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!

Picture of the Week

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?

Picture of the Week

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.

Picture of the Week

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

What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading

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

5/26/04 Vol. 1 #11

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
Blueberries already!?

6/2/04 Vol. 1 #12

Well we have made it to June and now it gets cooler?  This is about the time when I start dreading the heat and the whole summer of it to come.  When Betsy and I moved back here from Utah (we went to college there) I thought being raised mostly in the South that I would get used to the heat and humidity again.  Now 24 years later I still suffer but have learned to arrange my days to avoid it the best that I can.  This week looks as if I won’t even have to practice my avoidance techniques!

We are still in the throws of massive blueberry picking and they look as good as any crop we have ever had, I expect this week to be the peak and then they will peter off over the next two weeks.  Betsy and I are trying to get other work done around the place while the staff picks berries.  This is truly the change of seasons from cool season crops to warm, so there are new crops to weed and trellis and old ones to take out to make room for something else.  Yesterday I was cultivating some of the flowers including sunflowers, celosias and the second planting of zinnias while Betsy was doing a last hand weeding pass through the first zinnia planting which is showing color on the buds!  I was also tying up tomatoes which look fabulous under the new roofs.  Lots of fruit set and very healthy.  Mowing, irrigating, turkey chores, deliveries to our wholesale accounts, general life, we can barely keep it all together until the blueberry season is over and we can focus the staff back onto regular farm work.  My mother used to say “life is so daily”.

Back in April sometime I mentioned that I was on the Board of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) and the kind of work that this non-profit is involved in.  As I was preparing to send in our annual donation check I was reminded by our executive director that we have a matching grant underway from the Lawson Valentine Fund.  I would encourage you as a supporter of local food and farms to consider making a donation to help in the important work that SSAWG does.  Our farm is the kind of operation that SSAWG is working to create all across the South, we have gotten lots of inspiration and ideas for our operation over the years from this group and we think that it is the best of the organizations that we work with.  If you are interested in donating to SSAWG I would be more than happy to discuss it with you,  I do have information packets that I will have at market and of course there is the website www.ssawg.org.

Picture of the Week
A farewell to cool season flowers.  Larkspur so incredible that Betsy couldn’t even begin to harvest it all

5/25/05 Vol. 2 #12

We started the annual clean up/rescue of the Blueberry rows yesterday.  Now that they have been in for fifteen or sixteen years they tend to mostly be forgotten and just a another part of the landscape until it is time to pick them.  We mow the grass between the rows a few times a year but the birds love to sit on the branches and “deposit” weed seeds under the bushes in places that make it hard to get at.  We do mulch the rows heavily every few years but this hardly stops the well fertilized weed seed.  It would be OK if they were just harmless annual weeds but as time goes on it is things like small trees, and the vines that like to cover the plants like trumpet creeper, morning glory and our favorite, poison ivy.  So every May, just prior to the berries ripening, we go out armed with gloves and pruners and cut out these woody invaders, mow as close as we can and maybe do a little selective weed eating.  In the end it is much cleaner and pleasant for the endless hours of picking to come.  Everybody has been asking when will the blueberries be at market.  I went back into the records and found that the average first picking has been May 25th (Friday) but as cold as this spring has been and from what I saw yesterday I don’t think we will make it.  The earliest ever was last year on the 22nd and the latest ever has been the 31st, with the exception of 1997 when we didn’t have any blueberries at all because of a very late freeze in April.  That was the same year that we had frost on Mothers Day, set the lowest high temperature record for June on the 6th at 59 degrees and the record June low of 48 degrees on the 10th!  I guess there can be stranger seasons than this one has been!

The last of the wholesale lettuce goes out tomorrow and in general it has been a good lettuce season, we will still have lettuce for market for weeks to come but the selection becomes narrower each week.  Behind the lettuce we immediately turn under the residue and have been planting more warm season flowers, the third planing of Zinnias awaits tomorrows lettuce harvest so that they can get in the ground, a week late!  The field tomatoes have finally decided to hell with the cool weather it is time to grow so we had to go through and prune and tie them up to the trellis for the first time this season.  Many more passes will be made over the next several months to keep them climbing up the fences.  The Turkeys are three weeks old now and will get to go outside, for the day, for the first time tomorrow, always very amusing to watch.  Betsy is now cutting flowers everyday and the walk in coolers are filling up and are a riot of color, it finally feels more like our normal routine.

Picture of the Week
Incredible Sweet William, what a great long lasting flower!

6/1/05 Vol. 2 #13

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

6/8/05 Vol. 2 #14

Wow!   Zero to Sixty in record time!  End last week with cool 70’s and gentle rains begin this week with 95 degrees and heavy thunderstorms.  I would say that summer has come.  It is all about blueberries now.  We have a crew of up to eight trying to keep up with the fast ripening fruit, to no avail.  I tell them don’t look back at where you just picked as it could be depressing.  We put flags, in the row, to mark where we stopped picking so we will know where to start the next morning because you absolutely cannot tell otherwise.  It is always enjoyable and interesting in the blueberry field.  First it is the most comfortable job on the farm, standing up, usually a breeze across the hill and the birds just singing away in the trees (happy with all of the blueberries they have eaten).  Secondly the crew is always an eclectic group.  My usual staff which includes Joann and Rett, farmers on their own places, Rachel a college student in geography, Julia who recently graduated college from Nova Scotia, plays hockey and directs Shakespearean plays.  We always have a few returning pickers like Brenda who is taking a hiatus from farming in Illinois this year.  Then we round it out with a few new faces like Max from Texas who is searching for the right place to start his own farm and then a couple of high school students.  The conversation is always wide ranging and I am never quite sure who is more scandalized, the older ones or the younger ones!

Betsy and I almost never get into the berries as we scamper around trying to put our fingers in all of the other holes in the dike of Peregrine Farm.  This is the true change of seasons as we begin to take out irrigation and mow down the finished cool season crops.  There is only one bed of lettuce left in the field, which is now almost entirely changed over to flowers- sunflowers, zinnias, celosia, asters and more.  The rest of the cool season vegetables will soon go under the mower to be followed with more flowers, what will eventually be the last of the year.  The larkspur, first sunflowers, bachelors buttons, etc. will turn into lush cover crops of sorghum and soybeans to improve the soil and feed and shade the turkeys when they get in there in two months or so.  It all happens this few weeks in mid June.  I also managed to get the first layer of trellising in the first eight beds of peppers including all of the hots.  Last year we waited 48 hours too long to get this job done and they were all blown over by a huge storm, never to fully recover for the rest of the season.  Last night as the thunder was rumbling just over the hill I put the last strings on.  With in an hour the heavy rains came and they stand straight and proud now.  Joann seeded the Brussels Sprouts and Celery for Thanksgiving, that is a true sign of seasonal change!  I swing through the berry field every so often to check on the progress and quality, partake briefly in the conversation and grab a hand full of fruit and head back off to what ever chore I am in the middle of.

Picture of the Week
A wall of blue fruit

6/22/05 Vol. 2 #16

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!