For the past three years we have been growing at a small yet steady pace adding more fruit and facilitating more events and workshops on and off the farm, replacing wells and roofs, building coolers and traveling around the world. This year an intention I have is to pause and identify the gaps. In conducting this 'GAP' analysis, I hope to discover what's optimal for our farm, for ourselves, and for the community of growers and eaters we have the privilege of knowing and serving.
What might GAP's be? In January 2002, USDA Agricultural Marketing Services formally implemented the USDA Good Agricultural Practices & Good Handling Practices (GAP&GHP) audit verification program. “This voluntary program is offered to the fruit and vegetable industry to verify an operation’s efforts to minimize the risk of contamination of fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts by microbial pathogens. The program does not guarantee the product is free from microbial contamination, but verifies the participant has taken proactive measures to reduce the risk of contamination by adhering to generally recognized industry best practices.” You can browse through the website and gain a sense of different areas recognized.
The thought of writing an interstitial reflection of what constitutes good agricultural practices driven by industry standards (ie looking between the cracks and gaps in the GAP program and more broadly within fruit and veg supply chains) appeals to me. I don't want to downplay the importance of this program from a production and food safety standpoint. I do want to play with the term and what gaps mean on our farm and where they might exist. So I invite you to travel to the farm with me for a reflection on what we see as some of the ecological, financial, and societal gaps at play and what the spaces in between can tell us about discovering an optimal system of food production—sustaining our lives and communities over time.
Ecological Gaps - There is no guarantee that farming is free from risk or microbes. Far from it, and I take pride in the fact that I never have to go to a casino as I get to gamble everyday – with the weather, with a changing climate—hedging my bets on my dreams and goals of growing more fruit and hosting farm stays and workshops at home and abroad. When it comes to microbes, we look for microbial inundation to build biologically active soils – there is no substitute for it when it comes to healthy plants and healthy people/animals that eat the plants. Healthy plants coupled with clean, safe water ensures our fruit and vegetables are ready to eat right out of your CSA bag. Our risk planning is constituted of biological diversity, growing more perennials, reducing the need for tillage and stewarding habitat that is pesticide and GMO free for people and pollinators.
Despite a diversity of plants representing a couple hundred varieties of veg (59 different species), 34 types of edible herbs, 12 different genre of fruits, and 93 different native plants, forbs and grasses taking root in our prairies and woodlots) there are still gaps in our ecology, most notably with seasonality, sequencing, and getting the optimal mix of herbs and groundcover established in our orchard guilds. Also, having a few more early season root crops to bulk up the June CSA shares, extending the season with value added products for the winter months (and winter income), and finding the best niche for offering our fruits (I know there is always the potential for more fruit, though Rob has currently barred me from planting any more currants)! So I am left to pause in between the plant zones and explore the root of the matter driving agriculture from which our farm is not exempt – economics.
Economic Gaps - This year we are excited that only one of us has to work off farm and I feel very fortunate that the CSA model enables us to stay small-scale, diversified and flexible. Having an honest, direct, and transparent relationship with our members and farm friends is invaluable to us. I am also learning to be honest with myself. Balancing short and long term cash flow is a great exercise in resiliency building. June doesn't leave me with too much breathing room, so let this be a lesson learned for next season's planning and plantings. Where are the gaps in our economic rhizosphere you may ask? At the root of it is access to capital. The farm pays for itself in terms of expenses, though the net results aren't enough to make substantial infrastructure upgrades without taking on debt. We feel our balance sheets are healthy, though struggle with how to address growth, and how we might finance growth such as a farm stay option (a gap and goal to re-assess in the winter months). We do have the capacity to expand production, though expanded production does not always mean expanded profits and some of the largest producing farms are also the most heavily indebted, subsidized farms (for example, CAFOS and vertically integrated poultry operations and the systems that reinforce this type of production – it's not just the farmer at play here). I digress.
Getting production and pricing to align is also a fun dance with economics and art. Most people could not afford food if you had to account for the true costs of production and took away the subsidies. So while the numbers will tell you one thing, you have to balance this with what you and the market can bear, as it doesn't look like a radical change in economic structure will be coming along anytime soon. You can glean more on price points in our final report re: our fruit marketing research project (check out the blurb and link to the report in our June newsletter). We also hope to report on a fruit profitability calculator in the works and in collaboration with Dr. Larry Godsey with Missouri Valley Technical College (he worked with elderberry growers on a great elderberry profitability tool). We are in conversation and price tweaking with our members and customers regarding what's optimal and accessible, price-wise for our CSA and fruit and farm products, recognizing that we can't be everything for everybody – though I think we're getting it right when it comes to fruit, forest gardening, and financing.
This all takes time and energy. We have the production energy covered – our farm is 100% sun powered (both in terms of the sun enabling plants to photosynthesize capture energy and make available in the form of food). The time and labor energy piece well, we're still tweaking.
Social Gaps - Farming for me is simultaneously the most rewarding and most frustrating work I've done. Rewarding as I feel like I have finally landed in a profession that speaks to my creativity, skill set and gifts that I want to contribute to the world. I also get to travel more as a farmer than with any other past career I've had through my consulting work and volunteerism supporting women farmers internationally. Frustrating in that farming – feeding people – is one of the most important jobs there is. So why does it pay so little and why does industry and chemistry seem to trump biology and ecology when it comes to how food is grown? We are seeing this play out in our communities. The good news is that Mother Nature always leaves us hints and options. We've taken those hints to heart in using forest garden guilds – mimicking plant community function and structure in our orchard design. Forest garden guilds can also serve as a metaphor for how you relate to people and to your community—living as free yet interdependent people in a functional way.
If you've stayed with me this far, bravo! I leave you with a challenge and a request. I challenge you to turn your cell phone off for just a moment, pause and ask yourself what is an optimal livelihood for you – ecologically, economically, and societally. My request – Let us know what you see as gaps in your CSA box? In our service(s)? In our fruit offerings? We hope you find success reflecting and experimenting with finding the right mix of plants and people for you and for your communities to thrive.