OK so it’s officially dry now as the plantains along the drive way are curling up and crinkly. Also because we are now pumping water every day. Once the temperatures hit the 90’s and the evaporation rate is something like a quarter inch a day we have to irrigate every day just to keep up. All spring it has been so cool that, while dry, what water we put out there lasted a long time in the soil, not so anymore. We began running water out of the creek this week to try and keep the pumping pond full, right now it is about 18 inches down. So my daily routine is to roll out of bed and walk down and turn on the irrigation. Then every two hours walk around the farm opening valves on another field or two and closing the valves on the area just watered, checking for leaks or other problems along the way. This goes on for eight to ten hours until the early afternoon when we turn it off for the day, no use in putting water out there in the heat of the day when it just flies out of the ground almost as fast as you put it out there. These perambulations allow me to get a good look at everything on the farm as normally there are crops that are left alone for long periods after planting until we need to cultivate or begin harvesting. It’s not like we just ignore them but we don’t check them every day, like Betsy says “If it’s not on fire…”.
We should begin to be preoccupied with picking Blueberries about now but I still haven’t seen one ripe. I am worried that with only about a twenty percent crop the birds are going to get them before we do. We have been noticing a small flock of birds flying out of the bushes every time we approach. Now we have always lost a few to the birds but never had a group like this consistently working it’s way up and down the rows. I have heard from the strawberry growers that they are noticing more birds in there patches too. It could be that with the freeze they lost a lot of their native fruits and other food so are going for the easy pickings in the cultivated fields. With this lack of berries we are able to get plenty of other work done around the place. The main planting of tomatoes are waist high and need tying up again, the construction of the pepper trellis was started this week, and general flower weeding and trellising is always needed. Soon the spring vegetable will all be gone and we will begin the dismantling of the pea trellis and rolling up the irrigation. Summer cover crops will need to be planted soon too but not without the chance of rain. Maybe we’ll even have time to run some new water lines, just might need them.
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A view from the top of the farm
Just when you think that you have seen it all in 25 years of farming some new wrinkle appears. We are in a pitched battle with some kind of varmit who is eating all the ripening tomatoes in the little tunnels! Don’t be messin’ with my tomatoes! In the past we have found a few things (mostly melons) with tooth marks in them and only one or two a year, but this critter is having a grand old time working it’s way up and down the rows eating or biting into a dozen or so a night. We put traps in the tunnels a few nights ago and caught a possum and thought OK problem solved but yesterday morning someone had been having a picnic again and the trap was tripped but no one inside! So now they are getting crafty, maybe a raccoon? We upped the ante baiting the trap with peanut butter (the universal food used to attract all wild things from mice to buffalo) and now slices of apple. If this doesn’t get some results then we may have to surround the tunnels with the electric net fencing we use for the turkeys and that will keep them out but also make it harder for us to get in and work. I am not yet ready to sleep out there with the gun but I mean we are talking about the first tomatoes of the season here!
What a great rain on Saturday night, we had an inch and a half that seemed to all soak in. Now we can not only let the pond fill back up a bit but we can also get some things planted that just didn’t make sense to do unless there was some moisture in the soil. Tuesday we finally planted the quarter acre of winter squash (acorns, butternut, spaghetti, sweet dumpling) which should come up nicely now that we had an additional bit of rain last night too. A bit late to get the squash in the ground as our rule is it needs to be planted in May otherwise we lose the fruit to pickle worms in August. But it was just too dry the last few weeks to get them germinated and it is one of the crops that I don’t plan on irrigating, especially when we are watering the rest of the farm and running low on water. So we’ll see, maybe the first of June will be OK and we will slip past the flights of the pickle worm moths. It is seasonal change here on the farm, cool season crops coming out and the beginning of the harvest of the warm season ones. Peas and pea fences came down yesterday, the irrigation lines came out of the larkspur and bachelors buttons, soon all will be mowed and turned under ready for the summer soil improving cover crops.
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Rat Tail Radish Pods
This is the time of year that we are always tieing something up. Many of the summer crops need “assistance” standing up, so over the years we have developed multiple ways to trellis them. Trellising takes extra time and labor so we only do it for certain crops that really need it. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and pole beans in the vegetables along with lisianthus, sunflowers, celosia, delphinium and a few others in the flowers. Besides making it easier to harvest them because they are up off the ground it also gives us better quality. Straight flower stems with clean blooms are Betsy’s goal, those S shaped sunflower stems may look cool but most folks won’t buy them. In the vegetables it also give us nice clean fruit but also allows for good airflow around the plants so they dry out faster in the mornings after a rain or heavy dew. Most of the diseases that affect these crops are a fungus or a bacteria, warm wet conditions are perfect for them to go wild. If we can get those plants up into the breeze then we can slow down the inevitable spread of these diseases. So we have come up with a set of trellis designs that can be put up fast, do the job and then come down just as fast. I am the king of metal T-posts, electric fence wire, a few pieces of 2X4, baling twine and some kind of mesh either plastic or metal. Sounds just like a farmer, a job is not worth doing if it doesn’t involve some electric fence wire, baling twine and maybe some duct tape.
Early in the year the staff is gradually trained in how to build the various “styles”. Heavy duty tomato trellis with metal fencing hanging off of six foot T-posts, strong enough to bear the weight of nearly 1000 pounds of fruit and vine per 100 foot long row. Then the wispy pea fences of plastic mesh hanging off the same post set up, just enough structure for them to grab onto with their tendrils and light hollow stems. Soon they move to the graduate courses in trellising, horizontal structures that float over the rows on cross arms attached to… metal T-posts. First the plastic flower netting placed just above the growing and budding plants so the weight of just the heavy blooms are supported as they grow up through it. Finally the two and three level condos of trellises, the pepper array. A lower level of baling twine run on either side of the little ten inch tall plants to keep them upright in the summer storms. Then another layer eighteen inches above that of wires and baling twine to catch the branches as they grow up through it to support the weight of the growing fruit, really tall peppers like poblanos get a third, pent house layer at almost four feet above ground. Cov and Elizabeth are now certified trellis technicians, with almost 6000 feet of construction behind them. This week the last 500 feet of tomato trellis and the first layer on the pepper trellis. A friend once said my tombstone would read “He was an OK farmer but he sure could tie things up”.
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Tomatoes reaching for the sky and nice straight peppers
It’s always the way, work hard to beat the rain and then the rain decides not to come. It is summer cover crop planting time and we had been watching the forecast thinking it looked like a good bet that we would get rain to water up newly sown seed. First it looked like the front would come through this evening and so we had Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to get it all done then, at the last minute, they pushed the time forward to this morning. Yesterday was a sprint finish to slow race that’s been unfolding for a week or so. As the spring vegetables come out we mow off what’s left and to help keep the weeds down, the same with the early spring flowers, finally we give it all one more mowing and cut it all in with the tractor. I did that last Sunday since it was dry enough to work soil after the last rains. I like to let it lay there a few days allowing all the just turned up weeds to perish in the intense summer sun, that was the slow part of the race. Yesterday was the seeding day. First spin out the cowpea seed (we always plant a legume to capture the nitrogen from the air for free) and then because it is a large seed and needs good soil cover to germinate we have to cover it lightly with the tractor, so around and around I go. Then I walk back over the rough field and spin out the sudan grass seed (we always plant a grass with the legumes to grow huge amounts of organic matter to feed the soil), the grass seed is small and doesn’t need to be covered especially if a good rain is on it’s way.
Of course that was not the only item on the mornings agenda which included some last minute mowing and tilling for some other crops we wanted to get planted before the rain. Cov and Elizabeth trellised some celosia and continued the red onion harvest, with other projects I would throw in from time to time as I came by. Check in with the NC State research folks who were out to take measurements of their tomato plots. I did manage to get most of it done by noon when the staff leaves and we disappear into the house for the heat of the day and it was a hot one! I planned to go back out late and finish up. By 3:00 there was the rumble of thunder and it looked like even earlier rain, damn! So back out I go to finish the seeding and to roll out some Italian bean seed that we brought back to try, seed some more cucumbers and the rain starts to fall, just enough to chase me out of the field but not enough to get the ground wet. Done, a three T-shirt, two sets of shorts day. Now this morning it appears as if the rain has passed us by and there is no more forecast for a week or so, I may have to try and water these cover crops up, arghh!
On the tomato-stealing-critter front we had to resort to surrounding the tomato tunnels with the electric net fencing as I have not been able to catch the varmit in the big Have-a-Heart trap. Thanks to all who sent suggestions for the best baits, looks like eggs and sardines are universally successful around the country. I went with the sardines option (in Louisiana hot sauce) and the culprit managed to get the sardines out three times without getting caught in the trap! I was beginning to think this was the Cajun Einstein of raccoons when it started to eat ripe melons out of the other tunnel and carrying them a hundred feet away. Now I suspect our varmit is a fox. The fencing has worked to keep it out of the tomatoes so the last job yesterday (on top of everything else) was to surround the melon tunnel too, it looks like a medium security detention center out there now.
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Medium security electric net fencing around the tomato and melon tunnels.
This is one of those growing seasons that feels like death by a thousand cuts. Now every year we have crops that don’t do well or fail completely and others that are magnificent and make up for the short falls, that is what being diversified is all about. You hear farmers say something like “this year I lost money but we had a couple of good years in a row there, we have another bad one and we might lose the farm”. For twenty three straight years we had always made more money than the year before, in the early years that was easy to do as we were so pitiful at the beginning the only way we could go was up. The later years we were still figuring things out, building the business, settling on markets and crops to grow with lots of room for improvement. Now that trick gets harder as we have pretty much settled in to a routine, so when one crop fails, there is not a new one in the wings to surprise us. For the last few years we have done well but not better than the previous best year, the thousand cuts are more of a psychological issue than a serious financial one. They just begin to weigh on you, especially as it gets hotter and as I tell the staff “I begin to lose my sense of humor”.
The list of nicks is already long this year, the freeze took the blueberries and affected other crops in strange ways. The unusually cold spring affected germination of many of the early direct seeded vegetables and flowers, we had to replant the first Zinnia planting when it didn’t come up, an eighth of an acre! The drought in May made it hard to get crops established and others slow to grow. No turkeys or asparagus this year either. Then lately the varmit eating tomatoes and melon issue. The most recent discoveries are that half the red onions are not what we had ordered (they will still eat well, just not what we wanted) and the 400 poblano plants that were looking so good appear to not be poblanos, but some kind of bell pepper instead!!!! This too will change and the other summer crops look great. The lisianthus may be even more fantastic than last years incredible crop. We picked the first good batch of tomatoes out of the big planting Monday and they look good too. The rest of the peppers are right on schedule and even the onions are bigger than last year (even if some of them are the wrong variety). This adversity is what drives some people out of farming, they can’t take the unknowns and set backs, no matter how great the rest of the rewards are. For us this is the challenge that keeps us getting up in the morning, trying to figure out how to solve a problem or learn yet more about how nature works. Some days I just wish the box of band aids wasn’t out on the counter.
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It did rain enough to get the summer cover crop up! Cowpeas with the daisies.
A holiday today, well kind of. Cov and Elizabeth are off today and we are taking the afternoon off but only after a morning of irrigating, flower cutting, mowing, tilling and a few other regular jobs. Then later on we will head over to my sisters house for a little grilled food, adult beverages and cut throat croquet. Our contribution to the meal is of course produce, especially the tomatoes. This is the first full week of the big tomato harvest as we have picked at least a few of every single variety for this year, twenty in all. So we will arrive with a large platter, the colors of the tomato rainbow- reds of Big Beef and Early Picks; yellows of Orange Blossom, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Nebraska Wedding, Azoychka and Sun Golds; the pink of German Johnson and the yellow and red stripes and swirls of Striped Germans; dark deep red of Cherokee Purple playing off the bright greens of Aunt Ruby’s, Green Giant and Green Zebras. The juices of the sweet and fruity ones mixing with the higher acid kinds.
This is the great reward after months of careful tending. It is always fun to introduce the new staff to the different varieties and their nuances of flavor and ripening habits. Every Monday and Thursday we spend the mornings picking the 1600 feet of row. Everyone becomes a specialist in certain varieties. Cov is in charge of reds, learning to not pick them too green as they take forever to get fully ripe and can hang on the plants longer than all the others. Only unblemished Italian sauce tomatoes are put in the box, no “freaks” with them. The German Johnsons are much more tender so he has to change gears when he gets to them. Elizabeth is the Cherokee Purple queen, fully 500 feet of row to pick and sort, they have the most difficult stems to remove with out damaging the fruit and sometimes one must resort to using needle nosed pliers to pull them off. She is also responsible for the Orange Blossoms and if she gets done with the purples quickly helps me with the three other yellow kinds. I start with the monster Striped Germans, so large that it takes two hands to pick them, carefully extracting them from between the vines and the trellis wires trying to not scar them. I then move to the green-when-ripes, interpreting if it still green or if it has just enough golden cast to it to be picked. The Sun Gold cherries are a shared job by who ever gets done first.
Bucket after bucket is brought to the back of the truck where each fruit is inspected and wiped with a cloth, sorted into three boxes by color and quality or set aside in the “have to eat today pile”. The knife comes out as we get the first of the new varieties and slices are sampled between cleaning tomatoes. Surprise at a high acid yellow tomato, amazement at the beauty of the interior of the bi-colored ones with red swirls through the fruity flavored yellow flesh, the reassuring solid full flavor of a Cherokee Purple, popping Sun Golds as one walks by the row that has them. Finally finished we slowly drive the load down to the packing shed and the air conditioning to keep them from ripening too fast. Stacks of boxes by variety and ripeness are built, long rows that run around the room. Finally bags are filled with the “have to eat today” fruit and the staff heads home, stained a sticky green from rubbing up against the tomato foliage, talking about tomato sandwiches, salsa and gazpacho for lunch and dinner. Life is good.
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A great set of Cherokee Purples
While not what some would call a million dollar rain, last nights rain was worth a lot to us. 1.3 inches of much needed water on those crops that are not irrigated (cover crops, winter squash, corn, hydrangeas and the like) and a mental boost for the irrigator. The creek had dropped to a trickle and the line from the creek to the pumping pond was likewise down to a trickle. Yesterday after nearly two straight weeks of daily irrigation the pumping pond was getting seriously low, I was even beginning to eye the water stored in the upper pond. Once we start taking water out of the upper pond there is no recourse, no resupply for that reservoir other than winter rains. So at least for this morning the wolf has backed away from the door. A rain like last nights will last us for four or five days and then we will have to fire up the pump again and if we are lucky the creek will show a little more life and help fill the pumping pond back up before we have to start major irrigating again. Of course everything under the Big Tops and the little tunnels still needs water but that is less than a third of the normal daily irrigation needs. Every little bit helps!
Major dog days of summer now. Highs in the 90’s everyday and the air (especially after last nights rain) if getting thick. We are in that lets- not-get-too-physical mode, a steady even out put of energy to get us through the mornings and then go and hide in the shade for the rest of the day. Harvest first thing in the morning while it is sort of cool, a little weeding, a little trellising, change the irrigation, watch the sun get higher and the temperature spike just before noon (or it seems to). It is summer after all.
Something to look forward to next week though. Tuesday evening at Panzanella restaurant (in Carr Mill next to Weaver Street Market) is our “Farm Dinner”. This is the third year we have worked with them on a dinner centered around what is at the peak of the season. So obviously this one will be tomato heavy but also with cucumber and sweet corn undertones. Come on out and enjoy their air conditioning. The restaurant is open as usual and their regular menu is also available. They will have specials (usually several appetizers and entrees) using our produce. Tomorrow I will be going in to visit with Chris (the head chef) to get an idea what dishes he is thinking about and how much produce and what kinds he has in mind. It is always fun, and we will look for you there!
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Three foot tall Lisianthus brightening a grey day
An extremely pleasant meal last evening at Panzanella. What a huge turn out, I don’t think I have ever seen the place so full. The dishes Chris made from our produce were simple yet full of great flavors, the risotto with the sweet corn was my favorite but the pasta was also outstanding with just the right amount of Italian parsley coming through the tomato sauce. It was good to see all of you who came out. We drove home through a good rain so I won’t have to irrigate this morning either, what a bonus!
I was thinking about the sweet corn experiment and continue to be amazed at those farmers who consistently grow sweet corn. We have not grown it in the past for several reasons. First corn takes a lot of room and we just didn’t have any spare ground to put it in. The second major reason is that you just don’t make the money per foot of row that we feel you need to make on a farm as intensive as ours, even at 50 cents an ear much less the old days when it was two dollars a dozen. We use a rough rule of thumb that we need to gross $200 a bed (that is a planting strip 4′ X 100′) or the crop probably isn’t carrying it’s weight here on the farm. In theory you have a corn plant every eight inches in the row, with two rows per bed, that is 300 plants per bed and, usually, you get one ear per plant so at 50 cents an ear that is $150 a bed. That is in theory though, before the ones that don’t pollinate well, the corn ear worms, the Japanese beetles, and finally the raccoons that seem to be able to levitate over the electric fence and help themselves to all of the perfect ears that are just now full and ripe. With this last planting we pulled about 80 ears a bed, $40 hmmm… But corn at least is fairly easy to grow in some aspects as it is a large vigorous plant once you get it germinated and past the crows who love to pull up the tiny seedlings. One good cultivation and as long it rains, it takes care of itself until picking time, no transplanting, no pruning, or trellising. The good corn growers of course do it on a large scale, with tractors, so their labor is minimal until picking time. Then to have a consistent supply requires planting every ten days or so. So my hat’s off to those corn growers at market who have corn for weeks at a time. We will continue to mess around with the corn experiment, for a while anyway, it is so good when it does behave, and it gives me something else to tinker with.
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Brilliant Zinnias in front of the Big Tops
Glorious weather this last week and a little eerie, similar to when hurricanes are around and they suck all the moisture up into their circulation, creating strangely clear skies with clouds moving in directions completely different than normal. None the less we have been enjoying almost sweat free work and getting things done in the afternoons that we would normally just put off because it would be just too beastly to be out “there”. At some point you know the other shoe must drop and so it did this week. That shoe being the continuing and deepening drought. Sunday I was going down to turn the irrigation on and and found the gravity feed line, that we use to run water out of the creek to help keep the pumping pond full, was not running. This happens from time to time, especially when the creek flow is very low. I walked back up to the head of the field to check the creek and the line to find the creek not running at all. This is not the first time we have seen the creek dry up but it is very unusual (it has happened maybe 5 times in 26 years) and is a sure sign of seriously dry conditions.
This drought is one of those insidious ones where it is not really apparent unless you are trying to keep plants alive and producing. We think of most droughts as hot monsters that clamp down and it doesn’t rain at all for weeks. This one is tricky, a little cool weather here to lull you into a false sense of comfort, a bit of rain there to make you say to yourself “well it rained just the other day”. With the creek dry we are now down to using the last above ground water we have. The “upper pond” as we refer to it is about two months worth of water when full, but after months of evaporation it was down about two feet already. That was before I ran its water down hill to the pumping pond yesterday as it was less than half full. We can refill the pumping pond about 4 times from the other until it is dry too. Maybe six weeks of irrigation. So it goes, daily watering to keep it all happy, cutting off crops as soon as we decide they are done, checking for leaks, deciding which crops are marginal and maybe won’t get any water at all or we won’t plant for fall as there just isn’t enough water to go around. There are good things about droughts too, especially for us organic growers. When it’s dry we have much less plant disease problems because the fungus and bacteria that cause the problems can’t thrive in dry conditions. Weeds too are slowed down, they either don’t germinate at all or are not as vigorous and easier to kill. And mowing is a marvelous thing, mow an area and it lasts for weeks, some areas of the farm I have only mowed once this year!
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The pumping pond half full, water from the upper pond coming in at the top right.
We made it to August! To me August always signals fall and the end of the season. Yes it is still hot and sometimes it is a very wet month with thunderstorms but the lushness of early summer is gone and the farm begins to look tired after months of full production. The tomatoes have given us their best and Betsy is into the third planting of zinnias as the first two look shabby as the diseases and insects gain the upper hand. Even the weeds begin to mark the end of their run with big old seed heads and yellowing leaves, if we have let them get to that stage. After 20 straight weeks at market, we are feeling shabby too so it is time for the summer break. We will be at the markets this week and then will miss the markets on the 8th and 11th. No newsletter either as we will be hiding somewhere cool with minimal human contact! I know many of you will be taking a last bit of time off too before school and other fall things start the end of the month.
I have been thinking a lot this week about last Wednesdays radio show “The State of Things” on WUNC. If you heard it you know they came to the market and recorded a piece on the Tomato Tasting event that the market held on the 21st of July. It was a fairly interesting piece and they did a pretty good job of getting the feel of what the Tomato Tasting is like but there was one thing that got many of us market members hackles up and that was the comments about how food at Farmers’ Markets is expensive. Excuse me, but IT’S NOT! It used to be that prices at markets were ridiculously cheap and as I speak around the country to farmers I always say “Who ever started the concept that Farmers’ Markets are the place to buy cheap produce I want to grab them by the neck!” Why would fresher, better tasting food, grown in better way, many varieties which you can’t find anywhere else be priced low? Now the misunderstanding has swung the other way and I hear these “experts” say shopping at Farmers’ Market is expensive. I want to grab them by the neck too. Now I know there are exceptions to everything and some markets around the country are more expensive but by and large they are retail affairs with prices generally the same or cheaper than the grocery store. I know for us at Peregrine Farm our vegetable prices are right in line with the local groceries because I check on a weekly basis. The cheapest red tomato at Food Lion has not been below $2.29 this year and almost all of their tomatoes are $3.00 and up. Food Lion! Don’t even get me started on what they taste like. Makes our delicious red tomatoes at $2.50 seem like a bargain not to mention all of our different heirlooms. Same with lettuce and on and on. With Betsy’s incredible flowers, that you can’t even get unless you work with a really good florist, it is even worse, our prices are wholesale- what the florist would pay before they charge the public at least twice as much. Of course you all know that the Farmers’ Market is much more than just a place to buy and sell things, it is the town square where we all slow down and get to see and visit each other, let the kids run around and get some really beautiful food and flowers to enrich our lives even further. That is worth a lot too and makes those incredibly flavorful sungold tomatoes seem really inexpensive!
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