Monday, 16 August 2010 10:25

A Horse-Powered Produce Farm

Written by  Arthur Bolduc
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Over a century ago a fellow wrote a book, Ten Acres is Enough. It chronicled the trials and tribulations of a businessman and his family who turned their backs on the hand-to-mouth existence of the city in the late Nineteenth Century and bought a ten-acre farm where they grew produce and found modest prosperity, good health and security. That is all Atlee Weaver and his young family were looking for when they bought a dozen acres of land between Danville and Brinkhaven on SR 62 in Ohio eight years ago.

The once conventional Midwest family-run farm, growing livestock and grain on a four-year rotation, cannot pay the mortgage for a young couple starting out in farming today. One of the few entry-level opportunities still open in farming for a young family is produce growing.

At the time Atlee was in construction and wanted a piece of farm land where he could afford to build a home, an Amish home built for comfortable living, and raise his family, even if only a small farm.

Thirty years ago 90% of the Amish were employed on farms, today 90% have off-farm jobs or are employed in local cottage industries on their farms. Get big or get out was not for them. The Amish like to play guerrilla economics (that is, if a commodity is in oversupply, they switch to one that is in demand) on their mixed grain and livestock farms.

The specialized mono crop or single species livestock farms with all their specialized equipment and eggs in one basket cannot play guerrilla economics. Since most of them are mortgaged to the hilt and have payments to make, they cannot afford to cut back on production when their commodity is in oversupply. The worst thing they can do is increase production and try to make up in volume what they are losing on price and hope the government will help bail them out, but that is exactly what they do. The result is surpluses, depressed prices and debt while the big winners, the food monopolies, buy their commodities dirt-cheap. Since the Amish don’t accept government support, they have to create other sources of income to subsidize their farms themselves.

In neighboring Holmes, Wayne and Coshocton counties, home of the largest Amish community in the world, the price of land has skyrocketed and many of the young Amish have migrated to Knox County, bought up derelict small farms and returned them to productivity.

The once prosperous farm village of Danville, a dozen miles northeast of Mt. Vernon, like thousands of farm villages, lost its family operated, small farm infrastructure in the late Twentieth Century, and the few farmers that remained got into their trucks and took their business to the nearby city of Mt. Vernon.

Produce sold here is equal to or of higher standards than organic. Atlee has the soil test and Brix meter readings to prove it. Simply because it's claimed organic doesn't necessarily mean it's not deficient in some elements. Ask to see soil tests, better yet, buy a Brix meter and test for yourself.

Bert Hershberger built a feed and farm supply store in Danville about seven years ago to serve his growing horse and buggy Amish community that shop in the village.  He soon added a bi-monthly Saturday morning farm auction for small farmers. The coffee and donuts were good, and the baseball caps soon out-numbered the Amish hats in the crowd,  as they started taking home a few hens, goats, sheep, even ponies for the kids. People are eating better for less and are rebuilding the small farm infrastructure and character of the community.

Atlee built his home a hundred yards or more off Rt 62 on a corner with a county road and the garden space between, in full view of passersby. He built a bank barn a short distance from the house and a pond up the slope a hundred yards. The barn is nothing fancy, just Amish built and functional. You have to be a draft horse person to appreciate it.

The first year Atlee planted a small produce patch, kept his off-farm job and tended the patch after work.  Much of the time it was open on the self-serve, honor system with his wife not far off if anybody had any questions. Within full view of the highway, there is no need for garish signs. Modest signs a few hundred yards on the road from both directions announce "Fresh Produce Ahead." The sight of the neat garden does the rest.

The lane leading to the house is just off Rt 62 on the secondary road away from highway traffic. The first vegetable stand was at the entrance in a garden shed rehabbed into a produce stand. It was nearly a hundred yards to the stand from the house and ran on the honor system. Unfortunately they couldn’t keep it stocked and spent a lot of time running back and forth explaining to customers. As they managed to increase production, they built a larger stand nearer to the house. 

When Atlee decided to go into produce production he felt they could grow first class vegetables and fruit, but how long would it take to build a clientele of customers that would take the time to stop between two villages to buy a few vegetables?

Some felt the farm villages were too small to support Atlee’s farm, and he was too far from cities such as Millersburg and Mt. Vernon. But he had been in the supermarkets serving the county with their six Brix quality, imported produce, and remembered what Emerson said about building a better mousetrap. He knew he could grow much better fruits and vegetables than were being imported.

Atlee also knew there was a growing discontent with our industrial agriculture food supply grown with chemicals on soils deficient in minerals and trace elements. It’s a food revolution that has been quietly building for nearly twenty years across North America, Europe and many industrialized countries where petroleum-dependent food monopolies control the food supply. It started in Florida as school cafeteria food rebellions where 70% of the food was being dumped into garbage cans and the discontent spread to hospitals, rest homes and other institutions where food was served. 

Atlee saw tractor farmers dependent upon petroleum for gasoline, fertilizer, chemicals and just about everything else and realized that peak oil production was fast approaching and it would become increasingly expensive for them to continue farming. By the same token, it would be even more expensive to grow and ship produce from areas of agreeable climate and cheap labor, and he saw the playing field being leveled.

Organic food sales were booming as informed consumers were demanding fresh food grown locally on fertile soil by farmers they know. Here was an opportunity for local growers, tractor or horse-powered, to reclaim local markets with high quality produce. Together they can once again feed their communities, stem the drain of money out of the state, create jobs and all the while reducing petroleum dependence. And even more important, they can restore health to our nation that has been lost on our petroleum-based, NPK supported diet of junk food and reduce the need for expensive health insurance that is bankrupting the nation.

In spite of all Atlee thought he knew about produce growing, starting small proved to be a blessing. A kitchen garden can be forgiving, but when you are growing for market there is no room for anything but the best.

Early on he knew blossom end rot on tomatoes or soft melons indicated low calcium even though his soil pH was good. He had fallen into the trap of believing that a pH of 6.5 to 7.0 was acceptable and neglected to pay attention to soil calcium, magnesium and potassium levels. And he was smart enough to listen to people who told him to avoid local dolomite lime that is high in magnesium, and stick with the high calcium lime with the more ideal 1:7 magnesium - calcium ratio.

He also learned that you could be too kind to your garden with too much manure that can raise the potassium levels out of proportion with other soil nutrients. And at the local produce growers meetings he picked up valuable tips about trace elements and quick response to any sign of stress displayed by plants.

But most exciting were the new tools Atlee had available to him. New, more complete soil tests than the conventional tests designed sell NPK for $200 a ton with little attention to high calcium lime that sold for $25 a ton, but is the basic element the plant is built on. The Le Motte or Morgan tests cost a few dollars more but offer a lot more information. 

Another tool was the increasing availability of complete organic fertilizers with trace elements that didn’t run short in mid-season and had to be replenished only every couple of years.

The Brix meter, or refractometer, is another tool that allows the vegetable grower, like the wine maker, to stay abreast of growing-plant nutritional conditions and be able to react to them immediately. Keep the Brix readings above 12 or 14 and 90% of bug and disease damage will vanish. You need that other 10% to weed out the genetically weak plants and keep you honest.

Every housewife or produce shopper should have a Brix meter. More and more produce buyers from supermarkets to roadside stands are using the Brix meter to measure the quality of produce they are buying. This simple device that sells for less than $60 locally (Echo Valley Supply, 22063 Pealer Mill Rd., Butler, Ohio, 44822.  Voice Mail 740-599-6453) will go a long way to force quality improvement of our fresh foods. It can also be used for testing feed crops. Dr. Paul Detloff, DVM and others carry Brix meters on their rounds. 

It’s no secret that the key to growing quality produce is to keep them growing unchecked. Once plants become stressed from lack of water, nutrients, extreme temperature changes or any number of trauma; they become victims of bugs, diseases, start developing cellulose, lignin and become tough. With the spring-fed pond on a higher level adjacent to the produce garden, plastic tubing and trickle irrigation tapes in the growing beds, Atlee has precise water control and additional nutrient feeding if necessary.

In addition to his twelve acres, he rents another twenty acres, plants seven-plus acres of sweet corn, up to ten acres of wheat and enough hay and oats to feed a couple of cows and at least four draft horses. The potato patch grows and shrinks according to available labor.

Family labor and available part-time help decide the number of acres Atlee will cultivate, not the work he can accomplish with two teams of draft horses. With the garden at their doorstep, Atlee’s wife likes to spend as much time out there with her young children as possible. The oldest is just starting school and a couple are too young to be of much help in the garden, although they do like to run and fetch things for their mother and try to be of help. When it stops being fun, that is when they are sent to play on the nearby lawn. They are good, strong, healthy children, and Atlee and his wife want them to enjoy farming and appreciate the fact that they earn a living with their own labor feeding people by recycling air and water and a few minerals sustainable without exploiting others. Farming is one of only a few ways to truly generate wealth without exploiting other’s labor or resources.

Atlee could probably power his farm with a team of Haflinger draft ponies, but he loves Percheron draft horses. It’s a genetic thing. His uncle Aden has my vote for the best farm in Knox County and some of the best Percherons. His brother Marty farms and logs with Percherons.

Atlee does not request or receive government handouts, nor does he buy into the endless, empty promises and magic bullets of agribusiness; he just wants a small, fertile piece of land, a free market and a good team of draft horses for power.

Give us five million farmers like Atlee Weaver and our farm subsidy problems would vanish in the face of supply and demand, our health care costs would all but vanish, and unemployment would drop by that number or more, wealth would be redistributed, and they could do it all with horsepower. Jefferson was right: let foreign nations have manufacturing and let them depend on us for quality food.
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