Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #17, 5/7/21 Thank You!

What’s been going on!

Thank You!

It has been nearly two weeks since our last market and we are still overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and thoughts from so many people not to mention the generous gifts.  We can’t thank everyone enough for the books, chocolates and cookies, the bottles of wine, champagne and bourbon and much more!  The touching words on so many cards and in messages have sent us off on the next phase well.  Again a big thank you!

We would like to say we have been laying around swilling all that booze but we have pretty much been business as usual, working everyday on various projects around the farm.  Betsy has really been working on her ornamental beds, cleaning, weeding, planting, shopping for plants; having a great time.

I have taken down two of the sliding tunnels so far, three more to go and working on getting the field in front of the tunnels ready, trying to knock back some bad perennial weeds, before we seed it to grass and surround part of it with the new deer fence that will protect our new food gardens.  This field used to be mostly woody perennials for cut flowers like viburnums, hydrangeas but we took them all out this spring.  There will probably be more ornamentals planted there in the future but time will tell.

We will give you updates from time to time on the progress with the new gardens and other adventures as they happen.

Pictures of the week

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Second tunnel dismantling underway

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¾ of an acre under conversion

Stay safe and well and we hope to see you all at the market or around town!

Alex and Betsy

If you know folks who you think would be interested in news of the farm then please feel free to forward this to them and encourage them to sign up at the website.

Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #16, 4/22/21 The Last Market

What’s been going on!

Happy Earth Day and it’s a cold one!  27 degrees in the field, the few things we have that need covering are all tight and snug under their covers.  One more night and we should be good.

So here we are, after 1133 Saturday and another 434 Wednesday markets over 36 years, we have come to the end of our market road, our last rodeo so to speak.  It doesn’t seem real yet and yes it is an artificial stopping point but it has to end sometime and like most of the decisions in our lives we are the ones in charge and we know that now is the time to move to our next adventures.

The Carrboro Farmers’ Market has been the single biggest influence and constant in our farming lives and we are going to miss many aspects of it, especially the people.  First are our fellow vendors, all running their own businesses but assembling together for our common good to make one of the best markets in the United States.  The relationships with our immediate selling neighbors are one of the unspoken aspects at market, we all learn to live with and adapt to each other’s arrival times, parking and display styles.  We watch out for one another’s booths if we have to step away or things go crazy in a storm.  We know what our neighbors are selling and what to say about it after hearing them talk about their products week after week.  We never could have done it without all of our various staff over the years who were thrown into the deep end.

The Market Managers, who keep all of us in line and deal with all of our eccentricities.  We have worked with every manager the market has ever had, ten in total not including the equally great assistants and they have all done a tremendous job, every one getting better and better as the job gets harder and harder, this past year is the perfect example.

Our customers of course have shaped our business in every way possible and certainly been the pulse of our market days.  Saturdays have always started with the Patron Saints of produce growers, Dianne and Jim, who eat more vegetables than some restaurants buy from us.  The rest of our early morning regulars like Karen, Betsy, Polly, Anne and Brian, Catherine, Sue and Allen and more provided quiet conversation and seriousness about their food.  By 8:30 the pace quickens a bit but still with dedicated supporters like Bob, Archie and Dorie, Brian, Paula, Liz, Susan and Doug, Dominique and Andrew, Ellie and Jim.

9:30 to 10:30 is when the crowd hits with new and old faces.  Peter (on his first pass), Kelly, Eric and Penny, Nina, David, Jackie, Ann and Randell, Polly and Allan, Rahsaan, Sheri, Peggy and David.  The pace is brisk but conversations can be had on the side as newer shoppers are waited on.

By 10:30 it is really all over “but the shoutin’”  The folks who come now know the drill, either they get what is left or they were astute and put in an order ahead of time, the chefs especially.  Rebecca, Bethany and Robert, Nathan, Debbi, Judy, Sylvia and Chuck, Nathan, Tim, Jeff, Ben, Gabe, Brendan.  The philosophy hour kicks in, few problems are solved but some good food does go home with them.

The flower folks have their own programs and we have had many dedicated flower connoisseurs over the years including Terry and Mike, LeeAnn and Sandy, Candy, Catherine, Brian and of course Karen, the Patron Saint of all the cut flower growers who not only bought for her house but her entire office.

Don’t even get me started with the specialists for Peppers, Peas, Tomatoes and Blueberries.  It, of course, is impossible to name everyone as there are hundreds more people who have made our lives rich and interesting and possible.  We thank you all, more than we can say and will miss our regular visits but we will be around.  My friend Scott and I are thinking of finding a corner to set up the Old Coots Giving Advice booth, until then look for us at market as civilians and a newsletter from time to time.

Picture of the week

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We leave you with a grainy picture of one of our first markets in 1986, you have brought us a long way

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #15, 4/15/21

What’s been going on!

Forty years ago yesterday Betsy and I took a day off from work, drove down to Dillon, South Carolina and got married.  14,601 days ago but who is counting?  It was just another practical decision on our part, like so many others we have made over the years.  We had been together for a few years by then, having moved here from Utah in 1980 to try and start a small farm. 

I was working as a carpenter and she was cooking in the kitchen at the Fearrington House while we were trying to bring the farm to fruition.  We had incorporated the business in the fall of 1980, had raised some initial capital and were looking for land, a task made much harder during the recession with high interest rates but we forged ahead and eventually found this wonderful piece of land in the fall of 1981.

Getting married was a rational business decision (it made lots of legal things easier) as well as a commitment to each other but we were not at all tied to a “wedding”.  We worked on Monday, drove down with a few friends and my Mom for the 30 minute process which cost $35, stopped at South of the Border for our “reception” on the way home and then went back to work on Wednesday.  No fuss, no muss.

People have asked why we are retiring this month and I have said to many that not only is it our 40th season of farming but it’s Betsy’s 40th wedding anniversary present, instead of the traditional gift of a ruby.  She replies she would have been happy to stop at 39 and wouldn’t want a ruby anyway.  One of the words for retirement in Spanish is jubilado, very close to jubilation and we have taken to using it more frequently lately.

One of the other questions folks ask is “what are you going to do with yourselves?”.  It has never crossed our minds that we might not have enough to do.  Besides the joint care and feeding of all of our land and buildings, which is enough to keep us plenty busy on its own, we have a long list of over 30 places and counting that we want to travel to once Covid allows us to.

Betsy has become re-invigorated about what we have always referred to as her “recreational” flower beds, large areas around the farm dedicated to mostly perennial ornamentals.  She has always been a plant person and has upwards of an half an acre in these beds that and she is excited to finally be able to give lots of attention to.  She also plans to spend much more time in her pottery studio.  There of course is her ongoing work with the local Democratic party.

While also a joint project, I am looking forward to completely re-designing what will be our personal food gardens starting with taking down five of the six sliding tunnels, keeping one for us, and developing a new rotation of outside beds that will surround the remaining tunnel that will include vegetables, some cut flowers and of course cover crops.  We plan on finally planting some fruit trees and for the first time in decades some raspberries, blackberries and asparagus again.  It will be a new age of experimentation and growing things we never have or haven’t in years because it didn’t make sense for the business.  Small plantings, very manageable.

As some folks know I am an avid backpacker and plan on many more trips both local and in the western US.  There will be lots of day hikes and I may even put my kayak back on the water for the first time in decades.  Having just typed all of those plans I may have to sit down and rest a bit so we don’t overdo.

Pictures of the week

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Two of Betsy’s recreational flower beds

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #14, 4/9/21

What’s been going on!

I indicated a few weeks ago when I was explaining some of the reasons why we were retiring now, that I would talk some about how it is we can actually retire as most farmers can’t unless they sell the farm, which we are not doing.  A large percentage of Americans have no savings much less retirement savings.  Farmers are the same or worse but they do at least have some, or a lot of, assets in their farmland and equipment.  They are sure as hell are not part of any pension system to rely on, short of some Social Security, if they paid into it.

Our parents were very fortunate to have had excellent pensions and health care insurance from working for large institutions but we knew that we would have to take care of ourselves and started early to make sure we could survive any disasters or economic shakeups that would come our way.  If you are under 40 or 50 you probably have already figured this out but- pensions/company retirement plans are a thing of the past!  Even if you currently work for a company that has one I would be very leery of it still being around when you need it.  I am looking at all of you younger folks, especially my farmer friends and self-employed folks, start saving now and as much as you can.

The other fiscal thing we got from our parents was “a Great Depression mentality”, those of you old enough know what this means.  You are frugal because you don’t know when things might get better and it imbues everything you do even when things do get better.  We knew that we would never make much cash money and moving into a tent, buying land and building a farming business from scratch when interest rates were near 20 percent just reinforced the vow of poverty we had taken.  We have never approached the median household income and I am sure that for many years we were technically below the poverty level but farm net incomes and public work net incomes are apples and oranges and too long a discussion for this newsletter.

Despite being cash flow challenged we started to save enough to have six months operating money in the bank and we had everything reasonably insured in case of a disaster, including us with health insurance as farming is the fifth or sixth most dangerous profession and it is the number one reason farms go out of business.

We were scarred by the high interest rates of the early 80’s so worked very hard to not carry any debt except for very large items like land, vehicles and greenhouses and paid them off on time and as fast as we could.  We paid the credit card balance on time every month and deposited the payroll and other business taxes on time too, it is probably one of the other main reasons people go out of business, they don’t deposit their tax withholdings.  We paid for almost all of the infrastructure development with cash, as it came in.  We lived within our means.  Everything is paid off, we have no debt.

We were very frugal, essentially didn’t take a vacation or trip that wasn’t farm related for the first 15 years and started to save what we could for the long run in our mid-thirties, a late start for sure.  We have been very lucky and can point to four important reasons we were able to save much at all.

1. We have been incredibly healthy with no major accidents or injuries and essentially have never missed a day of work, including our staff.

2. We did not have kids, just sayin’

3. We built and did all of the maintenance of the farm ourselves, every nail and plumbing pipe, saving tens of thousands of dollars by not hiring people to do the work.  We now have mechanics work on our vehicles and other equipment but we used to do all of that too.

4. We had very little student debt, a much bigger issue these days for younger people.

We have invested those savings in the stock market in mutual funds and exchange traded funds, very diversified.  I still think the stock markets are rigged for the big guys but if you keep it simple it works for us too.  We have used a fiduciary financial advisor particularly to help with our farm transition planning around Jennie.  She constantly remarks on how little money we live on.

So that is it, it is not rocket science just discipline and playing the long game, not trying to swing for the fences with get rich quick schemes.  Sorry, wish it was more sexy.  There is now an excellent small, short, uncomplicated book that I recommend to everyone, especially younger folks, The Index Card.  Written by a professor and financial writer who once commented that everything you needed to know about personal finance can be written on one index card and its true, the book just expands it a bit.

Picture of the week

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That lush green exuberance of spring

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #12, 3/26/21

What’s been going on!

Betsy and I were out yesterday morning doing daily tasks like we have done on any number of the thousands of farm mornings over the last four decades, it is automatic, muscle memory type of work.  I was pulling radishes, bent over with my left arm on my left knee, supporting my back with the growing bunch in my left hand while my right hand searched for the correct sized root.  One, two, three…eight, stand up grab a rubber band from the pouch on my right hip, two wraps around the base of the leaves, set the bunch down, bend over and repeat.  A bunch a minute, 80 bunches later I am done for this week- with radishes.

Betsy is in the anemone tunnel next to me, with in the same stance but with a growing armload of flowers in her left arm and a set of scissors in her right hand.  Judging each bloom for the right size and quality, sliding to the base of the stem, cut and move to the pile in her left arm.  When the load gets too big to carry, she walks them out to the back of the truck which gives her a chance to stand up straight for a minute or two before starting again; an important posture this week as she gets over a muscle pull in her hip.  The big difference is she repeats this task every single morning, except for market Saturdays, while the anemones and ranunculus are blooming.

It isn’t really terrible work but as we talk back and forth, we agree that it is one of the many things we will not miss once we retire in 5 weeks.  People are increasingly realizing that we are serious about calling it quits and having a hard time believing it will happen so soon when we are at market with a table full of produce and flowers and ask why and how (the how I will talk about in the future) but we are more than ready to move to the next phase or our adventure together.  There are so many facets of running your own business and growing on a commercial scale that we relished, enjoyed and embraced over the years but are tired of now or just don’t have the interest in doing anymore and we know that without that drive it is time to stop.

There are things we will miss like regularly seeing everyone at market, having the easy abundance of produce to eat and flowers to fill the house and give to friends but we can replicate most of that with a smaller garden and weekly shopping trips to the market.  We are not worried about how we will fill our time, just which thing we want to do first.

Picture of the week

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This sort of wild abundance will soon be a thing of the past

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #7, 2/19/21

What’s been going on!

We certainly got lucky with the ice storm that didn’t happen, we are feeling for our friends in Texas and other places who have been taking the brunt of this winter’s fury, that kind of weather is usually more ours to worry about.

We have not really talked much about what it is like to slowly close down and take apart the business we worked so long and hard to build.  For so many years we were focused on building things, improving systems, growing our infrastructure and that of the local food system, learning, learning, learning.  If we had not been that way, we would not have had the successful business we ended up running but over the last two years we have been in the reverse process.

Once we made the decision that the party was over we started to identify what equipment we would no longer need and how to manage the land and buildings so that it would be the least maintenance for us in the long run.  There will still be a lot to maintain as we do have 26 acres, 8 of that are open and have to be mowed, 4 major buildings and 6 outbuildings.  We have begun to sell off some things like the big high tunnels and some greenhouse seeding equipment but will have much more to go after this spring when we take out 5 of the 6 sliding tunnels and really finalize the list of things like fencing and trellising, seeders, row covers and more.  Decisions will need to be made about refrigeration equipment and irrigation pumps but that is all just stuff.

We have talked some in the past about how we personally cleared, with chainsaws, two additional fields to what was already open when we bought the place.  Each one nearly two acres in size and years in the making.  We for sure are not going to let that land or any of the rest return to trees, partly for all the work we put into turning it into productive farm land but also in case anyone wants to farm it in the future.  Over the last two years we have been removing all of the deer fencing and smoothing and seeding down those growing areas to pasture grass to preserve the great soil we had developed and to make it easy to mow once or twice a year.  All of the underground irrigation supply lines are still there if someone wants to use them someday.

In many ways it has been therapeutic, returning the place to how we found it originally but actually better and it has reminded us of how much work we put in in the beginning and how valuable it was in our formation as people.  It is not a sad process but more like letting a caged bird fly free.

Pictures of the week

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The “blueberry” field before we cleared it

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The clearing process

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The finished product

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In production, blueberries in the far back corner

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Everything back in grass except the blueberries

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Us! Finally the Anemones are cooperating! 

Stay safe and well and we hope to see you all at the market soon!

Alex and Betsy

If you know folks who you think would be interested in news of the farm then please feel free to forward this to them and encourage them to sign up at the website.

Peregrine Farm News Vol. 17 #5, 2/21/20

What’s been going on! 

Well I shouldn’t have said anything last week about a snowless winter and last night’s two inches wasn’t exactly the kind of storm that brings everything to a halt but apparently the grocery stores still had huge crowds buying break and milk, jeeze.  Tonight is looking to be the coldest night of the winter which means a really chilly start at market tomorrow even with the sun, bundle up!

As Betsy and I slip quietly off towards retirement another milestone was passed this week as I had my last board meeting for the last board I have been sitting on.  In fact in the past two months I have stepped off of the boards of three organizations that have been dear to us.  The first, after eleven years and three executive director transitions, was the Rural Advancement Foundation International which I have written about many times in the past for their incredible work around farm sustainability and rural social justice.

The second was the Center for Environmental Farming Systems which among their many projects is the largest organic research farm in the United States.  We have been involved since its inception, over a quarter of a century!  The last and closest to our hearts is the board of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market where we both have been on and off the board in every capacity for over 30 years.

Beyond the freeing up of time and schedule it is good to not be in the lead anymore.  All three organizations are in great shape with good leadership so it also has felt like it was a good time to move on.  We will continue to volunteer and advise these groups when asked but as we want.  When my father retired he said one of the things he was really looking forward to as no more of the “C” word and he stuck to it.

Picture of the week

P1050427The first pink light on a cold morning

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 16, #25, 12/27/19, Happy New Years!

What’s been going on! 

As I sit here on a foggy Friday, at the end of the year, I think about how it is sort of an analogy to how this year has been.  Not in the dark or ominous or damp way but in the we can’t really see what’s ahead so what surprises are in store? way.  The decision to radically change our farming and life routines to part-year farming and semi-retirement was a bit of a leap into the unknown but has turned out mostly terrific.

The farming part of the season was the thing we were the most sure of and it went great and essentially according to plan.  We did feel the freedom of just being out here on our own, without any staff to manage or be timely too.  We have always loved the folks who worked with us but it is a whole other experience to have this beautiful, quiet place to ourselves and to work the schedule and hours that spoke to us.  A few days were more work than we wanted to do alone but generally we kept it to an amenable level.

Not going to Farmers’ Market the rest of the year seemed both wrong and liberating.  It was the first summer in 34 years that we did not stand behind a table and greet old and new friends alike and it was a bit disorienting for a while but we got over it pretty quickly, helped by almost weekly visits to the market to shop and get our people fix.  We certainly enjoyed not having to work in the field in the heat of summer.

The picture became less foggy with a wonderful late summer and fall of travel and kicking around here on the farm.  Great trips to the Rocky Mountain west and a family trip to Oaxaca, Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations were memorable and we have a couple more excursions over the next few weeks and then we settle in for the spring farming season.

And as we speculated it has been a bit of a mental lift to turn the crank and start up the farm for the next year after nearly 6 months off!  Fortunately it starts slowly with soil and bed preparations through the fall, then seedlings in the greenhouse and the first plantings which are smallish and spaced apart in time.  Easier to get the mind and body around the tasks that way.  The good news is the first beds of flowers look great and the first four plantings of Little Gem lettuce are in the tunnels along with Japanese Turnips and Radishes. The 39th season of Peregrine Farm is underway.

Because the Anemones look so good and are blooming earlier than they should be, we will be coming to market tomorrow to sell!  Mostly we want to be able to see all of you, wish you a happy New Years and as always thank you for making it possible for us to do what we do. If we don’t get to see you tomorrow we want you to know that without your support all these years and especially your kind words of encouragement as we head into this new phase, our lives would be much less enjoyable and certainly not as rich.

Pictures of the week

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IMG_20191102_094357Chiles and Mole in the market in Oaxaca

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 16 #4, 2/21/19 The Big Reveal

Peregrine Farm 7.0, or as we joke, back under really old management.

My father, who was a keen observer of life, always said that you had to reinvent yourself every so often.  By our loose thinking we have done so with Peregrine Farm about every 6 years or so. From all Pick-Your-Own berries to vegetables and cut flowers sold at Wholesale and Farmers’ Market.  From only Betsy on the farm full time to both of us with employees.  Reducing the emphasis on wholesale to really focusing on the Farmers’ Market.  Turkeys and the Big Tops.  Bringing Jennie on as a business partner.  All big changes in both direction and to “the brand”.  7.0 is the next re-jiggering, as my father would have also said, is probably the most dramatic since getting out of the Pick-Your-Own business.

If you read previous farm transition pieces closely you know that our original plan, before Jennie, was to eventually downsize to where just the two of us could do the work, go to Farmers’ Market only part of the year and become old characters at market (we may have already attained the last part) and that is what we are doing.  There are points of no return with this plan and we are fine with that.  The two big ones are getting so small that there is not enough work to actually hire help and giving up one of our two spaces at the market because we will not have enough product to fill two spaces and won’t be there enough weeks to qualify to have two spaces (27 weeks).

When Jennie made her decision last June we began to draw up the new plan.  It had to revolve around farming in the cooler months as both of us have gotten to where we don’t tolerate the heat well anymore and we wanted a large chunk of time off for travel and to enjoy life while we are still in good shape.  We have to attend market at least 17 weeks a year to hold one reserved space which is the key to us being successful.  While the “cooler months” do include fall and winter the difficulties of producing enough, consistently, in those seasons are too many.  We would focus on late winter, spring- when the growing conditions are the best and the very early bit of summer.

We also knew that we couldn’t grow every crop that we had in the past, so as pragmatic business people we did a deep dive into our data to determine which ones really paid the bills and how much of it we really needed to produce to meet market demand.  This also meant giving up crops that either didn’t carry their weight, didn’t grow easily on this piece of land or we just didn’t like growing.  The years of experimentation were over, we were going to only grow the tried and true.

In the downsizing we would limit ourselves to only a half an acre, a big change from the 2 to 2.5 acres we had been producing for the last decade or more with four to five people.  This is one quarter acre outdoors and one quarter acre under the cover of the little sliding tunnels.  We are moving from being small farmers to large gardeners.

So what does all this look like?  Our market season will start in January and run about 20 weeks until the 4th of July, Independence Day.  Our growing season of course starts earlier with a few things going in the ground in October and November but the greenhouse and planting really starts in earnest in December.  As you can see now at market it starts with Anemones soon to be followed by Ranunculus and other spring flowers.  Cool season vegetables will focus on lettuces with other greens and salad turnips and radishes.  Warm season vegetables will be limited to the very early cucumbers, basil and tomatoes.

Most significantly the days of big tomatoes and peppers are over.  The Big Tops (Haygrove field scale tunnels) that have allowed us to consistently grow large amounts of tomatoes have been taken down and sold, they are just too big for us to manage without employees and would mean too much tomato work in the heat of the summer.  We are going from 1300 plants down to 260 that will give us tomatoes in June.

The single biggest change will be no more peppers for market and no more pepper roasting.  We are thinking about coming for a few weeks in September just to roast peppers for people who purchase them from other vendors at market.  This is the one crop we really hate to stop producing for market but it is the most time consuming crop and during the hottest months, as they are in the ground from May until November.

So there it is, Plan B.  One of the reasons that Betsy and I became farmers in the first place was to be able control our as much of our own destiny as possible by working for ourselves, producing our own food and building our surrounds and this is just a continuation of that determination.  We know that you will embrace this next evolution of Peregrine Farm too!

Picture of the Week P1040933

Holy cow! The sun came out.  This is now the scope of Peregrine Farm

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 16 #3, 2/14/19

What’s been going on!

We want to thank everyone who sent kind words and support for the Barker family!

We have more news to share and we have been waiting until the time was right to do so.  We have talked about this with some folks over the last few months and we are sad to say that Jennie will not be staying on with Peregrine Farm.  This was a very hard decision for her and we completely understood her position and supported her while feeling very sorry that she was leaving.

After eight years with us she came to realize that in the long run, without a business partner, she would not be able to run this operation by herself.  We concurred that it is nearly impossible to farm alone and while Betsy and I are currently still around we would increasingly not be here and eventually completely.  A secondary factor was that being alone out here in the country is difficult too.

What the three of us were trying to do in transitioning the farm to a non-family member was very difficult and a very high bar to achieve.  Only half of family owned businesses make it to the second generation and only half of those to the third and most of those are not farms.  I think about this several times a week when I drive by a local farm that has a sign out front that says “Since 1774”, that’s right, two years before the Declaration of Independence!  Who knows what infinitesimal part of a percentage point that farm is amongst all farms who succeed in passing the farm on.

We are proud of what we did accomplish and of the work we did to build a situation and relationship with Jennie.  Our legal and working model was excellent and Jennie did an incredible job of taking over the reins and running the farm.  But if you are not happy in your situation then a change needs to happen.  Betsy and I have been fortunate to have each other to work alongside all these years and have loved this place and the farming life but as I frequently say “there are reasons that farmers are only one percent of the population”.

The three of us knew from the beginning that something could happen that would make our plan not work out and so we have always had Plan B which we alluded to in our series of pieces on farm transition.  First we will say that we are not going to look for another person or persons to pass Peregrine Farm, the business, on to; it is simply too late in our lives and takes too much energy to build the relationship needed.  We have always said that Jennie was the only time we were going to attempt this and are a bit sad that the farm business will not survive us but the land will.

There are big changes afoot with Plan B and we are excited about them.  Next week I will layout the whole picture of what we are calling Peregrine Farm 7.0.  In the meantime if you run into Jennie in town (fortunately she is staying in the area) give her a warm greeting and thank her for growing such great produce for you!

Picture of the Week

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First light of day on a tunnel of Little Gem

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