Well here we go again! That statement can be applied to a lot of aspects of this late winter?, early spring season. Market in two days? It just seems brutally early but with the weather we have been having it almost seems too late. Saint Patrick’s day tomorrow and the first day of Spring on Monday. Last year on this date it actually snowed on us. Not this year, I just came in from running the irrigation on the lettuce field. We are beginning to get really worried about the potential of the drought for this coming season. You may remember the picture of one of our ponds near the end of last year, pumped down to almost empty, well after an entire winter it essentially hasn’t comeback up an inch. We have only had it not refill one other time in 25 years! We are now in the process of refilling it from the other pond and the creek to try and have some water on hand for what is shaping up to be a worse drought than 2002, which is the worst of all time since we have been farming.
The big theme that goes with “here we go again” is that this is a big year for us! You will probably hear references to this all year but this is what we are calling our 25-25-50 year. This year we will have been married for 25 years, farming for 25 seasons and we both will turn 50 this year! The numerologists will go wild with this I am sure!! Twenty five springs of wondering what it will be like, new beginnings, new crops, new ideas to try. It is still exciting and scary after all these years.
Despite how wildly busy and un-winter like this past few months have been the farm is actually right on schedule as for as planting goes. Betsy has taken time out of studying all things Italian to make sure that I focused enough so that we got things done in a timely manner. The poultry plant saga rolls on and has used up more time than we could have ever imagined possible. I would like to say it is all running smoothly but can’t. I do feel as if we have turned some major corners and things look better in recent days. So good in fact that I have ordered turkeys for this season, six more months of good bird stories! The first 6000 heads of lettuce are in the ground, the peas are up as is the spinach, turnips, radishes and more. Lots of flowers in the field too, we just now need to get some water to them to make them grow.
The winter speaking season ended last week with two presentations in Asheville at the Organic Growers’ School. I also traveled to speak at conferences in Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia. Good folks at all these meetings and we feel that the small farm-local food message is really growing by leaps and bounds. One more big meeting this weekend (the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group board meeting) and I can finally stay home and farm! Betsy is still taking Italian class two nights a week and I am taking a pastured pork production class one night a week, think prosciutto and pancetta!
Picture of the Week
Well we anticipated waking up to a grey and damp morning. Basically a rain day. We had arranged for the staff to come on Thursday instead of today, to take advantage of the weather and to try and snatch a kind of day off. The sun was out! Now as I continue on the clouds have rolled in and I feel more secure in our partial sloth this morning. This is not to say we don’t have plenty to do today with market this afternoon but at least it will start slower. After the long Farm Tour weekend and the run up to tomato planting it is good to pause for just a moment, after all it may be the last rain day for a long time!
We did have great rain on Saturday, not great for market and it limited the crowd some for the Farm Tour on Saturday afternoon but it was the best rain we have had since maybe January or even December, 1.3″ and a little more last night. With the rain forecast for today we will be able to finally get both ponds to full pool. I have been sweating over this for a month or more as we have been trying to increase water flow out of the creek and into the lower pond. I knew all we needed was a good rain to give us a break from irrigating the crops so we could move that water to the upper pond. One more good day of pumping and we will have it done! The race has been against the season, once the leaves are fully out on the trees the creek flow diminishes as it gets hotter because those trees really start sucking moisture out of the ground. The hotter it gets the more we have to irrigate and then there is no way to get caught up unless it starts to rain. The good news is that the USDA and National Weather Service has changed us from an “extreme” drought to just “severe” and the forecast for us, through July, is to be on the edge of “some improvement early in the period”. I think I will still make sure the ponds are full!
The Farm Tour was entertaining as usual. We always have about the same numbers of folks each year now. Because we have been on the tour all eleven years and are not as sexy as those farms with lots of animals our visitors are more predictable. We either have our great Farmers’ Market customers coming out to see what we are up to this year or we get people interested in going into farming and want to ask specific questions about how we do it. Both groups are fun and we enjoyed seeing all of you! The main planting of tomatoes were tucked into the ground yesterday! A careful choreography as there were five of us planting twenty three varieties in ten different rows. 650 plants in all. The staff want to know my rationale for what kind goes where. With the Big Tops there is a lot of extra water on the outside rows coming off the plastic roofs, the same result for the down hill ends of the rows. I carefully put those varieties that need extra water on the outside rows, things like the Green Zebras or Viva Italias who suffer first from too little water. The interior rows get the kinds that always explode with too much water, like the very sensitive Striped Germans and Sun Golds. The new test varieties go on the ends of the rows so we can keep an eye on them as we walk by everyday. It was supposed to only be 18 varieties in this planting but Betsy snuck in five more that we brought back from Italy last fall so I had to find room for them somewhere. In addition to those we have three new varieties that we are hopeful for, Mule Team (a red), Lillian’s Yellow, and Dorothy’s Green. I can taste the sandwiches now!
Picture of the Week
Striped German and Green Zebra tomatoes tucked into their warm raised beds, protected from the wind by the crimson clover cover crop and the rain by the roof of the Big Tops
Back from the summer “break” and already we are running around like crazy so this will be a quick newsletter. The time off was too short and we worked far too much, we did have some nice dinners out and slower afternoons but we are going to have to rethink how to actually make it even slower. Now we are back at it trying to get caught up and into the swing. The staff is back too and are ready to go, after a good long week off. Today was tomato picking and turkey moving. The rest of the week there are more fall crops to plant, peppers to pick and plenty of regular maintenance chores to take care of. The dry spell is really getting noticeable as the cover crops are not growing as they should and some near the tree lines are really stunted. The creek stopped running last week and we will have to start pulling water out of the upper pond soon. Perfect weather for peppers as long as we keep them irrigated.
What’s up with the early newsletter? Betsy and I have to leave for the airport at 4:30 in the morning to fly to Wisconsin. Not exactly the week we would have planned to be gone again but we are receiving the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture and thought we might ought to be there to accept it. We are very surprised and honored to have been even nominated for such an award and nearly speechless (well almost, you know Alex). The award is presented by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the USDA’s effort at helping to make agriculture more sustainable. “This award recognizes producers who have explored ways to make farming more profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities, and have served as effective educators”. We are always amazed when anyone recognizes us for what we consider everyday farm work and the outreach we do to anyone who has questions. On top of it there will be an embarrassing amount of publicity about it including an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with Melissa Block on Wednesday afternoon. We won’t be back until Thursday late so Rachel and Will will be taking care of Wednesday market and the farm along with Joann.
Picture of the Week
It is colored bell and pepper roaster time!
We look skyward as we do the rain dance hoping that something will come to erase that crispy look and feel the farm has been developing over the last few weeks. Now that Ernesto is on his way I hope we didn’t dance too gleefully as they are now calling for up to seven inches of rain before Friday afternoon! Now we go into batten down the hatches mode. Mostly that means we have to pick quite a bit of stuff for Saturday market this morning before the rains start. Fortunately peppers are one of those vegetables that can be picked quite early and their quality holds up beautifully for days. When you see how long it is possible to hold peppers one begins to wonder how old those peppers in the grocery store actually are, but I digress. Anytime that it is dry, for this length of time, we also get lackadaisical about making sure everything is put away completely so it doesn’t get wet. So we need to circle the farm and make sure there is nothing laying out in the weather. We also need to pull the gravity feed intake out of the bone dry creek in case it floods as well as keep an eye on the river levels over the next few days as we might have to pull the irrigation pump if it actually rains that much. Not much wind associated with this storm so at least we don’t have to make sure everything is tied down too.
Further signs of fall this past week as the days get noticeably shorter and the staff begins to move towards their fall and winter schedules. Rachel started back at UNC this week so we only have her help on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Joann, who keeps a schedule that makes us weary to think about (she runs her own farm, mostly runs ours and also works a couple of days a week at Weaver Street Market!), is beginning to pick up more shifts at Weaver Street for the winter season. Rett is already gone to his new farm in the mountains. Will is still hanging in there for the next month or so until we have the place put to bed for the winter. Several mornings a week it is just Will, Betsy and me to hold the place down. Soon as my mother used to say it will be “just us chickens”.
We have just four Saturday markets left in our season so the end is in sight. That means it is turkey reservation time! We always wait until now to make sure we have a fairly accurate number before we start to take peoples names and deposits. For those of you who got birds last year I will also send out a separate message just to make sure you don’t miss it in the regular newsletter mix. We have 84 birds on the ground right now with many of those already spoken for, so don’t delay. Attached is the turkey reservation information and form. Eerily like last year we are not exactly sure where we will be getting the birds processed. The local plant is in a state of transition and so we may have to go out of state or process them ourselves. The law allows farmers to process, without inspection, their own birds (up to 250 turkeys a year) and sell them to the public. Many people argue that in many ways this is a safer and cleaner option than large plants (like Perdue). In either case they will be frozen just as last year at a state of the art freezing plant that results in excellent meat quality. Because we are going to Italy before Thanksgiving we are going to process the birds early so we don’t have to worry about them while we are gone.
Picture of the Week
The dry creek bed with the end of the gravity feed water line
After two straight Wednesdays of early starts to cover the Big Tops I am finally back on schedule with the news from the farm. It’s hot and getting dry, dry, dry and we are working to get enough water on everything but the newly transplanted small seedlings would really like a rain to get them established. Our standard spring planting procedure is to plant on days just before a rain is due to arrive so everything gets a good drink of water. The past few weeks the weather has not cooperated in that way so we move to our summer dry weather system of preparing the planting bed and then burying a drip irrigation line right down the middle of the bed. We then plant the bed and drag a hose along to water the little plants in well and then let the buried irrigation take over. This irrigation line is buried just a few inches deep so we can weed over it but it also makes it so the water, that slowly drips out of its openings, moves out through the soil soaking the bed and the plants roots. That’s the theory and generally it works. When the top few inches of the soil is as dry as it is now and a hot dry wind blows it is almost impossible to get the whole bed wet with the irrigation line. We would have to run it for hours and hours to wet it completely and then the established plants in neighboring beds would be too wet. So the next move, if the rains don’t come and the little plants are drying out, is to roll out the micro-sprinklers to artificially rain on them. These little sprinklers run on low pressure like the drip irrigation lines do but can throw a fine spray up to ten feet but then we irrigate up the all the weeds too. No easy solution other than a little rain, maybe tomorrow?
For the second year in a row we are working with NC State on an interesting research project with grafted tomatoes. In other parts of the world with limited agricultural land and intensive plantings it can be very easy to begin to have problems with soil-borne diseases from planting the same kinds of crops in the same place year after year. One solution is to use a disease resistant rootstock and graft the variety of vegetable you want on top of it. Just like fruit trees where they use rootstocks to control the size of the tree and then put say a Golden Delicious on top. In places like Korea and Japan and Israel a large percentage of their tomatoes, melons and other fruiting vegetable crops are now grafted. Last year we/they tested two rows of tomatoes here on our farm, just out in the field, testing three different rootstocks just to see the growth and yield differences. This year they wanted to have the research plot under the Big Tops just like the rest of our tomatoes and to use one of our usual varieties. So we decided on testing our favorite tomato, Cherokee Purple. We grow more Cherokee Purples than red tomatoes and so it is a very important crop for us. Just in case they had trouble producing the grafted transplants in the lab at NC State we started a whole set ourselves so we wouldn’t be without our favorite kind, assuming we would just give those plants away if the graduate student ended up with enough plants. Then we got nervous and decided to plant those plants anyway just in case there was other difficulties with the grafted plants, this is research after all, things can happen. So now we have twice as many Cherokee Purples than ever before! It could make for a very tasty July!
Picture of the Week
Setting up the micro-sprinklers to try and water up the new zinnias
OK so it’s officially dry now as the plantains along the drive way are curling up and crinkly. Also because we are now pumping water every day. Once the temperatures hit the 90’s and the evaporation rate is something like a quarter inch a day we have to irrigate every day just to keep up. All spring it has been so cool that, while dry, what water we put out there lasted a long time in the soil, not so anymore. We began running water out of the creek this week to try and keep the pumping pond full, right now it is about 18 inches down. So my daily routine is to roll out of bed and walk down and turn on the irrigation. Then every two hours walk around the farm opening valves on another field or two and closing the valves on the area just watered, checking for leaks or other problems along the way. This goes on for eight to ten hours until the early afternoon when we turn it off for the day, no use in putting water out there in the heat of the day when it just flies out of the ground almost as fast as you put it out there. These perambulations allow me to get a good look at everything on the farm as normally there are crops that are left alone for long periods after planting until we need to cultivate or begin harvesting. It’s not like we just ignore them but we don’t check them every day, like Betsy says “If it’s not on fire…”.
We should begin to be preoccupied with picking Blueberries about now but I still haven’t seen one ripe. I am worried that with only about a twenty percent crop the birds are going to get them before we do. We have been noticing a small flock of birds flying out of the bushes every time we approach. Now we have always lost a few to the birds but never had a group like this consistently working it’s way up and down the rows. I have heard from the strawberry growers that they are noticing more birds in there patches too. It could be that with the freeze they lost a lot of their native fruits and other food so are going for the easy pickings in the cultivated fields. With this lack of berries we are able to get plenty of other work done around the place. The main planting of tomatoes are waist high and need tying up again, the construction of the pepper trellis was started this week, and general flower weeding and trellising is always needed. Soon the spring vegetable will all be gone and we will begin the dismantling of the pea trellis and rolling up the irrigation. Summer cover crops will need to be planted soon too but not without the chance of rain. Maybe we’ll even have time to run some new water lines, just might need them.
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A view from the top of the farm
Glorious weather this last week and a little eerie, similar to when hurricanes are around and they suck all the moisture up into their circulation, creating strangely clear skies with clouds moving in directions completely different than normal. None the less we have been enjoying almost sweat free work and getting things done in the afternoons that we would normally just put off because it would be just too beastly to be out “there”. At some point you know the other shoe must drop and so it did this week. That shoe being the continuing and deepening drought. Sunday I was going down to turn the irrigation on and and found the gravity feed line, that we use to run water out of the creek to help keep the pumping pond full, was not running. This happens from time to time, especially when the creek flow is very low. I walked back up to the head of the field to check the creek and the line to find the creek not running at all. This is not the first time we have seen the creek dry up but it is very unusual (it has happened maybe 5 times in 26 years) and is a sure sign of seriously dry conditions.
This drought is one of those insidious ones where it is not really apparent unless you are trying to keep plants alive and producing. We think of most droughts as hot monsters that clamp down and it doesn’t rain at all for weeks. This one is tricky, a little cool weather here to lull you into a false sense of comfort, a bit of rain there to make you say to yourself “well it rained just the other day”. With the creek dry we are now down to using the last above ground water we have. The “upper pond” as we refer to it is about two months worth of water when full, but after months of evaporation it was down about two feet already. That was before I ran its water down hill to the pumping pond yesterday as it was less than half full. We can refill the pumping pond about 4 times from the other until it is dry too. Maybe six weeks of irrigation. So it goes, daily watering to keep it all happy, cutting off crops as soon as we decide they are done, checking for leaks, deciding which crops are marginal and maybe won’t get any water at all or we won’t plant for fall as there just isn’t enough water to go around. There are good things about droughts too, especially for us organic growers. When it’s dry we have much less plant disease problems because the fungus and bacteria that cause the problems can’t thrive in dry conditions. Weeds too are slowed down, they either don’t germinate at all or are not as vigorous and easier to kill. And mowing is a marvelous thing, mow an area and it lasts for weeks, some areas of the farm I have only mowed once this year!
Picture of the Week
The pumping pond half full, water from the upper pond coming in at the top right.
58 degrees this morning on the front porch, going to be near 100 this afternoon. It’s a dry heat though, a desert heat. We thought we had been clever and missed the hot week of the summer by going up to the mountains in the middle of the 100 degree days but it’s hot up there too and they don’t think they need air conditioning. We did have a good time being off last week except we tried to do too much, as usual, and so it was over in a flash. Back to reality and the desert of Peregrine Farm. What we are watering looks pretty good and we picked a surprising amount of tomatoes Monday off the old planting and the new, and last, planting is just starting to turn color. This week we are working to reclaim areas that we let slide for a bit just before and then were completely left alone during the break. The peppers are a case in point as the crab grass in the paths, between the rows of plants, has grown into the plants. If we don’t act now it will make picking hell for the rest of the season so we are going through and rolling the thick grass mats back and then pushing the mower down the paths to cut it back before it just flops back down into the plants. Row by row but it is a rewarding job as we can see how much better our lives will be when is comes to picking the beautiful peppers hanging on the plants just next to our efforts.
We are beginning to mow down those crops finished for the season and those that have perished in the drought without irrigation water. The last planting of sweet corn, which is unirrigated, is going under the mower along with plantings of Zinnias and sunflowers. This is the beginning of the clean up for the end of the year, soon I will take soil tests and begin the process of putting the planting areas to bed for the winter. Spreading mineral amendments and seeding winter cover crops, all assuming we get some rain to make it possible to even till the soil. The summer cover crops are ready to be mowed down too, not as robust as they usually are because of the drought they have done amazingly well in those fields away from the effects of tree roots. Where ever they are within 50 feet of a tree, the cover crop plants are maybe eight inches high and then they jump up to two and three feet high. It is not the direct effect of the tree roots actually being in that soil but the fact that the trees have pulled every bit of water out of the soil near them and then by capillary action sucked all the water up towards them for another 30 feet or so.
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The tree root effect 50 or more feet from the tree trunks
Three tenths of an inch of rain last night, quite unexpected but always happy to receive it, won’t have to irrigate today. It still doesn’t relieve the strange feeling we have around the farm this week, that odd sensation of what will happen next. I think aggravated by the drought and the intense heat there have been two events this week that make us realize that we are not exactly an island out here. The first is that our neighbor is having his land logged, clear cut he tells me. 400 acres that comprise our entire south side. Runs from the road to the river, beautiful rolling land with bluffs over the creek and big hard woods. Now we have cleared a lot of land here on the farm and turned it into growing areas, we are no strangers to a chainsaw or a bull dozer. But they were an acre or two at a time and had previously been fields, this is a huge area of what felt like untouched land. From first light to last the logging machines roar up and down the hill cutting and dragging trees to the loading zone, slowly the tree line to the south is getting lighter and thinner. Maybe it’s just the constant din of the machines but it does make us feel like we are not as alone out here as it usually seems.
The second event happened Monday up the road on our north side. Big fields of corn line the north side of the road, dry and crinkly tan as the drought has done it’s work. A transformer on the power line that runs down the road exploded or caught fire (probably due to the high electric demand from the days of heat) which ignited a fire in the dry grass on the road side, fanned by the hot wind from the southwest it blew into the parched corn field. It ran through that corn in a hurry, burning off all the leaves and the husks on the ears of corn leaving just stalks and the yellow orange ears of corn standing up right. Soon it jumped into the woods and headed towards some new houses in the next field over. The volunteer fire departments and the NC Forest Service stopped it there but it took most of the day to do so. No damage to any buildings just to the nerves of the neighborhood. I know we will feel better when the heat breaks and maybe some rains come, until then we are walking around the edges of our island and keeping an eye out for what might be coming next.
Picture of the Week
Burned over corn, just stalks and bare ears
We are in the middle of an interesting week beginning with getting the place ready for multiple groups of visitors. It is hard to make the Kalahari desert look vibrant when everything is brown except for the small patches we are irrigating. But we mowed what needed it and picked up and tidied around the buildings making mental notes that we should never have tours in September when we are just about to close for the season, oh well. The best looking thing we have are the cowpeas we planted as a cover crop and which, in a normal year, should have been mowed down by now but have struggled to get this far, at least they are a rich green. Saturday was a long but fun day. The Southern Foodways Alliance was in town for what they call one of their field camps. A group dedicated to the preservation of southern culture(s), from arts and crafts to music and writing but all sort of surrounded by the foods of the south. People from all over the country were here, you may have noticed them touring the market on Saturday. We hosted them here at the farm Saturday afternoon where we talked about small scale farming, the market in this area and tasted tomatoes. They didn’t realize what a miracle it was for us to have the wealth of tomatoes we have had this late in the season, this season in particular! We then headed into town for a large dinner with the whole group, having been awake since 1:00 a.m. we decided to head home at 10:30 instead of following the group down the road to sample the local taco truck, it was a sound idea.
Yesterday we had a group out from NC State which included two Uruguayans who are doing research in their country on organic farming. Through an excellent interpreter we walked all around and showed them how we did it here. Discussions about soil fertility, rotations, cover crops, etc. They were also very interested in how we used the turkeys, integrated with the crop production, too bad we didn’t have any turkeys to show them this time around. This coming Saturday after market, again, there will be a film crew here from Gourmet Magazine shooting some of our crops (up close I hope) for their TV show “The Diary of a Foodie” which is on PBS, here on Saturday afternoons. They are working on a piece with Andrea Ruesing at Lantern Restaurant, who knew when we all agreed to do this that we would be in the middle of an historic drought. At least it will be cooler and they always tell me they can do miracles with the camera and editing!
Picture of the Week
This is our creek, a good sized stream, dry for two months now, our house is 100′ to the left