What Sets Us Apart

When I started growing vegetables over fifteen years ago, as a hired hand at Trillium Haven Farm, there were only a couple of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in West Michigan. Since then, that model has so gained in popularity I have lost track of how many there are now. Knowing that there are plenty of CSAs to choose from, we are ever grateful for those of you who have chosen us. But given that many of these CSA farms grow the same vegetable varieties, order from the same seed suppliers, and even use the same brand of potting soil, you might be wondering what sets us apart.

In short: Blackbird Farms is a member-first CSA. Everything we do—every decision we make, every action we take—is focused on delivering the best possible CSA experience to our members.

What does this look like in practice?

First, and most simply, our members are known by name. It is a point of pride that I learn every new member’s name by the end of June, at the latest. And I make sure to be present at every pick-up and greet everyone by name. Not all CSA farmers can do this. Not all CSA farmers even want to do this. But I do, because I believe in reestablishing the connection between people and the place where their food is grown, and you can’t do that when everyone is anonymous.

Second, and similarly, our members are welcome on the farm. While some farmers are not eager to open up their places to “outsiders,” we go out of our way to create opportunities for our members to engage with our farm. Whether participating in the farm work on one of our Thursday evening field parties, attending one of our chamber music concerts in the barn loft, or enjoying an evening potluck and bonfire, we want to share with our members this beautiful place where we get to live and work.

Third, we always place our members before farmers markets (as well as wholesale accounts and restaurants). The danger of a farm having a significant market footprint or extensive restaurant or other wholesale accounts is that there is a profound temptation to siphon off the very best, highest quality, and most popular produce to those outlets, and then leave the CSA members with the leftovers. I have seen this happen with my own eyes at other farms. That will never happen here. We don’t even sell to restaurants, and nothing is sent to our modest farmers’ market stall that isn’t first made available to our members.

Finally, we follow the traditional CSA principle of “share the risk, share the abundance.” This means that, when deciding what goes in any week’s share, I simply tally up what is ready to harvest and then divide by the number of shares. That way, our members share in both the farm’s victories and vicissitudes. I understand that some CSA farms have moved away from this model toward one where the quantity of vegetables their members receive is pre-set, either by some sort of point system or through a prepaid debit card. While this model may be useful to some farmers and appeal to some members, we have decided not to go down this path. Members of such a CSA may have a reduced risk of a poor season, but they also do not get to enjoy the abundance of a good season. What’s more, I worry that such a model transforms members into merely consumers, loosening their personal connection to the farm. And, again, it is my conviction that personal connection is at the heart of what it means to belong to a CSA.

There are many great CSA farmers in West Michigan, and I count it a privilege to have them as my colleagues and friends. It is a good thing that the CSA movement has evolved into different and innovative expressions. And there is no single correct model to suit everyone—you should find a farm that fits who you are and what you believe. But if you crave not only delicious food but also a connection with the people who grow it and the place where it is grown, I invite you to try us out. As I never tire of saying, there is a place at the table waiting for you.

To Do By Them the Best I Am Able

A couple of weeks ago, Socks the feral fighting tomcat appeared on the farmhouse’s front porch, the left side of his face wet with blood. One of his wild adventures must have gone sideways and left him less one eye, and he quietly sat there nursing his injury.

Socks is only the name Shel and I use with each other to refer to him. In truth, he is an unnamed and untamed cat, living at the periphery of the farm, one of a litter birthed just over five years ago by yet another, now dearly departed, farm cat. We would glimpse him from time to time stalking in the margins, occasionally coming onto the farmhouse porch for reasons known only to him.

He is the last of the unfixed cats on the farm. When we moved here nine years ago, we discovered that the previous owners had abandoned their cats when they left, so one of our ongoing projects has been to trap cats, have them neutered, then release them back on the farm. The last round happened a couple of summers ago. We were able to trap nearly all of the unfixed cats—Ninja and Medium, Puffball and Scruffy, maybe more I’ve forgotten about—but Socks remained untrappable. He would approach the trap, sniff the trap, paw the trap, but never enter the trap. I kept at it until winter arrived, when it is advised not to trap and neuter cats, then admitted defeat.

The thing was, though, Socks was a problem. Territorial. Aggressive. The avowed nemesis of our good and gentle farm cat Herbie—in fact, we’re nearly certain Socks is responsible for the couple of infected cat bites for which we needed to take Herbie to the vet over the past year. I knew I needed at least to try again to trap Socks, but other urgencies and emergencies on the farm got in the way.

Then Socks showed up on the porch with his gruesome wound. Poor cat.

Once again, I reached out to my contacts in the West Michigan cat rescue community, and Angela, who has been a great help to us before, replied that if I could trap Socks, she would see that he was cared for through the organization she works with, Heaven Can Wait.

Well, I had been down that trapping road with Socks before, to no effect, but resolved to try again. I set out the live trap that Sunday, and every day that week thereafter. Socks went through his old routine, still wise to the bait. Then, on Saturday evening, after the sun went down and before I disabled the trap for the night, we heard it snap shut. I checked, and Socks was in it, mad as hell, and scared, but trapped. At long last.

I prepared a warm place in the garage for him to spend the night, and the next morning I passed him off to Angela. A couple of days later, she had him examined by a vet. Socks will get his eye socket cleaned up and sown shut, and he has been neutered, and once healed will return to his home, our farm, less one eye but still wild and free.

And, look, I know that this is only a cat. That the world is rife with human suffering, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. And that the travails of one cat pales in comparison to all of that. But as the farmer I am responsible for all the creatures that call this place home and to do by them the best I am able, every last one. Including even ornery one-eyed fighting tom cats.

(And if you would like to support the good work being done by the folks over at Heaven Can Wait, please do!)

Gathering Seeds

These are the farm’s quiet days. All is dormant, patiently waiting for spring. Any farm work happens indoors at my desk, amid calendars and spreadsheets. And this season’s most important work, and that which gives me the greatest pleasure, is gathering my seeds.

It is a hopeful thing to know that in these frozen and gray days farmers are gathering their seeds, as they have been doing since the dawn of agriculture.

I read in one early-twentieth-century farming memoir how the farmer at harvest time selected the best corn—“bright, uniform, well-filled ears with straight rows”—and stashed it, like golden treasure, in a secure storeroom upon a custom wooden rack. Sometime in February, he prised with the tip of a penknife a few kernels from each ear, then germinated them in a box partially filled with earth and covered with muslin, labeling each seed to keep track of which ears they came from. After the seeds had sprouted, showing which would grow strongly and which poorly, he laid aside the weaker and sterile ears and shelled the good ears for that spring’s seed corn.

I don’t do anything like that. I get all my seeds in the mail from seed companies. Still, I like knowing that when I spread those little paper packets on my dining room table, cross-checking the packing slips and organizing by kind, I join all those old farmers in this yearly ritual.

I ordered my seeds from four companies this year: Fedco Seeds, an old reliable standby with a delightfully quirky catalog and a generous discount policy; Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which caters to the smaller-scale grower and offers many excellent varieties that work well for this kind of farm; High Mowing Seeds for certified-organic seeds, which we are required to use when available; and the Seed Savers Exchange for heirloom varieties to add a dash of color and uniqueness to our vegetable offerings.

And this year I ordered them earlier than usual, back in December, to sidestep the now typical pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. A couple of weeks later, brown boxes and padded envelopes began arriving, all the coming season’s potential bounty, courtesy of FedEx, UPS, and the United States Postal Service.

Seeds are such commonplace things, and yet also magical, these little nuggets of wonder packaged in envelopes and spread across my dining room table. The whole season is contained there, in potential, from the first greenhouse work at the beginning of March to the final harvest sometime in December. Such an inheritance, all those plantsmen and women, all those farmers and gardeners, working and watching, selecting and saving the best, passing it along to the next generation, an unbroken chain anchored in the distant past and stretching out toward the unknown future.

What Else There Is To See

After an unusually mild December, we have now had some proper winter weather. The storm a couple of weeks ago gave us maybe a foot of snow here at the farm, and the fields are still covered in a blanket of white—the farm’s slate wiped clean, marking a clear line between the old season just past and the new one to come.

This weather drives the birds to our feeders, so Herbie the farm cat now spends the balance of his days indoors perched on his chair in the sunroom intently watching what we call the bird show—all the flocking finches, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, and slate-eyed juncos. Truth be told, I like the show, too. I hung a feeder just outside the window of the old chicken coop I’ve claimed as a farm office/writing shed, and the birds keep me company while I sit there dreaming and scheming and plotting and planning.

Despite the sometimes unrelenting grayness, January can be one of my favorite months on the farm. Not only a time for looking ahead and beginning the long list of preparations for the coming season, it’s also a chance to expand my perception of what the farm is capable of. Once we hit May, my vision necessarily narrows to the the day-to-day urgencies and emergencies of running a small-scale diversified organic vegetable operation. The long litany of tasks obscures the farm like morning mist.

Winter’s snow clears all that, providing the proverbial blank canvas. So right now there is time and space to think, to engage my imagination. Even though we’ve lived and worked here for almost a decade, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible. And now is the time of year to see what else there is to see.

Before Winter Arrives

What a string of lovely fall days we’ve had. It’s been a gift to have such good weather to wrap up the final few farm jobs that need to happen before winter arrives.

The most important of these was planting the garlic for next season. We had the perfect break in the weather the last week of October, when the soil dried out just enough to plant. And then last week we had a nice warm and sunny day to spread the straw mulch to protect the garlic over the winter. I always breathe easier once I know that those little cloves are tucked away safe and sound, waiting for spring.

With that task crossed off, I have turned my attention to all the end-of-season cleaning and stowing and storing. Making sure everything is put away now is an investment I make in my sanity come spring. And each fall I also make time to plant some things that will make the farm more beautiful the following season and for years to come. This year I did that by planting one hundred crocus bulbs, plus a few stargazer lilies, a task I wrapped up just today.

And each day, the light grows shorter, the temperature drops further, and the farm empties a little bit more. The place is beginning to draw into itself, preparing for the winter cold and snow. As am I.

Winding Down Now For Sure

The season is winding down now for sure. When we begin our days, the sun is just beginning to crest the horizon, and long gone are the evenings when it was light enough to work until bedtime. (Not that I have the energy at this point in the season to do that anyway.)

This warm weather certainly is an anomaly. To still be working in short-sleeve t-shirts this late in October is unusual, as is the fact that we still haven’t had our first frost of the season—that usually happens by the second week of the month. In terms of what’s happening in the field, this lack of a frost really doesn’t mean much at this point. A little frost would be helpful to knock down the last few bugs hanging around, and it does help sweeten up many of the fall crops, but most of the vegetables that would have been killed by a frost have already pretty much faded away.

These balmy days sure are nice for wrapping up all the end-of-season farm tasks, though. We’ve checked off many of those, but one crucial job still remains: planting next season’s garlic. If all goes according to plan, that will happen next week. And once those little cloves are tucked in the soil and dreaming of spring, we will be ready for winter.

Watching Through the Seasons

One of the great joys of my job is watching the farm cycle through the seasons: from sleeping under its blanket of silent snow, to its thaw in a rush of water and light, to its burst of gold and green in the spring, its midsummer riot of growth, its abundance of high summer, and, now, its long descent toward winter, when it will sleep again.

And of all these movements, I love fall the most. I love how mornings can be cool and misty, afternoons warm and sunny, evenings clear and quiet. I love the variety of vegetables coming out of the fields as the harvest moves from the fruits of high summer to the sustaining roots of winter. I love how the work load lightens just enough to take full notice of all these changes, and how I have space in my head to begin to conspire about next year. And, perhaps above all, I love the satisfaction of coming to the end of a full season of hard work and the privilege of growing good food for all you good people.