Busy week, the last out of town conference trip of the season combined with typical spring chores. Who would have thought that I would be in Kansas City twice in the span of two months? In January I flew in to be the keynote speaker and a conference presenter at the Great Plains Vegetable Growers conference, a new group to me and I had a fine time. In the back of my head was the knowledge that the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) was having their 20th anniversary meeting in late March, also in KC. For us, once the market season starts, we just don’t go away, too much to do. But the SARE program holds a special place in my heart and in the development of Peregrine Farm. SARE is the federal government’s effort at promoting sustainable agriculture through an innovative grants program and then information dispersal. Split into four regions of the country, I spent seven years in the 90′s as a farmer representative on the Administrative Council of the Southern Region which reviews the grants and oversees the operation of the regional program.
Extremely unusual for a government program, it is very participatory and diverse. The Administrative Councils have representatives from universities, industry, NGO’s, state and federal governmental organizations as well as farmers. They discuss and debate the future of agriculture and how to direct that future towards more sustainable solutions via the carrot of grant monies. Not only was I exposed to the newest cutting edge ideas in farming and the leading minds in sustainable ag but also how this kind of group operates. The politics and relationships involved, how to manage large groups of diverse opinions to come to decisions, where the money goes. In the end I was elected to the august position of council Chair (I think I left the room at the wrong time). This took me to the National Operations meetings where I was able to work with my counterparts from the other regions. In all it was a very formative time for us. So late March be damned, Betsy particularly thought I should attend partly for the conference sessions but also to see old friends. Off I flew early Tuesday and returned late last night tired but glad that I did attend infused with new ideas and renewed contacts.
Here on the farm the staff and Betsy have been making great headway. The early tomatoes and cucumbers were planted on Tuesday, waiting until just after what we hope was the last night in the mid 20′s. As it has become more common in recent years we are having to do variety trials to find a replacement for a longtime favorite vegetable. This time it is the early red tomato we have relied on for great early production with great flavor. Most tomatoes are not suited to planting this early and the ones that are, usually don’t have very good size or flavor. Burpees Early Pick hybrid is the one we have grown for years and it has performed reliably but in today’s modern seed industry they have decided to discontinue it’s seed production, damn! We had some seed left and are growing it alongside three new varieties in the hopes of finding good replacement. In a few months you will get to taste the results. Big cultivation and weeding week, looks like they got everything cultivated while I was gone. Weed control is all about timing and the soil conditions were ideal this week. If all goes well, that will be the last time we have to do any cultivation on the early spring crops.
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Newly planted tomatoes
The rain has certainly been unexpected and welcome. Originally forecast for just some drizzly weather it turned into almost three days of off and on rain, almost two inches worth. Everyone is asking “is the drought over?” and the quick answer is no. Yes the streams are running well right now and many ponds and reservoirs are full or filling. I am sure the ground water is in no way recharged and as soon as the leaves come out on the trees and the heat hits it will become evident in reduced stream flows. The National Weather Service/NOAA is forecasting the next three months to have normal precipitation for our area, better news than before. I still am apprehensive and we are taking all precautions we can to store water. The upper pond was still six feet down, the spring that used to feed it has long ago gone dry and there is only maybe five acres of watershed above it so we started filling it this week. Normally we slowly fill the lower pond by means of a gravity feed, two inch line, that runs 800 feet from the creek at about five gallons a minute. When the lower pond is full we pump that water uphill to the upper pond using the electric irrigation pump, 24 hours of pumping will nearly empty the lower pond and raise the upper pond by about two feet, something like 50,0000 gallons. We then have to let the lower pond refill, which can take many days, and then start again. With the creek running well right now we decided to be more aggressive and pump from the creek into the lower pond at a much higher rate and then relay pump at the same time to the upper pond. So we borrowed a gasoline powered pump and have it set up on the creek bank hooked into that two inch pipe we already have laid and it is working well. The gas engine has to be refilled every two hours when it runs out of gas but hopefully with three days of running water we can have both ponds completely full. 96 hours of pumping, another 150,000 gallons of water.
Difficult to get a lot of farm work done this week, a bit damp. The staff did spend Monday morning in the greenhouse moving up the seedlings for the main planting of tomatoes, from one inch containers to four inch containers so they will have large vigorous root systems when we plant them out in 3 weeks. About 700 plants of 15 varieties. Tedious work both in working with the little plants but also making sure not to mix the varieties up and mislabel them. It’s good practice for when they have to do the same thing with the peppers in a few weeks, 2500 plants of 30 varieties. Perfect weather to do this kind of work as the plants are not as stressed when it’s overcast. The sugar snap peas got trellised too. 600 feet of plastic net on metal posts to support the soon to be five foot tall vines. Otherwise we are doing that early spring clean up of fallen limbs, cutting the last firewood for next winter, and other around the farm odds and ends.
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The temporary pumping station, this large creek was dry for nearly 6 months last year!
OK so the rain has officially put us behind as far as field work is concerned. Plants are backing up in the greenhouse and hopefully we will get them all in Thursday and Friday. We also really need to get some cover crops turned under so they can decompose in time for us to plant the cash crops that will need their nutrients to grow. The scariest thing is the main planting of tomatoes is to be planted in two weeks and we have to get the Big Tops built over the field they are going into, and fast! The most difficult part of the process is drilling the legs into the ground. They go in, or are supposed to go in, thirty inches deep. You till a field for a quarter of a century and you think you know where all the rocks are but it turns out that you only know where the rocks are in the top twelve inches, there are parts of the planet down there that you can only hope you miss. We started with the legs yesterday and so far not too bad, 15% have hit rocks we couldn’t work around. We knew this field would be a trial and feel if it stays about the same we will be fine. Big rocks mean we have to get a BIG jackhammer to bust them up. We will drill or attempt to drill in all 95 legs and anchors first and then go rent the jackhammer and finish up the troublesome holes all in one day. If we can get the rest of the legs in today then we can quickly finish it up early next week. Let’s hope, because tomatoes wait for no one!
The rest of the water pumping went well last week and now both ponds are essentially full. Lets hope they stay that way and the only use for that water will be to swim in this summer when it’s hot! Things are really greening up fast now and with all this rain and warm temperatures it will all move really quickly, crops and weeds. We need to get the last of the lettuces in the ground as well as seeding of the last spinach, and radishes. Believe it or not we need to seed the first Zinnias and plant the first Celosias too. Betsy even started mowing this week, you know that the last frost date is approaching when the first summer crops go in and the weedeater comes out!
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Cov hanging on for dear life while we drill in legs for the Big Tops
Welcome to last frost/freeze day! 28 degrees this morning and by the look of the forecast this should be the last night below freezing this spring (don’t borrow money based on this prediction). In Chapel Hill most folks use April 15th (April 11th is the official date at the RDU airport) as the average last frost date but out here along the Haw river we are always three to five degrees colder and I use April 21st as our safe date. We’ve had too many close calls in the early years, sleepless nights worrying about tender plants. Polar Cap Farms we call it in the spring, our staff always complains about how much colder it is out here in the mornings as compared to their houses in town. Now it’s safe to plant the tomatoes outdoors. It’s not that we are risk averse, hell we’re farmers after all, but we just don’t roll the dice the way we used to in the past. I guess it’s the benefit of having weathered so many growing seasons, might as well not fight it and just wait until it’s right for the tomatoes needs, not our calendars.
The construction of the Big Tops is going well. We did get all the legs screwed into the ground last week except a dozen. Monday we rented the BIG jackhammer and busted up the parts of the planet that stood in the way. Having done this before, I was not looking forward to it but it actually went well and only took a morning to do. This years staff, Cov and Dan, had never had the pleasure of running such a beast so after I worked the first six holes I turned the last six over to them. They started the morning in their early 30′s and ended it in their late 30′s. So now the legs and anchors are all in and most of the attendant braces. By the end of today the frame should all be finished and maybe we can pull the plastic over by the end of the week. Right on schedule to get the tomatoes planted early next week, whew! Late last week we turned our attentions to getting caught up on planting and managed to get almost all the backed up plants into the ground. We even got a little rain to help water them in but I am afraid I will have to get the irrigation set up this week too. Why does it happen all at the same time?
Farm Tour this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-6:00 each day (who added an additional hour?). Our annual opening of the doors to the general public to come see the farm. Many of you have been on the Farm Tour before and it is a great opportunity to see many of the folks who sell at the Carrboro Market. Now in it’s thirteenth year, thousands of people go on the tour and it raises thousands of dollars for the work Carolina Farm Stewardship Association does. Sponsored by Weaver Street Market, who does an incredible amount of work to promote the tour and local agriculture, it is easy to go on the tour. Just pick up a map at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market or Weaver St. Market or many other local businesses and go to first farm that you want to see. The best deal is to buy a button ($30) which will be your pass for as many people as you can stuff into one vehicle, for as many farms as you want. 35 farms this year so you will have to choose, it is hard to do more than 3 maybe 4 farms in a day. In the mean time we will be mowing and picking up around the place, nothing like have hundreds of house guests all at once to make you buff up the joint! Come on out and see what we have been up to, the weather looks to be a bit mixed but it goes on rain or shine!
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As they say, this is a “file” photo from the last time but you get the idea
The Farm Tour weekend went beautifully but not without some excitement! Saturday was it’s usual long day, up before 5:00 a.m. to go to market and then rushing home to throw the gates open for the visitors. The afternoon was warm but pleasant and it was great to have time to visit with everyone. Sunday was cooler and overcast to start but the folks came on anyway. About 4:00 p.m. the sky looked very threatening and Betsy reported the radar showed a nasty line of storms coming at us. Sure enough it pounded down for about a half an hour and then continued to rain for another half an hour or so. Betsy and I were pinned down in the transplant greenhouse with some folks and our worst nightmare began, HAIL. For about five minutes pea sized hail and larger came down. I scampered out, as the lightning flashed, and rolled down the cold frame cover over the hundreds of tomato transplants and protected them. Now we waited helplessly as we knew the potential damage that could be happening, a quarter acre of lettuce flashed through my mind, all of Betsy’s early season flowers. In the end all looked not too worse for wear. The lettuce does have some holes in the leaves from the hail stones but everything else looks fine. Produce with a story Betsy says.
In our early years, 1984 or ’85, we had a tremendous storm come through in May. All of our neighbors crops were hit hard. Corn was blown down, tomatoes stripped of all their leaves, greens turned to paste by the hail. We were in the blackberry business then and the new canes were growing vigorously at that time of year. Even though they were up to five feet tall, they were still tender like an asparagus stalk. The hail stones were big and hit with such force that many canes were broken off and others looked like we had beaten them with sticks. Every one that was broken then sent out side shoots to compensate and those side shoots could grow up to 30 feet in a season! All summer we worked to prune and manage those two acres of blackberries onto the trellises, trying to make a frame work that would make the next years harvest as easy as possible. In the end it all turned out fine but the memory of that hail still haunts us to this day.
Busy week as we are still trying to catch up from Big Top construction. The tomato Big Tops are done and covered! This morning we have to cover two more bays, one for Betsy’s lisianthus and the other where NC State is planting their research tomatoes, tomorrow! This afternoon the staff will be building the 1200 feet of trellis to hold up all the tomatoes. Hopefully by tomorrow we can begin to tuck all the tomato plants into there respective beds. The rains and warm temperatures really made things jump this week. We did set up irrigation in the spring vegetables and the lettuce last week as they really needed it but the rains have really brought everything else around. We moved up the thousands of pepper seedlings yesterday, a perfect overcast day to do it as it reduces the stress to the little plants as they work to send out roots into the new soil surrounding them.
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Just covered Big Tops with the ladder still in place
Success! All the tomatoes are in the ground and only a day later than last year. Thursday the guys got the last of the trellises built, most of the tomato varieties we grow are heirlooms which grow tall and need strong support. In the wild (in Central America) tomatoes are actually perennials and will grow and grow, here where they get killed by frost we forget about that. These old heirloom types are closer to their wild cousins than the new hybrid types that are bred to be shorter and easier to grow. The standard tomato support system in the industry is called “stake and weave” where you drive a stake every other plant and then weave a string down both sides of the plants and around the posts and so on. In the past we have done some stake and weave on short plants and I hate it! For one it means driving 35 stakes per 100 foot row and it’s difficult to weave with tall stakes. So we developed what I call the one sided tomato cage. Research has shown that the best production is tomatoes grown in cages, round cylinders of wire mesh where the plants just grow up in the middle and out the sides. The problem with cages is they take a lot of wire and room in the field. So we run the wire, field fencing, down the middle of the row with plants on either side. They grow up through it and we only have to tie up the branches that head out into the aisle. It only takes nine posts to support it and it fast to put up and take down at the end of the season. Trellising 101.
Trellis done we planted half the rows on Thursday and finished up Friday with the rest. Only fifteen varieties in this main planting this year, kind of going back to basics. Sometimes a person gets so carried away with trying new kinds that it doesn’t leave enough room for the ones we need to grow to make a living and the new ones don’t give us enough to really make a display at market. There is a new red that several growers raved to me about at meetings this winter and we are growing Mortgage Lifter (a pink) again for the first time in years partly due to a Slow Food tomato taste challenge going on later this summer (I will let you know more details later). We are still trying to settle in on one of those Italian paste/eating tomatoes we brought back that everyone has given high marks to. After years of side by side testing we have settled in on just two yellow varieties Kellogg’s Breakfast and the high acid Azoychka and have let Nebraska Wedding go, just not good enough production. The rest are the mainstays of our show- Big Beefs, German Johnsons, Viva Italias, Green Zebra and Aunt Ruby’s German Green and of course the champion Cherokee Purple taking up a full third of our production.
The other high point of the week was the arrival of the little turkey poults. After a year hiatus raising turkeys we are once again back in the business. You may remember all of the trials and difficulties we have participated in with poultry processing which is the reason we decided to take last year off. The great news is we have a brand new processing plant in Siler City which just opened this month. Abdul Chaudhry of Chaudhry’s Halal Meats has built a beautiful new poultry facility next door to his red meat plant and we are very excited to be working with him. As usual the phone rings early, 7:30, and it’s the Post Office, “come get your turkeys” and you can hear them cheeping up a storm in the background. Betsy zips off to Graham to collect them while I get their feeders, waterers and heat lamps ready. Betsy returns with 66 energetic, Bourbon Red poults, maybe the best looking ones we have ever received. Each on gets it’s beak dipped in the water then plopped down in the feed tray so they know where it is. Now a week later they look great and it is nice to have them back on the farm.
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What is this big animal in here bothering us?
What a great day it was last Saturday. The celebration of the 30th season of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market brought out a huge crowd to enjoy the festivities and shop. I know that there had to have been ten thousand of those raffle coupons handed out to all the shoppers. We enjoy such great support both from all of you who come to market but also all of the surrounding businesses that donated for the raffles. And a big thank you to Sarah Blacklin (our market manager) and all of the volunteers who helped put it on. This is what the market founders envisioned all those years ago when they stated the goals of the market to be (from the By-Laws) “The goal of the corporation is to operate farmers’ markets in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area which serve the dual purpose of providing (1) a direct retail outlet for local farmers thereby promoting local agriculture, and (2) an alternative buying arrangement for consumers where high quality fresh products are available at reasonable prices in an atmosphere conducive to the exchange of information and ideas between the original producer and the consumer.” and the town of Carrboro wanted to bring more people into downtown to help keep it vibrant and working. I would say that all of that has happened and more.
I rarely talk about “the seamy underbelly of the market” as we want most people to have the feeling that we all just happen to show up on Saturdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and what a wonderful coincidence it is. Yeah sure there are always glitches along the way, issues between vendors, between the market and the town and surrounding businesses, sometimes it’s difficult to park but we all have worked together to solve those problems so we can enjoy the benefits. It’s called community. As members of the market for 23 seasons now we are extremely proud and defensive of the market and it’s organization. It has been a model for many of the markets in North Carolina and around the country too. It is unusual for a market to be farmer run and farmer controlled, it takes a lot of time to run such a large organization when you have to farm as well. I tell folks that it is as close to democracy as you can get when 80 plus individual businesses come together to agree on how their market place will be organized and then elect a board of their peers to make policy and run the day to day business of the market. Farmers working together making decisions that work for farmers, not some other organization. So we thank all of you for rewarding us with your support all these years, it takes all of us to have a dance!
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Sweet William in the first morning light
I know it’s a bit of a late notice but if you didn’t already know we are hosting a Slow Food Triangle chapter potluck this Sunday afternoon here at the farm. I have talked in the past about our involvement with Slow Food most notably our attendance at the world conference of farmers in Italy, Terra Madre. They are also the group most visibly responsible for the resurrection/popularity of the heritage turkeys, like the Bourbon Reds that we raise. Their emphasis is on food that is “good, clean and fair”. Everyone is invited, you don’t have to be a member, just bring a dish that serves eight (preferably made with local ingredients), the beverage of your choice and something to sit on. It looks to be a beautiful late spring day and the farm is at the peak of spring vegetable production. For more information and to RSVP here is the link We hope to see you here.
The last of the big spring jobs begins today, pepper planting. The heavy rains over the weekend has put us behind a few days but I managed to get the beds tilled last night, nothing like a raised bed on a slope to help things dry out fast! I have already pushed the planting date back a week to better accommodate the flowering of the cover crop, partly to let them make more nitrogen to feed the peppers and it makes it easier to kill them so they don’t become a weed in the peppers later. I also want to get the little transplants into the ground this week as they are at the perfect size and growing rapidly. I believe in timing the transplants so that they are growing well and hit the ground running and continue growing fast. If we hold them too long, say because it is too wet to plant, then they slow down their growth and can become stunted waiting in the small containers. So I start to get nervous around this time of year if something holds us up, the peppers must go in!
Big day yesterday for the turkeys, their first foray outdoors. You may remember two years ago when we first let them out and they went wild, flying all over the farm. We had to chase them through the woods and all around. I know that was probably caused by having to keep them in longer than I like because it was so wet and I didn’t want them out on wet ground at first. So we were a bit apprehensive when we opened the door yesterday even though it was at the three week old stage I usually first expose them to the outdoors. They were very timid, and just stood massed at the opening. blinking in the sun. It took hours before a few were bold enough to make it down the ramp and another few hours before the scouts went another few feet into the field shelter. Relieved that we didn’t have to chase turkeys we left them on their own to explore the new green world.
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This has got to be a trick, why would he let us out?
Undoubtedly the event of the week was the Slow Food potluck here at the farm on Sunday. I was a beautiful sunny late spring day with temperatures in the 70′s and a breeze. Betsy and I had mowed the place up and we had set up tables in what we call “the stand” (formerly our Pick-Your-Own stand) which is under the shade of three huge tulip poplars and a willow oak. Looking out over the fields and gardens and right up next to the lettuce field and the fava beans. At 4:00 cars began to roll in and by 5:00 there was quite a large group assembled. The skies were getting fearsome looking and I ran in to check the radar, lots of red and purple! I ran back out, climbed on a chair and announced that everyone needed to grab their potluck dish and go down to our house. Just as everyone made it inside it began to dump rain, with thunder and lightning. Fortunately we had just put that living room addition onto the house this winter and have lots of kitchen counter and a dining table we can put lots of leaves in. The kitchen counters and the table were covered by food dishes and the food line snaked around the room like a conga line. In Slow Food parlance the local chapters are called conviviums as in convivial- “fond of feasting, drinking, and good company; social, jovial” we were certainly that! Great food made with local ingredients and I think that everyone was able to move around the house and visit with each other. As the rain stopped and people made their way back to their cars and home they also took short self guided tours of the farm. Not exactly as planned but fun still the same. We didn’t get a count of how many folks came but I can tell you we had over a hundred forks and there were four left unused! Someone said it should have been the picture of the week but I couldn’t get to my camera.
Not without some nervous pacing around, we managed to get all the peppers in the ground this past week, hallelujah! Wednesday the guys got all the black landscape fabric laid over the nine raised beds that I reserve for all the hot peppers which I think need the extra warm soil to do well and the fussier sweet peppers than need better drained soil. As I headed off to market they proceeded to plant all of those nine beds with 26 different varieties. That task alone of making sure that each variety is placed in the right location so we can know what it is and make it more efficient come picking time. I leave them a detailed map of what goes where. That job done we are only half finished planting. The rest of the plants, all of the red bells and most of the yellow and oranges are planted directly into killed cover crops. A slower process and we were held up by wet soil from what is beginning to feel like rain every other day. Finally yesterday it seemed like it was dry enough and we needed to get them in before the next rain. With speed and precision the three of us went about it and all went well, another nine beds all tucked into the mulch. In total nearly 2400 hundred plants and they all got rained in last night, perfect!
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Dan and Cov poking the last peppers plants in the ground
The sprint is on now, the blueberries are beginning to ripen and the urgency to get other things done around the farm before we are all lost to berry picking is keen. This is one of those transition weeks in the season when old crops begin to wane and the new ones are beginning to flex their “you need to come work in me” muscles. Thankfully this is the last week and fifth week of wholesale lettuce deliveries to Weaver Street Market. For seventeen seasons we have grown all the spring lettuce for Weaver Street and it dictates the pace of my spring work. We plant nearly 9000 heads beginning in early February, covering, cultivating, irrigating until the late in April when I cut lettuce four mornings a week. Monday and Thursdays are the large harvest days for the stores. Early in the morning I call and get the orders from the produce departments so I can start cutting first thing when the lettuce is cool and with dew. Most days it is twelve to sixteen cases, 24 heads to a case, some days it can be twenty or more. It is the one thing on the farm that only I harvest, there is an eye one has to develop to know that the head is big enough for the stores. I fall into a steady routine, Red Leaf is first as it is the most heat sensitive and usually I have to cut the most of it for the orders. I move right to left down the beds after I cut a number of heads out to have a place to set the crate. The lettuce is three plants across the bed and hopefully they are all the right size otherwise there can be substantial skipping around. Cut the head off with the special lettuce knife at the base and then inspect the head for quality, peeling off a few of the old outer leaves, littering the ground around my feet with them. The first layer in the case is three rows of three, layered in like singles; then layer of six heads followed by the final layer of nine. I can barely get 24 full size heads in a case but do, carry it to the back of the truck, snap the lid on and pick up another empty crate. Green Leaf follows next, then the Boston, Romaine is always last. Romaine can take the heat better and is the easiest to cut and clean when I am getting tired. When it is really large I tell myself it is like cutting down redwoods. If the planting is really uniform I can cut ten cases an hour, fifteen seconds a head. When I have to skip around it slows me down to six an hour. With the days order cut I pull the truck down into the deep shade for a few hours before I take it into town. Wednesday’s and Friday’s cuts for market are smaller only around eight cases but still the same. After five straight weeks of wholesale lettuce I am ready to do something else every morning, it’s time for the season to change.
Big day yesterday the turkeys moved to the field. The first time a batch of turkeys is exposed to something new they get crazy, this group seems especially jumpy so we have been careful in this big transition to the outdoors. First we let them run in and out of the brooder to the field shelter just to get the hang of it. Then we move the field shelter further away from the brooder and put food and water in there. Finally we close the brooder and make them stay the night in the field shelter. This group has not been high on the scale of early adopters, plenty of distress chirping and generally not getting it at first. On field moving day we have to catch each one and carry it to the new field where we have moved their familiar feeders and waterers, lots of panic and chasing around. Once they are all in the new field we move the field shelter (the new mothership) into the field and leave them alone for the rest of the day. We were worried that come night fall we would be herding them around to get them into the shelter for the night, not being the highest achieving group. Hallelujah, at dark they were all self loaded and we just had to close the door! Transition complete.
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Cozy at first light, waiting to be released for their first full day in the field