CSA Forms For the 2017 Season

Sign-up forms for our 2017 season are now available. We would love to have you join us. There’s a place at the table waiting for you!

Zero Shenanigans

CNGcolorlogoIt’s official: Blackbird Farms is now Certified Naturally Grown!

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a grassroots alternative to the UDSA’s Certified Organic program. CNG follows the Certified Organic standards, but the inspections are conducted by other CNG farmers rather than by government inspectors.

This past winter, I went back and forth on whether or not to become certified. (Other farms have been dealing with this issue as well.) On the one hand, for small market farms like ours that sell directly to their customers, certification seems irrelevant, because the relationships we form are their own kind of certification. Want to know what my practices are? You may ask me directly, or you are more than welcome to visit to the farm to see for yourself.

On the other hand, after a couple of seasons in the marketplace, I have seen too many shenanigans regarding farms’ claims about their growing practices. Friends, the fact is that some farmers play fast and loose with terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” “homegrown,” “local,” and even “organic.” (There was an excellent recent article about the false claims made at farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants in Florida, and I assure you the same sorts of things are happening right here in West Michigan.)

I concluded that some sort of third-party authentication would set us apart from these others, and CNG appealed to me more than USDA Organic, mainly because of CNG’s emphasis on collegiality and community among like-minded growers. Rather than a top-down approach geared toward punishing violations, CNG farmers come alongside each other to bring each other into compliance. I like that.

And now our customers and members can be extra confident that we are doing what we say we are doing: growing fresh, nutrient-dense produce with zero harmful, synthetic chemicals according to sustainable and ecological principles — in other words, we are Certified Naturally Grown.

Joining the Dance

Truth be told, the CSA model can be a demanding one, for both farmer and member. On my side, I need to master growing all of the vegetables (I’ve lost count of exactly how many kinds) and orchestrating their yields so that the weekly shares hold a bunch of different and tasty offerings. What’s more, I get to be the in-house accountant and mechanic (though sometimes I outsource those jobs), marketing director, human resources department, customer service agent, crew foreman, field hand, delivery driver, CFO, COO, and CEO. Knowing how to swing a hammer, dig a ditch, and wrangle a chicken comes in handy, too. I’m not complaining. I love the diversity my day holds, and there’s always something new and interesting to learn from the farm.

Being a member of a CSA holds its challenges, too. It requires a sense of adventure, of intrepidness, of delighting in being given a share full of good, sometimes unfamiliar, food and creating wholesome meals from it. I came across a quote in Joel Salatin’s Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer that I think does a good job of describing the kind of customer a direct-market CSA needs — the kind of customer this farm has been lucky to have:

“Without customers, you can’t have a direct-market farm…. But more importantly, a direct-market farm needs the right kind of customers…. We need customers who love their kitchens. We need customers who enjoy trying new things, who will try to use the entire vegetable or the whole chicken…. We need customers who put a high priority on food and who want farmers to enjoy a white-collar salary…. We need customers who show up at rendezvous points on time, who chat you up to co-workers and neighbors, and who forgive the occasional mess up.”

And he concludes,“This is a partnership.” He’s right. Belonging to a CSA means joining the dance between sun and soil, between farmer and field, between this farm and, well, maybe you. So, come, friend. Join us. I can’t promise you it will be easy. But it will be delicious.

Grow Vegetables the Blackbird Farms Way!

Dig For Victory - Grow You Own VegetablesI am thankful for the opportunity to once again present a few classes this spring on home gardening, and I would love to see you there! (And if you are interested in my speaking to your organization or institution, please view the “Teaching and Consulting” tab above. Thanks!)

Gardening Basics 1
Baxter Community Center
April 6, 6:00-7:30 PM
Fee: donations appreciated
Designed for the novice gardener, this class will help you set your gardening intention, select an appropriate garden site, understand your growing season and hardiness zone, choose appropriate plants and cultivars, and create an effective garden layout.

Gardening Basics 2
Baxter Community Center
April 13, 6:00-7:30 PM
Fee: donations appreciated
Continuing Gardening Basics 1, this class will present basic practices for soil preparation, seeding and transplanting, watering and fertilizing, weed control, and pest and disease responses, as well as harvesting guidelines.

The Theory and Practice of Organic Gardening
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
May 4, 6:30-8:00 PM
Fee: $20 FMG members, $28 non-members
Get the basics in this introductory class on five critical organic practices: composting, companion planting, crop rotation, beneficial insects, and cover crops.

What Makes a Good Tomato?

IMG_0006It’s time we had an honest discussion about tomatoes.

I can talk up kale and chard as much as I please, but what folks really want in their CSA shares is lots of fresh, flavorful tomatoes. CSA farmers can screw up pretty much everything else, but if they routinely can’t grow tomatoes, they should probably find another vocation.

And this passion for tomatoes is for a good reason. The red round things sold as tomatoes in your typical megamart are a pale, degraded, deranged copy of an actual tomato. Once you’ve had a real tomato, there’s no going back.

Usually when people think about CSA tomatoes, they are thinking about heirloom tomatoes. These old, open-pollinated varieties were bred for characteristics like color, flavor, and regional adaptation, rather than mere packability, truckability, and long shelf life, as most modern hybrid tomatoes are. This is why many people, including some CSA farmers, reject hybrid tomatoes in favor of heirlooms. But there are tradeoffs with heirlooms. They are trickier to grow. They are sometimes more prone to pests and diseases. Often they are less productive than modern hybrids.

Now, here’s a secret: There are some really good hybrid tomatoes out there. Not heirloom good, sure, but pretty good nonetheless. And they have bred-in resistances to diseases and a vigor that provides higher yields. And the way I grow them — in nutrient-dense soil, picked ripe, and delivered promptly — these tomatoes are still worlds apart from your typical grocery store fare. In other words, I am not going to look down my nose at a big, juicy, red tomato just because it doesn’t have the correct pedigree.

I’ve always included these good, red tomatoes in my line-up, augmented with some of the fabulous heirlooms out there. But now here is a twist in this story: Plant breeders are developing hybrid tomatoes with heirloom characteristics. When I first heard about these from another grower, I was resistant to the idea. After all, if farmers like us don’t grow heirlooms, who will? But after further consideration, I am intrigued. Here’s why:

One of the heirlooms I often grow is Cherokee Purple, a very lovely and tasty specimen. But it has its problems. The first fruit set is reliably great, but afterwards. quality declines sharply. The fruit cracks, splits, and rots on the vine. The plant succumbs to disease and is finished long before the season ends — at least that’s my experience. And since tomatoes are so time- and resource-intensive, at a certain point it’s more cost-effective for me to take a five-gallon pail of dollar bills out into the field and set fire to it.

So if there are tomato varieties out there that combine the vigor and durability of hybrids with the color and flavor of heirlooms, this is a big deal for a grower like me. So this year I am growing a few of them, as well as their heirloom counterparts, and then we’ll see. Will Martha Washington measure up to Grace Lahman? Can Margold go toe to toe with Gold Medal? How does Chef’s Choice compare to Valencia? We are going to find out this summer, together.

Keeping the Trains Running on Time

This week I’ve been hard at work on my greenhouse schedule — a long spreadsheet that will tell me how much of what to plant when so that there will be plenty of food in the CSA shares come summertime. And none too soon: the first date on the schedule is February 29, where I see I need to be seeding leeks, onions, and shallots. We’ll see if that happens or not. A couple of varieties are backordered from the supplier, so I’ll just have to seed those whenever they arrive.

I’ve become rather fond of spreadsheets, believe it or not. I find them soothing, especially the way they take large, unruly bodies of information and sort them out into usable parcels. I’ve set up the greenhouse schedule to automatically calculate things like the number of seeds I will need (including extra to account for germination failure) and how many pots they will require. And when it comes time for transplanting, it will remind me how many beds with how many rows at what plant spacing I will need, all calculated automatically. All I have to do is enter what kind of yields I want, and the spreadsheet does the rest. Pretty slick.

I use the same template each season, so my work is limited to tweaking what exists rather than creating everything from scratch. This year, for example, I moved my brussels sprouts and fall broccoli plantings two weeks earlier, because I felt they came in too late last year, and I struck my summer broccoli from the line-up entirely. Broccoli grown in the summer is just too bitter for my taste, and I try not to make the members eat something I won’t.

I also switched up my lettuce varieties. The trick to having lettuce reliably all season — or for all but the hottest part of the season — is variety selection. Some do well seeded when it’s cool for harvesting during warmer weather, others tolerate being seeded when it’s warmer for harvesting when it’s hotter, and so on. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a whole ready-made line-up for farmers to use, and that’s what I decided to follow this year. If they’ve already done all the work, why duplicate it?

Once I’m satisfied with the schedule, I’ll review the seeds I have on hand to make sure I have everything I need, and quickly order any shortfalls or oversights. Then everything will be ready to go.


IMG_0263The first thing I do each farming year (if you don’t count planting garlic the previous fall) is order my seeds. This job is also the most fun of all the jobs. The new season, and all its coming successes and failures, still lies in potential, and the entire farm fits in a cardboard box. Plus, deep winter is a good time to leaf through the colorful catalogues and dream about what the farm could become when spring arrives.

But by the start of the new calendar year, it’s time to stop dreaming and start planning. I knocked out this year’s order in a couple of days in early January. Seed shopping is a task that takes as much time as you give it, and the more time you take, the greater chance you’ll start ordering things that seem like a good idea in January but look pretty foolish come May.

Knowing how much seed to order is pretty straightforward. If the quantities from the previous year worked, I stick with them. Knowing which varieties to order, though, takes a little more care.

More often than not, what I grew before worked just fine. For example, last year my main sweet pepper varieties once again performed well, and I see no need to change things up.

Sometimes the varieties worked well enough, but I want to tweak things by using slightly different ones to diversify my offerings, and I choose and swap accordingly. I’m doing this with lettuce this year, keeping some well-performing standbys but adding others for a mix of colors and textures.

But sometimes things aren’t working at all, and I have to rethink my whole approach. This year the big changes are in my squash line-up. In the past, I made my choices so that I would have a variety of interesting a flavorful squashes. But flavor and variety are irrelevant if you have widespread crop failures, which has been the norm so far on this farm. One of the problems the past three seasons has been powdery mildew, a fungal disease that, left unchecked, covers the leaves of the plant with a white powder (hence the name), dramatically decreasing yields, if not killing the plant outright. There are a handful of organic remedies that can be sprayed to keep the disease in check, but at my scale it’s a labor-intensive job. So when selecting varieties for summer and winter squash this year, I limited myself to only vigorous strains with a bred-in resistance to powdery mildew. My hope is that these genetics will tilt the odds a little more in my favor and result in better yields

And I always try to grow something new each year. Sometimes these experiments work, and sometimes they don’t, but I enjoy seeing how different crops grow. This year’s addition is tomatillos, which we grew on the farm I apprenticed at, but not on this farm yet. I think they will grow fine. The real question is if they will sell at market and how the CSA members respond to having them in their shares.

The seeds all arrived by the end of last week and are patiently waiting in their cardboard boxes, which is good, because it’s less than a month until we fire up the greenhouse and start bringing their potential into reality.