What’s been going on!
Beautiful gentle rain this morning, just what we needed both for the flower crops we just seeded but for everything else as well. With the relatively cool temperatures we have not had to irrigate much but we were getting to the point of having to get into a regular watering schedule. I decided to pump some more water into the upper pond while the irrigation demands were low and the creek was still running well. Should have looked at the creek first but didn’t. After 24 hours of pumping the lower pond almost empty I went down to turn off the pump and the gravity feed line that keeps the pond full from the creek was barely trickling after having run strongly for weeks, Hmmm? Using the irrigation pump I push water back up the gravity feed line, towards the creek to flush it out and to refill it to get a strong flow going again. This entails walking the 900’ up to the creek end to make sure the intake is clear where I find the creek is barely flowing! I am really surprised to see this as we have had OK rains and it has not been really hot so the trees should not be pulling as much water out of the ground but alas the ground water must still be really low so the springs are still not flowing much. This rain will help give us time to get the lower pond refilled before it does get hot next week.
More general chores this week in anticipation of real tomato harvest. The big project has been to get all of the red onions out of the ground and into the greenhouse to cure. The staff got the last of them pulled yesterday, just in time. Not as big a crop as last year but still enough to have until at least August. We never grew storage onions in the early years because they are so cheap and abundant at the grocery store but some years ago I was at a conference in Arkansas where I heard an onion breeder talk about how red onions are much healthier due to higher levels of anti-oxidants than white or yellow onions and he was breeding red onions to have even higher levels but remain sweet (the anti-oxidants are also associated with “hot” onions).
So our red onion growing experiments began. The problem here in North Carolina is we are in between the good onion growing regions. Up North they have long days and lots of onions bred for that, more South they have short days and onions bred for those conditions. We have what they call intermediate day length and there are only a few varieties of red onions we can choose from but fortunately we have found a couple of good ones. In any case they are just in time for summer salads and salsas with the impending tomatoes and peppers!
Picture of the Week
Brilliant Zinnias even on a rainy day
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What’s been going on?
Betsy walks outside yesterday morning and says the cicadas are so loud it sounds like Police sirens. I head out to work a bit later and they are completely silent, crazy. In general the din builds through the day until it is an eerie alien roar. Interestingly we don’t really see a lot around except for all the holes in the ground where they have emerged and then of course the cats have to bring them in the house. They say they will be around a month and then it will be 13 years until the next explosion.
Busy week, peppers begin to go in the ground today. The fabric and irrigation lines went down on Monday over the prepared beds. These raised beds will hold all the fussy hot and exotic peppers because we feel they need the extra warmth and better drained soil of a raised bed. The staff will start planting those beds this morning while I am finishing getting the rest of the field ready. The majority of the sweet peppers we will plant, no-till, into the rolled cover crop that grew their last winter. We had a monster cover crop of rye and hairy vetch to roll down and now I need to cut the slits into the mulch so they can tuck the plants in. Hopefully by the end of the tomorrow all the plants will be in the ground. Perfect conditions for transplanting, the soil has warmed nicely (which the peppers need), it will be overcast and not too hot and those plants will just take off.
Another big project was checked off the list this week which give us much relief. Despite what has been nearly perfect weekly rains this spring we are still over four inches behind on rainfall for the year and finished last year eight inches down. So while the annual crops are happy the ground water is not. Our upper pond never filled over the winter and so we are in the process of filling it from the lower pond. The crux has been we have to fill the lower pond from the creek.
Years ago we installed a gravity feed line that runs 900 feet down the field and into the pond. It worked OK but never enough flow and it would stop running from time to time. So a month ago we rented a trencher and cut a new line in, using a transit to make sure the fall was right and then buried new two inch PVC pipe. Finally last Friday we finished up the connections and started it running. It now runs with great flow and we feel comfortable that we can easily refill the lower pond. Water is the second most limiting resource on the farm after labor and so we are feeling more secure than we have in some years. Let’s hope it keeps raining each week.
Picture of the Week
The trench runs 700′ to the far tree line and then 200 more feet to the creek
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What’s been going on?
There is no other way to say it, this hot weather combined with the pollen storm of the century sucks! The pollen part is just amazing to us as we don’t suffer from allergies but we never can remember one as heavy as this or as early, we do feel for those who are suffering from it though. The heat is just too much, too early. We finally had to give in and set up irrigation in the lettuces and spring vegetables on Monday to try and reduce the stress on those tender crops.
Heat this early in the spring greens season is not too detrimental as they are small and with enough water will just grow faster. If we get this kind of heat in a month then that will be more devastating. When these crops near maturity and get stressed they turn tough and bitter and may even go to seed prematurely as a defense mechanism. That means no lettuce or other greens for everyone. Let’s hope this is an aberration and when we go back down to the 70′s this weekend, it will be for a nice extended period. After all April and May are possibly the two best months of the year here, I would hate to lose them.
There are a lot of important dates coming up but one issue that is time sensitive that we would like for you all to know about is the impending vote on food safety legislation in the Senate. As a member of the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force organized by the NC Farm Bureau, we have been learning about and commenting on proposed legislation coming out of congress for several years now. The Senate is about to take up S510, sponsored by Senator Burr. Like many things is it is a complicated response to the contaminated food scares of the past few years.
While we all want healthy safe food, this legislation, written by the FDA with the help of the giant scale conventional California growers, will put many small scale, local producers out of business. The inspections, paperwork, and non-science based approaches to reducing animal pathogens will definitely hurt organic and sustainable growers. Our friends at Carolina Farm Stewardship Association have put together a good webpage with the information you need to act on this legislation. Please check it out and call your senators today!
Picture of the Week
micro sprinklers in the lettuce field trying to keep it all cool
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6:15 a.m. I’ve already been out to turn on the irrigation. We are now into the same routine that we developed during the big drought of 2002, start the irrigation at 6:00 and rotate fields every two hours. Right now we are pumping for eight hours a day, about 7000 gallons every day and the pond is down about two feet. Fortunately (or unfortunately maybe) we have spent more money on irrigation than any other piece of infrastructure so we can water with the best. We started by putting in $7000 worth of irrigation while we lived in a tent! That Betsy is a real trooper! The National Weather Service drought page says that we are normal in this area and that the forecast through July is for normal rainfall, lets hope they are right. We have only had a few tenths of rain since the beginning of the month and the heat is pushing it further. Evidently we are on the way to the warmest May on record with already 20 days over 80 degrees. Hmmm…
The heat is really pushing the crops as well, spring crops are just about burned up and the summer ones are growing fast. The tail that wags the dog right now are the Blueberries. Should have picked the first few the end of this week but with the heat we are in full picking mode which started last Friday. As great as the berries are, they consume all labor around here like a black hole. Everyone but Betsy does nothing but pick berries every morning for weeks consequently every thing else on the farm can suffer from neglect. We hire four or five additional people to get them all picked and we only have 200 bushes! It’s expensive to get these berries picked but well worth it in both the fruit but also in getting local folks involved in agriculture. One of the three tenets of a sustainable system is the social/community part (the other two are economic and environmentally sound) and the idea of being socially responsible and fair. We could hire migrant workers and get the berries picked for less but we feel it is better to hire locals and pay good wages to them. Some of the other aspects of the social component are our relationships with you and our other customers, including our wholesale accounts, our neighbors, etc. So when you buy those berries more than a third of the cost went into the labor to pick them and that money has stayed in the community too!
The tomatoes are growing a foot or more a week right now and we are working to keep them tied up, soon we will have to start trellising the peppers too. Still looking for the first ripe tomato, we will savor it! The turkeys were three weeks old yesterday and had their first foray outdoors, they are very funny as they learn something new for the first time, very cautious, but eventually they all made it outside for a tentative romp in the grass.
Picture of the week
June first the beginning of hurricane season, let’s not start there. The beginning of blueberry season, that’s better. We picked the first blues yesterday and they are really loaded up! This first pass doesn’t yield much and is very tedious to do, the temptation is to pick anything that shows color but we try and only pick the fully blue fruit. It is sort of a mental training exercise so that later in the season you automatically get the best ones. We want to make sure that these first berries are fully ripe and sweet, in a few days they will begin to ripen so fast that we won’t have to be so careful and also will not be able to keep up. Many folks who come to the farm ask why the blueberry rows are so far apart. We originally planned on having twice as many bushes and left room for a row in between the existing rows so we could plant some different varieties to act as pollinators for the variety we have. Most blueberries (and fruit trees too) need a different but similar season variety to cross pollinate with to be able to set fruit. This southern highbush variety that we grow turns out to be self fruiting (a trait that the researchers where not completely sure about when we planted them) so we never got around to planting the additional rows. It turns out that blueberries are so time consuming to harvest that the idea of having twice as many just scares us to death! It takes five or six people harvesting every morning, five days a week to keep up with the ripening berries, and it is only 200 plants!
In the meantime we fall far behind on all the other farm chores. This year with the delayed first harvest we have been trying to get certain jobs done before time runs out, with some success. We have gotten a lot of weeding and cultivating done as well as flower trellising and planting but as usual there are still far too many things that will need to be done during the hectic peak weeks of blueberry season. We add on additional help during this period and keep them on for a few days after the season so they can help us catch up, let’s hope we can!
Let’s hope it rains this week as it is getting very dry out there and we are already pumping lots of water. The pond is already getting low and the creek we back it up with is beginning to slow down too. Fortunately as cool as it has been we are only watering every other day but with the forecast for hot weather coming in this weekend we may have to go to daily irrigation. The turkeys made there outdoors debut this last week. They are always very tentative the first time they are exposed to anything new, now they are acting like old hands including a few bad actors flying over the fence! One more week in the brooder at nights and then they graduate to the fields full time.
Picture of the Week
Sunflowers wating for the sun
Well we made it past the longest day of the year and now it’s all downhill to the finish line. As I was just walking around the farm this morning (very early) opening and closing valves for irrigation I was able to review all of the new trial crops for this season. The report is mixed. The artichoke plants look good and growing well but Betsy says she thinks we probably didn’t get them in early enough to make many “chokes” as they need to have more chilling hours than they got, we’ll see. The new blackberries are sending up nice strong new canes for next years production. The sweet corn test is looking pretty bad. The first two plantings are thin as the germination was poor in the unusually cold soils that we had and the third planting the wild turkeys and crows picked all of the seed out of the ground before it came up (this is a common problem for corn growers). I re seeded it and just chased more crows out of the field. The rhubarb is looking pretty good. They sent the plants too late in the spring for my liking but two thirds of them are up and looking good, maybe we finally found the right place for them! Finally the new asparagus planting is hanging in there, I wish it looked a little more robust but at least they are still sending up new shoots, we started to irrigate them this week and that should help.
It is getting mighty dry out there and we are pumping water every day now. We have the ability to irrigate every last corner of the farm and at this time of year all crops have drip irrigation lines running down the middle of every bed. This is the most efficient way for us to water both from a volume of water standpoint but also it is very energy efficient to pump water for this low pressure system. The problem right now is that we have about 17,000 feet of line out there and are pumping roughly 10,000 gallons a day, every day! This is more water than our pond and creek supply on a daily basis. Soon we will have fewer crops to water (as the last of the spring crops come out) so we can cut back on the number of lines but it always makes me nervous when the pond is going down and there is no good chance of rain in sight.
Blueberry season is coming to a close and now we can put the staff back on other chores. Yesterday we worked on taking down old and putting up new flower trellis’ and began to build the last of the pepper trellis. We also cleaned out the turkey brooder house in preparation for the next batch that is supposed to be here tomorrow. These 35 broad breasted bronzes are for those folks who like fifteen to twenty five pound birds. Today may be the last berry harvest for the year, if not Friday for sure.
Picture of the Week
Peppers no-till and on landscape fabric, trellised straight and tall!
I know, I am a day late again. I told Rett the other day that my life is not my own right now! Another busy week off the farm starting with a Friday meeting of many different groups involved in agriculture in North Carolina. Ostensibly it was to discuss energy and farming. It was really meant to get the many disparate parties at the same table to talk with each other. You know the traditionalists and the forward thinkers. Over the years we have participated in lots of these kinds of meetings and at first it was to assure the “conventional” ag folks that we didn’t have horns and tails. Now with large scale agriculture in rough shape there is not much rancor at the table, just a lot of agreement that changes need to be made. The discussion of energy use on farms was very interesting and depressing at the same time. For us it is just a shot in the arm to continue to work on efficiency and other measures even more than we already have for years. This was followed by the SSWAG board meeting for three days! With market sandwiched in between we were really ready for a rest come Monday. But Joann made us plant another 1500 heads of lettuce then we passed out!
Finally a good rain on Tuesday! We had almost an inch and it came down perfectly. Still we headed out to Raleigh on Wednesday to procure yet more pipe for the water works here at the farm. In an attempt to catch more water from our creek, while it is still available, we are increasing the size of the pipe we use to gravity feed water out of the creek and into the lower pond. From there we can pump it up the hill to the other pond and hopefully fill it up before it gets hot. For years we have had an inch and a quarter line running for 800 feet, from the only deep place in the creek, down to the lower pond where the irrigation pump is. I am talking Roman style water movement here. It has given us a small flow which is adequate in normal conditions but in 2002 when the creek ran dry in June we realized it wasn’t enough. So we will now have a two inch pipe to give us much more water.
Back to farm work today as Rachel started back for the first day this season and along with Joann we began to get ready to plant the early, early tomatoes. These are the Early Pick’s, Orange Blossom’s, and the first Cherokee Purple’s planted into our sliding tunnels. The transplants look great and will be happy to get into the ground early next week. First though we need to set up irrigation, fabric mulch and the trellises. Next we have to slide the tunnels over them before we dare to plant them out in the uncertain weather of late March. It is good to have the staff back as they are lots of fun and they yank us out of our winter mindset and back to normal farm life. I will miss that second cup of coffee though.
Came home today and in the mail was a copy of our alumni magazine from Utah State University. Low and behold was an article on us and the farm. Here is a link to it on the web for those with lots of spare time (it’s really not a very long piece). I have know idea what the “bioneer” thing is about but…
Picture of the Week
Lettuce marching to the horizon
Rain, rain, rain marvelous rain! Another 1.8 inches last Wednesday and Thursday. Everything looks great, the weeds are growing too but the ponds are full now! Of course there are always downsides to everything but considering the need for the water I won’t whine too much. We are in the middle of lettuce season and when the plants are getting big enough to harvest lots of rain makes them very fragile and susceptible to disease. We plant the lettuce three rows to the bed twelve inches apart so there is not much air flow around the plants when they get to harvest stage. It is like your closet in the middle of the humid summer, fungus and mold loves to grow in these conditions. There is a soil borne lettuce disease appropriately called “bottom rot” because that is what it does. Our strategy for control is raised beds, many years in the crop rotation, and careful watering at the late stages. Well just before the rains started I irrigated, as I get to where I never believe we will actually get rain, then we got over three inches in the last week. We have seen a fair amount of the problem but I think have worked through all the bad beds. Adding insult to injury I had to cut Weaver Street Market’s lettuce in the rain last Thursday. I waited as long into the afternoon as I could hoping the rain would stop as wet lettuce is very tender and frankly cutting in the rain is not much fun. Finally I gave up and spent two hours hunched over with lettuce knife in hand. Of course by the time I got to Weaver Street’s back door the rain had ended but they had the lettuce they needed, such is the life of a produce grower.
Yesterday was the second installment of covering the Big Tops. This time it was the set that covers Betsy’s flowers that don’t like to be wet when it’s time to cut them. Four bays each covered with 30′ X 100′ sheets of plastic. We had the perfect windless morning and the A team on hand to perform. After three years of trying different approaches we now have settled on a four person system. Two people control the corners on one end and we pull the plastic over the top from one end to the other. Betsy is working a long push pole moving down the length of the tunnel helping the plastic over the top and I scamper around, some on a step ladder, some on the ground pulling the leading edge down as we make progress down the tunnel. Finally with it all draped over the top we clip the starting end on to the end bow and then got to the opposite end and pull the excess down that way and clip that end off. With these tunnels the clips just hold the ends in position. The plastic is really held on with a roping system that criss crosses over the top of the tunnels and are anchored on the legs. It is quite a show as Betsy and Joann pull the rope back and forth over the top as Rett and I follow tightening it. We approached a new world record, covering four bays clipped and roped in three and a half hours! We may be heading out on the road to make the big money!
Pictures of the Week
The upper pond last fall is now finally full! This is two months worth of irrigation water.
Everyday begins the same at this time of year. I am usually out of the house around 6:00 to let the turkeys out before the increasing light makes them too fidgety. We close the doors to their shelters each night at dark and most of them are self-loaded with the rest having flown up to the peak of the shelter to roost for the night. In the morning the top sleepers fly back down and taunt the locked-up groups by strutting around just outside the chicken wire walls. So, out they come for another day, pecking for bugs and discussing with each other what happened last night in the other shelter. Then I walk down to the irrigation pump to turn on the water for the day. When it is this hot we water everything for two hours a day, every day, and it is most effective if we do it early when it is cooler. You can tell that fall is on its way because the spiders are getting serious about stringing their webs across the paths to catch every thing in sight. I assume it is either to gather lots of food heading into the winter or trying to catch a ride for the new borns to another location so they can set up shop. In the early part of the year you can walk all around the farm and never run into a spider web. Now I have to find just the right stick, each morning, that I hold out in front of my face and chest to intercept them before I get a face full of spider! This morning walk can be up to three quarters of a mile or more depending on side jaunts, which gives me a chance to think about what needs to be done this day and to contemplate other issues. It is not quite a perambulation of the bounds but close.
Today I was thinking about the tragic passing of a friend, neighbor and fellow farmer, Chuck Glosson. Chuck was accidentally hit and killed by a car on Saturday morning while we were at market, he was only 33. The news spread quickly though the market community as we all returned home that afternoon. Many of you may remember Chuck who sold at market from 1993 until 2000. He and his family set up right behind our Saturday stall where Chapel Hill Creamery is now. The next to take over the family farm, a farm that has been in the family at least 200 years. Chuck finished High School and went right into farming with his father and it was a true partnership from the beginning. A true traditional family farm, they raise cattle, pigs and chickens. They also produce corn, wheat, soybeans, grass seed, hay, straw and many more crops, some to feed the animals and some to sell. At market Chuck was an innovator. He was the first to sell beef and pork. They sold beautiful produce and cut flowers. They immediately had a loyal customer following because of the huge diversity of product but mostly due to the fact that Chuck was the friendliest, kindest, and most sincere person they ever met.
We first met Chuck when he was about to graduate from High School. He came by the farm one day because another market vendor suggested he go see what we were doing. He was sure of staying on the farm and thinking about how he would fit into the family operation. We walked all around our place and he asked good questions and soaked it all up. In the years since we have bought straw from them, asked them about raising pigs and other crops. After Hurricane Fran, when we had to move our transplant greenhouse after it was flooded, Chuck came over with one of their huge tractors and towed the structure up the hill and helped us set it on the new foundations. He was always happy, willing to help and was a great listener. The kind of farming that the Glossons do is completely different than what Betsy and I do but we had an understanding of each others daily lives. Chuck has always been the picture, in my mind, of the future of traditional mid- size farmers. Now I don’t know what image I will have in my head when someone talks about young conventional farmers but I will always know that I was friends with one of the finest humans to have ever walked this earth.
Picture of the Week
Bourbon Reds perambulating their bounds in the early morning.
After two straight Wednesdays of early starts to cover the Big Tops I am finally back on schedule with the news from the farm. It’s hot and getting dry, dry, dry and we are working to get enough water on everything but the newly transplanted small seedlings would really like a rain to get them established. Our standard spring planting procedure is to plant on days just before a rain is due to arrive so everything gets a good drink of water. The past few weeks the weather has not cooperated in that way so we move to our summer dry weather system of preparing the planting bed and then burying a drip irrigation line right down the middle of the bed. We then plant the bed and drag a hose along to water the little plants in well and then let the buried irrigation take over. This irrigation line is buried just a few inches deep so we can weed over it but it also makes it so the water, that slowly drips out of its openings, moves out through the soil soaking the bed and the plants roots. That’s the theory and generally it works. When the top few inches of the soil is as dry as it is now and a hot dry wind blows it is almost impossible to get the whole bed wet with the irrigation line. We would have to run it for hours and hours to wet it completely and then the established plants in neighboring beds would be too wet. So the next move, if the rains don’t come and the little plants are drying out, is to roll out the micro-sprinklers to artificially rain on them. These little sprinklers run on low pressure like the drip irrigation lines do but can throw a fine spray up to ten feet but then we irrigate up the all the weeds too. No easy solution other than a little rain, maybe tomorrow?
For the second year in a row we are working with NC State on an interesting research project with grafted tomatoes. In other parts of the world with limited agricultural land and intensive plantings it can be very easy to begin to have problems with soil-borne diseases from planting the same kinds of crops in the same place year after year. One solution is to use a disease resistant rootstock and graft the variety of vegetable you want on top of it. Just like fruit trees where they use rootstocks to control the size of the tree and then put say a Golden Delicious on top. In places like Korea and Japan and Israel a large percentage of their tomatoes, melons and other fruiting vegetable crops are now grafted. Last year we/they tested two rows of tomatoes here on our farm, just out in the field, testing three different rootstocks just to see the growth and yield differences. This year they wanted to have the research plot under the Big Tops just like the rest of our tomatoes and to use one of our usual varieties. So we decided on testing our favorite tomato, Cherokee Purple. We grow more Cherokee Purples than red tomatoes and so it is a very important crop for us. Just in case they had trouble producing the grafted transplants in the lab at NC State we started a whole set ourselves so we wouldn’t be without our favorite kind, assuming we would just give those plants away if the graduate student ended up with enough plants. Then we got nervous and decided to plant those plants anyway just in case there was other difficulties with the grafted plants, this is research after all, things can happen. So now we have twice as many Cherokee Purples than ever before! It could make for a very tasty July!
Picture of the Week
Setting up the micro-sprinklers to try and water up the new zinnias