Monday, September 30, 2013

growing organic corn

Corn gets a bad name because it's associated with all of the stuff that people consider evil.  It's often a GMO, it's grown in huge monocrop farms, and it's used to produce stuff like corn syrup and ethanol, and every one of those things has someone that hates it. 
Organic corn row.  Note weeds between rows. 
  But we have to remember that, like grass and clover, corn is a plant, and it's a pretty good plant.  It's been popular here in America for at least 6 thousand years, and for a reason.  Acre for acre, it's hard to beat corn for feeding livestock. 

Conventional corn field, roundup ready corn.  No weeds.  None. 

So corn gets a bad reputation, but it's not corns fault.  There are varieties of corn that aren't GMO, that are not grown with chemicals, and, honestly, corn is  just a plant.  So when I'm looking at feeding cows, one of the common things that I see in cows diets is corn silage. 

Silage is just the whole corn plant chopped up.  Stalk, leaves, cob, the whole thing.  Chopped up fine and then typically used as a part of a ration for a dairy or beef cow.  I don't think that corn is evil, but if I'm going to grow corn, I'd like to do it with open-pollinated varieties and without chemical sprays.  Organically grown. 
Many of the weeds are palatable to cattle, so while it's not pretty, in my book it's ok. 

So today I spent some time talking with a farmer nearby who's growing some organic silage corn.  We talked about what he did to prepare his fields, and what his yields are, and generally speaking about what he had to do to make the crop work out for him.  Then we talked about the price bonus he gets from being organic.

The basic cow feed that I'm working on is some sort of grass hay (probably orchard grass because it grows well for many farmers here) some sort of legume (probably red clover or alfalfa because it grows well around here) and some sort of silage (corn, but also grass and legume silage). 

We do not get weather hot enough or dry enough to actually dry the hay in the fields (both grass and legume hay), at least not early in the season.  So most farmers here cut the grass wet and make haylage out of it.  They get it as dry as they can, and then pack it into air-tight bales and let it ferment a little; it comes out smelling a little like vinegar, and the cows seem to like it.  It also keeps fairly well wrapped; certainly a year, but most of the farmers talk about 2 years as being pretty common.  

The first cutting is made into haylage, and the 2nd and 3rd cuttings, the finer, leafier hay, gets cut and dried and baled as dry hay.  Some producers around here just wait until the weather turns warmer to make their first cutting, but I've found that the hay produced isn't very palatable to my animals.  Given the choice between a 2nd cutting and stemmy first cutting, they'll finish off the 2nd cutting completely. 

I don't know much about the production of forage, and that's why I'm spending months talking to other farmers around here and watching what they do to make theirs.  If I'm going to be feeding and milking animals, I need to get the diet right, and I'd like to have as little off-farm feed as I possibly can. 

the conventional corn silage is producing 27 tons per acre; at 40lbs a cow a day, that's 1350 cow-days per acre of feed, or basically enough forage for 3.5 cows per acre of corn.   So 20 acres of corn  will feed 74 cows, give or take...  that's about the right amount for a 40 cow dairy, including replacement heifers. 

I feel like this is a puzzle.  I'm slowing finding pieces that fit. 

So if you'd like to see some graphs about what kinds of corn are being used and other corn facts, check out this link.   I particularly liked the note that while a very large percentage of US corn is now GMO (presumably for increased yields) the yields haven't really changed all that much.  So the GMO yield thing isn't working as advertised, apparently. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Advantage small farms have over large...

I was reading an article about farming, big farming.  It was written to explain the commodity markets and looked at the long term profitability of commodity farms -- farms that grow most of what we eat.  Soybeans and corn.   The conclusion?  Several that were interesting: 

1) commodity farms have, in the long term, zero profit.  Yes, they do well some years, and other years not so good.  But over the long term they aren't profitable.  For every good corn year you'll get a bad one.  Same for soybeans. 
2) Crop prices are rising, but so are input prices -- the stuff you buy to grow the crops.  So the overall dollars spent on the crops are going up, but the amount that the farmer keeps is shrinking
3) Small farmers have some big advantages over larger ones.  Here's the quote: 

"The nice woman selling you tomatoes at the farmers market has all manner of ways of distinguishing her product—she's offering such-and-such varieties, grown by this or that method, on some particular piece of land. And she has a range of customers—the teeming hordes of individuals who stream into farmers markets these days—to whom she can make her pitch. The customers may be price-conscious, but they came to the farmers market because they have more than just price in mind: Some combination of quality, locality, aversion to chemicals or what have you all factor into each buyer's decision.

Now consider the farmer with 5,000 acres of corn and soy in Iowa. His products are essentially identical to those of hundreds of thousands of similar farmers—and not just in the US corn belt, but also in places like Brazil and Argentina. Their products won't be sold to individual consumers. They'll be mixed together and processed industrially and end up as, say, livestock feed, car fuel, or cooking oil. "

Being a small farm, closer to your market, and selling directly to consumers is how I've found my farm to grow and be profitable; and I absolutely agree with what he's saying.  Commodities, long term, suck. 

He also points out something that I think americans have forgotten about when we say we hate farm subsidies:  People like stable, low food prices, and we all have to eat.  There's a reason we spend billions of dollars, and sure, some of that is wasted money, but it solves a problem, too.  Food riots are ugly. 

You'll find the original article here. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Winter chicks & chickens

The local feed store purchased some late season chicks, and got tired of feeding them after 6 weeks; they were originally $2.99, but they marked them down to $0.50/each.  So I bought dozens and dozens. 

Such a deal!  I didn't have to feed them for 6 weeks, no shipping mortality, and they were common breeds that I like:  barred rock, white leghorn and rhode island red hens.  So I set up the brooder and I'm raising them for sale next spring as laying hens. 

The brooder is the one that I wrote about building a few years ago, and it is still going strong.  It can easily brood out a couple of hundred small chicks, maybe 150 or so as they get larger.  It's no big deal to keep chickens in the winter; once they're feathered out they keep themselves pretty warm.  A draft free roosting area, water and food, and they're good to go.  this brooding area has a door to an outside chicken run, and when they get big enough they'll have access. 

Love bargain chickens! 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Criminal charges for farmers... really?

Two Colorado brothers who operated a cantaloupe farm in Colorado are being charged criminally for the outbreak of listeria that was traced to their farm. 

Their crime, apparently, was to buy used processing equipment that was hard to clean, and to use that equipment in their operation.  They were charged with misdemeanor (vs a felony charge) because their contamination was apparently unintentional

Statement from their lawyer:  ""The charges against Eric and Ryan Jensen do not imply that they knew, or even should have known, that the cantaloupes had been contaminated..." link.

This was a large outbreak, and unfortunately, it was pretty serious.  People died.   But people die from all sorts of food-related contamination. 

Ok.  So lets say that I grow lettuce.  Do you think that it's reasonable for me to now risk criminal charges for contamination that I did not know about? 

What do you think? 

Corn harvest about finished...

John Deere 6850 forage harvestor hard at work

The silage corn did really well this year.  Averaged about 12' tall across the entire field; uniform.  I had a couple of pigs get out and decide that it was delicious, and I wasn't able to get them out of the cornfield until it got harvested. 

 It think that it worked out to 28 tons of silage per acre; which is, According to Andrew Albert the guy who leased this ground, the best crop he's ever had.  This will feed a lot of cows this winter. 
About halfway done
A handful of corn silage, just chopped. 
 The harvest leaves the ground pretty much bare; I'll be doing some ground work in the next few days to get the seed bed prepared, and then plant a variety of things as future crops (grass, alfalfa, wheat) and as a plow-down cover crop (wheat, red clover). 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Beaver defeaters and salmon

I own a 12 acre plot with a little building on it, that I use for seasonal grazing; it has a stream that runs through it, and last year I noticed that the parks department had installed a "beaver defeater" there.    The area is great beaver habitat, and they were making themselves at home by damming the stream and flooding the meadows upsteam of my property.

I enjoyed watching the beavers at work, because the area that they were flooding out was a failed wetland project.  The county/state/federal government had spent 2.3 million dollars to plant all sorts of trees and shrubs and basically walked away after that.  two years later and it's a sea of canary grass, which is an invasive species around here.  The grass shaded out and out-competed the millions of dollars worth of native stuff, and as far as habitat goes, it's not very good. 

 The ponds that the beavers create are good for the beavers, and actually provide more varied habitat for other critters, not the least of which is salmon fry.  there's actually a pretty good run of at least two species of salmon up this creek.   I much prefer the beavers industry to the 2.3 million dollars spent and wasted.  We've spent $486 million dollars on salmon projects with no results.  This is a little tiny bit of that wasted treasure.   Next time you see a levy or bond or proposed grant, think about this half a billion dollars. 

I'm not kidding about that number, by the way.  Check out the website for partners for Puget sound; it gives you a map to look at the cost of each project and a report card on how the recovery effort is doing.   Partners for Puget sound is a big supporter of salmon projects.  Why not?  There's plenty of loot for everyone, and if we don't get anything done, well, that's just fine!  Lets spend MORE!

For those who don't want to read; $486 million spent.  Of 22 tracked salmon runs, 1 is improving, 1 is declining and there is no change in the other 20.  For that amount of money, I'd call that a fail. 

The beaver defeater is the mesh disk that you can see centered in the photo above.  the beavers apparently can't figure out pipes, and they try to build a dam were the little footbridge is, but the water continues to flow down the pipe.  Unfortunately the pipe and mesh guard are pretty hard for salmon to go through, and when I looked at the stream last November, during the silver salmon (coho) run, there were a bunch of fish stacked up below this barrier.  So I cleared a path for the fish, and called the parks department, and this year they're trying something new. 

What this box does is maintain a deep water path through the pipe; instead of the water being an inch or two deep, which forced the salmon to have to work very hard to get through, this little box ladder keeps the pipe full, allowing the fish to swim up without too much struggle.  The current isn't a problem for the salmon; but the depth of the water was.  Kudos to the parks department for fixing the problem.  But I'd still like to see the beavers prevail here. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Postmortem: Soul Food farm

For those of you who haven't read one of these, it's based on a term that I ran across while working at Microsoft.  It is basically a summary of a project written after the project was completed or canceled.  A postmortem was a way for the company to capture the experiences and lessons, some costing millions of dollars, into a form that it could retain, and hopefully benefit from in the future.

I write farm postmortems as a way to help people who are interested in farming learn from what other farms have done.  I have attempted to make this as accurate as possible, but the reader should be aware that I am expressing my opinion here.   If you find this interesting, you can read my other postmortems: / TLC ranch eggs  , thundering hooves pasture finished meats, natures harmony farm

For this postmortem, I've asked Alexis Koefoed repeatedly for an interview, but she's "Not giving interviews at this time", so I've relied mostly on what she and others have said about her operation in the past, along with some interpretation of the numbers that she's put out there.

Soul Food Farm
Soul food farms was founded in the opposite way that most farms are:  The farmers fell in love with the land and purchased it, and then spent the next few years trying to figure out what to do with it.  Here's the quote:

"...Soul Food Farm got its start in the late 1990s, when the Koefoeds were living in Vallejo and raising their three children while she worked at a winery and he worked as an engineer. She often drove her kids to a plant nursery in Pleasant Valley, a picturesque spot that has been farmed since the 1850s, where they'd pass a property with an olive grove and an old redwood water tower, tucked below the ridge.
"I had always thought, 'Oh that place is so beautiful, I wish I could live there,' " Koefoed recalls.
Then one day there was a For Sale sign on the property. She remembers braking so hard she nearly gave her kids whiplash. That night she told her husband, "We're selling everything." It took her two years to convince him, but they eventually bought the land, living in trailers for another two years while they built their house.
They had no farming experience and no intention to farm the land, but Koefoed changed her mind after living there..."
That's not the path that most people who want to farm take; my own experience was that I decided that I'd like to farm, and I spent three years looking for ground where I could farm; and then after 7 years of farming experience, looking for a bigger farm that I could expand my operation with.  The Koefoeds purchased their acreage first, and then got interested in farming afterwards.  
"..."I realized I had to do more than just live on it. I had to do something with it that was useful and important and connected..." Alexis Koefoed
The land that Soul Food is farming is typical northern California land; I grew up in Red Bluff, a town a little over two hours north of this farm that shares the same weather pattern.  There's a period in spring when things are green and growing, but for the majority of the summer you've got baked earth and tinder-dry grass.  It's pretty common for farmers to have reservoirs - man-made ponds that retain some of the spring rains - or to use irrigation extensively to keep things growing, or you plant crops that are tolerant of dry, hot weather, like olives.  It's not land that I would normally associate with year-round animal production without substantial irrigation, but apparently Soul Food did just that.  
Principle farmers
Alexis Koefoed is the primary name in most of the press about this farm; while she does mention her husband from time to time, it's Alexis who is quoted in every article and interview.  From that I'd say she was the principle farmer.  
Apparently starting first with eggs, and then progressing to chickens and some prepared foods (Confit, marinated half chickens, etc)
Land and Facilities
55 acres of northern california.  Purchased land and constructed a house on it, then decided that she would like to farm.  Apparently constructed chicken houses, lost two of those houses in a fire in 2009.  It's not clear what those houses looked like; that's one of the questions I would have liked to ask Alexis.  The pictures that I've seen of their chicken housing shows hoophouses constructed of PVC pipe and clear plastic.    A donation drive raised $35,000.00 to replace the lost houses, along with labor and materials donated for free.  
Soul food sold products into the San Francisco bay area, which is one of the highest priced markets in the country.   Their final prices were $30 for each chicken, or eggs for $8/dozen.  They sold some part of their production wholesale; what percentage of their production isn't clear.  
Feed & Husbandry
It's not clear to me whether soul food was organic or not.  From the newspaper articles and pictures, it looks like they ran an outdoor chicken operation, but also clear from the pictures the areas where the chickens were housed often had bare spots.  They used chicken tractors constructed of PVC pipe for some of their birds, fixed brooder houses and laying houses for others.   There is an emphasis on pastured production -- allowing the chickens to roam freely in an area to eat any greenery and bugs available.    During the course of business they would fairly regularly lose hundreds of birds to one cause or another.  
Soul food was successful in its marketing of its products, and the many personal connections that Alexis had helped place her products into the local food scene.  One of the biggest assets to her farm was her connection to Bonnie Azab Powell, who had started a CSA in the bay area, and was instrumental in several different ways during the course of the farms life.  
The farm was not a planned business venture; it grew as it grew, and apparently there wasn't much thought about the overall business.  I get the impression that they were so busy farming that they forgot to think about their farm, or the need for year-round income, or the need for off-farm income/benefits... or even automatic waterers for their livestock.  More about these topics later.  
Stated reasons for closing 
“The reasons are so numerous I could never explain them all. The most important ones are that Eric and I are deeply tired and the rising cost of production became too much to compete with,” Alexis Koefoed said in a statement. “We have loved every moment of raising food for all of you.” 
"Our biggest expense by far is chicken food.  Over $13,000 a month, and now with the droughts in the mid west, we will certainly see another feed price hike – it just went up a few percent last week.  Every week it becomes more and more expensive, and covering the cost without raising the price of food is just not possible. But raising the prices to you every month (with no end in sight) just doesn’t seem right to me, either.  SFF as it currently exists is just not possible with this math.  The true cost of eggs and meat is expensive and  Eric and I have  moved away from our original intent to make good food available to everyone. In that respect we failed and I’m sorry for that."
Discussion of business issues
Unlike most farmers, the Koefoeds purchased their land first, and decided to become farmers later.  Their success at selling their products was primarily a function of their ability to market their product. 
I cannot say this enough:  The hard part isn't raising your product for most farmers.  The hard part is selling your product to someone at a price that makes sense for you.  It's very easy to raise 100 pigs.  it's much more difficult to sell 100 pigs, in my experience.   Alexis was very successful at generating enough interest in her chickens and eggs, and had great success at placing her egg sales that prestigious restaurants and retail locations.  "We were in all the best restaurants, all the coolest butcher shops,", pretty much sums this up.   
Many farms cease operation when the owner cannot continue or just plain loses interest in farming, even if the underlying business is hard.  The other issue is one that every successful small business will eventually face: The skills that allowed you to build the business are different than the skills that allow you to continue to grow the business. 
 At some point if your small business is a success, you will be put in the position that you cannot do all of the work to be done.   Typically you have three choices here:  Limit the size of the business to something that you can handle by yourself, hire people to help you do the work and manage those people, or shut the business down.  if your nose is to the grindstone, you may not realize that you have reached this point, and mishandling it can often be fatal to the business.    
From what I've read about the Koefoeds, I'm not sure how many people they employed other than themselves.  The claimed production was 1,000 chickens and 600 dozen eggs a week.  That's quite a lot of production for two people.  
But lets look at their numbers again:  
1,000 chickens a week at $30/chicken is a monthly gross revenue of $120,000
600 dozen eggs a week at $8/dozen is a month gross revenue of $19,200
By the claimed production numbers they were grossing $139,200 a month.  Their stated feed costs (from their closing letter) was $13,000 a month; about 10% of their gross revenue.  So the question I have is where did the other $126,000 a month go?  
Rebecca Thistlewaite wrote a blog entry on egg pricing, based on her experience producing eggs in this same market and region.  After working out all of the costs and expenses, she estimated that you'd need to charge $4.49/dozen to break even.  So at $8/dozen, you're running a net profit of $3.51/dozen -- or $8424/month net profit.  
Yes, there are costs in packaging and washing eggs, transportation and refrigeration; and rebecca included all of those costs in her estimate.  But the bottom line is that there are a lot of egg producers out there that would sell their firstborn for that sort of business.  
So using numbers from another chicken producer,  it looks like Alexis should have been able to achieve a $10 net profit from each bird sold at her stated price of $6.50/lb, even including things like $5/bird slaughter fees and long transport times.  
At 1,000 birds a week produced, that looks like $40,000 a month net profit. 
Look, if they were making this sort of money, $48,000 a month, or $576,000/year, they wouldn't have needed to have a fundraiser to replace a couple of hoophouses.   I'm pretty skeptical about the claims, but I'm going to take them at face value for discussion purposes.
The biggest problem that this farm faced was that they really didn't apparently spend any time working out their business.  Here's a quote, Mortally Wounded:  
"“I think Soul Food is done,” she repeated.
She told me that they had no financial safety net. They had no way to run the farm–to buy feed and egg cartons, to pay workers–during those two weeks of lost income from the dead chicks, no way to replace the chicken houses, to irrigate the replacment pasture in the front for the birds, to fix the broken tractor. No way to pay the mortgage on the property.
Later, I learned that like many in this economy, the family had been in financial free fall for a year. Eric had quit his engineering job of 30 years last September, hoping to consult while helping out more with the farm. It had almost immediately become clear the family still needed his off-farm income (and benefits). He’d gotten a new full-time job, for a smaller salary, but in June had been laid off. Alexis had had to let the farm’s commercial insurance lapse, and the family’s health insurance policy, too. (A month after the fire, their property insurance paid for the lost barn and fruit trees–and the bank swiftly claimed that check for the lost collateral on their mortgage.) Alexis and Eric had put both their slim profits and their savings into capital equipment for the farm, considering it an investment in their future. They had no cash and no available line of credit. They were screwed. "

Most farmers in the united states have one or more family members that hold an off-farm job.  This off-farm income allows you a stable base from which to weather setbacks -- like fires or crop failures -- and often provides benefits like heath insurance that can be difficult to maintain. 
In this case, Soul Food raised $35,000 (which I believe was probably far in excess of the amount of actual loss) and did so via the kindness of their customers and community.  Less than 3 years later they shut their doors.  I don't think that most farmers can depend on this sort of charity to dig themselves out of a setback, and so I wouldn't recommend that this be the way that you plan to overcome hardship.  Simply put Soul Food Farm was extremely lucky to know the right person to put together this fundraiser.  

Summary and conclusion
Soul food farm had achieved the success that many small farms aspire to.  It is my opinion that the prices and production numbers that they put out are overstated - given the number of laying hens they either had bad production numbers, or lost a large number of eggs before sale.  I'm guessing that a large percentage of their production was to wholesale markets at a much lower margin than direct-to-consumer sales.  It's an attractive way to build volume, but it also means straining your production facilities or staff;  that's one of the things that killed Thundering Hooves.   

There was a business here that could have been salvaged, but I think that the real reason for Closure is that Alexis was tired of the grind.  Having changed careers myself a couple of times, I completely understand.  

So of the three options:  Keep the business small enough to manage, hire and manage employees to run the business, or shut the business down, Alexis chose door #3.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Around the farm summary

Here's what's going on in the farm today...

Flood season preparation
We're 60 days from the start of the flood season, and I'm working hard to make sure that everything that could be affected by flood is all taken care of.  For the ebey island property, my first farm, that means that I've been tearing down an old trailer and moving implements to the new farm.  I recycle what I can, save some of the lumber for use or burning, and send the rest to the dump.  Unfortunately, I've had a problem with people dumping stuff at the farm, so I'll add to my list some ecology blocks to block off the farm roads so people don't dump stuff on them.   This will be the first flood season in the last 8 years that I won't have to do the annual flood drill, and be 4 hours or less from the farm from November to February.  I'm really looking forward to it. 

new farm; repairing and improving the barns for animal/human comfort
At the new farm I've been working on making things more comfortable for the animals during the rainy season; stockpiling bedding chips and making sure that the barn roofs don't leak where we're going to be housing animals, and running a few more outlets and lights so that we can work when its dark.  Most of the outlets and lights are in the farrowing area, heatpads for the piglets, LED lights to make the work easier for the farmer.  Arranging the pens so that they're easier to clean between farrowings. 

zoning and regulatory issues related to initiative 502/rercreational marijuana growing
I've been spending one to two days a week following the zoning issues through Snohomish county; I spent a couple of hours today drafting a letter for the planning commission related to zoning issues for farms interested in commercial marijuana production.  My feel is that you'll probably have to have a 5 to 10 acre lot minimum, but I'd like to see smaller lot sizes be usable.  So I'm arguing that point in my letter. 

Final harvest and winter cover crops
I want to get my fall cover crops and test plots planted before too long here; to do that I'll need to do the final harvest of sweet corn and then turn the pigs loose on the corn field so that they can eat anything they wish before it gets plowed and disc'd.    On advice of local farmers, I've ordered orchard grass seed and on advice of the local land-grant college agriculture station, two types of organic alfalfa seed.  I'll be planting 10 acres of test plots, pure alfalfa, pure grass, grass/alfalfa and wheat/alfalfa mix.  I'll do a couple of acres of each and see how it does. 

My main crop area, about 60 acres,  won't be clear of corn until around September 25th, which is a couple of weeks lanter than I'd like.  I will probably plant a winter wheat cover crop and then see how the test plots go.  Next spring I'll make the final call on what I plant there.  I'm inclined to have a few acres of corn, a few acres of squash, and the bulk of the land in something that works well with ruminants.  I'm hoping that the alfalfa does well; I'm pretty sure that the orchard grass will. 

I'd like to have some sort of rotation of crops, but I don't have any idea of what that might look like.  My main concern is to get something growing out there in the corn stubble to prevent erosion but won't be too hard to rework if I decide that I want to do something else.

Cows, dairy and beef: 
  I have 7 cows that are ready for harvest as beef; I've sold two of them, my family will eat one, and we've got 4 more to sell.  The local cut-and-wrap folks are telling me that slaughter appointments need to be made now, as they're booked all the way into December.  Guess I should set a date. 

I have 4 dairy-breed cows; my Holstein cow, a jersey cow, a Holstein heifer and now a Guernsey cow.  The Holstein and jersey are both in milk now, the Guernsey is a heifer that's open.  I'm going to try my best to use sexed Guernsey semen for that cow, as she's purebred and registered; I'd like another Guernsey heifer out of her.  The jersey and Holstein are both producing lots of milk, but my own preference in taste is towards the jersey milk.  When we did the milk taste test Guernsey milk was our favorite, and based on that, and feedback from local farmers about what does well on grass, I'm going to either go with brown swiss or Guernsey as a base of a dairy herd.  

Tilling and and prepping the ground where next years garden will grow now;  I'll be planting a bit of garlic there, and will probably plant wheat as a cover crop, with the intention of tilling it under next spring when the garden goes in.  I'm trying my best to make sure that every bit of ground that I'm farming has something growing on it by first frost.  The race is on. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Speaking at government meetings...

Well, speaking at one meeting.  the other meeting forbid public comment, details below. 

 The first meeting I attended was the Snohomish County Agricultural Advisory Board.  This is a group of citizens who advise the county planning department on issues related to agriculture.  They are typically asked questions about situations where some activity is either happening or considering happening on agricultural lands, and the overall question is whether the activity in question is appropriate in an agricultural zoning.  The primary zones that they consider are AG-10 (agricultural uses, 10 acre minimum lot size) and R5 (agricultural uses and residential uses, 5 acre minimum lot size). 

The zoning situation here in Snohomish county is pretty regulated.   There are large spreadsheets (matrix) which list zoning along the top, and activities down the side.  So if you want to know if a farmstand is permitted in AG-10 zoning, you find "farmstand" and then find where that row intersects with the column for AG-10, and note the letter there. 

If the letter is "P" the activity is permitted, if it's "C" it's a conditional (read: Discretionary on the part of the planning department).  As with any law, if it's not explicitly mentioned, it's legal.  But since they've been working hard on listing every possible activity on these charts for the last 30 years, there aren't really any activities that aren't mentioned. 

The agenda for this meeting had two topics that I care about; one is more salmon recovery money being spent, and the other considering questions on whether Marijuana production should be allowed in agricultural zones, and if so, are there any restrictions (set back space from property lines, building requirements, etc). 

You can read my statement that I presented to the board here

I took some questions from the board, and one other person spoke, and the board voted unanimously that marijuana production was permitted in both AG-10 and R-5 zoning.  They further suggested that no restrictions on type of grow (indoor, outdoor, or type of building) be imposed; allow the farmers to choose whatever suits them best to produce their crop.   

The planning department also said something in their presentation to the board that really rang true:  They were trying to come up with regulations that removed discretion from the zoning decisions.  They don't want regulations that are subject to interpretation; they would much rather have them based on objective criteria -- like lot size.  When you get into having to interpret the zoning code for each case it gets expensive for everyone.  I support this approach by PDS. 

The planning commissioners are volunteers that are charged with interpreting planning and zoning code when there is uncertainty or dispute.  This particular meetings agenda had a briefing by staff to the planning commission.   
Four Planning commissioners on Dias (one seated out of sight on left)
So I witnessed a bit of political theatre in this.  Public comment was forbidden during this meeting, but the observers were mostly people interested in marijuana production.  So when the commissioners asked a question, the audience would often sotto-voice supply the answer, and the commissioners clearly had questions.  They hadn't seen anything on this before, and its a big topic.  They were considering marijuana production in zones other than R5 and AG10, primarily LI (light industrial) HI (heavy industrial) and various commercial and retail zonings. 
  Mr. Klein, after watching this theatre go on (commissioner voices a question, PDS staff unable to answer, audience whispers to PDS staff) forwarded a motion to allow public comment.  Apparently this sort of thing has happened before -- audience members having answers that the commissioners wanted, and this was brought up by a board member based on personal experience.  The vote was 5-1 to allow public input, but you need a minimum of 6, and the vote failed. 

The commissioners are being asked to provide recommendations on the zoning for a meeting of the Snohomish county council on Sept 25th for a potential enactment of an "emergency zoning" rule.  I'll be writing a letter that I hope will clear up the questions that the commissioners asked, and I'll make myself available to answer any questions they have for me as someone interested in potentially growing MJ on my farmland. 

Two commissions seated at table to right, one out of site on right, 6 present. 


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Statement to the ag advisory board Re: Marijuana production on Ag lands

My name is Bruce King.  I’m a full-time farmer in Snohomish county, and I’ve been farming full time for going on 8 years now.  

First, I’d like to thank you folks on the ag advisory board for this service you do for the farming community.  I don’t think you guys get enough recognition for the task you do and I do appreciate your time and attention. 

I have three comments about one of the agenda items for todays meeting; the questions posed by PDS regarding marijuana production on agricultural land.  The first comment is to offer some perspective on how to consider the question.  The second is about how the grows could impact farmland, and the third is about economics and farming. 

To offer the board members a different perspective on how to consider the questions being posed to them, I’d like to say that Marijuana is a word that can have a lot of emotion associated with it; and I’d like the board to consider what it really is:  A flower. 

So when you’re considering questions like “Should agricultural lands be used to produce mj”, one thing you can do is just a simple substitution.  Replace the word “marijuana” with “flowers”, and ask the question again.  “Should agricultural lands be used to produce flowers”.  To take that one step further, the “processing” that most MJ goes through is cutting the flowers off the plant and then drying them.  So instead of “should agricultural lands be used to process MJ”, ask “Should agricultural lands be used to cut and dry flowers” – and the answer should be pretty clear. 

The impact on farmland will be pretty minimal.  Here’s why I say that:  Proposed marijuana grows – or flower grows…. Are limited in size.  The biggest possible grow is only ¾ of an acre.  Most grows will be much smaller than that.  The county is contemplating 200’ setbacks around each grow, and as a result, it’s likely that only properties that are 10 acres or larger will actually have any useable grow area on them, by zoning restrictions.  So even the largest grows will be ¾ acre used on a 10 acre parcel.  But the second limit is the total state-wide grow space allowed, at 2 million square feet.  Now That sounds like a lot of space, but if people license ¾ acre grows, that means we will have a total of 67 of them for the ENTIRE State, or roughly 2 grows per county.  Not much impact or farmland used.   

The economic comment is in two parts:  The LCB expects that 50% of the licensed grows will go out of business in 18 months, and there are counties in this state that would LOVE to have grow operations located there.  Snohomish county will have retail operations that will be selling MJ, and I’d like to see the money generated by those sales stay here, in the local economy, and benefit local farmers.  Most farms in Snohomish county lose money; the USDA ag census says that farms lose an average of $15k a year for the latest year data available.  If we want to protect and preserve farmland as farmland, the best way to do that is to have profitable farms.  MJ production is one possible way for farms that are otherwise economically unviable to make a profit, and if it’s profitable, it’s going to stay farmed.  Isn’t that what we’d all like to see? 

To summarize:  MJ production is basically growing, trimming and drying flowers.  Perfectly consistent with agricultural land.   The total acreage likely to be used in SnoCo by grow operations will be pretty small, and any barriers that we put up will probably just drive that economic activity out of this county.  MJ production is another avenue that small farms can use to make their operations profitable, and it’s pretty much a pure farming venture.  You plant, cultivate and harvest a crop.  Having a profitable crop makes farmland more resistant to conversion to other uses, and keeping the revenue generated here will benefit us all. 

Thanks for your attention and I’m open to any questions you might have. 

Canning the sweet corn

5 minutes blanched in boiling water, then cooled for easier handling
 My sweet corn crop was a qualified disaster -- I'll talk about it in another post, but as with most farm meals, our food is the part of the crop that isn't saleable.  In this case it's all the undersized corn cobs that aren't pretty enough for sale.  So tonight I processed 80lbs of fresh corn.

  For this batch of corn I made 32 pints of creamed corn, canned into pint jars.  Here's the process. 
A corn cutter.  You slide the cob up the groove and it removes the kernels or creams the corn. 
 It takes about 20 pounds of fresh corn to make 9 pints of creamed corn.  It compacts pretty small.  I use a giant pressure canner so that I can process 32 pints at a time.  It takes 90 minutes or so for the jars to process, so having a big pressure canner means that you can process more per day than otherwise.  When I'm canning I want to get it done as soon as I can, so it was worth it for me to buy the big canner. 
1 quart corn, 2 cups boiling water.  bring to boil
 I chose to do creamed corn because I'd never used a corn cutter before, and it's kinda hard to mess up creamed corn.  With kernel corn I want the kernels to be nice looking and even, so a little bit of practice was good.  Plus creamed corn is pretty tasty. 
Once boiling, ladle into prepared jars, lid and ring
 It took about 75lbs of fresh corn in the husks to produce the 32 pints of creamed corn that is this canner load.   Because we're dealing with farm quantities of corn, I use 32 gallon garbage cans.   32 pints of creamed corn is 2 full garbage cans of fresh corn. 

The processing waste goes out to the pigs to make sure we get every single calorie of gain we can out of the crop
 So the process is:  Husk the corn, blanch in boiling water, cut the kernels and scrape the cobs, cook the resulting corn scrapings, and then ladle into jars.  I prepare the jars by boiling the jars and lids so that the jars are hot when  I'm pouring the boiling corn mixture into them. 

And this is the corn we'll process tomorrow as canned kernel corn
The creamed corn is an efficient way to store quite a bit of harvested corn.  About two hours to husk it, probably 3 hours to cream it.  It's not a cheap way to go, but it's an easy side-dish for dinners for the next year.  I will probably can 60 pints or so; about a pint of canned corn per week, and it'll be shelf stable for years if we don't eat it this year. 

Oh.  final thing:  Always, always label and date your canned goods.  I also put the batch number on each label.  So this batch is labeled 9-10-2013, batch 1.  I also note anything about ingredients that's different.   That's because 6 months from now if I find a particularly tasty jar of creamed corn, I want to be able to remember what I did right so I can do that again.  Little more salt, little less corn, maybe a touch of red pepper.... whatever. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Farmlife: thunderstorms

Had a massive wave of thunderstorms go over the farm tonight; intense rain, cloud to cloud lightning, cloud to ground.

I don't have any pictures but i was out in it, making sure that all of the animals had found shelter and were using it.  I'm particularly worried about animals gathering near electric fences, or under trees.  I'd rather they take shelter in a barn (all of the barns have lightning rods and are grounded, one of the things that I did when I bought the place).

I have two pig herds that I  maintain separately, so that i can breed from one to the other with less chance of relations.  the older herd had mostly found the barn and were snoozing in the straw, but there were 6 stragglers out in the field, looking a little anxious.  Huge light show and amazing thunder; quite the spectacle. I could see them in the flashes, and they didn't spot me, but came to me when I called them, and I led them up to the barn; when they could see and smell the other pigs in there they all passed me but one stubborn sow.  She's an older pig, and set in her ways, and wasn't at all sure about this barn idea.  But i know pigs well enough to know that she'll notice in a few minutes that she's the only pig out there, and missing the other pigs, will overcome her wariness about the barn.

Checking on the cows found them in the barn; the dairy cows had pushed their hay out of reach, so I pitchforked it into their feeder, and did the same for the beef cows.  the chickens, geese and turkeys had all found places they were happy with in a barn, and having done the rounds, I walked back to the house.

The rain gauge we've got recorded 3/4" of rain in the 30 minutes that I'd spent checking on the animals.  I sure felt wet, but it also felt good, I could sleep, knowing that all of the animals were comfortable.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Shocking facts about electrical fences

I ran across a basic misconception about how electric fences work on some other blog, and I think it's worth talking about the electric fences I use here, and how they're set up.  

The misconception was that "more wires means higher resistance", and the discussion was how a fence with many conductors (8 or 10) was somehow producing a higher resistance than a fence with 3 conductors.  

Voltage decreases with the length of the wire, and with the diameter of the wire.  You get the least amount of voltage drop with a larger wire, or a shorter length, or both.  

Voltage is what keeps your animals off the fence:  The higher the voltage, the more effective the shock, and (unsurprisingly) the more careful the animal is to avoid the fence.  if any of you have been shocked by a properly working 50 mile charger, you know what I mean.  I take special pains to never, ever repeat that experience!

So if you have a very long run for your fence charger, you'll be better off using the thickest wire that you can find.  Now I'm not talking about the ROPE or TAPE diameter.  Most electrical fences that aren't metal use some sort of non-conductive or marginally conductive plastic rope or tape, with stainless steel threads woven through it.  The voltage is conducted through the metal part of the fence, the stainless threads.  The size of the rope, or tape, is not important.  

That's an important distinction.  When you are looking at one kind of electric fence vs another, you want to pick the one that has the most METAL, not the biggest rope.  So  count the threads and pick the highest count.  If you are running very long distances, consider using a bare wire of the largest diameter (gauge) that you can find.  That's usually something like 12.5 gauge, but if you can find thicker, buy that for longer runs.  

The "size" of the "wire" (or I'll use "pipe" ) is the total diameter of all of the threads.  The more threads, the wider the pipe,the less resistance to voltage.   You can get this same effect, and I do, by stringing multiple conductors.  each conductor "widens" the pipe, lowers the resistance, and gives you better voltage at distance.    

How do you tell if the wire is thick enough?  Test the voltage at a distance.  You want to see at least 4,000 volts everywhere as a minimum.  With my fencing I see 18k volts at the fence charger and between 9 and 11,000 volts at various points in the field.    If my voltage drops, that's my sign that I need to go clear the fenceline.  If it never gets that high it means I should probably string another conductor or two to increase the size of the pipe delivering the voltage.  

Your voltage will decrease every time that your wire touches something; in the case of the blog I was reading, the problem that the author had wasn't that there was too many wires, it was that with the larger number of wires more of them were touching the ground and weeds.  More touching, less voltage.  When she reduced the number of wires to 3, her voltage went up because her fence grounded out less, not because fewer wires were less resistance.  

People use round rope electric fences -- I do -- or they'll use a tape, and the primary reason that they use the tape is that it's more visible to animals that might otherwise ignore it.  I use the rope because the pigs I am mostly containing hate electric fences, and will look carefully for them when they're out walking, and the rope is easier for me to coil and store.  I'm used to handling big shots of rope.