Peregrine Farm News Vol. 8 #2, 4/1/11

What’s been going on?

April fools day, well we’ve been fooled all week by the weather that’s for sure. 26 degrees on Tuesday morning, to be expected in late spring. We covered the early tunnel tomatoes and everybody was fine, the blueberries will let us know how they did, we could be fooled. What really fooled us this week was the rain. Looked like a rain day on Monday and we only got a tenth of an inch. Looked like a rain day on Wednesday and we got a great rain of just over an inch. Looked like rain for sure yesterday afternoon so had the staff only work a half a day and we barely got any water from the sky. Hard to call sometimes and we just don’t have much inside work right now.

It’s like that in spring. You try and have a plan for the week and the extremes of weather really decide what you will do. Fortunately the staff understands, they would rather work and make some money but they know if it is too wet there are only so many things we can do. Can’t till soil, can’t cultivate, etc. So it’s late spring chainsaw season. There is always a field edge to clean up/fight back and when it’s a cold morning a little brush fire is a welcome thing. So Tuesday we worked over the edge of the woods at the very top of the farm, it has probably been 15 years since we did it last. This morning it will be some firewood cutting until it warms up and then we can harvest a bit for market. So it goes.

Great staff this year, like all years it seems. Glenn is back for his third season and has taken the reins of responsibility in hand. Jennie is new to us this year but has been working on farms in the area for several years. They are doing an excellent job and everything really is in order. I just wish we had more to do right now. Now that really is an April fools joke because in a few weeks we will be overwhelmed with work and begging for a break.

Picture of the Week

A wet day but the peas and the beets really like it.

What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading

3/26/04 Vol. 1 #2

This is that time of year when we seem to go around the clock but we sure packed a lot of living into this week!  One of those seemingly endless meetings that I alluded to last week started off this week.  I went down to Robeson county to participate in a panel discussion to help kick-off Small Farms week.  A lot of activities surround NC A&T State Univ. Small Farms week including the naming of the Small Farmer of the Year, this year it is our very own Stanley Hughes who sells with us at the Saturday market!  Betsy and I were chosen in 1995, a long and dusty time ago.  Got home in time to help Betsy cover a wide variety of crops with floating row cover in anticipation of the cold.  18 degrees here on Tuesday morning, everything looks fine tho’.

There are a few critical weeks in every season (tomato and pepper planting weeks being two) this week happened to be one of those as it is the week that we “slide” our sliding tunnels/greenhouses.  For those of you who have been to the farm before you have seen our six 16’X48′ tunnels on rails that we move to cover sensitive crops.  I takes the better part of two days to complete that move which includes taking the end walls off, unbolting endless bolts, the actual slide and then putting it all back together again.  We got smart this year and actually split it into two days (Tuesday and Thursday).

Picture of the week

They hate it when I make them stop half way for pictures!  Sliding off of early planted flowers and over the tomato beds with trellis installed

4/9/04 Vol. 1 #4

Another huge week on the farm.  So much happened that it is hard to remember it all!  The cold weather early in the week (29 degrees out here on Tuesday morning) passed without too much apparent damage, still hard to say how the blueberries faired as they where blooming up a storm.  We took advantage of the cool temperatures by finishing up getting in all of next years firewood.  We have been heating with wood  for 23 years now and the task always looms large and important (it’s the only heat source we have), we over achieved this winter and cut enough for a year and a half!  I can already see more leisure time coming next winter.  It is great security knowing that we won’t have to break up the furniture next winter to keep warm!

This dry weather has been perfect for getting all of the cultivation/weeding done, the staff has done a great job of cleaning everything up, now we just need some water to keep it growing.  Even though the forecast is for a good wet period early next week I will still be setting up irrigation today, that will bring the rains for sure!  We also got more things planted both in the greenhouse (more tomatoes, tomatillos, sunflowers) and in the field with the first of Betsy’s fabulous Zinnia’s being seeded.  Last year we planted the first Zinnias three times (does that make each planting the first?) because the first two were flooded from all of last springs rains.  Won’t happen this time, they are high up on the hill.

The big project this week is the subject of the picture of the week.  You will get lots of news on this as the season progresses but we began the final step of a process we started last fall.

Picture of the Week
This is the worlds largest roll of plastic!

4/12/06 Vol. 3 #5

Wow!  What beautiful days, this is one of the reasons to live in North Carolina, what seems like weeks of clear blue skies and temperatures in the 70’s.  Even the building pollen storms are not enough to take the luster off.  But spring in North Carolina has one devilish side that most people don’t realize.  Late spring frosts.  We are in one of the worst frost “pockets” in the eastern US here in central North Carolina.  This is why we don’t have much tree fruit at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.  With all of these beautiful days the fruit trees (and other flowering things) get going like gang busters and then a cold front rolls through and the blossoms get zapped, result- no fruit.  Our neighbor Henry (who grows and sells fruit at market) says he is lucky to get fruit two out of five years, especially peaches.  Our frostiness has to do with soils, latitude and intermediate elevation.  50 miles south in the Sandhills, where the peach industry is, the sandy soils there keep the air just a little warmer at night.  Up in the mountains, where the apple industry is, the slopes and the elevation keep things cooler later so the trees don’t bloom too early.

What does that have to do with Peregrine Farm?  Our fruit trees are tomatoes.  We gamble with the very early ones in the sliding tunnels, putting them in a month before our last frost date of April 21st.  While that one thin sheet of plastic gives them some protection it won’t protect them down to lower than 28 degrees.  When these cold fronts roll through we are always on guard for “the cold night”.  The weather folks are always excited about the first cold night after a front comes through but our experience is that the second night is the worst.  The first night usually still has some air moving around to keep the temperatures from diving.  The second night it usually gets very still and the temperatures drop fast.  Such was the case this last weekend, Saturday night it cleared off late and the temperatures stayed up.  Sunday night-Monday morning it was very clear and still, 26 degrees out here at the farm!  Fortunately we felt it coming and tucked the tomatoes under an additional layer of protection of row cover, suspended over their trellises.  All happy and warm, no damage.  The moral here for most folks is don’t plant those tomatoes into the garden until the last week of April unless you are prepared to cover them.  Our big planting is not slated to go in the ground until the week of April 24th, it should be safe by then but we will be keeping a close eye on the weather for sure!

The most critical job this week was moving the tomato and pepper transplants up into larger containers.  We start them all in small “cells” so we can maximize room in the germinating chamber.  After they have grown for three or four weeks we then move them up to larger size cells so they have bigger root balls to go into the field with.  Large root balls mean stronger, faster growing plants and earlier fruit.  It also gives us a chance to choose only the best of the small seedlings to move up.  The critical part here is not to screw up and mix up all of the varieties.  With 22 varieties of tomatoes and 25 of peppers it is easy to do.  I have a spread sheet of the varieties with the number of plants to move up that I give to the staff and then get out of the way!  I have found that confusing conversation generally leads to Aunt Ruby’s German Green being labeled as Dorothy’s Green or worse.

Picture of the Week
Tomatoes nestled all snug in their beds with visions of BLTs dancing in their heads!

4/4/07 Vol. 4 #3

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

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

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

Picture of the Week
Hundreds of tomato seedlings

5/30/07 Vol. 4 #11

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.

Picture of the Week
A view from the top of the farm

4/16/08 Vol. 5 #5

Welcome to last frost/freeze day!  28 degrees this morning and by the look of the forecast this should be the last night below freezing this spring (don’t borrow money based on this prediction).  In Chapel Hill most folks use April 15th (April 11th is the official date at the RDU airport) as the average last frost date but out here along the Haw river we are always three to five degrees colder and I use April 21st as our safe date. We’ve had too many close calls in the early years, sleepless nights worrying about tender plants.  Polar Cap Farms we call it in the spring, our staff always complains about how much colder it is out here in the mornings as compared to their houses in town.  Now it’s safe to plant the tomatoes outdoors.  It’s not that we are risk averse, hell we’re farmers after all, but we just don’t roll the dice the way we used to in the past.  I guess it’s the benefit of having weathered so many growing seasons, might as well not fight it and just wait until it’s right for the tomatoes needs, not our calendars.

The construction of the Big Tops is going well.  We did get all the legs screwed into the ground last week except a dozen.  Monday we rented the BIG jackhammer and busted up the parts of the planet that stood in the way.  Having done this before, I was not looking forward to it but it actually went well and only took a morning to do.  This years staff, Cov and Dan, had never had the pleasure of running such a beast so after I worked the first six holes I turned the last six over to them.  They started the morning in their early 30’s and ended it in their late 30’s.  So now the legs and anchors are all in and most of the attendant braces.  By the end of today the frame should all be finished and maybe we can pull the plastic over by the end of the week.  Right on schedule to get the tomatoes planted early next week, whew!  Late last week we turned our attentions to getting caught up on planting and managed to get almost all the backed up plants into the ground.  We even got a little rain to help water them in but I am afraid I will have to get the irrigation set up this week too.  Why does it happen all at the same time?

Farm Tour this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-6:00 each day (who added an additional hour?).  Our annual opening of the doors to the general public to come see the farm.  Many of you have been on the Farm Tour before and it is a great opportunity to see many of the folks who sell at the Carrboro Market.  Now in it’s thirteenth year, thousands of people go on the tour and it raises thousands of dollars for the work Carolina Farm Stewardship Association does.  Sponsored by Weaver Street Market, who does an incredible amount of work to promote the tour and local agriculture, it is easy to go on the tour.  Just pick up a map at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market or Weaver St. Market or many other local businesses and go to first farm that you want to see.  The best deal is to buy a button ($30) which will be your pass for as many people as you can stuff into one vehicle, for as many farms as you want.  35 farms this year so you will have to choose, it is hard to do more than 3 maybe 4 farms in a day.  In the mean time we will be mowing and picking up around the place, nothing like have hundreds of house guests all at once to make you buff up the joint!  Come on out and see what we have been up to, the weather looks to be a bit mixed but it goes on rain or shine!

Picture of the Week
As they say, this is a “file” photo from the last time but you get the idea

4/8/09 Vol. 6 #3

The annual last frost/freeze dance is near.  This morning it was 28 degrees, not cold enough to really do any damage but low enough to get our attention.  The only things out there that could really get damaged are the first tomatoes and 28 degrees is really their point of no return.  But they are inside the little tunnels tucked under an additional layer of row cover.  After the famous Easter freeze of two years ago when we had tomatoes under the same protections and they survived 20 degrees we are a little more relaxed about these last fronts of the year than we used to be.

There are really two major methods of cold weather crop protection covering, like we do for the most important crops and ice.  The ice method that the most of the strawberry growers use requires lots of water, big pumps and sprinkler guns and you still have to stay up all night making sure that it all keeps running.  Once you start to “throw water” you have to keep it up until it begins to melt the next morning.  If you run out of water and or the pump stops you can do more damage than if you didn’t spray any at all.  In high winds, like yesterday evening started with, it is even more difficult to get the water to behave and go where it is supposed to.

We don’t have the capacity to ice protect so we mostly use the third method of protection- we just don’t grow those crops that need it or wait to plant them until it’s safe.  This goes along nicely with my “keep it simple” motto of farming.  It is so easy in farming to make the basic act of growing crops into a wildly complex house of cards that relies on too many artificial supports for it to work.  At best it adds additional work and cost to a crop, in the worst case it can mean total crop loss if the support fails.  Even organic/sustainable growers are lured into the trap by the promise of an extra early crop and maybe a little more money, or a special spray that will “enhance” the crop in some way.  Farming is complicated enough without adding too many additional hurdles.  I am happy with my unheated greenhouses and simple row covers, it’s as high as I want to jump.

Picture of the Week
Warm tomatoes