What’s been going on?
The other part of the change from spring crops to summer crops is the planting of the summer cover crops. The rains of the last few weeks has made the soil a dream to prepare as the disk cuts the ground easily. Sunday I disked under the spring crop residues in the areas getting a summer soil improving crop and yesterday I spun out the cowpeas and soybeans that will fix free nitrogen and then covered them lightly. Today I will spin out the millet and sundangrass seeds on the different blocks and the job will be done, hopefully we will get a little rain in the next week and they should come racing up.
Mow, mow, mow. Some parts of the farm only get one or two mowings a year, and with all the rain recently, the grass in those areas shot up shoulder high. I spent almost five hours yesterday cutting just the very top sections of the farm and the majority of the bottom field. Much of it I had to creep along in a low gear so the mower wouldn’t bog down. Some of this mowing is just defensive so we can keep the weeds and trees at bay. The less used areas are also the hiding areas for the crop eating varmits, especially the groundhogs. The groundhogs must have really had a good year last season because there are a lot of them and they are not afraid, yet. So far this spring we have dispensed with four and there are at least two more working. The mowing will make it much easier for me to spot them now.
Now that the record short blueberry season is over the staff is getting caught up on other projects. It is major trellising season as many crops have had that growth spurt they put on when their roots really get established. Tying up tomatoes every week, the lisianthus is now over a foot tall, the peppers have gotten tall and floppy. The guys got the first set of support arms on the peppers and today we will run the lower strings to help them stand up straight against storms and to better carry a big fruit load. Weeding and cultivating new zinnias and celosia, planting more late season flowers, lots to do.
Picture of the Week
Campanula and almost dayglo Dianthus
What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading
Whew! The heat’s on now, it’s usually either feast or famine, we could live in a climate like California where the weather is constant and predictable but where would the challenge be? I am sometimes surprised by the folks who comment to me about how we seem to have one problem after another or as my sister described the newsletter “the first part is about how hard they work and the second is about the market”. The newsletter is a stream of consciousness (or unconscious as I do it way too early in the morning) about our life here on the farm. Our intent is for you to get a snapshot of how a small farm works and why we choose to do this as a living. With less than one percent of the population being farmers these days it makes it harder for those of you who are not on the land to get a feel for what it takes to produce crops week in and week out. We don’t want you to think that what we do is all work and no joy, there is nothing else we would rather do for a living (besides the fact that we are unemployable in the outside world at this point!). In fact there are many times when we look at each other as it simultaneously occurs to us that this is what we actually do for a living!
It is different for farmers because we live where we work and our work is part of everything we see and do. We could be cabinet makers and have a shop at home but at night you would close the doors and go to the house. We can’t close the doors because our shop is all around us. The challenge is what makes it interesting for us, my obsession is in managing the whole system in an elegant way so that, with the least effort possible, we mimic the ecosystem around us, as much as we can, while producing great stuff. Betsy’s is in the beauty of the plants themselves, she is a plant junky, she wants to see how they grow and what they will produce. Our real goal is the highest quality of life possible. Sure at this time of year the work is brutally constant but there are still many rewards like the sunrise this morning, or the sight of the turkeys jogging over to see us or the fun we have with the people who work for us. Six months off isn’t too bad either!
The second batch of turkeys is looking good and growing fast, and the “big boys” are now nine weeks old. We did find one this week that had hurt its leg somehow and is in the “hospital ward” eating all of the melon and cull peaches it wants, this is our version of “peel me a grape”. We may put him back in with the rest today. The summer cover crops went in this week as well. When the spring crops come out we follow them with summer soil improving crops like soybeans and millet. Just like the winter “green manure” crops that we grow we prefer to grow our organic matter and fertilizer in place than spend all of that time and energy hauling it in. We are planting the last flowers for this year and actually seeding, in the greenhouse, flowers for next spring!
Picture of the Week
The turkeys grazing in Betsy’s recreational gardens
I am gulping down the coffee and typing fast as there is a lot to do this morning. The impending rain has us picking peppers this morning so we don’t have to do it in Ivan’s rain on Friday. Of course it drizzled all night so it won’t exactly be a dry experience out in the field. This is what we have been training for all season. Early in the year when it’s wet and you look at the staff and say we need to go out and get soaked they can look at you in great disbelief, now they are trained professionals and know that it has to happen and now is better than later in a driving rain. The other reason that I have a lot to do is that I have to get on a plane this afternoon and fly down to Georgia (I know right into the path of the hurricane) to give a full day workshop to a group of farmers tomorrow. I usually don’t do this type of engagement in the production season but they were extra persuasive. I have been having a hard time wrapping my head around the subject (whole farm planning) and that combined with the weather forecast I am less than excited about the whole event. Let’s hope that the forecast is correct and that they don’t close the Atlanta airport tomorrow night before I get on the plane back home. If I am not at market on Saturday you will know what happened!
We have managed to get something done this week, the dismantling of the farm for the winter is moving along. If we had one more dry day we would have had cover crops seeded on one and a quarter acres but it will now have to wait until we dry out from Ivan and maybe get them in before Jean. It is a many step process to get all of the soil ready for the winter and next year. We first mow off the remnants of the crop (what the turkeys haven’t eaten), next we have to pull up and coil all of the irrigation lines that may be left. One pass with the tractor and disk to chop up and incorporate the debris so it can begin to decompose. A second pass if needed to spread any lime, phosphorus, and potassium mineral amendments (based on soil tests that we previously took and sent to the State labs for analysis). A third pass with the tractor and the chisel plow to loosen the soil deeper. A fourth pass with the disk again to incorporate those amendments and finish the job of breaking up the soil. A fifth pass with the tractor and hilling disks to raise up beds so that in the spring when it is cold and wet the soil will dry out fast so that we can till and get crops planted. Finally we spread the cover crop seeds, some with the tractor but many by walking the rows with a chest mounted spinner so we can place them exactly where we want them. Oats and crimson clover where the lettuce will go, rye and hairy vetch where the peppers will go, triticale and clover before the early tomatoes and so on. This is the only time all year we work soil like this and it takes days to do it right and dry weather to make sure we get the soil just the way it needs to be without doing any damage to it’s structure. We are about half way done.
Picture of the Week
All of the Zinnias and Tomatoes gone, soil almost ready and turkeys living it up in the Asparagus patch
The first day of summer and now the days begin to get shorter. While we have been fortunate to have cool weather last far into June the days getting shorter are still a sign that it is all down hill to fall now. I know we still have lots of summer season to go but in our minds we are always anticipating the next season, seeding crops for it, making plans around it. etc. This long term view of the world is important for a farmer to have, partly to be prepared for what is to come so we are ready to take advantage of it (“have to make hay while the sun shines”) and partly to see past what might not be going well this season (“there’s always next year”). I find that having an understanding of the long cycle of the seasons allows us to better plan our crops and how they best fit into the agro-ecosystem. What summer cover crop works best before a fall planted flower crop that if planted at the right time and temperature will not have horrible weed problems next spring to fight. Those flowers need to come out in time for another summer cover crop (different this time) that will be mature enough in time to run the turkeys through and will build organic matter and nutrients for the following springs lettuce crop which needs lots of nutrients but never uses them all. When the lettuce is done we can plant late summer zinnias and sunflowers that can soak up all that excess nitrogen but will be done in time to plant a winter cover crop that will feed the next years early summer flowers and on and on. A farmer friend of ours says “I only have about twenty more times to try and get this right”. In some jobs you can try and get it right instantly, or the next day or the next week. In farming we only get one chance a year and we better see it coming!
It is summer cover crop time and as the spring crops come out we are preparing to turn the residue under and seed those soil improving crops. I wish I could have gotten it done before the big rains of last week but will all work out. We were lucky again to get good rains but not as heavy or as much as some our friends. Two inches on Sunday last and a steady 1.6″ from Alberto. Some of our fellow market farmers had as much as fourteen inches from the various storms last week! Blueberries are finished and because it was such a light crop we are not in too bad a shape coming out of the season on the rest of the farm. This weeks big job is the red onion harvest. We have to wait until the tops start to fall over which is the signal that they are finished growing. It is best to harvest when it is dry and warm so that he necks of the onions dry out well. If it is too wet then the chances are high of some kind of disease infecting the freshly cut off neck and causing the onion to rot. Perfect weather this week, but the staff always feel like I have staked them out on and ant hill when I say its time to harvest onions. We carefully pull each one of the 5000 plus plants, cut off the top leaving a inch of neck, cut off the roots, wipe off any excess dirt and place them in ventilated trays. The trays are then put into our passive solar greenhouse to cure and dry. Then over the next few months we will clean a few boxes each week and bring them to market. It is a lot of work but the quality and health benefits of these red onions are worth it.
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Fabulous Annabelle Hydrageas at their peak
The day after July 4th, we gave the staff the day off as it was going to blistering hot anyway. Normally we would have worked a little and then taken the rest of the day easy. We did the little bit of work but then had to go truck shopping. I would rather walk across hot coals than go to a car dealership but Betsy’s little truck had finally gotten so unreliable (it is only twenty years old I don’t understand why these trucks can’t last longer) that we had to do something. The big white truck is what most people see at market and when we do wholesale deliveries but the little truck is Betsy’s work vehicle. It goes around and around the farm with buckets of water for the flowers and moves plants and supplies and more. About twenty Saturdays a year it goes to market too. Usually carrying 20-30 buckets of flowers it is this duty that makes it critical to the farm business. So while we only drive it less than 1000 miles a year we couldn’t carry on without it. If you need a wheelbarrow and don’t have one there is just not substitute. We have debated for years what to do, maybe a different kind of vehicle, or an on farm “stuff mover” and it always comes back to the same formula, one big truck, one little truck. Last Saturday we had to borrow Rachel’s truck to get everything to market because the old girl just wouldn’t go. This just won’t do so off we went on mission to knock it out quickly. Believe it or not two stops later after very direct no nonsense haggling on our part we drove home with a new work truck for Betsy, I still wonder about the color name though “Impulse Red Pearl”.
Today is finally cover crop seeding day. It dried out enough this week to get the acre of spring crops (or the remnants of) mowed down and turned under. The rains are coming back tonight so I really need to get the soybeans and millet sown to take advantage of this next wet window. This is always a race but made even more difficult with trying to get it all done before we have to go to market this afternoon. These cover crops are the life blood of our soil fertility program. In eight weeks we can grow up to eight tons per acre of organic matter, in place! It is one of the miracles of raising crops. That you can spin out about 150 pounds of seed and then two months later mow down 16,000 pounds of material and captured over 100 pounds of free nitrogen out of the atmosphere is mind boggling. Include the fact that we don’t have to spend hours running up and down the road hauling manure or compost and then spreading it on the fields, my back and the environment are applauding. When we turn these cover crops, also known as “green manure”, under they are broken down by the millions of soil inhabitants and all those nutrients are released for the next crop to use. The earthworms, fungi and bacteria are all applauding too. What a system nature developed over the billions of years! Maybe I will take the Impulse Red Pearl over to our farm supply to get the seeds.
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A sea of Lisianthus
Now the weather is returning to more normal summers conditions this week but in general we are all looking at each other and saying “I don’t ever remember a summer like this”. This, this… not so hot. No complaining here mind you but it does sort of throw one off balance. Just as you have your brain programmed to expect one thing and act in a certain way it doesn’t happen. The only comparison is back in 1991, which we always refer to as the Mt. Pinatubo summer. That summer that volcano in the Philippines erupted and sent huge amounts of ash into the stratosphere which circulated the globe for months. The result was a very cool summer in North Carolina, we barely got into the 90’s. Back then we were in the midst of the long and expensive “Raspberry Experiment”. The most noticeable result from that cool summer was that the raspberry canes grew almost twice a tall as normal and the following year we had the best harvest we had ever had. It turns out that it is too hot here for raspberries to grow vigorously, but that summer it was more like the conditions further north where they produce them in abundance. Soon there after the raspberries came out of the ground never to be planted here again (under threat of certain penalties from Betsy!). So while we are not experiencing as dramatic conditions as that year it is still affecting crops here on there farm. Most noticeably the tomatoes are still not producing at the level we are accustomed to. Every Monday and Thursday we go out and pick and while we are getting some of all the varieties we are not bringing back the number of boxes that we should be. Normally this would be the peak week of tomato harvest but it will be at least next week if not later. Yesterday we were up working in the peppers and the rows that are on black landscape fabric are moving along well but the rows planted no-till are way behind. The soil is cooler under all that mulch which in hot weather a good thing but this season it is holding those plants back. Just when your brain is programmed one way…
We did manage to get the cover crops all seeded before the big rains last week and they are up already and looking great, little soybean plants raising there fat heads out of the soil and the millet with one blade pointed straight up towards the sky. The turkeys have all been rotated around the farm. The little guys as we call the Broad Breasted Bronzes right now (they will eventually weigh twice a much as the Bourbon Reds) graduated out to the blueberries from the brooder and are extremely happy lazing the days away in the shade of the blueberry bushes and taking group walks around their new grassy enclosure. The Bourbon Reds have moved into Betsy’s first and now abandoned Zinnia patch (we plant Zinnias five times and she is now cutting off the second batch). This is the same field that had the leeks, radicchio and the last lettuce among other crops so they are now eating the crab grass and other weeds while hiding out in the four foot tall Zinnia rows like outlaws only to come creeping out when someone walks by the fence. The last Zinnias get planted this week and the Brussels Sprouts for Thanksgiving went into the ground this week too. Despite the different weather we still march on with the calendar assuming that normalcy will return.
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The effects of cool weather. The same varieties next to each other but the plants on the warmer black fabric are much larger and have large peppers on them.
Posted in newsletters '06, peppers, the early years, tomatoes, turkeys
- Tagged cover crops, newsletters '06, peppers, the early years, tomatoes, turkeys, weather
It is amazingly dark these mornings and it makes it hard to get going. We pulled all the shade cloth off the little tunnels this week because the days are getting so short that the crops that were under the shade get too leggy trying to stretch for the diminishing light. In August those same crops (lettuce, Brussels sprouts, celery, etc.) can’t take the heat so we give them the extra shade to get them going but with a snap of the fingers it becomes too much shade. We now know that Labor Day is the changing point and by then the heat has begun to break as well. Ernesto brought very nice rain without much wind, we had 2.5 inches that came down gently. Then we had a monsoon type down pour on Monday with 2.5 inches more in about thirty minutes. The river didn’t rise much and the creek is barely running again but things look much better around the farm, now the ground will not be so dry and I can begin to get soil ready for the fall and winter. The early tomatoes get taken down today as we have to make way for planting campanula and other flowers for next year and so the preparations for the next season begin in earnest.
This is sometimes a difficult time of year for us as we have one foot still in this growing season, trying to make sure we get everything we can out of the crops that are left, and one foot in the next growing season. We know that a big part of next year’s success is rooted in what we do over the next few months and so we become a little schizophrenic this time of year as we look way ahead while trying to keep a focus on the last few weeks of market. This is one of those “sustainability” things that we realized a few years back. In a conventional farming system the plans for the next growing season or crop only need to be made just before planting happens. A conventional farmer may make the decision on how much corn to plant based on the commodity market in the spring and then just has to use fertilizer in a bag and plant. For us the crop rotation dictates what crops go where and how much we will plant is based on what, you, our customers tell us you want. Most of our “fertilizer” is from the organic matter in the soil that we resupply by growing cover crops in that same soil and then turning them under. It is a much longer term view of farming. That is why we stopped raising the fall cool season crops so that we could instead concentrate of getting the farm ready for next year. Of course being able to go on vacation in October is not a bad side benefit either!
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Lettuce started under shade, it will be ready in a week or two
Wow, has it really been a month? We have moved heaven and earth (literally) around here to get things mostly to bed for the winter. We took the turkeys in for processing and it is always a long and exhausting day, up early catching them before daylight and then watching over things at the processing plant. As a whole they looked really good, a bit lighter in weight than last years but the quality seems good. They are now down at the freezer plant sleeping until Thanksgiving. Our focus then turned to getting the soil and cover crops ready for the winter and next spring. Miles of pepper trellis had to be deconstructed first and the landscape fabric that we use for mulch in the hot peppers had to come up. Then the endless tractor driving.
I spend more time on the tractor during this time of year than all the rest of the year combined. Days and days of going round and round. First all the remaining crops have to be mowed down so they will more easily till into the soil. Before the soil turning begins I have to spread what ever mineral amendments the soil tests (that I took last month) indicate we will need to grow next years crops. Not too bad this fall, only a bit of lime and even less phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Then the heavy metal comes out in the shape of a heavy disk harrow that cuts the soil a few inches and throws some of it over the crop residue. Then a pass with the spring tooth field cultivator which rips and lifts the soil about every foot and about a foot deep. After this lifting another pass with the disk to really cut those crop residues into the top soil. Now the heavy work is done, the soil is loose but the tractor driving is far from done. Any crop that gets planted before late April next year goes onto a raised bed, this is primarily so the soil drains and warms up faster in the cool of spring. Without a raised bed it is almost impossible to prepare the soil for planting when we need to in February, March and April. So round and round I go again with a four disk hiller, throwing up the loose soil into rough ridges. 200 beds raised (20,000 feet and two acres) and another three quarters of an acre in what I call flat fields, thankfully we don’t have to plant and take care of that all at once! As Betsy says “It would make it hard to get up in the morning to face it”. Finally it is time to spread the cover crop seeds. On the tractor once again to spin out the grain crops, rye and oats, depending what cash crop will follow it, 400 pounds total. On foot now I follow the grains with the legumes, hairy vetch and crimson clover, to fix the nitrogen to feed the cash crops, using a chest spreader to spin them over the rough ground. The rains came beautifully the day after I finished and the cover crops look beautiful.
The last big project is to move one of the sets of “Big Tops”, the big four bay high tunnels that cover a quarter of an acre. Need to get them out of the way so I can get that last bit of soil prepared for next spring. We will reconstruct them in their new field sometime later this winter. We did get all the parts down and moved out of the way, what remains is to unscrew the legs from the ground, today and tomorrow and it should all be done. We have had a pretty good frost and the dahlias are blackened along with other scattered damage. Betsy’s flowers for next year are going in, in small lots. Larkspur, bachelors buttons, Gloriosa Daisy, the tulips are planted in their crates for the winter chill period. The vegetables for Thanksgiving are really starting to grow, even the Brussels Sprouts that struggled in the late summer heat have come out of it and are putting on good new top growth.
My much anticipated hiking trip to Paria Canyon in southern Utah turned out radically different than we had expected to say the least. Most of this walk is through very narrow slot canyons (some of the longest in the world). It requires perfect weather because of the danger of flash flooding. We new it had flooded two days before we headed in and that the forecast was for 50% chance of rain the next day but clear after that. Eight of us started in down the muddy river bed only to be stopped after 4 miles by a rescue helicopter landing in front of us. The forecast had changed and flash floods were a distinct possibility. We were given no choice, we had to get out of the canyon. At least several of us got a free helicopter ride over the incredible landscape. That left us to come up with plan B for ten people. We ended up in Zion National Park and had a great time in an equally incredible landscape, just not what we had planned so long for. I guess I will just have to plan another trip!
So we are off Monday, to Italy, for the Slow Food Terra Madre conference. We already have a full list of farmers’ markets we want to go see and people we want to talk to. Our delegation will be blogging from Torino and Betsy and I are scheduled for Friday the 27th. You can follow our groups experiences at the Slow Food Triangle website. Also while we are gone you can eat some of our heritage turkeys and support our friends at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro by having dinner at Panzanella restaurant. For the fourth year they are having a Heritage Turkey Dinner (with our turkeys again this year) and 10% of the proceeds go to ALBC. Unfortunately we will miss it but you all can enjoy it for us. Look for another newsletter from us just before Thanksgiving with news from Italy and updates on the pre-Thanksgiving market. Until then remember the Carrboro Market is open until Christmas, so keep on shopping with the rest of the market vendors.
Posted in newsletters '06, turkeys
- Tagged big tops, cover crops, dinners, fall prep, hiking, newsletters '06, Paria canyon, Slow Food, terra madre, turkeys
It’s always the way, work hard to beat the rain and then the rain decides not to come. It is summer cover crop planting time and we had been watching the forecast thinking it looked like a good bet that we would get rain to water up newly sown seed. First it looked like the front would come through this evening and so we had Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to get it all done then, at the last minute, they pushed the time forward to this morning. Yesterday was a sprint finish to slow race that’s been unfolding for a week or so. As the spring vegetables come out we mow off what’s left and to help keep the weeds down, the same with the early spring flowers, finally we give it all one more mowing and cut it all in with the tractor. I did that last Sunday since it was dry enough to work soil after the last rains. I like to let it lay there a few days allowing all the just turned up weeds to perish in the intense summer sun, that was the slow part of the race. Yesterday was the seeding day. First spin out the cowpea seed (we always plant a legume to capture the nitrogen from the air for free) and then because it is a large seed and needs good soil cover to germinate we have to cover it lightly with the tractor, so around and around I go. Then I walk back over the rough field and spin out the sudan grass seed (we always plant a grass with the legumes to grow huge amounts of organic matter to feed the soil), the grass seed is small and doesn’t need to be covered especially if a good rain is on it’s way.
Of course that was not the only item on the mornings agenda which included some last minute mowing and tilling for some other crops we wanted to get planted before the rain. Cov and Elizabeth trellised some celosia and continued the red onion harvest, with other projects I would throw in from time to time as I came by. Check in with the NC State research folks who were out to take measurements of their tomato plots. I did manage to get most of it done by noon when the staff leaves and we disappear into the house for the heat of the day and it was a hot one! I planned to go back out late and finish up. By 3:00 there was the rumble of thunder and it looked like even earlier rain, damn! So back out I go to finish the seeding and to roll out some Italian bean seed that we brought back to try, seed some more cucumbers and the rain starts to fall, just enough to chase me out of the field but not enough to get the ground wet. Done, a three T-shirt, two sets of shorts day. Now this morning it appears as if the rain has passed us by and there is no more forecast for a week or so, I may have to try and water these cover crops up, arghh!
On the tomato-stealing-critter front we had to resort to surrounding the tomato tunnels with the electric net fencing as I have not been able to catch the varmit in the big Have-a-Heart trap. Thanks to all who sent suggestions for the best baits, looks like eggs and sardines are universally successful around the country. I went with the sardines option (in Louisiana hot sauce) and the culprit managed to get the sardines out three times without getting caught in the trap! I was beginning to think this was the Cajun Einstein of raccoons when it started to eat ripe melons out of the other tunnel and carrying them a hundred feet away. Now I suspect our varmit is a fox. The fencing has worked to keep it out of the tomatoes so the last job yesterday (on top of everything else) was to surround the melon tunnel too, it looks like a medium security detention center out there now.
Picture of the Week
Medium security electric net fencing around the tomato and melon tunnels.
This is one of those growing seasons that feels like death by a thousand cuts. Now every year we have crops that don’t do well or fail completely and others that are magnificent and make up for the short falls, that is what being diversified is all about. You hear farmers say something like “this year I lost money but we had a couple of good years in a row there, we have another bad one and we might lose the farm”. For twenty three straight years we had always made more money than the year before, in the early years that was easy to do as we were so pitiful at the beginning the only way we could go was up. The later years we were still figuring things out, building the business, settling on markets and crops to grow with lots of room for improvement. Now that trick gets harder as we have pretty much settled in to a routine, so when one crop fails, there is not a new one in the wings to surprise us. For the last few years we have done well but not better than the previous best year, the thousand cuts are more of a psychological issue than a serious financial one. They just begin to weigh on you, especially as it gets hotter and as I tell the staff “I begin to lose my sense of humor”.
The list of nicks is already long this year, the freeze took the blueberries and affected other crops in strange ways. The unusually cold spring affected germination of many of the early direct seeded vegetables and flowers, we had to replant the first Zinnia planting when it didn’t come up, an eighth of an acre! The drought in May made it hard to get crops established and others slow to grow. No turkeys or asparagus this year either. Then lately the varmit eating tomatoes and melon issue. The most recent discoveries are that half the red onions are not what we had ordered (they will still eat well, just not what we wanted) and the 400 poblano plants that were looking so good appear to not be poblanos, but some kind of bell pepper instead!!!! This too will change and the other summer crops look great. The lisianthus may be even more fantastic than last years incredible crop. We picked the first good batch of tomatoes out of the big planting Monday and they look good too. The rest of the peppers are right on schedule and even the onions are bigger than last year (even if some of them are the wrong variety). This adversity is what drives some people out of farming, they can’t take the unknowns and set backs, no matter how great the rest of the rewards are. For us this is the challenge that keeps us getting up in the morning, trying to figure out how to solve a problem or learn yet more about how nature works. Some days I just wish the box of band aids wasn’t out on the counter.
Picture of the Week
It did rain enough to get the summer cover crop up! Cowpeas with the daisies.