Thursday, February 28, 2019

Calling it a career

So, we've decided to end the great Three Plaid Farmers endeavor. It was a good run. Tough decision. But our lives have sort of taken us in this direction. And it gradually became clear that it was the right thing to do.

I'm not going to go into all the little details that caused us to take this course (there was a wide variety of factors that played into the decision, both personally and professionally), but I think it's probably important to briefly address the state of the small organic vegetable farm in this economy.

In short, the profit margin on vegetables is just too small in this country. People are not accustomed to paying an appropriate price for organic veggies grown on a small scale in their neighborhood. Maybe the organic part or the neighborhood part just aren't worth that much to people. Which is fine. We have been habituated to the pricing of large-scale industrial agriculture. It's going to take a lot of perceptual changes and priority adjustments to embrace a model of produce production that values other factors over end-user price. I'm just not sure that this particular concern ranks high in the American sociopolitical landscape (which, you know, I get; it's a big ship to steer).

Despite the difficulty of making money in this particular part of the industry, we turned a profit every year of our existence as a farm. Which I consider quite the accomplishment based on my knowledge of other farms doing similar things. The problem was that it just wasn't enough profit to make a good living. Ultimately, we could've scaled up and increased revenue. Or we could've ditched our commitment to diversity and focused solely on high-margin crops. Or we could've greatly increased the price of CSA shares. None of these avenues appealed to us. Which makes us either stubborn or bad business people. Or both.

We individually typically worked around 70 hours a week during peak veggie season. There was some kind of work to be done seven days a week. It was often mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. But it was also extremely rewarding in a lot of ways, which kept us doing this thing for about a decade. The scales have finally been tipped the other way. We're definitely mourning the loss, but hoping that maybe we had some small impact on how people view food, and perhaps we played some part in making this a potentially viable career for folks who have a passion for small-scale, land-and-people-focused agriculture.

We want to thank all our family and friends who supported us in this endeavor over the years. I mean, without your support this would've been impossible. We also want to thank all our CSA members, especially those who went on this journey with us for multiple seasons. We grew these vegetables with love because we knew you were passionate about it right along with us. We felt pride in the fact that our labor was for something positive: keeping history alive, healthy land, your nourishment, the growth of your families. It's truly been an honor.

We're going to miss sharing the stories of all these great vegetables and fruits and herbs and the coincident intersection of our small lives with yours all wrapped up in this giant blob of history that propels us into one crazy improvisation. The world is weird and beautiful. We're so happy for the experience.

With love,
Your farmers

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

2018 Shares: Come and Get 'Em!

2017 mid-season share

UPDATE: Shares are sold out for 2018. Please email us to get on our wait list.

Each year promises new adventures on the farm, but there's a foundation that grounds us--deepening familiarity with the land along with stewardship to help the soil get richer and healthier. 2018 marks our fifth year farming the same land in Winfield, and we have some important changes in the works based on said familiarity.

Every year has its own challenges and successes. We excelled at shell bean production in 2015, including our beloved bush Lima bean, but struggled on the bean front for the next two seasons. 2016 delighted us with a fantastic strawberry crop and our best summer and winter squash crops to date. 2017 was our best fresh and shell pea crop, but a complete loss of our winter squash and melons. There is always an ebb and flow. But we can see patterns, and the culprit behind several crop losses is weed pressure (which is the no. 1 labor demand on a small chemical-free farm like ours).

So what's a farmer to do? These farmers are investing in a four-wheel tractor. A full-size tractor will not only allow us to work the soil in a far more efficient way (what takes us days to do with our walk-behind tractor will take only a matter of hours with a traditional tractor), but we can also weed quickly using the great beast. Truthfully, we've been hesitant to get more mechanized because such a giant machine compacts the soil (and our focus has always been primarily on soil health). But since this land has been coming back to life, so have the weed seeds that have been buried for decades. Weed pressure is no joke on this plot, so we feel the trade-off is worth it.

In addition to a tractor, we are also investing more heavily in another weed fighter, biodegradable film (made from corn), for crops like winter squash, onions, and melons (it covers the ground and prevents weeds from growing around the crops). We used said film in 2016 and saw our best production of many of these crops. We were mostly unable to lay it down this previous season and saw minimal to no production on onions and squash. So, we intend to rectify that this year.

We start every year hopeful, but this year marks our biggest investment in this hope. The audacity! Join us this year as we strive to be even better. Snag yourself a share right here--we'd love to have you as members and, equally important, supporters of our small farm.

Returning members, we offer our gratitude! New members, we advise you to check out our blog thoroughly, especially our CSA Info tab, to make sure our shares are right for you.

Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 shares for sale!

It's that time of year! If you're returning CSA members, we're really pumped to have you back. If you're new, please be sure to check out the rest of the website to make sure our CSA is right for you. There are a lot of options out there, and we want you to be sure that we fit what you're looking for in a veggie farmer. If you like lots of different flavors and colors, eating seasonally, trying new things, heirloom crops with lots of history (and deliciousness), and farmers who believe in being good stewards of the land, you might be in the right place.

As always, if you have any questions, email us (threeplaid at gmail). We look forward to delivering some beautiful and tasty veggies your way in 2017. Sign up here!

Week 1 2016 CSA share

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

National CSA Signup day is here

Friday, February 26 is national CSA Signup Day. Why? Well the good folks at Small Farm Central did the research and found that this is a prime signup day for CSA farms nationally.

We think national CSA Singup Day is a great idea to get the word out about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and its importance to the larger food system in America. We believe CSA is a key part of America's food security future and is unique in how it connects people to their food--members buy shares in a farm and receive the fruits of the farm's labor in return. It's a rare partnership that requires the direct participation of folks who truly care about where their food comes from and how it is grown.

February is a great time to be spreading the word, as most CSA farms rely on early-season signups to fund the important start-up activities needed to get the farm up and running each year. Like other farms, we appreciate when our members get in early. If you join us in celebrating CSA Signup Day by purchasing a share by February 26, we'll include a bonus week of CSA vegetables in November--meaning you'll be getting 21 weeks of produce for the price of 20. Don't miss out! Snag a share here.

That being said, even if you don't become a member of our farm, we hope you'll take advantage of one of the awesome offers from the many other great CSA farms in our area. If you'd like recommendations, drop us a line!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Blasted Weeds Inspire Seeds

Hand-weeding carrots, summer 2015
Welp, we've been busy the last couple weeks ordering seeds, creating the farm plan, and generally gearing up for the 2016 season. We're feeling the itch to get out in the greenhouse and get those plants started in just a few short weeks! And it won't be long until we're out in the field breaking ground and transplanting those wee bairns into the soil.

But almost as soon as we do, we'll have to start contending with the onslaught of weeds that are just waiting for the warmth to grow.

In fact by the time the end of July rolls around, we'll wonder if the weeds will ever go away. We'll curse the cruel mechanism of our humanity that causes us to dream about said weeds when we're supposed to be recuperating briefly in the dark of the night.


There. We just wanted weeding to have its own, fully dedicated paragraph. Weeds really do collectively rule us. They are simultaneously our biggest foe and one of our greatest inspirations. Yes, you heard the latter part right.

See, though we dread them, weeds have a purpose that people don't acknowledge enough: they maintain life in the soil. A weed is any plant that you don't want growing in a particular space. They could be invasive, imported, noxious plants; volunteers from plants you intentionally planted in previous years; or even natives that once ruled the landscape before humans decided to shape the land to their liking. While no one wants those noxious invasives around, land that will not grow weeds is effectively dead land that serves no purpose to anyone or anything.

Because, beneath the surface, plants send out roots and lay the groundwork for all kinds of relationships that shape our planet. Bacteria set up networks and develop symbiotically with plants. Worms and other insects help digest decaying matter and turn it into nutrients. Together, they all grow to create a community that even the most advanced soil scientists still barely understand. When you factor in photosynthesis and plants sacrificing themselves as a food source for animals, you begin to realize just how far and wide the ripples travel.

So, while we complain about these unwanted plants, when we look at our land that grows all kinds of diverse greenery of its own volition, in the back of our minds we know these are positive signs. During the past two years we've watched what was almost exclusively a field of compacted clay dominated by goldenrod turn into a multispecies forest of plants, some of which are edible. As we've added organic matter and turned the soil, long-buried seeds have sprouted to re-establish a community that was once sprayed out of existence. Diversity is almost always a good thing.

While part of our job is to control what grows on our land, we can also recognize that nature knows how to do it right. Diversity is the name of her game, and we strive to mimic her methods as much as we can. Which is why we grow hundreds of varieties of plants for our CSA members. Check out our 2016 crop list and snag a share while you still can. They are a-movin', y'all!

Friday, December 18, 2015

2016 Shares Are Available, Early Birds!

Joe spreading winter rye seed, a cover crop that will help build the soil, 2015
While we're mostly done with manual labor in 2015, we're already looking forward to 2016, which will be our 5th year as a farm, and our 3rd in Winfield. We've been investing a lot of time, sweat, and money into improving the land here, and we hope it's showing up in the CSA shares. Behind the scenes, we're starting to think about which varieties of crops we'll be planting next year and how we might adjust our methods and plans; and it won't be long before we're placing those seed orders and completing the farm map for 2016. My oh my, how the time flies.

Covering established strawberry plants with straw, November 2015
We do have big plans for this upcoming season, and we'd love for all of you to be a part of it. We're making a concerted effort to have more fruit (because, really, who doesn't love fruit?), including the installation of perennial fruit trees/bushes. Also, in addition to plans for ensuring a better melon yield, you can expect a better mulberry harvest, strawberries (from the crop we planted last year), and the reintroduction of ground cherries. Mushroom production is also on the list of potentials, as is significantly increasing our shelly bean production (shelly beans, abound!) We're constantly looking to add more perennial herbs and vegetables, and are planning to expand flower production by quite a bit (the bees will thank us). And that's not all! We have a couple of other ideas up our sleeve that we'll announce at a future date. Carolyn is chomping at the bit to share, but we're pulling on her reigns.

Week 17 CSA share, 2015
If you sign up by January 15th, you'll lock in our early-bird price, y'all! Early sign up helps us secure the funds to buy seeds, supplies, and infrastructure improvements that'll make next season even better than the last! That being said, we understand that a CSA share is a large financial commitment for many, and December is an especially tough time to be shelling out money. So, as always, we try to lessen the burden by offering multiple payment options and payment plans. You can learn more about our CSA shares in general, including payment plans, here. Your early support is really the motor that drives Three Plaid (and CSA in general), and we couldn't do it without you. Snag a share here!

Songbirds take flight in Mint Creek pasture
Lastly, as some of you know, we have a pretty close relationship with Mint Creek Farm--a sustainable, pasture-based livestock operation near Kankakee. We've worked for them over the past few years, love them like family, and believe in what they do, so we're happy to expand offerings of an optional add-on for our members. While we're still working out participating drop spots, we are happy to announce that a wider array of meat and egg CSA options (monthly and weekly, fresh or frozen) will be available this year. Click here to learn more!

Please don't hesitate to email us with any questions. And snag an early bird share while the gettin's good! We'd love to grow for you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What's With the Name, Three Plaid?

The original Three, looking younger and proud of our homegrown garden huckleberry pie, 2012
We get asked this question a lot, so we thought we'd write an official explanation. We started this dream of ours as a team of three--we were literally three plaid-donning farmers who met on a local farm, shared convictions, and joined forces to create our own small farm. We remained a team of three for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, after which our Third Plaid Farmer, Katie Palomares (pictured in the middle) moved out of state with her husband and fellow friend/local farmer, Carlos Palomares, to pursue an exciting opportunity. The two moved back and started their own farm in 2015, Mighty Greens, located in nearby Elburn! Check out the Friends tab (coming soon!) to learn more about their farm. 

Each one of us laid the foundation of Three Plaid Farmers, and all three of us contributed to the farm it is today. Therefore, the farm name will always reflect that.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Shell Beans, a New Three Plaid Staple

Taylor Dwarf Horticultural shelly beans, 2015
Below is an excerpt from our Week 9 newsletter, 2015.

These beautiful Taylor Dwarf beans will make a hearty meal for your family, without a doubt. They are a shelling bean, meaning they are fresh beans you must remove from the pod and cook to achieve their ultimate, buttery bean deliciousness. 

We think eating shelly beans in our modern industrial society is a revolutionary act. It wasn't long ago that people grew beans like these on their land every year. Some of you can probably tell the story of going to Grandma's, picking some beans into buckets with your siblings or cousins, and then sitting on the porch and shelling them before they were cooked into some sort of great feast for the entire family. Unfortunately, this sort of gathering is rare these days—and with its absence we forget some of what it means to exist as a human family with purpose.

Beans are a sustaining food. They are loaded with protein, they can be easily preserved for the cold months when nothing grows, and they fill your mouth and belly with satisfaction. But there's something special about those beans when you take them fresh off the plant and remove them from the pod that protected and nurtured them for months of growth. There's a satisfaction in getting the family together to split those pods down the middle, slide those beans out into a large bowl, and watch the goodness that will soon become dinner pile up. The first couple beans might present some difficulties, but with each one, your shelling technique gets better, and soon you're freeing the beans with ease, barely even thinking about what you're doing. The conversation among shellers takes center stage, and before you know it, you've filled the bowl to the brim.

We believe eating like our ancestors is a vital part of being human. Preparing and eating beans might be one of the best ways to take us partially back to the days when food was work, and when people were forced, by the very nature and makeup of that locally grown food, to consider what it took to get that food to the plate. It's easy to take a can of beans off the shelf of the grocery store, bring it home, and pour it in a pot. But where's the satisfaction in that?

When you shell your Taylor Dwarf heirloom beans (a variety that dates back at least to the 1700s), you won't only be preparing to eat history, but you'll be living it. We hope you enjoy the task as much as the food.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Perennials, Garlic, and Peas, Oh My!

Greek oregano, starting her new growth
There are some exciting goings on here at our small farm, y'all! Let's start with perennials.

Staying on the same land for consecutive years brings not only the gift of familiarity, but also the offering of perennials. Ahhh, perennials. These amazing little plants keep enough life in their roots to withstand our Midwestern winters, and as soon as the soil warms, they miraculously awaken. Their hardiness never ceases to amaze us.

This year they seem especially remarkable, as it's our first year seeing the resurrection of our own perennial herbs. There are truly few greater pleasures. Chives and oregano are already waking up from their months-long hibernation. With luck lavender, mint, and winter savory (among others) won't be far behind. As for perennial berries, strawberry plants will arrive in the next couple weeks, which we will plant and establish so that the CSA can eat, fresh, local, pesticide-free berries as soon as next spring and then for years to come. Perennials. Godsend. It's really as simple as that. 

In addition to perennials, we have our very first crop of garlic which is currently sprouting beneath its protective winter blanket of straw. Soon they will be poking their first leaves through toward the sunlight, before shooting up into the sky and turning into large, beautiful stalks. Garlic scapes will curl, signaling it is time to harvest these tender delicacies. And, underground, the garlic cloves will continue to size up as the season progresses. Life on the farm can feel magical at times. 

Maybe the most excellent of all the news is that we were able to plant spinach and pea seeds in the field about a week and a half ago, which is the earliest we've ever been able to get in the field in Illinois. Spinach and peas are notorious cool-weather plants, so the earlier we can get them going, the happier they'll be, and the more ready they'll be for the first CSA share in mid-June. We've got two different varieties of spinach and two kinds of deliciously sweet snap peas waiting to sprout out there.

Despite the unknowns that we, and all farmers, face each season, the gifts of perennials and garlic make the spring feel hope-filled and a tad more secure. They are life in a barren field. We hope you'll come and take part in the bounty we speak of! Nab a share here, friends.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Part II: Lettuce This, That, and The Other Thing

Jericho and Forellenschluss romaines, 2014
Disclaimer: This is a long one. I am tempted to name it Part II: Herculettuce. Here's a tip for the hurried types: scroll down to the Three Plaid's Small Voice, What's Up with Lettuce, Three Plaid, and/or Three Plaid Lowdown sections for the most direct (if we can use that word) answer to why our farm grows lettuce 12 weeks out of a 20-week season. Regardless, cheers to both the diehards and the hasties!

If you've read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, you'll likely recall hearing the tale of the early 20th century California entrepreneurs who plopped some lettuce and artichokes onto boxcars, packed them with ice, and rolled it all eastward. This mid-winter lettuce chomping, that only the wealthy could afford, laid the groundwork for the now commonplace system of moving produce across country and worldwide.

Yearlong consumption of lettuce, and in turn, other types of produce, became affordable and routine with the development of crops bred for cross-country travel and, shortly thereafter, with the arrival of the interstate. The major lettuce variety of the time, Great Lakes iceberg, dominated American plates specifically because it was bred to hold up well on a long journey eastward, and was advertised and marketed to families as the greatest thing since sliced bread. There were heavy prices to pay for this convenience that went mostly unforeseen in the mid to late 20th century.

First, the common knowledge that our grandparents and great-grandparents held, like which crops grow best during which season, almost completely disappeared from our collective consciousness. Over a fairly short period of time, we forgot the seasonality of lettuce (among other crops) and expected to see it on our plates year-round. Second, we lost a whole hell of a lot of diversity in our food system. Farmers now had to grow what the market demanded, and in the process stopped growing the myriad varieties that were once enjoyed locally. Many heirlooms took a hit or were lost forever as a result. Third, and perhaps most devastating of all, came the destruction of our landscape. Once peppered with local farms, our land now turned into immense swaths of acreage filled with very little assortment. To keep up with market demand, farmers were persuaded to increase production of a handful of crops to most of their acres; part and parcel of this Faustian bargain was trading their traditional organic practices for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers. The bigger the acreage, the greater the need for these inputs.

In a brief moment in time, the former millennia-long focus of building healthy soil and thereby producing healthy, diverse crops now gave way to insanely huge production of a select few crops, and with it, a complete neglect of the soil. Soil has been rendered basically dead across our country due to farming practices that prioritize human-made inputs (petroleum-based fertilizers, etc) over that of nature. Sure, plants can grow with the addition of synthetic fertilizers, but the nourishment is superficial and the soil is left entirely spent at the end of the year. The methods of agriculture which dominate the globe these days represent nothing more than an empty system that ultimately leads to indelible loss under a thin veil of progress.

Of course, our world is very different from that of the not-so-long-ago, when small farms literally sustained small communities and people preserved food to nourish their families through the winter. Although this type of living is still desirable for some, it is no longer necessary for most.

However, as long as people are backing local, small farms, the world is better for it. Let's bring it back to lettuce. What was once a dinner-scape always dominated by Great Lakes iceberg is now a plethora of colors and flavors shared by umpteen varieties offered at local farmer's markets and through CSA programs. From old heirlooms to newly bred varieties, your local small farms are doing their part to increase the diversity of their fields and the human palate.

For some years now, small farms have been taking on the fight to regain traditional agricultural knowledge, and we are dedicating ourselves to the diversity and health of our land and food system. We strive, along with many other small farms across the country, to pull away the thin veil of progress promised by corporate monoculture pushers. We aren't pleased with how the dominant agricultural paradigm affects the human and environmental health of our country and world, and we aim to do better. As bridges between environmental and public health, every small farm has its own righteous mission.

We small farmers are generally united, knowing we each have our own particular role in the greater fight to change the current beastly system that still reigns supreme. To that end, every CSA program and market farm is suitable for different people and their own unique preferences. The system can only work if a diversity of options is offered, even within the local food movement. We believe in the pursuits of our fellow farmers and beckon folks to choose to support one that utterly suits their needs. Supporting any one of us is supporting the whole movement; so get out there and find your farmer, y'all! Each farm also has its own unique voice.

In the case of our small farm, in addition to CSA our main goal is to increase our knowledge of seed saving, taking part in the age-old skill of saving a bit of the past for the health of the future. This health of which we speak depends on the fostering and preservation of genetic diversity in our food system. Think of the potato famine in late 19th-century Ireland: limiting species and varieties can cause devastation on many levels. We hope to join countless other seed savers worldwide to help preserve varieties so that our food system can be healthier for it.

Kingsolver points out the ill health of our food system by citing Vandana Shiva, world-renowned crop ecologist, who says that the majority of our food for the last few decades has come from only eight plant species. This stands in direct contrast to the diverse food system our ancestors built over many thousands of years, where, according to Shiva, some 80,000 plants species have been consumed. Yowzers! Though our role may be small, taking part in the re-diversification of our food system lies at the foundation of our mission and, therefore, our farming methods.

Because of this core mission, we grow only open-pollinated and/or heirloom crops. By doing so, we are able to save seeds from our crops, ensuring the past will indeed nourish the future. None of this is to say we are against hybrids. We are not. We simply choose to devote ourselves to open-pollinated crops so we can attain our own specific goals.

Back to lettuce we go. Lettuce is the key example we're using to illustrate the mission of our farm, and on a larger scale, the small farm revolution of which we are taking part. We're using it as a symbol since, despite having a tremendous amount of variety of lettuces to choose from these days thanks to small farmers, the remnants of ol' Great Lakes iceberg can still be felt in that lettuce is still consumed year-round by most of us. It has become habitual. We crave the local and fresh in the spring through fall, and in winter we settle for shipments from out West.

Again, we understand ours is a different world than in the recent past. Where people once preserved food to sustain themselves through the winter out of necessity, we now seek nourishment from afar out of a different necessity--because it is what our system and way of life demand. Even the most diehard locavores make exceptions--from bananas to coffee to avocados to, you guessed it, lettuce--so believe me, we're not knocking it. We here at Three Plaid make plenty of exceptions ourselves. We're simply using lettuce as a platform--one tiny example--to talk about why we grow the way we do in direct contrast to that of Industrial Ag. It's more of an illustration of how we do things rather than a good old-fashioned soapbox scolding. Here's the lowdown.

Lettuce is, by nature, a cool-weather crop. As soon as temperatures begin to warm, the lettuce plant takes its cue and starts to form a bitter, milky-white substance throughout its stems and leaves. This is an evolutionary response to keep predators from eating the plant as it attempts to reproduce (known as bolting). Anyone who has tasted a head of lettuce as it is starting to bolt knows the bitterness of which we speak. Hybrid lettuces have been bred to withstand more heat than your average lettuce, and even some open-pollinated varieties have been bred to last longer into the season than others. These breeding techniques have lead to a longer lettuce-eating season on many small farms. Lots of people like that, and we think it's pretty great to an extent, as well.

However, along with our desire to become seed savers comes our desire to take part in the seed saving custom of growing crops in their preferred seasons and observing them as they go to seed. There are perks to this. Take lettuce--its flavor is best in the cooler months. It makes sense that plants evolved to taste best at a certain point of the season. We humans selected them over millennia, paying attention to when they grew healthiest and when they had optimal flavor. We strive to follow in that tradition. It doesn't mean we don't understand that even open-pollinated crops are bred to withstand certain conditions. Part of the seed-saving tradition is selecting for crops that have desired traits, and lettuce that lasts a bit longer in the heat is alright by us. All types of natural breeding techniques lead to the diversity that is necessary in our food system. However, we are primarily interested in learning about crops and why they inherently do what they do. While we may grow a lettuce that can withstand more heat, it will still succumb to summer temperatures at some point. And so, we have come up with a 12-week offering of lettuce that is grown to be harvested during its peak of flavor.

For reasons listed above, it makes sense our CSA might be a little different since we have a dual aim to also save seeds. And we think that's okay. Our members are the types who want to go on this particular food adventure with us, just like members of other farms are interested in participating in the food adventures of their rockin' farmers. It's what makes this awesome small farm movement gain strength. As our farm grows, we will continue to strive to offer as much abundance per crop as we can muster for our members. Hopefully one year we will have a large enough greenhouse to help us extend our cool-weather production, allowing us to offer lettuce earlier in the spring and later in the fall. But we'll cross that season-extension bridge when we get to it. For now, our eyes are on the 12-week prize.

And that's the long, rather than the short, of it.

If you'd like to Read Part I of this piece, click here.