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

bill dow, debbie roos

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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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 9 #7, 5/4/12

What’s been going on!

There was a great disturbance in the Force this week.  It happened at 9:32 a.m. on Wednesday and it has taken us until now to begin to process its effect on us and Peregrine Farm.  The private email, to just a handful of people, landed in our inbox at that time, announcing that Magnolia Grill would close the end of the month.  We both were speechless and just said “Wow?!”  After a quick phone conversation with Ben just to confirm all was good (and to get Wednesdays order for lettuce and turnips) we spent the rest of the day with an unknown emotion.

Those of you out there who have worked at one single occupation with passion, focus and drive for 30 years stand up.  Now all of you who have done so alongside your spouse day in and day out, 24/7, for 30 years keep standing (looks like maybe a few couples).  Those of you who have operated a hands on business, with your spouse, alongside another couple run business, on parallel and connected tracks for 30 years?  OK everyone else sit down because that is the relationship we have with Ben and Karen and Magnolia Grill.

Is the Grill our largest account or most important revenue stream that the loss of will create problems for Peregrine Farm?  No, but it has been an important source of ideas, guidance, inspiration and collaboration.  Why do we grow the white Japanese turnips, pick our beets just a certain size or grow certain tomato varieties?  Why do we harvest and pack in certain ways and at specific times?  Because the Grill was the level of quality we needed to jump to, to run our business successfully, if it was good enough for Ben and Karen then it was good enough for anyone.

Much has already been said and printed about Magnolia and its influence on the local restaurant scene and food system, all true and not really enough credit ever given.  We have talked with them for years about the end game, so are not surprised by their decision and are happy for them and proud of their ability go out at the top of their game.  We know that they have a backlog of things they want to do and we plan to do some of those things with them, until then Ben, Sam’s chair will be ready for you at market.

Picture of the Week

We plan to do lots of this in the future!

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 9 #1, 3/16/12

What’s been going on?

The start of the season but what does that mean anymore? There used to be one date that our entire spring schedule and life revolved around. For nearly 20 years the Carrboro Saturday market opened the second to last week of March and our focus was on having things to sell by then. It coincidentally was the same week as the equinox and the first week of astronomical spring, a nice farmer like punctuation mark. Now with the year round Saturday market, the changing climate, and the earlier and earlier daylight savings time (it is still barely light at 7:00, again!) our internal clocks are way off kilter.

The year round market has all of us farmers trying to figure out how it fits into our particular farms crops and marketing mix. Because of our members ingenuity, stubbornness and changing technologies the winter market is much more robust than any of us could have anticipated just a few years ago. But for us old dogs, it is harder to adapt. In our 31st year farming and the 27th at market we remember when the Saturday market didn’t even open until the first or second week of April and even then there was not much on the tables of the vendors.

Betsy and I are continually testing the waters and as many of you know we have been at market almost every week this winter. Partly because of new crops (Ginger and Jerusalem artichokes) and timing of crops (Anemones since Christmas) that we needed to sell, partly because of the extremely warm winter but partly because we are trying to adjust our schedules to the changing climate. Are we going to become year round vendors? No, but we are moving some production earlier and later in the season in an attempt to avoid the brutal heat of summer. We still want our winters off but they might be shorter than they used to be. Old dogs, new tricks.

For those of you we have not caught up with at market we did have a great winter season. Lots of travel and teaching including Betsy to Italy for further study of the language and Alex with two trips west to go hiking (Utah and Texas). Conferences and teaching events in Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, whew! It is all over now and the staff started yesterday with Jennie back for her second year and Liz in her first, a great beginning for a new season even it we don’t really know when that is anymore.

Picture of the Week

A coldframe full of plants waiting to go into the field

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Peregrine Farm News Vol 7 #7, 4/21/10

What’s been going on?

Wow! Too many things to write about this week but I’ll try and focus. I would be remiss though not to mark tomorrows 40th anniversary of Earth Day. While there are many reasons that Betsy and I ended up farming and in a sustainable manner, this one event in April of 1970 certainly stands out as an important influence. We were thirteen then and the stirrings of the environmental movement were all around us and our minds were moldable. Of course we didn’t know each other back then but we both ended up pursuing educations in the environmental sciences. We wanted to be able to work outdoors, in the country side and in the end leave our surroundings in better condition than when we started. 40 years later we are still trying, where is that original Earth Day button I had?

The Piedmont Farm Tour is this weekend and is always held on the weekend closest to Earth Day. Originally started as a change of events for Weaver Street Market’s Earth Day celebration, they came to us and we got together with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) to put on a tour to showcase the farmers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Now 15 years later there are 40 farms from all over the NW Triangle area and it is the single largest fundraising event CFSA has. It is a self guiding tour, pick up a map at lots of locations (like the farmers markets) and head to the first farm you want to see and buy your all access button there. You can buy your buttons in advance and save $5 at places like Weaver St. Market. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, 1:00-5:00, come see what we are up to this year. Let the mowing begin.

Busy week on the farm. Last Thursday the first of the turkeys arrived. After a year hiatus raising birds we are back at it and you can read more here. They are happy and growing well. We are lurching towards tomato planting next week and yesterday pulled the plastic over the first three bays of the Big Tops that will protect the big planting from diseases. The rest of this week will include installing the irrigation, mulch and trellises. Today the guys are moving up the 2500 or so pepper seedlings into their larger containers to grow on until planting time in about three weeks. Also yesterday I finally finished the rebuilding of the Stand that collapsed under the snow in January, just in time for the Farm Tour as promised. The big issue right now is it would be nice to get some real rain, this pitiful spitting this morning doesn’t count.

Picture of the Week

Moving pepper plants up to larger containers, a good rainy day activity

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It’s Grant and Application Time

Just before tax season and serious planting season is small farmer grants and market application season.  Lots of trees are felled to be able to print all the pages required for farmers to fill out.  While most people have heard of the farm subsidies programs for large conventional commodity crops farmers, few know that there are an increasing number of small grants programs intended to help small and medium-sized, sustainable and organic farmers.

The subsidy program payments are intended to underpin the large farms with a stable base price so that they are not entirely subject to the ravages of a world market they have no control over.  These grants programs for small or non-commodity crops farmers are intended to help them with trying or developing new crops or techniques to produce crops more sustainably. While small amounts of money, usually up to $10,000,  some of the best new ideas in alternative agriculture have been nurtured by these programs.

We have only ever applied for and received one tiny grant.  Way back in the early 1990’s we got a small amount of money to continue work we had been doing on raspberry variety trials and new ways to prune and manage them.  After 21 varieties and some real break throughs in improved trellising techniques what we really learned was that raspberries are not suited for production in the piedmont of North Carolina.  Sometimes research leads to an answer you don’t want, but at least it is some kind of answer.

Our only really good harvest of raspberries, on an innovative swing trellis

Since 1994 we have been participants, co-operators and collaborators on others projects.  But mostly we have been reviewers of many, many grant applications to various competitive grants programs.  We have literally read thousands  of applications!  These programs all operate in similar ways with review panels, comprised of people knowledgeable in various aspects of agriculture.  The difference is they are funded from all kinds of sources; Federal funds, state funds, non-profit groups.

Our specialty is a category usually called “Farmer Grants”, because, well, we are farmers.  We think that peer review is the best and fairest way to decide what ideas have merit or are even possible.  The granddaddy of these is the SARE programs Producer Grants .  Alex helped develop the Southern Region’s call for proposals and reviewed them for seven years.  Using that experience he has worked with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA to build their Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund grants program.  Betsy founded the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Research Foundation which gives out small grants for research into various aspects of cut flower production.

One of the reasons we still do these reviews is to continue to build the knowledge base needed to move agriculture forward.  Another is we get to see what the latest and most innovative ideas are in agriculture and sometimes it gives us ideas of new things that will improve our farming system.

Sometimes it’s is frustrating because the ideas are nothing new, or poorly presented.  Sometimes they are asking for money for equipment or projects that we, as good business people, just did out of our own pockets because we knew it was the direction we had to go.  We believe in funding good research or demonstration projects that will benefit the greater farming community, not just one farmers operation.  Many times we just have to bite our lips.

What ever the situation we spend many hours reading and scoring proposals every January and February.  This is followed by more hours with the whole review committee discussing the highest rated applications to narrow it down to the ones that will eventually get funded.  In the end it is a worthwhile process for all.

This years stacks of grants on the office floor

Chain Saw Season

Among the tools that most people equate with farming like tractors and plows and hoes, none is probably as universal as a chainsaw.  We owned a chainsaw before we owned land and a tractor because we knew it would be essential.  Most farmers have one because inevitably trees fall down; on fence lines, across roadways, into fields.  Many also heat something with wood like their house or greenhouse.

We have used ours for all those reasons but we have also personally cleared more than 3 acres of land here on the farm.  When we bought this place we knew we needed more cleared land and so the cheapest way to do it was to cut the trees down ourselves.  We have spent months behind hot chain saws, to the point where we had his and hers chain saws.  A big one for Alex to drop and cut up the big trees and a small one for Betsy to drop the small trees and help limb up the big ones.

From 1981-1986 we almost always had a clearing project underway, first the blueberry field up on the hill and then the whole bottom field along the creek.   Our process was to first have the pulp wood cutters come in and take the sweet gums, smaller poplars, and other junk wood.  Some years this would actually result in money from the sales of the wood, usually not but it got the trees out of the way.  We would then take out the large trees for either firewood or lumber.  This would result in lots of brush that needed to be burned.  During some winters it looked like the Dark Ages around here with fires burning constantly. Finally we would have nothing but stumps left that required a bulldozer to remove.

The bottom field waiting for the bulldozer

My brother Jon, who helped clear the bottom field, said the first chapter in the book will be titled “Buy Cleared Land!”

The bottom field just months after the bulldozer

No matter what the reason we have a rule around here that chain saws will not be used when the leaves are on the trees (storm damage aside), hence chain saw season.  Chain saw work is physically hard, loud, and dirty.  If combined with warm weather it is debilitating and dangerous

Fortunately these days our needs are reduced to keeping the edges of the fields trimmed back and for firewood to heat the house.  We try and cut firewood the winter before so it has an entire year to dry.  So this past week we began cutting for next year.  It always seems that we start with the hardest trees.  This year it was a large dead oak leaning towards the house, well and heat pump.  Betsy lobbied for hiring someone to take this one down as we have managed to drop trees on things by mistake but I was sure we could do it.  After some careful rigging and the usual nervous last cuts, it fell beautifully in the correct direction.  Only a few months left in chain saw season, thankfully.

This tree leaned directly on a line from the stump, over the little well house, the heat pump and on to the house!

4/16/04 Vol. 1 #5

Kind of a mixed bag this week.  Beautiful rains early in the week allowed us to catch up on rainy day chores.  The Staff moved up 2400 pepper plants into larger containers to grow on for a few more weeks when they will go out into the field the first week of May.  21 varieties this year, a few new ones for you to try out, the pepper roaster will make it’s appearance in only 18 or 19 weeks!  Wednesday was a raw day and we used it to do some cleaning up of the edges of the field and burn some brush.  The Wednesday afternoon market also opened this week (kind of slipped up on us and I forgot to let you know last week that it was opening, sorry).  More clean up on Thursday after trying to cover one more of the “big tops” with those 30′ X 100′ pieces of plastic, we are lucky we all didn’t get blown into the next county.  Today is the day!  Calm winds and perfect weather, we are going for at least 4 bays, find out next week!  Cold weather scare the last two mornings, Thursday was right at 32 degrees with some scattered frost and we fully expected this morning to be colder but it looks as if 36 degrees might be a cold as it got.  We protected everything as if the worst was coming and it all looks good.  I did pick some short asparagus in anticipation of a freeze so they will look a bit odd at market tomorrow.

A bit of news from last week.  We had one of our best cheerleaders/supporters here last week helping us on the farm.  A bit of history, Betsy and I started Peregrine Farm by incorporating and then selling shares of stock to people who knew us and wanted to support this kind of endeavor, several who receive this newsletter.  We had many great shareholders who were very patient with us in the lean years as we figured out how to make this place profitable.  The best was Dottie Eakin who not only helped us with investment money but has come almost every year, from far distant places,  to spend a few days to a week working on the farm.  The reason I say was is that we now own all of Peregrine Farm, Inc. so we no longer have outside owners but Dottie still comes and helps.  Without her and others like her we would not be here today, thank you all!

Picture of the week
Look at the what’s to come!  Peas, spinach, broccoli raab, turnips…

8/4/04 Vol. 1 #21

Whew!  We made it to August!  This is when we really begin to think about the end of the season, the coming winters plans and next seasons preparations.  This week marks the three quarter point in our personal marketing season, 21 down, 7 to go.  While the Farmers’ Market goes until Christmas we end our season around the first of October.  This allows us time to prepare and plant for next year and have some quality of life time in the fall.  We used to go all the way to Thanksgiving but beginning five seasons ago we looked hard at the numbers and the effort required to produce those numbers and its effect on us and the next season and decided to call it quits sooner.  It was considered a radical move at the time but now we are very glad that we made the change.  Now we will of course be back for the special pre-Thanksgiving market to distribute the birds and with some just-for-Thanksgiving produce.  In the intervening seven or eight weeks we will have put the farm to bed for the winter, planted most of Betsy’s spring flowers and already done a little traveling!  We wouldn’t have been able to get all of this done under the old system.

No newsletter next week because we will be on our August break.  When we used to go straight thru to Thanksgiving we used to take two weeks off in August to try and rest and regroup for the remainder of the season.  Now that we stop early we just take one week off.  This is timed to coincide with the end of the early tomatoes and before the peppers really get going.  No exotic destinations this time just a little rambling around the area and general lolling around.  The staff gets the week off with pay and we get a week off!

We are looking forward a visit from my brother Jon and family this week.  19 seasons ago Jon came and threw in with us and helped turn the farm towards the course it is on now.  Jon is the one in the family who got the natural “grower” gene from my father, I have had to work at becoming a decent grower all these years, Jon can just go out and grow beautiful crops.  He was here for our first season at the Farmers’ Market (1986) and got us started growing vegetables and cut flowers on the only piece of ground we had left that wasn’t planted to blackberries and raspberries.  Unfortunately for us but fortunately for his wife to be, he moved back to Tennessee the next year.  He will be helping on the farm this Friday and at market on Saturday morning.  Like most Saturdays if you watch our stand closely you can usually spot members of my family behind the table.

Picture of the Week
Summer Crisp lettuce planted under shade cloth to keep it cool.  It should be ready the last week of August.