Monday, September 21, 2009

Local sixfortyseven

Derek and his wife Amanda Luhowiak operate a mobile food kitchen out of their home on route 647 in Fauquier County called “Local sixfortyseven” whose name comes from their address and Derek´s roots in Pittsburg, a city with a strong union presence. Having given up their day jobs the young couple have embraced all that is sustainable serving up their local fare on sugar cane plates that are themselves compostable. Their idea is to motor up with their portable kitchen and serve food at the local farmers markets.

Talking over a bottle of Barrel Oak Norton wine--a winery from which Derek and Amanda recently resigned to pursue their passion full-time—Derek and his wife serve up a lunch from their kitchen which is stainless steel and fully equipped.

Derek, who learned to cook at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, says last year he went to interview for a job as a sous chef in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. At the interview they told him to go to the farmers market, buy food and cook for four people. Derek says, “The Chapel Hill farmers market was out of this world. They have a really cool foodie kind of local scene there. As I was walking around I was thinking 'I don't want to go back to the kitchen. I want to go to the farmers market.' So the idea kind of sprung up around me being at the farmer's market.”

On a day late in winter Derek servers venison hamburger (he shot that so cannot sell it), deviled eggs from local free range chicken, mayonnaise and pickles for the visiting journalist. Plus there is a salad of local greens including wild onions (called “ramps”) that Derek picked from the forest. There are no summer vegetables yet because it is a tenet of the local organic food movement that one must eat only what is season and squash does not grow in winter.

The chalkboard menu propped up outside their portable kitchen is left over from yesterday´s trial run. It lists ramp soup, tamworth paté, asparagus lemon and ricotta tart, creamy polenta and local pork chops, ricotta, and grass fed baby beef slider which they fed to friends over the weekend. Derek says, “We had the grills going the saute going everything at once it was a little hectic at first. All 20 people showed up and all 20 people ordered at the same time.”

Derek and Amanda make everything they serve including the sickles, bread, even the ketchup. Everything is locally sourced. “I am going to work with small farmers who maybe have 10 acres and two cows per year. A lot of these farms are trying to create their market. I am sure they would love to be able to sell fresh.”

Saying he is sort of a wholesaler himself because he buys from so many local producers Derek rattles off a list of their farm providers. They buy greens and vegetables from suppliers such as the Tuscarora Growers Coop. Organic eggs come from Ayshire farms where Derek worked for three years as executive chef. They make paté from tamworth hogs bought from Matt and Ruth Szechenyi at Briars Farmstead in Boyce, Virginia. Derek says, “They are really small doing 1 or 2 cows per year.” They buy grass fed beef pimarily from Angelic Beef in Remmington. Because local organic farms are so small Derek has to buy from different ones at different times when one has inventory and other does not.

The Local sixfortyseven entrepreneurial debut was at the George Mason farmers market on Earth Day. There they served grass fed beef, bratwurst sausage, cookies and fresh brewed tea from filtered virginia well water. Then they were off to the Winchester farmers market, Centerville, and back to Barrel Oak winery where they will be twice a month from 12 to 8. Their calendar is filled all the way to November.

To be “sustainable” a cook should grown his own food so Derek and Amanda are trying out that. Outside their house they have raised beds with rosemary, thyme, rows of garlic and onions in freshly turned soil. He used a Bobcat to rip the sod then backbreaking labor to dig it to 20 inches deep so the plants roots would thrive in the loose soil. He says, “When we started in mid October and it was just moss and rocks. Now you can stick your hand down to your elbow. My mom's boyfriend was a farmer out in Pennsylvania and he said double dig everything with your hands.” For compost he ordered a big truck load from the Fauquier Livestock exchange.

Outlining his vision Derek says, “If I can pull up to the farmers market I can buy everything I need straight from the farmer. We see ourselves as an integral part of the farmers market. You have consumers who don't really know what ramps are or what to do with dandelions--how to cook this or how to cook that. We see ourselves as an educational tool. If I can cook it in a tiny little kitchen you should be able to take it home to your house and roughly do the same thing. Essentialy in a nutshell that´s pretty much it.”

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Boutique Wineries in Chile

Ed Flaherty says in Chile a “boutique winery” means a winery whose owner is the winemaker and viticulturist and not an absentee landlord. He says boutique wineries in Chile really are small family-run operations and not the mega custom crush operations found in his native California.

Flaherty Wines

Having arrived in Chile 16 years ago, this son of an American agronomist sits behind the computer ordering wine barrels for future vintages as chief winemaker at the million case winery Tarapaca. This towering gringo longs to get his hands into the pomace and away from the keyboard having worked as chief winemaker at the mega wineries Errazuriz and VIA Wines. So on the weekends Ed Flaherty heads home to the Aconcagua Valley where he produces 25 barrels of red wine a portion of which when it is available includes tempranillo which he is planting at a new vineyard in Cauquenes near the Italian-owned Caliboro winery.

Ed fostered an interest in tempranillo having worked a harvest in Spain and having spent time in Argentina where are a consultant for the Zuccardi family he developed a tempranillo wine. Of Chile he says, “There is very little tempranillo planted in Chile, maybe10 hectares so no one really knows what the potential of the variety is or where it grows best in Chile”. Ed selected Cauquenes for his new plantings of tempranillo, syrah, and cabernet franc because this coastal mountain region has just enough annual rainfall to allow dry farming. The area is heavily planted with 100 year old head trained mission grapes, called “país” in the Spanish. Ed says, “the Red clay soils, rolling hills and moderate climate 40 kilometers from the coast have started to produce some really good red wines from carignan, carménère, syrah and a occasional cabernet sauvignon.”

UK Agent: Boutique Wines of Chile


For Chileans the name “Undurraga” is synonymous with those odd shaped wine bottles with the wide bottom. But that is history as the family has sold the label. In its place they have planted 35 hectares in the upper Colchagua Valley and joined the ranks of boutique winemakers in Chile. The father Alfonso and daughter Rebecca work in finance and administration while one of the sons, also named Alfonso, works both at the new winery and as commercial manager at Matetic. The other son Cristobal left his day job working at Aurelio Montes´s Kaiken winery in Argentina after having worked one vintage at Chateau Margaux, another in Napa Valley, and at the Rosemount Estate where he picked up English saying his French is pretty bad but improves with a glass or two of Bordeaux. Having quit working for others he has plunged headlong full-time into the new family venture working as enologist and viticulturist. Cristobal says he went to work in these overseas wineries to gain experience that he could apply to Undurraga. At the Rosemount Estate he says he learned to apply quality standards to really large quantities of wine. At Chateau Margaux he found winemaking with passion coupled with a constantly development of new techniques. He bundled those experiences into what he calls a “fusion” of old and new world styles and brought them back to his native Chile.

Koyle is located in a corner of the Colchagua Valley where grows a rare purple flower of the same name. The vineyard situated here at the foothills of the Andes is divided into three terraces. Syrah and carménère in the bottom terrace are planted on grafted rootstock to reduce their vigor. But cabernet sauvignon and other red grapes planted on less vigorous soils are planted on their own roots. The vines are so well balanced that they require hedging only once per year or not at all during the growing season.

UK Agent: Genesis


Polkura vineyard in the Colchagua Valley produces exclusively syrah on yellow granite soil whose name in the Mapuche language is “Polkura”. The partners here include Sven Bruchfeld who was chief winemaker at the giant Chilean winery Santa Carolina.

Having quit Santa Carolina last year to pursue his 2,000 case boutique winery full-time, Sven Bruchfeld is one of Ed Flaherty´s protogées from Errazuriz. This Chilean whose mother is from Norway planted the Polkura vineyard in 2002. The property is located in Marchigue between Santa Cruz and Pichilemu. Neighboring vineyards include Montes, Los Maquis and Bisquertt. Of the location Sven says, “It is sort of an area in between. It is not cool climate, but it is not warm climate either. So you get cool climate character on the nose but on the palette is it more warm climate--more full bodied and textured wine.”

Agent in UK: Direct Wines Ltd


Alvaro Espinoza and his wife farm Marina Ashton farm two vineyard red wine grapes in Maipo. In 1996 they planted Antiyal which is 1 hectare of carménère, cabernet sauvignon and syrah valley vineyard followed by Kuyen which is another hectare of syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Alvaro is considered by many in Chile to be the innovator of the boutique winery concept and Chile´s foremost biodynamic grape grower having planted the Emiliana Organic Vineyard and others. He is much in demand from his grape growing and winemaking clients so his wife Marina takes care of day-to-day operations of the family vineyard. Marina says, “We started Antiyal Winery, with the vision of making a family wine teaching our kids to make wine, have a nice time, and grow grapes organically in our own vineyard.” With accolades flowing in from the international press this small family business soon became a full-fledged winery producing 19,000 bottles per year leaving Marina with her hands full. She says, “In the year 2000, we stated selling and I started helping Alvaro, I had another job, but then we had more and more orders. Someone needed to take care of the day to day work.” The vineyard is readily identifiable as one of Alvaro´s biodynamic projects with flowers planted in the vineyard rows to attract beneficial insects and chickens scratching at the soil to get rid of the bad ones, mainly mites. Horse drawn plows cultivate the soil instead of tractor mounted equipment. The weather here in Maipo is for the most part rain free so there is no need to spray systemic nor manufactured chemicals. Because the vineyard is biodynamic the harvest and training of the vines is timed to the rhythm of the moon and stars. Compost replaces fertilizer.

UK Agent: Adnams


Facundo is not a winery but a label. These wines are produced by the husband and wife team of Felipe García, a winemaker from Casas del Bosque; and Constanza Schwaderer, whose day job is making wine at Córpora where her husband says she is in charge of all the top projects. Formerly, Felipe was a winemaker at Calina which is Kendall Jackson´s operation in Chile. He says working at Calina he learned to buy high quality grapes from such farm flung locales as the Limari Vallley. Of that experience he says, “For that reason the grapes that we choose for our project are really small growers with unique conditions.” Now he sources grapes for Facuno from Itata Valley to the South and Limari in the bone dry North.

Facundo does not have their own winery nor equipment so they use the facilities of the Tabonkö winery where works his former boss from Kendall Jackson. While acknowledging that it could be difficult for anyone to work too much time with one´s spouse, Felipe says his wife brings some French perspective to this Chilean operation. Felipe says his wife, who he calls “Cony”, worked side by side with French winemaker Pascal Marchard making pinot noir and chardonnay in he Burgundian fashion. Córpora have been a joint venture with the Boisset family of Burgundy then called “Veranda” but then Córpora bought out the French.

UK Agent: No agent in the UK

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Philip Carter Winery Fetes Virginia Wine History Event

September 5, 2009 Contact: Donna Johnson

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Public Relations Director


Hume, VA - The celebration of Virginia Wine Month takes on mammoth proportions with the weight of just one event at Philip Carter Winery on October 17. This date is reserved for The History of Virginia Wine Dinner, an elegant evening in which guests are transported through the history of Virginia wine. The evening will include the unveiling of the historical document signed in 1763 by Royal Governor Francis Fauquier certifying the pioneering achievement of Charles Carter as the first person in America to successfully grow and produce quality wine from European vines. Carter’s wines, produced at Cleve Plantation, Virginia, were received by the Royal Society of the Arts, UK, in 1762 and awarded an international gold medal in recognition of Carter’s spirited attempt at making fine wine. These were the first internationally recognized fine wines in America.

Author Walker Elliot Rowe will speak at the dinner about his new book, A History of Virginia Wine: From Grapes to Glass, noting the section specific to the Carter family’s 250-year history with wine production in Virginia. The evening will also include the unveiling of an original oil painting of Crooked Run Valley (both historic and an upland bird area) by graphic designer Allan Guy, a landscape now a featured part of the Governor Fauquier labeling. Released for this particular event, this exceptional white wine honors the historic connection between Fauquier County’s namesake, where Philip Carter Winery is located, and the Governor’s 1763 certification of Carter’s achievements in wine production.

A portion of the proceeds of this signature night will be donated to Ducks Unlimited, the nation’s largest conservation organization. Each attendee will be provided with a Ducks Unlimited membership and an autographed copy of Mr. Rowe’s book. Carefully choreographed and executed by A La Carte, the four-course meal will include traditional Virginia dishes, pairing perfectly with Virginia produced wines. A host of luminaries will be present for this very special event.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

The soils of Calyptra

In the flat vineyards of Chile growers who do not use drip irrigation simply flood their vineyard from one end to the other. As the gentle giant winemaker François Massoc at Calyptra explains in English, “Water has owner”. This 35 hectare vineyard and 100,000 liter winery might lie along both sides of the Cachapoal river, but in the arid desert farming which is Chilean agriculture one cannot simply siphon off the water just because it is within arms reach.

Most of Chile´s vineyards are located in the flat plains in the valleys. But Calyptra is 1,000 meters up in the Andes, a twisting and turning 45 minute drive beyond the city of Rancagua just beyond the entrance to one of Chile´s nationalized copper mines. Here in winter--unlike in most of the country--it actually snows as photos provide by François attest. Most Chileans are accustomed to looking up at the snow of the Andes from, say, Santiago but here at Calyptra you can walk in it. Beyond copper and snow it is an accident of geography that the vineyard here surrounds the famous Cauquenes hot springs on two sides. A resort is build over the top of the hot springs there that well up into a cavernous somewhat humid and dripping Roman-bath-style building. Above the hotel is an aqueduct built high into the hillside traversing deep canyons in open air as it ferries precious irrigation water from one side of the mountains to thirsty farms and vineyards in the other direction.

François came to the 20 year old Calytra five years ago having studied winemaking in Burgundy. For Burgundians by traditionthe most important part of making wine has little to do with the winemaker are more to do with the vineyard soils and location. This notion is etched into law by the French system of appellation d'origine contrôlée .

So it is with François and his outlook. This former barrel maker who was Chilean manager of the French cooperage Nadalie and still makes his own barrells says, “I am ashamed to say I am an enologist. I don´t think the winemaker is important.” He says the best wines in the world are made in the vineyard the machinations of man not withstanding. After school he tempered his enthusiasm for manipulations and all things French with a tendency to remontage, pigeages, and otherwise orchestrate the gushing red juice into the barrel and bottle. “I try not to put my signature on the wine. I try to respect the fruit. Here you don't need an intervention. I prefer to make an honest product. The great wines in the world are like that. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and it's neighbor La Romanée, that I know very well and I have tasted. They are wonderful, but very different. Because they are honest winse. That is one part of the French philosopy that I want to keep is honesty."

The vineyards here of pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet, syrah, merlot, and sauvignon blanc are delimited by soil type which François has carefully measured and mapped. Each plot is fermented separately, measured, and blended together again according to the taste of the winemaker which he says varies by soil. In melodious that is self taught François says what is important is soil drainage which in turn turn depends on the percentage of rocks in the soil, their make up, and using the French word he says “argile” meaning clay.

François repeats some of the sometimes amusing observations which are prevalent throughout Chilean vineyards. In the winery grapes are sorted along a vibrating table staffed with women because their dainty little fingers are more nimble than those of men. The women can snatch up unripe or rotten grapes and toss them to the side for quickly than men. Asked about this François says, “Of course it is true.” In Chile such sentiments might be labeled “machista” (chauvinist). But in the USA such this type of thinking can get you into trouble with the feministas and their government mandated oversight.

The wine tanks here are insulated with cooling jackets so there is a temperature gauge on each none of which are to be trusted. Yes says François that presumption is true too.

In traditional Burgundy men plunge nude into the tank or open top fermenter punching down grapes (pigeages) so they don´t dry out as the gases of fermentation cause them to rise. François keep his cloths on doing when he does this using his feet to push the fermenting grapes back down into the juice taking care not to crush any seeds. He says, “I learned that in Burgundy. As there is a lot of carbon dioxide its really dangerous for my workers. As I am the tallest it is safer for me.”

We take a tour of the vineyards on this day late in the harvest season in June driving down a winding mountain road. The last of the harvest has just been completed and end-of-season rains have caused the mountainside to come tumbling down in a mudslide that nearly took a truck heavily laden with fruit over the side. The driver had just driven past just before the hillside gave way.

Because the weather is ideal for grape farming in Chile, there is not much use of agricultural spray to combat the rots and fungus as is done in the rainy parts of Europe. At Calyptra only sulfur is applied. They spray it every two weeks to keep botrytis and powdery mildew off the leaves and fruit.

François has changed much since coming to the farm. Part of the vineyard was overly vigorous producing too much fruit that had to be dropped off by hand in what is called a “green harvest”. So François changed the training of those vines from spur to guyot. The vines here are otherwise well balanced only requiring hedging one time per year where as in more vigorous sites in Chile it can be up to 4 times . One plot runs north to south instead of east to west. François says that alignment with the sun produces 1 gram less of acid in the final fruit. So he sells that fruit to other wineries keeping the best for himself.

Regarding acid he says Chilean white grapes measure up fine but that all of the red grapes in Chile need to have acid added by the winemaker. This is because in the long California-like growing season the fruit hangs in unending sunshine their the sugar level increasing while the pH falls off as does the level of tartaric and malic acid (low pH means high acidity) as the optimal part of this curve is reached and surpassed. This is generally not the case is regions with more rain and cloudy weather like say Virginia or New York.

François did his thesis at the university in preserving color in pinot noir wines. But here as in most of Chile the greatest portion of the red wine production is cabernet sauvignon while he does produce some pinot noir. So François gives a barrel tasting of 4 different cabernet sauvignon wines produced from different plots to show the differences owing to the differing soil

Starting with plot number 23 François asks with boyish humor from whence came the name then supplies the answer, ”It is called 23 because it is located between plots 22 and 24”. Laughing at his answer he says the vines here had been a tangle of fruit which the owner had not bothered even to prune and wanted to abandon. François dug deep pits to inspect the subsoil and mapped the property by the electrical conductivity of the soil. He then told the owner it would produce fine wine in this plot saying he would pay the costs of production and harvest himself if he was wrong on this point. François says the soil in plot 23 are older alluvial soils--which are those round stones worn down by the river and glacial erosion--coming from the last glacial period of which there have been four.

The wines from plots 24a and 24b are big tannic wines somewhat similar, but plot number 8 produces wine that is less gripping. François says these are colluvial rocks which are the big rocks that crack off and fall from the mountain. He says, “This is the youngest soil of them all. It has the most complexity and is the most feminine of the wines of the four. It is a welcoming wine. It has nice length.”

All of this discussion of soil makes sense to the farmer. I have a vineyard and farm in Virginia. The first vines I planted by hand before I had money to buy a tractor to drive the wooden trellis posts. It was back breaking labor because the topsoil was shallow clay on top of hardpan subsoil. Another richer farmer might have hooked up a subsoiler to crack the subsoil where roots could penetrate. Instead the roots in my vineyard grow outward in all directions interlacing themselves with neighboring vines unable to grow deep. This is not bad as the fertilizer the farm applies to the soil leeches only a few inches into the group. But grape vines roots explore going deep were they can reaching a depth of as much as 40 feet in places like Burgundy. As the roots go deep they dislodge minerals in the soil bringing them up to the surface and into the fruit and foilage. In short this is why soils matter.

Putting the last bung into the barrel François relates a French dictum that “One must respect the barrel”. In other words as you taste wine you can spit out what you don´t drink but not pour it out on the floor. You have to respect the barrel by returning the wine inside. In Spanish “Tienes que respectar la barrica” .

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bari California Olive Oil and Wiebe Farms

Gordon Wiebe and his brother-in-law Richard Sawatzky farm olives, nectarines, plums and peaches in the San Joaquin Valley 30 miles west of the Sequoia National Forest. These orchards were first here in 1956 by Gordon´s father. The land is so flat that special laser guided machines are used to grade the slope to 1 degree so that irrigation can flow to all corners of the individual farms that Gordon calls “ranches”. The ranches here are delimited by dusty rural roads that have the oddly urban sound name of “avenue” even though nothing looking like a city is anywhere nearby. Seemingly more latinos than gringos live here and even the local English language newspaper has classified ads in Spanish that read “se vende pollos” (Chickens for sale).

The great majority of America´s fruit and vegetables come from this region of California and even Gordon marvels at this size. Just the weekend before he flew his airplane for three hours across the valley, over the mountains, and out to the ocean saying he did not overfly even one city. Fruit farms growing pomegranates, peaches, almonds, every conceivable fruit are interlaced with dairy operators and mile after mile of high alfalfa forage and of course corn.

Gordon is a Mennonite farmer who says he started planting olives in his fruit orchards a few years ago when most of the migrant workers here turned to construction and labor became scarce. Olives can be harvested by machine so it requires less workers than peaches, plums, and nectarines which are harvested by hand. But when the construction business collapsed the migrant workers hung up their hammers and saws and returned to his 600 acre ranch. He says, “Today there are 200 people working today on 600 acre of peaches and if all of that was olives you could do it with 20 people.”

The olives grown here are not destined for fruit although that is what The University of California is trying to promote with their local extension office. These olives will be pressed into oil and sold under Bari Olive Oil Company’s own label “BARI® ”. Inside the processing facility is a tasting room and gift shop with oils from different types of olive trees. This fall a brand new olive oil mill will be installed to process their olives. The extra virgin olive oils are quite good with different hues of color and tastes that vary from mild buttery to intense fruity and pungent flavors. These are from oil that Bari Olive Oil Company purchased from other growers. Their own fruit must wait until this year because their three year old trees have just come into production.

Here in the Central Valley orchards are ripped out and replaced from one year to the next as market conditions change. It takes three years at a minimum to produce fruit from trees which is the same for grape vines. Of course corn and alfalfa can be rotated in and out of a field in the same season. But here you see piles of bulldozed orchards stacked up like ghosts along the landscape as one grower's decision to plant, say, pomegranates is replaced by another, say, who decided to grow olives. These former orchards without the irrigation which keeps them alive quickly revert back to desert so flat, hard, and dusty that you can drive off the road there without so much as jostling you car.

Olive trees that line the streets of certain cities like Phoenix are too big to be harvested by machine but here at Bari Olive Oil Company Gordon and Richard have planted hybrids that are bred to grow short like bushes. Plus they are pruned. That way a harvesting machine can straddle the plant and shake it vigorously tossing the fruit into a hopper. This way one or two men can do the work that otherwise would require many times that. Gordon points out that olives used to be more widely planted in California in areas like the hills around San Diego and the olive district of Fresno. Now all of that turned into cities. He is trying to lure local producers to the area predicting that the politically-correct and healthy olive oil consumption may drive the California production and market ahead of the Italians in a dozen years or so.

The temperature here in this bone dry region is 105 during the day and there is no rain during the growing season. This is good for the raisin farmers who drop their Thompson seedless vinifera grapes straight onto the ground where they dry in place outdoors.

Irrigation is what makes farming possible in this bone dry desert. Every citizen who lives in this water district is taxed to pay for the system of canals and ditches and the men who monitor the water usage by the farms and keep the system working. But the supply has been cut as the reservoir is running low owing to the continuing California drought and increased demand from the cities. Gordon says the ditches will provide him water only 60 days this year. “We have to rotate with the neighbors. There's a guy that watches it and regulates it. There are no meters they can measure flows. Its more how much is allotted from the dam for irrigation in this area. The other system [we have] is ground water. We are irrigating first irrigation in April and [the last] in September. We have to irrigate every 10 to 14 days. We get the water allotment through the canal system but we need water for 6 or 7 months. If we don't irrigate in 2 weeks we are dead. The San Joaquin valley is really a desert. We get 12 or 14 inches of rain per year. We just need a few more dams to store it.” But he adds that the city people would be against that.

A few miles down the road from the olive processing facility 50 to 60 Mexican workers are working in the Wiebe Farm's packing house processing peaches for delivery to a cold storage facility where they will be drawn from inventory and shipped to Costco and Walmart and others. As part of a local group of farmers marketing their fruit together , Wiebe Farms’ fruit is sold under the Summeripe® label. A camera inspects fruit as it zips along the processing line separating the peaches by quality. Different colored paper stickers are applied denoting the market for which it is intended. Some fruit is shipped to the stores right away while other will be kept in high humidity and warm temperatures to soften them up a bit. Fruit that has begun to splits open is discarded and allowed to drop through the processing line where it will be returned to the field as compost, sold to make juice if a buyer can be found in that crowded market, fed to dairy cattle, spread along the avenues here to keep dust down on the farm, or given to Gleanings For The Hungry, where the fruit is dried and sent to hungry people throughout the world.

Gordon says the average person has no idea where their food comes from. He says driving around here the tourist or city dweller cannot see much. “A lot of activity goes on in the fields and most people don't see and recognize it. They think these are all quiet farms.” Farming is hardly profitable. He says, ““Farming has not been lucrative over the past 15 or 20 years." For growers he says they get $10 to$11 per box but need $13 to make a profit. Gordon says were it not for his packing shed--which allows him to cut out one layer in the business model--he would be losing even more money. Now he says he is just getting by. He says, “5 or 6 more packing houses will may go out of business this year. “ Gordon grows alfalfa and corn to sell to dairy farmers where it is too expensive to replant trees. “Last couple of years we have been thinking how can you lose less money. But I still love farming!”

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

A History of Virginia Wines from Grapes to Glass

A History of Virginia Wines: From Grapes to Glass
ISBN: 978-1-59629-701-2 • Paperback • September 2009
By Walker Elliott Rowe

Go beyond the bottle and step inside the minds- and vines- of Virginia's burgeoning wine industry in this groundbreaking volume. Join grape grower and industry insider Walker Elliott Rowe as he guides you through some of the top vineyards and wineries in the Old Dominion. Rowe explores the minds of pioneering winemakers and vineyard owners, stitches together an account of the wine industry's foundation in Virginia, from Jamestown to Jefferson to Barboursville, and uncovers the fascinating missing chapter in Virginia wine history. As the Philip Carter Winery's motto explains, 'Before there was Jefferson, there was Carter.'

Rowe goes behind the scenes to interview migrant workers who toil daily in the vineyards, makes the rounds in Richmond with an industry lobbyist and talks shop with winemakers on the science and techniques that have helped put the Virginia wine industry on the map. Also included are twenty-four stunning color photographs from professional photographer Jonathan Timmes and a foreword by noted wine journalist Richard Leahy.

HP logo V white[1] copy

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Joel Salatin´s Polyface Farm

I have been working on an essay on Joel Salatin´s Polyface farm a couple of weeks. Each time I start it I run into Joel Salatin either in a magazine or on the news and that changes what I have written or have planned to write. Last night he was on CNBC looking slightly uncomfortable for he was wearing a suit--this is the first time I have ever seen him not wearing his trademark floppy hat. And then the week before he was on ABC News being interviewed with the CEO of Chipolte burrito restaurants where Joel sells some of his chickens and pork. The ABC news producer had the camera on the wrong guy, interviewing the CEO and not the farmer. The more interesting story is with Joel Salatin even if it is slightly harder to explain.

Some say that Joel was made famous by Micheal Pollen´s book “The Omnivore´s Dilemma”, but it should be the other way around as those of us involved with grass-based farming have for a long time been following Mr. Salatin. I was first introduced to him at a screening of a film he made about his farm at the Acres USA annual conference in Minnesota in 2006. Standing there in his trademark floppy hat, with his shoulders pointed slightly askance to the camera, talking about his farm he has the charisma of a Hollywood actor even if he appears like some dorky country nerdy psuedo-intellectual. Call it “charisma” or “gravitas” or whatever his message is important to small farmers and is interesting too.

What Joel Salatin has done to garner all this attention is to take a rather mundane issue—mundance to everyone except small farmers--which is a pressing rural problem and report on it in an interesting manner. Through his books, magazine articles, and now in his appearance in the film “Food, Inc.” he has gained legions of followers who seek to imitate his farming and farm marketing practices.

What Joel has done that resonates with farmers is he has tackled the difficult problem of how to direct market his products to consumers. What he has done that resonates with consumers is take a leadership role in what he calls the “local artisanal slow growth food movement”.

Most farmers simply sell their hogs, chickens, and cattle to the livestock market or the mega companies like Perdue Farms or Swift which end up in the hands of the giant distributors like Sysco. But many do so at a loss or with a miniscule profit. The average farmer would throw up his hands in frustration if he were to, say, try to make an end run around the local livestock auction and direct market cattle to consumers. The challenge is daunting. Those who do this with success, like Cliff Miller of Mount Vernon Farms, are such a novelty that magazines and bloggers like myself write about them as if that were news. That someone can make money farming might indeed be “news”. It´s far easier to just continue to sell cattle at a price lower than the cost of production, take a loss on your income taxes, and continue working the day job rather than finish off your own cattle or sell one cut of beef at a time at the farmers market.

Joel Salatin--whose 400+ acre Polyface Farm is located in the Shenandoah Valley west of Charlottesville--has written a handful of books which cause quite a bit of excitement for those farmers who would like to figure out how to make a living at grass-based farming. His self-published books, which sell quite well for self-published books, and magazine articles rail against factory farming and the specialization of the culture of which the poet Wendell Berry spoke. Joel levies his pointed criticism at factory farming, confined feeding operations, corn-fed cattle all of these terms of course are variations on the same theme. He marvels at the cow which he calls a "self-contained production process" converts grass to meat which converts manure into more grass which produces more meat in endless rotation all without the need for chemicals fertilizer.

Explaining his philosophy he told CNBC “We´re trying to heal the farm, heal our customers”. The bewildered talking head listened as Joel explained that his business model is “contrarian” as he has no goal to increase his sales and production as people are knocking at his door because that would run counter to the philosophy of the local food movements. Speaking prophetically he says that as the local food movement grows and start to take away market share from the industrial food concerns they will come at the small farmers with farm and food bills stacked in their favor.

All of this is a lot of information to absorb as the seemingly simply Polyface Farm is in fact multi-faceted in its outlook. It takes some time to understand what is really happening here. So it was after reading Joel´s magazine articles for a couple of years that I headed out a few weeks ago to go see for myself what was all the fuss about.

Polyface Farm says on its web site that is has an “open door policy”. They apparently are overwhelmed with requests for guided tours so they charge $500 for that perhaps to discourage them, who knows, as I have not talked to the great man myself. They do not for example even have an email on their web site saying they have no time to respond to the great volume of email. So my son and I headed down for our self guided tour.

To get to Polyface Farm you drive west from the vineyards of Crozet, Virginia across Interstate 81 and following a route which cannot be plotted by Mapquest you drive past all that Joel rails about: miles and miles of chickens “farms” where one man takes care of millions of birds in filthy squalor. Pastured cattle farms where cattle are raised in one year to 700 or 800 pounds then shipped off to Nebraska confined feeding operations where standing in their own manure they are finished off to slaughter weight on a corn based diet that were it not for the abattoir would kill them anyway as their liver and stomach fails.

My own farm in Rappahannock County is years behind Joel´s operation as the woods there are filled with green briar vines and poison ivy which my goats are busy working to devour and will at some point finish cleaning. Tall fescue grass dominates the landscape except where I have planted new grasslands with other grasses. But on Polyface Farm I found not one leaf of poison ivy nor one blade of tall fescue grass. I did find one lonely vine of poison ivy climbing a locust tree but as I ran my hands through the grasses of the pastures there the leaves were smooth indicating rye or other varieties and did not have the sandpaper rough finish of fescue. Fescue is really a weed not suitable grazing in the hot summer months. The pastures here too we filled with red and white clovers which on industrial farmers are replaced by liquid nitrogen produced using natural gas.

The land and the forest here is carefully groomed not by machine but by the animals that work and live there. Pastured poultry were lined up in portable chicken coups that march across the landscape—Joel is famous for having designed and promoted this process and whole books are devoted to the topic. The chickens pick the grass clean of the deadly intestinal parasites that spell death for cattle, sheep, horses, and goats. A Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog stood watch over the flock. Turkeys and broilers were inside a polywire fence in enclosed mobile chicken coops. Laying hens were allowed to roam free and then boarded up at night inside a much larger mobile coup where they were safe from the fox, raccoon, and stray dog.

Black Angus cattle, whose coats glowed with the luminosity of health, were grouped together in a high density grazing system called “mob-stocking”. Cattle left free to roam across the landscape would cherry pick the pasture leaving weeds behind and spreading their manure too thin to fertilize the same. But cows grouped in such tight groups trample the weeds and leave a sheen of manure. The manure causes the grass to grow in a flush of green and keep the weeds under control. Then the cows are moved off to another location and the omnivore poultry moved in behind to disperse the manure and pick through and devour the insects therein.

Extra large bales of hay were stacked in several barns here as three farm interns or perhaps Joel´s sons worked to build a new barn erected from lumber they had cut themselves using the farms portable saw mill which is yet another way this entrpeneur makes money. The hay here had been cut in the prime stage of growth when it is highest in protein and most digestible to the animal. Its color suggested healthy forage indeed.

My son and I walking about unescorted had seen everything except for the pastured pork. We could not find them. But I forgot they are not in the pasture at all. These free range hogs live in the forest where they root up the soil and consume acorns which Joel says changes the flavor of their pork. Joel, like Salman Rushdie, invents his own words as he writes. (His book on grass finishing cattle is called "Salad Bar Beef".) In the winter the pigs are moved to a barn where he calls them “pigaerators” for they turn over the soil making compost as they forage with their snout thus improving the soil.

Joel had written about selling his pork and poultry to Chipolte long before ABC news reported on it. In his writings and conference speeches he explains his run ins with the US Department of Agriculture who wanted to shut down his on-site slaughter house because, well, farms are not supposed to slaughter their own animals on site without the oversight of government. This, says Joel, favors the large producers at the expense of small ones. When you buy a side of beef stamped “USDA inspected” it means exactly that—there is an inspector from the government literally standing there inspecting each cow as it is slaughtered and then stamps it with his seal of approval. Quality experts like the late legendy industrial researcher Dr. Edward Demings would tell you this makes no sense, but this is the government way. The USDA told Joel he could not kill and cut up his own chickens so he used a loophole in the law to do exactly that explaining that his chickens, unlike those processed by Perdue, Swift and others, are not given any chlorine bath or radiated to kill pathogens, are not processed indoors by men wearing chemical suits wading in blood but are processed outdoors in the open air and sunshine. Which environment he asks is the healthiest?

Joel is not the only farmer doing grass fed beef, rotational grazing, pastured turkeys, chickens, and rabbit but he is the most vocal. He is a prophet like Wendell Berry who he has obviously studied. Someone needs to be the de facto leader of the local food movement and we are fortunate to have Joel doing this right here in Virginia.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Travel Guide for Chile

Converting pesos to dollars----double it; divide by 1,000; then multiply times 90%. So 2,000 pesos (written "$2.000") equals $1.80 USD.

weather--it does not rain in the wine region and Santiago for 9 months of the year. Winter starts in May. Then the rain comes and the Chileans are awed by its apperance. The rain clears the contaminated air of Santiago where a system of "pica y placa" determines which automobiles can be driven on any particular day. The chileans bundle up in the day when the temperature drops to 10 degrees celcius (50 degrees farenheit) as if it was the Chilean Antartic while the gringo can go sleeveless. In July even the gringo is shivering as there is no central air heat and the hotels do not turn on the heat until 8 o'clock PM. People heat rooms with propane fired heaters and wooden stoves so one wonders whether they will die from carbon monixide poisoning. The Chileans have no natural gas of their own and are dependent on Argentina for that---to be dependant on Argentina for anything puts one in dire straits.
rodeo--In Chile cowboys do not lasso cows or ride a bucking bull until it tosses them off. Instead two cowboys ("huasos") mount horses and corral a steer into a wall gaining points depending where the horse makes contact--e.g. 4 points for the rear end. No gringo could possible understand this sport. The rules are listed here.
natural gas and hot water--if you stay in a hostal you might have to share a shower with others--well not at the same time unless that is the thrill you are seeking. If the hot water cuts off when your hair is filled with soap then the hot water heater is probably turned off. In Chile instead of heating gallons of water as we do in the states they use an on-demand type of system that heats water as it flow through the pipes. This uses natural gas for which the Chileans pay world market price so it's expensive. If you rent a house then perhaps the hot water heater is located on an outside wall and the pilot light can blow out in a really heavy wind. Propane tanks are delivered by truck or even by bicycle to the neighborhoods. You can relight the hot water heater yourself with a simple lighter and there is not much chance you will blow yourself up.
exiting a bus or an airplane--Chileans do not understand the concept of "first on last off". In gringolandia if you are sitting in, say, row 22 you let the people in row 21 get off first. Instead the Chileans--man, woman, child--push ahead comptelely oblivious of what to most would be logical.
soccer--"futbol" is more important here that what President Obama might be saying or the fact that the global economy is in free fall. The only thing that attracts more attention for the native is the soap opera ("telenovela") "Donde esta Elisa?" ("where is Elisa") which closely mirrors the comings and goings of the family who owns the nation's largest newspaper El Mercurio.
has been musicians--Where can you see Peter Frampton and The Brothers Johnson? Certainly not in the USA because they cannot earn a nickel there. So they head to the music festival at Vina del Mar where the natives do not know better. The Jonas Brothers are in Chile today? Does this portend their end?
news--television news starts at 9 o'clock at night on TVN. At the airport instead of CNN they broadcast music videos. It must be easy for the rest of the world to let the Americans alone worry about terrorism, famine, that sort of thing.
women--there are lots of single mothers ("madres soleteros") here. If they can get it they seek child support ("pension alimientos"). The gringo with $100 bills, a blue passport, and an odd accent has a decided advantage over the local womanizer ("mujer riego"). But Chileans, like Colombians, are not so poor, at least the upper tier. They glamorize themselves in the social pages of El Mercurio and have expensive houses in Las Condes and at the beach in Vina del Mar. The poor people are more comfortable in Valparaiso. As for The Spanish it is much easier to be charming if your speach is halting whatever the language. I find it charming that young girls often hold hand when they walk.
love--Chilean teenagers and young adults live with their parents so they go to "cabanas" for lovemaking which are motel rooms rented by the hour. There if you happen to have a car you can drive it behind a curtain where the adulterer can hide from the prying eyes of the detective's camera. There is a whole language for different degrees of courtship. If you female friends lets you have sex with her she is an "amiga con ventaja". If you are dating she becomes you "polola". Date her and no one else and she is your "novia". Marry and she becomes your "esposa". Divorce and--as is the case in the USA--she becomes your "ex".

school and English--the wealthier people send their children to private school ("collegios") and those most fortunate of all take private classes in order to score highly on the PSU (equivalent of the SAT) so they can go to college. Children who go to the collegios know English pretty well. Simple laborers earn about $1 per hour working in agriculture and are laid off after the grape harvest is done.
agriculture---The whole of the country from La Serena down to Concepcion is planted with grapes, onion, olives, whatever. Were it not for the irrigation which cuts across the country in aqueducts and canals it would all be dust. If you grow roses and live in the humid and wet east coast of the USA you will be envious how easily everything grows here without mildew.
coffee--Chileans export most of their agriculture it would seem keeping little of it for themselves. So they drink powdered drinks or buy cheap, watered down jugos ("juices"). Contrast this with Colombia where mango, blackberry, and other juices are drunk au natural without so much water. In the USA of course we prefer water, corn syrup, food coloring, and cancer causing concoctions which contains say 2% real fruit. Chile does not grow coffee. Instead of brewing ground beans they like it powdered. As for decaf they know not what that means.
sea food--clams ("almejas"), sea urchin, and and odd looking creature called "pico roco" are plentiful here sold by the cartful in the open air at Puerto Montt. For fish they have salmon in the South and congrio and reinata everywhere. I have never seen anything like what in the USA they call a "Chilean Bass" so presume that to be some invention of the gringo mentality.

waiting in line--if you go to the pharmacy to, say, recharge the balance on your cell phone take a number and wait. In Santiago, which is a large city, you have to wait in line for the pharmacy, the bank, to obtain service from the butcher and so forth. Chileans wait in line to pay bills at "servipago". In the USA I wait in line for nothing prefering to pay bills and buy tickets on the internet.
public telephone--it costs 100 pesos to call a land line ("linea fija") and 200 pesos to call a cell phone ("movil"). Dial 09 before each cell phone number.
la once--Chileans eat 4 times per day. breakfast ("desayuno"), lunch ("almuerzo"), dinner ("la cena"), and a light dinner at 5 o'clock (oddly enough called "la once" which means 11).
the work day--don't wake up at 5 o'clock and put on your running shows and head out to Starbucks. Shops here don't open until 10 and children go to school in shifts. For this reason you will see lots of school kids on the street at night when you would imagine they should be home fighting with their siblings.
dogs--dogs are free to wander all over Chile and no one cares. You will see them sleeping on the streets and crossing with pedestrians to the rythym of traffic lights ("semaforos"). In the USA someone seeing a stray would call the police and the dog squad would descend in great numbers perhaps with guns drawn.
cell phones--buy a prepaid cell phone in the USA and pay over the internet to have it unlocked. Make sure it is a GSM phone. Then here you can buy a SIM card and a prepaid cell phone card ("tarjeta") in order to recharge ("recarga") the balance ("saldo"). Chile under Pinochet embraced Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and free-wheeling capitalism while electing socialts to office since then. Consequently there are multiple cell phone companies vying for your business. When you call someone it is free or them which is good when you are dating a girl who has no money, honey.
paying for stuff--In Chile you pay the "cajera" (cashier) after first choosing a product from one counter, perhaps retrieving it from another, then finally paying for it at a third. The system is bureaucratic with even the smallest stores having at least two steps in this three step process. They will always give you a receipt ("boleto") which is one reason Chile is known as a country where they is little corruption, well comparated to say Ecuador or Argentina, since there is this paper trail.
swimming pools--apparently no one swims in Santiago for there is one indoor pool ("piscina techada"), the YMCA, and it costs $12 per day to swim there. As for the ocean it is too cold for lots of people unless you are used to the Pacific chill in California.
police--the national police here are called "carbineros". They are professional and courteous and will not accept bribes ("morditas"). Argentine drivers accustomed to paying bribes to avoid a traffic ticket are arrested here when they try that.
illegal immigrants---as the USA is overrun with Mexicans Chile is overun with Peruvians. That is why you will see signs “for rent” ("se arrienda") only Chileans.
Chilean wine--buy my book "Wine, Communism, and Volcanoes".
Wifi internet---buy a prepaid mobile broadband card from Falabella or Ripleys or Paris. It will cost $100 and the first two months might be free. So no contract required. The service providers are EntelPC, Movistar, and Claro. When you go back to home just give it away to someone else.
Public transport----taxis are cheap but collectivos are cheaper. A “collectivo” can mean a bus or a taxi that runs in the same loop day in and day out. On the windshield it says for example “$200”. That would be 38 cents. These cabs are shared. You can tell the driver when you pay “se paga” meaning "I am paying you now". When you want to get off say “la esquina por favor” meaning “drop me off at the corner.” The subway in Santiago is clean and efficient. Buy a BIP card and use it to board the bus and the metro. Push the button near the door to signal your descent. In order to plan your trip around santiago use
tips—a tip is a “propina”. For meals it is 10% or zero and there is no place on the credit card receipt to attach it. For taxis it is zero.
hookers--legal. Not much more need be said. Larger towns will have a red light district. If you are looking for the traditional burlesque show go to a "cafe con piernes" where topless women serve drinks over the bar.
petty crime--Chile is free of the kipnapping and extortion problems or Colombia and Mexico. But here there is petty and sometimes violent crimes from criminials ("delincuentes"). Watch your camera and your back pack.
Credit cards---every time you use your credit card they will ask for your “RUT”. This is like a social security number. Just make up a 7 digit number or write down your passport number. No one will ask to see your passport except maybe the Chinese restaurants whose owners are adrift between two cultures. Also know that the cashier will ask you if you would like to pay in installments ("cuotas") and whether you want to donate 100 pesos to the poor. Just say "sin cuotas".
refrigeration--my first wife came from Ecuador a country where meat is sold in the open air without refrigerationand people pile in 7 to a vehicle without seat belts. She threatened me bodily if I took our 11 year old son to the store without his child restraint system and her family all wanted their food cooked well done. When my mother-in-law and sister-in-law came over for a cookout I simply burned what they ate and they appeared pleased. As for Chile and Colombia don't look for eggs in the refrigerated section of the dairy. The are on the counter. As one who has farmed chickens I can tell you a hen lays her egg in 90 or 100 degree temperatures and it can sit there days or weeks without spoiling. One reasons eggs in the USA are refrigerated is they are sold old, months old in many cases. An egg yoke should be bright yellow. If it is grey, as they usually are at the Walmart and elsewhere, it indicates age. "Botalo"--i.e. trash it. I buy only brown or organic eggs as the conditions in which chickens are raised on factory farms are filthy and disgusting.

sex--The gringo culture is rather uptight. We have The Moral Majority, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, Right to Lifers, militant Lesbian feminists all railing again what THEY consider to be immoral. In Chile--a Catholic country where divorce was only made legal a few years ago--there is little of this tyrrany of the Moral Minority. This is also the case in Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, everywhere beyond the stifling confines of USA victorian mores. Here women wear thong bathing suits while they are arrested for doing the same where I was born at Litchfield Beach, South Carolina. It is 1:30 AM here now and I am watching a burlesque show on broadcast television. There is no FCC here to impose the will of the religious right on the rest of us. The telenovelas are almost soft born with steamier scenes than you would ever see on, say, Days of Our Lives. Prostitution is legal while--owing to the influence of the church---abortion usually is not but even that is changing. Which country is more free? If I could say more I would add to this burden the misery which is inflicted by the legal system in America which stifles so many aspect of our lives with "no running", "no trespassing", "no skateboarding", "no regard" for what is logical the lunacy havencompletely haven got out of hand.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Farmers Market in Santiago

I am still here in Chile having turned over the goats to a goatherd and a vineyard to a vineyard worker. So for my blog on Virginia agriculture today I write about the farmers market in Chile.

This is a four day weekend in Chile to mark the end of the War of the Pacific on May 21 which is when Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia enlarging their country and denying Bolivia access to the sea. Since the holiday is a Thursday Chileans take Friday for vacation as well. They have not pushed all their federal holidays to Monday as we have done so the kids get an extra day off school.

Here in central Santiago in a neighborhood located between Cummins and Quinta Normal subway stops peddlers line the street for a dozen blocks selling everything from clothes to seafood to vegetables. The streets are crowed on this cloudy Sunday morning as worshipers pile out of the Salvation Army church a few blocks away. The city library is crowded with students working on the free internet access provided there. The walls could use painting. Many books have their covers worn. At the entrance there is mention of a grant from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. In the markets crowds of illegal immigrants from Peru sell pirated DVD music, candy apples, socks, or a single brassier if that is all they have for inventory. It would seem only in the USA and maybe Europe that copyright piracy laws are really enforced so the gringo pays $29 for the latest movie while on the street here it costs $2.

I head into the street to buy cilantro and peppers, kiwi, and olives, spring onions, and carrots. I am looking for a ready-made mix of spices called “verdura surtida” which is hojas de apio(celery), perejil (like cilantro), and oregano fresco(fresh oregano). Carrots are called “zanahorias”. Bell peppers are “pimentones”. Spring onions are “cebollin italiano”. Kiki of course is “kiwi” and plaintains are “platanos”.

According to today's La Tercera newspaper the latest fashion in agriculture in Chile arearellanos, which are hazelnuts, which you can have with your coffee at Starbucks. The newspaper says they can be grown here cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Fortunes have been made here and lost in olives, oranges, grapes and kiwi and now perhaps arellanos but those markets are given to wide swings in price. There is lots of kiwi planted here in Chile. One male plant is planted in the middle of a dozen or so females. The vines are trained overhead in theparron style of trellis which is used to grow table grapes and low quality wine grapes. You can readily tell a kiwi farm when you drive buy because the fruit smells strongly like kerosene.

All of this produce is of course local agriculture except no one touts “locally grown” or “organic” or any of that because Chile is one giant cultivated garden at least where the ground is not vertical (I.e. The Andes) or desert or timbered forest. So many people work in agriculture here not simply as laborers but as salesmen, agronomists, managers, and other that they don't treat it as a novelty like we do in the outer burbs of Northern Virginia. The situation here in Chile must be like, say, Fresno, California where agriculture is simply a way to earn a living for an entire communities.

Back at the market I have filled two shopping bags—you need to bring your own---for 4,000 pesos (about $8). I have some money left over so I buy oranges (naranjas) and acetunas which you might call “olivias” except they are not as salty. (Salt is to olives as vinegar and alum are to pickles)

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eldon Farms

John Genho, is a 29 year Ivy League school graduate who reads the Wall Street Journal and farms 7,600 acres of pastureland and forest in Rappahannock County. His crew includes a cowboy from Florida, a former rock-n-roller who had a top 40 hit, two other farm hands, an office person, and a pack of border collies and other types of working dogs.
People who live in Rappahannock County know Eldon Farms, if only by reputation, as the local environmentalists eye what might be the largest tract of contiguous land in three counties hoping the owners never carve it up for development. Running all the way from Slate Mills Rd to  Sperryville this sprawling farm cross both sides of highway 522 with 24 rental houses and 100 buildings on the property plus 65 miles of fencing. Unlike so many of the hobby horse and cattle farms in the county—whose owners sometimes say they “farm” although they produce no profit--this farm is a working farm whose revenue pays the salaries, the medical bills, the food, and the clothing for the handful of people who work there.

Eldon Farms has for 40 years belonged  to the Lane Family whose founder William “Bill” N. Lane, II  died in an automobile accident near the family's Bell Ranch in New Mexico some 30 years ago. The late Mr. Lane was an astute businessman who bought an interest in a Chicago book binding company acquiring other properties which continue under family ownership as Lane Hospitality, Acco Brands and others. His widow continued to spend time at the house they call “Little Eldon” and his son Nelson still knows people in the county.

John Genho does not deal with the family members too much since Eldon Farms is owned by the corporation and run as a business. The same environmentalists who are eager to assert an easement across the farm will be comforted by the fact that John sits on the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District board, a generally elected position, with Monira Rifaat who of course is an advocate of conservation easements. Cliff Miller was formerly on that board and has put much of his Mount Vernon Farm into the CREP and BMP cost sharing programs which pay farmers to keep cattle out of the stream. Eldon Farms is doing that too although it will take a while with so many miles of fencing to replace. The BMP cost sharing program has been boosted from 75% to 85% plus Rappahannock has a matching funds program from a donor for $50,000 for the 15% gap.
John is a Mormon who went to school at Brigham Young then Cornell where he studied animal genetics. He lives on the farm in a large house with his child  ren and wife who likes to take photos and upload them to the family's blog.
Farming, of course, is hardly profitable anymore the costs of machinery, grain, and land having put profitability out of the reach of possibility for most family farms. John says Eldon Farms breaks even and has a positive cash flow in the years when he is able to cut timber, the mountainous forest here harboring some veneer quality red oak. Because of the crash in the housing market ,  timber prices have  fallen  to “65-70% of what the value was a couple of years ago” so logging is no windfall.
John says, “When you look at our accounting we make money off cattle.” But it won't make you rich adding, “It's not something you would want to take out a loan and start a business. We have 24 rental houses. If we can cut timber we have positive cash flow.”
Every day John checks the price of feeder cattle and corn on the Chicago Board of Trade. He says that for years corn traded for $2 to $4per bushel. “But last summer corn was trading over $7 dollars. Grass has all of a sudden become more valuable.” The traditional model for a cow calf operation has been to raise cattle to 500 pounds weight then sell them at the livestock auction where they would be shipped off to large feeding operations in Nebraska or small Mennonite Amish-run operations in Pennsylvania where they would be fed corn until they reach their 1,200 pound slaughter weight. Corn is now back down to $4 per bushel, still feedlots prefer calves that weight 700 to 800 pounds because it takes less time and less money to fatten up the cows for slaughter. In order to each that extra weight 200 to 300 pounds of weight the rancher needs to overwinter the cattle which is difficult to do if you have to pay for hay. Eldon Farms does not have to buy hay because they bale their own  and stockpile fescue for the winter—that means they simply leave certain paddocks ungrazed and unclipped.
John has 1,400 head of cattle on the farm including 500 calves which in June will be headed to market. In January he sold those calves which weighed more than 600 pounds to the Winchester livestock market and was pleased by the price in the off season sale. October and November are, “The Absolute worst time to sell them, because no one wants to take them through the winter.”Calves kept over the winter are called “stocker cattle”.
Of other parts of the country John says, “Nebraska grasslands are prime cow calf country”. But the disadvantage there is you have to supply hay in the winter while in Virginia fescue grass can be stockpiled for the winter. He says, “The three best things about fescue  are January, February, and March and the worst are June, July, and August.” By this he is referring to the endophyte infected tall fescue grass which dominates the landscape here. The fungus lives in harmony with the plant thus giving it the ability to tolerate the cold winters here. But in summer endophyte causes cattle to lose rather than gain weight as their respiration and heart rate increase. The alternative would be to try and kill all the fescue and replace it with orchard grass or something like MaxQ fescue but that takes time and costs money.
To boost protein Eldon Farms plants some summer annuals like pearl millet and small grains like barley but only on a small scale for their heifers that will become breeding stock to give them an extra boost. His focus instead is to maintain the highest quality pasture as he rotates stock from one paddock to another to both improve the grass stand there and keep the animals from overgrazing pastures, which would expose them to lethal intestinal parasites which live in the soil.
John's ideal pasture management system would be to sample 20% of the pastures each year and then apply fertilizer according to the soil sample. But prices have wrecked havoc on the ideal situation. He says, “What we are really interested in is getting the phosphorus and potassium right and for nitrogen we figure if we can clover into the field nitrogen will take care of itself. Unless we are stockpiling fescue we cannot afford to put nitrogen on the field.” But he ads, “Potassium prices went from $100 per ton to $1000 per ton so we cannot afford to buy that. I would love to put potassium and phosphorus  down on our field. Nitrogen gives you a short term bloom but it leaches out pretty fast. Potassium and phosphorous give you a good healthy field.”
The two cowboys Robert Gainer and Rich Bradley and the farm manager John Genho offer to saddle up the horses and move the cattle on horseback for the visiting journalist but pick up trucks and dogs will do just fine. Ray Bennett is waiting at the other end of the pasture several miles away as the  lowing herd is marshalled toward tender new ungrazed grass at the other end of the village of Woodville. The grass here is a mix or orchard grass and clover with some blue grass and fescue mixed it—it is what the farmers would call “lush”. A dozen bulls barely lift their heads as we drive by in a pickup truck in order to meet the cowboys and the herd. The bulls have long ago worked out which one is dominant and the lesser males take care to stay out of the way of the largest. John says each year a couple are injured killed fighting.  He says, “This is what it means to be a male.”
We have completely blocked one of the winding lanes leaving Woodville as the herd is turned down the road. The working dogs snap at the heels of the cows as they push them along. There are so many cows one wonders for a moment whether you  would  be crushed if they stampede. John's border collie is meant to be at the front of the pack but is working at the back as he responds to John's verbal signals. The border collie lurks behind a few stubborn cows then nips at them as the cows briefly challenge the dog then retreat. A couple hundred heifers are in the pasture on the other side of the road and crowd the fence trying to join the larger herd. Traffic, if there were any on this almost abandoned road, would not be able to pass as the animals have taken over a ¼ mile of unpaved roadway. The cattle kick up dust on their way to the other pasture. The herd moved to the new location the cowboys return to their never ending task of maintaining the fences.

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What Happened to All the Silos?

Drive across the landscape in Virginia and the observant person notices that practically all of the silos here are no longer in use except on some dairy farms. Instead of being used to store silage—that is, grain that is fermented so that it will not spoil—trees are growing up through the middle of these ghosts of the landscape which have not been used for some years.

There is an old saying which is very much true for those who bale hay: “Make hay while the sun shines”. When you cut hay you have to let it dry for a couple of days in the sun before you bale it up. Otherwise if you bale it damp it will rot. Not so for what is called “bailage”. This is grass which is cut then baled straight away and wrapped in air tight plastic. The bales ferment turning into something akin to vinegar. Cattle love it, the cow hands at the 7,600 acre Eldon Farms in Rappahannock County say they even lick up the juice from the plastic and the ground.

In the past sillage was made by lifting grass or corn stalks into the anerobic (i.e. oxygen free) environment of the silo. Sillage can also be made by shoveling forage into a pit into the ground and covering it with plastic and tires. Or you can just bag up some green grass in a plastic bag and wrap it up tight.

Jim Bowen farms wheat, cattle, and hay on 3,700 acres of land in Culpeper owned by the Germans. He has been working here since 1981. His farm is well-known throughout the state having hosted the annual Virginia Ag Expo which is the largest event in the state for row crop farmers. Jim is well-positioned to explain why there are no more silos.

Standing in front of an enormous 8-tire 248 horsepower tractor in front of empty silos and functioning grain elevators Jim explains what he does here.

“I have silos and grain bins and grain elevators I don't use the silos. Mostly what we do is we use it grain for sale corn and to store [soy] beans for grain.”

For his cattle he says, “All I feed is hay but I feed sillage hay. I use ballage which is sillage wrapped in plastic. You can make the hay at 50% moisture. All I do is cut it and bail it.  No need to dry it. With ballage you can bale it the next day.Wrapped it tight and it ferments. Used to be, to make a bag you would push 50 rolls into a bag and you would cut a little slit it in but now you don't have to do that because we wrap it so tight. Almost all dairy farmers use silage.  It is a great feed. Pits work the same way. You put the sillage into pits and you pack it as you put it in. Cover it up and keep the air out. Uncover it as you feed it. So it won't turn into compost you need to pack it good. You don't want air to get all in it.” He says most sillage pits are made of concrete..

Jim says, “You can make hay and sillage out of winter rye. Its a real early crop its almost ready now [April]”. At this time of the year area lawns and pastures are still grey from winter but rye and wheat feels are bright green especially if they have been fed nitrogen.

Asked about fertilizer he says, “I will put nitrogen on the wheat in the fall or early spring. I just put nitrogen on it last week. Last fall I bought nitrogen. I paid $450 per ton right now it is $200 per ton that costs 70 cents per unit—I can hardly make money at that”

Jim runs about 200 Angus cows. He put has 7 frost-free Merafont watering systems that use the temperature of the soil to keep themselves ice free even when it is below freezing. He says, “ I try to limit the grazing along my farm banks. I didn't want my cattle in the streams.”

When straw prices are high Jim sells straw but otherwise leaves in on the ground as he rotates to the next crop. Because of the crash in housing prices there is not much demand for straw now as few builders are seeding new lots.

“Hay” is forage which is cut wet, allowed to dry, then baled. “Straw” is wheat which is allowed to dry then cut after the combine has taken away the grain. Jim farms and sells orchard grass to area horse and cattlemens. They prefer that over alfalfa he says, “There's not many people who buy alfalfa. They don't want something which such high protein. Because most of these horses are not working. They get fat if you feed them alfalfa. Most horse people in this area like the 2ndcutting orchard grass which is a lot shorter and finer cut.”

Of the costs and revenue he says, “It probably cost me $70 year fertilizer on my orchard grass and I normally make 2 – 2.5 tons per acre of hay. Selling it for $45 per bale I am grossing $200 per acre and $45 for 800 an pound bale. I do some small bales too”.

Most of what Jim grows is corn and soybeans which is pretty much what most row crop farmers do and they collect a subsidy for that but Jim does not as this farm is foreign owned. Jim markets his grain to the chicken industry. I have written about two row crop farmers on this blog to date and both of them sell to Perdue. These chicken operations obviously buy a lot of area grain.

Jim says, “Everything you see here thats green here like that is wheat. Most of my wheat I sell to Perdue farms and it used for export out of Norfolk. I grow wheat corn soybeans rotation. I sell it by the bushel. 60 pounds to a bushel. I sell spot market and futures contract..”

Because of all the chicken farms in Harrisonburg and elsewhere there is a surplus of manure available for fertilizer. Jim says, “Right now chicken litter is $30 per ton just dumped on your farm. Contact Mount Pony Farm. They are brokers. Talk to Billy.”

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