Peregrine Farm News Vol. 11 #11, 5/22/14

What’s been going on!

The end of an era and a sad day.  A quiet collapse of part of our local food system rippled through the area last week.  Chaudhry’s Halal Meats in Siler City, who has run the only local independent poultry processing plant since 2008, announced he was throwing in the towel and closing.  He will keep his profitable red meat plant open but despite building a state of the art poultry plant there were not enough birds going through it to keep it open.  This will probably be the last time we will see an independent poultry processing plant operating in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

What happened?  You may remember that when we first began raising turkeys in 2003 there was a small poultry processing plant between Pittsboro and Siler City who had been in business for a few years, struggling to make a go of it.  In the fall of 2005 they announced they were going to close just as the Thanksgiving season was approaching.  We quickly formed a group to take over the plant to at least run it through the end of the year.  In the end we formed a cooperative, Growers Choice, and we fought a losing battle for nearly two years to keep the plant running and get enough birds on the ground to make it profitable.  Between the condition of the plant, the USDA, and not enough birds we closed down operations as Chaudhry announced he was going to build a new plant.

We thought “great you run the plant and Growers Choice will work on increasing the number of local birds being raised”.  In the long run two things happened.  Farmers are independent sorts and really don’t work together well, we could not get them to cooperate to even buy feed in bulk, which would dramatically reduce their production costs.  The other change was loosening of the self-processing rules that allowed people to process more birds on their own farms without USDA inspection; most of the new growers of chickens now process their own.  Only those growers who raised a lot of chickens or turkeys would take them to Chaudhry’s, it was not enough.  I will say that Abdul Chaudhry and his folks did a good job and he kept the plant open longer than was economically feasible made only possible by having his other plant next door to absorb some of the costs and employees.

What will happen next?  The next closest plant is now in 3 hours away in Marion, no one I know will drive their birds that far; so for many, including us, it is the end of their pastured poultry operations, especially turkeys.  Some may begin self-processing their own chickens because they are relatively faster and easier to do than other birds but will do them in smaller numbers than they did before.  All of the turkey producers I have talked to have indicated that they will not be raising turkeys.  Few people self-process more than a few turkeys because they are heavy and much more work than chickens.  So savor that rare local pasture raised chicken you see at the Farmers’ Market and be prepared to go back to a Butterball turkey or have one shipped in from someplace else.  For us it is certainly the end of a long experiment but we will not be raising turkeys this year and probably never again.

Picture of the Week

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We finally got the last of the Big Tops covered on Monday, now the top of the hill looks more normal

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

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8/31/05 Vol. 2 #25

The August of our discontent, at least the month is about over if not the discontent part.  This is a lengthy newsletter with lots of details so please hang on.  First as a person who makes his living outdoors and constantly dances with the weather, I have always had a fascination with “severe” weather events.  Having lived through a number of those events I get a certain uneasy feeling in my gut when they happen elsewhere, as if I know what others are experiencing.  The news and pictures from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are such that it overwhelms my capacity to comprehend.  We have friends (farmers and non) and family who are now cleaning up from the storm and we can only will them the strength to get the job done.

Our travails pale by comparison and it is just a matter of time until we work our way through them (the big market truck is still in the shop, the walk-in cooler is broken down etc.) but there is one farm problem that we are wrestling with that we may not be able to solve.  Many of you have been asking when we will begin taking orders/deposits for turkeys.  Last year we began last week.  The reason for the delay this year is we are still not certain we will be able to get the birds processed.  I have been waiting several weeks to let you all know what is happening as we try to come up with a solution.  The situation is this: the place we have had the turkeys processed, in the past, is the only small scale inspected poultry plant available to independent producers in North Carolina and within at least 300 miles.  The operator of this plant is selling and trying to leave the state as soon as possible.  This leaves us and many other small producers, without the proverbial pot to….   Several of us have been trying to work out a deal to lease the plant, with the option to buy, so we can keep it open in the short term and maybe eventually have it operated by a small scale producers cooperative of sorts.  Very exciting possibilities in the long term but huge and very complicated problems in the short term.  In short we are not having much luck along this route and I would have to say our chances are 50% at best right now.

This leaves us with really only two options.  The first is to process them ourselves, a prospect neither of us are in favor of.  The law allows farmers to process, without inspection, their own birds (up to 1000 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).  It is a lot of work and we have never done it before but have friends who have.  The second is to sell the birds off live and escape without further expense to us.  This of course does not help with your Thanksgiving plans of having one of our turkeys on the table.  Our current plan is to go ahead and take reservations/orders as we are running out of markets we will be there to physically take them.   If it turns out we cannot get them processed, we will then refund the deposits in plenty of time for you all to arrange for other turkeys.  Attached is the order form and instructions.

This access to poultry processing plants is a very big problem for small scale poultry producers and limits the potential for consumers to be able to buy and eat much higher quality poultry.  The health benefits, flavor and eating quality of birds that run around on grass is so much higher than everything else available in the grocery store as to not even be comparable.  It also severely limits small farmers from diversifying into poultry and potentially making their farms more sustainable.  Not everyone wants to or is able to process their own birds.  For all other animals it is fairly easy to find a processing plant near them but not for poultry.  This is why we are trying so hard to save the one plant we have because the cost and difficulty in building a new facility is so large that is may not be feasible for a group of small producers to achieve.  Wish us well.

Picture of the Week
Red Bells ready for the picking

9/7/05 Vol. 2 #26

What a glorious morning; clear, coolish, dry air.  As the weather has improved this past week so have our fortunes, we are rising like the Phoenix!  All vehicles are back on the road, the refrigeration is all repaired and the poultry plant problem is looking brighter.  I have spent quite a bit of time this week fact finding about the plant and all of it’s very complicated relationships with other businesses and producers.  While we have not yet signed any papers I would now say that we are 85% sure that we can take over the processing plant.   We have a small group that is helping to steer this ship but quickly will need to expand it.  Joe Moize of the Shady Grove Farm (they also sell at market) has really been the main force behind all of this and is doing a great job in working with all of the financial details.  Weaver Street Market has signed on both financially and with expertise in Cooperative development.  It is in their interests to see this happen both in meeting their mission to support local agriculture but to also have good local poultry in the stores.  In the wings (no pun intended) also offering expertise, are other allied organizations, Rural Advancement Foundation International, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Carolina Farm Stewardship Assoc., NC Cooperative Extension Service and others.  All of these groups see this small independent plant as vital to the local farm economy and the local food system.  In the next week we will be putting a call out to producers and others to raise money for, and to belong to, the eventual cooperative organization that will own and operate the plant.  I have heard from several of you who have expressed interest in investing and we will let you know as we have more details.  We immediately need to find someone to actually manage the plant day to day.  Someone who has knowledge of processing and the regulatory details.  That list does not include either me or Betsy!

At home the farm rolls on.  All of the early tomatoes have now been taken out, quite an ugly job pulling the vines off the trellis and taking it all down.  Mowing goes on and on in preparation for fall and winter crops.  The chiggers we have stirred up are voracious!  It is amazingly dry and we are back to pumping water everyday.   The turkeys have finally graduated and are now one large group, a little confused at first as to who all these new bodies are but now they are wandering around together as if its been that way all along.  The staff is on reduced hours now as we head for the end of the season in a few weeks.  I think they are just as relieved to see the end as we are, they have really helped us keep it all together this year, especially this past few wild weeks.

Picture of the Week
Summer Crisp Lettuce, fall is here again!

9/15/05 Vol. 2 #27

Newsletter a day late as I spent the whole day down at the processing plant watching how it all works, talking to the USDA inspectors and the folks who actually do the work.  We have agreed to taking over the operation the first of the month, with a lease until the first of the year.  This gives us time to get a feel for how it will go and what the true numbers look like.  It will also get all of us, both turkey producers and chicken producers, through Thanksgiving before things slow down a little during the winter months.  Quite honestly I am way out of my comfort zone both in knowledge, time and money but fortunately have people working with us and at the plant who know what they are about.  I keep saying to Betsy “I wonder what the next thing will be that will steer my interests?”  I guess maybe we know now, at least for awhile!  This doesn’t mean we plan on producing more poultry, in fact if Betsy has her way we may never have another bird on the farm; it is just that we see this one tiny plant as one friend of ours says “as the eye of the needle we are trying to pass the camel through”.  If we lose this one operation then many many poultry and rabbit producers will have to get out of the business.  The future looks very bright, we just have to get over these first hurdles.

On the farm it is very dry and Ophelia doesn’t appear to want to give us anything but a few drops.  I have been pulling water out of the upper pond as both the creek and the lower pond have dried up.  Good thing we don’t have much longer to go.  The last of the tomatoes get pulled out today.  All of the big tops are now uncovered for the season, it was time to pull the plastic off the last tomatoes anyway but we did it Monday just to be safe in case the hurricane decided to come a little closer to us.  Soon we’ll be down to just the peppers and a few rows of flowers to finish up the season with.

Picture of the Week

Not much left, big tops uncovered, turkeys running around, crops mowed down.

11/19/05 Vol. 2 #29

Wow! has it really been two whole months since the last newsletter?  We have been running hard and fast as well as having lots of fun!  The trip to Holland and Italy was very informative and beautiful.  The week we spent in Holland was mostly focused on cut flowers but we did manage to go to several markets looking for new and unusual things.  We were able to visit with many farmers and plant breeders and I think that Betsy has found a few new things to try.  The horticultural trade show was over the top!  Dutch agriculture is so fastidious and high tech that I can’t even begin to approach that level of obsession!  Italy was much more relaxed and we didn’t get on as many farms as we would have liked to but still saw many new things.  Our Italian family, that we stayed with last year when we went to the Terra Madre Slow Food event, was great and Betsy’s hard work at learning Italian paid off in much better understanding of each other.  We rented a car this time and spent many days driving through the countryside and going to markets.  We found a few new ideas that we will try and incorporate here this year.  One of our missions was to go to the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, Italy, and visit with the people who are organizing the next Terra Madre conference for next fall (2006).  It appears as if we will be able to go back again, Betsy has even volunteered to help with whatever they need including some basic interpretation!
Alex amazed at the technology!

Peppers in Italy

Here are the farm we got all of the soil preparations for the winter finished with near perfect results, never has all of it worked up so beautifully with the exception of this on going dry spell.  The cover crop seeds that I planted a month ago have just barely sprouted.  We are running that fine line now of getting them established before the really cold weather sets in, which can kill them before they have enough roots underneath them.  The turkeys went in for processing before we left for Europe and came out looking good.  The Heritage birds were slightly smaller than last year and the Broad breasted Bronzes were also smaller which is great for those of us who don’t normally eat 26 pound birds!  The flash freezing process went smoothly and they came home yesterday in fine condition.  The processing plant project goes on and on.  In general it is working about the way we had hoped for but every day there is something that breaks down or needs to be worked on.

3/16/06 Vol. 3 #1

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
Fantastic Anemones

7/26/06 Vol. 3 #20

This has been one of those weeks when people begin to ask “when do you have time to farm?” as I go from one meeting to another.  I have to admit that I have not spent as much time in the field this summer as I usually do.  Mostly due to the on going wrangling at the poultry plant and the Growers’ Choice Cooperative I have been running around central North Carolina a lot.  We knew heading into this season that this was going to be the case but felt that we could handle it this year because our staff is so good.  It has been!  We are extremely fortunate to have a group of people who have been with us for several years and begin to know the system as well as we do.  We joke that Joann understands my handwriting and speech patterns better than Betsy does!  When I scrawl the restaurant orders down, with my own abbreviations, Betsy will show it to Joann who knows exactly what it says.  Most mornings now, as they arrive at the farm, we sit under the little shed we use to store straw in and go over that days jobs.  I usually can say we need to do X,Y and Z and they head off to spend their mornings without me at their side.  Picking tomatoes, trellising flowers, weeding Lisianthus they now know how to do it as if it were their own farms.  Of course Joann has her own farm, Castlemaine, and Rett has just left us to move to his new farm in the mountains.  Will is starting a new farm down in Chatham county and Rachel is in her third year working on local farms after her boyfriend Lee worked for us before that.  We have always tried to create a working situation here where, as they learned the system, we let them operate it without excess supervision.  Just enough to make sure the quality and efficiency is there but not so much that they feel micro managed.  Generally we have managed to successfully hit that balance, sometimes we miss the mark but never with disastrous results.  It is difficult in our situation in that we can’t have permanent, year round help.  Because we are seasonal we have to make the job as enticing and rewarding as possible and become efficient and effective teachers so that they can get up to speed quickly without the frustrations that can come with learning something new.  We have been very lucky with staff for many years and this year they have made it possible for me to be distracted by off farm projects, I can’t thank them enough.

It is a little eerie when you go to deliver produce and there are life size posters of you by the door.  Tomorrow night (Thursday) Panzanella restaurant and Weaver Street Market are having another of their local Farm Dinners this one featuring us!  This one will benefit the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, five percent of the proceeds will be donated.  This is where I taught the Sustainable Vegetable Production class for six years and many of our excellent staff have taken classes there.  The format is they have a number of special dishes made from the featured farms produce along with their regular menu.  Yesterday we delivered a huge array of produce for Peter McKloskey to work with.  Five kinds of tomatoes, Poblano, Anaheim and Serrano peppers.  Red Torpedo Onions from Italy, Cucumbers, those great Galia Melons and of course flowers for the dining room.  I know that he is going to stuff some of the Poblanos and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Melon for dessert.  Every summer we threaten to have an on farm open house and dinner during tomato season but never seem to be able to get around to it (I wonder why?), this is the next best thing and we don’t have to do the cooking!  Come on out and enjoy the produce of the season.  5:30 to 9:00, no reservations necessary.  Betsy and I will be there eating too (are you kidding, our food and we don’t have to prepare it!).

Otherwise it is business as usual on the farm.  Tomato picking twice a week, peppers once a week, with plenty of maintenance in between.  Tying up tomatoes and peppers, fighting back the encroaching weeds, mowing, mowing, mowing.  Betsy is of course cutting flowers everyday.  It is kind of like the steady buzz of the crickets at night, it just goes on and on.  The turkeys are all now in the Blueberries, divided by a section of fence.  This is the “get acquainted” period where they can talk to each other through the fence but the bigger birds can’t pick on the little (and strange to them) ones.  In another 10 days or so they will all run together and it will be like old home week, by then they will just think of each other as cousins they haven’t seen for a year but will feel comfortable hanging around with!

Picture of the Week
A foggy morning as the cousins stare each other down

9/13/06 Vol. 3 #26

Yesterday was one of the those interesting days, which occur from time to time, that are a condensed version of our life in one shot.  Up early when it is just barely light to go for a walk because there is a lot to do.  Back for just enough time to have a cup of coffee and check some emails.  This was turkey moving day so I headed out to do that but first started the irrigation in the little tunnels to keep all the Thanksgiving vegetables happy and to take soil samples in the field the birds are about to go into.  Put the fences up around the new area and open the fence that was keeping them in the current field as they watched me intently get the new field ready.  I think they really do know when it’s time to move.  Immediately they move into the lush green cover crop, heads down, making what we call the “happy turkey sound”.  Drag their shelters, feeders and waters into the new field and it is done.  Jump on the tractor to mow down the rest of the six foot tall sudangrass cover crop in the field they had been in so that I can be ready take soil samples there prior to preparing the soil for the winter.  While on the tractor I mow the grass field the turkeys will be in next so the tender regrowth will be just the right height when they move in there in a week or so.  It is 11:00, enough time to shower and change clothes and drive to Pittsboro several meetings.

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) is one of the hardworking non profits that we work with in multiple capacities, their headquarters is in Pittsboro.  First I met to discuss a new crop insurance program for diversified farmers to see if it would work for us.  We have never had crop insurance because one: it hasn’t been available and two: we are so diversified that if some crop fails some other crop or crops always makes up for it.  We decide we are not a good test case but come up with some other farmers who might be.  The bulk of the afternoon is spent meeting with a group of representatives of organizations who fund non profits like RAFI.  They are learning about sustainable agriculture and where they could fund projects, they are particularly interested in what is happening with our Growers’ Choice poultry cooperative.  I speak, our former plant manager talks about his experience and one of the Latino employees talks (with an interpreter) about the difference between working for us and the large chicken plants (he liked us better).  They are then all loaded on a bus and drive up for a quick tour of our farm, to see more examples of sustainable farming.  It is 4:00 by the time they leave, just enough time to feed and water the turkeys and head into town with Betsy.  We stop at the hardware store for a few supplies and then she goes to Italian class while I walk down the street to have dinner with a class of UNC students studying food.  We talk about farming (why are colored peppers so expensive), and politics (why we are going to Italy for the Slow Food conference), chefs, travel, local food, farming…. this same class will be coming to the farm in a few weeks.  I have to leave early (8:00) to meet Betsy and go to a Farmers’ Market Board meeting.  We are no longer on the board but try to go to as many meetings as we can to keep up and help answer questions that may come up.  10:30 we get home, what a day.

Picture of the Week
The guys strutting for the girls who are paying no attention, typical.