What You Leave Behind
This week’s CSA harvest will be the last that Justin and I pick together. Shawn Fulbright, who has been working with us since the mid-summer, will take over management of the CSA when our winter season resumes on Friday, January 17th, 2014.
From a numbers standpoint (and this might be a testament to our record keeping skills as well), we picked the first share on December 10th, 2009. It was actually David Klein and myself, and he took a picture of me sheepishly holding a box of sunflowers, collards, turnips, kale, arugula, chicory and lettuce. From then until December 24th, 2012 – when we took our first formal “break” – our harvests went along unbroken. We picked once a week, save for two exceptions: one when our farming coterie traveled up north to Oregon, and another when it was literally raining too hard (hard to believe in this three year streak of minimal precipitation) to harvest. That’s 203 harvests over the four years and 12 days our CSA has existed.
In this time, span, I’ve moved definitively from my mid-20s and into my early 30s, undoubtedly maturing alongside the development of our farm. I feel like I’ve grown up, at least a little. Of course it would be difficult to offer any substantial account of this growth right now, with my emotions so raw and tangled into the imminence of this ending. Of course, reflection has also become a diminishing luxury in this entrepreneurial endeavor. We have created something that now has a life of its own, and I have become swept up in its momentum, dictates, and needs. I joke that my favorite activity is thinking about how I want to be reading.
Given this preamble it seems appropriate to mark this occasion with something. I’ve told farmer Shawn – herself already a seasoned CSA farmer – that the best lesson she could glean from our four years here is our mistakes. We’ve learned a lot about what not to do, and from that something has emerged that works. This has a meaning that is both specific in general.
Be practical and unafraid to undo the past.
We started our farm in August 2009 growing vegetables in a circle garden with curved garden beds, and a commitment to only use hand tools. Now, we grow most of our crops in long rows that are predominantly cultivated by a gas-powered tiller. This past week we’ve been taking down our circle garden fence; the last vestiges of a method that really wasn’t working. The garden beds had been eaten by invasive perennial weeds and our spatial planning around that seemed increasingly impractical. Giving up isn’t necessarily a passive endeavor; it can also be productive.
It’s never over – think in terms of plateaus instead of final accomplishments.
Our farming practices have grown more efficient and ecologically sound than they ever have been previously. Yet how many times have I caught myself thinking this over the four years since we’ve been here? When we found a better way to do something, I used to think of it as an arrival. Now, with so many false starts and do-overs, I’ve learned to think of our accomplishments more like plateaus. Agricultural labor, which is a cyclical process, enables this plateau to feel meaningful, because in through every one of our inefficiencies we were still able to supply the CSA Our plateaus are like a template from to derive new observations new lessons to be learned and observations to be applied in the field of practice.
Don’t take rejection as defeat; develop a thick skin.
This is probably the most difficult one to work with. We never managed to snag restaurant accounts; we never could sell consistently to any grocery store. We couldn’t get into our own town’s farmer’s market. It would easy to take any of those rejections to heart – and I have. But a rejection can also push us into other more productive avenues. Instead, we decided to try something else. From the farm we created a seed company and found dozens of new sales channels.
Don’t underestimate scale.
Our farm is community oriented, perhaps to a fault: the entirety of its produce revenue has come from within the Ojai Valley. This regionality and locality means something, but our farm, which clocks in at a mere 1.3 acres – did not provide income for Justin and I over the four years we have done it. We’ve spent most of these years well fed but cash poor.
When I tried convincing Santa Barbara farmer John Givens to support our presence at the Ojai Farmer’s Market, he refused my request. When I explained the economic hardship we have faced since we’ve been here – limited venues to sell directly to our community – he responded claiming he could make $70,000 a year off this field. I imagine what that might take – probably an incredibly simplistic crop rotation with end to end tilling, then loading the produce up on a truck to be shipped around the state, perhaps the nation. The plan is financially sound, but it kind of goes against what ignited my interest in organic farming: the biodiverse and polycultural spirit of the enterprise.
The CSA is probably the most ecological model of production farming around: smaller scale amounts of, rich crop rotations. But at our scale, it has been difficult to be successful from the produce alone.
Don’t be intimidated by paperwork, record keeping, or regulatory agencies.
I can’t count how many forms we’ve filled out over the past four years. Okay, I can: two Ventura County agricultural certified producers applications; one State of California organic registration and two renewals; a State of California seed registration and two renewals; two fictitious business name statements; Ventura county license; two classes of organic certifications and three renewals; farm insurance, auto insurance, and lately, two limited liability company registrations, and a handful of small scale grant applications.
I’m sure I’ve missed a couple there. I’ve gone through various states of intimidation when initially filling out these forms. But with each renewal, my fear diminishes every time.
A mistake in the present can erase failure in the future.
The first time we attempted a large scale winter squash crop, cucumber beetles and squash bugs decimated the plants. We made a futile attempt to fight the insects by picking them off the plants and hand killing them. We didn’t know about the role that diatomaceous earth had in severely deterring these insects. We lost that entire crop.
Since then we grew three successful winter squash crops.
Failure is almost fortuitous, if you can survive it the first time around. Because we don’t often search for solutions until after problems already manifest. If they never manifest, we might never learn.
Justin and I aren’t going anywhere; just changing. It took a long time to find another collaborator who matches the spirit of place this place, and I have unwavering confidence in our new CSA manager Shawn. I personally like to leave things in a better state than what I found them in, allowing them to persist beyond me, and that’s precisely what’s happening here. The winter 2014 harvest season looks to be the most successful yet: look forward to carrots, broccoli, beets, kale, cabbage, spinach, fennel, bok choi, turnips, lettuce, and my old standby favorite, Swiss Chard.