5/26/04 Vol. 1 #11

6:15 a.m. I’ve already been out to turn on the irrigation.  We are now into the same routine that we developed during the big drought of 2002, start the irrigation at 6:00 and rotate fields every two hours.  Right now we are pumping for eight hours a day, about 7000 gallons every day and the pond is down about two feet.  Fortunately (or unfortunately maybe) we have spent more money on irrigation than any other piece of infrastructure so we can water with the best.  We started by putting in $7000 worth of irrigation while we lived in a tent!  That Betsy is a real trooper!  The National Weather Service drought page says that we are normal in this area and that the forecast through July is for normal rainfall, lets hope they are right.  We have only had a few tenths of rain since the beginning of the month and the heat is pushing it further.  Evidently we are on the way to the warmest May on record with already 20 days over 80 degrees.  Hmmm…

The heat is really pushing the crops as well, spring crops are just about burned up and the summer ones are growing fast.  The tail that wags the dog right now are the Blueberries.  Should have picked the first few the end of this week but with the heat we are in full picking mode which started last Friday.  As great as the berries are, they consume all labor around here like a black hole.  Everyone but Betsy does nothing but pick berries every morning for weeks consequently every thing else on the farm can suffer from neglect.  We hire four or five additional people to get them all picked and we only have 200 bushes!  It’s expensive to get these berries picked but well worth it in both the fruit but also in getting local folks involved in agriculture.  One of the three tenets of a sustainable system is the social/community part (the other two are economic and environmentally sound) and the idea of being socially responsible and fair.  We could hire migrant workers and get the berries picked for less but we feel it is better to hire locals and pay good wages to them.  Some of the other aspects of the social component are our relationships with you and our other customers, including our wholesale accounts, our neighbors, etc.  So when you buy those berries more than a third of the cost went into the labor to pick them and that money has stayed in the community too!

The tomatoes are growing a foot or more a week right now and we are working to keep them tied up, soon we will have to start trellising the peppers too.  Still looking for the first ripe tomato, we will savor it!  The turkeys were three weeks old yesterday and had their first foray outdoors, they are very funny as they learn something new for the first time, very cautious, but eventually they all made it outside for a tentative romp in the grass.

Picture of the week
Blueberries already!?

6/2/04 Vol. 1 #12

Well we have made it to June and now it gets cooler?  This is about the time when I start dreading the heat and the whole summer of it to come.  When Betsy and I moved back here from Utah (we went to college there) I thought being raised mostly in the South that I would get used to the heat and humidity again.  Now 24 years later I still suffer but have learned to arrange my days to avoid it the best that I can.  This week looks as if I won’t even have to practice my avoidance techniques!

We are still in the throws of massive blueberry picking and they look as good as any crop we have ever had, I expect this week to be the peak and then they will peter off over the next two weeks.  Betsy and I are trying to get other work done around the place while the staff picks berries.  This is truly the change of seasons from cool season crops to warm, so there are new crops to weed and trellis and old ones to take out to make room for something else.  Yesterday I was cultivating some of the flowers including sunflowers, celosias and the second planting of zinnias while Betsy was doing a last hand weeding pass through the first zinnia planting which is showing color on the buds!  I was also tying up tomatoes which look fabulous under the new roofs.  Lots of fruit set and very healthy.  Mowing, irrigating, turkey chores, deliveries to our wholesale accounts, general life, we can barely keep it all together until the blueberry season is over and we can focus the staff back onto regular farm work.  My mother used to say “life is so daily”.

Back in April sometime I mentioned that I was on the Board of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) and the kind of work that this non-profit is involved in.  As I was preparing to send in our annual donation check I was reminded by our executive director that we have a matching grant underway from the Lawson Valentine Fund.  I would encourage you as a supporter of local food and farms to consider making a donation to help in the important work that SSAWG does.  Our farm is the kind of operation that SSAWG is working to create all across the South, we have gotten lots of inspiration and ideas for our operation over the years from this group and we think that it is the best of the organizations that we work with.  If you are interested in donating to SSAWG I would be more than happy to discuss it with you,  I do have information packets that I will have at market and of course there is the website www.ssawg.org.

Picture of the Week
A farewell to cool season flowers.  Larkspur so incredible that Betsy couldn’t even begin to harvest it all

5/25/05 Vol. 2 #12

We started the annual clean up/rescue of the Blueberry rows yesterday.  Now that they have been in for fifteen or sixteen years they tend to mostly be forgotten and just a another part of the landscape until it is time to pick them.  We mow the grass between the rows a few times a year but the birds love to sit on the branches and “deposit” weed seeds under the bushes in places that make it hard to get at.  We do mulch the rows heavily every few years but this hardly stops the well fertilized weed seed.  It would be OK if they were just harmless annual weeds but as time goes on it is things like small trees, and the vines that like to cover the plants like trumpet creeper, morning glory and our favorite, poison ivy.  So every May, just prior to the berries ripening, we go out armed with gloves and pruners and cut out these woody invaders, mow as close as we can and maybe do a little selective weed eating.  In the end it is much cleaner and pleasant for the endless hours of picking to come.  Everybody has been asking when will the blueberries be at market.  I went back into the records and found that the average first picking has been May 25th (Friday) but as cold as this spring has been and from what I saw yesterday I don’t think we will make it.  The earliest ever was last year on the 22nd and the latest ever has been the 31st, with the exception of 1997 when we didn’t have any blueberries at all because of a very late freeze in April.  That was the same year that we had frost on Mothers Day, set the lowest high temperature record for June on the 6th at 59 degrees and the record June low of 48 degrees on the 10th!  I guess there can be stranger seasons than this one has been!

The last of the wholesale lettuce goes out tomorrow and in general it has been a good lettuce season, we will still have lettuce for market for weeks to come but the selection becomes narrower each week.  Behind the lettuce we immediately turn under the residue and have been planting more warm season flowers, the third planing of Zinnias awaits tomorrows lettuce harvest so that they can get in the ground, a week late!  The field tomatoes have finally decided to hell with the cool weather it is time to grow so we had to go through and prune and tie them up to the trellis for the first time this season.  Many more passes will be made over the next several months to keep them climbing up the fences.  The Turkeys are three weeks old now and will get to go outside, for the day, for the first time tomorrow, always very amusing to watch.  Betsy is now cutting flowers everyday and the walk in coolers are filling up and are a riot of color, it finally feels more like our normal routine.

Picture of the Week
Incredible Sweet William, what a great long lasting flower!

6/1/05 Vol. 2 #13

June first the beginning of hurricane season, let’s not start there.  The beginning of blueberry season, that’s better.  We picked the first blues yesterday and they are really loaded up!  This first pass doesn’t yield much and is very tedious to do, the temptation is to pick anything that shows color but we try and only pick the fully blue fruit.  It is sort of a mental training exercise so that later in the season you automatically get the best ones.  We want to make sure that these first berries are fully ripe and sweet, in a few days they will begin to ripen so fast that we won’t have to be so careful and also will not be able to keep up.  Many folks who come to the farm ask why the blueberry rows are so far apart.  We originally planned on having twice as many bushes and left room for a row in between the existing rows so we could plant some different varieties to act as pollinators for the variety we have.  Most blueberries (and fruit trees too) need a different but similar season variety to cross pollinate with to be able to set fruit.  This southern highbush variety that we grow turns out to be self fruiting (a trait that the researchers where not completely sure about when we planted them)  so we never got around to planting the additional rows.  It turns out that blueberries are so time consuming to harvest that the idea of having twice as many just scares us to death!  It takes five or six people harvesting every morning, five days a week to keep up with the ripening berries, and it is only 200 plants!

In the meantime we fall far behind on all the other farm chores.  This year with the delayed first harvest we have been trying to get certain jobs done before time runs out, with some success.  We have gotten a lot of weeding and cultivating done as well as flower trellising and planting but as usual there are still far too many things that will need to be done during the hectic peak weeks of blueberry season.  We add on additional help during this period and keep them on for a few days after the season so they can help us catch up, let’s hope we can!

Let’s hope it rains this week as it is getting very dry out there and we are already pumping lots of water.  The pond is already getting low and the creek we back it up with is beginning to slow down too.  Fortunately as cool as it has been we are only watering every other day but with the forecast for hot weather coming in this weekend  we may have to go to daily irrigation.  The turkeys made there outdoors debut this last week.  They are always very tentative the first time they are exposed to anything new, now they are acting like old hands including a few bad actors flying over the fence!  One more week in the brooder at nights and then they graduate to the fields full time.

Picture of the Week
Sunflowers wating for the sun

6/8/05 Vol. 2 #14

Wow!   Zero to Sixty in record time!  End last week with cool 70’s and gentle rains begin this week with 95 degrees and heavy thunderstorms.  I would say that summer has come.  It is all about blueberries now.  We have a crew of up to eight trying to keep up with the fast ripening fruit, to no avail.  I tell them don’t look back at where you just picked as it could be depressing.  We put flags, in the row, to mark where we stopped picking so we will know where to start the next morning because you absolutely cannot tell otherwise.  It is always enjoyable and interesting in the blueberry field.  First it is the most comfortable job on the farm, standing up, usually a breeze across the hill and the birds just singing away in the trees (happy with all of the blueberries they have eaten).  Secondly the crew is always an eclectic group.  My usual staff which includes Joann and Rett, farmers on their own places, Rachel a college student in geography, Julia who recently graduated college from Nova Scotia, plays hockey and directs Shakespearean plays.  We always have a few returning pickers like Brenda who is taking a hiatus from farming in Illinois this year.  Then we round it out with a few new faces like Max from Texas who is searching for the right place to start his own farm and then a couple of high school students.  The conversation is always wide ranging and I am never quite sure who is more scandalized, the older ones or the younger ones!

Betsy and I almost never get into the berries as we scamper around trying to put our fingers in all of the other holes in the dike of Peregrine Farm.  This is the true change of seasons as we begin to take out irrigation and mow down the finished cool season crops.  There is only one bed of lettuce left in the field, which is now almost entirely changed over to flowers- sunflowers, zinnias, celosia, asters and more.  The rest of the cool season vegetables will soon go under the mower to be followed with more flowers, what will eventually be the last of the year.  The larkspur, first sunflowers, bachelors buttons, etc. will turn into lush cover crops of sorghum and soybeans to improve the soil and feed and shade the turkeys when they get in there in two months or so.  It all happens this few weeks in mid June.  I also managed to get the first layer of trellising in the first eight beds of peppers including all of the hots.  Last year we waited 48 hours too long to get this job done and they were all blown over by a huge storm, never to fully recover for the rest of the season.  Last night as the thunder was rumbling just over the hill I put the last strings on.  With in an hour the heavy rains came and they stand straight and proud now.  Joann seeded the Brussels Sprouts and Celery for Thanksgiving, that is a true sign of seasonal change!  I swing through the berry field every so often to check on the progress and quality, partake briefly in the conversation and grab a hand full of fruit and head back off to what ever chore I am in the middle of.

Picture of the Week
A wall of blue fruit

6/22/05 Vol. 2 #16

Well we made it past the longest day of the year and now it’s all downhill to the finish line.  As I was just walking around the farm this morning (very early) opening and closing valves for irrigation I was able to review all of the new trial crops for this season.  The report is mixed.  The artichoke plants look good and growing well but Betsy says she thinks we probably didn’t get them in early enough to make many “chokes” as they need to have more chilling hours than they got, we’ll see.  The new blackberries are sending up nice strong new canes for next years production.  The sweet corn test is looking pretty bad.  The first two plantings are thin as the germination was poor in the unusually cold soils that we had and the third planting the wild turkeys and crows picked all of the seed out of the ground before it came up (this is a common problem for corn growers).  I re seeded it and just chased more crows out of the field.  The rhubarb is looking pretty good.  They sent the plants too late in the spring for my liking but two thirds of them are up and looking good, maybe we finally found the right place for them!  Finally the new asparagus planting is hanging in there, I wish it looked a little more robust but at least they are still sending up new shoots, we started to irrigate them this week and that should help.

It is getting mighty dry out there and we are pumping water every day now.  We have the ability to irrigate every last corner of the farm and at this time of year all crops have drip irrigation lines running down the middle of every bed.  This is the most efficient way for us to water both from a volume of water standpoint but also it is very energy efficient to pump water for this low pressure system.  The problem right now is that we have about 17,000 feet of line out there and are pumping roughly 10,000 gallons a day, every day!  This is more water than our pond and creek supply on a daily basis.  Soon we will have fewer crops to water (as the last of the spring crops come out) so we can cut back on the number of lines but it always makes me nervous when the pond is going down and there is no good chance of rain in sight.

Blueberry season is coming to a close and now we can put the staff back on other chores.  Yesterday we worked on taking down old and putting up new flower trellis’ and began to build the last of the pepper trellis.  We also cleaned out the turkey brooder house in preparation for the next batch that is supposed to be here tomorrow.  These 35 broad breasted bronzes are for those folks who like fifteen to twenty five pound birds.  Today may be the last berry harvest for the year, if not Friday for sure.

Picture of the Week
Peppers no-till and on landscape fabric, trellised straight and tall!

5/24/06 Vol. 3 #11

It is the season for picking tiny objects.  Most folks think about temperature, day length and other weather related things when it comes to “seasons” but for us, sometimes, it is much more relevant to equate seasons with the task at hand.  Spring is filled with the harvest of crops that are either very close to the ground or down in it.  Spinach, lettuces, broccoli raab, radishes, turnips and the farthest down, carrots.  Strong backs are required for the hours and hours of bending over searching for the correct size of root vegetable to pull and bunch.  Even then there are only so many of these relatively large objects to pull, on a good day maybe 400 individual turnips to be harvested in an hour.  Beginning this week we started the change of seasons to more stand up pursuits  but with more tedious consequences.  What is he talking about?  Sugar Snap Peas and Blueberries.

While we do get to stand up while picking them, the harvest time goes on and on.  We (five of us) picked peas for two solid hours on Monday morning.  Yesterday was the first shot over the bow of Blueberry season with four people picking for several hours, thousands of tiny blue orbs.  For the next three weeks our lives will be consumed by the harvest of blueberries.  When it overlaps with something else like peas it can be mind numbing.  When we first began the transition from mostly blackberries (we had two acres in production at one point) to vegetables and flowers we designed June to be “berry” month.  We have never grown the traditional crops that begin in June; squash, beans, cucumbers, potatoes.  So I needed something to occupy me from the end of lettuce season and the other cool weather crops, at the end of May, until the beginning of tomato season at the beginning of July.  Betsy just won’t let me lounge around the farm without something to do.  Our original plan was to have blackberries and blueberries.  Several years ago when the last of the large blackberry plantings was waning and the blueberries where beginning to really produce, we had that overlap.  We learned that season that there were not enough people on the face of the earth to pick all those tiny objects.  When that planting of blackberries was plowed under we decided that June would be Blueberry month only!  As it is we still hire an additional four or five people to help us get them all off the bushes and into those little green pint containers.

Finally the turkeys got moved to the field.  Seven weeks old and tired of hanging around that old brooder building.  Now turkeys herd pretty well once they get used to it (they actually used to have “turkey drives” to get large numbers to market) but as I have said, the first time you introduce something new to them is always exciting.  After several years of trying to herd them from the brooder, the several hundred yards, to their first stop in the fields and having it get out of hand we now carry them over, two in each hand.  Yesterday we had six of us to make the job easier.  Two catching and four walking them over.  They are much happier now, lots of interesting bugs and weed seeds to eat and bushes to run around.  Every year we have a misfit in the bunch.  Last year it was Buckwheat and the half blind Blue Slate, the year before it was a broad breasted white with a crooked beak that made him look like a pirate.  This year it is Shrimpy.  Shrimpy is a quarter the size of the others, with shorter legs, but she runs with the rest of them as if there is no difference.  No one seems to notice and she is growing just fine only she will never catch up with the others.  Some one will be getting a five pound bird for Thanksgiving.

Picture of the Week
Happy but cold turkeys this morning

5/31/06 Vol. 3 #12

The heat has arrived and with it the big flush of blueberries.  We started out with plenty of picking help last Thursday and then spiraled out of control at the beginning of this week.  I always try and line up enough extra help so we can pick and get other chores done on the farm.  We need to have six to eight people every day for the next two weeks to keep the berries picked on time.  With fewer than this we fall behind on all the other things on the farm.  Tying the tomatoes up to the trellis, cultivating and weeding, building trellis in the peppers and flowers and more.  Every year it is the same, so I don’t know why I am surprised and it always works out.  I try to get out and help pick too but end up spending most of my mornings taking care of the other duties, irrigating, picking the other vegetables for market the rest of the show must go on too.  Blueberry picking is really the most enjoyable job on the farm and the staff has fun doing it as there gets to be quite a banter out in the field.  At least the wholesale lettuce season is over, I cut the last of Weaver Street’s lettuce on Monday so now I can have my mornings free to chase the other items around.

One of yesterdays tasks was to clean out the turkey brooder to get ready for the next batch of birds, which come tomorrow.  The shavings and droppings are shoveled out and spread on the beds of one of the sliding tunnels, great stuff for that soil that we use so intensively.  A thorough cleaning including spraying down the walls and floor with chlorine to disinfect a bit.  After it dries out well we put in a new batch of shavings about three inches deep.  Over that goes a layer of newspaper that they will be on for the first three days while they learn to eat (and read I’m sure) the right food instead of the wood chips.  Finally a draft ring goes in and the newly disinfected feeders and waterers.  Now we are ready for that early morning call from the post office.  Forty broad breasted Bronzes to eventually join the Bourbon Reds out in the field.  We get this group later because they grow so fast, they would be forty pounds if we got them at the same time as the others.  This way everyone runs together and finishes up at the same time.

We had an interesting group of visitors last week from the EPA.  These are some of the folks who are responsible for registering pesticides for farmers to use.  Now we don’t use many pesticides (remember that a pesticide is anything that kills a pest, even organically approved materials) seeing as how we are committed to sustainability and organic practices, so we wondered why they would want to come see us.  Turns out that while they have pretty good data and an idea of how soybeans and corn grow they don’t have a clue as to how an intensive horticultural operation works, how the crops actually grow and how one could grow them without pesticides.  There were entomologists, biologists, pathologists and the much maligned agricultural economist.  We described how we maintain soil fertility, rotate crops and what strategies we use to deal with pest problems.  They seemed genuinely interested and as a sign of how things are changing in the world of big Ag and regulation they actually are trying to measure the costs and risks of using a pesticide over using other techniques such as we us.

Picture of the Week
Dark and threatening rain this morning, but the Campanula brightens up the day

6/7/06 Vol. 3 #13

One more shot of beautiful cool weather with occasional rain.  I always feel like we are cheating or escaping from something when the weather is like this in June.  I know full well that the relentless heat of summer is hiding just around the corner and then we have to settle into a more measured pace just to make it through until September.  Having been born and raised mostly in the South you would think that I would be used to the heat and humidity but that gene never got passed to me.  When we moved here twenty six years ago from Utah, we lived in a tiny duplex in the middle of a field in Bynum while we crafted the plan for Peregrine Farm.  That first summer, in that non-air conditioned box, was hot as hell and we thought we were going to die!  We would lie awake at night with the tiny window high on the wall above, a box fan feebly trying to move hot air around us.  Thoughts of cool nights in the mountain west would somehow coax us to sleep.  I always assumed that I would acclimate and get used to the heat and while it did happen, somewhat, I still cower when the forecast reads in the 90’s.

The blueberries roll on.  After last years record crop it is hard to judge just how this years will end up.  My best estimate is that we have about a third of last years harvest, maybe half a normal year.  It is hard to say exactly why.  My best theory is that it was so warm this late winter it caused the bushes to bloom very early.  They started in late February and consequently many blooms and fruit were lost to frosts that came afterward.  It makes the fruit that is left a bit larger and maybe more flavorful because they get all the good stuff they don’t have to share when there are too many berries on the plant.  I was told yesterday that our berries were served last week to the former White House pastry chef, of twenty five years, and he said they were some of the best he had ever had!  With not so many berries to pick we are actually able to get other things done on the farm like critical weeding and tying up the tomatoes.  We are also beginning the process of taking out the spring crops to be replaced by summer cover crops or more summer flowers.  Out come the irrigation lines, mow down the weeds and what is left of the spring crop, turn under the residue.  If we are planting another crop then a little feather meal is spread for nitrogen, the bed is tilled again, then a drip irrigation line is buried right down the middle of the bed.  Planting follows quickly behind.  Last week more sunflowers and seven more beds of zinnias (the third planting of the year).  Soon those fields that don’t go on to summer crops will be turned under and sown to big summer soil improving crops.  The next batch of turkeys arrived on cue last Thursday morning.  Forty broad breasted bronzes, all happy and running around in the brooder.

Picture of the Week
Purple Bouquet Dianthus flanked by Campanula and Safflower

4/4/07 Vol. 4 #3

Cold weather coming!  Every farmer and gardener is scrambling now.  It’s like a drill on and aircraft carrier, you know it’s coming but really don’t want to have to do it.  It happens every spring but this year is more extreme than most with the record 80 degree days and warm 50 and 60 degree nights.  They say we are going to have four nights below freezing (Thursday through Sunday) which is also more extreme than the usual two.  Now most of the crops out there in the field are cool season types that can take a light freeze so we are not worried about them.  It is the flowering and fruiting crops that most of us are trying to protect.  I know the strawberry growers will not get much sleep the next week, staying up all night either waiting for the temperature to drop low enough to start the irrigation pumps or trying to keep them running.  They spray water over the plants and as that water freezes is releases heat to the plants and flower buds which keeps them from being damaged.  I know it is counter intuitive but thermodynamics always was to me.  They have to keep the water flying until it starts to melt again.  It is an even harder job when the wind is blowing, which it is supposed to do with some vigor.

For us we cover what we can with floating row cover, maybe several layers and hope that is enough.  We don’t have enough water or the equipment to do the overhead sprinkler system the strawberry growers do and our crops are too tall anyway.  The blueberries have been blooming for weeks and should have set enough fruit that won’t be damaged unless it drops really low.  The viburnums which are up to twelve feet tall will just have to stand and bear it.  If we sprayed water on them we would do more damage with broken branches from the weight of the ice than the blooms are worth.  The two crops we are most concerned about are the tomatoes in the sliding tunnels and the dutch iris in the field.  The tomatoes we will drape the floating row cover over the tops of their trellises as a second insulating layer under the greenhouse plastic.  Batten down the plastic as best we can and usually we are good down to the low 20’s.  The iris are another level of difficulty.  Tall, spindly and spiky we will have to construct some kind of structure that will support the row cover and then try and hold that suspended fabric on in the high winds, makes thermodynamics sound easy.

Of course the rest of the farm work must go on.  We now have over 100 beds planted (an acre plus) and have been busy getting them weeded and setting up irrigation.  We should finish that up today and give everything a good drink.  Watering them will not only reduce their stress heading into this cold but wet soil holds more heat than dry soil so it will also help everything through the cold snap.  We moved the 800 tomato seedlings up to their larger four inch pots.  We start them in smaller containers so we can get good germination and then move up only the best looking plants.  It is tedious work especially considering there are eighteen different varieties that one could easily miss label!  This batch of tomatoes will go out into the field in just over two weeks.

Picture of the Week
Hundreds of tomato seedlings