They live! I have been trying to sit down and send out an update for months! Just an indication of how our winter has been going, way too busy for a couple of folks who are supposed to be “taking it easy”! I would like to think that I have gotten caught up on all of the things that we need to do but I know that would just be a bold faced lie! As a friend of ours once said “our recreation is getting in the way of our recreation”!
Let’s see, since our last newsletter we have both had several major excursions and many minor ones. In December Betsy and I both flew to Texas where I gave an all day workshop for the Austin Farmers’ Market. We have good friends there who are large cut flower growers and we held the workshop at their farm. After five days with them, including a quick side trip down to Mexico, Betsy flew home and I headed on west to Big Bend National Park. I have been going out there, to hike, for over 30 years (starting when I was in high school in Houston). We had a great 60 plus mile walk across the desert and up into the mountains.
In January I went to New Orleans for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference. I didn’t have to give any workshops this time around but as a board member we are always busy. The end of the month Betsy flew back to Italy! A professor friend of ours is doing a sabbatical in the main cutflower growing region there and as we weren’t very successful in October in seeing much flower production this gave Betsy a great chance to get on some farms. After several days in and around San Remo she took the train up to see our Italian family, the ones we stayed with in October. I am not sure that I may not lose her to the Italians! We have had lots of other extracurricular distractions sandwiched in as well, workshops to give, grants to review, etc.
On the farm we have been trying to pay attention to business but quite frankly have been having a hard time as we have been having too much fun! We have managed to get quite a bit of work done on both the house and the packing shed. The weather has made it difficult to get any planting done in a timely manner and we are running a bit behind with some crops. Betsy has the greenhouse full of transplants and we have managed to get the first 3000 or so lettuce plants in the ground as well as seeding some other flower and vegetable crops. If it doesn’t warm up soon I am not sure what we will have to sell the first few markets. We are using all of the tricks that we have to get things to grow faster but really we just need some normal March weather. The high tunnels are protecting flowers and vegetables (spinach, lettuce, turnips and more), in the field we are covering the lettuce with huge floating row covers of spun bonded polyester. These 30’X100′ sheets are very effective but also can try a marriage! Imagine trying to put these out in the kinds of winds we have had the last few days!
We are planting several new things this year and are excited to see how they work out. I have a new planting of asparagus going in, new blackberries, rhubarb, and artichokes as well as new varieties of peppers and tomatoes to try. Betsy has thousands and thousands of tulips and lilies planted along with other new flower cultivars.
Believe it or not the first market is only two weeks away, March 19th! Yikes! I will send out another newsletter just before then to let you know if we will be there and what we might have.
OK so it’s now three days from the official beginning of spring and it’s snowing! We have consulted with lots of our fellow farmers and no one can quite remember a spring this late in getting started. We are moving forward with the planting plan, as usual, and I think we have caught back up to where we need to be but things just look sad out there in the cold! There are now over 6000 heads of lettuce in the field and I managed to get the first spinach, turnips, carrots, radish, beets, broccoli raab and the first two plantings of sugar snap peas in the ground but we are still waiting to see them come up. Most of the flowers look good except they are not as far along as they should be. Now most of this will quickly correct itself with some consistent warm days, we do wonder though.
In the greenhouse I have gotten a little out of control. Last week was the big tomato and pepper seeding and as hard as I try to not look at the seed catalogs the siren call of new varieties is seductive. 20 varieties of tomatoes this year including two new purples, several new reds including three we brought back from Italy. On the pepper side the story is even worse. 36 varieties, partly due to our Italian travels again as well as our continued search for disease resistant varieties. We have been devastated the last two wet seasons with bacterial leaf spot, which defoliates the plants. This is a huge problem for large commercial growers and so the breeders are now releasing resistant varieties, at least in the sweet bells. Our yellow bell has the resistance and it really works, we found one red bell last season that we liked and we are now going to trial four newer ones also. There are also three new varieties in each of the Poblano and Anaheim/New Mexican green chile types. The logistical nightmare of keeping track of all these varieties is huge; from soaking seeds, to seeding in small-cell-size flats (almost 5000 seeds), to moving up the best seedlings into larger containers and then finally moving them to the field and remembering where they are! All this talk of tomatoes and peppers makes it seem warmer outside already.
Picture of the Week
Snow falling outside while the collards, anemones and lettuce are staying warm inside.
Wow what a difference a week makes! I noticed yesterday (as I drove out the driveway on the way to yet another meeting) that the wild onions have started growing and this morning, as I wandered around, lots of things are waking up for spring; blueberry buds swelling, the breath of spring and quince are beginning to bloom and more! Betsy is beginning to wonder if I actually farm anymore or just go to meetings about farming. This last five days has been non-stop. The first market was enjoyable even though it always seems like we are learning to walk again, even after 20 years at the Carrboro Market. We always view the first market as both a shakedown cruise to make sure we can find all of the market paraphernalia and to have time to visit with all of you before the season gets rolling so fast that we don’t have much time for conversation at market.
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday I had a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) board meeting. Fortunately this time it was in Pittsboro so I didn’t have to travel. We worked hard and, as always, I came away mentally tired. This is a great umbrella organization that does important work all across the South with family farms. I encourage you to check out their website for all of the different areas that they work in www.ssawg.org . 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, 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.
The board meeting ended at noon and I rushed home to help plant eight more beds of vegetables before the impending rains and then rushed off to the Community College to teach a class on tomato production. Yesterday I was gone again, very early, to drive to Goldsboro to give a workshop to a group of extension agents on crop rotation. This is a bit unusual as I am the one who is usually sitting in the audience learning from them. But this is the last one! Today starts the beginning of the non-stop farm season! Thankfully Joann started regular work Monday so at least something is getting done around here! We are running about a week behind on one of the major projects of the spring season which is moving the “sliding” greenhouses and getting the early tomatoes planted (more on this next week). Today we will begin the process by preparing all of the tomato beds for planting. So I am off to the field…
Picture of the Week
Magnolia blossoms opening
Boy are we tired today! Yesterday was the big moving of the tunnels day. We have these six 16’X48′ greenhouse structures that we slide back and forth on rails so that we can cover sensitive crops and yet still have all the benefits of outdoor culture. We only move them once a year but usually it takes parts of two days to finish the job as there is endless unbolting and rebolting of the parts so that when high winds come they don’t end up in the next county. One of the problems with greenhouse or protected growing is that you can build up disease and insect problems as it is the perfect warm, moist environment for them to thrive. By uncovering the growing areas we get all the natural soil building conditions (freezing and thawing, snowfall and rainfall, full sunlight) and we can grow our soil building cover crops as well. It is a lot of work but in a sustainable system we need to work with the ecosystem in all the ways that we can. The reward for all of us are things like tomatoes that taste great a month earlier than we could have them from the field.
One of the reasons that we are so tired is that we got it all done in one day so that today we can plant another quarter acre of asparagus before the rains come tonight! Because these asparagus will be in the ground for the next 10-15 years we don’t want to rush through the job of preparing the soil and planting, even though that is how it feels! We started the preparation two winters ago with soil tests and mineral amendments, then growing cover crops to build the organic matter and to help reduce the weeds, today we will lay out 2200 plants (crowns they are called) in six inch deep trenches and cover them lightly. As the season goes on we will continue to pull more soil over them until the trenches are filled. With any luck we will harvest the first few spears next April!
The rest of last week was filled with deer fence maintenance (stinking deer!), tomato trellis building and planting of some new blackberries. As you may know we started Peregrine Farm as a pick-your-own berry farm. After fifteen years in the blackberry business we thought that we would never plant another one on the place but Betsy has missed not having some berries, at least for us. As I can’t ever just plant a few of anything I thought that I was restrained by just putting in a 100 foot row. Two new very promising varieties maybe we will have some next June (2006) at market! The staff is back in full force with Joann keeping us straight, Rett (back from two months in Brazil) keeps us laughing, and new this year is Rachel who is attached to one of our alumni, Lee, and came highly recommended. It is all we can do to keep up with these kids. Spring is really here now!
Picture of the Week
The sliding tunnels, the wooden rails are visible at the bottom of the picture.
I’ve been trying to get back to sending out the newsletter on Wednesdays but that day keeps being very wild around here. Gray and green. The weekly rains are coming in today and we have been going like crazy to get things done before they get here. Green because the leaves are really flying out now and the grass and weeds are growing fast. The beautiful weather early this week has finally given us the ideal conditions for weeding and cultivation which has been the main goal. We have cleaned up at least three quarters of an acre in both the flowers and the vegetables, just in the nick of time as some of the lettuces were beginning to succumb the chickweed. When repeatedly surveyed by researchers, organic farmers always rank weed control as the number one problem that they deal with and would like to have some “miracle” research come up with easy ways to overcome these pests. I am not holding out for a miracle, just the hope of a few dry days at the right time so we can do some timely cultivation, that with a few cultural tricks thrown in will keep the weeds at bay. Of course we are thankful for the young backs that work for us and do most of this weeding! Some things have not changed much in agriculture over the centuries, my brother has a book on market gardening from the 1800’s and we always got a chuckle when they would repeatedly refer to some tedious task as “usually being done by young boys”.
We did get the new asparagus planted, finishing just as the rains started, now we wait to see the new ferns coming up. The earliest tomatoes were planted into the sliding tunnels and look to be taking off well. We are running about a week behind last year on all of the tomatoes, we can’t make them grow any faster in the greenhouse than they are want to. The big planting (20 varieties) were moved up from the small cells to the 4 inch pots and are due to go out to the field in 10 days but again I feel that they may be a few days late. Our goal is to have the plants growing vigorously in the pots and then plant them at the right time so they just continue that strong growth. If we put them out too young they can get shocked and delay their growth and if we wait too long they will become too large for the pots and stop their growth and set the first harvest back as well. The other problem that we are having this year in both the tomatoes and the peppers is erratic seed germination in some varieties. We had to re seed some things which is going to put those varieties several weeks behind the others, this is a first for us as we have never had to completely restart a variety. Oh well always a new twist out here on the farm!
Picture of the Week
Green and gray, and happy cultivated lettuce
You know some days are more glamorous on the farm than others. Like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Farm Tour days (weekend after next, April 23 and 24) when the place is all buffed up and lots of interested folks come out to see what we are up to, or when the NC State Agroecology program comes out to shoot a video of our operation for students to be able to access online. These would qualify under the heading of “farmers as rock stars” as one friend of ours likes to say. Yesterday on the other hand was more along the lines of drudgery, running a jack hammer to be precise. The “Big Tops”, technically referred to as field scale mutli-bay high tunnels, that we grow our tomatoes and some flowers under have legs that screw into the ground 30 inches deep. Each of the two units we have cover a quarter acre each and has one hundred plus legs that have to be screwed in. Sometimes you hit part of the planet. Last year when we put them up we had to rent a jack hammer and chip out 32 holes. It might have been one of the longest and exhausting days of my life! This year we only hit big rock once but yesterday, after I had put if off as long as I could (we have to plant tomatoes next week), up to the rental place I went. One hole was not too bad but I am still scarred by last year and am rethinking the wisdom of moving these things every year!
It always feels like warm weather is coming when the first Zinnias are seeded. Last week we planted the first 10 beds and they are up already. We also planted lots of other warm season crops- sunflowers, tuberoses, calla lilies, lisianthus, cucumbers and artichokes. In general though we worked between the rains on lots of maintenance tasks, part spring cleaning and part crop management. We finished most of the big round of weeding which always stirs up lots of rocks which we pick up and have to haul away along with other detritus like branches, pieces of irrigation line and other items laying around before the grass grows over them and they become mower bait. Pea trellises went up, some irrigation began to be set up (I know it’s raining but we will need it when it starts to get hot), and hydrangeas were cut back. Not a bad week in all and the new asparagus are up!
Picture of the Week
The happy jack hammer operator
I can feel the tsunami rolling towards the farm, just over the hill now! There is always a week about this time of year when the honeymoon is over and we are in the middle of it. It is a combination of getting ready to plant the big batch of tomatoes and the weather finally warming up enough so that things really start to grow and need attention like irrigation water. Let’s just add the Farm Tour on top of the pile while we are at it! Saturday and Sunday is the Farm Tour. Our annual opening of the doors to the general public to come see the farm. Many of you have been on the Farm Tour before and it is a great opportunity to see many of the folks who sell and the Carrboro Market. Few folks know that the tour was actually Betsy’s brainchild. Eleven years ago she thought it would be great for customers to be able to go see the market vendors’ farms. In the end Weaver Street Market sponsored the Tour as a benefit for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Betsy designed the first tour and worked closely with Weaver Street and CFSA on timelines, etc. Now in it’s tenth year thousands of people go on the tour and it raises thousands of dollars for the work CFSA does. It is easy to go on the tour. Just pick up a map at market or Weaver St. or many other local businesses and go to first farm that you want. The best deal is to buy a button which will be your pass for as many people as you can stuff into one vehicle, for as many farms as you want. 30 farms this year so you will have to choose, it is hard to do more than 3 maybe 4 farms in a day. In the mean time we will be mowing and picking up around the place, nothing like have hundreds of house guests all at once to make you buff up the joint! Unfortunately the weather looks a bit mixed for the weekend, Saturday has a front moving in with a chance of rain and then the temperatures dropping with the wind picking up for a brisk Sunday. Come on out anyway!
We have been moving steadily towards getting the main planting of tomatoes in the ground, got the Big Tops covered, beds prepared, irrigation lines down, row cover laid and today will begin to put up the 1000 feet of trellis to support them all. It is a lot of work but these luscious fruits are about 15 percent of our business each year so we make sure that it is done right. While everyone seems to remember us for our peppers (I think it is the hypnotic effect of the roaster in the fall) the tomatoes are a much bigger part of our life. We have decided to put off the actual planting until early next week due to the weather forecast. It is critical that they go in the ground and start growing vigorously without any stresses early on, it means much better plants and fruit later. We had a good frost here on Sunday morning and had a couple of plants in the little tunnels burned a bit so we just want to be careful. I started the irrigation dance yesterday by getting the pump back down to the pond and pumping water. Flushed out all of the main lines running up the hill and all across the farm and then the rest of the week we will begin rolling out the irrigation lines, thousands of feet.
Picture of the Week
Just about the whole top of the farm, new flowers in the front, the little sliding tunnels on the left, lettuce in the middle and the Big Tops in the back, come and see it all on the tour.
We are still recovering from the Farm Tour. We love having folks out to show them what we are up to but Saturday sure does become a long day with Market, then the Tour and then after Tour chores like picking asparagus and dutch iris. Thank you to everyone who came out especially with such mixed and breezy weather, we feel it is important for the”city folks and the country folks” to get together (isn’t there a song in the musical Oklahoma like this?). Part of the sustainability equation of environmental-economic-social is that our neighbors and customers are accepting of and in many ways a part of what we do on the farm. We wouldn’t be successful without your support!
One of the questions we heard a lot over the weekend was why don’t you heat the greenhouses/tunnels? It is partly for the same reason that we don’t use black plastic for mulch, make as few trips over the field with the tractor as possible, drive efficient vehicles, use a passive solar greenhouse for transplants, use drip irrigation and reuse those drip lines as long as possible…. I guess it all started with the oil embargoes of the 70’s when we realized that this oil thing was a limited resource. From the beginning of the farm we have tried to use ways of producing crops (and living) that use the least amount of petroleum products as possible. We knew that eventually the availability and price of oil would become a limiting factor in farming systems and we wanted to not be as dependant on it when that time came. Sure there is still a lot of plastic on the farm, more that we like but much less than most commercial farms, unfortunately we have to use some of it to be competitive at this time. There are still more things that we can do. Hopefully greenhouse films will soon be made from something like corn starch, we can change the tractor over to bio-diesel, maybe we can run the irrigation pump off of solar panels.
It appears as if we missed the bullet again with the cold weather. It was 30 degrees here on Monday morning without frost but everything we had covered made it through just fine and the asparagus didn’t get frozen! Today the big round of tomatoes finally goes in the ground, it has taken some time to get ready for planting but we finished it all up yesterday. We need to get them in because next week is pepper week and it is an even bigger job than tomatoes! The first round of tomatoes in the sliding tunnels look great and they got pruned and tied up for the first time with lots of quarter sized fruit on them! Only 5 weeks until we eat the first one! We of course planted yet more flowers, the last of the spring vegetables and for the first time in a long time, sweet corn. We haven’t had the room for corn until this year and so I thought let’s see if we can grow a really good sweet corn. After much research I settled on both a white and a bicolor both with “excellent flavor, sweetness, and eating qualities”. Now we will see if they actually perform well, you will know if they make it to market!
Picture of the Week
The tomato system- cover crops for good soil and good insects, drip irrigation, reusable fabric mulch, trellis fences and the Big Tops to keep them dry and reduce the dreaded foliage disease.
A day late with the newsletter for good reason. The heritage turkeys came yesterday morning and we were scrambling around getting the brooder house (a.k.a. Poultry Villa) ready for them. Every year it is something new with this turkey thing. This year there are problems between the US Postal Service and certain airlines, who carry the mail, about shipping live birds. So we were not sure that we were going to be able to get these turkey poults from Texas until they confirmed that they had actually made it on to the plane. That was Tuesday afternoon and we originally thought we had until Thursday to get ready! So we scampered around until dark on Tuesday getting the brooder all cleaned out and disinfected and going to town to get feed and bedding. Yesterday morning I was putting the finishing touches on the Poultry Villa as Betsy drove up to the Post Office after they called at 7:00 to let us know that the the little cheeping box had arrived. So here we go again! 70 two day old balls of fluff zipping around. So far they are all singing and dancing amongst the feeders and waterers. We plan on getting another 35 Broad Breasted Bronzes from a local source in about 6 weeks to round out the flock.
Cinco de Mayo today and to celebrate we got all of the hot peppers in the ground the last couple of days, now we have to get all of the sweet bells planted if it will ever warm up! It is now official, this cool spring season is the worst we have had in over ten years. So cool that even the cool season crops are holding back including the flowers! For the first time ever we will not have the overflowing flower display at market for the Mothers Day crowds. It is also holding us back a little on getting the rest of these peppers in the ground as we plant the sweet bells, no-till, into a cover crop that we kill by rolling it down. The problem is the cover crop won’t kill/die if it is not blooming and because of the cool weather it too is delayed. Additionally if we plant the sweet bells into the colder-than-usual soil under that cover crop they will just sulk. We plant the hots into black landscape fabric, just as we do with the early tomatoes, so that the soil is warmer but the sweet peppers don’t need as much heat , usually. So we are going to wait a week to see if warmer temperatures will finally settle in. How am I going to bring out the pepper roaster on schedule if peppers are delayed?
The cool weather has some good points. Because there is not a lot for the staff to harvest yet we are getting really caught up on all the other jobs around the place. Everything is weeded (well almost) , irrigated and trellised. We may have to break out the paint brushes and put a coat on the packing shed or something! The Rhubarb plants finally came this week and we planted them quickly. This is the third time we have tried Rhubarb so if it doesn’t work this time then destiny is not on our side. I think we finally have learned from our mistakes and have it in the right spot. Next year we will see if we were right. The video crew from NC State came out on Tuesday to shoot for a piece on the farm for the on-line Agroecology course. If it is available for the public to view I will give you the link when it happens.
Picture of the Week
Bourbon Reds, Blue Slates and one of the black sheep Slates drinking and reading the N&O
The first warmish morning when you can see the air outside. We are torn. On one hand we would really like to see some warmer weather so that the newly planted warm season crops would not sit there and stare at us with those how-about-another-blanket eyes. These crops like tomatoes and peppers and zinnias get established best and in the long run produce better if they go into warming soil and grow fast. They end up producing earlier and have less stress so they can fight off insects and diseases better. You set their roots down into cool soil and they just sulk. It is kind of like putting your toe into really cold water and recoiling, you could go for a swim but won’t enjoy if much and might die of hypothermia later! On the other hand we don’t want to see it run up to the nineties either. All of these beautiful cool season crops that we have been coaxing along because of the extremely cool conditions the last month or so will look at us with those someone-turn-on-the-air eyes. One of the reasons that California is the salad bowl of the nation is because they grow in the cooler coastal valleys where the conditions are ideal (except for this year with the rains, good for us in the east coast lettuce business) it rarely gets above ninety and the nights are cool. Remember Mark Twain’s quote that goes something like “the coldest summer I ever spent was a week in San Francisco”. We have those kinds of conditions here for about 15 minutes in late April or early May the rest of the time we are just hoping for the best.
Wholesale lettuce deliveries kicked in this week. If you came out on the Farm Tour you saw the 10,000 heads of lettuce just about ready to begin harvest. We have done all of the spring lettuce for Weaver Street Market for fourteen years now. In a perfect season it comes down to five weeks worth of supply for them from late April through the end of May. Any earlier it is too cold to put plants out and any later it is too hot and they get bitter. We seed different varieties of lettuce in the greenhouse every week for twelve weeks beginning in December and then transplant those plants to the field every week for about ten weeks beginning in early February. Different varieties mature at different rates, Boston is faster to grow than Romaine. In the end if we have staggered them correctly they come off in an orderly fashion. I tell folks that growing lettuce for the stores is like running towards a cliff as fast as you can, if you stop short the heads are not big enough, if you go too far you go over the cliff edge and the heads are past their prime maybe bitter and beginning to go to seed. This window for prime lettuce is only usually four or five days. So we are cutting fast these days. Monday and Thursday mornings we cut for delivery to the stores those afternoons and Wednesday and Friday mornings we cut for the markets and the restaurants. In total we will cut 50-60 twenty four head cases a week. When it is all over I am ready to stand upright and pick blueberries and tomatoes!
As usual more planting, weeding, trellising, irrigating, and finally more picking. Need to get that lettuce out of the way because Betsy needs to get more flowers planted there. The peas are blooming up a storm and the flowers are responding to the warmer temperatures. The Turkeys seem to have finally settled in. The first few days can be a little rocky until they all get the hang of eating and drinking. We lost seven Bourbon Reds the first five days but have had no losses since Sunday. This is one of the difficult realities of raising animals, sometimes they get sick and die no matter what you do. At $7.00 a bird it can add up quickly. Now that we are over that hump they usually are extremely hardy, last year we only lost two out of sixty heritage turkeys and none after the first three weeks. Cross your fingers!
Picture of the Week
Look at those peas! Can’t wait until we can eat all we want.