Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paw Paw Fest 2010!

Last weekend on September 17-19, I had the pleasure of attending my second Paw Paw Fest outside of Athens, Ohio. These trips down to Athens are becoming way ritualistic: the Skyline Chili pre-visit in Canal Winchester, Ohio, the comfortable log cabin accomodations, the mandatory purchases at the Athens Farmer's Market, the dinner trip to Casa Neuva, even seeing my buddy, Scot's mom's equestrian friend, Jane for two years in a row, and rock n roll at the Union, where coincidentally Cleveland's Self Destruct Button played this year.

So our hosts, Sarah Harter and Adam Hughes, have been a couple for a longggg time. And I'm proud to say that I was able to give them their first his and hers matching t-shirts, those being "A Farm in Cleveland?!" Adam took to his right away, wearing it to Paw Paw Fest on Saturday, where the positive re-enforcements came in the way of mega-compliments, even landing one from Warren Taylor, the Dairy Evangelist of Snowville Creamery. Sarah seems to be still warming up to hers however...

Now prior to getting down to Athens last weekend, Adam had called me and gave me the foreboding news that "his" paw paw patches were barren, and basically there were no signs of paw paws either: no flowers, no raccoon scat, no seeds, no rotting remnants.

In my quest to be the Paw Paw Ambassador of Cleveland, I've taken it upon myself to literally bring paw paws to the people in the form of education and as of this year actual paw paws. But the lack of forage-able paw paws made my task a daunting and potentially costly one. Upon midday arrival at the Fest, I immediately started scoping out paw paw prices, wondering could I get a bushel, a peck, or some other obscure large quantity. And the astounding unanimous answer to that wonderment was a definitive "NO!"

Peterson's Paw Paws and Chris Chmiel's Integration Acres were the major retailers at the Fest. Peterson's is the old man on the paw paw block. I'm not sure where they're from or how long they've been doing it, but the general consensus is longer than anybody else. Peterson's acts as both a grafted paw paw tree stock nursery with several proprietary grafted strains like the Susquehanna (my fave) and as a retailer of those high end paw paws. At $10 a pound, Peterson's looked like they were going to be sold out by Sunday. Integration Acres was selling theirs at $6 for a quart box, which was a slightly more affordable option, but still a very far cry from any kind of bulk pricing.

Last year I spent a considerable amount of time at the academic lectures. Whereas this year, I went with more of leisurely approach to hanging out at the Fest. The one presentation that did catch my undivided attention was "Sustainable Staple Foods." The presenters were the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative and/or the Shagbark Seed and Mill Company. These folks are the same people doing several different things and most of the content last weekend was on the Shagbark Seed and Mill Company.

From what I got out of the lecture, Shagbark's main goal as a business is to provide processing infrastructure to support small-scale staple food farmers in areas like milling and threshing with ultimate ideals of creating food independence for Appalachia. One of my favorite quotes of the lecture was to the effect, "You heard of the Tea Party? Well, we're forming the opposite of that called the Eat Party with food security being our primary mission!" All this talk about food, I should probably mention the crops that Shagbark was touting. These were amaranth, heirloom corn, turtle beans, and spelt. To my surprise, there were no mention of potatoes or sunchokes.

One familiar story Shagbark told was that of "farming acres." This is an alternate reality that us, urban farmers simply don't have. I believe it adds another conundrum to at least my urban farming hypothesis. Conceptually, I want to grow staple foods and feed the world. Economically however, I have to grow what earns my best return for my amount of work. Ideally, I'd like to be a fence-walker and do a bit of both. However, this is not a blog of conceptualizations! This is a blog about about Paw Paw Fest 2010! And that brings me to the uncertainty I was feeling after the lecture, as we were going into Saturday evening without bulk paw paws on the horizon. I believe Adam sensed it.

He expressed re-assuring sentiments that he was sure there were paw paws out there, either on some nether region of his land, or elsewhere places not yet explored, and that I would go back with paw paws for the people of Cleveland.

On Sunday we opted not to go back to Paw Paw Fest, but instead to go on a Quest for El Pawpawrado, the legendary City of Lost Paw Paws to us, gringos, guarded by the voracious Pawsquatch. We loaded up the Toyota Land Cruiser with baskets, teepee, a week's worth of food, a satellite phone, and other necessary survival implements. At daybreak, we were off to find El Pawpawrado with black coffee as our fuel and visions of paw paws as our spiritual guide.

After fording the Tuscarawas, Athens, and Muskingum Rivers, we parked the Land Cruiser next to an abandoned barn and trash heap. We lost our horses in the Muskingum; so from there, we'd have to go by foot. After matchete-ing through six hours of wild roses, poison ivy, and other very burr-y wonders of nature, we found El Pawpawrado. There, we were blinded with the emerald light shining through the majestic paw paw leaves, as if we were in Tron and everything glowed highlighter green instead of highlighter blue. After a couple hours of tree climbing, tree shaking, and simple picking of the low-hanging fruit, we had filled our baskets with 23 ripe and underripe pounds of glorious, custardy, pawpawee flesh. I would not go back to Cleveland empty handed! We left all overripe and quite ripe paw paws as an offering to the woodland critters and Pawsquatch.

After dividing the bounty with my Sherpa and Junior Associate, Ryan Kennedy, I was left with 15 pounds for the retail markets of the greater Cleveland area. I sold five pounds yesterday at $8 a pound. So I'm at the break even point in terms of gas. The demand seems unreal. Here's to new rituals.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


And September continues to be the same. The last blog I went on about maggots a bit and never really got to the insanity that was August. So today, I will continue that blog (now in the past tense). But before I do, I just want to go back to the maggots for a moment. It turns out if you look really hard or increase the size of that top image, then YOU CAN SEE THE MAGGOTS IN THE BONEMEAL! YAY!

Five trips downtown to City Hall, countless hours later, fourteen bucks for parking, $150 for permit fees and associated costs, a $35 parking ticket, and a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, I HAVE MY FENCE PERMIT! YAY! After all that, you may think that I'd be getting a 10 foot fence with barbwire and machine gun turrets, but no actually, it's five foot black vinyl mesh. I give major thanks and appreciation to City Council President Sweeney and Melissa Miller of Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation. Both had my back at the Zoning Appeals hearing and literally went to town for me. Without them, I'd probably be a fenceless farmer exposed to the wilds of Cleveland. I give my apologies to Pete of GagePro across the street, who acted as a friend and then blindsided me with an objection letter to the Board against my fence, against my business, and against my person.

So Pete, I'm sorry. I got my fence. Considering you have literally zero green space on your completely blacktopped property and considering that preservation of green space was one of your five objection reasons, then I suggest to you that you green up your own land and property, and leave me personally be.

If there ever was a time to soapbox, for me personally, now is it. Everybody and anybody, who cares at all about urban farming in general and specifically urban farming in Cleveland, needs to call their Council Person and let them know you support the Urban Agriculture Overlay (UAO). In a nutshell, the UAO will create usage zoning that will allow us, Cleveland Urban Farmers, such farming amenities as hoophouses and fences without all of the fuss I just described. An urban farmer could farm with relative startup ease if the UAO passes. The UAO will also help to set National precedent for other cities to create similar urban farming zoning. It's easy getting a hold of City Council. Just copy and paste from below.

Now to get off my soapbox, I'll tell you some more about August 2010. Besides melons, maggots, maneuvering, and grant writing, there was and still are tomatoes, lots and lots of them. I've taken the non-business zen approach to tomato quantity calculation, and all I can say again is there are lots and lots of them. I just filled my 100th half ounce bag of dehydrator dried sundrieds. I do know it takes a half pound of tomatoes to create a half ounce of sundrieds. So that's 50 pounds of just sundrying types of tomatoes right there. Then there's the quarts of sauce, and all the sales. I wake up in the middle of night, thinking of ways to keep the tomatoes flowing. In general, I use FIFO, an accounting acronym that means first-in, first-out. At the Market, I sell 'em individually, any tomato for a quarter, or in a brown bag bundle for $2.50 to $3.50. Some of the ultra-cool/high demand tomatoes like the Green Zebra only get brown bag bundled. Selling tomatoes in August was a difficult business challenge that I feel I ultimately won. Experimenting with pricing models was crucial and having someone like Sarah Perkins, who is literally the Cookie Monster of Tomatoes, on my side also helped tremendously.

With all those melons and tomatoes, it's no wonder my house became a fruit fly resort for a little while. Additional sweet sweet news is that Cleveland formally awarded me the Gardening for Greenbacks Grant for $3K. Thank you, Cleveland. I also gave my first urban farmer interview with Elizabeth Emery of Growhio. I will be Growhio's first featured farmer on their almost revamped website. I had my first shared farmer market stand with Central Roots selling luscious greens. In hindsight, August seems like it was an incredibly productive month. September is shaping up to be the same with the shed installation and site prep, including moving and spreading four tons of limestone later on today for the base of my shed. Then, there'll be the shed painting project...

For me, one thing at a time wins the race.