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:
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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 century: historically 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!