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!?
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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

6/9/04 Vol. 1 #13

This is definitely the change of seasons going on.  Mow down the larkspur and other flowers, take down the pea trellises, turn under the last of the lettuce;  plant more sunflowers, the last tomatoes and seed the winter squash.  Winter squash?  That definitely is a sign of different things to come.  Just as we will be treated by the first tomatoes and melons my schedule tells me it’s time to seed the Brussels Sprouts for Thanksgiving!  Sometimes I am struck by how far in advance our schedule is determined.  Things like when to seed and plant have been decided last year, by early December at the latest.  Every fall we sit down with our notes and the seed catalogues and plan the entire coming year.  Fortunately we can now do it on computer spread sheets which makes it easier to make changes.  This year there are over 300 lines/entries that correspond to different varieties and planting dates.  I always say that any plan is better than no plan especially, when in the heat of the fray, all I have to do is look at the list and say “Oh yeah, it’s time to seed Brussels Sprouts”.  I then scratch my head in disbelief but know that this decision was made in calmer times with great deliberation, so off we go.  Other decisions like where to plant those B. Sprouts may have been made years in advance by our crop rotation scheme, we now have an eight year rotation where the same crop will not be in the same piece of ground for eight whole years.  Sometimes it is comforting to just follow the known path than to try and design a new trail!

The turkeys graduate today.  They are now five weeks old, fully feathered and big enough to move out to the fields permanently.  We have been letting them out daily and getting them acquainted with their new mother ship (a portable shelter for their nighttime rest) and the moveable electric fencing that will keep them in and the four legged predators out.  First stop on the Tour de Peregrine will be in some of Betsy’s shrubs that she cuts for flowering branches (like the Pussy Willows), this gives them a little more cover from hawks etc. while they are still on the small side.  Then every few weeks we will move them to “greener pastures” until they have made the entire loop around the farm.

Picture of the Week
Fabulous Annabelle Hydrangeas and the new turkey stomping grounds.

6/16/04 Vol. 1 #14

Gray, damp, humid, snippets of rain, not much sun.  Nothing grows or blooms fast but the diseases.  Now don’t get me wrong, a little natural water is a welcome thing (our ponds are full again) but a bit of sun in between the showers would be great.  This is exactly the kind of weather that we put the “Big Tops” up for.  In weather like this the tomatoes would go from looking green and lush and in a week start showing brown dying leaves on the bottom and in several more weeks black to the top.  Not so this year!  They are high and dry under the roofs and look fabulous.  There is a little foliage disease here and there but nothing like we have had in years past.  Betsy is also struggling to find enough flowers to cut, with no sun there is are not many buds opening.

Most of the week we have been dealing with the repercussions of what seemed to initially be a short 15 minute thunderstorm on Friday night.  In the daylight after Saturday market we saw the results.  We had a burst of wind over 40 miles per hour and maybe over 50.  Buckets and other things blown all over, limbs up to 4 inches broken off, sunflowers, dahlias, and peppers laid down and the front corner of one of the “Big Tops” leaning to one side.  Every year we have some kind of weather event that makes its mark on the season, some in big ways like Hurricane Fran, some in small ways like this one.  The job on the schedule for this past Monday was to begin trellising the peppers, 48 hours too late for this storm.  Once peppers fall over they are predisposed to lay down the rest of the season, so we put in a string support when they are 12-18 inches high to keep them straight.  As they grow through the season we put additional layers of support in to carry the weight of the fruit and branches.   All of the hot peppers and some of the sweet ones where blown over and then they started to grow upright again giving them a bend in the trunk and branches.  We have them all strung up now but this S curve in the plants and their predisposition to lay down will haunt us all season as we try and manage them.  It is a lot easier to pick peppers if they are standing up and not laying down in the rows or the aisles.

Not all things moved sideways on the farm this week, we did get a lot more planted before the big rain on Friday.  More flowers including the third planting of zinnias and a specialty melon trial we are doing to see if we can have some exotic melons for you in September!  The soil moisture is perfect for pulling weeds in some of the beds we haven’t been able to take care of while picking blueberries and the staff trellised quite a few of Betsy’s flowers (so they won’t get blown over!).  The turkeys are having a grand time out in the big world, running around under the hydrangeas and viburnums and eating all kinds of weed seeds and bugs!

Picture of the Week
Modern art pepper plants

6/23/04 Vol. 1 #15

Longest day of the year on Sunday and now Betsy begins to rejoice as the days get shorter, in her mind frost is surely just around the corner!  These are the kinds of mental games we play during the steamy days of summer.

Tomato harvest is in full swing now and we are beginning to get into that summer harvest rhythm.  The spring vegetable crops grow so fast and are so tender that we have to harvest them every day or so to keep up.  These summer crops, like tomatoes and soon peppers, we harvest just twice a week in a concentrated effort then leave them alone to ripen up some more fruit.  New staff on the farm always take some training to get our tomato system down, from the beginning of turning under of the cover crop of wheat and clover, the laying of the reusable landscape fabric (don’t like to use and throw away black plastic), the building of the fence/trellis’s, careful planting of the many different varieties in just the right row (just so so as my grandmother used to say),  pruning and tying the plants up to the trellis, and then repeated tyings.

These steps are just anticipation of the real dance of carefully picking, wiping and sorting of the fruit themselves.  Every Monday and Thursday now we load the truck up with empty boxes and head to the field.  Certain people pick certain varieties and become specialists in their idiosyncrasies, the Cherokee Purples are hard to get the stems off and we sometimes have to use pliers, the big Striped Germans bruise so easily that you have to use two hands to gently pull them from the vine, the Green Zebra’s and the Aunt Ruby’s German Greens have to get just the right amber cast to them before they are ripe.  Back to the tailgate of the truck with full buckets and the sorting begins.

Each tomato is inspected and wiped with a soft cloth and put into one of three boxes for each variety, one for fully ripe ones, another for the ones that need a few more days to fully color up and a third for the freaks.  New helpers always need coaching on what is ripe and what constitutes a freak, great angst over to “freak it” or not “it just has one kind of funny spot?”  Then there is the “have to eat today” pile, fruit that got bruised or split in the picking process or is perfectly good but has one worm hole in it so it won’t keep.

When we are done picking we gently drive the boxes down to the packing shed and take them into the air-conditioned room and carefully stack them according to variety and ripeness, the ripe piles destined for the next market and the restaurants and the less ripe to while away a few days for the next market or the grocery stores.  Early in the season it is just a few boxes of a couple of varieties, this past Monday it was 40 or more boxes, next week it will be over a thousand pounds at each picking.

It has taken the whole morning to harvest and now we all stand around, soaked with sweat and stained green from rubbing up against the tomato foliage, as I select out one fruit of each variety to sample and cut off slices for each to try, “Wow, look how green that Aunt Ruby’s is inside and the flavor is really good”;  some folks like the Striped Germans some don’t “too sweet”;  noses wrinkle, in a good way, at the tartness of the Green Zebra;  they all love the Big Beef and rarely do we sample the Cherokee Purple after the first pickings because they all know it’s their favorite.  Everyone gets a bag and takes as many fruits as they want from the “have to eat today” pile and then round out their selections from the “freak” boxes and head home talking of the tomato sandwiches, salsas, and sauces they are going to make.

These Monday-Thursday harvests leave time the rest of the week to get other chores done, weeding some here, planting a little, trellising the peppers, cleaning the freshly harvested red onions in the shade when it’s beastly hot like it was last Friday, even finishing up projects put off like finally putting a door on the feed room of the Poultry Villa so the critters don’t eat holes in the feed bags that are being delivered this week.

Picture of the Week
These Kellogg’s Breakfasts will be ready to pick on Thursday

6/30/04 Vol. 1 #16

Rain, rain, rain.  We’ve had 3.5 inches in the last two weeks and it would be alright with us if they turn the tap off for a bit.  Hallelujah for  the “Big Tops”, the tomatoes still look great as well as Betsy’s lisianthus and the staff can still work even if it rains (of course if they are like us they are looking for a day off).  The fairly continuous rain at market on Saturday once again made us think about how great our customers are, coming out and supporting us and the other vendors at market even in the rain.  It also makes us think about how basing our business around outdoor Farmers’ Markets is at the whim of the weather and other factors beyond our control.  We consciously have moved more of our business towards the markets over the past few years for several reasons, first we just love to be at market, to see everyone and hear what you all think about the products that we sell.  Second it fits with our scale of production, when we were more in wholesale we had to keep growing more to meet their needs, it was never enough.  Third it is better income than wholesale because we can sell for closer to a retail price.  On the other hand the market life can be relentless with no way to overcome days with bad weather or other problems, we can’t just take the stuff home and bring it back next week, that’s why they are called perishables.  I explain to the staff and others, including family members, that 75 percent of our business is done at the Farmers’ Markets and so Saturday, in particular, is not to be trifled with.  No weddings, no family reunions, no extracurricular activities on Friday or Saturday morning during market season.  We have about 100 hours a year to make our living, we don’t mess around with that.  So when the forecast is for rain it makes us pause, then we are always pleasantly surprised when the customers come out.  Thank you again.

Despite the rains we have a fairly busy week going on.  Several groups touring the farm including the graduate students in floriculture from NC State and the student interns from the Center For Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro.  We host them every summer during their intensive week on Soils.  They come to see how we manage our soils sustainably and to see how a small farm can be profitable.  These groups always ask good questions that make us think about why we do things the way we do, I think that its always good to look in the mirror from time to time.

The next 40 turkeys arrive this week as well.  We get them in two batches because the Heritage birds take at least 26 weeks to get to size but the Broad Breasted birds grow so fast that they only need about 18 weeks to get huge.  We are hoping that we won’t have any 30 pounders like last year by getting this group later.  The Heritage birds are getting big and have moved to their next location, maybe a picture next week.

Tonight (Wednesday) is Panzanella’s Local Food dinner with part of the proceeds going to support the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  Look for our tomatoes on the menu and the flowers that Betsy donated to spruce up the festivities.  Go and eat great food made from local products and support our local sustainable farming non-profit!

Picture of the Week
Despite the rains look at how beautiful the Lisianthus and Celosias look!

7/7/04 Vol. 1 #17

Whew!  The heat’s on now, it’s usually either feast or famine, we could live in a climate like California where the weather is constant and predictable but where would the challenge be?  I am sometimes surprised by the folks who comment to me about how we seem to have one problem after another or as my sister described the newsletter “the first part is about how hard they work and the second is about the market”.  The newsletter is a stream of consciousness (or unconscious as I do it way too early in the morning) about our life here on the farm.  Our intent is for you to get a snapshot of how a small farm works and why we choose to do this as a living.  With less than one percent of the population being farmers these days it makes it harder for those of you who are not on the land to get a feel for what it takes to produce crops week in and week out.  We don’t want you to think that what we do is all work and no joy, there is nothing else we would rather do for a living (besides the fact that we are unemployable in the outside world at this point!).  In fact there are many times when we look at each other as it simultaneously occurs to us that this is what we actually do for a living!

It is different for farmers because we live where we work and our work is part of everything we see and do.  We could be cabinet makers and have a shop at home but at night you would close the doors and go to the house.  We can’t close the doors because our shop is all around us.  The challenge is what makes it interesting for us, my obsession is in managing the whole system in an elegant way so that, with the least effort possible, we mimic the ecosystem around us, as much as we can, while producing great stuff.  Betsy’s is in the beauty of the plants themselves, she is a plant junky, she wants to see how they grow and what they will produce.  Our real goal is the highest quality of life possible.  Sure at this time of year the work is brutally constant but there are still many rewards like the sunrise this morning, or the sight of the turkeys jogging over to see us or the fun we have with the people who work for us.  Six months off isn’t too bad either!

The second batch of turkeys is looking good and growing fast, and the “big boys” are now nine weeks old.  We did find one this week that had hurt its leg somehow and is in the “hospital ward” eating all of the melon and cull peaches it wants, this is our version of “peel me a grape”.  We may put him back in with the rest today.  The summer cover crops went in this week as well.  When the spring crops come out we follow them with summer soil improving crops like soybeans and millet.  Just like the winter “green manure” crops that we grow we prefer to grow our organic matter and fertilizer in place than spend all of that time and energy hauling it in.  We are planting the last flowers for this year and actually seeding, in the greenhouse, flowers for next spring!

Picture of the Week
The turkeys grazing in Betsy’s recreational gardens

7/14/04 Vol. 1 #18

I’d like to report that there has been lots of laughter, gaiety and ha cha cha going on here at the farm but mostly we have been hiding out from the heat, OK some laughter.  This is really the time of year we have been in training for, by having the crops all trellised, weeded and irrigation lines in place we can concentrate in the mornings on getting things harvested and then get the hell out of the field by noon.  The staff only works in the mornings because I think that it is inefficient and too brutal to have them out in the field during the heat of the day, they do work Wednesday and Friday afternoons but that has to do with getting ready for markets.  The afternoons we reserve for in the shade or indoors chores.  Betsy is usually down at the packing shed (which is deep in the woods) under a ceiling fan stripping and bunching flowers and I am either delivering, at Wednesday market or trying to get some kind of paper work done.  Very late in the day, actually early evening, we slink back out, taking advantage of the lengthening shadows and nick away at one thing or another, Betsy will cut flowers as they are dry now and I will get on the tractor or work on some other project.  We have farming friends in Alabama who just give up and take July and August off and don’t even try to grow anything.  Further south in Florida friends there have a reverse season where their peak production is February and March and their “winter” are the summer months.  With global warming I am beginning to think about summers off!

The usual chores this week- the first lettuce for late August harvest went in the ground, a few more flowers for September, a little weeding, trellising, move the turkeys to their next location (the turkey with the bad leg took his stay in the poultry spa well and has been reintegrated with the rest of the flock).  Lots of daily irrigation as we have missed all of the torrential rains that have been hitting all around us.  Today we have a bus load of farmers from Virginia coming to see the show, about twice a month we have groups come through to see how we do it.

Picture of the Week
Sunset at the farm, the bright red Celosia is aptly named Forest Fire, Betsy is now cutting this second planting of Zinnias

7/21/04 Vol. 1 #19

Pretty quiet out here on the farm this week, even with the slight break in the really hot weather we have been just chugging along with the usual chores.  The mid summer meeting season seems to have arrived and so we have been trying to attend some that we think might be good for us to participate in.  Most of the farmer meetings are in the winter when we all have lots of time to think about new ideas but it is all on paper or in slides.  There is a period during the growing season when short events happen, usually afternoon or evening, that allow us to actually see things growing, in person!

This week we attended a seed saving workshop.  With over 200 varieties of crops that we grow, it is just not possible to think about saving our own seed.  To do a good job of saving seed one really needs good isolation from other like plants so that you can be assured of no cross pollination, that would be really hard for us to achieve.  We have been interested in this for several years now, particularly in the heirloom tomatoes.  From time to time we have ordered tomato seed and when they began to produce it was clear that it was not what we had ordered, imagine how excited I might get if the Cherokee Purples turned out to be something else!  So we are looking at beginning to make selections for fruit quality and plant strength in some of these heirloom tomatoes so that we can have some more control over one of our most important crops.  In the back of my head I also have an interest in trying to develop our own Poblano pepper that would produce consistently under our conditions here in North Carolina.  We have trialed at least a dozen Poblano varieties and have found only one that does reasonably well and are afraid that we may not be able to get that one for too much longer.  The seed business these days has been in great flux as it becomes more and more consolidated.  We have lost several varieties over the past few years as the new companies decide to discontinue varieties for one reason or another (the main reason being dollar$).  I’m not sure it’s not just the heat that makes my head swim with such ideas!

The Broadbrested turkeys, known here on the farm as the “little guys”, are three weeks old now and will graduate to going outside from the Poultry Villa during the day to get them used to eating grass and sunshine and their new mother ship.  After two weeks of day time privileges they get to go out to the fields for good.  First along side, but separated by a fence, the “big boys” and finally total integration.

Picture of the Week
The Broadbreasted White Turkeys thinking about making a run for the outdoors!

7/28/04 Vol. 1 #20

Quick newsletter this week, I am working on it Tuesday night late because I have to leave before the crack of dawn tomorrow for an all day meeting.  Crazy week so far with lots of small but endless details to deal with including a “twilight tour” that we hosted last night to show the “Big Tops” to interested souls.  We have the first of these multi-bay high tunnels in the southeast so our friend, fellow flower grower and the US distributor for them (Haygrove Tunnels)  asked us to have an open house for interested growers.  He came down from Pennsylvania to talk about them and we just mowed the place up.  Got done way after “twilight” then up early to usual chores and move the turkeys into the Blueberry field.  Followed by another huge storm and power outage (when I had planned to do the newsletter), at least our phone service came back on after 5 days.  Isn’t technology grand!  Looks like we could have a wet week yet to come.

The meeting tomorrow is a full day on no-till soil management.  You may remember way back on week #10 I mentioned that we are using this system more and more on peppers, tomatoes, and winter squash.  We think that it is the way of the future and we are continuing to try and refine our techniques.  This looks to be an excellent workshop with big name (at least in farm circles) speakers from around the country presenting.  I will let you know if we learn something earth shattering.

Picture of the Week
A riot of color.  This is how Betsy grows those incredible Zinnias with long stems.  This planting is over her head now so it will be gone soon and a new one has already started blooming.