5/18/05 Vol. 2 #11

Wow, what glorious weather!  Summer must be right around the corner.  This week as we were planting yet more Celosia flowers (this is an inside joke at the farm, Betsy always seems to have more Celosia to plant) Rett asked how many folks who had worked for us had gone on to start their own farms.  I had to think about it for a bit and finally came up with at least six (mostly in this area) and another three or four who most likely will someday.  That is out of the twenty plus people who have worked a full summer with us in the last ten years, that’s almost 50 percent!  I always say that only about one percent of the folks that start out to farm actually make it past the first five years.   Now some of my market gardener colleagues would view these new operations as competition but we view it as an indicator of sustainability.  An indicator that we have developed a sustainable farming system that can thrive and hire quality people who can then go on,  take parts of our system and create their own.  An indicator that this kind of farming is truly being embraced and supported by consumers and communities all over the country.  Remember that one of the three tenets of sustainability is the social component and we feel that in the long run it really is the glue that holds it all together.  This is an example of why certified organic is really a narrow view of farming, it doesn’t take into account these sorts of social dimensions.  Rett who is working on his own side market garden project had his first day at farmers’ market yesterday, so another one is launched!

You know that summer must be close when we start planting the winter squash!  We planted 2500 feet of row to six different varieties including acorns, butternut, and my favorite  Sweet Dumpling.  We got the second planting of corn in and cultivated the first planting (not a great stand due to the cold soil temperatures)  More sunflowers and other warm season flowers too.  Finally the late spring cover crops began to bloom and so we have started to plant the no-till peppers and late tomatoes.  We roll down these huge cover crops, which kills them, and then we cut a slit into them and the soil then plant the transplants right into the mulch.  By the end of today all of the peppers will be in the ground and we put the last planting of Cherokee Purple tomatoes in last Friday.  The irrigation rolls out behind all of these new plantings as we are beginning to get dry and these little quarter inch rains just don’t do much, when the hot days come it will become critical quickly!

On a literary note, I knew last week that I had mangled Twain’s quote about cold weather in San Francisco.  The quote actually goes “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”.  Well I had several corrective e-mails and further conversations at market, including one that said he had used that statement about Portland or Seattle.  This all peaked my interest and so I did a little research and it turns out that it is all an urban legend, there has never been any documentation that Twain ever said or wrote this quote.  So I guess we where all wrong!  None the less, the comparison to the generally cool temperatures in that part of California allowing ideal conditions to grow lettuce still holds.

Picture of the Week
Tough love, peppers planted directly into the rolled cover crops.  Better for the soil and the sweet bell peppers

5/25/05 Vol. 2 #12

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

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

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

6/1/05 Vol. 2 #13

June first the beginning of hurricane season, let’s not start there.  The beginning of blueberry season, that’s better.  We picked the first blues yesterday and they are really loaded up!  This first pass doesn’t yield much and is very tedious to do, the temptation is to pick anything that shows color but we try and only pick the fully blue fruit.  It is sort of a mental training exercise so that later in the season you automatically get the best ones.  We want to make sure that these first berries are fully ripe and sweet, in a few days they will begin to ripen so fast that we won’t have to be so careful and also will not be able to keep up.  Many folks who come to the farm ask why the blueberry rows are so far apart.  We originally planned on having twice as many bushes and left room for a row in between the existing rows so we could plant some different varieties to act as pollinators for the variety we have.  Most blueberries (and fruit trees too) need a different but similar season variety to cross pollinate with to be able to set fruit.  This southern highbush variety that we grow turns out to be self fruiting (a trait that the researchers where not completely sure about when we planted them)  so we never got around to planting the additional rows.  It turns out that blueberries are so time consuming to harvest that the idea of having twice as many just scares us to death!  It takes five or six people harvesting every morning, five days a week to keep up with the ripening berries, and it is only 200 plants!

In the meantime we fall far behind on all the other farm chores.  This year with the delayed first harvest we have been trying to get certain jobs done before time runs out, with some success.  We have gotten a lot of weeding and cultivating done as well as flower trellising and planting but as usual there are still far too many things that will need to be done during the hectic peak weeks of blueberry season.  We add on additional help during this period and keep them on for a few days after the season so they can help us catch up, let’s hope we can!

Let’s hope it rains this week as it is getting very dry out there and we are already pumping lots of water.  The pond is already getting low and the creek we back it up with is beginning to slow down too.  Fortunately as cool as it has been we are only watering every other day but with the forecast for hot weather coming in this weekend  we may have to go to daily irrigation.  The turkeys made there outdoors debut this last week.  They are always very tentative the first time they are exposed to anything new, now they are acting like old hands including a few bad actors flying over the fence!  One more week in the brooder at nights and then they graduate to the fields full time.

Picture of the Week
Sunflowers wating for the sun

6/8/05 Vol. 2 #14

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

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

Picture of the Week
A wall of blue fruit

6/15/05 Vol. 2 #15

As hard as it is to believe, this season is our 20th at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market!  This week twenty Junes ago, June 7th 1986, we made our first feeble attempt at selling our vegetables, flowers, and berries at market.  We started the farm as a pick-your-own blackberry and raspberry farm planting the first crops in 1982.  Because they were perennials we didn’t open for business until 1984 and quickly realized that the pick-your-own business wasn’t going to pay the bills.  We began to look to additional markets for our berries.  In the winter of 1985 my brother Jon moved here to join us in the farming venture and we turned over the last piece of ground we had that wasn’t in berries.  Jon is a natural grower and he and Betsy had the little quarter acre patch overflowing with vegetables.  Our neighbor George Graves (some of you may remember him as a vendor at the market) kept saying “you really need to bring your berries down to the Carrboro Market”  every time we went to check the market out it was pitiful.  No customers and none of the vendors had anything to sell.  Turns out that 9:00 was too late to get there, it was all over but the cleanup by then.

Our first day it took two trucks to get everything to market, not that we had that much to sell, just that we were that disorganized!  One truck for the little bit of produce we had and one for all the display materials- saw horses to hold up the door we used as a table, five gallon buckets filled with concrete and poles to hold up a tarp, etc.  We had zucchinis the size of gun ships, summer squash, a few flowers and not much else.  We made $17.  It didn’t look like the market was going to pay the bills either but we were excited!  The customers were great, interested and encouraging.  The other vendors were helpful, we were so inept we certainly couldn’t be competition!  Jon left the next winter and the blackberries are long gone but we have now made the market the center of our business.  As exhausting as it can be we still are excited about going to market and seeing all of the customers who are still interested, encouraging and great!

The turkeys finally made it out to the field in a wild move.  Last Thursday as the berry picking finished up I decided to use all of those hands to help move them from the brooder to their first stop in the fields.  It had been raining and we waited until it stopped, we thought.  As we were chasing them around it started to rain again and by the time we had finished it was a down pour.  The poor birds were shell shocked both by being caught and handled but were soaking wet too.  We rushed their portable shelter over and got them all loaded with fresh food and water.  In an hour they were all dry and happy and so I let them out to run in the hydrangeas and viburnums.  They are now trained professionals, ranging the area for bugs and grasses by day and each evening as I go to put them up they are already loaded into the shelter, on the roosts, ready for a nights sleep.

Picture of the Week
Amazing Hydrangeas and brilliant? Turkeys

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!

6/29/05 Vol. 2 #17

WooWee!  It’s raining!  I was starting to get a bit nervous and told Betsy that if we didn’t get rain early in the week that we would have to start pulling water from the upper pond, as the lower pumping pond was getting too low.  I hate to have to start using that water as it is a sign of serious drought.  The upper pond is two months worth of water and once we start using it there is no filling it back up until next winter.  The lower pond, while not very deep, is easily replenishable both by it’s slow running spring and the gravity feed line that we have into the creek (which is also slow running right now).  Last week I said that we were pumping about 10,000 gallons a day but the creek and spring are only giving us back about 5 – 6,000 gallons a day.  After two weeks of solid irrigation you can see the problem.  With this rain headed into it’s third day this will buy us the time we need for the water to fill back up.

Of course with the rain I am now kicking myself for not having gotten more ground ready for seeding of the summer cover crops (he is never happy).  The forecast has been for such dry weather, including headed into this bit of rain, that we didn’t want to put seed out there that would just sit there and maybe not come up at all.  We have only had a bit over a half an inch so it’s not so wet that I won’t be able to get out there and till the soil soon afterwards but it sure would have been nice to get them in with this gentle rain.  I did get the sliding tunnel ends seeded yesterday just as the rain started but still have another half acre waiting.

The second round of Turkeys did not arrive last week and we are hoping that they will make it this week.  We are working with our processor, who also raises his own birds, to buy the 35 broad breasted birds that we need to round out the flock.  It looks as if the bronze variety that we want to get may, once again, not be available and so we may have to get whites again.  Like I say, it is always something new with this turkey venture!  Otherwise things are settling back down to more normal pace now that the blueberry season is over.  We are back to our normal 70 hours a week of hired help down from a high of almost 200 hours two weeks ago!  Soon we will be in our mid summer routine of picking tomatoes twice a week, peppers once a week and general chores the rest of the time.  When it gets really hot we like to maintain a steady and not too frantic pace, better for the mind and the body!

Picture of the Week
Even on a dreary day the Zinnias are bright

7/6/05 Vol. 2 #18

What a glorious week to live in central North Carolina!  Not!!!  A little bit of rain every day to keep the humidity up high and the temperatures in the mid to high nineties, the kind of weather that makes me think about moving back out west.  The only thing worse was when we lived in Houston and it rained every day and then the steam would rise off of all the concrete just like a steam bath.

We have been plugging along despite the conditions and getting quite a bit done.  We harvested all of the red onions and while we did not get as many this year the size is much larger which is nice.  We have both the Stockton Sweet Reds and the Long Reds of Tropea which we grow for Ben Barker at Magnolia Grill (he says when cooked they make a great sauce).  Years ago I was in Arkansas for a conference and was impressed by an onion breeder who spoke about the healthy attributes of Red Onions, very high in anti-oxidants, and he was trying to breed varieties high in these compounds.  Red onions are harder to grow than white ones and you cannot store them very long either.   The sweeter the onion the shorter its storage capabilities.  We are limited here also by day length.  Onions are classed as long, intermediate and short day length varieties.  Most of the onions are grown either far south (Texas with short day lengths) or north (New York with long days).  We are smack in the middle of the intermediate zone so are limited by the varieties we can choose.  Fortunately the Stockton Sweet Red is a really good variety.  Enjoy them for the next month or so.

The next batch of turkeys arrived on Thursday and we were able to get the Broad Breasted Bronzes that we wanted and have been trying to get the last several years and couldn’t.  As these are large turkeys they grow much faster than the heritage birds so we want to get them later (closer to Thanksgiving) so they don’t get huge.  The problem is that there is only really one breeder for these Bronzes and the later into the summer you go there are fewer available because the their fertility goes down and so the hatch rate is low.  We have wanted to raise this type because although they are a broad breasted type which means they are prone to the sorts of inbreeding problems associated with large birds we think that they may be hardier than the white kinds and also be more adapted to our outdoor, pasture management system.  We’ll see.  They look great so far!

Picture of the Week
A peek at good things to come, Big Beefs

7/13/05 Vol. 2 #19

Well we survived the wild and long weekend.  We made it to Pittsburgh and to the church with twenty minutes to spare.  It all went beautifully- ceremony, reception, bride, families, etc.   We had a great time but were totally exhausted by the time we hit the bed on Saturday night (Sunday morning) after having been up since 3:30 a.m.!  A few hours of sleep then back on the plane to Raleigh.  We are still trying to recover, oh to be twenty something again!  The staff did a great job at market (and all of the customers did too) and at the farm.  Sure seems like a lot of coordination for only 24 hours gone from the place.  Congratulations Joann and Brian, they, like all good farmers, will be back at market today (honeymoon what honeymoon?).

The dog days of summer are surely here, we are wading through the days, and the air, expending as little energy as we can.  Mornings in the field, harvesting and trying to maintain the crops that are in the ground, then we slink back under the trees into the shade for the afternoon.  Betsy is working with the flowers and making bouquets for the deliveries to Weaver Street Market and the farmers’ markets.  I am carrying the goods to town, delivering to the store or the restaurants or Wednesday market.  The staff only works after noon on Wednesdays and Fridays, I just think that it is too brutal to ask humans to work out in the field, in the sun, when the weather is this beastly.  The afternoons that they do work we keep them in the shade too.  Seeding fall crops in the seed flats, sorting tomatoes and peppers down at the packing shed, getting orders together, etc.  We do have a few fields that become shady as the afternoon progresses so we can work in them if we must.  The peppers are in one of those this year and we can find some shady work there in the late afternoons too.

The chore that punctuates the week right now is the Monday and Thursday tomato harvest.  It takes all morning to pick the 1400 feet of row and then wipe, and sort the 21 varieties into the appropriate boxes.  We sort five ways-ripe, partly ripe (colored but need a few days to be ready to eat), freaks, eat today and compost.  Early in the season it takes time to “calibrate” the eyes as to which boxes a tomato should go in but after a few days it becomes automatic.  Then down to the air-conditioned packing shed for storage.  Stacks of boxes by variety and ripeness, hundreds of pounds.  The ripes go to the next market or delivery, giving the part ripes time to finish up for the next market/eating opportunity.  The freaks waiting for a good home, someone’s salsa or sauce, or the gazpacho at Elaines.  At the end of the morning the staff takes all they want from the “eat today” box and wearily head off to their afternoon endeavors, covered and grubby in tomato vine residue.

Pictures of the Week
These farmers scrub up pretty good
Dragging Brian back to the farm

7/20/05 Vol. 2 #20

How long can this month and weather go on?  A whopper of a storm last night with copious lightning, I just hope that the electric fence charger didn’t get fried with one of those strikes.  The silver lining to the month of July is that it is the best part of the of tomato season and we are at the peak this week and last.  While many folks are asking about when the pepper roaster will come out (not during this hot weather I can assure you!) I always say we have to get through tomato season first.  Sometimes they say “I didn’t know you grew tomatoes?”  Crest fallen I remind them that we grow just a few varieties that they should try.  Tomatoes and their many varieties, colors and shapes were my first vegetable obsession before peppers.  We have grown tomatoes for market since 1986 but just reds with a few cherries and pink German Johnsons because that was what everyone grew around here.  In the early 1990’s we started reading about heirloom tomatoes and started growing a few varieties in 1994 including Cherokee Purple (what a find!).

People often wonder why we grow so many different kinds.  Tomatoes are more than just about flavor.  The range of colors on the plate, the amount of juice, the textures, all contribute to the experience.  People also like different flavors or levels of acidity, or the chefs like to match certain varieties with certain dishes, like wine.  Over the years we have worked on finding the best tasting and producing varieties in each color group.  Then we rely on both our market customers and restaurant chefs to guide us as to what they really like.  For many years we were trying to find a high and low acid variety in each color as well.  Many folks ask for a high acid tomato so we have tried to find them.  I have come to believe that while flavor especially acidity does have have a great deal to do with variety, the way we grow those plants can over ride those genetics at times.  Peoples memories of how tomatoes tasted from there grandmothers garden can also be deceiving but in general I would say that in days past, in the south, the tomato plants didn’t grow as vigorously as we can get them to grow now.  In another correlation to wine, we may do too good a job in building our soils and growing the plants so that they don’t “hurt” enough like grape growers like to refer to wine grapes that make the best wines.  We have grown at least fifteen “high acid” red tomatoes and every time they don’t taste any more acid than our standard red Big Beef (an excellent tomato).  So the active search for a high acid red has ended.  I am sending out our Tomato Guide as a separate attachment.  Let us know what tomatoes you like and how they fall in our listings of flavor.

Picture of the Week
Just a few of the varieties, clockwise from bottom, pink and red Italian Oxhearts, Red Zebra, Big Beef and Early Pick, German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, Paul Robeson, Striped German, Orange Blossom, Sun Gold and Italian Red Cherry