Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #22, 7/18/18

What’s been going on!

While we are in the middle of tomato season and all of the various festivals and tasting events focused on the fruit I thought it might be a good time to actually talk about tomato flavor and bust one of the big misconceptions about different flavor profiles.

To start, flavor is determined by the variety- how it was bred, including the size of the plant and how it is grown including the soil it is grown in.  The bigger the plant, the more photosynthetic area if has, the more sugars and other flavor components the plant will make and put into the fruit.  We grow only tall, indeterminate varieties that will have a lot of leaf area.  The breeders or choosers in the case of heirloom types, also pick texture and flavor attributes they want or like.  Big fruit/small fruit, color, firmer/softer, less juice/more juice, less sugar/more sugar.

The big photosynthetic array also has to have the right materials to work with to make the sugars and other compounds- that would be the soil they are grown in.  Greenhouse tomatoes are generally grown in bags or pots of inert, sterile material like coconut husk or peat moss or even rock wool and fed a solution of nutrients.  “Field grown” tomatoes are grown in real soil but every soil is different and will have more or less of some nutrients and the biology that makes those nutrients available for the plant roots to take up.  Tomatoes grown in sand are different than our tomatoes grown in a rich sandy loam with red clay underneath.  It is not even a contest to compare a short determinate commercial variety grown in South Florida in the winter to a tall, indeterminate, heirloom or hybrid variety grown in our upland soils in the full sun and heat of the summer.

One of the most common questions we get and the myth to be busted is “which of these tomatoes is low acid?”.  The answer is- none of them.  What???!!!  There is no such thing as a high acid tomato or a low acid tomato.  They are all high acid, as in low pH, the scale that acidity/alkalinity is measured by.  Neutral being 7.0, all tomatoes run between 4.3 and 4.9, pretty acid.  Less ripe fruit are more acid and become a bit less so as they become fully ripe.  So our perception of tomato flavor is more accurately high sugar versus low sugar.  The sugars mask the acidity and most good balanced tomatoes have enough sugar to taste some sweetness but also to let the acid be there too.

Because it is so ingrained in us to refer to tomatoes as high or low acid we will continue to describe them that way to most people but just between those of us in the who now know better we will point to the sweet varieties when asked for the low acid ones.

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Tall tomatoes, growing in soil enriched partly from lush cover crops like the cowpeas and millet in the foreground

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #21, 7/11/18

What’s been going on!

Two big weeks coming up all focused on tomatoes.  Technically starting tomorrow, but with a sneak preview today at the first wine dinner, is the 17th annual ACME Tomato Festival where the entire menu is taken over by tomatoes in every dish.  Runs through the weekend with nearly 1000 pounds of tomatoes being consumed.  We only supply part of that but we did take the first 80 plus pounds yesterday to get things started!

We are also doing our best to fill the menus of other restaurants around town too with delicious tomatoes.  Pizzeria Mercato who just re-opened after their summer break, Elaine’s On FranklinOakleaf  just back from their summer break too and the Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw.

Next Thursday, the 19th, will be our annual tomato class at A Southern Season- An Ode to the Tomato with our friend the NC Tomato man, Craig LeHoullier who introduced the Cherokee Purple tomato to the world.  Always fun with Caitlyn Burke cooking great dishes with our tomatoes and Craig and I bantering on about tomatoes from A to Z.

Finally on Saturday the 21st is the Carrboro Farmers’ Market’s Tomato Day a celebration of all the amazing varieties grown by the farmers at market.  A chance to taste as many as 60 varieties and find out which ones you like best.  The market will be brimming with lots of fruit and tomato centric activities, don’t miss it!

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The Crested Celosia are so tall that you can barely see Jennie amongst them

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #20, 7/6/18

What’s been going on!

 It is all about tomatoes right now and we have them coming out of our ears!  With the holiday landing in the middle of the week it has curtailed our normal tomato sales both from the Wednesday market being a day earlier, and a bit slower, and all of our restaurants closed, some for the whole week!  Combine that with probably the peak of our harvest and we are swimming in amazingly beautiful fruit!  Don’t miss out.

This Saturday is usually the Carrboro Farmers’ Market’s big Tomato Day but this year it has been pushed back until July 21st for a variety of reasons partly due to most of the  farmers crops being a bit later this year due to the cooler spring.  Not to worry, there will still be plenty of tomatoes at market.

We finally got some rain on Wednesday after nearly 3 weeks without a drop.  Didn’t exactly need 2 inches in a half an hour but we will take whatever we can get.  After the downpour I have been working on dragging all of the driveway gravel back up the hill to where it should be.  With nearly a half a mile of gravel drives around the farm this is a never ending job but some years are worse than others, just depends on how the rains come.

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When you enter the packing shed you see this

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Around the corner you find this

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #19, 6/28/18

What’s been going on!

“Are these field grown tomatoes already?”  We get some version of this question every year in June as they pick up a Big Beef and have that look like they just ate a stink bug.  We usually just say yes, or they were grown in the dirt or some other quick response but the answer to that question is actually a complicated one.

It used to be that there were greenhouse tomatoes, bred specifically for those indoor conditions of lower light and cool nights (as most are grown in the off season) to be pruned and tied up in ways that only can be done inside a structure.  They are also almost entirely grown in plastic bags filled with some sterile media and all the water and nutrients are pumped to them.  Some of the varieties taste OK but are never as good as a tomato grown in the dirt and with high light and warm days.

Then the other side of the coin are “field grown” tomatoes which is no guarantee of a decent tomato either.  Sure they are grown in the dirt but how has that soil been cared for and just because they are outside in high light and warmer temperatures doesn’t mean that we won’t have bad experiences with crappy Florida winter tomatoes or even North Carolina “field” tomatoes.

For good flavor and texture in a tomato it all starts with the variety and how it was bred.  To industrialize the production of tomatoes they started by making the plants short which makes for easier trellising, in fact they are working hard on even shorter and stockier plants that will need no plant support.  When you make a tomato plant small you reduce the amount of leaf surface that photosynthesizes all the sugars and other flavor compounds that go into the fruit.  The second thing they did was breed in thicker skins and firmer texture so they could be mechanically harvested and shipped long distances.

Now let’s add in a single layer of plastic suspended over the plants to warm up the soil and to protect them from cold nights in the early spring while the young plants are growing but they are tall “field” varieties chosen for the best flavor and texture and grown in beautiful soil.  Does that make them greenhouse tomatoes?  We say No!

It used to be easy to tell, pretty much any ripe tomato before the 4th of July was from a greenhouse but we all have gotten much better at pushing “field” tomatoes earlier and earlier with raised beds of rich soil, covered with soil warming mulches, planting big transplants with larger root systems, inside of protective structures, trellised and pruned in a way so that the plants get the maximum sunlight and voila- ripe, great tasting tomatoes in June!  And plenty for the 4th of July holiday, are we lucky or what?

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Jacob just at the start of the tomato harvest day

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #18, 6/21/18

What’s been going on!

The first day of summer, the longest day of the year, the stifling heat and humidity.  The only bright note is that the days now begin to get shorter which leads, eventually, to cooler days, something to dream about.  Life continues on the farm, morning work out in the field, regular irrigation and planting maintenance but it is at a measured pace with as little afternoon, in the sun, expenditure of energy as possible.

One thing we have no control over when it is this hot is how the tomatoes and peppers will set fruit.  When the day time temperatures are over 90 degrees and/or the night time above 70 degrees it makes the pollen less viable or sticky so that it won’t be able to fertilize the flower.  Fortunately we have been relatively cool until this week so should have a good tomato fruit set until the last week of July or the first of August when this week’s heat will become apparent as it takes six to seven weeks from pollination (or not) to a ripe fruit.

The pollination problem is a bit less severe in peppers but it will reduce the number of fruit in July and early August which is one reason we have our biggest pepper supply in the fall.  With climate change and the increasing frequency of heat waves it will affect when and for how long people will be able to grow tomatoes in this area.  Another reason to savor them while they are at their best!

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Shade cloth on the Big Tops to help keep the summer lettuce cool.

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #17, 6/13/18

What’s been going on!

Wonderfully cool day yesterday and we took the opportunity to finish seeding an acre of summer cover crops of pearl millet and cowpeas.  I spent Monday getting everything mowed and getting the soil ready in various fields, the rains that came with the cold front fortunately missed us which allowed the seeding to go forward.  With good moisture in the soil they should sprout quickly and give us a good smothering stand.

The first real tomato harvest on Monday and Jennie spent a good amount of time carefully showing Lacee and Jacob exactly how we pick and sort tomatoes.  How much color is enough, how to separate the full ripe, part ripe and seconds from each other.  What to do with damaged fruit.  Which boxes to use and how to pack them to protect the tender orbs.  It is a long two months, with thousands of pounds of fruit, so it is best to get everyone on the same page from the beginning.

The sweet red onion harvest is happening today and tomorrow.  A bit tedious pulling each one, sniping the roots off and the neck making sure to leave an inch or so to dry.  Put into ventilated crates and stacked in the shade covered greenhouse to cure but not in the direct sun so they don’t get sunburned.  Look for them at market in a few weeks.  Tomatoes, onions, cukes, basil and peppers, seems like summer is finally here.

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Tomatoes coming to a plate near you!

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #22, 7/12/17

What’s been going on!

Tomato week #2, at least there is something refreshing as the true brunt of summer heat and humidity weigh down on us.  Tonight is our wine dinner with Glasshalfull in Carrboro.  A summer infused menu starting with tomatoes and ending with basil ice cream.  Come join us in the AC, tickets still available.

Starting Friday and going thru Monday is ACME’s 16th annual Tomato Festival where the entire menu is taken over by and bathed with tomatoes.  Kevin and company estimate they will go through 700 pounds of tomatoes.  While not all of them are from us, whew!, we did deliver the first 60 pounds yesterday and will probably take them another 100 pound plus this week.  The final event is their Tomato Festival Wine dinner on Monday night.

If you can’t make any of those our tomatoes are heavy on the menus at Pizzeria Mercato who just re-opened after their summer break, Elaine’s On Franklin and Pazzo in Southern Village.  Maybe a bit less prominent but in the mix at Oakleaf in Pittsboro, just back from their summer break too and the Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw.  Of course you can just come to market today or Saturday and take tomatoes home to hide out in your own AC and quietly enjoy them there.  Stay cool!

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Limelight Hydrangeas reaching for the sky

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #21, 7/6/17

What’s been going on!

The peak of tomato season and Tomato Day at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is Saturday!  Lots of tomatoes to sample, a raffle, music and more.  Don’t miss it!  In honor of the week I bring you an updated version of a tomato related newsletter from a decade ago.

This is the great reward after months of careful tending.  It is always fun to introduce the new staff to the different varieties and their nuances of flavor and ripening habits.  Every Monday and Thursday we spend the mornings picking the 2000 feet of row.  Everyone becomes a specialist in certain varieties.

Kyle is in charge of reds, learning to not pick them too green as they take forever to get fully ripe and can hang on the plants longer than all the others.  Only unblemished Italian sauce tomatoes are put in the box, no “freaks” with them.  The German Johnsons are much more tender so he has to change gears when he gets to them.

Laura is the Heirloom queen this season with hundreds of feet of row to pick and sort, some of them have the most difficult stems to remove without damaging the fruit and sometimes one must resort to using needle nosed pliers to pull them off.  Starting with the monster Striped Germans, so large that it takes two hands to pick them, carefully extracting them from between the vines and the trellis wires trying to not scar them.  The tender skinned yellow Azoychkas and next the Kellogg’s Breakfast.  Moving to the green-when-ripes, interpreting if it still green or if it has just enough golden cast to it to be picked.  Jennie usually takes on the tiny Sungold cherries. Blush, Black Cherries and more while making sure the picking and sorting is going well.

Bucket after bucket is brought to the back of the truck where each fruit is inspected and wiped with a cloth, sorted into three boxes by color and quality or set aside in the “have to eat today pile”.  The knife comes out as we get the first of the new varieties and slices are sampled between cleaning tomatoes.  Surprise at a high acid yellow tomato, amazement at the beauty of the interior of the bi-colored ones with red swirls through the fruity flavored yellow flesh, the reassuring solid full flavor of a Cherokee Purple, popping Sun Golds as one walks by the row that has them.

Finally finished we slowly drive the load down to the packing shed and the air conditioning to keep them from ripening too fast.  Stacks of boxes by variety and ripeness are built, long rows that run around the room.  Finally bags are filled with the “have to eat today” fruit and the staff heads home, stained a sticky green from rubbing up against the tomato foliage, talking about tomato sandwiches, salsa and gazpacho for lunch and dinner.  Life is good.

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A packing shed bursting with tomatoes

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #10, 4/19/17

What’s been going on!

Thanks to all of you who sent kind words about last week’s newsletter. The pundits are giving HB662 a 50% chance of getting through the Legislature.

Jennie and company have been hard at work this week getting ready for and planting the Big Top tomatoes.  They pushed hard to get the landscape fabric down and half the trellis up by last Friday so the NC State folks could come out and plant their research plots.  For the second year, so they have good replication, all of the Cherokee Purple have been grafted to root stocks that have root systems that take up more water than normal.  Last year’s trials produced some interesting results so it will be good to see if they produce similarly again.

The beginning of this week the rest of the trellis has been erected and the other 12 rows and nearly 800 plants have gone in the ground.  Perfect weather to transplant the last two days with overcast and a bit cooler to better let them get past the shock.  A couple of new varieties this year including one that we brought back from Sicily last fall.  The early tomatoes in the little tunnels are flying along with lots of blooms and growth.  Tomato sandwiches soon!

We are not on the Piedmont Farm Tour again this year but Jennie is suggesting that we do it next year.  It is a great fundraiser for Carolina Farm Stewardship Assoc. and a good way for people to see the farms that they know from farmers markets.

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Some of the research tomatoes with special irrigation set up and soil moisture sensors

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #8, 4/7/17

What’s been going on!

Crazy blustery days and maybe the last cold snap?  I doubt it.  We are slowly working our way towards planting the big array of tomatoes under the Big Tops but even that is two weeks away because we know what can happen if we try and plant too early.

We did move the last of the Big Top hoops over the tomato field and ran the top webbing that ties all the hoops together and keeps them vertical.  This coming week we have to pull the plastic over the whole shebang, need a good still day!  Then the final soil preparation before we can cover the beds with landscape fabric and finally build the trellis.  By the end of the week we should be ready to plant.

A pretty normal spring week with some planting, some seeding in the greenhouse, lots of cultivation (partly so we can concentrate on tomato prep next week), building cucumber trellis and other chores and we are still trying to get all the firewood split.  We have so much wood cut that it will take at least another 2 days to finish it up but we will be warm for two winters to come!

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Even the airy pea trellis is billowing in the wind

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