7/27/05 Vol. 2 #21

What can I say, 102 degrees behind the greenhouse in the shade, 99 degrees on the porch, deep in the woods.  We are pumping lots of water to try and keep everything happy.  So far it seems to be working.  We are having some trouble with the tomatoes, especially the large ones like the Striped Germans and Kellogg’s Breakfast.  When ever it is this hot it seems they can’t get enough water and will have hollow areas inside them just beneath the outer layer.  It actually has an official name “Puffy Wall”.  Supposedly caused by a combination of high or low temperatures way back at pollination and a nitrogen:potassium ratio that is out of whack.  All I know is we see it when its extremely hot, it is almost like the tomatoes start to dehydrate from the inside.  They still taste fine but sometimes are not the perfect slicing tomato for the plate.

This has been a week or so of turkey high jinks.  This morning topped it off.  Last night they did not go into their shelters at dark like they always do, so when I went out to close them up they were all down in one corner of the field sleeping in the grass.  I figured it was the heat and just let them stay out for the night.  This morning when Betsy went out at 5:30 for her walk she came back in immediately and rousted me out because forty odd birds were outside the fence and wandering all over the farm!  With not too much herding we got them all back inside the fence, eating and drinking like it was all normal.  This was after a long week or two of “turkey issues”, that started with the big guys picking on one of their own so badly that we had to put the injured bird in the Turkey Hospital.  After a week the bird, now know as Buckwheat, was all healed up and eager to get back with his pals so I carried it down and put it in with the others.  Immediately they started after him again so I took him back to the hospital.  The next night I slipped him in the shelter with the others thinking that they would wake up the next morning not notice another bird amongst the crowd (turkeys seem to have no short term memory).  All went well and when I let them out the next morning they started back in on him.  Puzzled I took him out again and set him up in his own outdoor area, under the figs, as he couldn’t continue to stay in the 4′ X 4′ hospital room.  Maybe when I moved the rest of the group in a day or two they would be so distracted by new turf that I could put him in then and no one would notice.

He was so lonely that he would just sit there and call to his buddies.  At one point he even flew out and ran down to the others pacing up and down the fence wanting to get in, but the bullies were trying to get at him through the fence!  So we put him back under the figs and grabbed one of the others and put it in with him so he would have company.  That bird just sat and called to his friends and eventually flew out and went back to the others.  Nothing was working.  As the “little boys” were now three weeks old and ready to start going outside we decided to put Buckwheat in with them until they graduated out to the field in a few weeks.  When everyone gets integrated after awhile all will be back to normal.  Kind of a Trojan horse trick.  So off we went with Buckwheat under armand put him in with the little guys.  Love at first sight!  He was walking around like the big man on campus and they were all huddled around his legs.  Now almost a week later it is Buckwheat and his posse!

Picture of the Week
Buckwheat and the little boys

8/3/05 Vol. 2 #22

After 21 Saturdays Peregrine Farm’s marketing season is three quarters of the way done!  Whoopee!  While the market itself continues on until Christmas we decided in 2000 to stop at the end of pepper season and not to grow the fall cool season crops.  With a sustainable view of  our world we know that the most limiting part of our system is labor, and especially for us is our quality of life.  We realize that if we cannot renew ourselves then eventually the whole thing will grind to a halt.  This also represents the social part of the sustainable triangle.  The economic part of this decision came by looking at the numbers it took to go until Thanksgiving, and the return, we decided that it wasn’t worth it for us.  Turns out we were right, we make more now that we don’t market for the additional seven weeks or so than we did before.  Part of that is we personally are in better shape to manage the main season (see part one) and the other is the third leg of sustainability, the environmental side.  We forgo the fall crops, let the soil rest, get our soil improving crops planted just right and put the farm to bed for the winter in better shape, ready to go for the spring.  Of course as you know, 27 or 28 weeks of marketing doesn’t mean we have the rest of the year off, we are just working on other parts of the system.

Also after 21 weeks straight it is time for a break.  We have always taken a break the beginning of August after the early tomatoes wind down and before the peppers kick into full speed.  After the ugly hot weather of July we give the staff a week off with pay and we slow down a bit so we can all pull on through to the end.  So to that end we will be at the markets this week and then take the week of August 7-14 off.  No markets next week and no newsletter.  Nothing exotic for us while we are off, maybe the the beach for a few days, and maybe a few other excursions close by.  There are still the turkeys to keep an eye on and plants to water but by and large we will be lounging with our feet up!

Good news of the farm front though, turnips, radishes, lettuce all for September are in the ground.  Brussels Sprouts are planted for Thanksgiving and the leeks go in this week too!  Good rains last week have made all of these crops very happy.  By the way tonight, Wednesday, Panzanella restaurant (another of Weaver Street Markets businesses) is having another of their “Featured Farm” dinners where they have a special menu built around what the featured farmer has in season.  Tonight it happens to be us!  We took them lots of tomatoes of all kinds, cucumbers and peppers.  I know for sure that one dish will be poblano peppers stuffed with their house made chorizo sausage!  It should be an enjoyable eating experience.  Betsy and I will be there after market to eat our way through the menu, come by and see us!

Picture of the Week
Rudbeckia Triloba in full glory

8/17/05 Vol. 2 #23

Betsy says never mention the word vacation to her in August again.  I actually downplay it and call it the August “break” because we never really can just walk away from the place at this time of year.  We still have to do enough work to “keep the lights on” so that there will be something to harvest and sell when we come back.  We still harvest a little (if you don’t cut those flowers they go into decline early) and of course have to water the greenhouse and irrigate and deal with the turkeys and, and, and…  The break concept is important though because we are so worn down after five straight months it helps for the mind and body to heal a bit before heading into the last stretch.  The complication this year was that I strained a muscle so badly in my back that I was out of commission for most of the week and so Betsy had to take care of my “vacation” chores and well as hers.  She says this one is going to cost me jewelry!  But we’re back! and the staff is back, well rested and ready to go.

This is another one of those transitional weeks during the year that signal seasonal change.  We begin pulling out the very first plantings of tomatoes today as they are essentially dead.  No more Early Picks or Orange Blossoms.  Tomorrow we will begin and maybe finish the winter squash harvest.  One normally thinks of these hard squash as being ready more up into the fall months but we have to plant them early so we can avoid their number one enemy, pickle worm, which bore into the fruit and destroy it if we plant them too late.  So they are ready to pick now and we will have them through September.  The “mechanical frost” as Betsy likes to call it rolls in too.  We really begin to mow down many crops that are spent especially flowers that Betsy has stopped cutting because there are newer better looking plantings coming on in another field.  Now our thoughts turn to late fall and cool nights and travel to foreign places.

Picture of the week
New beautiful Zinnias

8/24/05 Vol. 2 #24

Hallelujah the weather has broken!  We needed some kind of positive sign to reassure us that we were not descending into some kind of special hell.  After all the fun we had on “vacation” it continued into this week.  Including both trucks breaking down and going into the shop.  It is kind of hard to run a farm out of a small passenger car!  We should have the big market truck back by tomorrow but it will mean no market today (Wednesday).  Fortunately things on the farm itself appear to be growing well and most projects are occurring in a timely manner.  The dismantling of the farm for the winter rolls on.  First any trellising that was in place is taken down, rolled up and stored for next years use, then the “mechanical frost” arrives with the mower.  The way the grass and weeds are growing, with all the rain, this is a huge psychological boost on its own.  All of the buried irrigation lines are then pulled up, coiled, and sorted into save for next season, or not.  Soil samples are taken to be sent to the State lab for testing so we will know what minerals we may need to add for the next years crops.  Then it is back on the tractor to turn under all of the crop residue so that we can prepare the beds for the spring crops.  Finally a winter cover crop is seeded to hold the soil over the winter, capture nutrients left over from this seasons crops, and grow some more organic matter/food for the soil microbes.  Every week another section or two are taken out until by mid October it’s all finished and a green haze of newly sprouted cover crops covers the whole place.

There is still planting going on for this year as well.  The celery, kale and more leeks went in for Thanksgiving.  Lettuce and parsley was seeded to be planted out in few weeks, also for Thanksgiving.  Soon we will begin to plant the over wintered flower crops that will sit there until next spring for the first blooms of the year.  The older, heritage turkeys moved to the blueberry field, next door to the younger, broad breasted birds and their leader Buckwheat.  Much eyeing of the neighbors and posturing going on until they all run together in a week or so.  They too are glad the heat has broken, now they are happier to run about the place, chasing bugs and each other.

Picture of the Week
The Maginot Line, the older birds trying to impress the new kids.

8/31/05 Vol. 2 #25

The August of our discontent, at least the month is about over if not the discontent part.  This is a lengthy newsletter with lots of details so please hang on.  First as a person who makes his living outdoors and constantly dances with the weather, I have always had a fascination with “severe” weather events.  Having lived through a number of those events I get a certain uneasy feeling in my gut when they happen elsewhere, as if I know what others are experiencing.  The news and pictures from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are such that it overwhelms my capacity to comprehend.  We have friends (farmers and non) and family who are now cleaning up from the storm and we can only will them the strength to get the job done.

Our travails pale by comparison and it is just a matter of time until we work our way through them (the big market truck is still in the shop, the walk-in cooler is broken down etc.) but there is one farm problem that we are wrestling with that we may not be able to solve.  Many of you have been asking when we will begin taking orders/deposits for turkeys.  Last year we began last week.  The reason for the delay this year is we are still not certain we will be able to get the birds processed.  I have been waiting several weeks to let you all know what is happening as we try to come up with a solution.  The situation is this: the place we have had the turkeys processed, in the past, is the only small scale inspected poultry plant available to independent producers in North Carolina and within at least 300 miles.  The operator of this plant is selling and trying to leave the state as soon as possible.  This leaves us and many other small producers, without the proverbial pot to….   Several of us have been trying to work out a deal to lease the plant, with the option to buy, so we can keep it open in the short term and maybe eventually have it operated by a small scale producers cooperative of sorts.  Very exciting possibilities in the long term but huge and very complicated problems in the short term.  In short we are not having much luck along this route and I would have to say our chances are 50% at best right now.

This leaves us with really only two options.  The first is to process them ourselves, a prospect neither of us are in favor of.  The law allows farmers to process, without inspection, their own birds (up to 1000 a year) and sell them to the public.  Many people argue that in many ways this is a safer and cleaner option than large plants (like Perdue).  It is a lot of work and we have never done it before but have friends who have.  The second is to sell the birds off live and escape without further expense to us.  This of course does not help with your Thanksgiving plans of having one of our turkeys on the table.  Our current plan is to go ahead and take reservations/orders as we are running out of markets we will be there to physically take them.   If it turns out we cannot get them processed, we will then refund the deposits in plenty of time for you all to arrange for other turkeys.  Attached is the order form and instructions.

This access to poultry processing plants is a very big problem for small scale poultry producers and limits the potential for consumers to be able to buy and eat much higher quality poultry.  The health benefits, flavor and eating quality of birds that run around on grass is so much higher than everything else available in the grocery store as to not even be comparable.  It also severely limits small farmers from diversifying into poultry and potentially making their farms more sustainable.  Not everyone wants to or is able to process their own birds.  For all other animals it is fairly easy to find a processing plant near them but not for poultry.  This is why we are trying so hard to save the one plant we have because the cost and difficulty in building a new facility is so large that is may not be feasible for a group of small producers to achieve.  Wish us well.

Picture of the Week
Red Bells ready for the picking

9/7/05 Vol. 2 #26

What a glorious morning; clear, coolish, dry air.  As the weather has improved this past week so have our fortunes, we are rising like the Phoenix!  All vehicles are back on the road, the refrigeration is all repaired and the poultry plant problem is looking brighter.  I have spent quite a bit of time this week fact finding about the plant and all of it’s very complicated relationships with other businesses and producers.  While we have not yet signed any papers I would now say that we are 85% sure that we can take over the processing plant.   We have a small group that is helping to steer this ship but quickly will need to expand it.  Joe Moize of the Shady Grove Farm (they also sell at market) has really been the main force behind all of this and is doing a great job in working with all of the financial details.  Weaver Street Market has signed on both financially and with expertise in Cooperative development.  It is in their interests to see this happen both in meeting their mission to support local agriculture but to also have good local poultry in the stores.  In the wings (no pun intended) also offering expertise, are other allied organizations, Rural Advancement Foundation International, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Carolina Farm Stewardship Assoc., NC Cooperative Extension Service and others.  All of these groups see this small independent plant as vital to the local farm economy and the local food system.  In the next week we will be putting a call out to producers and others to raise money for, and to belong to, the eventual cooperative organization that will own and operate the plant.  I have heard from several of you who have expressed interest in investing and we will let you know as we have more details.  We immediately need to find someone to actually manage the plant day to day.  Someone who has knowledge of processing and the regulatory details.  That list does not include either me or Betsy!

At home the farm rolls on.  All of the early tomatoes have now been taken out, quite an ugly job pulling the vines off the trellis and taking it all down.  Mowing goes on and on in preparation for fall and winter crops.  The chiggers we have stirred up are voracious!  It is amazingly dry and we are back to pumping water everyday.   The turkeys have finally graduated and are now one large group, a little confused at first as to who all these new bodies are but now they are wandering around together as if its been that way all along.  The staff is on reduced hours now as we head for the end of the season in a few weeks.  I think they are just as relieved to see the end as we are, they have really helped us keep it all together this year, especially this past few wild weeks.

Picture of the Week
Summer Crisp Lettuce, fall is here again!

9/15/05 Vol. 2 #27

Newsletter a day late as I spent the whole day down at the processing plant watching how it all works, talking to the USDA inspectors and the folks who actually do the work.  We have agreed to taking over the operation the first of the month, with a lease until the first of the year.  This gives us time to get a feel for how it will go and what the true numbers look like.  It will also get all of us, both turkey producers and chicken producers, through Thanksgiving before things slow down a little during the winter months.  Quite honestly I am way out of my comfort zone both in knowledge, time and money but fortunately have people working with us and at the plant who know what they are about.  I keep saying to Betsy “I wonder what the next thing will be that will steer my interests?”  I guess maybe we know now, at least for awhile!  This doesn’t mean we plan on producing more poultry, in fact if Betsy has her way we may never have another bird on the farm; it is just that we see this one tiny plant as one friend of ours says “as the eye of the needle we are trying to pass the camel through”.  If we lose this one operation then many many poultry and rabbit producers will have to get out of the business.  The future looks very bright, we just have to get over these first hurdles.

On the farm it is very dry and Ophelia doesn’t appear to want to give us anything but a few drops.  I have been pulling water out of the upper pond as both the creek and the lower pond have dried up.  Good thing we don’t have much longer to go.  The last of the tomatoes get pulled out today.  All of the big tops are now uncovered for the season, it was time to pull the plastic off the last tomatoes anyway but we did it Monday just to be safe in case the hurricane decided to come a little closer to us.  Soon we’ll be down to just the peppers and a few rows of flowers to finish up the season with.

Picture of the Week

Not much left, big tops uncovered, turkeys running around, crops mowed down.

9/21/05 Vol. 2 #28

Congratulations to Sheila Neal, the Carrboro Farmers’ Market manager, for the birth of a big ol’ boy this Tuesday!  She and Matt and baby are all reportedly doing great.

Well this is the last weekly newsletter for the season.  Saturday is our last regular market (don’t forget the special Tuesday before Thanksgiving market!) and we are very ready to wrap it up for the year.  With all the extra curricular things going on around here as well as the heat and drought, that are lasting way too far into September for my comfort, we are glad that we can concentrate on putting the farm to bed for the winter.  After all tomorrow is the first day of fall and it’s going to be in the 90’s!  We are only a few days shy of the record for days over 90 in a year, I am sure we will not break it but it’s been painful all the same.

We are slowly catching up on things here at the farm.  I need to spend some quality time on the tractor over the next few days getting soil ready to seed the winter cover crops.  It is hard to work the soil the way I like to see it when it is this dry, partly because it doesn’t cut as well but also the remaining crop debris don’t decompose and incorporate well either.  Besides it is dusty work and we would prefer for our farm to stay on this side of the road!  We are also getting close to beginning the next season.  We plant almost a half and acre of flower crops between now and mid November.  These over wintered flowers need a cold period and time to develop a good root system so that in the spring they take off and make vigorous growth and fantastic blooms.  The staff knows that the end is near too and are already transitioning to their winter occupations.  A few more weeks and Betsy and I will be “empty nesters”!  Just us and the turkeys.

It appears that we have lost a few turkeys, either to dogs or coyotes or humans.  Last Friday we came out to find a bunch of birds out in the road and the fence suspiciously bent over.  We got them all back in and then found one of the Broad Breasted Bronzes a bit beaten up and moved it to the hospital pen.  Later I found another seriously injured and we had to kill it.  When they get all stirred up for some reason they just get crazy.  After all they are teenagers right now with lots of hormones raging around.   Finally they all calmed down and I was able to get a count.  36 Bronzes and 39 Bourbon Reds, just as it should be but only 16 Blue Slates, missing three.  No signs of a scuffle so we are suspicious of turkey napping.  So now there are 91 left.  I finally had time last night to bring the turkey order list up to date and half are reserved at this time.  While there is time left, those of you who have not yet sent in your reservation should do so to make sure you get the size and breed you prefer.

One change this year from last.  After all of the hassle of trying to keep the birds fresh/unfrozen and the fact that we are going away again for two weeks prior to Thanksgiving (and have to get Joann to manage the birds while we are away) we are planning on having them processed a few weeks early and freezing them.  Our understanding of the new regulations are that if they are not sold with in three days of processing then they are supposed to be frozen anyway.  Our plan is to pick them up from the freezing plant a few days before the Tuesday pick up day and put them in our cooler in the low 30’s and they will slowly begin the thawing process so that when you get them they will be well on the way to defrosted for cooking on Thursday.  For those of you who want to keep them frozen either for Christmas or later we can keep them frozen for you.

Look for newsletters from us prior to Thanksgiving and then monthly over the winter to let you know what is happening here on the farm.  If we don’t get a chance to say it to you either this Saturday or before Thanksgiving, we do greatly appreciate your support of what we do here at the farm!

Picture of the Week
The quickly disappearing upper pond

11/19/05 Vol. 2 #29

Wow! has it really been two whole months since the last newsletter?  We have been running hard and fast as well as having lots of fun!  The trip to Holland and Italy was very informative and beautiful.  The week we spent in Holland was mostly focused on cut flowers but we did manage to go to several markets looking for new and unusual things.  We were able to visit with many farmers and plant breeders and I think that Betsy has found a few new things to try.  The horticultural trade show was over the top!  Dutch agriculture is so fastidious and high tech that I can’t even begin to approach that level of obsession!  Italy was much more relaxed and we didn’t get on as many farms as we would have liked to but still saw many new things.  Our Italian family, that we stayed with last year when we went to the Terra Madre Slow Food event, was great and Betsy’s hard work at learning Italian paid off in much better understanding of each other.  We rented a car this time and spent many days driving through the countryside and going to markets.  We found a few new ideas that we will try and incorporate here this year.  One of our missions was to go to the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, Italy, and visit with the people who are organizing the next Terra Madre conference for next fall (2006).  It appears as if we will be able to go back again, Betsy has even volunteered to help with whatever they need including some basic interpretation!
Alex amazed at the technology!

Peppers in Italy

Here are the farm we got all of the soil preparations for the winter finished with near perfect results, never has all of it worked up so beautifully with the exception of this on going dry spell.  The cover crop seeds that I planted a month ago have just barely sprouted.  We are running that fine line now of getting them established before the really cold weather sets in, which can kill them before they have enough roots underneath them.  The turkeys went in for processing before we left for Europe and came out looking good.  The Heritage birds were slightly smaller than last year and the Broad breasted Bronzes were also smaller which is great for those of us who don’t normally eat 26 pound birds!  The flash freezing process went smoothly and they came home yesterday in fine condition.  The processing plant project goes on and on.  In general it is working about the way we had hoped for but every day there is something that breaks down or needs to be worked on.

12/19/05 Vol. 2 #30

Well the year is truly winding down.  This is the time of year for planning and introspection.  I am sitting here surrounded by seed catalogs, spreadsheets and notes from the last season trying to make myself order seeds.  Maybe its the short days and the low angle of the sun but it is difficult to get the brain headed in that direction.  Instead Betsy and I have been having long talks about the future and what it might look like, both for us and Peregrine Farm.  Now this is a common practice for us this time of year but after the tumultuous season that gave us many twists and turns we seem to be looking at life a little harder.  We think that most folks see Peregrine Farm as a constant with few changes but in reality we are changing all the time, both the farm and us.  For Betsy this has been the year of all things Italian with a keen interest in their culture and artisanal food.  She even suggested, that maybe for a change, that she take over the vegetable production and I run the flowers.  I raised an eyebrow at that one.  For me the big change that has knocked me out of my comfortable patterns is taking over the poultry processing plant.  Very scary at times but intellectually stimulating too, we still think that it is such a important piece of the local food system that it must happen.  The wish list of changes is forming; new crops (lots of artichokes, baby swiss chard, pigs?), new places to see (Italy again, Kenya for Betsy, southern Utah for Alex), new techniques to try which I will not bore you with now.

The biggest immediate change though will be the passing of my father Sam.  Many of you knew him as a fixture at our stand at Market.  Others may know him from his years at the University of North Carolina.  For Betsy and me he was a constant supporter and sideline advisor of our work for 25 years, and of course for my entire life.  Many people ask how I got into farming and I usually reply that my father was a rabid gardener and my mother a fabulous cook.  We grew up working in his gardens and eating three home cooked meals a day from her kitchen.  He lived a colorful, varied and determined 84 years.  He was first exposed to gardening as he grew up in rural Arkansas and spent summers with his grandparents.  Early morning trips with his grandfather to pick breakfast berries, gorging himself on figs while sitting under the bush and more.  He was the first in his family to go to college.  He lived in Memphis where he met Mom.  Spent time in the Pacific, in the Navy, in World War II.  A life long movie nut he went to cinematography school at the Univ. of Southern California before deciding to settle down and become a librarian.  They moved to Atlanta where he graduated from Emory Univ. and my brothers were born.  His first grand garden was in Columbia, Mo. where my sister and I were born.  He began to develop a style that included wide choices in plants in large beds with fences, patios, and garden art.  As kids we lived outside during the warm months and we all had small personal gardens with radishes and more.

He took us to Connecticut where he started the Univ. of Conn. Medical School Library.  Gardening continued to consume him and with the help of the “homegrown” work force he transformed a difficult hillside into a terraced wonder.  During our stay in Connecticut he made a business trip to Chapel Hill and returned telling Mom that he found the place for them to retire and garden.  A detour to Houston, Texas and the medical center library was the nadir of his gardening life.  Miserable climate and soil on a quarter acre suburban lot.  One Christmas we had railroad ties and top soil brought in and we built him a garden.  8 feet by 16 feet and two feet high he would come home from work, make a drink and go out and work in the garden, it helped keep him sane.  Finally he became director of the UNC Medical Library and his garden dreams unfolded.  The house that they remodeled and he designed and the gardens became the culmination of a lifetime of moving, travel and collection.   Over three acres of rolling terrain, granite boulders and mature hardwoods eventually would comprise the gardens.  Early on Betsy and I helped build the bones of the place with rock walls, raised beds, brick patios, pergolas and more.  Betsy spent many days with him going to nurseries and others gardens feeding their plant lust.  For those of you fortunate enough to visit the place and eat Mom’s food understand how they could influence ones life.  The picture below, while not crisp, is typical.  Pop sitting in the garden holding court with friends while Mom looked at him, trying to figure out where he was headed.  We will all miss them both, and we thank all of you we have talked to since his death.

I will leave you with two book suggestions for Christmas gifts or just winter reading.  The first is a couple of years old “Local Flavors- Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers’ Markets” by Deborah Madison is one of the best reads on the importance of farmers’ markets and local food with many great recipes.  The second is brand new “Fields of Plenty- a farmer’s journey in search of real food and the people who grow it”  by Michael Ableman.  An excellent read about many sustainable, artisanal food producers around the country.  It also includes many recipes by the farmers themselves.  Betsy and I know many of these growers.  Between the two I think one can begin to get an accurate picture of a small farmers life and what inspires them.
Betsy and I hope you all have enjoyable holidays, eat well, rest up and stay warm.