Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #15, 4/15/21

What’s been going on!

Forty years ago yesterday Betsy and I took a day off from work, drove down to Dillon, South Carolina and got married.  14,601 days ago but who is counting?  It was just another practical decision on our part, like so many others we have made over the years.  We had been together for a few years by then, having moved here from Utah in 1980 to try and start a small farm. 

I was working as a carpenter and she was cooking in the kitchen at the Fearrington House while we were trying to bring the farm to fruition.  We had incorporated the business in the fall of 1980, had raised some initial capital and were looking for land, a task made much harder during the recession with high interest rates but we forged ahead and eventually found this wonderful piece of land in the fall of 1981.

Getting married was a rational business decision (it made lots of legal things easier) as well as a commitment to each other but we were not at all tied to a “wedding”.  We worked on Monday, drove down with a few friends and my Mom for the 30 minute process which cost $35, stopped at South of the Border for our “reception” on the way home and then went back to work on Wednesday.  No fuss, no muss.

People have asked why we are retiring this month and I have said to many that not only is it our 40th season of farming but it’s Betsy’s 40th wedding anniversary present, instead of the traditional gift of a ruby.  She replies she would have been happy to stop at 39 and wouldn’t want a ruby anyway.  One of the words for retirement in Spanish is jubilado, very close to jubilation and we have taken to using it more frequently lately.

One of the other questions folks ask is “what are you going to do with yourselves?”.  It has never crossed out minds that we might not have enough to do.  Besides the joint care and feeding of all of our land and buildings, which is enough to keep us plenty busy on its own, we have a long list of over 30 places and counting that we want to travel to once Covid allows us to.

Betsy has become re-invigorated about what we have always referred to as her “recreational” flower beds, large areas around the farm dedicated to mostly perennial ornamentals.  She has always been a plant person and has upwards of an half an acre in these beds that and she is excited to finally be able to give lots of attention to.  She also plans to spend much more time in her pottery studio.  There of course is her ongoing work with the local Democratic party.

While also a joint project, I am looking forward to completely re-designing what will be our personal food gardens starting with taking down five of the six sliding tunnels, keeping one for us, and developing a new rotation of outside beds that will surround the remaining tunnel that will include vegetables, some cut flowers and of course cover crops.  We plan on finally planting some fruit trees and for the first time in decades some raspberries, blackberries and asparagus again.  It will be a new age of experimentation and growing things we never have or haven’t in years because it didn’t make sense for the business.  Small plantings, very manageable.

As some folks know I am an avid backpacker and plan on many more trips both local and in the western US.  There will be lots of day hikes and I may even put my kayak back on the water for the first time in decades.  Having just typed all of those plans I may have to sit down and rest a bit so we don’t overdo.

Pictures of the week

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Two of Betsy’s recreational flower beds

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #12, 3/26/21

What’s been going on!

Betsy and I were out yesterday morning doing daily tasks like we have done on any number of the thousands of farm mornings over the last four decades, it is automatic, muscle memory type of work.  I was pulling radishes, bent over with my left arm on my left knee, supporting my back with the growing bunch in my left hand while my right hand searched for the correct sized root.  One, two, three…eight, stand up grab a rubber band from the pouch on my right hip, two wraps around the base of the leaves, set the bunch down, bend over and repeat.  A bunch a minute, 80 bunches later I am done for this week- with radishes.

Betsy is in the anemone tunnel next to me, with in the same stance but with a growing armload of flowers in her left arm and a set of scissors in her right hand.  Judging each bloom for the right size and quality, sliding to the base of the stem, cut and move to the pile in her left arm.  When the load gets too big to carry, she walks them out to the back of the truck which gives her a chance to stand up straight for a minute or two before starting again; an important posture this week as she gets over a muscle pull in her hip.  The big difference is she repeats this task every single morning, except for market Saturdays, while the anemones and ranunculus are blooming.

It isn’t really terrible work but as we talk back and forth, we agree that it is one of the many things we will not miss once we retire in 5 weeks.  People are increasingly realizing that we are serious about calling it quits and having a hard time believing it will happen so soon when we are at market with a table full of produce and flowers and ask why and how (the how I will talk about in the future) but we are more than ready to move to the next phase or our adventure together.  There are so many facets of running your own business and growing on a commercial scale that we relished, enjoyed and embraced over the years but are tired of now or just don’t have the interest in doing anymore and we know that without that drive it is time to stop.

There are things we will miss like regularly seeing everyone at market, having the easy abundance of produce to eat and flowers to fill the house and give to friends but we can replicate most of that with a smaller garden and weekly shopping trips to the market.  We are not worried about how we will fill our time, just which thing we want to do first.

Picture of the week

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This sort of wild abundance will soon be a thing of the past

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 18 #7, 2/19/21

What’s been going on!

We certainly got lucky with the ice storm that didn’t happen, we are feeling for our friends in Texas and other places who have been taking the brunt of this winter’s fury, that kind of weather is usually more ours to worry about.

We have not really talked much about what it is like to slowly close down and take apart the business we worked so long and hard to build.  For so many years we were focused on building things, improving systems, growing our infrastructure and that of the local food system, learning, learning, learning.  If we had not been that way, we would not have had the successful business we ended up running but over the last two years we have been in the reverse process.

Once we made the decision that the party was over we started to identify what equipment we would no longer need and how to manage the land and buildings so that it would be the least maintenance for us in the long run.  There will still be a lot to maintain as we do have 26 acres, 8 of that are open and have to be mowed, 4 major buildings and 6 outbuildings.  We have begun to sell off some things like the big high tunnels and some greenhouse seeding equipment but will have much more to go after this spring when we take out 5 of the 6 sliding tunnels and really finalize the list of things like fencing and trellising, seeders, row covers and more.  Decisions will need to be made about refrigeration equipment and irrigation pumps but that is all just stuff.

We have talked some in the past about how we personally cleared, with chainsaws, two additional fields to what was already open when we bought the place.  Each one nearly two acres in size and years in the making.  We for sure are not going to let that land or any of the rest return to trees, partly for all the work we put into turning it into productive farm land but also in case anyone wants to farm it in the future.  Over the last two years we have been removing all of the deer fencing and smoothing and seeding down those growing areas to pasture grass to preserve the great soil we had developed and to make it easy to mow once or twice a year.  All of the underground irrigation supply lines are still there if someone wants to use them someday.

In many ways it has been therapeutic, returning the place to how we found it originally but actually better and it has reminded us of how much work we put in in the beginning and how valuable it was in our formation as people.  It is not a sad process but more like letting a caged bird fly free.

Pictures of the week

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The “blueberry” field before we cleared it

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The clearing process

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The finished product

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In production, blueberries in the far back corner

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Everything back in grass except the blueberries

What’s going to be at Market?

Us! Finally the Anemones are cooperating! 

Stay safe and well and we hope to see you all at the market soon!

Alex and Betsy

If you know folks who you think would be interested in news of the farm then please feel free to forward this to them and encourage them to sign up at the website.

Peregrine Farm News Vol. 16 #4, 2/21/19 The Big Reveal

Peregrine Farm 7.0, or as we joke, back under really old management.

My father, who was a keen observer of life, always said that you had to reinvent yourself every so often.  By our loose thinking we have done so with Peregrine Farm about every 6 years or so. From all Pick-Your-Own berries to vegetables and cut flowers sold at Wholesale and Farmers’ Market.  From only Betsy on the farm full time to both of us with employees.  Reducing the emphasis on wholesale to really focusing on the Farmers’ Market.  Turkeys and the Big Tops.  Bringing Jennie on as a business partner.  All big changes in both direction and to “the brand”.  7.0 is the next re-jiggering, as my father would have also said, is probably the most dramatic since getting out of the Pick-Your-Own business.

If you read previous farm transition pieces closely you know that our original plan, before Jennie, was to eventually downsize to where just the two of us could do the work, go to Farmers’ Market only part of the year and become old characters at market (we may have already attained the last part) and that is what we are doing.  There are points of no return with this plan and we are fine with that.  The two big ones are getting so small that there is not enough work to actually hire help and giving up one of our two spaces at the market because we will not have enough product to fill two spaces and won’t be there enough weeks to qualify to have two spaces (27 weeks).

When Jennie made her decision last June we began to draw up the new plan.  It had to revolve around farming in the cooler months as both of us have gotten to where we don’t tolerate the heat well anymore and we wanted a large chunk of time off for travel and to enjoy life while we are still in good shape.  We have to attend market at least 17 weeks a year to hold one reserved space which is the key to us being successful.  While the “cooler months” do include fall and winter the difficulties of producing enough, consistently, in those seasons are too many.  We would focus on late winter, spring- when the growing conditions are the best and the very early bit of summer.

We also knew that we couldn’t grow every crop that we had in the past, so as pragmatic business people we did a deep dive into our data to determine which ones really paid the bills and how much of it we really needed to produce to meet market demand.  This also meant giving up crops that either didn’t carry their weight, didn’t grow easily on this piece of land or we just didn’t like growing.  The years of experimentation were over, we were going to only grow the tried and true.

In the downsizing we would limit ourselves to only a half an acre, a big change from the 2 to 2.5 acres we had been producing for the last decade or more with four to five people.  This is one quarter acre outdoors and one quarter acre under the cover of the little sliding tunnels.  We are moving from being small farmers to large gardeners.

So what does all this look like?  Our market season will start in January and run about 20 weeks until the 4th of July, Independence Day.  Our growing season of course starts earlier with a few things going in the ground in October and November but the greenhouse and planting really starts in earnest in December.  As you can see now at market it starts with Anemones soon to be followed by Ranunculus and other spring flowers.  Cool season vegetables will focus on lettuces with other greens and salad turnips and radishes.  Warm season vegetables will be limited to the very early cucumbers, basil and tomatoes.

Most significantly the days of big tomatoes and peppers are over.  The Big Tops (Haygrove field scale tunnels) that have allowed us to consistently grow large amounts of tomatoes have been taken down and sold, they are just too big for us to manage without employees and would mean too much tomato work in the heat of the summer.  We are going from 1300 plants down to 260 that will give us tomatoes in June.

The single biggest change will be no more peppers for market and no more pepper roasting.  We are thinking about coming for a few weeks in September just to roast peppers for people who purchase them from other vendors at market.  This is the one crop we really hate to stop producing for market but it is the most time consuming crop and during the hottest months, as they are in the ground from May until November.

So there it is, Plan B.  One of the reasons that Betsy and I became farmers in the first place was to be able control our as much of our own destiny as possible by working for ourselves, producing our own food and building our surrounds and this is just a continuation of that determination.  We know that you will embrace this next evolution of Peregrine Farm too!

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Holy cow! The sun came out.  This is now the scope of Peregrine Farm

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 16 #3, 2/14/19

What’s been going on!

We want to thank everyone who sent kind words and support for the Barker family!

We have more news to share and we have been waiting until the time was right to do so.  We have talked about this with some folks over the last few months and we are sad to say that Jennie will not be staying on with Peregrine Farm.  This was a very hard decision for her and we completely understood her position and supported her while feeling very sorry that she was leaving.

After eight years with us she came to realize that in the long run, without a business partner, she would not be able to run this operation by herself.  We concurred that it is nearly impossible to farm alone and while Betsy and I are currently still around we would increasingly not be here and eventually completely.  A secondary factor was that being alone out here in the country is difficult too.

What the three of us were trying to do in transitioning the farm to a non-family member was very difficult and a very high bar to achieve.  Only half of family owned businesses make it to the second generation and only half of those to the third and most of those are not farms.  I think about this several times a week when I drive by a local farm that has a sign out front that says “Since 1774”, that’s right, two years before the Declaration of Independence!  Who knows what infinitesimal part of a percentage point that farm is amongst all farms who succeed in passing the farm on.

We are proud of what we did accomplish and of the work we did to build a situation and relationship with Jennie.  Our legal and working model was excellent and Jennie did an incredible job of taking over the reins and running the farm.  But if you are not happy in your situation then a change needs to happen.  Betsy and I have been fortunate to have each other to work alongside all these years and have loved this place and the farming life but as I frequently say “there are reasons that farmers are only one percent of the population”.

The three of us knew from the beginning that something could happen that would make our plan not work out and so we have always had Plan B which we alluded to in our series of pieces on farm transition.  First we will say that we are not going to look for another person or persons to pass Peregrine Farm, the business, on to; it is simply too late in our lives and takes too much energy to build the relationship needed.  We have always said that Jennie was the only time we were going to attempt this and are a bit sad that the farm business will not survive us but the land will.

There are big changes afoot with Plan B and we are excited about them.  Next week I will layout the whole picture of what we are calling Peregrine Farm 7.0.  In the meantime if you run into Jennie in town (fortunately she is staying in the area) give her a warm greeting and thank her for growing such great produce for you!

Picture of the Week

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First light of day on a tunnel of Little Gem

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 15 #3, 3/9/18

Betsy and I are headed to New Orleans next week to a cut flower conference to talk about our farm transition to Jennie so what better time for the next part in the series about our farm transition process.

The early Plan

In those weekly meetings through the summer of 2012 we talked about our needs and desires and we talked hard about money.  The first thing we needed to know was how much money did Jennie need to make, what was her budget and could this tiny farm afford it and keep Betsy and me alive too?  She went home and carefully calculated what her expenses were if she could live on the farm without rent, utilities and health insurance but with her school and car loans.

The number she came back with was surprisingly close to what we paid her as a part time hourly employee.  We then said well let’s come up with a plan to make that additional income.  Since 2000 we had been going to market only about 30 weeks a year and not growing fall or overwintered crops so Jennie came up with a crop plan for fall and winter production with estimated yields and income which showed we could cover that gap and some.  We all agreed to go for it that fall and see if it could be done.  These were also early tests of her thinking processes and practicality.

At the same time we worked on a five year plan and loose agreement between the three of us that outlined the general principles (and questions we needed answers to) that had come out of our meetings.  The timeline was through 2016 when Betsy and I would turn 60 and in 2017 we would begin to reduce our hours in the field.  It included dates for when Jennie would begin to receive various benefits and shares of stock in the corporation.

The first benefit we needed to provide was a huge one, a place for her to live on the farm.  We designed a comfortable one bedroom apartment above a workshop on the other side of the farm from our house that she could be happy in for some years to come.  In October we poured the foundations and started building.  By July 2013, she moved onto the farm and began to receive a salary that reflected her budget.  We then continued to proceed with the rest of the plan.

Yet to come becoming business partners and learning to let go…

Picture of the Week

P1040103 There is more produce coming soon, really

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 14 #18, 6/15/17

What’s been going on!

This is the next in a series about our farm transition process.

Why Jennie, why now?

By our mid 50’s the summers were wearing on us more and the aches and pains of 30 years of farming didn’t go away as fast as they used to.  Part of our success has been in the amazing group of young folks who have come to us wanting to learn to be farmers and then would move on but that means finding new faces every year or two and a continuous training program that takes a lot of time and energy.  Jennie came to us as one of those people.

In 2012, midway through her second year with us, we were talking about what her future plans were and she said she thought she might move on to another farm where she would be a co-manager.  Very nearly the same time our friends and longtime professional colleagues, Ben and Karen Barker, had closed their successful restaurant and headed into retirement.  They closed the restaurant for many reasons but one that struck me was they were not sure how much more energy they had to train new chefs.  I didn’t realize it but I was actually in the same place.

When Jennie said she might move on I said “but what if we don’t want to lose Jennie?”  She replied “well I can’t work for wages for ever.”  Fair enough so I countered with “well let’s talk then”.  We didn’t know Jennie well but she was smart, organized, calm and stable beyond her then 26 years.  She is a hard worker but had barely four years of farming experience yet really wanted to farm.  Unlike many of the people who had worked for us and then went on to start their own places, she had no clear way to get started- no family land, no capital resources just a strong inner desire.  It sounded a lot like us 30 years ago.

In June of that year we set the record for the number of 100 degree days in a row and then in July we had The Big Storm.  While we took those extreme events in stride it made us think even harder about how we would continue to manage such hurdles in the years to come.

The three of us started meeting every week to see what we could figure out and began to come up with a plan that would enable Jennie to farm and help us bridge the time span until 65 and then further into the future.  More yet to come…

Picture of the Week

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The great dividing line between peppers on fabric and those in the no-till

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 13 #31, 9/29/16

What’s been going on!

So I didn’t mean to leave every one hanging with last weeks newsletter like a “Who shot JR” ending, I thought it was just implied that there was more to come.  Part of the reason we have decided to talk openly about our succession process is that we know a number of farms struggling with the exact same issues and we don’t know anyone who has successfully passed on their operations to a non-family member.

Even farms with children or family members are having a difficult time figuring it out.  In 2014 when Betsy was in California for the first Gathering of the Agrarian Elders even those very successful farmers had no plans for transition, were just thinking about it or their kids did not want to take over such large operations.  We hope that by writing about our experience other older farmers or young farmers looking for some way to farm will get some ideas.

Big seasonal changes on the farm this week as the annual soil preparation for all of next year begins.  While we did get almost 3 inches of rain last night it is timely to make it easier to work the soil, by next week it will be perfect.  I spent the first big block of time on the new tractor yesterday doing the final mowing of spent crops and cover crops and it was a pleasure.  Still getting used to the new sight lines, sounds and turning radius but I will give it a thumbs up.

We also uncovered six of the eight Big Tops getting ready for winter, finished cleaning out the rest of the tomatoes and spread compost on next year’s tomato beds.  Slowly we lurch towards the first frost.

Pictures of the Week

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Looking out from the remains of this year’s tomatoes towards where next season’s will be

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Crazy Super Crest Celosia

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 13 #30, 9/22/16 the first day of fall

What’s been going on!

This is the next in a series about our farm transition

Why transition at all?

As first generation farmers we felt some responsibility that the farm we had built should continue on past us but Betsy and I had decided in our early 50’s that we were not going to pass the farm to anyone.   We have no kids so that was not a factor and while we had been fortunate to have many good folks work for us over the years who have gone on to start their own farms, we felt it would be too complicated to bring someone on as a partner, as Betsy says “It’s like getting married again”.

Ten years ago we were still indestructible and planned to just slowly wind down.  We would reduce the amount we planted to where the two of us could handle it alone and just go to Farmers’ Market for part of the year.  We would become old characters at market.

The reality is most farmers have to sell their farms to retire but, probably because we didn’t have children, we have saved enough to be able to slow down or eventually even stop working if we are cautious.  Even with careful budgeting we still have to work some until 65 and Medicare kicks in and 66 and full Social Security.  We want to and financially it is best if we can stay in the house we built with our hands on this beautiful piece of ground for as long as possible but we knew that wouldn’t be entirely easy.

We had watched both sets of parents grow old, as well as our 90 year old neighbors and saw the difficulties of doing that alone in the country.  Sure we’re tough now but who will cut up the trees that come down in a storm when we are 80?  Who will take care of this place and how will we get to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments when we are near 90?  We also saw other farmer friends of ours (some younger) have to slow down or quit because of bad backs or hearts or some other reason.  The writing on the wall was becoming clearer.

Picture of the Week

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Some really nice celery and fennel sizing up for Thanksgiving

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Peregrine Farm News Vol. 13 #19, 6/23/16

What’s been going on!

Farm transition, a very popular subject these days in the farm community as many farmers are getting older (average age is 59) and are trying to figure out what they are going to do with their businesses and properties and themselves as they get even older.  It is a complicated process that has many moving parts and every farm business is different in some way or another.

It is a long process too.  You don’t pass on, close or sell any business quickly, especially one where you live and have nurtured your whole life.  It takes time to put all the pieces in place as there is estate planning, financial planning, tax planning, and all manner of legal details to work through.  The more people involved, the slower it goes but as we are finding sometimes going slow is best as it reveals things that were not apparent at first.

Astute readers of the newsletter have maybe pieced this together between the lines and certainly we have spoken with many of you over the last few years at market or conferences about our transition plans but this is really the first official, in print, announcement about what we refer to as “The Jennie Project”.  Let me first say that all is fine with us and the farm, we are just being proactive about managing the last third of our life before it starts to manage us.

Over the coming months and years we will discuss our thoughts and process and how it is all going but rest assured that Betsy and I are not going anywhere.  We do plan to slow down some and let Jennie take over more and more of the business and work responsibilities in the next five years or so.  After 35 years it’s time for a change.

Part of the process is happening this week as the surveyor is here marking off our house and acreage, separate from the rest of the farm, so that we can stay here as long as we want but still be owners of the farm too.  It is exciting, interesting, scary, maddening, and rewarding all at the same time!

Picture of the Week

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It is definitely yellow flower season

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