Essex Farm Note

Week 52, 2017

Deep cold has settled on us at the close of the year. The sun glints off of the hard snow at midday, splintering into shards of light. It’s beautiful for exactly as long as you can still feel your fingers and your toes. The Amish crew has arrived by buggy most of these below-zero mornings, never whining about the weather like I do, and not nearly as heavily bundled as I am, either. Their only accommodation is to keep the buggy blankets near the wood stove in the house during the day, so they are warm when they hitch up to go home. With highs in the single digits, we’re all focused on working safely, and keeping all the animals watered, well bedded and well fed. I can’t remember a stretch like this since our first winter, when we stayed below zero for a week and all the pipes froze solid. This time, we have an insulating layer of snow to slow the chilling of the ground. Two inches down, it’s still 33 degrees. Weather really is the farmers’ spectator sport, and you can stream it live from the weather station that’s in our field at www.nysmesonet.org, click on live data at the top of the page and then select Essex.

            This is the week we list the farm’s wins and losses for the year that’s ending, and note some goals and wishes for the year that’s to come. I hope you’ll forgive the length of this note, as there are a lot of things to mention.

            The wins are in three categories: growth, people, and infrastructure. We added about 30 new member households in 2017. That growth feels good, and makes us optimistic. We were blessed with an amazing crew yet again this year, each person bringing his or her best to the farm. We have a good management team in place, with the wonderful addition last January of Chris McConnell. More recently, we have added Dave Stott, who is helping us make good financial decisions, and bringing us into a more mature phase of farm development – less seat-of-the-pants, more structure. We also count the arrival of the Amish in our community last spring as a big blessing. It has been so good to have their skilled and hard-working hands on our farm when we have needed them most, and we believe having more family farms in our area is a healthy and hope-inducing trend for everyone.

            We’ve made some enormous infrastructure improvements this year. We added a 21,000 square foot barn in which to make compost. This will help us feed the soil that feeds all of us. If that were the only infrastructure project this year, it would have been enough. But we put in drainage on 45 acres, dug 3 new ponds, and planted 24,000 feet of fence posts, which were made by harvesting 7 acres of cedar trees. We added a new walk-in cooler for vegetable storage, a new greenhouse, a bulk tank for chilling and storing milk, and a new indoor space for butchering poultry. When I look at that list, it’s hard to believe that all of it happened in just one year. No wonder we’re all tired. I’m so proud of our team and of Mark, and as always, supremely grateful to our members, without whom none of this would be real. In a year when commodity milk prices are hovering below the cost of production, and farms of our size are generally struggling, I’m especially aware of how lucky we are that this farm lives slightly outside of the larger agricultural economy, supported by a community of members. I’m grateful to be part of a direct exchange that I think is healthy and satisfying on both sides. Some of our members have been with us from our very first year, and will be marking the beginning of their fifteenth year eating with us in January. Barbara Kunzi was the first person to hand us a check for food that first winter, and has been central to the farm – and especially the dairy – ever since. She’s one of our biggest wins, ever. We’re sending her a big wave of gratitude and love.

            And the losses? Most of them relate to the wins in some way. For example, our whole team of farmers scrambled to fulfill that increase in membership. We struggled to keep pace with hiring, and lost two key people unexpectedly at the peak of the season. This meant very long hours for most, and a sense of burnout for some. It’s a lesson we keep having to learn, and a challenge that sometimes feels insurmountable. Farms have a way of bending us to their will, and asking more than any of us can fairly give. One of the goals for 2018 is to have a cap on hours for everyone, and make sure we are running the farm, instead of the farm running all of us. A related loss was the number of weeds that went to seed in the field. We started strong out of the blocks against them but they caught up with us in the final stretch, and dropped multitudes of their future selves on our good soil. One year’s seeding makes seven years’ weeding, as the saying goes. We hope we can out-think them in 2018.

            The weather was challenging, too. A very wet spring planting season limited the crops we got in, and especially the number of acres of corn. A wet summer meant poor hay quality, difficult hay harvest, and a limited number of usable bales.

            Some of the year’s big events do not fit neatly into either category. Because we couldn’t fill all our staffing needs, we outsourced the butchering to two different businesses, beginning in June. Some members saw this as a win, and others as a loss. I tend to fall between them – I like the improved quality of the cuts, and the reduction in wasted meat, and have been very glad to take some pressure off our overworked staff, but do not like shipping animals off the farm. Another mixed blessing was the hay fire at the end of September. Some of the second cut of hay was put up too wet, and spontaneously combusted in storage (loss) but thanks to Charlotte Morse, the Essex fire department, and many friends and neighbors, everyone was safe and the barn is still standing (big old win).

            Goals and wishes are easy to make this time of year, so why not make some big ones? I wish for more creamery equipment, and a proper cheese cave for Barbara. I wish for the time, money and foresight to take the best care possible of our soil, plants, animals and environment. I’d like 2018 to be the year we begin strategizing more often than we are reacting. Here’s a humongous one: I wish for a new distribution building, with actual walls and running water, and a comfortable, heated kitchen and dining area for farmer meals and breaks. Most of all I hope 2018 will be happy, healthy and satisfying for all the people who work here, and for all the members who eat the food we grow.

            Members, these cold temperatures mean we are not able to wash the roots today, so you’ll have a little extra dirt in your kitchen this week. Thanks for understanding, and please remember to fill out your paperwork for next year! And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this final week of 2017. Find us at 518-963-4613, essexfarm@gmail.com, on Instagram at kristinxkimball and essexfarmcsa, or on the frozen farm, any day but Sunday.                        

–Kristin & Mark Kimball

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