Sunday, September 29, 2013

Farm Bulletin: Investing in the Future

Last week marked the end of our 12th summer season at Hillsdale Farmers' Market. As that market closed at 1:00, we didn't even make it to autumn, very much in keeping with the season's diffident and hasty character. Ah, Summer 2013, we hardly knew ye, good riddance.

We will return to the market on the 17th of November for the winter season. In the meantime, we have to harvest our russets, squash, ash gourds, storage grapes, pumpkin seeds, beans, corn, plant wheat, garlic, favas, and maybe naked barley if time permits. In addition, putting the farm to bed for winter is a huge undertaking. All this we have to shoehorn into the dry days between the rain squalls.

Breaking ground for the new shed.

Each year the farm gets physically more demanding even as graying temples accompany less supple muscles. Not just ours, staff's as well. As Maxwell Anderson's lyrics for September Song remind us, "the days grow short when you reach September." Last winter we realized that we had a choice. We could wind down the operation to bare essentials or make better use of our shortening days. As the farm remains an engaging and unfinished project, we decided to pursue the latter course.

Over the past 12 years, the enterprise called Ayers Creek Farm has operated out of a 200-square-foot space called the bean room, three shipping containers, two open air hose bibs, a greenhouse of scrap wood covered with fraying plastic, the spare room in our office building and our home kitchen. Lean and frugal in terms of dollars invested, the toll was exacted from our time and muscles. At some point, what was once pluck and resourcefulness becomes a stupid waste of time and a lid on the enterprise. Always moving something to get to something else, dreaming of a third hose bib.

Almost done.

A significant capital investment was needed to keep going and now we operate out of a new building we have named the "harvest shed"  or El Palacio del Maíz (top photo). It consolidates harvest activities in a bright, clean building painted in the colors of our corn. Since its completion in late July, we have been amazed at how much easier it has made our work. Washing crates and vegetables in our sink with its long trunk, we mutter to ourselves "you couldn't have done that with a mere smear hose." With that sink alone, oh best beloved, there is another decade in these old fools.

The early closing of last Sunday's market underscored how hazardous the Hillsdale site is when the wind blows. Anticipating unsettled weather, we had our winter weights—about 500 pounds in all—holding down our tent and even then we didn't feel secure. Luckily no one was hurt, but there were a lot of dispirited and frustrated farmers. Like our farm, the market has operated in a lean and frugal manner, and it is time for the community to decide whether they are happy with the status quo or should invest in something better. Since the market moved to that site, we have asked for a permanent system of anchors in the pavement so vendors can secure the tents without weights. The site also needs a system of simple wind baffles at the top of the western slope. These two modest improvements would make the market substantially safer for vendors and customers.

During its second summer season in 2003, Hillsdale's first market manager, Hallie Mittleman, asked if we would participate in a winter market. We agreed to the experiment and have been showing up in fair weather and foul for eleven years. The winter farmers have proven themselves and now it is time for the community to provide a more stable venue for the market. Pavement anchors and wind baffles are an essential first step, but they don't secure the future. We urge a bigger vision, that Hillsdale once again lead the city in providing a covered market. Nothing fancy, there is elegance in a highly functional structure. Many other communities provide shelter for their markets; designs ripe for borrowing abound. New fabrics and designs can provide a light, airy and economical shelter. And there is plenty of space in the community.

When the Hillsdale Market opened, Trevor Baird was its most eligible bachelor, now he has three children and a touch of presumably unrelated gray. Children not even contemplated that opening year now give careful measure as to whether they prefer Candice or Jupiter grapes this week, lobby for the Amish Butter popcorn and polish off whole pints of Chesters before passing the buskers. Children who shyly shadowed their parents are now in medical school. There is a bit Hillsdale Farmers' Market in a lot of people. We hope the market will find a way to mature with its loyal farmers and shoppers, and not pose a challenge we have to or want to abandon. There is a huge amount of talent and knowledge among you, and you need to talk among yourselves about how to improve the market. Farmers can figure out how to fill the market, the larger community needs to figure out how to improve it.

We look forward to seeing you all in November. Over the next month and a half, we will be working hard to make it another excellent winter season.

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