Post Season Wrap & Thank You

I like the numbers game. A quick glimpse at 2014:
21 weeks of arugula seeding
20 weeks of pak choy transplants
42 harvests of cherry tomatoes (one planting, outside)
22,715 lbs of produce harvested
– 2,115 lbs of salad
– 1,961 lbs of arugula
– 1,912 lbs of heirloom tomatoes
– 1,631 lbs of cherry tomatoes
33,067 sq ft of planted/seeded area (aprox. 3/4 of an acre not including asparagus and fruits)

2014 proved to be a great season. A good year. We spent more time eating dinner with friends, playing cards, and dancing than we did posting here. I say that’s a win. I can attribute much of that success to our decision to quit our traditional CSA model and move to a Farm Share (market share) system. It meant that we had more time and head space to focus on the land, animals, and our own well being. It also meant that we could focus on growing food that we’re good at growing and that we profit from instead of growing crops to fill out the CSA boxes.

Our members, on the whole, approved. They weren’t all psyched about coming to market to see us (market around here can be overwhelming and very crowded), but they seemed to put up with it for the benefits: any produce, any time, in any quantity as long as we have it on the stand. No missed pick ups and guilty calls asking for a drop off, no extra kale in the fridge that you just can’t seem to eat another bite of, no more wishing there were another eggplant in the box for that one recipe. On our end, we received cash early when we needed it and increased our productivity and sales by 30% largely because of our move from CSA boxes to Farm Market Share. So, thank you to all of our share members who stuck with us through this transition!

This season also marks our first with smart phones. Which means exponentially more photos of our land, our veggies, our friends, and our lives. The farm has its own instagram (@countyrailfarm), which I encourage you to follow for news, happenings, cute goats, and updates, but I’ll also continue to post the best ones here.

More firsts! Our first Farm Dinner! What a success. The men of the Burns St. Bistro hit this one out of the park. We hosted 50 guests for a 4 course plated dinner with our produce (and some other local fare) and then danced under the stars with the music of Caroline Keys and Chelle Terwilliger. This event allowed folks who don’t usually come to our harvest or planting parties to tour the farm, see where their food comes from, and eat a meal with their farmers. It really was priceless, for us and (I think) for them. Read and see more about that night here. Look for notices about the second annual – we can’t wait.

We couldn’t have done any of the above without our awesome summer farm hand, Kitty Galloway. It’s not easy to work an entire season with only two other people, especially if those two are married. Kitty sailed through this year with grace and hard work. She lead the charge this, our first, year at the Tuesday Missoula Famers Market and nailed it, every week. Thank you, Kitty. We couldn’t have asked for more. There’s a truly special place in our hearts for all the volunteers, friends and family, who have come up and lended a hand this season – thank you. We believe in physically connecting with the land we eat from and it is our honor to share it with you. Specifically, Morgan Clark-Gaynor, thanks for the laughs and the music and the endless sass. We love you and wish you the best. As always, we’d like to thank our most generous landlord, Steve Dagger. For the fruit and the chickens and the endless support. You make this awesome life possible. We are in your debt.

Finally, we’d like to extend a giant thank you to all of you for your support this season. We love feeding you, your families, your friends. To the Clark Fork Farmers Market, Missoula Farmers MarketWestern Montana Growers Coop, to The Good Food Store, Orange Street Food Farm, Burns St. Bistro, Biga Pizza, Bridge Pizza, and many many more who stock and/or buy our produce, thank you, thank you, thank you! We’re looking forward to another year of growing and enjoying the winter’s calm and warmth while we can.
Keep an eye out for Farm Share info in January!

Tracy & Margaret

Suddenly, Spring

Two weeks ago, after months of snow on the ground, it seemed completely absurd to start seeds. Now that the ground is bare and the days are filled with sunshine, however, I feel like everything is happening at once. The spinach is popping, garlic is coming up, weeds are already taking over parts of the barn garden, and the goats are anxious to graze on the barely green pasture. GREEN PASTURE… ok almost green.

We are very excited to start the season – it’s been a long winter and we’re absolutely psyched that March is here in force. We have a few new projects for the year. In particular our new Farm Share. It veers away from the traditional CSA box-system and caters to the farmers market. This change means we that instead of planting for specific harvest weeks and amounts, we have a little more flexibility, and so do our members. We are full for the season (woo hoo!), and we both look forward to seeing you all at market.

This year also marks the beginning of my master plan to standardize our fields and make our lives that much easier. By 2016 we’ll have six fields that are all 120′ by 60′ making our crop rotations super easy: two beds planted last year = two beds this year. It also allows us to cut all the drip tape, weed mat, and row cover to the same length every year. This may sound lame. Trust me, it’s VERY exciting. Micah and Katie of Ginger Roots Farm in St Ignatius are letting us borrow a few hogs to tear up a new area of the pasture in a month or two. The hogs, doing what they do best, will clear the grass and open up the soil for cover crop seeding. That saves me from using the disc and tiller on a large section of sod, which is not fun for anyone (especially for Margaret who almost had a heart attack watching the tractor bump around on uneven ground last time I tried this method).

Oh, and SAVE THIS DATE! This summer on August 30th we’re teaming up with the fellas at the Burns St. Bistro for an official farm dinner. They’ll prepare courses with our veggies (and other local fare), we’ll give a tour, and then summer’s bounty will be served in the orchard. Set price per head. Keep an eye out for more information!

This week there’s spinach a week or two from harvest in the field, seeds in the soil, and seedlings in the greenhouse that are itching to get into the ground. We have a batch of broiler hens in the warm room, a couple mama goats gestating their kiddos, and layer hens out in the orchard. One of our three hives survived the winter, and I’ve harvested honey from the other two.

Margaret and I renewed our lease with Steve recently, and knowing that we’ll be here for at least another 5 years feels wonderful. It’s a kind of security and stability that I’m welcoming; it doesn’t have to be forever, but it’s long term enough that we can plan for the future and settle in with the plants and animals that we love.

Happy Spring and Merry Planting to all ye farmers.

How is it September already?!

Oh my. It’s been a while. Like three months. Needless to say, it’s been a busy… and awesome summer.

Aside from being stellar in general, Heidi is an animal lover. Her pup, Riley is officially the best of all our farm dogs, and she keeps threatening to buy us some rabbits. About a month ago, Heidi brought her horse Shiloh to the farm. He’s a big sweetie and we’re loving having him around. Coda (our pup) thinks the horse is the coolest thing in the world and loves going with Heidi on her rides up the hill.

It has been so fun to see all of your faces this year at market, and what a market it’s been! Barely a cloudy day (echm knock on wood, please). Our CSA is one of the highlights of my week, seeing all of our members and their families. Some of our members have been with us for three years and I feel so lucky to have watched those kids grow and for the friendships that have formed over those years. Thank you all for supporting your local farmer.

We’ve also been really happy with the restaurant and grocery support this year through the Western MT Growers Coop. Our greens are now at the Good Food Store, Orange Street Food Farm, as well as a variety of other stores (including ones in Bozeman, Butte and Kalispell). Pretty cool!

The irrigation ditch has been turned off for a few days now and we’re reliant on just well water to keep the greens green for the next month. In fact, we’re so pleased with this little cool spell that we’re taking the afternoon off today while the rain soaks in. Oh it feels so good – fall, almost.

Earlier this week, Tony, Heidi, Margaret, and I picked most of the pumpkins and did a little photoshoot with the haul…

June showers bring…

It’s been a crazy few weeks and we’re finally getting caught up on all the planting, weeding, seeding, and harvesting that’s been on our list for ages. Our new intern, Heidi (you may know Heidi from the produce dept of The Good Food Store or as HipHop dance prof at The Missoula Dance Collective, among other things), has arrived and is a stellar worker. We are SO happy she’s here.

The goats are loving the luscious grass selection and the kiddos (Enrique, Loretta, and Little Bit) are growing fast and getting super playful. We’re making goat cheese and yogurt often, eating each at least once a day.

Our Farm Share (CSA) begins this week, and we’re super excited to see old and new members at pick up. Just like last year, we’ll be on the green outside the Missoula Food Coop/Burns Street Bistro every Tuesday evening until mid-October. We’re even scheming to partner with the Coop for recipes and other delicious treats – yum! This week includes rhubarb, mint, and asparagus (the last, the very last of the season). This year we’ll have monthly newsletters. June’s is below, with a few choice photos for the springtime.

June1 June2

SNAP Shares – How and Why?

Periodically, we get an email or a phone call from a farm or organization around the country asking about our SNAP shares: how they work, is the program successful, etc. I thought I’d post my most recent email answering some of those questions. More general information and how you can join (*We have 4 more spots in our 2013 CSA for SNAP members – spread the word!*) can be found on our SNAP Share page.

A brief overview of our SNAP Share program: We offer a small number of shares every year that can be paid for with SNAP benefits (i.e. Food Stamps). Members pay for their share weekly, as legally we can’t accept SNAP benefits as pre-payment. While this isn’t a traditional CSA practice (the purpose of a CSA is to provide the farmer with funds early in the season), it’s ideal for our members. Because of this weekly incremental payment system, we ask for a cash deposit at the beginning of the season as insurance for us – if SNAP members miss a week or two, we take those payments out of their deposit. We’ve offered SNAP Shares successfully since 2011, and look forward to continuing to provide local produce for low income families in our community.

What need did you notice in your community when you decided to offer the SNAP shares (what motivated you to offer them in the first place)?
Margaret and I have both been on SNAP benefits ourselves before, and we have a number of friends that have been or are currently on them. We know from experience that they don’t go very far and that it’s difficult to buy local produce as it’s more expensive and often less accessible. We wanted to offer shares to low income families to make local food easy to find, and we discount them because our shares (CSA shares in general) are just too expensive for families on SNAP benefits.

Did you have others coming to you with interest in a share but not being able to afford it?
We began our CSA and SNAP Share program our very first season in Montana, which was also in the middle of our first year in Montana. We wanted to provide SNAP shares from the get go, and quickly found that few CSAs accept SNAP payments. I think many families and individuals on SNAP benefits don’t even think to look at CSAs as a source of produce until it’s presented (at farmers market, in the grocery/natural food store, in the coop, etc).

How does the donation system for supporting those shares work out for you?
Almost no one donates unless solicited, unfortunately. We sold t-shrits to raise funds last year, and with a couple small donations (all friends of ours), were able to make up for the initial discount we automatically give and drop the price farther. We secured a big donation from a local philanthropist this year, which allows us to cut SNAP shares by almost half, but I don’t think donations are a sustainable way to make up for the discount. We’ve thought about sliding scale shares, but without 10-30% of your members willing to pay top dollar, it doesn’t work. In the future, we’d like to work with Wholesome Wave or a different organization to double SNAP dollars when they’re used with our CSA. They do it farmers markets and the like, and they’re interested in doing it for CSAs, but they’re dependent on funding and not taking new applications at this time.

What hoops did you have to jump through to get involved in the SNAP program in the first place?
Getting certified to accept SNAP benefits is simple. At least it was in Montana. We sent in an application though the MT Dept of Public Health (as a “farm stand” – there is no application for CSAs), and about a month later we had our machine to swipe cards. It’s all free, it’s pretty easy, and you just have to go through your state department (as SNAP is allocated on a state by state basis).

How did you determine how much to discount the SNAP shares from the full price?
Our first season, we discounted shares by 20% because we knew that they were too expensive for SNAP members and decided to just eat that loss. We found that even with that discount, almost all our SNAP members paid with cash or check at the end of the month when their benefits ran out. So the following year we sold t-shirts as a fundraiser to discount them farther (and to make back that 20% loss on our part). It was successful and we were able to discount the shares by slightly more than 20%. We had fewer members paying cash at the end of the month and felt like we were able to offer our shares at an affordable price for low income members. As noted above, I’d like to use a double buck program to cut the share cost in half every year, making the shares truly affordable.

We are very proud to offer our SNAP Shares and truly believe in fresh local food for everyone. If you have other questions about how our shares work, check out our SNAP Share page or get in touch with us directly. The more farms and organizations that can offer affordable and accessible produce to low income families and individuals, the stronger and healthier our community is.

Back in the Saddle, Again.

So here we are in another year. The sun didn’t explode, the snows came, and firewood still burns hot. Margaret and I took November and December off to relax, travel, and not think about the farm. The first two we did totally successfully, the last task we did only marginally well.

Thanks to our buddy Bob, we were able to take off for 2 weeks and drive down to Texas to see family, to ride our bicycles (!!!) around Santa Fe and Austin, see some fantastic live music, and eat incredible tacos. No joke, the best tacos we had were found at The Velvet Taco in Dallas. I think I was the only one giggling. Either everyone else shoving tacos in their mouth was already over the joke or didn’t get it. In December, we spent the holidays and New Years with my family in Idaho and toasted to 2012 on the ski slopes.

The goats have been bred, both to freshen in May. Lucy is fat and bossy as ever, the kids are growing nicely, and Ke$ha is still the farm sweetheart. I butchered our whether, Bruno, in early December along with a number of older laying hens from which I made gallons of stock.

Percy the cat had a little trouble with his usual acrobatics and ripped a hole in his belly that we had to get sewn up. He didn’t seem to mind either way, but now he has a gigantic scar to show off to the ladies in town. Since his stitches have been out, I’ve seen him jump from the car port roof to the greenhouse and back again multiple times. I’ve also seen him slide off the roof of the greenhouse on a slippery layer of new snow, landing on his feet. After boring weeks of recovery, he started leaving serious carnage around the house and barn: mice bodies, frozen to the ground, heads staring blankly from a few inches away. He has become an excellent barn kitty, and increasingly skilled at sneaking into the house to snooze by the stove.

Our indoor plants are thriving with all the attention we’re giving them now that they’re our only greenery. I broke the lemon tree pot and built a new, larger, container for it filled with aged compost and plenty of water. It looks healthier than ever and is growing lots of new foliage.

I’ve been reading books galore and catching up on some of the better tv shows out there (and my fair share of really bad shows). We’ve been making all kinds of delicious winter-y dishes with our stored, canned, and frozen produce and have been enjoying experimenting with making cheese from Pattie’s extra milk (thanks, Pattie!).

When she’s not filling in at the Good Food Store, Margaret has been whirring away on her new sewing machine, making me a couple incredible vests and fixing up all kinds of stuff in the house. She also carved a super cute holiday card linoleum print of Coda running with a zucchini.

Now that 2013 has hit in full force, we’ve been pouring over seed catalogs, editing the website, and recording all our 2012 info. We harvested almost 13,000lbs of produce this year, not including plums, apples, or pears! 850lbs of arugula, 1,300lbs of salad greens, and 2,500lbs of english cucumbers.

We’ve lined up a full time intern for 2013, in the hopes that we’ll get more time to enjoy the farm and more help to make harvest and production more efficient. You’ll meet her this summer, she’s super.

Next season will see a few new things from County Rail. We’ll be trying some specialty greens on for size (in addition to our arugula and mizuna, of course) and we’ve decided to cut our losses and quit doing things that don’t work for us. Melons, for example, are falling by the way-side to make room for other stuff we grow well. Support our neighbors at Dixon Melons, instead.

We’re keeping our CSA small at 25, and thanks to a hugely generous donation from a local philanthropist, our SNAP members will get an incredible deal on their shares this season. Check out the SNAP page for details.

Margaret and I are psyched to be heading into our third season. Pommes de Terre has brought us nothing if not the feeling of home, fulfillment, and community. Farmers always say that next year will be better, and dog gamit, so it will. We’re always learning new tricks, tackling new challenges, and tweaking our system to make it more productive and sustainable.

So here’s to 2012, and here’s to 2013 in all it’s day-dreaming winter glory, for “January is just the tail end of a dog called Spring.”