This is why I don’t grow my own vegetables

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Daniel Oles, Oles Family Farm (photo: Stephen Gabris)

Normally, we try not to repeat recent topics, but I, too, have been thinking about small family farms, which Allen posted about yesterday. Like Allen, I am a frequent patron of farmers markets. I am also a CSA (community-supported agriculture) customer. I’ve chosen one of the best sustainable farms in the area, Oles Family Farm, which dropped off corn, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Napa cabbage, potatoes, onions, and yellow beans today. I expect an avalanche of beets and kohlrabi very soon, when the fall crops begin to arrive.

Daniel and Jane Oles participated, along with three other area farms, in a recent roundtable discussion published in the magazine I edit (the discussion is not online yet). While the Oles are largely known for their vegetables, the other farmers specialize in dairy, fruit, and meat production. The outlook is not good, but nobody’s giving up—yet. Here are some of their statements:

On labor:
“In terms of labor, we’re small and rely on family and member labor, but other farms are affected by the threat of shutting off the migrant worker path. There isn’t enough help, and I don’t know who they think will do this work.”

On economics:
“So much of our food system is subsidized to stay falsely cheap, so people got used to paying less than what food costs to grow a long time ago. We have to raise prices sometimes, but you can’t do it often.”

How can there be better consumer access to locally grown/produced food?
“More emphasis needs to be placed on the quality and flavor of our regional foods, educating on quality, taste, nutritional value, and uses, while making sure a realistic agricultural story is being told.”

Nate Whitehead, Milky Hill Dairy (photo: Stephen Gabris)

“If we could get milk back into schools, that would help. Kids are learning that milk is bad for you, so they won’t be buying dairy in ten years when they’re grown up and shopping for themselves.”

“We try to grow what people want. We still grow rutabagas for our winter shares, but people want green and fresh all year round instead of the traditional storage crops, so we’ve increased greens, like spinach, that can be grown in hoop houses in the winter. And then we teach people how to use things differently [through the CSA newsletter], like a shaved fresh beet salad instead of boiling them like grandma did.”

Is there a future in this kind of farming?
“On a small scale, no. There will be people who will still try, maybe as a hobby or because it still sounds cute, and a certain number will do okay for a few years. But to raise a family on a small farm income – that’s barely possible, even if you love it.”

“If we hadn’t switched to the CSA and restaurant model, we might not be here. Hang on to beliefs and principles and don’t let them go, but adapt everything else where you can.”

Julie Blackman, Blackman Homestead Farm (photo: Stephen Gabris)

I’ll admit, it isn’t always easy using up my CSA bounty. But then I look at friends who do grow their own and are giving away or even composting baskets of veggies every week, and I think I’d rather do it my way. Oles has bent over backwards to make its CSA more attractive, including, now, a biweekly option, for small households like mine. The farm also delivers to my doorstep, for which I pay an extra fee.

Another CSA model, called Fresh Fix, is arising in Western New York; it allows members to cancel weeks when they don’t want a box, delete items they don’t want, substitute items they do, and add on extras, like artisanal bakery goods. Sort of like a meal delivery model.

Truth be told, I suck at growing food; there are shade issues, and I prefer an ornamental garden. But I also love living in a city surrounded by rural acreage and small farms. It’s terrifying to think of it irretrievably replaced by patio home developments, “lifestyle centers,” and office “parks.”

Many thanks to writer Devon Dams-O’Connor, the writer who put together the discussion from which these excerpts came and to photographer Stephen Gabris, who did some great shoots at the farms.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. As there are many little roadside produce stands near my house, I don’t bother growing the produce I can pick up at them. So now I’ve shifted into growing interesting tomatoes or peppers that no one else seems to have available at the stands or farmer’s markets. Or, because everyone thinks the norm is to use jalapenos green, I grow my own jalapenos so that I can have ripe, red jalapenos (reds are way more hot than greens).

    I love all the markets and stands, as they save me the labor my poor, sandy soils don’t produce upon.

  2. I tried growing veggies the first year at my “new” house three years ago and found it was a lot of work, not always with good results. I also had far more squash than I could eat and no one wanted it. I now know I could have donated it to the local food bank. Anyway, CSA’s make a lot of sense even though I don’t use one. I want the small farmer to survive, but admit I’m not doing much to support him/her. Ironically, I became a vegetarian for health reasons two years ago and now I find I’m allergic to half of the produce out there. What used to be my veggie patch is now relegated to long-term edibles–a peach tree, asparagus, blackberries, an artichoke, etc.

  3. This was a touching article. We eat locally produced veggies from our farmers’ market or sometimes from local groceries. They buy locally, what a concept! We can’t eat enough veggies (in our late 70s) when we buy them just as we need them. Plus I can’t eat the squash family: No CSA for us. I’m sure our locals aren’t doing great, but it’s the South and I think they do okay. To coin a term: Sad!

  4. We have a fantastic local grocery/cafe that is doing it all. Check out http://swamprabbitcafe.com/about/
    I still grow organic vegetables at home because there’s nothing like eating corn still attached to the stalk… and we freeze and can all our “free” veggies for the winter. Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery fills all the other needs and it’s all local!

  5. I live in Provence France, and we get our vegetables from a family farm about 2 km away. It is a very thriving business, the few hours they are open for sales each day the sales shed is packed! There are a number of these farms in the area. We are near the big town of Avignon, not out in the middle of nowhere, and our local smaller town, Carpentras, is 4 km, and has a very large (300 stands) street market every Friday, selling everything you can imagine — household goods, clothes, every kind of food you can imagine. No need for me to grow my own vegetables. This model is very common in France, your fresh food is never far away. Plus the supermarkets are required to show the country of origin of all of their fresh food, and they source much of it quite nearby, wine also. I feel very lucky.
    Bonnie near Carpentras

  6. In the past few years I tried to grow lots of various vegetables: broccoli, peppers, swiss chard, carrots… and, of course, tomatoes. I have a tiny garden in the city, and tomatoes simply don’t fit in, and processing all those tomatoes in the end of the season became a chore. But I still grow herbs, both annual and perennial — green onions, basil, cilantro, parsley, etc. — even though they are readily available in stores and farmer’s markets. These green things are usually sold in big bunches which take a lot of room in the fridge, they spoil fast and most of the time I don’t need the whole big bunch of cilantro or parsley, I just need a few leaves for garnish. They are not very hard to grow either and don’t take a lot of room in the garden. So I am finding that it makes a lot of sense to have a couple small garden beds for them.

  7. I really enjoy vegetable gardening — planning out the planting schedule, starting seedlings, succession sowing, etc. We enjoy a bounty of vegetables as a result, and buy very little, freezing enough vegetables to carry us through most of the winter. We do support a local farm , though, buying most of our meat, milk and eggs from them. No reason that the two approaches have to be incompatible

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