Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When the Spinach (and Weather) Doesn't Cooperate

Last week I promised NOW BC, a Vancouver co-operative buying club, that we would have spinach available for them this week. This morning, when we should be harvesting to fill their order, there is no spinach.

Our first major planting of spinach started to size up last week. I was sure we would have enough for harvesting this week. But the spinach had already been in the ground a long time through the cold, wet spring. Then, with a blast of hot weather last week, it didn't look like the spinach would hold for long. We had to harvest what we could for weekend markets. The rest of the planting hasn't sized up. Moreover, after seeding the current planting we had to wait almost three weeks before seeding our next planting due to intense rain in the past months.

All of this means that the spinach people are expecting to receive tomorrow won't arrive. NOW BC can't secure spinach at the price we offered (spinach is wholesaling for the price NOW BC would have retailed ours for).

In some ways, this is the price one might pay for trying to work with a small farm: small crops and inconsistent supply. At the same time, the larger farms around us have no crop at the moment. When we can't get into the field to use our human-powered seeding equipment, other farms certainly can't get their tractors in to do larger seedings.

What this more accurately highlights is the difficulty of predicting crops while avoiding waste. Knowing whether the spinach will hold in the field (or size up adequately) in order to include on a price list is a gamble more than an art or science at many times. Often we avoid listing products with NOW BC simply because it's easier to guess that we won't have the supply than to try and promise that we will. If a planting is too large, it can go to waste if not enough marketing outlets exist to take it; too small, and someone gets shorted on their order.

This makes it even more challenging for home delivery services. To get a commitment from a farmer (or even wholesaler) that a product will be available can be tricky. When products don't show up, it leaves the delivery service with disappointed (and sometimes angry) customers and a precarious business model.

I offer this overview not to provide excuses, but in order to give some insight into why the world of food production and sales (particularly of fresh produce) is tricky. To provide abundance, there is always waste when extra produce isn't sold; just-in-time delivery often results in short orders -- whether working with small farms or the world's largest produce companies.

This spring has been particularly difficult for many farmers in the Lower Mainland and we're only just beginning to get a full perspective of the impacts. Our spinach is one small example. Such an explanation doesn't help consumers find a replacement. Hopefully it does help to build some understanding of the pressures we're all under.


  1. Interesting. As a home gardener I'm very familiar with the challenges of having my crops ready when I want them, but hadn't thought of how this would translate to a business model. Thanks for the insight!

  2. I ordered two bunches of spinach, only because it was yours. It was priced nicely too. ;-) So I am happy to wait for the produce and am quite grateful for the explanation regardless. Farming is one of those completely unpredictable businesses that could drive a control freak to drink. Good thing you are making stuff ...

    Hang in there! Glad to be in the CSA so that I feel like I am "taking that risk" in a very small way with you.

  3. I just pulled out all my spinach because I couldn't stop the aphid infestation. Not a big deal when I had maybe 2 square feet of it, but glad no one was relying on me for it. I hadn't thought about the need to either overproduce (and waste, drive down prices, or spend a whole whack of time processing) or undersupply. When you think about aspects of farming like this, you wonder how investment companies think they can make a quick buck buying farmland.

  4. The honesty is greatly appreciated, and the situation totally understandable. No one will starve, and we will save our hunger for spinach for another day.

  5. A difficut spring indeed. Not even my peppers have turned out this time around!