The Bucket Thresher

My threshing companion.

As I've stated on previous posts, part of what I believe will make us successful here at Prairie Heritage Farm, is the specialty crops we will be able to grow. Since we farm in a sparsely populated location, we are limited in where we can market our fresh vegetables. To balance that, we also focus on Thanksgiving turkeys and heritage and ancient grains. While we tout the freshness of our grains, there is far more flexibility in delivering them to our markets. And, our markets can reach all over the state, without fear of the grain going bad as our vegetables would if we tried to sell them hundreds of miles away.

But, we realized when we started that there are not that many unique varieties of grains and seeds anymore. Whereas 100 or even 50 years ago, farmers grew what worked for their location, our nation's wheat and barley varieties have been exclusively bred for economically advantageous characteristics such as high yields, short straw, or other purely agronomic traits. No consideration has been made for a grain's nutritional profile (except for protein), unique tastes, or cooking qualities. Or, a grain's ability to thrive in a specific location.

The Right to Farm

Every farmer should have the right to farm what and how he or she desires, as long as the land is not harmed over the long term and as long as other farmers are not harmed.

Every patent-holder should be required to control their product. If they cannot, then they should not be allowed to release it. If a widget self-replicates and the patent holder on that widget cannot control its replication, that widget should be shelved.

Any agency charged with oversight must be fair and reasonable to all those they oversee. In situations of direct conflict, that agency must err on the side of caution and maintain the status quo until concerns can be addressed and the conflict resolved. In situations where decisions may result in unknown and unknowable consequences, an agency must protect its citizens over corporations.

Otherwise, rights erode.

Holding the Bank at Bay

Disk in the boneyard.

As I previously mentioned in our year end wrap-up, we were handed the opportunity to farm the full 260 acres this year. I'll spare the details, but essentially if we chose not to farm it and the other farmer who leases the land chose not to, the long-term availability of the farm land would have been in question. In other words, our landlords would have faced the very real possibility of being forced to sell the ground. Since our long-term goal is to grow to 260 acres, we figured we should just go for it this year.

My lovely wife discusses it far more eloquently here, but we sat down with our local bank, and our very nice banker did what he does best and pointed out to us all the fears he has as a banker looking at our application: specialty crops with unverifiable yields and prices (since since nobody around grows them and they're not traded on the open market), our limited experience as new farmers, uninsurable crops, and our lack of collateral. All valid concerns. We would ask for a land loan to purchase some of the acreage, an equipment loan to buy larger equipment for the increased acreage, and an operating loan. The one that scared me the most was the operating loan since when given the money, there is nothing tangible behind it. The ability to pay it back is completely reliant on successfully planting, growing, harvesting, and selling a multitude of crops.

Our visit to the banker was somewhat for show, since what we needed was for him to deny us. That is one of the requirements of the Farm Service Agency's (FSA) low-interest loans. But, the banker did his due diligence and spent a good amount of time with us, honestly assessing our application. We learned a lot, were given good reminders of the dangers of borrowing money, and were able to see the bigger picture when all was said and done.

Denied by our banker, I sat down with the FSA loan officer. I've visited with him before so he knows what we're up to. He spent a good three hours with me, talking about our plans, expressing his fears as a loan officer and generally increasing my already rising fear at borrowing so much money.

I've always believed we have to grow slowly if we are to be successful. We've only partly followed this path, as the demand for local, fresh, nutritious food seems to be far higher than we can possibly supply, even in this rural part of Montana. So, we've had to balance growing slowly with jumping at opportunities to grow and sell our diversified products. But, to go from 15 acres to 260 acres is quite the leap. One we're willing to take, but maybe not just yet if we don't have to.

Thankfully, the farmer who leases the rest of the farm agreed to farm it again this year. That buys us some time to thoughtfully plan our expansion. Not that we haven't been thoughtful these past few weeks, but it's been rushed as the planting season approaches. So, we will continue to plan on purchasing some of the acreage (so we can begin to build our homestead and live on the farm), possibly take out an equipment loan to give us time to find a solid set of implements and a tractor (classifieds, craiglist, equipment dealers, auctions), and in 2012, tentatively plan on farming the entire 260 acres.

As an aside, as I've gone through multiple scenarios with my 6- and 7-year cash flows, I've been surprised by how good it looks (on paper). Though my best-guess cash flow spreadsheets show that 260 acres, growing and raising what we would grow and raise, makes sense, I always second guess myself. If 260 acres makes sense here in rural Montana, why aren't more farmers farming this scale? Why do they continue to expand to two thousand, three thousand, four thousand acres and more? I realize what we're doing is unconventional and it requires a high degree of labor, but how can I, a beginning farmer, show success at this scale when so many others made the decision to grow by thousands of acres and not tens of acres? I honestly don't know. I'll ask myself that question again in 5 or 6 years when my spreadsheets aren't hypothetical. I just hope hypothetical agrees with reality.

Grain and Seed CSA Grinding Party

Grain, grain, and more grain.

Last Saturday, Court, Willa, and I traveled West of the divide, to deliver our grains and seeds to a handful of our shareholders. The roads were icy and the pass a bit hairy, but our little car was loaded down with nearly 1,000 pounds of grain, so our back tires stuck to the road.

We brought our hand-crank grain grinder (called a GrainMaker made by a Stevensville, Montana company) so folks could turn some of their share into whole flour.

Grinding Sonora wheat into flour.

We made some lentil-barley soup, emmer salad, green salad with barley and wheat sprouts, and whole wheat sourdough Sonora wheat bread. It was noted that this was probably the most grain anybody had ever eaten in one sitting.

Eating a dinner full of grains.

All in all, I'd say this inaugural year for our Grain and Seed CSA was a big success. Our lentils weren't as clean as I'd like and we weren't able to dehull the black barley in time for delivery, but seeing the tidy bags of grains and legumes on the table, knowing what we went through to get to this point, and knowing we're giving our shareholders high-quality, nutritious staple foods, made us proud.


Crimson Lentil.

The 2010 Season (Year 2 of ?)

Willa's wondering what she got herself into.

It's hard to believe, but it's that time of year again - when I give an incomplete summary of the farming year and what the future holds. So hold on!

Of course the most significant event was the birth of Willa Anne on September 28th. She didn’t enter this world without some hard work on Courtney’s part, but enter the world she did, pink and screaming. She’s been such a wonderful addition to our lives and she is growing so quickly. It seems a long time ago that we had to support her head when we held her. Now she does just fine without a hand on the back of her neck. She smiles a little more each day and is starting to grip things with her teeny-tiny hands. We’re so happy she’s here and can't wait for her to be gripping weeds.

Farming: The Perfect Lesson in Surrender

Because I didn't have enough to do, I've started writing a monthly column about farming and coming home for both the Daily Yonder (a great online journal about rural issues) and my alma mater, as it were, New West (the online magazine about the Rockies I started gosh, six years ago now, and edited until I stepped away last year to farm and raise babies.)

The most recent column is about surrender, which I've written about before on the blog.

Here's the link to that column.

And the inaugural one is here.

I feel so very grateful to have an outlet, let alone two, for these writings. I've always promised myself I would write again if. If I could find the time, if it were the right circumstance, if I could just relax about it and not freak out about it not being good enough, if my house were clean, if I had a place to write... you get the idea.

Well, thanks to the encouragement of a few key people (the editor at Daily Yonder (thanks Bill!), the publisher and former editor at New West (thanks Lynn and Jule!) and my mother in law (thanks Marty!), I've stopped making all those excuses and just started sitting down to write.

It feels great.

As you might know, I never planned to farm, in fact I vowed not to. But, living in the country (hopefully soon), raising little ones (Willa is asleep in the sling as I type) and writing has been my dream of dreams since I was a kid.

Ironic then, that farming is making all of that happen, no?

Happy New Year from the Cowgill clan.

And, because I can't resist an opportunity to share how stinking cute our baby is, did you know we already have at least one strawberry growing? Meet Willa, the baby dinosaur in a berry costume:

Willa the Baby Dinosaur from conradcowgills on Vimeo.

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