Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #14, 5/19/17

What’s been going on!

Always something new or at least a new twist.  Birds are a common problem in blueberry fields but our losses have always been relatively small and we lived with them flitting in and out of the bushes.  Last year when we had a very tiny crop as a result of the late April freeze the birds got them all.

This spring’s hard March freezes took maybe half of the blooms but the remaining fruit looked good and with the crazy generally warm conditions they began ripening early, just like all the vegetables some of which have been weeks early.  We could have begun picking last Friday which is a least 10 days early but decided to wait until Monday and then we realized the berries that were turning blue were disappearing, damn the birds are back!

The gold standard for bird protection is netting but we don’t have any, didn’t want to buy any much less have to cover and uncover 100 foot long, seven foot tall rows of bushes.  Big growers sometimes have to build structures over their whole fields to support netting so the mowing and picking can happen underneath.  Not going there.  There are plastic owls and hawks, propane cannons that explode every so often to scare flocks away, not going there either.

Ours are a mix of birds, mostly small birds alone or in tiny groups.  Last year it was cedar waxwings moving through.  We had to move fast so we went with the fun house/disco look.  We ordered, with overnight delivery, scare eye balloons to mimic predators to hang in the field and shiny mylar holographic tape to tie onto the bushes, hasn’t chased all the birds away but enough that we are picking.

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Blueberries, scary balloons, flashy tape can you hear the music?

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 13 #15, 5/26/16

What’s been going on!

So I am afraid to say that it looks like we may not get any blueberries this season.  We knew way back last winter that we would have a smaller crop when they started blooming in the unusually warm December weather.  When they started blooming again   in late March we felt like there was still a substantial number of blooms so maybe an OK crop.  26 degrees on April 6th reduced the number of berries even further.  Now with so few berries out there the birds are taking everyone just as they begin to show any color.

We have seen this twice before.  In 2001 when we had what everyone now refers to as “the Easter Freeze” with 24 degrees on April 18th and again in 2007 with five nights in the 20’s the first week of April.  Both years we had a tiny fruit set which the birds and squirrels took either all or most of.  What happens when we have late freezes like that it not only kills domesticated fruit buds but wild fruiting plants too, leaving not much for the wildlife who in turn eat where the pickin’s are good, our bushes!

Could we net the bushes and save what we have, sure if we had netting here and when weighing the cost of netting and the labor to put it on and take it off to pick it is hard to say if it is worth it with a small crop.  So now we will wait and see if this flock of birds will move on or not.

The good news is we have gotten all the peppers in the ground and they look great.  The big planting of tomatoes we finally got pruned and tied up for the first time and they look happy too.  Every day we look for a ripe tomato in the little tunnels knowing that sometime in the next week we should be able to eat one!  Take that you birds!

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Even the fake rubber snakes don’t slow the birds down

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 11 #12, 5/30/14

What’s been going on!

A huge weekStarting with getting all the peppers in the ground, ending with the start of blueberry picking.  We have moved our pepper planting date back to the third week of May for numerous reasons.  Most people plant their peppers too early when the soil is still cool and the weather unsettled, by the end of May those conditions have improved and the plants can really take off, growing a strong plant that doesn’t have to struggle to get established.  We have two other reasons to plant later; one- we want to let the hairy vetch cover crop get to bloom stage for maximum nitrogen and it is easier to kill, two- because we are in the colored bell business we want the peak of our harvest to be in the somewhat dryer and cooler nights of early September when the fruit quality is higher.  If we were in the green bell business, it wouldn’t matter as much, those things are tough as nails.

Conditions were perfect the end of last week go get the soil ready and Friday was not too hot so that the plants went in without too much stress.  The soil moisture and texture for the no till planting of bell peppers was a good as we have ever had and we rolled quickly through the planting.  A good watering in with the hose and then a long irrigation a few days later and the whole field looks as beautiful as can be possible.

While we could have picked some blueberries last Friday, we always feel we rush it a bit and the first ones aren’t as full ripe as if we wait a few days so Monday was the first official day and we had a small crew make the first pass through the field.  Now they are really rolling, fortunately other than a few days it has not been really hot so we are able to keep up, barely.  Next week should be the peak and we will need more pickers, if you know of any able bodies who might want to come out and pick any weekday morning have them contact us.  We pay cash, $8 an hour for the most enjoyable job anyone has ever had.

Just one week out from the Farm to Fork Picnic.  This year we are paired with our friend and good customer Bret Jennings from Elaine’s on Franklin.  We are still working on our menu items but for sure a blueberry desert and something savory.  Get your tickets now while they are still available and help raise money for new and beginning farmer programs at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the Breeze Farm in Orange County

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A lot of beautiful berries to pick

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 10 #18, 6/5/13

What’s been going on!

OMG the Blueberries!  We saw this train coming and haven’t been able to get enough folks to push the car off the tracks fast enough.  Now I will admit that the organizing of the blueberry picking crew is free form but has always worked out with enough hands.  It is hard to both accurately predict when and how many berries there will be and with only a three week season, it is equally hard to get people who will organize their whole lives around a part time, mornings only job.  But for years we would have a few key folks who would then bring their friends and others would show up for a day or so and it has worked.

This season we have the key people and they have tried to shake their networks but it has resulted in just a few extra pickers.  Combined with one of, if not the biggest, crops we have ever had and it is now all hands on deck to try and get the berries off the plants before they hit the ground.  When all of us, including Betsy, are picking berries every morning you know we are in trouble.  Fortunately the weather is also not blistering hot and ripening the berries even faster.  This too we will survive but the resulting lack of attention to the other chores on the farm means there will be repercussions we will have to deal with in the weeks and months to come.  Oh well there will be good eating in the meantime.

Farm to Fork Picnic coming up this Sunday, still time to get your tickets as it is not quite sold out, yet.  Delivered the turkeys to Nana’s last week so they could get on with making the Smoked Turkey Sausage.  Tomorrow we will take them the vegetables for the Early Summer Vegetable Crostini and the Quick Fennel pickle that will top the sausage.  The weather looks really good for early June and it should be a great afternoon as always.

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More berries than leaves and Liz picking as fast as she can

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 10 #17, 5/29/13

What’s been going on!

The glorious weather is gone but it was amazing to be in the high 30’s on Saturday morning this late in the spring.  We took great advantage of the last coolish days to give the blueberries a final weed eating and hand pruning, ready for the pickers.  The first small batch of berries were harvested on Monday, second pass through today, they look great!  With the impending heat it will be all hands on deck next week for sure.

Almost all the peppers are now in the ground, Jennie and Liz did a great job, helped by the soil moisture being just right for cutting the furrows in the no-till area which resulted in maybe the best planting conditions we have ever had.  There are many difficulties in working with small scale no-till most of which are equipment related.  In large scale no-till they have the advantage of bigger tractors, more horsepower and heavier steel to manage the cover crop and to put plants in the ground and of course in conventional farm systems, herbicides to kill the cover crop.

In our system we have a small, light, tractor and lighter cutting disks to cut through the thick cover crop and open the planting furrows.  The biggest problem we usually have is that the massive cover crop sucks all the water out of the soil making it so hard that the cutting implements can’t open the soil well.  Not this year, following last week’s 3 inches of rain, it had dried out just enough to work beautifully yesterday.  It makes the hand planting of the peppers twice as fast.

We are getting painfully close to finishing up the building project with the septic system finally going in this week (held up by too much rain) and the bathroom floor and fixtures being finished up by the end of the week too.  All that leaves is trenching in the water line and the electrician finishing up the plugs and lights, we can then call for a final inspection and get the power turned on.  Can’t happen soon enough, we have no business working on a building project during the busy spring season.

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Happy pepper plants in no-till left and landscape fabric right

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 9 #9, 5/16/12

What’s been going on!

Rain, rain go away, comeback next Tuesday (or so).  Fortunately we have had most of our rain fall in non-work hours but it certainly has complicated the weeks scheduling because the, now nearly three inches of, water has made it impossible to get things planted, weeded or mowed.  This was supposed to be pepper planting week, one of the most important of the year.  We have managed to get the field ready with fabric and preparing the no-till section but not a single plant has gone in the ground.  Hopefully some will get planted tomorrow.

In any event it is the season for picking fussy little things.  When Sugar Snap Peas and Blueberries happen at the same time we seem to just go from one to the other trying to keep up with the rapid ripening of thousands of individual fruits.  Picking tomatoes and peppers is so much less tedious and the boxes fill so much faster.  There are good aspects to peas and berries though, they are both stand up jobs, of which there are few on the farm, and usually the weather is pleasant as you keep your hands moving as fast as possible to get as many of the tiny objects into the bucket as you can.  Of course there is the mandatory taste testing that happens too.

There are tomatoes to tie up, flowers to trellis, winter squash to plant but we did finally get the ginger planted indoors yesterday.  When it does dry out the weeds will be of biblical proportions and the mowing required will be Herculean.  So after getting the peppers in the ground we know what we will be doing next week.

 

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Sweet, sweet peas by the thousands

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #10, 5/25/11

What’s been going on?

Looks like another monumental blueberry crop, last years was so small it hardly registered. This year there are a lot of berries and they are big starting out. We have had five or six folks each day picking and have not made it all the way across the planting yet. We knew this heat would push them hard and make them ripen fast and it has. A good group of folks picking which usually adds new interesting conversations to our usual mix but this group is timid so far and we will need to loosen them up, maybe they are concentrating so hard on picking that they can’t talk at the same time.

The first real week of irrigation this year and we are trying hard to keep the last of the spring greens happy. We use little micro-sprinklers in the lettuce and spinach and other spring vegetables. They put out a fairly fine mist so we try and water mid afternoon so they get some evaporative cooling but don’t go into the night too wet underneath the plants. There is a fine line between enough moisture and too much. Too much gives us bottom rot in the lettuce, too little and the plants wilt and the stress causes them to get bitter and go to seed. We usually end up losing some to bottom rot but it is better than having it all get bitter. This last week of May is always a dance before we just give in and say it’s time for summer crops.

The daily search is on for the first ripe tomato. I slip by the early tomato tunnels several times a day, ostensibly checking irrigation or some other excuse but really I am looking for some pink color. It happens fast and we have been able to eat the first one this last week of May for several years now. The plants look as good as we have ever had and there is a lot of fruit set on them. I usually take the first one around the blueberry field and cut slices off for the pickers to savor if it is large enough, otherwise Betsy and I will quickly consume it down at the packing shed or out in the field where ever I find her at the time. Come on now, we are ready for a real tomato!

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There is a lot of picking to be done

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 7 #13, 6/2/10

What’s been going on?

OK, enough with the wet weather, we need some drying time to get some soil turned over and to keep the diseases and weeds at bay! It is the change of seasons for sure around here. Sunday I mowed down all of the mixed spring vegetable crops except for the beets, lacinato kale and a few radishes. I followed that by mowing down the remaining larkspur, bachelors buttons and other overwintered flowers. Friday I mowed down the majority of the spring lettuce beds leaving only a few beds with the hot weather tolerant Summer Crisp varieties. In some ways it’s sad, but mostly it is relief and time to turn our efforts to summer crops. If we can get a few days dry, I will get all the summer cover crops planted on the freshly mowed areas and the cycle will start again.

The herky, jerky blueberry season continues on. Not a huge crop but very large berries due to lots of rain and fewer fruit on the plants. The birds and squirrels are having a field day, which is usually not noticeable when there are lots of berries but now we can really notice that there are fewer ripe fruit on the rows next to the woods. Betsy draped some fake rubber snakes in the bushes to try and slow them down but it mostly surprises the pickers as they reach into the bush to find a snake on the branch. With the generally cool and cloudy weather they are also ripening at a slower pace so scheduling the pickers has been irregular too. We are trying every other day this week and by the end of the week there will not be a lot of berries left on the bushes, as I suspected the season will be short and sweet.

The turkeys have been out in the hydrangea and viburnum field for a week now and seem to be getting the hang of outdoor life. Some groups of birds are just more flighty and difficult to wrangle. This group, maybe because there are only 30 of them, seem to get along well and self organize better than past flocks. Every morning at daylight we let them out and they come rolling out the door to explore the day, moving around the field in mass. Every evening near dark, with the feeder and waterer already returned to inside the shelter, we go to close them up and they are all inside on their roosts, ready for sleep. Some years it takes multiple chases around the shelter to scoot the last hold outs inside, not so this group, maybe a more intelligent batch?

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Turkeys in the Hydrangeas on a gray morning

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 7 #11, 5/19/10

What’s been going on?

Oh what beautiful rain! We didn’t get quite a much as others, somewhere around an inch and half initially, but then last nights additional shot probably brought us up to two inches. Of course I irrigated everything on Sunday, not going to be fooled again by the forecast, Oh well those beets will just size up quicker. Everywhere I went on Monday people were smiling and commenting on what a great rain, even our mechanic was ecstatic.

Of course working in the rain can be a challenge but we have enough stuff under cover now that, for at least a day or two, we can keep folks busy. The one thing that I can’t avoid is cutting lettuce in the rain. We cut Weaver Street’s lettuce to order, the day of delivery, so Monday morning I carefully watched the radar and went out when it looked like there would be a lull in the action. Worked pretty well and I only had to cut the last two cases in a strong shower. I have had times when it was full rain gear and the rain was just pouring down, this was not so bad. I did get the guys to come out from under cover to pick the broccoli raab during the lull and they managed to get pretty wet too.

This strange spring continues to surprise us. This time it is the extreme earliness of the blueberries. The earliest we have ever begun picking is the 22nd of May, with the average first picking being the 25th. We could have easily picked on Monday, the 17th, this year! From this early ripening and general look of the crop, my guess is it is going to be a fast and short season with fewer berries than normal. The first pick through will be today and we have a couple of additional hands coming to help, hold on it will be a fast ride, maybe three weeks.

Farm to Fork picnic this weekend and today we are harvesting the produce that Ben and Karen at Magnolia Grill will be using for their dishes. Beets (all three colors), Sugar Snap Peas, Turnips, Easter Egg Radishes, lettuce and Spinach. Their dishes are going to be Cornmeal Cake with Blueberries & Sorghum Buttermilk Cream and Spring Vegetables with Hickory-Smoked Rainbow Trout & Beet Ricotta! For those who got tickets to the now sold out event, we look forward to seeing you on Sunday. We are sorry for those who couldn’t or can’t make it but we will give you a full recount next week.

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Turkeys just out after a day of rain, brooder on the left and the new mothership on the right

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It’s Grant and Application Time

Just before tax season and serious planting season is small farmer grants and market application season.  Lots of trees are felled to be able to print all the pages required for farmers to fill out.  While most people have heard of the farm subsidies programs for large conventional commodity crops farmers, few know that there are an increasing number of small grants programs intended to help small and medium-sized, sustainable and organic farmers.

The subsidy program payments are intended to underpin the large farms with a stable base price so that they are not entirely subject to the ravages of a world market they have no control over.  These grants programs for small or non-commodity crops farmers are intended to help them with trying or developing new crops or techniques to produce crops more sustainably. While small amounts of money, usually up to $10,000,  some of the best new ideas in alternative agriculture have been nurtured by these programs.

We have only ever applied for and received one tiny grant.  Way back in the early 1990’s we got a small amount of money to continue work we had been doing on raspberry variety trials and new ways to prune and manage them.  After 21 varieties and some real break throughs in improved trellising techniques what we really learned was that raspberries are not suited for production in the piedmont of North Carolina.  Sometimes research leads to an answer you don’t want, but at least it is some kind of answer.

Our only really good harvest of raspberries, on an innovative swing trellis

Since 1994 we have been participants, co-operators and collaborators on others projects.  But mostly we have been reviewers of many, many grant applications to various competitive grants programs.  We have literally read thousands  of applications!  These programs all operate in similar ways with review panels, comprised of people knowledgeable in various aspects of agriculture.  The difference is they are funded from all kinds of sources; Federal funds, state funds, non-profit groups.

Our specialty is a category usually called “Farmer Grants”, because, well, we are farmers.  We think that peer review is the best and fairest way to decide what ideas have merit or are even possible.  The granddaddy of these is the SARE programs Producer Grants .  Alex helped develop the Southern Region’s call for proposals and reviewed them for seven years.  Using that experience he has worked with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA to build their Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund grants program.  Betsy founded the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Research Foundation which gives out small grants for research into various aspects of cut flower production.

One of the reasons we still do these reviews is to continue to build the knowledge base needed to move agriculture forward.  Another is we get to see what the latest and most innovative ideas are in agriculture and sometimes it gives us ideas of new things that will improve our farming system.

Sometimes it’s is frustrating because the ideas are nothing new, or poorly presented.  Sometimes they are asking for money for equipment or projects that we, as good business people, just did out of our own pockets because we knew it was the direction we had to go.  We believe in funding good research or demonstration projects that will benefit the greater farming community, not just one farmers operation.  Many times we just have to bite our lips.

What ever the situation we spend many hours reading and scoring proposals every January and February.  This is followed by more hours with the whole review committee discussing the highest rated applications to narrow it down to the ones that will eventually get funded.  In the end it is a worthwhile process for all.

This years stacks of grants on the office floor