Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #36, 11/9/17

What’s been going on!

Raw, raw couple of days.  There are experiences in life that etch themselves so deeply into your being that they surface whenever the conditions or situation are similar.  Like knowing that something hot will burn you or that a barking dog with teeth bared can raise the hair on the back of your neck.  Usually these are survival lessons we have learned.

This kind of weather is exactly one of those for Betsy and me.  Our first year farming, in 1982, had been one of excitement and struggle as we planted and tended our first crops while trying to build infrastructure on this blank piece of land.  I was on the farm full time and Betsy was working in the kitchen at the Fearrington House.  In late March we moved into a tent next to the only building on the farm, a 20X20 tin roofed equipment shed that I had built the fall before to house the tractor and tools.  It allowed us to save money on rent and to be here to work as much as we could and not have to commute.

Spring moved into summer and we had to get a real house built but progress was painfully slow between trying to save the crops from biblical weeds, not having two dimes to rub together and building it mostly by myself.  By the end of October we finally had it dried in with just black board on the outside and the plumbing and electric roughed in but there was no insulation or sheetrock.

The first weekend of November we were staring down days of cold rainy weather that herald the end of beautiful fall and the beginning of winter.  After 7 months in the tent we did not relish being cold and damp so we rigged up the woodstove in the new house and moved in, not optimal but at least we were warm and dry!  By Christmas we had it insulated and the sheetrock up but it would be another six months before we would have running water and more electricity than what an extension cord from the temporary power pole could deliver to four plugs.

It was those days and many more like them that made us tougher and resilient enough to succeed in this business but as we sit here with the 40 degree drizzle outside and a fire in the woodstove it all comes rushing back like it was yesterday.

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 Our blackboard house in the spring of 1983

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #23, 7/20/17

What’s been going on!

Into the furnace we go, had to happen sooner or later this summer and most appropriate the third week of July which is statistically the hottest of the year.  We are starting at 7:00 these mornings to beat a bit of heat and are out of the field by noon everyday.  You all stay cool.

I gave a fun talk yesterday to a group of Triangle Farmers’ Markets market managers some of whom are struggling with how to make their markets more sustainable and they were interested in how we manage to do it at Carrboro.  Most new and small markets have very part time managers (like 10 hours a week) who have a hard time in building a market and market community.

For some reason I have become the unofficial historian of the Carrboro Market and did a deep dive into the chronology of how the market developed and critical points along the way.  Now I will admit that Carrboro has had the benefit of 39 seasons to organically develop policies and solutions to problems that are common to most markets and that our success is in no small part due to the amazing customer base we have.

I do point to two original concepts that help make Carrboro more resilient and innovative.  First when the Town gave governance of the market to the farmers instead of a group of towns folks it instilled a sense of ownership and responsibility that most vendors at markets do not have.  Farmer run and farmer controlled, making decisions that make sense for the members not the economic development folks.

The second I have talked about many times before.  Carrboro is the only market that requires the owner of the business to be there selling, this further deepens that ownership and pride of the market.  When you just have an employee selling for you they don’t observe things that go on at market the same way, they don’t interact with the managers or the other vendors the same way, they don’t serve on committees or the board to help improve how the market operates.  We have 80 plus small entrepreneurs all contributing ideas and solutions that make the market cooperative better that in turn benefits their individual businesses.

The result has been a thriving market place for the farmers, a gathering place for the Town of Carrboro and an important part of the economic engine for downtown Carrboro.  We know we are fortunate to have such a market and never take it for granted.

Picture of the Week

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Our first year at the old market, 32 years was a long time ago!

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 12 #28, 10/1/15

What’s been going on!

Storm preparation mode.  Haven’t had a stretch like this since 2008, at least that we can remember.  That late summer, early fall we were coming off of a dry period just like this year when several tropical storms hit us in about a week and we had over 13 inches of rain over a two week period.  During the September 6th Saturday market, tropical storm Hannah arrived with high winds and 4 inches of rain.  It shouldn’t be that bad this Saturday but it does look to be wet.

Our first concern this weekend is the potential of the Haw River flooding our bottom field where the peppers are this year and part of the fall vegetables.  With 4 inches of rain this past week the river is already up some and if we get hit with the high end of the 5-9 inches forecast it could be a problem.  Fortunately we will be able know it is coming and will at least be able to pick a bunch of peppers and pull the irrigation pump if it gets that high.

Our second concern is obviously the track of hurricane Joaquin, which yesterday looked like it was potentially on a Fran track but today looks to be trending further out to sea.  As the last dryish day to get things done, we went ahead this morning and uncovered the last of the Big Tops and battened down other things in case the wind does really get up, better safe than sorry.

Tomorrow looks to be a really wet day but we are hoping some of the forecasts are correct about less rain on Saturday.  Of course you all will come on to market because it is the market’s Pepper Festival with lots of good things to eat.  Like last week, we will bring the roaster to market but we will just have to see how windy it is.

Picture of the Week

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This is what the well-dressed market shopper looked like in the middle of a tropical storm in 2008

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 12 #20, 7/22/15

What’s been going on!

We had another interesting first time experience recently when I recorded an hour and a half podcast for Chris Blanchard’s Farmer to Farmer Podcast series.  Chris was a farmer and now is consulting with organic farmers and has started doing these interviews with mostly organic vegetable farmers from all across the country.  If you have great stamina you can listen to the whole thing which is wide ranging but the following is a breakdown of the major subjects if you want to skip around.

Starts with an intro; minute 5- where we market and how we got started; min. 10- how we financed the whole thing; min. 20- record keeping and crop planning; min. 30- high tunnels and tomatoes; min. 45 our transition plans with Jennie and retirement; min. 65 efficiency, labor, equipment and farm design.  We recorded it over the phone so the sound is a bit funny as I sound out of breath.

Friday we have another interview for a profile of Peregrine Farm to be in yet another book, this one about successful small farms under 5 acres in production.  This will be, I think, the seventh book we have been included in over the years, something we never imagined.

Planting of fall crops picks up over the next few weeks with many flats seeded at the greenhouse and celery, turnips and radishes all in the ground already.  In the next few weeks we will plant or seed leeks, carrots, beets and Romanesco broccoli.  We even harvested the first of the winter squash yesterday, I know it seems wrong when it is 90 degrees but that is how the timing works here in NC.

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Another steamy morning, summer cover crops with late flowers behind

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 11 #30, 10/30/14

What’s been going on!

In my mind the first ugly, cold, wet weekend of the winter is always the first weekend in November.  Usually because it actually happens that way but it was imprinted on us 32 years ago this week when we finally moved into our “house”.  We had been living in a tent for seven months while we tended the first crops and began building a house.  The house was far from done, more like a big wooden tent but it did have a roof and walls and a woodstove.  The forecast for that weekend was the same as this coming Saturday, 40’s and rain, the thought of gritting it out under the tractor shed was not appealing so we moved in.  There was no insulation so we had to almost sit on the woodstove to stay warm but it was dry and a lot warmer than the tent would have been.

The first killing frost usually comes along just after that cold weekend too.  People always talk about the first frost when it gets below 32 degrees or frost actually forms on some surfaces and maybe damages some tender plants.  Statistically for the farm it is around October 21st but that is really of no concern to us.  Our defining line is 28 degrees that is when peppers and other warm season crops will actually die.  This weekend’s forecast has been warmed up some from 29 to 31 degrees on Sunday night but for us that is close enough to go ahead and clean off the pepper plants and call it a season.  Yesterday Jennie and I got about three quarters done, today we will finish.  One of the beauties of peppers is they hold very well in the walk-in cooler so we will be able to have them for several more weeks but Saturday will be the last day of pepper roasting.

No newsletter for the next several weeks as I will be out of town, in Jamaica.  Not a vacation, even though I am sure there will be some recreation involved.  I am headed down for a farmer to farmer exchange with a group of organic growers in the far southeastern tip of the island.  I will be staying at The Source Farm who is the lead in country to work with this group of over 40 farmers trying to diversify and improve their markets in Kingston.  Lots of stories to share when I get back but until then Betsy and Jennie will be at the Saturday markets while I am away.

Picture of the Week

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A beautiful fall morning and a very tired field of peppers

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 11 #4, 3/14/14

What’s been going on!

An interesting milestone this week as we realized that the last of our “Advisory committee”, Max Perry, passed away on Monday.  We live on Perry Rd. and the Perry clan owns large swaths of land up and down the road including the 400 or so acres on our south side.  Max was the patriarch of the family and the last of his generation, he was 77.

When we first moved here in 1982 we were like most of today’s new farmers in that we were not from a farming background and had to learn almost everything from scratch.  Today’s new farmers have vast and incredible resources from which to draw knowledge and information that we could only have dreamed about back then.  Sure we had degrees in agriculture and lifetimes of family gardening but never farmed for a living.  So we did what the Ethnologists would describe as gathering “indigenous knowledge”, we consulted the good old boys in the neighborhood or more accurately they freely volunteered their opinions.

Of course when we moved into a tent, next to our tractor shed with the 1949 tractor, they first thought we were crazy and doomed to failure (so did our parents).  Over time they would stop by and introduce themselves and to see just exactly what we were up to.  Most wrote us off but a group of them kept an eye on our progress and we were great fodder for discussion as we were some of the few folks in the neighborhood who were not from the “families”.  Max was one of them; he was an avid hunter and observer of the local flora and fauna.  He loved it when we started raising turkeys because he was very protective of the recovering turkey population that mostly lived on his land.  He was also the unofficial community watch as he worked third shift and would drive up and down the road late at night when he couldn’t sleep.

All of our advisory committee had similar backgrounds, they had grown up here farming but in the end had gotten “public work” in either construction or at the university.  Their family farms stopped with their parent’s generation and they were now just the stewards of the land which either stayed in pasture or trees, some they rented out to other farmers.  Their experience was that you couldn’t make a living farming but were interested in keeping farming alive in the neighborhood and to see what this new farming was all about.

Lenny Perry, Max’s uncle, would stop by regularly in the early years especially when we were clearing new land and commiserate with Betsy who was working alone with a chainsaw as I was in town trying to make some money to keep our dream alive.  “How’s that new ground coming” he would ask and give some advice on what to do next.  He had even farmed our land back in the 30’s and 40’s, raising wheat and other grains.  After a few years he was overheard at the corner store, where the old boys would gather, telling them that “she can drive a tractor as good as a man”.

Our other immediate neighbors, Herbert and Peggy Lou Thomas, owned all the land between us and the Haw River on our east and north sides. They actually lived down the road a few miles but raised a big garden in the bottom field across the creek from ours.  As we would be down in our field working they would be over there just talking away to each other while harvesting corn or tending tomatoes.  Let’s just say that Peggy Lou had a voice that could carry.  We would always find a basket of corn on the steps or Herbert would always check in to see if he had beaten me in having the first ripe tomato (he always did).  When we started using cover crops to improve our soil, he would advise me on when they were ready to turn under.

George Graves (who was married to a Perry) was particularly influential in our development.  He was one of the early members of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and grew huge amounts of maters, taters and beans among other crops.  He told us what varieties of spinach and other crops to grow that were best for our area, when to plant them, where to get seed.  He and Betsy would drive together to the local farm supply to get onion sets and parts for things.  When he would stop by and see us doing something crazy he would just shake his head and say “sheeeeit” and steer us in the right direction.  Without George it would have been many more years before we started selling at the market, he frequently encouraged us to “get down there and sell those berries” until we finally did.

Faye and Ervin Perry rounded out the committee.  Ervin was George’s brother-in-law and he and Faye farmed across the road from George and sold at market too.  They came to market farming late in life but with ingenuity and of course the local knowledge.  We would watch them in their 60’s and 70’s slowly and patiently tend and harvest their two acres of crops and never break a sweat.  Ervin could somehow do it all off of a riding lawn mower.  Their “grocery house” was the picture of an efficient small packing shed and cool room that many small growers even today would want to have.  We would occasionally go out to dinner with them after market and just soak up their stories.

They are all gone now, we are on our own to screw up, make all the mistakes and figure out the answers.  I guess we are now the indigenous knowledge, not sure we can ever be the characters they were, damn few like them.

Picture of the Week

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Thousands of onions on a sunny day

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 10 #14, 5/8/13

What’s been going on!

So I was talking to a dairy farmer the other day and he was asking if we have had too much rain because he couldn’t get a number of chores done until it dried out some.  I said not too much yet but we sure could use some sun.  It has been a long time since we have had a really wet spring, the kind where you have water standing in the fields and you wait for weeks to get anything done.

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s we had a number of years when it rained like hell, particularly in early spring, and we many times wondered if we were ever going to get anything planted or weeded.  This is when we developed our system of raising our beds up the fall before so they would drain and warm up fast come spring and heavy rains.  We even had a number of floods in our creek bottom field that finally made us stop using those fields (even though it is the best soil on the farm) in the regular rotation because we couldn’t afford to lose crops, then after Hurricane Fran in 1996 the tap turned off.

We can’t remember a flood in the bottom since Fran and have slowly begun using that field on a more regular basis but still not for our major crops: lettuce, peppers and tomatoes.  They are way up on the hill, safe from high water but certainly not immune to multiple other kinds of plagues that could hit them.  As I always point out to new farmers, bad things will happen but you can learn a lot from those situations.

One of our graduates, who is now farming a beautiful farm on the banks of the Cane river north of Asheville, had a huge flood this week which carried off not only much of what he had planted for this spring but a lot of his topsoil as well, replacing it with river rocks.  He will lose the use of that area for some time to come but is planning on picking up all the rocks he can to start the process.  The reason that creek bottom fields have rich soil is the same reason they flood, sometimes there is too much water and the stream deposits it there.  So the answer to the dairy farmer is no we haven’t hand too much rain here but lots of other folks have, wish we could go help pick rocks.  Come on sun!

Picture of the Week

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A June flood in 1993 which took our whole tomato crop

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 9 #31, 12/12/12

What’s been going on!

It is all about getting the workshop/apartment dried in before Christmas now.  I do these big construction projects so infrequently (every 5 or 6 years) that I have to re-learn all kinds of techniques and skills that I just don’t use every day.  Takes me what seems like an extraordinary amount of time to think through some steps that everyday carpenters just do automatically.

One of the great skills that I acquired early on and that every farmer has to have is carpentry.  Out of economic necessity it is the only way that we could have built the infrastructure that is needed on a farm, we could have never afforded to hire people to do all the work here.  Other farmer friends of ours always joke that farmers farm in the summer so they can be carpenters in the winter; sometimes I think they are correct.  We still have the same money constraints but, as a control freak, I also just have to be able to do it the way I want.

The unexpected rain this past week and too many meetings that I couldn’t skip has slowed us up by a few days but I have the bit in my mouth now and we are steaming forward.  All the framing is now done and the roofing tin arrives today.  With any luck the roof will be on tomorrow, windows and doors installed Friday and we can start siding this weekend.  I told Jennie that we had to have it done before she left for Christmas break next Tuesday.  Not sure that is possible but we will make a run at it.

Picture of the Week

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The bones waiting for tin.  The first thing I built on the farm on the right, the fifth on the left

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Peregrine Farm News Vol 9 #30, 12/7/12

What’s been going on!

A sad week.  As many of you may already know our friend, fellow market farmer and sometimes co-conspirator Bill Dow passed away unexpectedly.  We were travelers on the same road for so long that we had also become old rats in the big barn together.  Much will be said about Bill’s accomplishments and life as a pioneer in this area for markets and small scale farms, all true but in the end we also all see people from our own interesting angles.

Like many of us who came to small scale sustainable agriculture Bill’s route was unique and he marched to his own drummer the whole way.  Bill was typical of the early wave of organic growers who came from either an environmental background or a public health background.  I mean anyone who suffers through medical school and ends up not practicing medicine but growing produce instead has a calling.

That was just one of the ways that made him unusual.  When he saw that it was difficult for small producers to sell their products locally he worked with others to help set up local markets but then he decided that he would focus on selling to restaurants instead.  While he helped organize the farmers that would eventually become the Carrboro Farmers’ Market he didn’t actually start selling there until several years later and even then it was secondary to his restaurant business.

We were fortunate to work closely with Bill in the early days of the debates over organics and sustainable agriculture and his firm opinion was always expressed but he was also famous for saying “let’s not forget the culture part of agriculture”.  Through the years when we would see each other we would inevitably give the other that knowing smile or look that said “it has been quite a journey, glad you were there”.  Even with his passing we will still smile and think how glad we are that he was there.

Pictures of the Week

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Bill at work (photo by Debbie Roos)

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 9 #12, 6/6/12

What’s been going on!

Beautiful gentle rain this morning, just what we needed both for the flower crops we just seeded but for everything else as well.  With the relatively cool temperatures we have not had to irrigate much but we were getting to the point of having to get into a regular watering schedule.  I decided to pump some more water into the upper pond while the irrigation demands were low and the creek was still running well.  Should have looked at the creek first but didn’t.  After 24 hours of pumping the lower pond almost empty I went down to turn off the pump and the gravity feed line that keeps the pond full from the creek was barely trickling after having run strongly for weeks, Hmmm?  Using the irrigation pump I push water back up the gravity feed line, towards the creek to flush it out and to refill it to get a strong flow going again.  This entails walking the 900’ up to the creek end to make sure the intake is clear where I find the creek is barely flowing!  I am really surprised to see this as we have had OK rains and it has not been really hot so the trees should not be pulling as much water out of the ground but alas the ground water must still be really low so the springs are still not flowing much.  This rain will help give us time to get the lower pond refilled before it does get hot next week.

More general chores this week in anticipation of real tomato harvest.  The big project has been to get all of the red onions out of the ground and into the greenhouse to cure.  The staff got the last of them pulled yesterday, just in time.  Not as big a crop as last year but still enough to have until at least August.  We never grew storage onions in the early years because they are so cheap and abundant at the grocery store but some years ago I was at a conference in Arkansas where I heard an onion breeder talk about how red onions are much healthier due to higher levels of anti-oxidants than white or yellow onions and he was breeding red onions to have even higher levels but remain sweet (the anti-oxidants are also associated with “hot” onions).

So our red onion growing experiments began.  The problem here in North Carolina is we are in between the good onion growing regions.  Up North they have long days and lots of onions bred for that, more South they have short days and onions bred for those conditions.   We have what they call intermediate day length and there are only a few varieties of red onions we can choose from but fortunately we have found a couple of good ones.  In any case they are just in time for summer salads and salsas with the impending tomatoes and peppers!

Picture of the Week

Brilliant Zinnias even on a rainy day

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