11/19/05 Vol. 2 #29

Wow! has it really been two whole months since the last newsletter?  We have been running hard and fast as well as having lots of fun!  The trip to Holland and Italy was very informative and beautiful.  The week we spent in Holland was mostly focused on cut flowers but we did manage to go to several markets looking for new and unusual things.  We were able to visit with many farmers and plant breeders and I think that Betsy has found a few new things to try.  The horticultural trade show was over the top!  Dutch agriculture is so fastidious and high tech that I can’t even begin to approach that level of obsession!  Italy was much more relaxed and we didn’t get on as many farms as we would have liked to but still saw many new things.  Our Italian family, that we stayed with last year when we went to the Terra Madre Slow Food event, was great and Betsy’s hard work at learning Italian paid off in much better understanding of each other.  We rented a car this time and spent many days driving through the countryside and going to markets.  We found a few new ideas that we will try and incorporate here this year.  One of our missions was to go to the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, Italy, and visit with the people who are organizing the next Terra Madre conference for next fall (2006).  It appears as if we will be able to go back again, Betsy has even volunteered to help with whatever they need including some basic interpretation!
Alex amazed at the technology!

Peppers in Italy

Here are the farm we got all of the soil preparations for the winter finished with near perfect results, never has all of it worked up so beautifully with the exception of this on going dry spell.  The cover crop seeds that I planted a month ago have just barely sprouted.  We are running that fine line now of getting them established before the really cold weather sets in, which can kill them before they have enough roots underneath them.  The turkeys went in for processing before we left for Europe and came out looking good.  The Heritage birds were slightly smaller than last year and the Broad breasted Bronzes were also smaller which is great for those of us who don’t normally eat 26 pound birds!  The flash freezing process went smoothly and they came home yesterday in fine condition.  The processing plant project goes on and on.  In general it is working about the way we had hoped for but every day there is something that breaks down or needs to be worked on.
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11/17/06 Vol. 3 #29

Well we’ve been back from Italy about ten days now and finally are thinking about eating full meals again.  We ate so much great food during our stay that it was almost too much, almost.  Just like the first Terra Madre the second time around was a whirlwind experience but very different.  Our first trip to Torino for the inaugural Terra Madre was a leap of faith.  Slow Food and its mission were unknown to us. The details of the event were non-existent but the potential seemed large.  After six days of travel, jet lag, and short nights we came away aware that not only were the Italians great people but they had started something huge.  For two years we have been trying to become more familiar with Slow Food and its’ drive to preserve artisanal food production, small farms, bio diversity and more.  Food that is good, clean and fair.

The opportunity to participate in the second Terra Madre was a goal that we worked for.  Now we knew the lay of the land and wanted to take full advantage of it in a way we could not understand in 2004.  Then Slow Food increased the level of difficulty and potential by adding 1000 chefs from around the world to the nearly 5000 producers from 148 countries.  Slow Food’s goal was to increase and improve the networks between producers and chefs, the ingredient providers with the people who turn those ingredients into even more marvelous creations for the “eaters”.  What better way to introduce a wider audience to the ideals of Slow Food.  We knew immediately what we wanted to do.  Our long time customers and friends Ben and Karen Barker from Magnolia Grill in Durham had to go.  If we could attend with them, not only could they experience what we had two years prior but we could also hopefully see it through their eyes too.  We hoped to walk through the Salone del Gusto and local farmers markets with them.  We wanted to introduce them to our host family from 2004 and now good friends.  The most incredible part of the first Terra Madre, for us, was the farm and family where we were housed.  Not only were we amazed by their production of Piemontese beef and the artisanal meat products they turned it into but fell in love with their family and how they all worked together.

Karen and Ben did attend Terra Madre and our dreams came true but always in the Italian way.  We flew in a day early to make sure we were over the jet lag so we could be ready for what was surely to be a busy time.  Our 2004 host family offered for us to stay with them and we accepted.  The opening ceremonies were once again inspiring even though long, a mix of the United Nations meets the Olympics, lots of fanfare and speeches.

We dove right into the Salone del Gusto intent on exploring it much more thoroughly than we did the last time.  Held every two years since 1996 it is inspiring in its size, the quality of its products and its diversity.  Part trade show, part educational event.  It is Slow Food’s showcase for the work they are doing to save small producers of rare and indigenous foods.  If you can get people to eat these foods then the rest of the work is all down hill.  Most interesting are the Presidia.  Groups of producers of a kind of food (cheese from Castelmagno from mountain pastures to papaccella from Naples) or an endangered variety or breed (white Monreale plums to the white cow of Modena) are working together with Slow Food to have uniform production standards and a marketing strategy.  The heritage turkeys we raise are recognized as a Presidia here in the US.  We ate an incredible amount of interesting foodstuffs and came away with some new ideas.  One of the ideas that we have had from 2004 is to work with Slow Food USA, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Growers’ Choice poultry cooperative to establish a heritage chicken presidia and have our local growers raise, sell and preserve these breeds.

In the Terra Madre spirit of building relationships and networks we spent Friday introducing the Barkers to our Italian friends, Michele and Kati Piovano who have a macellaria and farm, where they sell beef and pork they raise, from the grain through the final cuts.  What was to be a quick tour of their farm and shop turned into a six hour full immersion experience.  Ben and Karen had aprons on and hands in, making sausages and other products.

Ben making sausages Michele instructing, Karen studying

It continued on to a full scale Italian lunch with many courses which Ben and Karen helped Michele’s mother cook!  This family experience continued on Sunday when we all participated in an extended family meal.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and friends all convened.  One uncle made the tonnato sauce for the veal that Michele and Kati raised, a cousin made a mushroom dish from mushrooms she collected the day before, Ben made a salad from ingredients he had bought the day before in a local market, Betsy and I did the best we could to eat and visit.  Another uncle was a retired market farmer and pepper grower; despite language difficulties he and I were able to share pictures and experiences.

The rest of the conference went the same crazy way, we attended some workshops but spent most of our time connecting with other producers and exposing our Italian friends to the Salone del Gusto.  Here just minutes away from Torino are these incredible artisanal food producers and they had never been to the best artisanal food show in the world!  We were able to get them into the Salone and experience, through their eyes and taste buds, new and interesting foods.  We ended our trip by traveling around the Piedmonte region going to farmers’ markets and sampling the incredible foods of the region and seeing how they were produced.  We accomplished most of our objectives and feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in the second edition of Terra Madre!

Ben, Betsy and Karen at farmers’ market

3/23/07 Vol. 4 #1

Oh my!  The first market is tomorrow!  Every fall I say I will put out a newsletter once a month to keep you all up to date on our off season antics and somewhere in December I get distracted and drop the ball.  That usually means we are so busy doing off-farm things, that when we are here, it is difficult to find time to get a newsletter out.  This winter has been just such a time.

Betsy’s trip to Kenya, in December, to look at the cut flower industry there was thought provoking.  Some of the largest cut flower farms in the world, including the largest rose farm, are clustered around Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi.  Primarily run by Europeans they were big, but not with the infrastructure or the diversity we have found on farms in Europe.  Primarily for export, they concentrate on a few crops and use a lot of hand labor in sometimes very rudimentary facilities.
Kenyan post harvest facility

The fact that they paid their help $1.50 a day was appalling to Betsy.  When she was in Ecuador a few years ago they also used a lot of local labor but treated them very well.  At the end of their trip they toured the Rift Valley and the Central Highlands around Mt. Kenya, with a guide, and saw many amazing natural things.

The unusual warmth of January threw us off our usual deep winter pattern of time in the house reading and doing desk related tasks.  We knew it was too early to plant in the fields even though it was very tempting.  Between meetings we puttered around on various small projects including, of course, getting seedlings started in the greenhouse.  Early in the month I was the keynote speaker at a sustainable ag conference in Maryland, a good group that I had not experienced before.  The end of January Betsy and I both went to Louisville, KY for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference.  This is one of the best farming conferences in the country and the best in the south.  Over 1200 attendees made for a very active time.  I presented at several workshops including giving a day long short course on organic vegetable production.

We came home, ready to get to work in the fields and the weather decided to change to winter.  That threw us off balance again as we held back on planting some crops out into the fields until it warmed up a bit.  The extended cold weather and dry conditions also made it hard to get soil prepared in a timely manner as the cover crops that we depend on so much for soil improvement grew larger than normal in the warm early winter and then wouldn’t decompose when turned into the dry cool soil.  We would turn them under a month in advance, as usual, and then a month later on planting day till the bed again to prepare for seeding and they looked like we had just turned them under the day before.  In the end all the early crops look pretty good just behind where they were at this time last year.  The rest of the leviathan rolls forward as always.  The sliding tunnels are all moved as of yesterday and the first tomatoes go in the ground on Monday.  The huge array of tomatoes and peppers have been seeded in the greenhouse and are beginning to come up, 22 varieties of toms and 25 of pepper this year!

On a sad note we lost a dear friend last week just as market is ready to start again.  Faye Pickard passed away unexpectedly.  Miss Faye as we called her (and that was her email address too) has been one of our diehard regulars since our first market in 1986.  One of the early shoppers (you know who you are, there before 8:30) on Saturdays she always was there unless she was off to be with her grand kids.  She loved Cherokee Purple tomatoes the most and we always saved the first ones for her, sometimes even before we had a chance to eat one!  As a true southern lady she grew up eating out of the garden and was determined to introduce her kids and grand kids to the pleasures of eating good fresh food.  She had succeeded as she would tell us stories of her kids asking her to bring tomatoes from the market or the grand kids eating cucumbers right out of the bag as she would come in the door!  I try to impress upon audiences when I speak about markets that it is more than just selling your products, it is really about the relationships you build with your customers, they become a part of your farm too.  Miss Faye was certainly a part of ours.

Picture of the Week
Italian Ranunculus inside one of the sliding tunnels with Lettuce outside

11/25/08 Vo. 5 #28

Hmmm… what happened to that pre and post Italy report?  Well the race down hill towards leaving for Italy, including getting the farm shut down and taking the turkeys to processing, sucked all the air out of the room.  Since we’ve been back, between catching up on all we missed and fighting the head cold that seems to be going around we now find ourselves on the morning of the special Tuesday before Thanksgiving market from 3:00-6:00 this afternoon, more on that later.

Like all big trips and conferences, Italy was exciting and exhausting, too short a stay and too long, too much to see and not enough.  We arrived in Milan a week before the Terra Madre conference was to begin.  This would give us time to recover and acclimate before we encountered both our Italian family and the nearly 8000 delegates at the conference, it is hard to say sometimes which takes more stamina.  Off we went in our rental car (Betsy driving and me navigating, which is quite humorous to our Italian friends) east up into the Alps and the Dolomites.  Past lake Como and then up a the long Valtellina valley whose specialties are pastas with buckwheat, a cheese called bitto, what seemed like a lot of apples and lovely red wines.  Just over the northern mountain is Switzerland.  The second day we drove over the Stelvio Pass the second highest in Europe at 9000′.

Once we cleared the pass we were in the Alto Adige or Sud Tirol as this area is really a part of Austria under the Italian flag.  All places have two names the Italian and the German and German is the dominant language.  For two nights we stayed at an apple farm up on the slopes of the Dolomites, over looking Bolzano, and were definitely the only non American tourists in the area.  The food here is Germanic with lots of sausages, kraut and dumplings, more beer than wine and a lot of apples.  We drove for parts of three days, maybe 150 kilometers, through non-stop apple orchards covering the entire valley floors.  The disappointing thing was they were all the standard commercial varieties we have here in the stores; Red and Golden Delicious, Fuji and Gala, no old European varieties!

On the fifth day after leaving home we finally arrived in Torino and at our dear Italian friends who housed us and went too far out of their ways to take care of us.  We had a few days to visit with them before the Slow Food events started and it was just right.  The combination of the Terra Madre conference with nearly 8000 delegates from 150 countries and Slow Foods’ specialty food show, The Salone del Gusto, next door with 180,000 attendees over five days is in many ways too much.  Your senses are overwhelmed by the sights of everyone in their native dress and the taste and smell of the foods that it sustains you for a while, then you realize the crush and madness of it all and you have to walk outside for a while to reorient your self.  We do always come away with the reaffirmation that the local food and small farm movement is doing some amazing things around the world and in the US, and maybe that is enough of a reason to throw yourself into such a maelstrom.

The highlight, for us, was on the last day of the conference when our Italian friends hosted most of our Triangle delegation at their farm for a cookout and farm tour.  Amazing food and for most of them the only time they were on a farm since they left North Carolina.  I think that it allowed them to tie together some of what they had seen and heard for the previous four days about community and food that is “good, clean and fair”.

The last three days we retreated to the Ligurian coast and the beautiful area of Cinque Terra.  Five fishing villages clinging to and strung along a steep coastline.  We walked the trails between the towns, ate way too much, and slept.  Finally the long road home with many train, bus, and plane changes.

8/19/09 Vol. 6 #21

Betsy says that Colombia is not ready for tourism yet.  A beautiful place with beautiful, friendly people but it was hard to get around in.  She took every kind of transport around the country (they don’t have rental cars and she wouldn’t want to drive there anyway) short of a horse drawn cart even though there were plenty of them even in the big cities.  She declared that many of the roads were worse than any in Kenya, even when the Kenyans just took off and drove cross country, so travel was difficult.  Like her trip to Ecuador, the cut flower industry is a dichotomy between huge operations (like a 2200 acre mum farm) to small family places (like the two brothers who had 4 acres and grew many different crops) but all of it for export to the US and Europe.  She came back glad we grow and sell the way we do, with more pictures for our “carts of the world” collection and happy we don’t have to grow mums!
This must be a record fig year for everyone, even with minimal attention, our bushes have been loaded up with fruit.  We planted our ten bushes really just to have some for us and if there was an excess we would take them to market, which we do.  One of the reasons we got out of the blackberry business was they are the most perishable thing we could possibly grow, if they didn’t have a place to be sold when we picked them it was a loss.  At least with the blackberries we could hold them in the cooler for a day or two and they would be fine.  With the figs we have tried many ways to hold them and they just don’t like it.  So they may be the new “most perishable” champion.  Our current method is to pick them ripe, Wednesday morning just before market and Friday before the Saturday market.  Seems to be working but the soft, sugary fruit are noticeably different on Saturdays when they have been off the bush just three quarters of a day longer than Wednesdays figs.  Enjoy them while they are available.
Leeks for Thanksgiving went in the ground yesterday, another sign that fall really is coming.  Next week we will seed carrots, beets and more for Thanksgiving and later fall and over winter eating.  The first tomatoes in the little sliding tunnels were taken out this week, clearing the way for even later planted spinach, beets and carrots for early next spring.  We have rounded the corner and can see the end of the summer season, now we just need some more cool weather to show up.

Picture of the Week

My father told stories of sitting under the fig bushes and eating until you couldn’t, the perfect ripe figs