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!

5/24/06 Vol. 3 #11

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

5/31/06 Vol. 3 #12

The heat has arrived and with it the big flush of blueberries.  We started out with plenty of picking help last Thursday and then spiraled out of control at the beginning of this week.  I always try and line up enough extra help so we can pick and get other chores done on the farm.  We need to have six to eight people every day for the next two weeks to keep the berries picked on time.  With fewer than this we fall behind on all the other things on the farm.  Tying the tomatoes up to the trellis, cultivating and weeding, building trellis in the peppers and flowers and more.  Every year it is the same, so I don’t know why I am surprised and it always works out.  I try to get out and help pick too but end up spending most of my mornings taking care of the other duties, irrigating, picking the other vegetables for market the rest of the show must go on too.  Blueberry picking is really the most enjoyable job on the farm and the staff has fun doing it as there gets to be quite a banter out in the field.  At least the wholesale lettuce season is over, I cut the last of Weaver Street’s lettuce on Monday so now I can have my mornings free to chase the other items around.

One of yesterdays tasks was to clean out the turkey brooder to get ready for the next batch of birds, which come tomorrow.  The shavings and droppings are shoveled out and spread on the beds of one of the sliding tunnels, great stuff for that soil that we use so intensively.  A thorough cleaning including spraying down the walls and floor with chlorine to disinfect a bit.  After it dries out well we put in a new batch of shavings about three inches deep.  Over that goes a layer of newspaper that they will be on for the first three days while they learn to eat (and read I’m sure) the right food instead of the wood chips.  Finally a draft ring goes in and the newly disinfected feeders and waterers.  Now we are ready for that early morning call from the post office.  Forty broad breasted Bronzes to eventually join the Bourbon Reds out in the field.  We get this group later because they grow so fast, they would be forty pounds if we got them at the same time as the others.  This way everyone runs together and finishes up at the same time.

We had an interesting group of visitors last week from the EPA.  These are some of the folks who are responsible for registering pesticides for farmers to use.  Now we don’t use many pesticides (remember that a pesticide is anything that kills a pest, even organically approved materials) seeing as how we are committed to sustainability and organic practices, so we wondered why they would want to come see us.  Turns out that while they have pretty good data and an idea of how soybeans and corn grow they don’t have a clue as to how an intensive horticultural operation works, how the crops actually grow and how one could grow them without pesticides.  There were entomologists, biologists, pathologists and the much maligned agricultural economist.  We described how we maintain soil fertility, rotate crops and what strategies we use to deal with pest problems.  They seemed genuinely interested and as a sign of how things are changing in the world of big Ag and regulation they actually are trying to measure the costs and risks of using a pesticide over using other techniques such as we us.

Picture of the Week
Dark and threatening rain this morning, but the Campanula brightens up the day

6/7/06 Vol. 3 #13

One more shot of beautiful cool weather with occasional rain.  I always feel like we are cheating or escaping from something when the weather is like this in June.  I know full well that the relentless heat of summer is hiding just around the corner and then we have to settle into a more measured pace just to make it through until September.  Having been born and raised mostly in the South you would think that I would be used to the heat and humidity but that gene never got passed to me.  When we moved here twenty six years ago from Utah, we lived in a tiny duplex in the middle of a field in Bynum while we crafted the plan for Peregrine Farm.  That first summer, in that non-air conditioned box, was hot as hell and we thought we were going to die!  We would lie awake at night with the tiny window high on the wall above, a box fan feebly trying to move hot air around us.  Thoughts of cool nights in the mountain west would somehow coax us to sleep.  I always assumed that I would acclimate and get used to the heat and while it did happen, somewhat, I still cower when the forecast reads in the 90’s.

The blueberries roll on.  After last years record crop it is hard to judge just how this years will end up.  My best estimate is that we have about a third of last years harvest, maybe half a normal year.  It is hard to say exactly why.  My best theory is that it was so warm this late winter it caused the bushes to bloom very early.  They started in late February and consequently many blooms and fruit were lost to frosts that came afterward.  It makes the fruit that is left a bit larger and maybe more flavorful because they get all the good stuff they don’t have to share when there are too many berries on the plant.  I was told yesterday that our berries were served last week to the former White House pastry chef, of twenty five years, and he said they were some of the best he had ever had!  With not so many berries to pick we are actually able to get other things done on the farm like critical weeding and tying up the tomatoes.  We are also beginning the process of taking out the spring crops to be replaced by summer cover crops or more summer flowers.  Out come the irrigation lines, mow down the weeds and what is left of the spring crop, turn under the residue.  If we are planting another crop then a little feather meal is spread for nitrogen, the bed is tilled again, then a drip irrigation line is buried right down the middle of the bed.  Planting follows quickly behind.  Last week more sunflowers and seven more beds of zinnias (the third planting of the year).  Soon those fields that don’t go on to summer crops will be turned under and sown to big summer soil improving crops.  The next batch of turkeys arrived on cue last Thursday morning.  Forty broad breasted bronzes, all happy and running around in the brooder.

Picture of the Week
Purple Bouquet Dianthus flanked by Campanula and Safflower

4/4/07 Vol. 4 #3

Cold weather coming!  Every farmer and gardener is scrambling now.  It’s like a drill on and aircraft carrier, you know it’s coming but really don’t want to have to do it.  It happens every spring but this year is more extreme than most with the record 80 degree days and warm 50 and 60 degree nights.  They say we are going to have four nights below freezing (Thursday through Sunday) which is also more extreme than the usual two.  Now most of the crops out there in the field are cool season types that can take a light freeze so we are not worried about them.  It is the flowering and fruiting crops that most of us are trying to protect.  I know the strawberry growers will not get much sleep the next week, staying up all night either waiting for the temperature to drop low enough to start the irrigation pumps or trying to keep them running.  They spray water over the plants and as that water freezes is releases heat to the plants and flower buds which keeps them from being damaged.  I know it is counter intuitive but thermodynamics always was to me.  They have to keep the water flying until it starts to melt again.  It is an even harder job when the wind is blowing, which it is supposed to do with some vigor.

For us we cover what we can with floating row cover, maybe several layers and hope that is enough.  We don’t have enough water or the equipment to do the overhead sprinkler system the strawberry growers do and our crops are too tall anyway.  The blueberries have been blooming for weeks and should have set enough fruit that won’t be damaged unless it drops really low.  The viburnums which are up to twelve feet tall will just have to stand and bear it.  If we sprayed water on them we would do more damage with broken branches from the weight of the ice than the blooms are worth.  The two crops we are most concerned about are the tomatoes in the sliding tunnels and the dutch iris in the field.  The tomatoes we will drape the floating row cover over the tops of their trellises as a second insulating layer under the greenhouse plastic.  Batten down the plastic as best we can and usually we are good down to the low 20’s.  The iris are another level of difficulty.  Tall, spindly and spiky we will have to construct some kind of structure that will support the row cover and then try and hold that suspended fabric on in the high winds, makes thermodynamics sound easy.

Of course the rest of the farm work must go on.  We now have over 100 beds planted (an acre plus) and have been busy getting them weeded and setting up irrigation.  We should finish that up today and give everything a good drink.  Watering them will not only reduce their stress heading into this cold but wet soil holds more heat than dry soil so it will also help everything through the cold snap.  We moved the 800 tomato seedlings up to their larger four inch pots.  We start them in smaller containers so we can get good germination and then move up only the best looking plants.  It is tedious work especially considering there are eighteen different varieties that one could easily miss label!  This batch of tomatoes will go out into the field in just over two weeks.

Picture of the Week
Hundreds of tomato seedlings

4/11/07 Vol. 4 #4

Wow, that was cold!  Five mornings in the twenties with the nadir Sunday morning at 20 degrees!  Everyone wants to know what the damage has been to the crops but it is really too early to really tell about most of them.  The tomatoes survived with some severe freeze damage on the outside rows but they all should grow out of it.  The cucumbers look unscathed, amazing.  The dutch iris actually look great, Betsy has begun to cut a few. and we haven’t had any open completely yet but so far they appear to have no injury.  The big question is the blueberries.  That will take a week or more for the damage to be really apparent.  This freeze is very similar to the April freeze in 2001, when it was 24 degrees on the 18th with high winds.   That season we lost all the blueberries.  Most of the rest of the crops look fine, the sugar snap peas are burned a bit along with other odds and ends of crops.  Time will tell.

Monday I gave my last big presentation of the speaking season in Spartanburg, SC.  While I have traveled around the country quite a bit giving talks on all kinds of farming subjects it is these full day workshops that I seem to becoming known for.  This one, for 60 farmers and other ag related folks, is at least the fifth or sixth where I hold forth for an entire day, attempting to cover the entire subject of organic/sustainable vegetable production.  Can’t be done really.  The best part, is that after an entire day of examples and pictures I think they go away with the most important lesson: this kind of farming is an interrelated system where each action the farmer takes affects other things up and down the line.  Sure they go away with a big notebook full of information, and lots of details on soil management, how to control weeds and more but it is the big picture that I hope has become clearer to them.  It is hard to get a grasp on this complex system when you only hear someone speak for and hour or so.  I am currently working with the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG) on a CD-Rom on Organic Vegetable Production and Marketing that is modeled after my full day workshops.  Now all of this is really just the Readers Digest version of the Sustainable Vegetable Production course that I designed and taught for five or six years at the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.  There I carried on for three hours a night for sixteen weeks!  Full immersion for sure.  Now the real benefit for Betsy and me to all of this is that the more times I have to explain to people how we farm, the closer I scrutinize why we do things in certain ways and, hopefully, we refine the system even more.

Picture of the Week
The perfect rainy day activity, moving up the 2500 plus pepper plants

5/28/08 Vol. 5 #11

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.

Picture of the Week
Cozy at first light, waiting to be released for their first full day in the field

6/4/08 Vol. 5 #12

Well we made it to June and the heat appears to have arrived with it.  High 90’s the end of the week and a whole week in the 90’s?  Why is it we can never just gently go thru the 80’s for a while and then into the brutal temperatures?  Oh well it makes the blueberries and the tomatoes ripen faster.  After last season without blueberries because of the record Easter freeze and the madness that it is trying to keep them picked we are now in the middle of it.  This week or next is going to be the peak of our blueberry crop, with next Monday probably the peak day due to the high temperatures.  Blueberry picking is the only time we hire extra help on the farm.  The whole operation is designed to run with a steady flow of human energy, just the two of us and two more part timers.  But there is an atmosphere that develops around blueberry season as new faces come to pick and join in our now established social structure.  For nearly 3 months it has just been the four of us doing the dance of employee-employer, student-teacher, worker-supervisor, advisor, helper, friends.  We now know each others routine, style, jokes and now there are new opinions, ideas, senses of humor.  Blueberry picking is maybe the best job on the farm, unless you hate tedious tasks, but with the new faces and discussions in the field it seems to go quickly.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful setting on the hill, almost always with a slight breeze and the birds calling nonstop.  Everyday you end up on the otherside of the row from someone new with new stories and questions.  Other farmer friends of mine say I should hire migrant workers to pick, it would save money.  It might and we used to hire some local Latinos when we were in the wholesale blackberry business and they are amazing workers.  I have come to appreciate the other benefits of having these new faces on the farm, it gives us a boost, it gives the staff a break from working only with each other, it exposes these new people to farm work without some of the grittiness of it.  It is this social side of a sustainable farm that really makes it work, not just the crops and the tractors.  Soon enough it will be back to just the four of us, avoiding the heat, picking tomatoes and peppers and flowers, telling the same old jokes.

Pictures of the Week

6/11/08 Vol. 5 #13

Hmmm, let’s see what’s the news?  HEAT!!!!  Talk about a rude start to the summer, bang, here I am.  The 100’s really pushed the blueberries and Friday we could only get two out of six rows picked there were so many and turning blue in front of our eyes.  So Monday we called in the troops and had eleven of us out there going hard.  We did manage to get through those four unpicked rows and the fruit quality was really good.  Thank goodness they are blueberries and not blackberries.  When it gets that hot blackberries actually get sunburned and get white sections on the berries where the color has cooked out of them, technically it is called “leaking” (I am not making this up).  So now we are caught up and Monday was the peak day of the season.  We can now easily manage the rest of the season (only another ten days or so) with four additional pickers.  Whew!  As is our standard practice we do not work out in the fields after noon and this week it has been hard to stay out there until noon.  Betsy and I have been out early letting the turkeys out, irrigating and picking other crops before the blueberry picking begins at 8:00.

Two interesting extra curricular activities this week.  The first was a Slow Food co-sponsored event at Meredith college with the Durham-Chapel Hill Dieticians group.  Two short films about local food were viewed and then a panel discussion followed.  It is always interesting being the farmer on a panel of other food related folks.  Great questions about our local food system but barely enough time to just begin to scratch the surface.  Yesterday I went to the State Legislature to speak to a group of legislators about organic agriculture in North Carolina.  This Organic Legislative breakfast was just that, it started at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria, in the basement of the Legislature building.  While they ate organic food brought in from North Carolina farms, myself and three other farmers told them about our experiences as organic producers.  This is the second year that Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other sustainable ag non-profits have put on the breakfast.  The idea is not to really press them for anything in particular but to just make them aware of organics and sustainable farming and hopefully more comfortable with the idea.  As I went to get coffee I overheard several of them saying to each other “Who knew we had organic pigs here in North Carolina?”  Nothing like a pork product to get a politicians attention.

Picture of the Week
Turkeys and Hydrangeas

4/1/09 Vol. 6 #2

It has been some years since we had a wet spring, one forgets what it could be like.  So far this one is what I would call consistently damp, not so much rain that you begin to wonder if you will ever get stuff planted but the frequent wet days do make us rush around trying to get things in the ground before it comes again.  This week was just such a case.  We usually need about three dry days for the soil to drain enough to be able to till and not do any damage to our soil structure.  After last weeks inch plus rains it was just barely dry enough to till on Tuesday but the forecast for more rain on Wednesday was 90 percent so off we raced.  Three beds of lisianthus (very tedious as they go in four inches apart), two more beds of mixed flower transplants, followed by three beds seeded to carrots, turnips and radishes.

After all of the recent wet weather the weeds are really starting to germinate and in another week it would be scary.  So after lunch I set the guys on getting most everything cultivated even though another day would have made the soil conditions just right.  By three o’clock we had covered the most egregious areas including thinning the broccoli raab which had come up like hair on a dogs back.  Cov and Glenn then headed off to get some planting done in their own gardens before the rains came.  Almost two days work in one but with a rain day coming.

Wednesday morning I am at the desk viewing the radar on the computer as it had not started raining yet.  While I am making some notes on the crop plan I realize I had forgotten to seed the second planting of broccoli raab, with this forecast I better hurry out quick.  Quick means taking down the deer fences so I can get the tractor into the field, spreading a little bit of feather meal for nitrogen, firing the tractor up and lightly tilling the tops of the beds, carrying the seeder down and running it up and down the beds.  A light mist falls off and on as I do all this, then it stops.  The rest of the day it barely drizzles and we wonder what all the rushing around was for.  Oh well, I am looking at the radar again this morning and it looks like rain for sure again, we’ll see.

Picture of the Week
The blueberries are blooming like crazy