What’s been going on?
Most weeks this time of year are pretty full but this one feels more so (hence another late newsletter). We are going full steam on all fronts now with Wednesday market added on and this week the deliveries of lettuce to Weaver Street Market stores in Carrboro and Southern Village. This is our 20th spring season of providing lettuce to Weaver Street Market, maybe I will get a silver watch someday. In some ways this wholesale component of our farm is a remnant of the old days when the Farmers Market was not as robust and the restaurants had not yet caught on to the better flavor and quality of local ingredients. We had to produce for grocery stores to generate enough revenue to stay in business.
Almost none of the farmers at the markets these days grow for wholesale and many even eschew working with restaurants. It is a testament to how good the Farmers Markets and CSA’s have been to the bottom line of these farm businesses. Even we have scaled back from four stores to just Weaver Street and the number of products we provide them, really only lettuce and flowers now. There are several good aspects to growing for them, one is it makes us work in a more precise way which gives a tempo to the whole farm. It is like cooking dinner, you have to have all the dishes done at the same time or you can’t sit down to eat. If we say we will have all the lettuce for the stores on a certain day and for a so many weeks, then we better plan, plant and harvest exactly that. Farmers’ Markets and CSA’s allow you to be more relaxed. No lettuce this week? You just won’t have it at market (or in the CSA boxes) and no one will know or really care, you just show up with what you have.
Another important part of having the grocery store customers is it diversifies our marketing options. In seasons like this one is shaping up to be, when every turnip and beet seed germinated, we can offer them our excess production when there is no way the markets or restaurants could use that much product. We are delivering there anyway and so the extra step to find a home for otherwise homeless vegetables is not very big. Many farmers will wear themselves out trying to move the few extra boxes of something leftover from market and in most cases it is not worth the time or money, better off just going home and getting something done on the farm.
Now someday, as we begin to scale Peregrine Farm back and head into our golden years (after I get that silver watch), we will probably even let the wholesale business go too. By then we will just be old characters at the Market, serving up what produce we decide we want to grow that year. Until then I am off to cut lettuce!
Picture of the Week
Lettuce in the early morning light
What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading
What’s been going on?
Well some of you caught us at Farmers’ Market last week, on our inaugural outing. Really more of a shakedown cruise to make sure we could find everything and remember how to do it. After six months of not going to market it takes some re-adjustments to find the right tables and the cash box and signs, etc. It was great to see everyone we talked to and the market seemed alive with souls who are more than ready for this endless winter to cease, farmers and customers both.
When I sent the last newsletter out in January, at that time starting to be amazed at the duration of the cold weather, little could we have imagined how long it would really last. Certainly now, standing at the brink of our 29th growing season, we can say that never have we experienced such a winter in North Carolina! It has not been so much about the amount of snow or threats of snow we’ve had but the string of days below fifty degrees. In years past we would be out occasionally working in thirty and forty degree temperatures but usually there are enough days in the winter when it warms up past the fifty degree mark that we would just save up the outdoor chores for those days. This winter has seen only a dozen or so days when it got above the average high temperature (which most of the time hovers just above that fifty degree mark).
What does this all mean besides we are really out of shape and can barely move after some of these first warm work days? It means that most crops are going to be running very late this spring. Some people I have talked to are saying things look three weeks behind right now. If it warms up in some reasonable fashion those delays will shrink. I can say we have been up to three weeks delayed in getting some things in the ground and I have officially moved back the seeding dates for most of the spring vegetable crops by a week over last year. Cold soil means really poor germination rates for things like spinach, beets and carrots. The transplanted crops, like lettuce, will go in on schedule and usually catch up with the arrival of warmer days but I would say that they too will be off by at least a week this spring.
Despite the weather, the staff started back to work this week, for at least a few days, because we do have a lot of maintenance work to get done. The first job was dismantling the shed roof that collapsed in the January snow. It took all day to carefully take it apart so we can, fairly easily, reconstruct it before the Farm Tour in April. Cov and Glenn are both back for this season and it is really nice to know we have skilled help when it comes to getting these kinds of jobs done as well as the inevitable catch up work we will need to do when it warms up for good.
Picture of the Week
Nothing left of the Stand but the posts and the de-tinned roof structure.
What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading
Of all the holidays, real or not, observed or not, given-a-day-off-with-pay or not; there are only two that we view as agricultural based celebrations. Thanksgiving of course is the grand, end of the harvest season celebration. Hopefully we have had a good growing season and the larder is full of food to carry us through the winter. The animals are fat with summer and fall feeding either on pastures or in the woods and are ready for winter too.
Groundhog Day is the celebration of the awakening of spring. No it’s not true spring but it is halfway through winter. Originating among many cultures around the world, they all started getting antsy halfway through the long cold dark period and began to look for signs of when it would end. They looked for natural signs that the earth was warming up and hibernating animals were chosen as the best predictors. Depending where they were it was bears or badgers, in the New World it was groundhogs.
For us it does coincide with when we begin to plant the first crops out into the field. In most winters we put out the first lettuces, fava beans and onions the first weeks of February. Soon to follow are peas, radishes and turnips but it is not until early and mid March until it is really warm enough for serious planting. Groundhog Day does mark the tentative beginning of spring/end of winter but you better hedge your bets.
The prognosticators are mixed in their forecasts this day. Punxsutawney Phil says six more weeks of winter. Sir Walter Wally (I’m sorry I’d be embarrassed to come out and look for my shadow too with that name) says it’s an early spring. Dunkirk Dave from Dunkirk, NY did see his shadow but the forecast for six more weeks of winter was invalidated due to artificial lighting.
The National Weather Service gives both the 30 day and the 90 day forecast as below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation. This says six more weeks of winter to me. They also say the groundhogs are only right 39% of the time.
We don’t even begin to see groundhogs around here until April or later so as forecasters of the weather for this farm they aren’t very useful. Looking out the window at the light rain coming down on top of the 3 inches of snow and ice left from the weekend it looks like spring is still some ways off.
So my recommendation this Groundhog Day is to celebrate making it most of the way through this cold winter with the knowledge that spring is truly on its way. Because we have an ongoing battle with non-weather predicting groundhogs we usually mark the day in North Carolina fashion with some sort of smoked pork dish!
You know some days are more glamorous on the farm than others. Like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Farm Tour days (weekend after next, April 23 and 24) when the place is all buffed up and lots of interested folks come out to see what we are up to, or when the NC State Agroecology program comes out to shoot a video of our operation for students to be able to access online. These would qualify under the heading of “farmers as rock stars” as one friend of ours likes to say. Yesterday on the other hand was more along the lines of drudgery, running a jack hammer to be precise. The “Big Tops”, technically referred to as field scale mutli-bay high tunnels, that we grow our tomatoes and some flowers under have legs that screw into the ground 30 inches deep. Each of the two units we have cover a quarter acre each and has one hundred plus legs that have to be screwed in. Sometimes you hit part of the planet. Last year when we put them up we had to rent a jack hammer and chip out 32 holes. It might have been one of the longest and exhausting days of my life! This year we only hit big rock once but yesterday, after I had put if off as long as I could (we have to plant tomatoes next week), up to the rental place I went. One hole was not too bad but I am still scarred by last year and am rethinking the wisdom of moving these things every year!
It always feels like warm weather is coming when the first Zinnias are seeded. Last week we planted the first 10 beds and they are up already. We also planted lots of other warm season crops- sunflowers, tuberoses, calla lilies, lisianthus, cucumbers and artichokes. In general though we worked between the rains on lots of maintenance tasks, part spring cleaning and part crop management. We finished most of the big round of weeding which always stirs up lots of rocks which we pick up and have to haul away along with other detritus like branches, pieces of irrigation line and other items laying around before the grass grows over them and they become mower bait. Pea trellises went up, some irrigation began to be set up (I know it’s raining but we will need it when it starts to get hot), and hydrangeas were cut back. Not a bad week in all and the new asparagus are up!
Picture of the Week
The happy jack hammer operator
Well here we go again! That statement can be applied to a lot of aspects of this late winter?, early spring season. Market in two days? It just seems brutally early but with the weather we have been having it almost seems too late. Saint Patrick’s day tomorrow and the first day of Spring on Monday. Last year on this date it actually snowed on us. Not this year, I just came in from running the irrigation on the lettuce field. We are beginning to get really worried about the potential of the drought for this coming season. You may remember the picture of one of our ponds near the end of last year, pumped down to almost empty, well after an entire winter it essentially hasn’t comeback up an inch. We have only had it not refill one other time in 25 years! We are now in the process of refilling it from the other pond and the creek to try and have some water on hand for what is shaping up to be a worse drought than 2002, which is the worst of all time since we have been farming.
The big theme that goes with “here we go again” is that this is a big year for us! You will probably hear references to this all year but this is what we are calling our 25-25-50 year. This year we will have been married for 25 years, farming for 25 seasons and we both will turn 50 this year! The numerologists will go wild with this I am sure!! Twenty five springs of wondering what it will be like, new beginnings, new crops, new ideas to try. It is still exciting and scary after all these years.
Despite how wildly busy and un-winter like this past few months have been the farm is actually right on schedule as for as planting goes. Betsy has taken time out of studying all things Italian to make sure that I focused enough so that we got things done in a timely manner. The poultry plant saga rolls on and has used up more time than we could have ever imagined possible. I would like to say it is all running smoothly but can’t. I do feel as if we have turned some major corners and things look better in recent days. So good in fact that I have ordered turkeys for this season, six more months of good bird stories! The first 6000 heads of lettuce are in the ground, the peas are up as is the spinach, turnips, radishes and more. Lots of flowers in the field too, we just now need to get some water to them to make them grow.
The winter speaking season ended last week with two presentations in Asheville at the Organic Growers’ School. I also traveled to speak at conferences in Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia. Good folks at all these meetings and we feel that the small farm-local food message is really growing by leaps and bounds. One more big meeting this weekend (the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group board meeting) and I can finally stay home and farm! Betsy is still taking Italian class two nights a week and I am taking a pastured pork production class one night a week, think prosciutto and pancetta!
Picture of the Week
The endless lettuce season rolls on. At least it feels endless these days as I go out to cut four mornings a week. The staff arrives each morning and I brief them on the days jobs and end with “of course I will be cutting lettuce if you need me”. Mondays and Thursdays I cut for delivery to Weaver Street Market, Wednesdays and Fridays I cut for the markets and the restaurants. Usually two, sometimes three, hours each morning. We are now into the fourth week with one big week left to go. Lettuce is one crop that I do all the harvesting of. It is such and ephemeral plant that it takes sometime to develop an eye for which head is large enough and tender enough to cut. In a few days the heads that I pass over will be big enough to then take, in a few more days they will be too far gone, getting tough and bitter. The hotter it gets the faster this progression occurs. The weather of the past few weeks has been about as ideal as we get in North Carolina as far as lettuce is concerned so the pressure has been off a bit. It is easy for me to train the staff on what is the right size of turnip to pick and how big a bunch is but the lettuce thing is more like “is this flower at the right stage to harvest?”, it is subjective (hence the reason why Betsy cuts almost every flower stem on the farm). Twenty four heads to a case, six cases and hour if I have to search around, ten cases and hour if the planting is really uniform, that is one head every fifteen seconds! I am counting the seconds until the season is done.
Big event at the Market this Saturday. The Market is having a fundraiser for our sister market in New Orleans and all of the farmers and fishers who where devastated by hurricane Katrina last fall. Like the Carrboro Market which was open two days after hurricane Fran crippled this area in 1996, the Crescent City Market was up and running only weeks after the water receded in New Orleans. Markets are an important social component for towns and cities as well as sources of food. Muffulettas and Gumbo prepared by a dozen Triangle chefs will be available to go for $10/serving, for more details go to the Carrboro Market website . All proceeds will go to the Crescent City Markets and their efforts to bring their vendors back into production. Come on out for the good food!
It has been the normal orchestrated chaos this week with more planting of summer crops, more zinnias, sunflowers, celosia, cucumbers and another planting of Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Weeding, trellising of flowers and vegetables, mowing, harvesting and on and on. The turkeys got so wild last week that we had to trim the wing feathers on all of them. After chasing the little miscreants all over the farm, including one that spent the night out because we couldn’t catch him at all, we decided we had to make sure none of them could fly until they learned better behavior, maybe this is where the term “grounded” came from that our parents threatened us with as kids. Well this was no idle threat for these birds! They go out to the field permanently tomorrow.
Picture of the Week
Sugar Snap Peas already loaded up with many more blooms on the top of the plants
It is the season for picking tiny objects. Most folks think about temperature, day length and other weather related things when it comes to “seasons” but for us, sometimes, it is much more relevant to equate seasons with the task at hand. Spring is filled with the harvest of crops that are either very close to the ground or down in it. Spinach, lettuces, broccoli raab, radishes, turnips and the farthest down, carrots. Strong backs are required for the hours and hours of bending over searching for the correct size of root vegetable to pull and bunch. Even then there are only so many of these relatively large objects to pull, on a good day maybe 400 individual turnips to be harvested in an hour. Beginning this week we started the change of seasons to more stand up pursuits but with more tedious consequences. What is he talking about? Sugar Snap Peas and Blueberries.
While we do get to stand up while picking them, the harvest time goes on and on. We (five of us) picked peas for two solid hours on Monday morning. Yesterday was the first shot over the bow of Blueberry season with four people picking for several hours, thousands of tiny blue orbs. For the next three weeks our lives will be consumed by the harvest of blueberries. When it overlaps with something else like peas it can be mind numbing. When we first began the transition from mostly blackberries (we had two acres in production at one point) to vegetables and flowers we designed June to be “berry” month. We have never grown the traditional crops that begin in June; squash, beans, cucumbers, potatoes. So I needed something to occupy me from the end of lettuce season and the other cool weather crops, at the end of May, until the beginning of tomato season at the beginning of July. Betsy just won’t let me lounge around the farm without something to do. Our original plan was to have blackberries and blueberries. Several years ago when the last of the large blackberry plantings was waning and the blueberries where beginning to really produce, we had that overlap. We learned that season that there were not enough people on the face of the earth to pick all those tiny objects. When that planting of blackberries was plowed under we decided that June would be Blueberry month only! As it is we still hire an additional four or five people to help us get them all off the bushes and into those little green pint containers.
Finally the turkeys got moved to the field. Seven weeks old and tired of hanging around that old brooder building. Now turkeys herd pretty well once they get used to it (they actually used to have “turkey drives” to get large numbers to market) but as I have said, the first time you introduce something new to them is always exciting. After several years of trying to herd them from the brooder, the several hundred yards, to their first stop in the fields and having it get out of hand we now carry them over, two in each hand. Yesterday we had six of us to make the job easier. Two catching and four walking them over. They are much happier now, lots of interesting bugs and weed seeds to eat and bushes to run around. Every year we have a misfit in the bunch. Last year it was Buckwheat and the half blind Blue Slate, the year before it was a broad breasted white with a crooked beak that made him look like a pirate. This year it is Shrimpy. Shrimpy is a quarter the size of the others, with shorter legs, but she runs with the rest of them as if there is no difference. No one seems to notice and she is growing just fine only she will never catch up with the others. Some one will be getting a five pound bird for Thanksgiving.
Picture of the Week
Happy but cold turkeys this morning
Posted in blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, newsletters '06, turkeys
Tagged blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, newsletters '06, seasons, spring crops, turkeys
Farm tour weekend, wow, always enjoyable and always long days. We had our usual modest sized crowds which makes it much easier for us to visit with everyone and answer their specific questions. Some of the farms, especially those with animals, have told me that they had more than 1000 visitors! There is no way we could deal with numbers like that and enjoy it as much as we do. It was great to see everybody especially our customers from market, we also get quite a few people who are farming or are seriously looking into it and they ask really good questions about why we do things in certain ways. One of the highlights was the three van loads of farmers and extension agents who drove all the way up form Louisiana for the tour!
With the hubbub of the farm tour behind us we now turn to the next big projects on the list. Yesterday we covered the four bays of the Big Tops, over the flowers, moving quickly before the winds came up. We can now begin the last cultivation and weeding in those crops before we have to start trellising them in the next few weeks. There are only a few big “hurdles” we must clear each year so we can move on with certain crops and this is one of them. They punctuate the season which is dominated by little steps each day on the way to the end of the year. Sliding the tunnels, preparing for planting tomatoes, covering the Big Tops, preparing for planting peppers; those are the ones that always loom large in my mind, three down, one to go. The big planting of tomatoes went in Monday and they are very happy with this warm weather. “Only” seventeen varieties in this planting including some new large sauce types from Italy and a cherry from Italy which is one of the Slow Food Presidia, special crops or foods that have been designated as such to help save them. Here is a link to more information about Slow Food’s efforts to save endangered foods. Pea trellis went up yesterday, the sugar snap peas have grown out of the freeze damage of a few weeks ago and are wanting to climb. More flowers and vegetables have been planted and now we settle in on the chores of cultivating, trellising and keeping them watered.
Well many of you have been asking about the turkeys and if we will be raising them this year. We normally would have the little poults here by now but have been waiting to receive word about the status of the new processing plant. I finally talked with them on Tuesday and while they are making good progress on building it they could not assure me that it would be ready for Thanksgiving. So the decision has been made for us. No turkeys this year. After two years of the stress of not knowing if there would be a place to have them processed we feel it is best to wait until we know for sure there will be a facility. This is one of the big differences with turkeys as the heritage types, like the Bourbon Reds that we raise, take a full six months to grow so we need to be assured of the outcome far in advance. With chickens they only take a little over two months to raise and are easier to get the chicks for, so those farmers producing them can still wait and have several flocks this year when the plant is ready to go. Sadly no excellent turkey for Thanksgiving or stories of Mr. Tasty as the season unfolds.
Picture of the Week
Just covered Big Tops and newly trellised Sugar Snap Peas
Posted in newsletters '07, tomatoes, turkeys
Tagged big tops, farm tour, newsletters '07, Presidia, sliding tunnels, Slow Food, spring crops, tomatoes, turkeys
Happy first day of Spring and Easter! Alright so once again the winter has zipped by and I have managed to be so busy that I didn’t get one newsletter out. I would have to say that this has been one of the most densely packed winters we’ve ever had but we did get a lot done and find some time to have fun too. Dominated by the construction on the house, which has occupied most of my brain power since October, and punctuated by trips away to conferences, before we knew it, it was time to start planting again. People always ask who do we get to do the construction work and then look quizzical when I say we do all the work. We did hire a mason to do the foundation and to build us a fireplace and an electrician to make sure we don’t burn the house down but everything else we do ourselves. It takes a bit longer sometimes but the end product is exactly what we want and Betsy is an excellent assistant. The whole project has turned out great and is “almost” done. Some entrance steps and a few other outdoor things remain but I hope to have them done in the next week or two. The funny part is we keep asking ourselves “who’s house is this?”
There were too many conferences and farm related meetings away from the farm this winter and I will have to have a word with my agent about over booking. We try to schedule just one a month but sometimes things pop up after we have committed to another group and we just can’t say no. The highlights for us are the new and interesting people we meet who are changing the face of food and farming. Our own “home” conference of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association was a good starter along with the 1200 attendees at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s conference in Kentucky. As always I had fun at the Georgia Organics conference a group I have worked with for many years now, it is pleasing to see it grow from a group of 20 or 30 to over 600 this year. The most unusual meeting and highest honor for us was to be inducted as fellows in the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans and Chefs. An offshoot of the Southern Foodways Alliance, this new group brings together those folks, from across the south, who have been working for a long time in food and farming for a weekend to be able to share ideas and experiences. Betsy and I are still trying to figure out exactly how it all works but it is certainly an interesting group of people.
On the farm things are moving a pace. The greenhouse is full of transplants, believe it or not, we seeded peppers yesterday. Almost all of the lettuce is planted in the field now as are the onions and most of the spring vegetables. The peas are up and look better than last years poor stand. The little sliding tunnels are full with early greens and flowers and today we will slide the last three so we can plant the earliest tomatoes and melons in the next week or two. We are thankful for the rains we have gotten in the last month but we still need more. One pond is full but the other one still is six feet down. We will begin to fill it from the creek (which only started to flow again on New Years eve) in the next few weeks. To be honest we are still very worried about whether there will be enough water for this season, we are planting like there will be but know that if the drought persists we will have to make decisions about what to water and what to let go. The staff started this week and so now we really know that the winter is over! No more late mornings with another cup of coffee, no more random unscheduled days, every week is full with a plan now. Welcome to our 27th growing season!
Pictures of the Week
The finished livingroom and incredible anemones
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.
Picture of the Week
Newly planted tomatoes