58 degrees this morning on the front porch, going to be near 100 this afternoon. It’s a dry heat though, a desert heat. We thought we had been clever and missed the hot week of the summer by going up to the mountains in the middle of the 100 degree days but it’s hot up there too and they don’t think they need air conditioning. We did have a good time being off last week except we tried to do too much, as usual, and so it was over in a flash. Back to reality and the desert of Peregrine Farm. What we are watering looks pretty good and we picked a surprising amount of tomatoes Monday off the old planting and the new, and last, planting is just starting to turn color. This week we are working to reclaim areas that we let slide for a bit just before and then were completely left alone during the break. The peppers are a case in point as the crab grass in the paths, between the rows of plants, has grown into the plants. If we don’t act now it will make picking hell for the rest of the season so we are going through and rolling the thick grass mats back and then pushing the mower down the paths to cut it back before it just flops back down into the plants. Row by row but it is a rewarding job as we can see how much better our lives will be when is comes to picking the beautiful peppers hanging on the plants just next to our efforts.
We are beginning to mow down those crops finished for the season and those that have perished in the drought without irrigation water. The last planting of sweet corn, which is unirrigated, is going under the mower along with plantings of Zinnias and sunflowers. This is the beginning of the clean up for the end of the year, soon I will take soil tests and begin the process of putting the planting areas to bed for the winter. Spreading mineral amendments and seeding winter cover crops, all assuming we get some rain to make it possible to even till the soil. The summer cover crops are ready to be mowed down too, not as robust as they usually are because of the drought they have done amazingly well in those fields away from the effects of tree roots. Where ever they are within 50 feet of a tree, the cover crop plants are maybe eight inches high and then they jump up to two and three feet high. It is not the direct effect of the tree roots actually being in that soil but the fact that the trees have pulled every bit of water out of the soil near them and then by capillary action sucked all the water up towards them for another 30 feet or so.
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The tree root effect 50 or more feet from the tree trunks
Three tenths of an inch of rain last night, quite unexpected but always happy to receive it, won’t have to irrigate today. It still doesn’t relieve the strange feeling we have around the farm this week, that odd sensation of what will happen next. I think aggravated by the drought and the intense heat there have been two events this week that make us realize that we are not exactly an island out here. The first is that our neighbor is having his land logged, clear cut he tells me. 400 acres that comprise our entire south side. Runs from the road to the river, beautiful rolling land with bluffs over the creek and big hard woods. Now we have cleared a lot of land here on the farm and turned it into growing areas, we are no strangers to a chainsaw or a bull dozer. But they were an acre or two at a time and had previously been fields, this is a huge area of what felt like untouched land. From first light to last the logging machines roar up and down the hill cutting and dragging trees to the loading zone, slowly the tree line to the south is getting lighter and thinner. Maybe it’s just the constant din of the machines but it does make us feel like we are not as alone out here as it usually seems.
The second event happened Monday up the road on our north side. Big fields of corn line the north side of the road, dry and crinkly tan as the drought has done it’s work. A transformer on the power line that runs down the road exploded or caught fire (probably due to the high electric demand from the days of heat) which ignited a fire in the dry grass on the road side, fanned by the hot wind from the southwest it blew into the parched corn field. It ran through that corn in a hurry, burning off all the leaves and the husks on the ears of corn leaving just stalks and the yellow orange ears of corn standing up right. Soon it jumped into the woods and headed towards some new houses in the next field over. The volunteer fire departments and the NC Forest Service stopped it there but it took most of the day to do so. No damage to any buildings just to the nerves of the neighborhood. I know we will feel better when the heat breaks and maybe some rains come, until then we are walking around the edges of our island and keeping an eye out for what might be coming next.
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Burned over corn, just stalks and bare ears
What does local mean? We are having this discussion within the Farmers’ Market right now because what seems fairly simple on the surface is not always so in todays agriculture. The Carrboro Farmers’ Market has the tightest restrictions on this concept of any market we know of in the country. We believe that our strict adherence to the rule that all products must be produced and sold by the original producer and that producer must live and produce them within 50 miles of Carrboro is the key to the great success of the market. In the early days when that meant a farmer planted and tended tomatoes on their farm, within 50 miles, and then brought them, him or herself, to town on Saturday. No middle men, just the farmer on their farm, then you the customer. What makes it complicated is when further processing enters the picture, especially when it is something that takes resources greater than an individual farmer can reasonably manage. Ever since our farmers have begun to produce and sell meat at market these once simple questions have become more complicated. They raise that animal from just a few weeks old (or from birth) some times for years on their pastures. In a perfect world they would then drive it only a few miles to a plant that can process it into not only various cuts but also other products that require further curing or cooking like bacon or sausages. The problem is two fold, one there are only a few processing plants within the 50 mile radius of Carrboro and generally they don’t do any further processing. Two, for the farmer to really make a profit from their animals they have to sell the whole thing, not just the pork chops, that means they really need to further process the rest of the animal.
The current debate is if that further processing isn’t also done within 50 miles then the product shouldn’t be sold at the market. You know 50 is 50 is 50, doesn’t matter what the situation is. One point of view is that those are the rules and the farmer can sell the products that don’t qualify somewhere else. The other point of view is that these are products that are produced within 50 miles of the market by the seller and should be allowed to be sold even if they went off for processing and then came back (we are not talking about sending them to Italy or California, just eastern NC or South Carolina). I guess the question really should be is what does “to produce” mean? Is it that every last step in the process must be done by the farmer or the great majority of it? The difference in the market could mean fewer kinds of products and fewer farmers. It could also result in fewer customers for the rest of the farmers still at market, as some customers would maybe go somewhere else to buy their food, someplace that had a larger choice. To me it is a matter of sustainability, as a member organization we need to make sure that our members are able to operate viable farm businesses as long as it is within our goals and mission. We also need to view the market as a whole and make sure that it is viable too, if we narrow our product line so much as to lose farmers and customers then that is not sustainable either. It is always something new and changing, I would be interested in know what your view of this is as well.
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A hungry and thirsty turtle helping himself to a Charentais melon
Made it to September, on paper anyway, sure doesn’t feel like it out in the field. August turned out to be one for the record books- the hottest month ever recorded at RDU airport by almost 2 degrees, that is huge as far as weather averages go! 30 days over 90 degrees another record and the second driest August ever. Now can we break the record for the number of days over 90 degrees in one year? It stands at 72, I know we are close. I pulled more water out of the upper pond yesterday and that leaves just one more round until that water hole is dry. With this kind of heat that is about two weeks worth of water left. If it cools off it will be just enough to get us to the end of our season, a little over three weeks away. Almost everyday I am cutting off the irrigation lines to more beds of crops that are just about finished for the season. Betsy is down to about ten beds of flowers now and I have mowed down the rest. On the vegetable side we are soon to be down to eight beds of tomatoes, twenty beds of peppers and and some odds and ends. It is just at half an acre of crops that need water every day when the temperatures are in the 90’s, but that is still just under 3000 gallons a day! Boy am I glad that I am not trying to plant fall crops, except that we do need to get some flowers in the ground for next spring and, of course, we need to get the winter cover crops planted in the next month, not unless some good rains come though.
I want to thank everyone for the feedback on last weeks newsletter about what defines local food. It was as I expected and I am fairly sure that it will be how the Farmers’ Market comes out on the subject in the end. I used the meat example because, for the farmers, it is the most complicated as far as logistics and regulations. I always want to try and solve the most complicated situation first, if possible, because then the simple ones are an easy fit into the new solution. Of course with the increased demand for local products, like meat, it leads processors and suppliers to eventually fill the need, but it takes time and money (and people of vision). Until then I feel the Farmers’ Market should make it possible for it’s members to operate viable businesses without compromising it’s long established goals and rules. As a market we have always been careful about setting precedents because once the horse is out of the barn it is almost impossible to get it back in.
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Summer Crisp lettuce a miracle of shade cloth and daily irrigation
We are in the middle of an interesting week beginning with getting the place ready for multiple groups of visitors. It is hard to make the Kalahari desert look vibrant when everything is brown except for the small patches we are irrigating. But we mowed what needed it and picked up and tidied around the buildings making mental notes that we should never have tours in September when we are just about to close for the season, oh well. The best looking thing we have are the cowpeas we planted as a cover crop and which, in a normal year, should have been mowed down by now but have struggled to get this far, at least they are a rich green. Saturday was a long but fun day. The Southern Foodways Alliance was in town for what they call one of their field camps. A group dedicated to the preservation of southern culture(s), from arts and crafts to music and writing but all sort of surrounded by the foods of the south. People from all over the country were here, you may have noticed them touring the market on Saturday. We hosted them here at the farm Saturday afternoon where we talked about small scale farming, the market in this area and tasted tomatoes. They didn’t realize what a miracle it was for us to have the wealth of tomatoes we have had this late in the season, this season in particular! We then headed into town for a large dinner with the whole group, having been awake since 1:00 a.m. we decided to head home at 10:30 instead of following the group down the road to sample the local taco truck, it was a sound idea.
Yesterday we had a group out from NC State which included two Uruguayans who are doing research in their country on organic farming. Through an excellent interpreter we walked all around and showed them how we did it here. Discussions about soil fertility, rotations, cover crops, etc. They were also very interested in how we used the turkeys, integrated with the crop production, too bad we didn’t have any turkeys to show them this time around. This coming Saturday after market, again, there will be a film crew here from Gourmet Magazine shooting some of our crops (up close I hope) for their TV show “The Diary of a Foodie” which is on PBS, here on Saturday afternoons. They are working on a piece with Andrea Ruesing at Lantern Restaurant, who knew when we all agreed to do this that we would be in the middle of an historic drought. At least it will be cooler and they always tell me they can do miracles with the camera and editing!
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This is our creek, a good sized stream, dry for two months now, our house is 100′ to the left
Glorious fall like weather these past few days and we have been reveling in it and getting a lot done. Mornings have started kind of brisk at least in comparison with the past month, long pants and shirts, Elizabeth has even started the days with a wool hat on! Slowly the unraveling of the farm proceeds. The little sliding tunnels have been cleaned out of their long finished tomatoes and melons, the first ten rows of tomatoes in the Big Tops are now gone too. All of the trellises, landscape fabric mulch and irrigation line out too. Lisianthus trellis pulled out and drip lines in the old Zinnias pulled up. Tomorrow we will take the plastic off the Big Tops and cinch the long rolls up like sausages to rest the winter in the valleys between the bows. One week to go now until we are finished marketing for the year and then the final clean up will begin, taking down the last of the tomatoes and the major roll up of the pepper field. If it will rain a little more and I can get soil worked for next year we will seed it all down to a beautiful winter cover crop to hold it until we pull their starter rope again early next year. Soon the staff will head off for their winter occupations and Betsy and I will be here all by ourselves enjoying the heart of the fall.
Too much to do the think about all that now and the forecast for the weekend is to be back into the low 90’s, so the reality will come rushing back. All of the summer cover crops and as many of the finished cash crops as possible have been mowed in anticipation of the fall soil preparation fiesta. Today I need to go and take soil tests as I am bit late in getting them done. It has been so dry that it is hard to get the soil probe in the ground which makes taking a hundred or so samples a real pain. But I can’t wait any longer because I will need the results soon so I can add any amendments they may indicate before I seed all the winter cover crops. We also need to begin planting flowers for Betsy and leeks for me for next spring. And all too soon the ranunculus corms from Italy will be here and they will need to go into the ground too. Guess I better get out there and get to work.
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The Upper pond completely drained, you can also see the logging clear cut in the background
So once again the end is here, one more Saturday market. Just as the finish line is in sight, the starting line appears. Yesterday we planted the first seven beds of flowers for next spring- Sweet William, delphinium, scabiosa and more. Today leeks go in for next spring too. This is one of the main reasons we stop selling at this time of year so we can concentrate on growing for next year. Sure it’s also about the improved quality of life that comes with a reduced schedule and enjoying the fall weather especially after this brutal summer but it is equally about getting ready for next year. The coming year is really made the preceding fall as we prepare the soil with mineral amendments and raise up the beds we will plant next spring then seed them down with nourishing cover crops that will protect and improve them over the winter. We will slowly plant flowers and vegetables to overwinter too so they will be ready for those early markets next March. Finally we are planning and ordering seeds and plants and dreaming of new things to entice you and interest us.
Then there are the projects we can only do in the off season and the meeting season begins all too soon as well. The big project has already started, the final addition to the house, a living room. The mason will finish the foundation today so that it will be standing there waiting for me to strap on the tool belt in two weeks to frame it up so it can be dried in before it gets cold. This means the rest of the winter will be filled with interior and exterior finishes, I promised Betsy that I would have the construction done by the time we were 50, I figure a year late is not too bad. The meeting and speaking calendar is already full too, beginning next week when the national cut flower meeting is in Raleigh where Betsy is an integral player and I will be giving a presentation. Two more conferences in North Carolina in November including the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s meeting in Durham, where I am giving multiple talks. December takes me to South Carolina to speak at the Vegetable Growers conference. January is too full, with trips to Tennessee, Missouri (where I am the keynote at a vegetable growers conference there) and Kentucky. Late February I am off to speak at the Georgia Organics conference and March might take me back to Missouri. Betsy is thinking about heading to Italy in February for a cut flower conference there and then to see our friends while I am hopefully hiking out west. In between all of this will be sheetrock and trim and painting and flooring; I wonder when I am going to get to read those books on my side table? We will keep you updated on all of the off season activities will a monthly newsletter.
Finally we want to thank all of you who have sent kind messages through out the year in response to one grousing or report of yet another obstacle we have encountered and reported to you. It is our hope that through the newsletter that you get a feel of what everyday life is like on a small farm like ours. Sure there are hard things that happen but majority of our work is calm and rewarding. The good news is that after all that has happened this season (late freeze, drought, no blueberries or turkeys, poor and late spring crops) we have roared back and have had the best season we have ever had (as far as gross income). That is a tribute to a resilient, sustainable farming system we have developed over the years, of which all of you are no small part, thank you again for your support!
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