Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #18, 7/20/11

What’s been going on?

A quick newsletter today, too damn hot to not get out there early. We had a great Tomato Day at market last Saturday, great crowd, perfect weather and lots of tomatoes to taste and sell. If you were there you know how pleasant an experience it was. We also had a very pleasant Farm Dinner at Panzanella on Monday with a good turn out to taste the seven special dishes that Jim and crew made out of our produce. It was all good but I really liked the bright fresh taste of the tagliatelle with sungold and Roma tomatoes. It was good to see everyone who came. One more summer farm dinner this Thursday (tomorrow) at Fosters Market in Chapel Hill. Tim is using both tomatoes and peppers this year. It was a fun event last summer and Betsy and I will be there and I am sure I will talk a bit about the tomatoes in the dishes.

Well the turkeys graduated from High School with flying colors last Friday. It was time to move them to the field and this group is so brilliant that we actually walked/herded them the 400 feet from the brooder to the blueberry field where they will hang out under the bushes for the next several weeks. We usually catch them, load them in the truck and drive them down and then set them out into the field, but this group has behaved so well that I thought it would be less stress on them to walk them down, it was.

The final test was the first night, had they adopted the new mothership? They had spent a few nights in the portable shelter but in front of the brooder they knew as home. It is always a first time learning experience for the birds but once they get the hang of it, they act like they have done it for years. At dark I went out to herd them into the shelter and close the door for nighttime security. I rounded the corner and they were all pre-loaded and ready to sleep, and they have done it every night since, amazing! So this group is well on the way to graduate degrees!

Picture of the Week

They have already thrown their mortar boards off into the bushes

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #17, 7/13/11

What’s been going on?

The heat? So I see that we are one day ahead of last years record setting pace for days over 90 degrees, at 40, the record is 91 and I hope we don’t get there. These are the days we work hard to get out of the field and the sun by noon at the latest. Down into the deep shade to work at the packing shed, or seeding fall crops or something similar. It is just not practical to be out in the field moving like turtles, suffering to do something poorly or taking two or three times as long to get the job finished over what it would take to do in the cooler hours of the day. Some folks say I’m getting soft in my old age, I just think I am getting wiser.

Good class last night at A Southern Season cooking school. It has become an annual event where Craig LeHoullier and I carry on about tomatoes and Marilyn Markel (who is the manager of the cooking school) is calmly cooking up some great dishes with our tomatoes. If you haven’t ever taken a class there it is very well done, entertaining and you get a whole meal (with wine included) for a very reasonable price.

I have mentioned this before but Craig is the god father of heirloom tomatoes. Back in the early 90’s when nobody knew what an heirloom tomato was, I came across an old fashioned printed newsletter that he co-edited call Off the Vine. It was an amazing resource on all of these crazy varieties where he and others would share their successes and failures growing these unusual tomatoes. Craig now keeps almost 3000 varieties in his personal seed bank and shares his new finds with the world. Maybe most importantly he is responsible for introducing Cherokee Purple to the seed companies and for discovering the new Green Cherokee.

He lives in Cary and over the years we have communicated and run into each other. Finally a few years ago we began doing these cooking/gardening classes at A Southern Season and it has been great fun to learn more from him about where these varieties come from, the stories behind them and the new work he is doing on easy to grow varieties for the home gardener. Another amazing resource we have here in North Carolina.

Picture of the Week

Need some Celosia?

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #16, 7/6/11

What’s been going on?

Well we made it to July, hope everyone had a good holiday weekend. We are in tomato mania at the house right now. The counter is covered in those tomatoes that are not “stable” enough to go anywhere but from the field to the house and then into our stomachs. It is a tomato (at least) at every meal and then other uses are dreamed up as we go along. Hot weather and a house full of cookbooks can lead one into dangerous territory.

Just in the last week we have made Betsy’s favorite Tomato and Basil risotto, several different batches of salsa (with our red onions and serranos), a yellow gazpacho, oven roasted some Blush tomatoes for later use on dishes, Betsy has made a huge pot of tomato sauce (to be frozen for all year consumption) from the new Slow Food Presidia variety we brought back the Torre Canne from Puglia, sandwiches, tomato salads and just plain eating as one walks by. If you want to try more of our varieties and not cook yourself, there are at least three tomato dinners coming up using our tomatoes and at least five restaurants using our toms.

The turkeys graduated from elementary school yesterday. Three weeks old and growing fast, we let them outside for the first time. This group is not timid, usually when we open the front ramp of the brooder they all mass at the opening, blinking at the new world and wait around for the one brave soul who will actually walk out there. Sometimes it takes them an hour or so to get the courage up. Not this group, they were down the ramp and into the grass in minutes! I take that as a good sign that they will be good foragers when we finally take them to the field in two weeks.

They will spend a week running in and out to the new mothership, protected by the chicken wire surround. Next week we will move the mothership back and surround it with the electric net fence to give them more room and to get used to the mild shock of the fence, this is like moving from middle school to high school. Finally the last night or two they will sleep out in the mothership. At five weeks of age they will graduate from high school and go to college, into the blueberry field and on to greater and more interesting things. When you are a turkey, you grow up fast.

Picture of the Week

A turkey’s eye view of the new world

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #15, 6/29/11

What’s been going on?

Finally a good rain last night but only four tenths, nineteen days since the last real rain, sure a tenth here and there but with temperatures in the mid and upper 90’s, they don’t count. We have to pump water unless it is a quarter inch of rain or more and then that only buys us a day and we have to irrigate in the tunnels no matter what falls from the sky. So lets talk about drought. There are two kinds of drought, one is a long period without rain that can effect the soil surface water and things like crops and gardens. That is an agricultural drought and right now we are classed as being in a moderate agricultural drought. Places like Texas (where in some places it hasn’t rained in nearly 300 days) and New Mexico where they are literally burning up, are three more levels down the scale in the worst classification of “exceptional” and eastern North Carolina is one level down from us in the “severe” class.

So we all can feel and see an agricultural drought, no rain and we have to water our gardens and crops more and more as the soil dries out. The more difficult kind is a hydrologic drought, when it doesn’t rain enough for a long period of time. Sure it rains and things look green because the top soil has sufficient water but the water is not getting further down to recharge the aquifer, the underground pond. We are also in a hydrologic drought here too but it is harder to see and feel. At RDU (I can tell you we are much drier than RDU) there has only been 70% of normal rainfall since the first of the year and 9 inches below normal in the last year.

We can see the hydrologic drought here on the farm, first as our shallow springs dry up that feed our two ponds and then finally as the creek that borders our property runs slower and slower until it dries up altogether, as it did last Tuesday. This is a major creek, with at least two mill dams (one on our farm) built on it to harness the water power in years past. So it means that all the springs that feed the creek have dried up too. So now we are down to irrigating with the water we can see in the two ponds (of which we lose up to a quarter inch a day just in evaporation) and water we can’t see in the underground pond from a 500 foot deep well we drilled in the historic drought of 2002.

We had a number agricultural droughts in the 80’s, some of them historic for the time, but we would always have wet winters that kept the ground water recharged and our creek never ran dry. During the last decade we have seen the creek run dry at least a half a dozen times. So what we really need is some steady, regular precipitation particularly during the winter to recharge the underground pond. The good news is we will be OK for this summer as we have enough water between the ponds and well to make it through but many famers don’t have the infrastructure that we have invested in over 30 years. If we are lucky they are predicting slighty above average rainfall for July through September, let’s hope they are right.

Picture of the Week

Our creek, Big Branch, not so big right now. This is the other end of the 900′ long line from creek to pond

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #14, 6/22/11

What’s been going on?

Heat anyone? High 90’s today, it will be another great afternoon at the Farmers’ Market. At least it looks like the weather will break a little for Farm to Fork on Sunday afternoon, they are calling for 90 with a slight chance of thunderstorms, if we are really lucky it will be like last year when the storms went around us but also helped keep the temperature down a bit. Next year F2F will be back in late May and more reasonable weather chances. By the way, F2F is sold out and did so very early after tickets went on sale so make sure that you look for the announcements next year if you didn’t get a chance this time around.

One group that is happy with the heat are the new turkeys. Yes turkeys are back in the house, literally the brooder house. They arrived last Thursday and look really great. The little day old poults arrive unfeathered, with just their down coats and so they need to be kept around 90 degrees for the first week or two so they don’t get chilled and until they start to grow real feathers. We have heat lamps in the brooder at night but these days we turn them off during the day and they are very happy in there at 95 degrees from the sun.

We have changed up the turkey program a bit this year in that we are only doing the Broad Breasted Bronzes and no Bourbon Reds. I have wrestled with this decision for some time and feel somewhat a traitor for not continuing to help preserve the heritage breeds but there are compelling reasons, quality of life and economics. The Bourbon Reds, while more charismatic and beautiful to look at, are a pain at times to manage because they fly and fight with each other, I am getting too old to be chasing birds around the woods like last year. The other is that they are much more expensive to raise and with feed prices extremely high this year we would have to charge too high a price in my opinion.

On the other hand the Broad Breasted Bronzes are the first step from a heritage bird towards the modern industrial turkey. Yes they can’t naturally breed because of their size but they do very well outside on pasture. They forage pretty well, don’t seem to be anymore disease prone than the Bourbons and take only half the time to reach maturity without flying or fighting. Another factor is that you told us after last Thanksgiving that maybe you even liked their flavor better. So with that in mind we have 70 all singing, all dancing Bronzes in the brooder, now the adventure begins.

Pictures of the Week

The brooder with the window we call turkey TV and the what you see on turkey TV

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #13, 6/15/11

What’s been going on?

So you all may remember our troubles with Fusarium Wilt in the heirloom tomatoes, it slowly kills the plants and severely reduces production. It is a problem we never experienced until about six years ago and then it didn’t become fully apparent how severe it was until about three years ago. Several solutions are possible and like most good sustainable ag approaches, it takes multiple tools to do it right, no silver bullets here.

The first tool is resistant varieties, easy enough with the hybrid tomatoes most of which are bred with resistance to the wilt but we don’t grow many. So we have been saving seed from our past crops, from the plants that seem to be fighting the disease the best, with the hope that we can slowly build resistance to it. Second tool is grafting the variety we want onto a rootstock that is resistant to the soil borne disease, just like fruit trees are done. Last year we attempted to do it but didn’t get our timing right, this year we contracted with someone to do it for us for the two most disease prone varieties and they failed too.

The third technique is to solarize the soil which will kill or greatly reduce the amount of the fungus in the soil and it has been shown to be very effective. Solarization is covering the moist soil with clear plastic and heating it up to as high as 140 degrees. It needs to be done in the 6-8 hottest weeks of the summer. We have designed the Big Top rotation to have a rest year (without cash crops) to really build up the soil with cover crops, so we do have a window in which we can solarize.

With that in mind, covering a quarter of an acre is a lot of plastic! We needed to put some new plastic on one set of the Big Tops so last fall we did just that and reserved the old plastic to use for the solarization. Yesterday I turned under the remains of the huge winter cover crop and the soil was nice and moist from the two inches of rain we received on Friday night, perfect! We pulled the plastic covers over and buried the edges. Now we just have to wait and hope it does the job. Next year will be the test as the tomatoes will be in that section again. Patience my friend, patience.

Picture of the Week

Let’s hope this works

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #12, 6/8/11

What’s been going on?

For farmers the search for new and better crops is a constant thing, or should be. Sure there are varieties that are tried and true and we wouldn’t dream of not growing, like Cherokee Purple tomato, but it is necessary to continue to try new things. Variety trials are a way of life. There are many reasons to try new things like better flavor, a different color, more disease resistance, more production, better plant structure, replacing a variety no longer available and more. Each year we have dozens of new varieties we test, many that you many never see. This year alone there are 20 new vegetable varieties that we discovered in catalogs, travels or talking with other growers.

It is in the flower fields that we have done the most research for new crops and in the most structured way. Betsy was one of the first members of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, founded back in the late 80’s. Since that time we have attended most of their national conferences and Betsy has served as regional director, treasurer, conference chair and founder of the Research Foundation. Early on they instituted a variety trials program where the seed companies would provide seed for their newest cultivars and a select group of farmers and universities from around the country would plant them out and report back on how they did. Number of stems, stem length, disease problems, vase life, etc.

Some years these new varieties are just ho-hum or total failures in our climate but the data is useful anyway. Betsy is really enthusiastic about the some of the new sunflowers starting to bloom this week and after probably a thousand varieties over the years, I can tell you when she wakes me up in the morning talking about how incredible some of the new dark sunflowers are it gets my attention. So after three decades you would think that we have seen and tried them all but we know that is not true and while it is rarely as exciting as a whole new kind of crop, like the first year we had turkeys, there are still some gems to be discovered and we continue to explore!

Picture of the Week

Staring at the sun

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #11, 6/1/11

What’s been going on?

Welcome to June, ugh! I thought June was the gentle transition to summer and July and ugh. The forecast has it dropping to 89 next Tuesday, the average high for July, woohoo! Alright too early for the bad summer weather attitude, I knew if I waxed too much about how perfect the spring had been that it would jinx the whole thing.

So let’s find the silver lining. The blueberries are ripening fast and the heat makes them even sweeter. We have had one of the largest picking crews working the bushes we have ever assembled, up to 10 some days, and they are handling the heat well even though that last hour before lunch slows them down some. Peppers are loving this weather and growing fast, soon we will need to start trellising them before they fall over in a storm. Tomatoes too, this is the time of year when we have to go through and tie them up every week lest they flop over into the row and maybe break a branch off heavy with green fruit. Betsy is happy as well, the summer flowers almost bloom as you watch them, sometimes she has to cut sunflowers twice a day.

While last week was about trying to salvage the end of the cool season crops, this week is full on acceptance that the party is over and it is time to clean up and move on. The spring vegetable field only has a few beds of beets, carrots and a few radishes left, the rest mowed and turned under. The overwintered flower field looks the same with just a few rows of late Bachelors Buttons and larkspur remaining. The lettuce field not only has only a handful of beds left but the rest has already been replanted to sunflowers, zinnias and other heat loving flowers.

Such are the seasons in North Carolina, distinct and abrupt. Our farming friends further north plant it all when it thaws out and then it all happens at one time in mid summer and they run hard in the long days to bring it all in before it gets cold again. No cool season, warm season cool season, it is just either the growing season or not. Lettuce and spinach, tomatoes and peppers all at the same time. Not sure which I would prefer?

Picture of the Week

New sunflowers, celosia and zinnias on the heels of the last lettuce in the background

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #10, 5/25/11

What’s been going on?

Looks like another monumental blueberry crop, last years was so small it hardly registered. This year there are a lot of berries and they are big starting out. We have had five or six folks each day picking and have not made it all the way across the planting yet. We knew this heat would push them hard and make them ripen fast and it has. A good group of folks picking which usually adds new interesting conversations to our usual mix but this group is timid so far and we will need to loosen them up, maybe they are concentrating so hard on picking that they can’t talk at the same time.

The first real week of irrigation this year and we are trying hard to keep the last of the spring greens happy. We use little micro-sprinklers in the lettuce and spinach and other spring vegetables. They put out a fairly fine mist so we try and water mid afternoon so they get some evaporative cooling but don’t go into the night too wet underneath the plants. There is a fine line between enough moisture and too much. Too much gives us bottom rot in the lettuce, too little and the plants wilt and the stress causes them to get bitter and go to seed. We usually end up losing some to bottom rot but it is better than having it all get bitter. This last week of May is always a dance before we just give in and say it’s time for summer crops.

The daily search is on for the first ripe tomato. I slip by the early tomato tunnels several times a day, ostensibly checking irrigation or some other excuse but really I am looking for some pink color. It happens fast and we have been able to eat the first one this last week of May for several years now. The plants look as good as we have ever had and there is a lot of fruit set on them. I usually take the first one around the blueberry field and cut slices off for the pickers to savor if it is large enough, otherwise Betsy and I will quickly consume it down at the packing shed or out in the field where ever I find her at the time. Come on now, we are ready for a real tomato!

Picture of the Week

There is a lot of picking to be done

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #9, 5/18/11

What’s been going on?

Well it looks as if the honeymoon is about over. This fantastic run of 70 degree weather and the near perfect spring run up to summer looks to be ending this weekend, had to happen sooner or later. We have been searching our now not so nimble brains to remember when we ever had such a marvelous spring in the 30 years we have been farming and can’t. You know we usually have crazy swings up and down in temperature and rainfall from March to May which wreaks havoc on the cool season crops like lettuce and, if too cool, the same to the nascent warm season crops struggling to believe it will actually ever get warm. We vaguely recall one six or seven years ago that had a smooth rise in temperatures but was irregular in precipitation so I will have to find that stone I etch important things on and scratch Spring 2011 on it.

The warmer weather coming next week will be just in time to sweeten up the blueberries which are hanging heavy on the bushes. We have been trying to get in and get the field all mowed up so the picking conditions will be comfortable, the regular rains have made the grass very happy and the broken tractor mower has not helped. Finally got the mower fixed yesterday so we are trying to get caught up on some really overgrown areas. Fortunately Betsy’s riding lawnmower has kept our heads above the grass so far. She reports that as she has been mowing by the blueberries that she has had to stop a few times to eat the first ripe ones!

Now that the peppers are all in the ground we are into the busy but steady season on farm chores. Tying up and suckering all the tomatoes, trellising flowers, taking out the earliest of the spring crops to make way for later season ones, cultivating and weeding when the soil gets dry enough to do so. This is the time of year that between harvesting and all the rest we feel really good if we can just barely keep up, we feel OK if a few things slip past us for awhile. We are teetering between really good and OK.

Picture of the Week

If we lived in the Salinas Valley (the nations salad bowl) it would look like this everyday. Spring giving way to summer.

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