AgriCulture: Small Farm, Big Data

You think this is all I walk? Small Farm, Big Data Hi all. Mark here.
When in the first week of March my telephone (above) told me that I had walked just 20 miles in February, my first response was anger at the intrusion. How dare my telephone spy on me? In what deluded state did I mistakenly sign up for this so-called service, I wondered? My second impulse, however, was to argue with the app, and prove I was better than that. No, Google Maps Timeline, you recorded only 20 miles, but that doesn’t mean you measured all my movement. You are often sitting on my desk while I am moving about. You are not in my bathrobe pocket when I’m riding my stationary bike. You’re sometimes plugged in while I’m out doing chores. I’m not as sedentary as you tell me I am.My desire for approval, yet resentment at being judged to begin with, may encapsulate my response to the world at large. But my relationship with modern technology is particularly conflicted. I can see in theory how it enables all sorts of connection and understanding we never had before, and at the same time how it invades, intrudes, and tyrannizes us.Take the Farms2Tables app through which our farm now sells so much of its produce. By aggregating data as to what’s fresh daily from lots of farms and making it immediately available to lots of restaurants and institutional buyers, it enables a meeting of buyers and seller in the virtual universe, without having to move the produce to some central market. The buyer can order a small quantity, the seller need only ship that small quantity instead of shipping it all and having it sit, wilting, in a marketplace stall waiting for potential buyers to come around. The efficiency of moving only what is ordered enables the collection of a small order one day and, after transfer to another truck overnight, delivery to a buyer 50 to 100 miles away the next day. Fabulous in concept and, thanks largely to the efforts of operator Patricia Wind, executed with exactitude, it truly delivers on its promise of using data to enable small farms to provide the freshest of produce to the big market.Yet it tyrannizes too. We must check the app for orders frequently. In order to respond effectively we need to keep our frozen meat inventory constantly updated, and must constantly inspect the vegetable garden in season to list what we have as it becomes ready to pick. And we can’t always just assume by a superficial glance that we know what we can supply. If we get an order in the morning for beets, we have to go out and pick them right away, to be sure we have enough good ones, un-nibbled by voles, to fill the order. The app requires that we spring to attention immediately when an order is placed because if we don’t accept the order by noon, it is deemed declined. The tyranny of technology.Among many advantages I anticipated with Troy and Victoria taking over after Peter’s death was their high comfort level with modern technology, a byproduct of their youth and fine educations. I figured if anyone could figure out a way to take advantage of the good in this technology without suffering the negatives, they could.In many ways, my expectations have been borne out. They are real data hounds. They have created not only a highly refined freezer inventory and a “spreadsheep” to keep track of our sheep herd, but have been data and research driven in every aspect of their work. They research the nutritional mix in the sheep’s diet and the many roads to hoof health. They even keep tabs on how many loads of combined sheep poop and hay they take out of the barn when mucking it.Their strategy has already borne fruit. They’ve figured out who the productive ewes are through their lambing patterns over time, and whose less healthy birth lines should not be encouraged. They will be making our breeding more selective. They’ve figured out ways to economize on hoof treatments. They’ve saved several vulnerable newborns, including most recently the lamb Sophie, who is being given bottles to supplement her mother’s low milk production and promises to be another people lover on the farm.Also, as we’ve announced, Turkana Farms is now thanks to Troy and Victoria on Facebook and Instagram. Here, I’m not so sure we’re on the right side of technology’s Intrusive/productive divide, as this is where the most personal aspects of our farm life are exposed to the world, and where the benefits are least tangible. Consider the post Troy put on Instagram last Sunday.It was Patrick’s Day, the traditional day to plant peas in our area. And it was the first day this season when I could really zone out in the garden. I planted the first long row of peas against our west garden fence, starting as I typically do on my knees. But as the afternoon wore on, without being particularly aware, I began to minimize the effort by stretching out along the ground to reach further down the row without having to actually move. Blissed out, I was oblivious as Troy entered the garden and snapped a picture of me in my reclining pose, from behind.When Troy later showed me the picture posted on Instagram, labeled as “Mark casually planting snap peas” I was less impressed by all the “likes” than by its similarity to the other recently posted picture of our sow, Possum, enjoying the sun in a similar posture. The Maja Nude, the Maja Clothed, two zaftig sows in the mud. What will be next? Posting for public consumption how I spend my “executive time”? Is this really the technology that will save the farm?Farms are facing their worst economic crisis in 30 years. According to one recent article, the major factors are low commodity prices, the effect of the President’s trade wars, and lately the record flooding in the Midwest that is a result of climate change. ([Axios, March 22, 2019, Tough Times in Farm Country). The problems are being exacerbated by government crackdowns on undocumented immigrant workers on whom the farm economy depends. (NY Times, March 18, 2019, Trump Crackdown Unnerves Immigrants, and the Farmers Who Rely on Them). And of course, as we have frequently written, the Government is constantly running away from addressing the large environmental problems caused by climate change. The President recently appointed a scientist to its new climate change advisory panel who thinks the beneficial effects of carbon dioxide have not been appreciated. And the Executive’s budget proposed cutting research funding through the National Science Foundation next year by 20%.Not all issues affect our small farm directly. We don’t export, but rather sell locally. Our region has been overly wet for the last year but thankfully is not totally flooded. We don’t employ farm labor at the moment at all. But when prices are depressed and the farm sector struggles, we suffer indirect impacts in innumerable ways.While I recognize how far we’ve come through using new technologies, I think it’s time for us to increase the effort. I’ve called a farm meeting for next weekend, at which Troy, Victoria and I will discuss what we can learn from the internet and how we can use technology to offer new products and services, generating revenue in creative ways to make the farm profitable. The bulletin may be out late next weekend as we await the results of the meeting, but we will at that time offer a full report.
THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGSFROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.EGGS: Production is now in overdrive. We can handle all your orders. $5/dozMEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezerGEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.TURKEYS: A few small ones left over and frozen $11/lb .GUINEA FOWL, frozen $7/lb (half the price of the Union Sq. Farmers Market). These are excellent 3 lb. or so birds.ROASTING CHICKENS – Freedom Rangers, $6/lb, range of sizes, mostly in the 4 to 5 lb. rangeLAMB: Loin chops at $14 a pound, riblets $8/lb, rib rack roasts $14/lb, small leg roasts $14/lb, We will soon replenish our lamb supply as it’s time for several to go to market.PORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs), Jowl (roughly 2 to 3 lbs each), $12/lb, 
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb 
baby back ribs $8/lb 
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb 
picnic or Boston butt roasts (roughly 2 lbs) $12/lb 
smoked bacon, $12/lb 
ground pork $7/lb 
Kielbasa $8/lbBEEF 
the last of our diminishing stash 
Sirloin steaks, $14/lb. 
kidney, heart etc. $1/lbDUCKS: Last year we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb. We have to retrieve these from the big freezer, so please order a week ahead.
FARM PICKUPS:Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.


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