-covered expenses pile up…).

Second, months and months of work this winter to secure purchase agreements for two separate pieces of farmland were scuttled when the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (the public “lender of last resort”) did not approve Featherstone Farm’s loan application.  I am convinced that we could have had this denial overturned on appeal, had we had the time and people to do a “deep dive” into the inscrutable formulas by which the FSA shoe horned FF’s complex financials into the simple two page document that the office uses to assess farm business plans (80-90% of which are row crop or dairy focused).      But maddeningly, this loan denial came in April, when all of us were simply too busy (especially with Emily’s departure imminent) to appeal.   I will be initiating a new loan application effort in November (2018), and will be much more attentive to the FSA formula issue this time around.

The “holy grail” of a comprehensive, all encompassing farm IT operating system remains a goal at Featherstone Farm… perhaps for 3.1 or 3.2 (next 2-3 years?).  In 2017, the loss of key office staff made it simply impossible to make any progress toward researching such a system, much less implementing one.

Finally, the farm’s efforts to stabilize and rebuild its CSA membership- particularly its winter program- met with mixed success.  Summer membership numbers were again down substantially, perhaps reflecting the relative poor showing of crops in the wet summer of 2016 (if so, we would hope for a rebound effect in 2018, coming off such a strong box program this season).   Winter numbers are stable (not contracting), and could well return to growth in the future, if/when we are able to introduce new crops and choices into the program (local apples and eggs, and/or walnuts and citrus from family farmers we know in CA).   We will be working this winter to lay the foundations for these new crops for the 2018-19 winter (FF 3.1 and beyond…).   And we will be working on developing a “CSA core group” or similar farm business advisory group, to assist with strategic decision making long term.


On the whole the Featherstone Farm 3.0 plan is well on its way to success.  The pace of implementation may be lagging behind expectations in places (office / admin).  But the main thrust of the plan-  better crop outcomes driven by better planning, resourcing and management, and by downsizing / better focus- is right on track.   Prospects for 2018 and beyond are bright.

There remains the critical question of how these changes are translating into better profitability and financial stability, as they were all designed to do.   I can give short, medium and long term responses on this.

Short term- this month, and looking back a bit over the season- I can say for sure that the farm has been working remarkably close to projections, from labor by payday to wholesale sales per crop per week.  In some cases the predictions have been uncannily accurate;  I can say for sure that all of us are getting very good at projecting and implementing cashflow, in particular payroll in operations (and controlling OT costs).   Finally, we will end the fieldwork season in early November with the most valuable vegetable inventory in storage- root crops, cabbage and winter squash- in the history of the farm business.

Mid term (this winter closing out 2017 financials, and preparing for the 2018budget / crop year), I will be working with the farm’s CPA beginning late October, to analyze the 2017 crop year performance financially.   I am optimistic that we will see both profitability and working capital return to near 2015 levels.  This would be a remarkable achievement if we can accomplish it; a turnaround this quick would have been very difficult to imagine a year ago.   But of course the actual numbers and analysis remains to be done.

The long term reality is that Featherstone Farm still faces a number of very significant financial challenges, from 7 figure debt to lack of land ownership.  Addressing these challenges will require many years- and several 2017 type successful seasons in the field, with no 2016 type back stepping.  As the 3.0 plan notes, taking on diverse ownership equity will very likely be a big part of the solution… once we have our front office staff / operating system / balance sheet “issues” resolved to some degree (see above).   Full recovery from the farm’s (2) “natural disasters” –and the “man made” crisis of over reach and self inflicted growing pains- will take many years.   But I am more optimistic than ever about the prospects for success, given the enjoys from customers, CSA shareholders, and community members near and far.


Featherstone Farmer

<![CDATA[Our 2017 Growing Season & CSA Program]]>Tue, 28 Feb 2017 19:37:38 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/our-2017-growing-season-csa-programPicture
Greetings CSA Members and Featherstone Farm Community-

In a few short days we will be turning on the heat in our greenhouse and planting the first seeds of the 2017 growing season. As usual I feel immense anticipation and excitement thinking of this- how could I not, after several days of spring-like weather last week? But I also feel a great sense of humility and a bit of trepidation too, as the winter winds to a close- how could I not, after nearly losing 25 years of life’s work last fall?

More than anything, this trepidation is grounded in a renewed awareness of the profound challenge of what we do at Featherstone Farm. Raising 40 different crops in a four season climate, harvesting, packing and distributing all of them to such a wide range of dropsites…. this is a complex, risky and difficult enterprise at its core. Just growing the crops in the upper Midwest is challenging enough; were it not, the scores of truck farms that once served the Twin Cities Market for generations, would still be in business.

All of us in “local agriculture” are very skilled at telling the “good news stories” of our farms. And there is indeed much to celebrate here and on other CSA farms throughout the state. But we have just lost two 15 year veteran Minnesota CSA farms that closed their doors this winter (Ploughshare Farm and Bluebird Gardens), due largely to lack of profitability and market opportunity. If these smart, creative small farm enterprises can’t make this business work it makes me feel… you guessed it, trepidation!

The “Featherstone Farm 3.0”paradigm that I have written and talked about so much since last fall has arisen from 25 years of experience of farm trial-and-error and risk management, and does indeed address many of the core “issues” that we face in “local agriculture.” And no doubt we have a team of employees assembled at Featherstone Farm like I’ve never seen before; experienced, committed veterans (and newcomers!) who can and will put this new vision into effect. This combination of wise plan and capable implementation makes me quietly confident that Featherstone Farm will rebound and thrive in 2017 and beyond.

But I’ll be perfectly honest and say that your renewed (or new!) membership in our CSA program is a critically important part of this recovery and renewal plan. In an era of changing climate, changing land tenure and changing markets (the rise of Blue Apron and big box store organics), farms like Featherstone rely on steadfast support like never before. You provide quite literally the “seed money” and “financial ballast” that will allow us to put our new vision into effect.

We will be rolling out a series of short videos and social media posts throughout the spring, to tell the “good news” of recovery and renewal at Featherstone Farm… there IS so much good news to tell! And to help us keep the good news coming- for years to come- please consider renewing your CSA membership with Featherstone Farm now! If you pay in full this week, we'll say thank you with an early Free Bonus Box, which will include our strawberries, asparagus, spring greens and more!



<![CDATA[Final Report on Our Campaign for Recovery and Renewal ]]>Fri, 09 Dec 2016 20:11:04 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/final-report-on-our-campaign-for-recovery-and-renewalPicture
​     Featherstone Farm Campaign for Recovery and Renewal
                           Final  Report
                             December 9, 2016

Introduction and Context

The 2016 crop year was the most difficult in Featherstone Farm’s 20 years in business.  The fourth wettest summer in state history combined with a number of other factors- some within our control but most well beyond it- to produce crop losses in excess of $360,000.  Throughout late fall and into the month of November, the farm’s very survival was in doubt.

Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our customers and community in supporting the November Campaign for Recovery and Renewal at Featherstone Farm, that basic survival is now assured, in 2017 and beyond.   I cannot begin to describe how thankful all of us at Featherstone Farm are, for this outpouring of support.  So many people contributed on line or in person;  so many more stopped me or Jenni or others at FF in day-to-day life to express concern and care.   For all of this, we express heartfelt gratitude.   Thank you.

We conducted many interviews with the media over the past few weeks, and I always opened such discussions with two basic points:

1.As a general rule, commercial vegetables are bred to be grown in very arid areas, and are therefore very susceptible to foliar disease, particularly in wet years like 2016    …and

2.Beyond that simple statement, everything else about the historical context, the causes of the “issues” we faced in 2016, our evolving understanding of what we need to do now and in the future (short and long term) to ensure that we never get back to this place of need… all of this is exceptionally complicated and nuanced and dynamic.

For this reason, my “final report” on the campaign we have just concluded will be more of a provisional explanation of the big picture, how we understand it now and in the foreseeable future.   I wish I could helicopter onto the deck of an aircraft carrier with brass bands playing and declare “mission accomplished” (or at least hang glide into a field of cheering CSA members!!!) as other leaders have been known to do.  But as we all know, grand declarations of success like this can be premature, even misleading(!).  Reality is often more complicated and perhaps messy. 

This report is an attempt to clarify what has happened in 2016 and what I think it means, at this stage of recovery.   It is also an effort to lay out a plan for Featherstone Farm to remain transparent and accountable to the larger community moving forward, to demonstrate that we have learned enough from the past year’s losses to develop and implement plans to prevent similar losses in the future.   To demonstrate that we are responsible and worthy recipients  of this great gift- survival- that we have been given this fall.

The Campaign for Recovery and Renewal that concluded at the end of November took two main forms;  cash donations through Go Fund Me and Small Farm Central  (red ”mercury” in campaign thermometer on our website here),  and working capital generated through sales of 3 and 5 year CSA shares (green “mercury”).   In addition, we consider unanticipated fall crop sales, “belt tightening” and other operational efficiencies to be parts of the solution to our survival needs (bronze colored “mercury”).   The next 2 sections of this report detail progress on each component of the campaign, as well as the dynamic nature of the need itself.

Nature and Scope of Loss and Need for Recovery

When we began to outline the campaign for recovery in the middle October, we estimated that Featherstone Farm would fall short of its 2016 crop sales budget to the tune of $360,000.  But this figure was essentially an “educated guess” because (a) we were at the time still harvesting “fresh market” greens and herbs, and could never have imagined that they would last 2 weeks longer into November than ever before, in our 20 year history   (b) we had yet to harvest many “storage crops” like carrots and other root crops and  (c) we had to estimate breakdown/ “cull rates” for other storage crops that were already in the warehouse (such as winter squash and cabbage).   For these reasons, we included a “note” qualifying the $150,000 figure of ”need” in the campaign prospectus.

As it turns out 6 weeks later, some of the assumptions that we made in mid October were too pessimistic.   We had a completely unprecedented November, in terms of fresh market harvests (nearly $30k more in sales than ever before seen for the first 2+ weeks of the month).  We saw much less breakdown in winter squash than anticipated (…continue to see, that is;   we may be wholesaling butternuts through New Year’s!).   And we could never have foreseen the response of our commercial customers, who voluntarily recommended a bump in carrot price to help make up for losses in other crops.   Thank goodness for all of the above!!
At the same time, we have seen more breakdown than projected in the remaining storage cabbage that we do have on hand.  And we have since written off many thousands of dollars in budgeted root crop sales (beets, turnips and celeriac in particular), as yields out of the field in late October fell short of plan (disease and breakdown in roots…).  

We have done our level best to calculate and re-calculate the net effects of these changing wholesale numbers- as well as net savings in labor and other expenses as we “tightened the belt” as rapidly as we could.   At this stage it appears we can safely report “net gains” of $35k-  the bronze colored fluid in the campaign thermometer on our website- assuming we continue to pack and sell remaining carrots, cabbage and winter squash in the coming weeks and months as planned.   But this situation remains fluid, to say the least.  We are not dealing with standard “nuts and bolts” inventory here, not by a long shot!

One clarification on “needs of recovery and renewal” of this campaign.  Our goal at the outset was to get Featherstone Farm back to a place of similar strength- specifically, equal working capital- by the start of the 2017 “growing season / fiscal year” (3-1-17) as we had at the start of the 2016 season (3-1-16).   But this assumes that it will be just as easy (or difficult!) to develop a workable budget in 2017, as it was in 2016… that we don’t need even more working capital entering the coming season.   With a whole series of changes afoot in the coming months (specifically, contractions of all sorts associated with a leaner “FF 3.0” plan), it is not at all clear that this is the case (i.e. that restoring working capital to March 2016 levels is sufficient to balance a draft 2017 budget).   We are working feverishly this month to determine if it is.

Response from the Community

Community response to the Featherstone Farm Campaign for Recovery and Renewal- through Go Fund Me and Small Farm Central (CSA) both- has been completely overwhelming and humbling, to say the least.   In this section I will explain a bit about the other two “buckets of mercury” that we used to fill our campaign thermometer;  the red “cash contributions” and the green “prepaid CSA share” working capital.

We received over $52,000 in straight contributions to Featherstone Farm in this late fall.  WOW!   How could we ever have imagined?!?   Online and through the mail… folks knocking on my front door and handing me checks;  others dropping by the office with envelopes.   CSA members adding contributions onto 3 and 5 year share renewals.  Church groups from Rushford and Winona raising money.   Complete strangers donating from throughout the state and nationally.   A former professor of mine contributing on line from northern Finland.   A food   co-op in the TC “rounding up” at their checkout lanes for the month, and contributing the proceeds.  Donations of 2, 3 and 4 figures.   Farm business partners, vendors, landlords and neighbors collectively contributing over $12,000.   The list goes on and on and on.

To say that all of us at Featherstone Farm were overwhelmed and inspired by this giving, would be the understatement of the year.   I hesitate to call out individuals specifically for thanks, in this format, anyway;  you know who  you are and what your support means to us (at least I hope you do!).   We owe you a debt of gratitude and more, which we hope to repay over time (see last section on accountability in this report).

The third and final component of our campaign- the green “mercury” of working capital from CSA shares- deserves a bit of clarification.    In the wake of flood loss in 2007 we raised a great deal of money in CSA pre-sales as well… and then proceeded to spend every penny on relocation in the following weeks and months.   This left us with lots of obligations- filling CSA boxes for 3-5 more years!- with no related resources to pay for the growing, packing and delivery of those boxes.   We learned from this experience nearly a decade ago, and resolved not to repeat the mistake with this campaign.

This time around, we consider only 30-40% of the proceeds of every CSA prepay to be actual “working capital” for winter recovery and renewal (percent varies with precise length and type of share in question).   The balance of the proceeds will be allocated for 2017 production costs, put in “escrow” to cover 2018-21 production costs, and to pay down debt;  the exact formulas for how we do this are in development right now.  This allocation issue is why it has been a bit cumbersome for us to report out on success of the campaign, more than 1-2x/week all fall.   And the fact remains that spending any amount of the money weve received from fall CSA pre-sales on recovery and renewal projects this winter is borrowing from our future to some extent. 
No doubt we set and exceeded an ambitious goal for fundraising and recovery capital in November.   I do not mean to place too big an asterisk on this success and what it means to us;    I just want to make sure that we don’t get too carried away on the optimism it has created here.

s Plan to Remain Accountable to the Community in the wake of this campaign

I consider transparency and accountability to be baseline commitments that we at FF “owe” our community in the wake of such generous donations.   This is a commitment that we hope to repay not only to GFM contributors and CSA members, but to the broader small farm and food community in general;  we recognize that you want Featherstone Farm to succeed in large part because we are at the forefront of a community of small market farms that are struggling to reshape an entire regional food shed.   To the degree that FF “pays forward” gifts of support from this food shed by sharing lessons learned with other farmers- to help them (hopefully!) avoid the “issues” that plagued us so strongly in 2016- we are repaying in spirit what I believe our donors intended.

First and foremost, our plan for transparency and accountability will involve the writing and posting of progress reports on our website (blog posts clearly labelled as campaign follow up related).   These will come twice annually through 2018 (4 reports, spring and fall), followed by annual reports in 2019-21 (3 reports, through the end of the 5 year CSA “prepay” period).  These reports will largely detail progress on implementation of the “FF 3.0 paradigm” outlined in the campaign prospectus… the shift in “business as usual ” that we’ve developed this fall as our “collective wisdom” about what it takes to mitigate risk and operate sustainably moving forward.

I will be clear at the outset that the first several of these reports are not likely to focus on groundbreaking new ideas or innovations;  the “3.0 era” begins with a return to practices from an earlier era (emphasis on soil building, instead of crop fertility), and with a focus on learning from mistakes and following through on addressing “old business” in a new, even more professional way (resourcing, formalizing and implementing best practices in crop management…).  But I firmly believe that this is where the “3.0 era” must take root first: taking care of business without distractions or excuses.  This is not particularly sexy or innovative, but it is essential.  We will do this and we will report on the progress as described.
As time goes on- and as our farm finances recover and our resilience increases- I certainly imagine that we will return to exciting innovations (mid scale farm IT/operating system adaptation, or collaborative arrangements among neighboring farms to reduce the complexity [read: risk] in filling CSA boxes, among other things) and work on “big picture” pursuits like environmental sustainability and “domestic fair trade” etc.   Reports on this level of work will be part of my updates as well.

Second, our campaign for recovery and renewal will involve serious research into the relevance and affordability of the USDAs Gross Farm Revenue Insurance program.   This is a pilot program expanded and improved as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, but FF did not carry this coverage in 2016.   It is not clear to me- having not read all the fine print in the program description- that this insurance would have been sufficient to “make FF whole” (at least base line sufficiently) from the losses we suffered in 2016;  it IS clear to me that answering this question definitively, and soon (this winter) IS a key part of our plan for accountability to donors.  If Gross Farm Revenue insurance is, on close inspection, all it purports to be, Featherstone Farm will carry it in 2017 and beyond.

Moreover, as part of our plan to “pay forward” the generosity of campaign contributions, we will carefully track how long it takes for us to research, evaluate and (hopefully, if demonstrably relevant) implement Gross Farm Revenue Insurance at FF this winter.   We will calculate “costs of adopting and administering” vs potential benefits, and we will share all we learn with the broader farm community through a variety of means (blog posts, “field (office!) days” and the like).   I believe that other growers are often daunted- as FF was- by the potential bureaucratic “black hole” that crop / gross revenue insurance represents.   If we can help digest and quantify the costs and potential benefits of this program and make this information public- in a simple, easily understood way-  it may well be of great value to the broad “farm shed community” of producers and growers alike.

Finally, we will be looking at a number of other ways to share lessons learned over our 20 years in business- lessons about surviving crises of all kinds (environmental, financial, operational…)- with other growers, with the aid of “recovery and renewal” funds from donors this year.   FF is already party to a USDA application (approval pending) that would flesh out “crisis survival” strategies and problem solving tactics for the benefit of an emerging industry of regional market growers.   Featherstone Farm will continue to look for and initiate new ways of passing on lessons learned from 20 years of survival- blog posts, presentations and field days(?)- for the benefit of younger growers following in our footsteps.

Please keep an eye out for update emails, blog posts and social media outreach from us.  And please do not hesitate to contact us this year, next year, 5 years from now, to check in on how our recovery and renewal plans and implementation of those plans are playing out.  We look forward to further building our relationships with all of you.  And we are thankful for the role you played this November in our survival and future successes.

<![CDATA[Our November Recovery & Renewal Campaign ]]>Wed, 16 Nov 2016 21:45:35 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/our-november-recovery-renewal-campaignPicture

Greetings Featherstone Farm Community-

The last days and weeks of fall have been among the most extraordinary in our 20 years in business at Featherstone Farm. The end of the rain in mid October (hurray!!!), the run up to and then the election, and now the most remarkable run of warm, sunny weather I can ever recall in November (read: super busy in the field. We’re still picking kale and parsley!!).

I’d be dishonest if I said that my head wasn’t still spinning. I go through days as I always have- mostly- but from time to time I still find myself seized with emotion. It’s all too much…
The campaign for recovery and renewal we are running now through the end of this month, is truly a make-or-break proposition for Featherstone Farm, for me, and for my family. Twenty years on the “roller coaster” of organic farming has left me with little taste for drama; either we make our goal (to the point we are fully recovered and ready to proceed with the “FF 3.0” era) or we don’t.

In the latter case we will wind down affairs, sell our last carrots in deep winter, deliver our final CSA boxes in February, have a big auction in the spring, and look for some other work. I could spend pages and pages enumerating the “important” things that I think would be lost, but I would also have 3 decades of the best memories a person could ever hope to have.

I’m doing my best now, to make my peace with at least the possibility that this could happen; ten days ago I confidently (and at the time, humorously) told all FF employees that the likelihood of a farm liquidation was about as great as the likelihood of a Trump presidency.

But here’s the thing; I truly, truly want Featherstone Farm to continue. And I know after countless conversations with my wife and sons and broader family, that they do too. Yes the stress of the “roller coaster” has taken a mighty toll on all of us, and the idea of voluntarily stepping off has a certain appeal.

But in 20 years we have created so much together- as a family, as a farm team, as a farm community- and we have so much important work yet to do in this world. Jenni and I feel that now, of all times, is when we must reach deep and find what it takes to speak out about who we are and what we believe in, and to do the work of repair and recovery…. in our farm business, in our daily lives, in our community at large. We just can’t give up now!!!

And I believe that we share this vision- and the values of optimism and cultural inclusiveness and environmental responsibility that underlie it- with a broad enough community of people, that Featherstone Farm can and will receive the support it needs to recover and rebound. I have great faith that we can and will make this work together, as a community supported farm.

I know that many, many of you too have dedicated your lives’ work to a very similar vision … if not to Featherstone Farm alone, then to other farms, businesses and community groups which share these values. All of us at FF are so grateful for this work and dedication. We are so grateful for what you have already done for Featherstone Farm over the years, for what you are doing now, in this current campaign.

Our campaign appears to be gaining momentum, and I have plenty of cause for optimism. But as we all learned on November 8, we never want to take anything for granted.  Please continue to help us spread the word here.

In Co-operation and in Community-


<![CDATA[5 Reasons to Join Our Fall CSA!]]>Tue, 27 Sep 2016 21:09:31 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/5-reasons-to-join-our-fall-csaPicture
October and November are my favorite months for eating local, seasonal vegetables. Here are 5 reasons why you should join us for our Fall CSA:

1. You have more time to cook and enjoy meals with your family

If you’re like Jenni and me, summertime is a hard time to find time to cook…we tend to eat more “meals” on the fly. With shorter days and a return to school for the kids, we find we have more time (and inclination) to make family suppers (despite soccer practice!). Sound like you and your family?
Sign up for a fall share!

2. Heating up the house to make soups or to bake squash becomes a good thing

Even mid September can be warm enough that we shy away from turning on the oven in our household. But with crisp autumn air in October comes that wonderful opportunity to slow roast butternuts and buttercups, filling the house with that rich aroma…

3. Broccoli, kale, spinach and other fall leafy greens become
super tasty

Crops in the brassica and other families grow much more slowly in the short days of fall; they prefer shortening days and cool nights. Broccoli heads become much larger and heavier over the course of October harvests. And all leafy greens (cabbages to baby spinach) become way sweeter as well… sugar is a natural antifreeze produced in plants!

4. Root crops make their return to CSA boxes, including carrots

Mid and late summer boxes are short on root crops, no doubt about it. This is somewhat a matter of choice at Featherstone Farm; carrots and beets and other roots are simply not as flavorful when picked out of warm August soil (can even be downright flavorless!). But with cool soil and an occasional frosty night in October, these crops pack on flavor fast. Enjoy the first quality carrots of the 2016 season by… signing up for a fall share!

5. Thanksgiving

For me and my family, Thanksgiving is the very best holiday of the year. It comes at the end of the huge push of fall harvest (the very reason for the celebration!), and it can feature some of the very best eating of the entire year (see above). Please give us the pleasure of filling your Thanksgiving feast with lots of Featherstone vegetables by… signing up for a fall CSA share right away! CSA Sign Up 


Featherstone Farmer

<![CDATA[Unprecedented Crop Losses in 2016; The Slow Motion Tsunami of Rain]]>Wed, 21 Sep 2016 20:43:24 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/unprecedented-crop-losses-in-2016-the-slow-motion-tsunami-of-rainPicture
The other day I had an opportunity to spend some time with Esteban Gasca, the 15 year Featherstone veteran. Esteban voiced out loud for the first time, what has slowly become clear in my own mind over the past month or so: “This is the worst year, ever, at Featherstone Farm.”

By this Esteban surely meant the heartbreak of seeing first hand, day-to-day in the field, healthy plantings go down to disease or pests or some other calamity. And he’s right; never before have we experienced such a “perfect storm” of setbacks- many of them driven by the 4th wettest summer in MN history”- as we have in 2016. As a rule, rainfall is bad for vegetables (see my writing on this from August).

We survived the catastrophic flood of 2007 alright, when much of our crop was lost in a single night. This season has been a slow motion tsunami which, I’m now convinced, will cost the farm more in absolute dollars than the losses of 2007. Here’s a quick assessment of the impacts:

Near total loss (>90%): storage onions and potatoes, cauliflower, ripe peppers

Deep (>30%) shortfalls in productivity: sweetcorn, melons, broccoli, slicing tomatoes

Black Rot (foliar disease) devastation: cabbage, cauliflower.

Two things are unique about the losses of 2016, in historical context. First, they are offset by very few crops that will perform above expectation. In the past, bad news in crops x and y has been offset by good news in crops a and b. This is the essence of “risk management on a diverse farm.” In 2016 however, income from “good crops” (kale, and cherry tomatoes) is dwarfed by losses in “bad crops” listed above.

Secondly, the losses we’re experiencing in 2016 are at both a depth and breadth that I believe to be unprecedented in 20 years at Featherstone Farm. In the past we’ve had big issues with a few crops, say, or moderate level issues with a broader set of crops. But to have deep losses on such a wide range of plantings… this is why Esteban is as discouraged as he is.

The reasons why this is happening are as diverse as the crops themselves. Many, many of them are rooted in the near constant wet we’ve experienced all summer. Not just the 2” downpours (there have been lots of these…), but the hot, muggy weather between, in which soils and crops simply could not dry out adequately, spreading Black Rot and other diseases. But other things have gone wrong as well.

Featherstone Farm will survive this season, and emerge wiser and more experienced than ever. There will be difficult choices to make this winter, however, in terms of budgets and off season projects. It’s in the nature of farming, that we have to invest money for months and months in plantings and in people, on the assumption that crops will produce at a certain level. When it becomes apparent (often at the very end of the growing season) that productivity is low, there is less expense that can be cut. Production costs are 90% sunk, even if yields are not there to pay for them. In 2016, this may be as much as a $300k shortfall.

Over the next few weeks, we will be working hard to bring in crops that are still out- squash, broccoli and carrots. And we will be trying to understand and describe exactly why we lost each and every crop that we did (a prerequisite for preventing recurrence in future). I will be writing to update you as I am able.

In the meanwhile, please keep your thoughts on -and your prayers for- a dry fall!  


Featherstone Farmer    

<![CDATA[Why do your MN Organic Vegetables Cost so Much?]]>Wed, 07 Sep 2016 20:16:16 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/why-do-your-mn-organic-vegetables-cost-so-muchPicture
Question: Ever wonder why local (and especially organic) fruits and vegetables are more expensive than “conventional” west coast produce?

Short Answer (in 4 letters!): Rain

Four or five generations ago, the “great lakes region” from upstate New York through Michigan and Minnesota was a major vegetable producing area. Orchards and vineyards and truck farms throughout the area provided a large percentage of the seasonal (including storage) fruits and vegetables consumed in cities from Minneapolis and Chicago to Boston.

Though I was not around in the 40’s and 50’s as the truck farms of this area gradually began to go out of business, their crops replaced in grocery stores by cheap west coast imports, 29 seasons of growing vegetables for a living (MA to PA and yes, CA) has now given me a deep, gut level sense of why this happened. It was not the harsh winters that consigned Minnesota’s fresh vegetable industry to the dustbin of history (though the short growing season did not help!). No, I’m convinced it was the rain.

Think about it: from (eastern) Washington state apples to Kern County (CA) carrots, the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat in this country are grown in the desert. Why? Because rainfall during the season can be among the most destructive things a grower can face, spreading foliar disease, spoiling crops just before harvest, and generally making every single activity in the field slower, harder and yes, more expensive, than those same operations in an arid climate.

Over the past 4-5 seasons, Featherstone farm has been struggling mightily with foliar diseases which thrive in wet climates. From black rot in cauliflower and cabbage, to powdery mildew in vine crops, these diseases can often claim large percentages of yields for an entire season. Surplus moisture around the time of harvest can lead directly to cracking skins in tomatoes, turning a good crop just on the verge of harvest (read: all growing costs sunk) to junk, literally overnight. In 2010 and then again this year, otherwise healthy fields of onions (here at FF, tens of thousands of pounds of them…) went from “early dry down” (10 days from harvest) to mush, due entirely to hot, wet weather (and the pathogens that thrive in such conditions).

How can a small (even intermediate scale) vegetable farm afford to take hits like this? The answer is, we have to charge more for our tomatoes, cauliflower and onions, than those grown in the arid west. The cost of diesel fuel to get them here pales by comparison. California produce will always undersell the Minnesota grown equivalent, so long as the water in the central valley holds out, and petroleum stays, say, below $500 / barrel(!).

Jack Hedin

Featherstone Farmer

September 7th, 2016 Early, early morning, rain drumming on the roof.

<![CDATA[Featherstone's Next 20 Years: A Dozen+ Reasons to Believe]]>Fri, 02 Sep 2016 20:04:11 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/featherstones-next-20-years-a-dozen-reasons-to-believePicture
Growing 30-40 different vegetable crops on 130 acres spread around 5 locations, ridge and valley, sometimes miles apart, is a difficult business. As we have seen in the last several posts, the very diversity of the operations at Featherstone Farm is both an asset (risk management) and a liability (so hard to keep all the balls in the air).

And with the complexity of the challenges facing us now- from crop disease to lack of secure land tenure, compounded by debt burden and destabilized climate- it is clear to me that the future of Featherstone Farm rests with a team effort. Fortunately, I believe we have a fantastically talented, dedicated group of people working at the farm now, who will collectively                                            carry us forward into our second 20 years in business.

Working with this great group is one of the best- most enjoyable and most satisfying- parts of being the owner and operator of Featherstone Farm. I’d like to take a moment now to introduce a few of these folks, so that you can get to know them a bit yourselves, and understand why the future of the farm is in such good hands!

I’ve thought long and hard about how many of the farm’s 50+ employees to feature here (try and get representatives from the shop and office and field and warehouse equally, or focus on leaders, or some other strategy for narrowing down). In the end, I’ve opted for a straight seniority deal; I’ll introduce the 12 folks that I believe have worked here the longest*, out of respect to the heart and soul they’ve already invested in making Featherstone Farm what it is today.

So here are a dozen+ of the reasons I am confident that Featherstone Farm will reach even greater heights in its second 20 years:

Esteban Gasca and his family (brothers, daughters, father, myriad cousins and in laws etc) are from Guanajuato Mexico, and do all level of fieldwork and harvest at FF. Esteban is a green card holder who is currently applying for his wife and remaining daughters to come to Rushford to live (as early as next spring). I have stayed with Esteban and his family twice during my three visits to their village in rural Guanajuato.

Rich Schild is a multi-talented equipment and machine shop guy who came to FF from a career in industrial maintenance and running his own septic system business. As repair and maintenance co-ordinator at FF, Rich keeps all the 20-30-40+ year old tractors, trucks and machinery running through thick and thin. He is the “go to guy” for every neighborhood dog that happens by FF (huge heart for animals!).

Casey Howe (7 years) grew up on a dairy farm near Rushford, and started work at FF as a summer employee before starting back to school (he’s getting his degree from Winona State in theater this fall!). Over the years Casey has done nearly every job in the FF field, warehouse and delivery network. Currently he is managing all fall root crops in the field (carrots, beets etc). Casey is a fantastic musician, actor and                                                             lighting/set designer when he’s not driving                                                            tractor.

Patty Zanski Fisher (6+ years). Patty first came to work at Featherstone Farm in the fall of 1998 (at our old location in Winona County). After several seasons of general fieldwork she moved on (LaCrosse then TC), returned to school (Masters in English at the UofM) and became a long distance runner (TC marathon this fall!). She returned to FF in 2014 (remotely, from south Minneapolis) as CSA co-ordinator and marketing manager extraordinaire.

Mike Prinsen (6+ years). Mike is also from a farm in southeast Minnesota, and returned to the area 20 years ago after a stint in Michigan running his own small business. Mike has key roles in different parts of FF as well, from repair and maintenance in the shop with Rich, to equipment operation in the field. He is the primary “go to” guy with the sprayer, helping to keep worms down and foliar feeds up on brassica crops in particular.

Joel Gasca Ortega (we know him as “Mote” after 5-6 years). Along with Esteban and Patty, Mote is the only remaining FF team member who can remember the “old farm” in Wiscoy Valley. In fact, Mote was on the crew in the fateful summer of 2007, when flash flooding nearly wiped FF off the map. After several years’ absence tending his family farm in Mexico, Mote is back leading one of our 3 harvest teams.

Jennifer Breitlow (5-6 years). Jennifer was hired originally to work in the FF office but, with a degree in horticulture and a love for good food, she moved out into the field as an equipment operator in 2014. Since then she has cultivated, harvested, washed and bagged more carrots than perhaps any other FF employee. Jennifer is currently “CSA box pack lead” in addition to tractor driver and carrot specialist(!).

Danni Oakes (4-5 years). Danni came to FF as a summer employee during her years in nursing school. She has returned every summer since, as she has steadily progressed from nursing to EMT training; she is currently on the Rushford ambulance team. Danni is currently “equipment manager” at FF, a role in which she is responsible for safe operation and careful maintenance of the farm’s tractors and tractor tools in the field.

James Mabry (4-5 years). James came to FF to work in our warehouse, and over the years has risen to be the co-ordinator of that part of the farm business. His job is to keep all the various crop receiving, storage, wash and pack, and wholesale order assembly processes working smoothly. Since starting at FF James has been married, settled in the nearby town of Peterson and, this June, became a first time father!

Veronica Perez-Nava (4-5 years). Veronica started work at FF like James in the warehouse, where she has become a crop wash-and-pack specialist. If Jennifer B holds the FF winter carrot crown, Veronica would have to be the winter squash queen. She also packs sweet corn and melons, sorts tomatoes, and is a regular on the CSA box assembly line. Like most all of the Spanish speaking group at FF, Veronica comes to MN every year with an H2-A visa, leaving her children Salvador, Emily and Oswaldo with family at their home in Mexico.

Gerardo Castro (4-5 years). Gerardo is a multi year veteran of the Featherstone field team, who has risen to the level of harvest lead (along with Esteban and Mote). This past winter Gerardo made FF news when he led Nathan and Abby (below, who were visiting the family in rural Guanajuato) on a punishing 24 hour, 50+ mile pilgrimage march over the Mexican desert with hundreds of other villagers. Gerardo is Esteban’s son-in-law, having married daughter Arelie; the young couple are expecting their second child this winter.

Nathan Manful (3-4 years). Nathan came to FF as a field picker on Esteban’s harvest crew, with little or no functional Spanish. Having grown up in rural Rushford, he was no stranger to hard work, however, and quickly earned the respect and friendship of the Gasca crew. In a few short years he has risen to be both harvest co-ordinator and operations manager at FF, key roles of leadership with English and Spanish speakers alike. He now speaks good Spanish, and has fully forgiven Gerardo for alleged misrepresentation of the length of that desert pilgrimage(!). 

Abby Benson (3-4 years). Abby worked on other Midwestern organic vegetable farms (including with our friends at Whitewater Gardens near Altura) before coming to FF. She began her work here as a ‘horticultural tech’ supporting crop production. For the last two years she has been in charge of managing brassica crops, and has run the FF greenhouses through the spring and early summer. If Mike is FF spray king, Abby is queen of the Buddingh basket cultivator (her favorite tool for weed control in cabbage).

If you have read this far through these bios, it must be clear to you how much I’ve gotten to know these folks over the years, to respect and value their work at Feathersone Farm, and to think of these them as genuine friends. And this is just a list of the most senior people (I believe… the exact years blur in my mind!)… there are so many other key people- from Todd and Emily in the office, to Dan and Pancho in the field, to Adan and Lupe in the warehouse- that we all rely on as vital members of the team here. I genuinely love working with these people!
So this is what I talk about as the future of Featherstone Farm… this team of people, represented by these select, short bios. The experience and dedication, the smart decision making, the heart and soul that I see these folks bring with them to the work of organic agriculture… sometimes it takes my breath away. THIS is why I am so optimistic about the future of Featherstone Farm, despite the challenges we face (together).
Many of you reading this may have visited Featherstone Farm and met some of these people, at CSA events or commercial customer field days, or as casual visitors. You are part of the FF community as well, and your engagement and support of all that we do here is equally vital. Without you we would not be able to close this vital circle of farmer> farmworker> consumer; FF would be less sustainable in the long run.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am to the broader community of people that hold and sustain Featherstone Farm day-to-day, year-to-year, in its youthful exuberance (read: idealistic foolishness?) and in its emerging wisdom (still learning…) alike. It is this community that makes me sure in my gut, that the next 20 years will be even stronger, less stressful(!) and more life affirming than ever!


*I’m going by memory here, not employment records. Please excuse me if I get details (even some of the people) out of sequence

<![CDATA[Facing the 21st Century Challenge:  Historically Unpredicatable Weather in an Increasingly Destabilized Climate]]>Thu, 25 Aug 2016 20:48:56 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/facing-the-21st-century-challenge-historically-unpredicatable-weather-in-an-increasingly-destabilized-climatePicture
Featherstone Farm has survived a great number of challenges over its 20 year history, from the departure of key partners (among them co-founder and brother Ed Hedin, in 2000, and multi year farm partner Rhys Williams, in 2006) to natural disasters (in particular, the catastrophic flash flood that nearly wiped us off the map in August 2007).  And of course there were the myriad self- inflicted “issues” associated with growing too fast and attempting to do too much, described in previous posts.

But we have managed to survive them all, developing a good deal of resilience, problem solving capacity and, most importantly, humility in the process.  No doubt we’ve had more than our share of good luck along the way, and we’ve relied occasionally on the extraordinary contributions of time, energy and talents of our customers- many of you reading this- to overcome the challenges of the past.  Featherstone Farm is now what it is because of a team effort, including farmer(s), farm workers, and our broader farm community.  That “team” is still in place, is stronger than ever, and is well poised to help us overcome the big challenges we still face in the future.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

In a nutshell, the 3 biggest challenges that I see Featherstone Farm facing in its 3rd decade are:
  1. Accumulated crop disease issues -in particular a brassica family foliar disease ominously named black rot- which may well constrain our ability to rotate crops (or even grow certain crops at all, like cauliflower) as we have for years to come.
  2. Lack of secure land tenure.  We currently own only about 30 of the 250+ acres in our vegetable rotation (only ~135 acres planted to annual vegetables each year, with the rest in weed and disease suppressing, soli building cover crops).  The rest we rent on year-to-year leases.  Efforts to purchase- or even achieve long term leases- the balance of our fields, have been unsuccessful for a variety of reasons (so far, anyway!)
  3. The burden of accumulated debt.  A result of flood relocation and rebuilding (2008-09), green energy investment (2011) and general costs of scaling up (sometimes unwisely!) to meet burgeoning demand over 20 years, the farm’s current debt load is a weight that constrains our ability to buy land, invest more in people and tools and, most importantly, to “right size” our farm plan to accommodate the realities of black rot and other diseases.

​I could write a book on each of these three challenges, and had intended to address them each in some depth, one-by-one, in this post.  Instead, this wet month of August suggested to me a focus on something that underlies these three issues, which amplifies their (negative) effects and ultimately constitutes the single greatest challenge I believe Featherstone Farm (or any organic vegetable farm in the Midwest) faces in the 21st centuryhistorically unpredictable weather in a destabilized climate.

Of course we live in a four season climate, in which daily swings of weather conditions are common and often unpredictable.  I like to think I take a big view of this, trying to avoid the sort of day-to-day complaints about heat or rain or whatever, that farmers are known for.  My great grandfather farmed in Goodhue County (outside Red Wing) at the turn of the last century, and in his memoir he cites only a single year in his 80 years in agriculture, in which an entire season’s weather was “just right” (1931, I believe it was).  We have to learn to deal with imperfect, often (very) adverse weather as a reality of farming in Minnesota.  I get that.

But I think any clear headed look at the last decade of weather in southern Minnesota would have to recognize that something is wrong.  Three “500 year floods” since 2000.  A year (2014) in which hundreds and hundreds of acres of corn ground in our area were not planted, because it was simply too wet from April 1 through July 1 for farmers (even with their 24 row planters!) to get the work done.  A near historic drought (2012) followed by a spring (2013) nearly as wet as 2014, followed by a “flash drought” that parched the second half of the season.

When climate scientists talk of “persistent patterns of unusual weather” or “big gaps between winners and losers in precipitation” and other features of a climate destabilized future, what are they talking about but this?

To make a very long story short, crop losses associated with unpreparedness for these extremes are a big part of Featherstone Farm’s current debt problem (as well as overreaction in 2011, when I decided to become “part of the solution, rather than victim of the problem” by covering our shed with $250k worth of solar panels).  And climate variation is a baseline source and driver of the crop disease (especially black rot) issues we face (such clear illustrations I could provide, if I had 20 pages!). 

Famed CSA farmer John Peterson (Angelic Organics near Chicago) once commented that a major component of climate change adaptation for agriculture will be the need for farmers to overcapitalize their operations, to survive these sorts of swings.   And, sure enough, Featherstone Farm was forced to spend many tens of thousands of dollars on irrigation, tools and equipment between 2012-15 (adding to debt).   One small example:  to hedge against wet spring weather we nearly quadroupled the acreage we cover with plastic mulch between 2013-14.  We had to purchase a new, $7000 plastic layer to accomplish this.  In 2016, with the dry fieldwork “windows” ever smaller in April, we had to purchase a second plastic layer, so we could accomplish 2x the amount of work in a dry spring day.  The risks of not working fast enough are now just too high (witness corn growers spring 2014).

The land tenure issue is inextricably linked with climate adaptation as well, as a “challenge for the future” at Featherstone Farm.  Because we are not beneficiaries of huge taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance as our corn grower neighbors are (another story worthy of greater telling…), we have to manage risk by planting different crops on different types of fields (light to heavy soil, high ridge to low floodplain) as a hedge against weather variation.  So for example, if we have 2 fields of winter squash planted in distinct locations (4-5-6 miles apart) in a year like 2013, when we go “out of the frying pan and into the fire” in the space of 2 short months, at least one of the 2 will do reasonably well.  That’s the theory, anyway.

But what if we don’t own the land, and rely on year-to-year leases for 90% of our rotation?  And what if a large portion of the land that we rely on as a hedge against crazy wet years like this one, is on a high ridge far from any source of irrigation water (well cost six figure$ and more)?   And what if all farmland in the region is (over)valued at historic levels, in part because of taxpayer subsidy driven, record profits on corn (2012-14)?   Or if the best, best vegetable field in the entire county (region? state?) is zoned industrial, because the local township sees jobs in future, hypothetical manufacturing businesses (ignoring the 50+ people Featherstone farm has working now)?  What kind of effect does this zoning have on local landowners, entertaining purchase offers from small vegetable farmers, at “agricultural value” (hint: it’s not good).

Now you begin to see the challenge of land tenure at Featherstone Farm.  We need not just one, but several different deals to come together, to give us an adequate land base to support our current farm plan.  And we need infrastructure improvements at some of these locations- most notably a well / irrigation- in order to increase the chances that our crops there will be profitable enough to pay the mortgage!

I realize now that I have put out a blizzard of information here, tinged with opinion and not a little complaint.  My apologies for that!  The challenges are immense, no doubt.  The 34kws of solar panels that we now have on our shed roof are not going to reverse climate change on their own(!).  We have to adapt.  And we are not going to change the zoning laws or basic economics of farmland real estate in our area.  Forget it.  Even adapting to (surviving!) these realities will be difficult enough, given the debt that we have accumulated over the past 10 years of dealing with these very (challenging!) realities and more.

But, the good news is, that we have learned enough in all the years of struggle, that we finally have clear and realistic plans for how to address these challenges.  And in a certain way, I firmly believe that Featherstone Farm is stronger than ever, in terms of the resources and people we will need to overcome them.  These plans, resources and people will be the subject of next week’s post (preview: it’s good news- very good news- for a change!).

Meanwhile, thanks for sticking with Featherstone Farm through thick and thin!  


<![CDATA[Featherstone Farm at 20 Years:  The Diversity Challenge            ]]>Wed, 17 Aug 2016 19:58:57 GMThttp://featherstonefarm.com/farm-news--blog/featherstone-farm-at-20-years-the-diversity-challengePicture
The notion of diversity- much like terms like “natural” or “sustainable”- is invoked in so many different ways with such different meanings, that I hesitate to use the term at all.  Nevertheless “diverse” is one of the first adjectives I think of when describing Featherstone Farm in this, our 20th season of farming.  So it seems useful to reflect just a bit on what diversity means to us at this juncture, especially as it relates to the idea of sustainability.

On a surface level, diversity at Featherstone Farm can be most easily seen in the farm’s workforce (multiple languages spoken, huge range of backgrounds, beliefs and reasons for working in organic agriculture), and in its crop mix (from cover crops to 30+ different vegetable and small fruit cultivars… more below).  Both are enough to make my head spin, sometimes.

But I’m going to focus on 2 larger framings of diversity in this post, 2 framings which I think suggest a great deal about what Featherstone is and aspires to be at the start of its 3rd decade of life.  These concepts are:

  1. Diversity as a description of all the “balls we have to juggle” in the course of a day, a week or a vegetable season; all the diverse activities and skills we have to master, to make the Featherstone Farm succeed.        and
  2. Diversity as in biological or ecological diversity- as foundation level components of environmental sustainability- ideals that I find more elusive and difficult to achieve than ever, 20 years into my life’s work.

Featherstone Farm is at some level, a collection of links in a chain, from field rotation plan to greenhouse, from planting through harvest, from warehousing and storage, through delivery to CSA and wholesale customers.  These links are incredibly diverse, in terms of the expertise and scope of management that they require.  And a break in any link can mean that the chain fails to serve some critical function (keeping foliar disease in check in the tomatoes, for example, or delivering the right CSA box to the right member on the right day).  

A few years ago we had an insurance adjuster out here, asking me all sorts of questions about Featherstone Farm and its operations.  After a solid hour of discussion this guy commented “Wow, what you have here is an old school vertically integrated company.  Not many of those out there anymore, in this day of specialization…”   Wow, talk about a “light bulb” moment;  of course this is what makes Featherstone Farm so uniquely exciting… and so darned difficult at times! 

It’s taken me fully these 20 years- and what feels like a lifetime of lessons learned the hard way- to understand this challenge, and to calibrate my expectations accordingly (read: more realistically!).  To learn humility at its most fundamental level.  And quite honestly, scaling back on both the scope and diversity of what we’re attempting to accomplish here has been one result of this growing humility. 

As I wrote last week, the idea that we could (a) scale up to feed the entire upper Midwest good organic vegetables (I’m exaggerating, of course!) while (b) achieving high order personal and environmental sustainability and (c) paying all the bills and even saving a few dimes to rub together for retirement… what an exercise in hubris, particularly because of the huge diversity of skills required to succeed at any one of these goals.   We just can’t keep all those balls in the air at once, I’ve finally accepted after 20 years.  Yahoo!   What a relief, that we don’t have to keep the lights on and save the world at the same time!! (again, I’m being facetious!).
Seen in the light of management capacity and links in a small business chain, the second framing of diversity I’m interested in here- biodiversity- is another ideal that becomes very difficult indeed to achieve in practice. 

I take it as an article of faith that the more diversity of living things we are able to promote and sustain in the soil, the field environment, and the whole farm ecosystem- the more we can make Featherstone Farm reflect the awe inspiring diversity of the natural world itself- the more resilient and healthy the Featherstone Farm business will be.  Fine.  But how much of this is really possible in a modern economy, realistically?  And how much of this ideal are we prepared to sacrifice in the service of personal and financial sustainability?  This is a challenge that I still struggle with mightily 20 years into my life in organic agriculture.

I believe we do a very good job promoting biodiversity in our soils, as a foundation of fertility and resilience (risk management on so many levels).   This is organic practice 101, and I’m very proud of all that we accomplish on it day to day, year to year.  But the fact is that we are a fresh market organic vegetable farm, and as we narrow our focus to annual vegetables, we miss many opportunities to achieve an even higher level of sustainability, for economic and practical reasons that I now accept (begrudgingly).  Honestly, I wish that we could get beyond these limits over the long term.

So, for example, we have so few perennial crops in our rotation.  We rely on neighbors to produce compost for us, rather than produce our own (even better would be having grazing livestock right in the fields… but we own not a single ruminant!).  We could be integrating small grains, forage, even field corn and soybeans(!) into our rotation, real practices of agricultural diversity which would make Featherstone Farm more sustainable.

Alas, we have tried some of these things and… well, I’ll just refer back to my earlier comments about “a lifetime of lessons learned the hard way” and the humility that comes with failure… even when we took up a project with the best intentions and highest ideals.

My point in all of this is (my post last week on idealism meets reality, and the present writing), is that Featherstone Farm simply attempted to do too much in its first 20 years.  And, hopefully, that with the wisdom born of success and failure, both, that our next 20 years will be more narrowly focused, and even more “successful” from a conventional standpoint.   If that means less diversity- not just forgoing livestock, but onions and  potatoes too (darn, how do you get scab free potatoes in soil with such high organic matter…?)- then I suppose this is a compromise that I am willing to make.  Protecting my own sanity- as well as that of my family and all the diverse employees of Featherstone Farm- seems as important as feeding (or saving!) the world, at this point of my professional career. 

Perhaps at some point we’ll get so good at growing 50 different vegetable crops, that we no longer need to worry about the perfect (high level biodiversity, or big picture sustainability) being the enemy of the good (simply growing a good crop, with sound organic practices). We’ll have orchards, a flock of sheep grazing down crop residue (and providing wool for Featherstone sweatshirts!), and everything from local honey to dried apples to wheat flour in CSA boxes.  But I’m not holding my breath anymore!

In Humility!