4/11/07 Vol. 4 #4

Wow, that was cold!  Five mornings in the twenties with the nadir Sunday morning at 20 degrees!  Everyone wants to know what the damage has been to the crops but it is really too early to really tell about most of them.  The tomatoes survived with some severe freeze damage on the outside rows but they all should grow out of it.  The cucumbers look unscathed, amazing.  The dutch iris actually look great, Betsy has begun to cut a few. and we haven’t had any open completely yet but so far they appear to have no injury.  The big question is the blueberries.  That will take a week or more for the damage to be really apparent.  This freeze is very similar to the April freeze in 2001, when it was 24 degrees on the 18th with high winds.   That season we lost all the blueberries.  Most of the rest of the crops look fine, the sugar snap peas are burned a bit along with other odds and ends of crops.  Time will tell.

Monday I gave my last big presentation of the speaking season in Spartanburg, SC.  While I have traveled around the country quite a bit giving talks on all kinds of farming subjects it is these full day workshops that I seem to becoming known for.  This one, for 60 farmers and other ag related folks, is at least the fifth or sixth where I hold forth for an entire day, attempting to cover the entire subject of organic/sustainable vegetable production.  Can’t be done really.  The best part, is that after an entire day of examples and pictures I think they go away with the most important lesson: this kind of farming is an interrelated system where each action the farmer takes affects other things up and down the line.  Sure they go away with a big notebook full of information, and lots of details on soil management, how to control weeds and more but it is the big picture that I hope has become clearer to them.  It is hard to get a grasp on this complex system when you only hear someone speak for and hour or so.  I am currently working with the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG) on a CD-Rom on Organic Vegetable Production and Marketing that is modeled after my full day workshops.  Now all of this is really just the Readers Digest version of the Sustainable Vegetable Production course that I designed and taught for five or six years at the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.  There I carried on for three hours a night for sixteen weeks!  Full immersion for sure.  Now the real benefit for Betsy and me to all of this is that the more times I have to explain to people how we farm, the closer I scrutinize why we do things in certain ways and, hopefully, we refine the system even more.

Picture of the Week
The perfect rainy day activity, moving up the 2500 plus pepper plants

5/28/08 Vol. 5 #11

The sprint is on now, the blueberries are beginning to ripen and the urgency to get other things done around the farm before we are all lost to berry picking is keen.  This is one of those transition weeks in the season when old crops begin to wane and the new ones are beginning to flex their “you need to come work in me” muscles.  Thankfully this is the last week and fifth week of wholesale lettuce deliveries to Weaver Street Market.  For seventeen seasons we have grown all the spring lettuce for Weaver Street and it dictates the pace of my spring work.  We plant nearly 9000 heads beginning in early February, covering, cultivating, irrigating until the late in April when I cut lettuce four mornings a week.  Monday and Thursdays are the large harvest days for the stores.  Early in the morning I call and get the orders from the produce departments so I can start cutting first thing when the lettuce is cool and with dew.  Most days it is twelve to sixteen cases, 24 heads to a case, some days it can be twenty or more.  It is the one thing on the farm that only I harvest, there is an eye one has to develop to know that the head is big enough for the stores.  I fall into a steady routine, Red Leaf is first as it is the most heat sensitive and usually I have to cut the most of it for the orders.  I move right to left down the beds after I cut a number of heads out to have a place to set the crate.  The lettuce is three plants across the bed and hopefully they are all the right size otherwise there can be substantial skipping around.  Cut the head off with the special lettuce knife at the base and then inspect the head for quality, peeling off a few of the old outer leaves, littering the ground around my feet with them.  The first layer in the case is three rows of three, layered in like singles; then layer of six heads followed by the final layer of nine.  I can barely get 24 full size heads in a case but do, carry it to the back of the truck, snap the lid on and pick up another empty crate.  Green Leaf follows next, then the Boston, Romaine is always last.  Romaine can take the heat better and is the easiest to cut and clean when I am getting tired.  When it is really large I tell myself it is like cutting down redwoods.  If the planting is really uniform I can cut ten cases an hour, fifteen seconds a head.  When I have to skip around it slows me down to six an hour.  With the days order cut I pull the truck down into the deep shade for a few hours before I take it into town.  Wednesday’s and Friday’s cuts for market are smaller only around eight cases but still the same.  After five straight weeks of wholesale lettuce I am ready to do something else every morning, it’s time for the season to change.

Big day yesterday the turkeys moved to the field.  The first time a batch of turkeys is exposed to something new they get crazy, this group seems especially jumpy so we have been careful in this big transition to the outdoors.  First we let them run in and out of the brooder to the field shelter just to get the hang of it.  Then we move the field shelter further away from the brooder and put food and water in there.  Finally we close the brooder and make them stay the night in the field shelter.  This group has not been high on the scale of early adopters, plenty of distress chirping and generally not getting it at first.  On field moving day we have to catch each one and carry it to the new field where we have moved their familiar feeders and waterers, lots of panic and chasing around.  Once they are all in the new field we move the field shelter (the new mothership) into the field and leave them alone for the rest of the day.  We were worried that come night fall we would be herding them around to get them into the shelter for the night, not being the highest achieving group.  Hallelujah, at dark they were all self loaded and we just had to close the door!  Transition complete.

Picture of the Week
Cozy at first light, waiting to be released for their first full day in the field

6/4/08 Vol. 5 #12

Well we made it to June and the heat appears to have arrived with it.  High 90’s the end of the week and a whole week in the 90’s?  Why is it we can never just gently go thru the 80’s for a while and then into the brutal temperatures?  Oh well it makes the blueberries and the tomatoes ripen faster.  After last season without blueberries because of the record Easter freeze and the madness that it is trying to keep them picked we are now in the middle of it.  This week or next is going to be the peak of our blueberry crop, with next Monday probably the peak day due to the high temperatures.  Blueberry picking is the only time we hire extra help on the farm.  The whole operation is designed to run with a steady flow of human energy, just the two of us and two more part timers.  But there is an atmosphere that develops around blueberry season as new faces come to pick and join in our now established social structure.  For nearly 3 months it has just been the four of us doing the dance of employee-employer, student-teacher, worker-supervisor, advisor, helper, friends.  We now know each others routine, style, jokes and now there are new opinions, ideas, senses of humor.  Blueberry picking is maybe the best job on the farm, unless you hate tedious tasks, but with the new faces and discussions in the field it seems to go quickly.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful setting on the hill, almost always with a slight breeze and the birds calling nonstop.  Everyday you end up on the otherside of the row from someone new with new stories and questions.  Other farmer friends of mine say I should hire migrant workers to pick, it would save money.  It might and we used to hire some local Latinos when we were in the wholesale blackberry business and they are amazing workers.  I have come to appreciate the other benefits of having these new faces on the farm, it gives us a boost, it gives the staff a break from working only with each other, it exposes these new people to farm work without some of the grittiness of it.  It is this social side of a sustainable farm that really makes it work, not just the crops and the tractors.  Soon enough it will be back to just the four of us, avoiding the heat, picking tomatoes and peppers and flowers, telling the same old jokes.

Pictures of the Week

6/11/08 Vol. 5 #13

Hmmm, let’s see what’s the news?  HEAT!!!!  Talk about a rude start to the summer, bang, here I am.  The 100’s really pushed the blueberries and Friday we could only get two out of six rows picked there were so many and turning blue in front of our eyes.  So Monday we called in the troops and had eleven of us out there going hard.  We did manage to get through those four unpicked rows and the fruit quality was really good.  Thank goodness they are blueberries and not blackberries.  When it gets that hot blackberries actually get sunburned and get white sections on the berries where the color has cooked out of them, technically it is called “leaking” (I am not making this up).  So now we are caught up and Monday was the peak day of the season.  We can now easily manage the rest of the season (only another ten days or so) with four additional pickers.  Whew!  As is our standard practice we do not work out in the fields after noon and this week it has been hard to stay out there until noon.  Betsy and I have been out early letting the turkeys out, irrigating and picking other crops before the blueberry picking begins at 8:00.

Two interesting extra curricular activities this week.  The first was a Slow Food co-sponsored event at Meredith college with the Durham-Chapel Hill Dieticians group.  Two short films about local food were viewed and then a panel discussion followed.  It is always interesting being the farmer on a panel of other food related folks.  Great questions about our local food system but barely enough time to just begin to scratch the surface.  Yesterday I went to the State Legislature to speak to a group of legislators about organic agriculture in North Carolina.  This Organic Legislative breakfast was just that, it started at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria, in the basement of the Legislature building.  While they ate organic food brought in from North Carolina farms, myself and three other farmers told them about our experiences as organic producers.  This is the second year that Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other sustainable ag non-profits have put on the breakfast.  The idea is not to really press them for anything in particular but to just make them aware of organics and sustainable farming and hopefully more comfortable with the idea.  As I went to get coffee I overheard several of them saying to each other “Who knew we had organic pigs here in North Carolina?”  Nothing like a pork product to get a politicians attention.

Picture of the Week
Turkeys and Hydrangeas

4/1/09 Vol. 6 #2

It has been some years since we had a wet spring, one forgets what it could be like.  So far this one is what I would call consistently damp, not so much rain that you begin to wonder if you will ever get stuff planted but the frequent wet days do make us rush around trying to get things in the ground before it comes again.  This week was just such a case.  We usually need about three dry days for the soil to drain enough to be able to till and not do any damage to our soil structure.  After last weeks inch plus rains it was just barely dry enough to till on Tuesday but the forecast for more rain on Wednesday was 90 percent so off we raced.  Three beds of lisianthus (very tedious as they go in four inches apart), two more beds of mixed flower transplants, followed by three beds seeded to carrots, turnips and radishes.

After all of the recent wet weather the weeds are really starting to germinate and in another week it would be scary.  So after lunch I set the guys on getting most everything cultivated even though another day would have made the soil conditions just right.  By three o’clock we had covered the most egregious areas including thinning the broccoli raab which had come up like hair on a dogs back.  Cov and Glenn then headed off to get some planting done in their own gardens before the rains came.  Almost two days work in one but with a rain day coming.

Wednesday morning I am at the desk viewing the radar on the computer as it had not started raining yet.  While I am making some notes on the crop plan I realize I had forgotten to seed the second planting of broccoli raab, with this forecast I better hurry out quick.  Quick means taking down the deer fences so I can get the tractor into the field, spreading a little bit of feather meal for nitrogen, firing the tractor up and lightly tilling the tops of the beds, carrying the seeder down and running it up and down the beds.  A light mist falls off and on as I do all this, then it stops.  The rest of the day it barely drizzles and we wonder what all the rushing around was for.  Oh well, I am looking at the radar again this morning and it looks like rain for sure again, we’ll see.

Picture of the Week
The blueberries are blooming like crazy

5/27/09 Vol. 6 #10

Rain, glorious rain, we have been missing the showers of the last week and have been irrigating everything lightly with an eye towards the sky not wanting to over water if it is going to dump rain on us.  Finally yesterday the skies opened over us and we had a good solid rain.  Chased us out of the field for an early end to the day but it was welcomed just the same.

Blueberry picking time has arrived and with power.  This first week we usually go through the planting with just us kids here on the farm and it only takes a couple of mornings to get all that are ripe.  This year the plants are heavy with fruit and it is already taking extra hands on deck to attempt to get them all picked.  We like to pick through the rows twice each week and so far we have only made it part way through on the first time around.  So many berries this year that it looks like mostly berries on the bushes and not many leaves.  Hang on.

Fortunately we have been preparing for this onslaught by getting as many other jobs around the farm done beforehand.  Now Betsy and I are mostly alone in working on the other areas of the place trying to keep up with the odds and ends and harvesting the other crops while the forces are massed up on the hill in the blueberry field.  This it the change of seasons and for the vegetable side of the business, blueberries are the bridge between lettuce season and tomato season.  I have been mowing down old lettuce and other spring crops and turning the residues under in preparation for late plantings of flowers.  Soon we will eat the first tomato and we will know that summer is offcially here.

Picture of the Week
Berries wet with yesterdays rain

6/3/09 Vol. 6 #11

We finally made it to June, seemed like May lasted longer than usual for some reason.  I spent most of the morning yesterday on the tractor doing defensive mowing of the vigorously growing grasses around the edges of the field.  Defensive because the ticks are amazing this year if you have to venture into that tall grass and because the ground hogs are back and I makes it easier to see them if the grass is short.

Ground hogs are our most feared pest, more than deer.  They can and will eat entire plantings of stuff in a day, deer just nibble here and there, if they get past the electric deer fence.  We noticed last week that some lettuce had been eaten on the edges of the rows in the field and then some lettuce transplants in the flats in front of the greenhouse had been eaten too.  Finally Cov went down to trellis his own pole beans in the bottom field and some critter had wiped out the entire row and had helped themselves to the golden beets too.  Several days later we finally spied both the hilltop and the bottom culprits.  The ground hogs never seem to show up until it is warm enough in the spring, usually about now, and in the past few years we have not seen one here on the farm as they move around from den to den.  We can’t fence them out without huge logistical and maintenance headaches and they just laugh at the traps so I am now on afternoon rounds to see if I can get a shot at them.

In less than two weeks, June 14th,  we will be participating in the second Farm to Fork picnic,  put on by the Slow Food Triangle chapter and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.  The proceeds will benefit new and young farmer programs in Orange county and down at CEFS.  Last time it was great fun as chefs and farms are paired to come up with great food.  There are something like 26 restaurants participating and we are paired with Watts Grocery this time around, should be entertaining and delicious.

While the mower was on I mowed down the early spring flowers (larkspur, bachelors buttons, etc.) soon it will be summer cover crop time.  The blueberry picking rolls on with many hands on deck.  Monday we had possibly the largest crew ever with nine in the field, still didn’t put a dent in the massive crop.  The third planting of zinnias and celosia are going in the ground just as the first zinnia bloom has been spotted.  We ate our first BLT sandwiches on Monday so summer is officially here!

Picture of the Week
Beautiful Campanula and other flowers under the Big Tops

6/24/09 Vol. 6 #14

We are beginning to get caught up around here but the record setting blueberry crop continues on.  Into a fifth week, we have never picked for more than four weeks and that has only happened a few times.  Today is the last official pick as there are very few berries left and the birds sense it, every time I walk by there is great fluttering away of all kinds of winged thieves.  We always get behind during the blueberry picking fiesta and that combined with the rains compounded the amount of projects needed to be done.  Thankfully this week has been dry and reasonable for getting stuff done.

Two fun things going on this coming week and in the near future that you can help with, both will benefit the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.  First up is 3 CUPS, the wine, coffee and tea store on S. Elliott Rd. is donating 5% of its sales next Monday through Thursday (June 28-July 2) to the market.  It was kicked off last night with a social at the store with a number of vendors from the market and a few customers, very kind of them to host us and do this benefit.  For more information you can see it here

The second is you can go to and vote for the Carrboro Farmers’ Market as your favorite market.  We have a really good chance to win $5000.  This money would allow the market to do some really important projects that we have on our list of things to do to improve the market.  Voting continues until September 17th.  We are currently in fifth place and moving up rapidly, please vote and help us win!

The onion harvest was completed yesterday and we have never had better red onions.  They are now curing in the greenhouse and will be at market from here until Labor Day.  The last of the Big Tops was covered last Wednesday and the late planting of tomatoes went in the ground on Friday.  The change of seasons continues as most of the spring crops are mowed down now and I have begun to prepare soil for the seeding of the summer cover crops.  From here on in we get into more measured summer pace, no frenzied days trying to get things done before the next rain or spring cold front, just calm management of the summer crops.

Picture of the Week
The Spring flower block disked up ready for cover crop seed