The sprint is on now, the blueberries are beginning to ripen and the urgency to get other things done around the farm before we are all lost to berry picking is keen. This is one of those transition weeks in the season when old crops begin to wane and the new ones are beginning to flex their “you need to come work in me” muscles. Thankfully this is the last week and fifth week of wholesale lettuce deliveries to Weaver Street Market. For seventeen seasons we have grown all the spring lettuce for Weaver Street and it dictates the pace of my spring work. We plant nearly 9000 heads beginning in early February, covering, cultivating, irrigating until the late in April when I cut lettuce four mornings a week. Monday and Thursdays are the large harvest days for the stores. Early in the morning I call and get the orders from the produce departments so I can start cutting first thing when the lettuce is cool and with dew. Most days it is twelve to sixteen cases, 24 heads to a case, some days it can be twenty or more. It is the one thing on the farm that only I harvest, there is an eye one has to develop to know that the head is big enough for the stores. I fall into a steady routine, Red Leaf is first as it is the most heat sensitive and usually I have to cut the most of it for the orders. I move right to left down the beds after I cut a number of heads out to have a place to set the crate. The lettuce is three plants across the bed and hopefully they are all the right size otherwise there can be substantial skipping around. Cut the head off with the special lettuce knife at the base and then inspect the head for quality, peeling off a few of the old outer leaves, littering the ground around my feet with them. The first layer in the case is three rows of three, layered in like singles; then layer of six heads followed by the final layer of nine. I can barely get 24 full size heads in a case but do, carry it to the back of the truck, snap the lid on and pick up another empty crate. Green Leaf follows next, then the Boston, Romaine is always last. Romaine can take the heat better and is the easiest to cut and clean when I am getting tired. When it is really large I tell myself it is like cutting down redwoods. If the planting is really uniform I can cut ten cases an hour, fifteen seconds a head. When I have to skip around it slows me down to six an hour. With the days order cut I pull the truck down into the deep shade for a few hours before I take it into town. Wednesday’s and Friday’s cuts for market are smaller only around eight cases but still the same. After five straight weeks of wholesale lettuce I am ready to do something else every morning, it’s time for the season to change.
Big day yesterday the turkeys moved to the field. The first time a batch of turkeys is exposed to something new they get crazy, this group seems especially jumpy so we have been careful in this big transition to the outdoors. First we let them run in and out of the brooder to the field shelter just to get the hang of it. Then we move the field shelter further away from the brooder and put food and water in there. Finally we close the brooder and make them stay the night in the field shelter. This group has not been high on the scale of early adopters, plenty of distress chirping and generally not getting it at first. On field moving day we have to catch each one and carry it to the new field where we have moved their familiar feeders and waterers, lots of panic and chasing around. Once they are all in the new field we move the field shelter (the new mothership) into the field and leave them alone for the rest of the day. We were worried that come night fall we would be herding them around to get them into the shelter for the night, not being the highest achieving group. Hallelujah, at dark they were all self loaded and we just had to close the door! Transition complete.
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Cozy at first light, waiting to be released for their first full day in the field
Well we made it to June and the heat appears to have arrived with it. High 90’s the end of the week and a whole week in the 90’s? Why is it we can never just gently go thru the 80’s for a while and then into the brutal temperatures? Oh well it makes the blueberries and the tomatoes ripen faster. After last season without blueberries because of the record Easter freeze and the madness that it is trying to keep them picked we are now in the middle of it. This week or next is going to be the peak of our blueberry crop, with next Monday probably the peak day due to the high temperatures. Blueberry picking is the only time we hire extra help on the farm. The whole operation is designed to run with a steady flow of human energy, just the two of us and two more part timers. But there is an atmosphere that develops around blueberry season as new faces come to pick and join in our now established social structure. For nearly 3 months it has just been the four of us doing the dance of employee-employer, student-teacher, worker-supervisor, advisor, helper, friends. We now know each others routine, style, jokes and now there are new opinions, ideas, senses of humor. Blueberry picking is maybe the best job on the farm, unless you hate tedious tasks, but with the new faces and discussions in the field it seems to go quickly. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful setting on the hill, almost always with a slight breeze and the birds calling nonstop. Everyday you end up on the otherside of the row from someone new with new stories and questions. Other farmer friends of mine say I should hire migrant workers to pick, it would save money. It might and we used to hire some local Latinos when we were in the wholesale blackberry business and they are amazing workers. I have come to appreciate the other benefits of having these new faces on the farm, it gives us a boost, it gives the staff a break from working only with each other, it exposes these new people to farm work without some of the grittiness of it. It is this social side of a sustainable farm that really makes it work, not just the crops and the tractors. Soon enough it will be back to just the four of us, avoiding the heat, picking tomatoes and peppers and flowers, telling the same old jokes.
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Hmmm, let’s see what’s the news? HEAT!!!! Talk about a rude start to the summer, bang, here I am. The 100’s really pushed the blueberries and Friday we could only get two out of six rows picked there were so many and turning blue in front of our eyes. So Monday we called in the troops and had eleven of us out there going hard. We did manage to get through those four unpicked rows and the fruit quality was really good. Thank goodness they are blueberries and not blackberries. When it gets that hot blackberries actually get sunburned and get white sections on the berries where the color has cooked out of them, technically it is called “leaking” (I am not making this up). So now we are caught up and Monday was the peak day of the season. We can now easily manage the rest of the season (only another ten days or so) with four additional pickers. Whew! As is our standard practice we do not work out in the fields after noon and this week it has been hard to stay out there until noon. Betsy and I have been out early letting the turkeys out, irrigating and picking other crops before the blueberry picking begins at 8:00.
Two interesting extra curricular activities this week. The first was a Slow Food co-sponsored event at Meredith college with the Durham-Chapel Hill Dieticians group. Two short films about local food were viewed and then a panel discussion followed. It is always interesting being the farmer on a panel of other food related folks. Great questions about our local food system but barely enough time to just begin to scratch the surface. Yesterday I went to the State Legislature to speak to a group of legislators about organic agriculture in North Carolina. This Organic Legislative breakfast was just that, it started at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria, in the basement of the Legislature building. While they ate organic food brought in from North Carolina farms, myself and three other farmers told them about our experiences as organic producers. This is the second year that Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other sustainable ag non-profits have put on the breakfast. The idea is not to really press them for anything in particular but to just make them aware of organics and sustainable farming and hopefully more comfortable with the idea. As I went to get coffee I overheard several of them saying to each other “Who knew we had organic pigs here in North Carolina?” Nothing like a pork product to get a politicians attention.
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Turkeys and Hydrangeas
What a glorious morning, just came back in from my morning perambulation (letting the turkeys out, turning on irrigation, general perusal of the place) and the 50 degree temperature that greeted me was almost shocking. Thank goodness we are near the longest day of the year (and the first day of summer) because this waking up at 5:00 a.m. is not natural. I always wake with the light and it is just not right to be up this early in the day! The change of seasons is truly upon us as we are mowing down the spring vegetable and flower crops and planting more of what will be the late summer crops. Under the tiller go the beet, carrot, spinach and lettuce beds making room for more zinnias, sunflowers and celosia. We covered the last bay of the Big Tops last week and the guys built their last tomato trellis of the year. Today we will plant the last round of tomatoes, the ones for August and September. We do this planting no-till into a rolled down cover crop of grain rye and this year Austrian winter peas, just like all of the sweet peppers. When we plant the sweet peppers we are always pushing the front end of using this no-till system because the cover crops are just barely mature enough to kill and the soil is still almost too cool under the insulating layer of mulch. With the late tomatoes it is just right because the cover is well dead and the soil is warm but not hot. Most farmers will plant their late tomatoes into white plastic in an attempt to keep the soil and the plants a little cooler, besides my disdain for using plastic mulch, we already have those conditions using the no-till. Even with these more ideal planting conditions we only plant a limited selection of varieties because tomatoes don’t pollinate well in the hot nights of July and August so we only plant five beds and four varieties, a red, a pink, a yellow and of course Sun Gold cherries.
We really need some rain right now, not only is the pond going down but it is time to seed the summer cover crops. As I was tilling yesterday the soil is getting very dry making it hard to incorporate the crop residues and difficult to germinate the new seeds. This is beginning to look like last year where it was almost impossible to get the summer cover crops going. Now that blueberry picking is almost over we are turning our attentions to catching up on all this planting, trellising and spring crop clean up, hopefully today we will also start the pepper trellising as those poblanos are getting tall and susceptible to being knocked over in a storm. Friday we will begin the annual red onion harvest another sign of summer as right on cue the onion tops are flopping over, telling us it is time to get them out of the ground too. As Betsy says, it’s like being a chicken on a hot plate, how fast can you dance?
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Dan marking the beds, Cov planting celosia in the former spring lettuce beds
Newsletter a day late, this week has been like a fire drill since Monday. One of those weeks where its nothing unusual or a major type event, just too many small “extra-curricular” items that tip the cart. Monday had an extra trip to Burlington for supplies, I had to help our 84 year old neighbor fix his mower, we did deliveries and took the big truck to the mechanic and then topped it all off with a lovely evening at Watts Grocery in Durham for their wine dinner which featured our products. Tuesday (after arriving home late the previous night) we hit the road at 7:00 a.m. for an all day meeting in Goldsboro, we are on the Board of Advisors for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. Back to the house about 5:30 in time to turn around to head into Carrboro for another board meeting for the Growers’ Choice poultry cooperative. Wednesday up at the crack of dawn for the unusual chores and to prepare the brooder for the second round of turkeys that normally arrive at the Post Office early in the morning. No call by 8:30 so I begin calling around to see where they are. “Yes they were shipped on Monday”, she says at the hatchery. Now we’re worried that they are sitting on some hot tarmac somewhere cooking (we hear these horror stories from other growers). Second call to the Post Office, “no not here yet but there is one more plane that comes in at 10:30”. Finally the call comes in at 11:30 they are here. Betsy rushes up to Graham to collect them while I continue to work with the staff on the days projects. By 1:00 the birds are here and installed in the brooder, all healthy and running around. A quick bite of lunch and then we have to load and head off to market in the 95 degree heat. By the time I get home and in the house at 8:00 last evening we are both fried. Dinner and to bed by 9:00.
As my sister in law says, who is a nurse who works a crazy schedule of something like six twelve hour days straight, “I am headed into the tunnel”. This is how she refers to going back to work after her days off. We are headed into the tunnel now too, all of the growers at market are in the same place. The early season excitement is past, the rush to get cool season crops in and out, the beautiful spring days, the planting and tending of the summer crops. Now the heat is here and it is a careful balancing act to keep it all going while not burning the body out. You can begin to see it in their faces now, that look of too many nights without enough sleep. Now don’t misunderstand me, we still love this work and life, but all jobs have parts that take more effort or patience to get through to the next step. How many days is it until the first frost?
Great news, we recently heard that we have been accepted as delegates, once again, to the Slow Food Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy this October. As you may remember, we have been extremely fortunate to have been able to attend the previous two Terra Madre’s in 2004 and 2006. We have another strong group going from the Triangle area including eight of us from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. This world meeting of farmers, chefs and others in the food system has been an inspiration to us and we hope to be able to expose others to some of what we have been able to experience there. Slow Food pays for all of the delegates expenses once they get to Italy but they have to get themselves there. Look for various fund raisers this summer and fall, sponsored by Slow Food Triangle, to help send our local people. The first of these is this coming Tuesday, July 1st, at the Lantern Restaurant. A Greek wine dinner, featuring a Slow Food Presidia wine (Presidia are projects aimed at helping to preserve a food or food making tradition). Andrea at Lantern says there are still seats available. It will also feature some of our products on the menu.
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Happy three day old Broad Breasted Bronzes
A million dollar rain? I’m not sure but it certainly was great to finally get something substantial, we had gone for over a month with only one tenth of an inch and were beginning to make alternative plans for the fall crops. The 90 day forecast is for normal temperatures and rain, lets hope they are right. These last few days have been sublime with the cool nights and clear days, almost like fall. With that inch and a half of rain we can now start the process of getting cover crops in the ground. When it gets as dry as it was it is impossible to “cut ground” as the old timers say. Yesterday as I headed into town to deliver I noticed several farmers out disking their fields, turning under the residues of wheat or something else and drilling in soybeans or sudangrass. So the same will occur here, except it will be the overwintered flowers and other spring crops just now finished. Hopefully we will continue to get some good rains to bring up thick soil improving crops of cowpeas and sudangrass or soybeans and millet. These crops will grow to eight feet high in eight weeks giving us thousands of pounds of organic matter to return to the soil along with over a hundred pounds of free nitrogen fixed by the bean crops to feed the next cash crops. They will provide habitat for good bugs that will help us fight the bad bugs. They will shade out summer weeds and give shade to the turkeys when we move them into those fields. If the rains come.
A fairly normal week here on the farm, the staff is getting into the easy pattern of tomato picking Mondays and Thursdays, weeding a little, seeding new crops for the fall and winter, and continuing to trellis the summer crops. The last planting of Sungold cherry tomatoes went in the ground yesterday, timed to be ready in late August and to carry us to the end of the season. It has been interesting to watch the salmonella tainted tomato story unfold over the last few weeks and of course we are humored by that fact that they can’t seem to trace it back to where is came from or even if it was tomatoes at all. To all of us local produce farmers it is just another supporting argument for local small scale agriculture. If you know your farmer and where your produce comes from it you can be more assured it won’t come with bad things attached. Now I am not saying that it can’t happen but the reality is that most small growers don’t have the volume to need produce washing lines which is where most of these health problems start. When you dump thousands of pounds of tomatoes into a big tank and slosh them around it makes it much easier for the few tomatoes that might have had contact with something unhealthy to pass it onto the rest. Most of us don’t wash our tomatoes at all. Because we don’t spray anything bad on our tomato plants we are able to just wipe them with towels to clean them up and pack them straight into the boxes for market. Nothing like a good local tomato.
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A good looking field of peppers
It has been so long since we have had a wet period like this, one almost forgets what it can be like. It used to be that every July we would have a monsoon period right in the middle of tomato season, generally near the peak. We feared these wet times as all of our hard work in tending the plants was literally washed away. Two things were guaranteed to happen. First the tender skinned ripe heirloom varieties would split and explode from too much water. Tomatoes are not like balloons that you can just keep pumping up, once they begin to turn color that is as big as their skin will get, excess water has to go somewhere. We would pick buckets and buckets full of huge Striped Germans and Cherokee Purples split across the bottom from side to side and just throw them away, every Sungold cherry would be split. The second insult was that the foliar disease, that haunts us, would run up the plants like someone light a match to them, exposing the remaining fruits to sunscald and increasing the chances of those fruits exploding because when there are no leaves to transpire (breath) water out of the plant any excess water makes the fruit splitting worse. Once the disease started up the plants it was only a matter of a week or two until that crop was finished for good. To counter act this we would plant tomatoes three times in the field to try and have some tomatoes all summer. In reality the best tomatoes are the ones planted in late April right after frost because they grow the biggest plants to support great fruit with great taste. Plants grown later in the summer just never get as big or set fruit as well. As the days get shorter in August and then the nights begin to cool off in September it affects the flavor of the tomatoes too, never as intense as fruit ripened in the middle of the summer. Enter the Big Tops, the cathedrals of tomato production. We knew if we could keep those plants dry and control the water to their roots we could grow incredible tomatoes. The trick was that smaller greenhouse structures can’t hold enough plants and get too hot in the middle of the summer. The huge size of the Big Tops (24 feet wide and 13 feet high) makes it just like growing the plants out in the open but with a thin plastic roof just over the plants. Now instead of only producing for four or five weeks, that April planted crop will produce for eight or nine weeks or longer and the fruit quality is nearly perfect. So now when these rainy periods come, I just smile and sleep well, it’s a miracle!
Interesting day yesterday. We spent most of the day being interviewed by a pair from the National Academy of Sciences for a study being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Kellogg Foundations titled “Twenty-First Century Systems Agriculture”. Twenty years ago the National Academies released a ground breaking report “Alternative Agriculture” that showed, definitively for the first time, that sustainable and organic approaches to farming actually worked and were as profitable as conventional agriculture. Now two decades later they are doing it again but with a broader scope than just economics. Using fact-finding workshops, data analysis and case studies to identify the scientific foundations of sustainable farming systems. Somehow (it’s always a mystery to us) we were chosen to be one of the nine farms nationwide as one of the “real world” case studies. They sent seven pages of questions that they wanted to cover (enough to scare anyone) but it turned out to be a wide ranging conversation about how we farm. As Betsy said, “We had the easy part, they have to try and make a report out of that conversation!”
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Happy tomatoes under gray skies
Well we seem to be in the tourist season now. Last week the National Academy of Sciences, today a bus load of extension agents here in North Carolina for the National Association of County Agricultural Agents meeting. Next week we have an all day turkey production workshop for 50, put on by our friends at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They were going to hold it down at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro but all their turkeys got eaten by coyotes and they needed a new location that had heritage turkeys on pasture! In two weeks we might be hosting a big press conference to announce two new endowed chairs in Sustainable Food Systems at NC A&T and NC State. In three weeks we have 90 civil servants from India coming to see what farming techniques we use. In four weeks we will be taking our summer break to rest up from all of this activity! So we have been mowing and cleaning up the place. Not that we don’t constantly do this kind of maintenance but usually not all at once. All of the rain has made the mowing more critical as stuff is growing like wildfire.
The rest of our days are as usual, a steady pace of harvesting, planting and crop control. I had predicted this week to be the peak week of tomato harvest but it appears as if last week actually was. That week of 100 degree temperatures in early June is probably part of the reason. When it’s that hot tomatoes don’t pollinate well. That combined with not a lot of sun last week to help ripen the fruit and we seem to have a drop in production this week over last. Still we have tomato plants to tie up, peppers and lisianthus to trellis, zinnias to be weeded and lots of flowers to be seeded for next years early crops (already?). The last planting of zinnias and sunflowers went in the ground this week and the first of the fall lettuce too. The little turkeys graduated yesterday, their first time out of doors. It is always surprising how fast these broad breasted turkeys grow compared to the heritage birds and these guys are looking good. In two weeks they will join the older birds out in the field.
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A couple of really thick days, the last few, the kind that remind you what living in the south used to be like before air conditioning. The “Raising Heritage Turkeys on Pasture” workshop went well despite the heat. They were here all day on Monday in the heat but we managed to keep them in the shade for the most part. Organized by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, whose headquarters are in Pittsboro, is an organization founded in 1977 that is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. The ALBC is the group that really has brought the heritage turkey back from the brink of extinction by working with breeders to increase the stock and others like Slow Food to glamorize and popularize the eating of these birds. As all people working to save endangered food species, whether it’s animals or plants, say “you have to eat it to save it”.
If there is no economic reason to grow a bird or a tomato then they just become museum items that eventually disappear after the last crazy old guy who kept them passes on. This kind of loss happens everyday somewhere in the world. The Cherokee Purple tomato that we all love is an example. One gardener in Tennessee had it in his garden when a tomato collector/nut found it and asked for some seeds and then grew them. It was so good that he passed the seeds onto several small seed companies who presented it to the world, that was about 1992. If the Tennessee gardener had died without passing it on we would never have it today. If you are interested in other endangered foods Slow Food USA has the Ark of Taste, with a list of the foods they are trying to promote and save
Animals are even harder to save for many reasons that one can imagine; size, numbers, room to keep them, etc. While we grow the Bourbon Red turkeys and are part of the food system that is needed to save them, we are not doing the heavy lifting required to really save the breed. The breeders are the ones who keep these animals year round, feeding and caring for them, selecting for the best hens and toms to keep for breeding, and hopefully hatching out enough eggs to make it all worthwhile. This is not like keeping a small vial of seeds to replant next year. This takes lots of room, facilities and skill. To keep enough genetic diversity in a flock, a breeder needs to have 200 hens! So you can see the difficulty, it’s not like raising dogs where you can work with two or three animals and keep a breed going. At this workshop we were fortunate to have the god father of heritage turkeys and the master breeder, Frank Reese, here to lead the discussion. Frank has devoted his life to saving these turkeys. If you have ever had a mail order heritage turkey, it was probably one of Franks as he raises more than anyone else by many many times. This year he and his partners are raising 17,000 birds!
It has been our search for the best quality foods that we can raise in an sustainable system that brings us to things like Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Bourbon Red turkeys. The work done by many people and groups like ALBC, Slow Food, the North American Fruit Explorers, chefs we work with and your experiences that makes it easier for us to find and learn to grow these things. Our job is to interpret the information we get (some times very old), to our farming conditions and system. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t but that’s the nature of farming.
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Turkeys headed out for the days work, eating cover crop and playing in the Zinnias
Depending on how we look at it, it has been either 20 or 24 weeks since we started going to market. Twenty occupying our regular Saturday spot with two spaces but with the market going year round now Betsy started going four weeks earlier with the first few anemones and ranunculus. Either way it’s a long time without a break. Twenty weeks for the staff as well, hot, cold, wet, dry, steamy, arid, seeding, planting, weeding, cultivating, harvesting. Twenty weeks of dealing with each other and us, time for a pause. As most of you all know we take a week off, every summer, in early August timed to hit just as the early tomatoes wane and before the peppers really kick in. Now I always refer to it as the “break” and not a vacation because Betsy and I don’t really get to check out. We give the staff the week off with pay and they usually leave town. That leaves us here to water, and irrigate, keep and eye on the turkeys, pick a little bit of stuff that has to be harvested, etc. The break is in not going to markets and doing regular deliveries. We usually do a few hours of chores in the cool of the morning and then find some kind of diversion in the afternoons, eat a lot, take naps, read and other general sloth. To that end there will be no newsletter next week and we will not be at market Wednesday 8/6 and Saturday 8/9.
This break marks the transition into fall and gives us the bit of rest needed to head into this most important time of year for the farm. The ten weeks that follow the break are not only the end of our harvest season with peppers, tomatoes and the last of the summer flowers but it is the start of the next year. We are busy dismantling all of the infrastructure we put in place all season to grow and support the crops; irrigation, trellises and more. At the same time we are busy seeding and transplanting flowers for next spring, improving the soil with mineral amendments and seeding cover crops. By mid October it will all be put to bed for the winter save a few hundred feet of row for the vegetables for Thanksgiving and the turkeys wandering around in their pasture. In many ways the next growing season is decided and set in place during this period, we take it very seriously and when it’s done we then can take a “vacation” and rest assured that next year will be another good one!
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Crazy Celosia heads