I can't remember how I stumbled on Kasha Bialas's blog The Farm Girl Cooks, but I know I was immediately charmed by her photography and the clear integrity of her words about life on a working, small-scale farm, Bialas Farms, about 70 miles north of New York City. I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say on my site about the work. It turns out she did, about farm size, farm income, farm work, and what she would like you to know about buying from local farmers.—M.R.
By Kasha Bialas
I was raised on our 55-acre Orange County, NY, vegetable farm, as my father was before me, and as I'm raising my son now. Our family has owned and operated this business for 75 years. Sure, it sounds romantic, but it's doubtful that my 10-year-old will be able to successfully take over the family business even if he is gifted or inherits all the land, buildings, and equipment.
As generation after generation moves further away from their agricultural heritage, I fear this legacy that my father and grandfather have built will crumble. An over-abundance of government regulation has forced many farms to shut down completely. It's simply too costly for all but the larger farms to adhere to the multitude of rules local, state, and federal agencies set down.
A large farm, according to the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) census, is anything over 1,000 acres. A small farm would cover 1–9 acres. Middle-sized farms are described as farming 10–999 acres. There was a significant decline in the number of middle-sized farms in the 2012 census, but the numbers of large and small farms did not rise significantly. Where did all those middle-sized farms go? It appears as though those farmers neither upgraded nor downsized, they simply stopped farming.
My father has been farming full-time for the last 55 years. At 71, he is well over 58, the average age of "principal operator" farmers. He works 7 days a week, from breakfast until long past dark. I don't work his field hours, not by a long shot. But I'm a single mom with a fifth grader to wrangle and I spend the bulk of my early morning and evening hours at the computer organizing our CSA farm share program, developing newsletters, making website changes, creating advertising fliers and recipe handouts, and occasionally doing the mom thing. My days are spent doing all manner of farm work.
The workload never seems to end, honestly, and the seasonal nature of our business is quickly turning un-seasonal. We need to create more and more opportunities to make money because it just doesn't go as far as it used to.
According to the USDA, a farm is "any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the Census year" and 75% of farms had sales of less than $50,000 in 2012.
Can you imagine trying support a family AND a business on less than $50,000? Chances are, no—that's why more than half of the farmers in the census claimed a primary occupation other than farming. The competition from sources other than growers, even food imported from other countries, is seriously hindering our success in some markets. Frustrating, but less damaging, is the backyard gardener who sets up a small stand at local markets. This is my personal pet peeve. Their "farm" isn't really a farm and doesn't have the overhead that a true agricultural enterprise does, but there are only so many customers and so many customer dollars to go around.
So what can you do to make sure your local farmers can keep doing what they're doing and keeping our country well-fed? Here are a few suggestions:
Eat Seasonally and Locally
This is really a no-brainer. Eat what is available from local producers. Don't head to the farmers' market with a set shopping list. Rather, adjust your menus to reflect the bounty of the season and you will be rewarded with fresher, more flavorful and nutritious meals and snacks. Locally grown, seasonal foods travel less to get to you and are typically less expensive because no one is tacking on the cost of fuel to truck it across the country.
Buy from the Producer
When a farmer sells in retail outlets such as farmers' markets or her own farmstand, nearly every dollar brought in goes back into the business, whether it's covering wages, insurance, supplies, equipment, etc. When you purchase your veggies from a supermarket, especially a large chain store with great buying power, the farmer is typically getting at most 50% of that retail price. You are paying for many more hands to process and ship the goods and the farmer sees half of what he would have if you had purchased from him directly.
That local farmer is your neighbor. He lives in your town or your county or your general region, and he is spending his hard-earned money right in your backyard. He is hiring locals, he is buying supplies from stores in the area, he is paying the same taxes you are in many cases. In general, farmers can be counted on to support the community in which they live and do business. We prefer to patronize small mom-and-pop shops. If you shop with us and you own a business, promote yourself! We'd love to do business with you and we appreciate you supporting us as well.
Networking is so different in the 21st century. We all have such a strong online presence and as small as the world may seem, it's easy to forget that everything we do impacts our entire community. The simple act of shopping with a local business means more now than ever before. It's essential that we make the commitment to develop relationships with area business owners and that we foster that sense of community whenever we can.
Be aware of the nature of your market. In a true growers' market, the people who grew and harvested the food sell that food. Just because a vendor is selling food doesn't mean they grew it; depending on the market they may have bought the food and are acting only as a vendor.
Baby Steps Yield Big Return
This one can be difficult, but we need to remember that, just like a diet or exercise plan, we don't have to commit 100% to make a difference. If you start right now and "put up" items to save for the off-season, you can have quite an extensive pantry to carry you through the long winter ahead.
Start small. Get a few extra pints of blueberries from your favorite farmer or u-pick. Wash them, lay them out on towels to dry, then freeze them on a rimmed cookie sheet. Within a few hours, they will be frozen solid and ready to pour into a freezer bag for longer storage. Use them in your winter baking, smoothies, to top cereal, or just eating straight out of the bag. Nothing is more refreshing than a frozen blueberry!
Try your hand at making refrigerator pickles. They are simply veggies or fruits packed into a brine and kept in the fridge. If you are up for the challenge, make some storage pickles, such as the bread and butter variety. Jam and preserves are also fairly simple to make—just fruit, sugar, and pectin. The instructions are on the box of Sure-jell, and jam makes a wonderful and heart-felt holiday gift.
Fresh sweet peas, green beans, broccoli, and hardy greens such as kale can be blanched and frozen in single-serving or family-sized portions. Fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, dill, and basil are easily chopped, mixed with a bit of oil, and frozen in small ice cube trays. Once frozen, those cubes can be transferred to a labeled freezer bag or container. Herbs like this are terrific for tossing into tomato sauce, hot soups, or cooked pastas and rice dishes.
Purchase a box of tomatoes from your fave farmer and make some puree or sauce. The canning process is really quite simple once you get over the fear of a water-bath, and you can store the vacuum-sealed jars in any cool, dark place.
One of our family traditions is to have buttered sweet corn on our Thanksgiving table. You can, too! Grab an extra dozen ears of corn when it's super tasty and sweet. Blanch it, then cool it and cut the kernels off the cobs with a sharp knife. Have the kids help you by measuring and scooping the corn into freezer bags or containers. Get them involved in these simple preparations and remind them again how helpful they were when you are enjoying the finished product. Be sure to label everything with dates as well as names so you'll know which is oldest and which you should be using first.
Be Understanding and Flexible
Weather conditions can throw a farmer's life into a total tailspin. Everyone in the Northeast right now is complaining about the dismal weather and storms, but sadly, the farmers are the ones who feel the far-reaching effects deep in their wallets. While it is our intention and desire to have as many items as possible available for you, one severe weather incident can cause irreparable damage. Three days of rain can wipe out a 6-week supply of lettuce. Hail tears holes in spinach. Frost can burn the outer husks of corn, but those husks protect the kernels within, so it's perfectly edible despite outward appearance. Too much rain can cause tomatoes to swell, burst their skins, and rot on the vine. If consumers will only purchase products that are pretty, farmers would have to throw out half of what they grow. Nature is awesome, but she isn't perfect. That crooked zucchini may not slice nicely into long planks but it's fine for grating and making fritters. Radish or beet tops are a little wilty? If the roots are your primary concern, do the leaves matter?
Be Consistent in Your Support
We're working every day (yes, 7 days a week) to keep our plants and our soil healthy in order to bring our customers a great product. We depend on you to be there to buy them!
Become a farm share or CSA member. Plan your week around the farmers' market or farmstand hours and be there, rain or shine. Not everyone can participate in rainy day markets (bread and baked goods, in particular, don't hold up well in humid conditions), but we veggie and fruit farmers have been preparing our products for days and we need to sell them to cover the costs we've already incurred. We harvest and prepare ahead of time in anticipation of a successful market day and we need you to come out and shop with us. Our products are perishable and won't necessarily last until our next market.
You can count on us to be there for you, regardless of weather, but we need you to do the same for us. A raincoat or umbrella is all you need to go about business as usual. Please don't forgo the market because of a little foul weather. Please don't choose to spend your produce budget at the supermarket rather than with your farmer because it's more convenient. I politely remind customers that the electric bill (and many others) needs to get paid whether it rains or not, so yes, we are always at market.
Be Open to Trying New Things
Sometimes farmers get tired of growing the same old tomatoes and cucumbers. Occasionally what grew well in our soil or in our climate 5 or 10 years ago doesn't anymore. Perhaps there was a seed failure or germination issue or a soil-based disease that needs attention. Whatever the issue, something beyond our control has forced us to switch gears. Keep tabs on what's new or in the works and plan to try some garlic scapes or red komatsuna or pea shoots. You never know what will become your next favorite must-have.
Get to Know Your Grower and Producer
We're real people who work hard and like to have a connection with the people who are enjoying the product of our labor. Ask us questions, participate in farm events, tell us what you think about how we're doing. Farmers are incredibly smart people and they don't often follow trends without serious research and experience to support them. We're happy to share that with you.
Reading something on the Internet doesn't make it true or practical. Talk to your farmer (sure, it's OK to call us "your farmer"; we're flattered!) about GMOs, growing practices, product availability, and storageability. It's our business and we take it very seriously. It puts food on our tables and clothes on our kids' backs and pays our bills.
If there's a problem, please tell us! There may be a simple, straightforward solution and we'd hate to lose a customer due to lack of communication. Gives us a chance to make it right!
If you like what you see at our stand or our farm, tell everyone you know! Share our website, our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram info. Word of mouth advertising from long-time satisfied customers is what keeps us in business.
Farmers want to work the land and create something wonderful to share. We've devoted our lives to it and we couldn't do it without you.
Kasha Bialas, Bialas Farms
If you liked this post, check out these other links:
- My past post on Packing it in at the Farmers' Market.
- Dan Barber's new book: The Third Plate.
- Find local farmers' market on Local Harvest.
- Check out the Good Food Festival in Chicago, which brings farmers, artisans, chefs, and consumers together to learn about healthy food practices.
© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.