Wow! Zero to Sixty in record time! End last week with cool 70’s and gentle rains begin this week with 95 degrees and heavy thunderstorms. I would say that summer has come. It is all about blueberries now. We have a crew of up to eight trying to keep up with the fast ripening fruit, to no avail. I tell them don’t look back at where you just picked as it could be depressing. We put flags, in the row, to mark where we stopped picking so we will know where to start the next morning because you absolutely cannot tell otherwise. It is always enjoyable and interesting in the blueberry field. First it is the most comfortable job on the farm, standing up, usually a breeze across the hill and the birds just singing away in the trees (happy with all of the blueberries they have eaten). Secondly the crew is always an eclectic group. My usual staff which includes Joann and Rett, farmers on their own places, Rachel a college student in geography, Julia who recently graduated college from Nova Scotia, plays hockey and directs Shakespearean plays. We always have a few returning pickers like Brenda who is taking a hiatus from farming in Illinois this year. Then we round it out with a few new faces like Max from Texas who is searching for the right place to start his own farm and then a couple of high school students. The conversation is always wide ranging and I am never quite sure who is more scandalized, the older ones or the younger ones!
Betsy and I almost never get into the berries as we scamper around trying to put our fingers in all of the other holes in the dike of Peregrine Farm. This is the true change of seasons as we begin to take out irrigation and mow down the finished cool season crops. There is only one bed of lettuce left in the field, which is now almost entirely changed over to flowers- sunflowers, zinnias, celosia, asters and more. The rest of the cool season vegetables will soon go under the mower to be followed with more flowers, what will eventually be the last of the year. The larkspur, first sunflowers, bachelors buttons, etc. will turn into lush cover crops of sorghum and soybeans to improve the soil and feed and shade the turkeys when they get in there in two months or so. It all happens this few weeks in mid June. I also managed to get the first layer of trellising in the first eight beds of peppers including all of the hots. Last year we waited 48 hours too long to get this job done and they were all blown over by a huge storm, never to fully recover for the rest of the season. Last night as the thunder was rumbling just over the hill I put the last strings on. With in an hour the heavy rains came and they stand straight and proud now. Joann seeded the Brussels Sprouts and Celery for Thanksgiving, that is a true sign of seasonal change! I swing through the berry field every so often to check on the progress and quality, partake briefly in the conversation and grab a hand full of fruit and head back off to what ever chore I am in the middle of.
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A wall of blue fruit
What a glorious week to live in central North Carolina! Not!!! A little bit of rain every day to keep the humidity up high and the temperatures in the mid to high nineties, the kind of weather that makes me think about moving back out west. The only thing worse was when we lived in Houston and it rained every day and then the steam would rise off of all the concrete just like a steam bath.
We have been plugging along despite the conditions and getting quite a bit done. We harvested all of the red onions and while we did not get as many this year the size is much larger which is nice. We have both the Stockton Sweet Reds and the Long Reds of Tropea which we grow for Ben Barker at Magnolia Grill (he says when cooked they make a great sauce). Years ago I was in Arkansas for a conference and was impressed by an onion breeder who spoke about the healthy attributes of Red Onions, very high in anti-oxidants, and he was trying to breed varieties high in these compounds. Red onions are harder to grow than white ones and you cannot store them very long either. The sweeter the onion the shorter its storage capabilities. We are limited here also by day length. Onions are classed as long, intermediate and short day length varieties. Most of the onions are grown either far south (Texas with short day lengths) or north (New York with long days). We are smack in the middle of the intermediate zone so are limited by the varieties we can choose. Fortunately the Stockton Sweet Red is a really good variety. Enjoy them for the next month or so.
The next batch of turkeys arrived on Thursday and we were able to get the Broad Breasted Bronzes that we wanted and have been trying to get the last several years and couldn’t. As these are large turkeys they grow much faster than the heritage birds so we want to get them later (closer to Thanksgiving) so they don’t get huge. The problem is that there is only really one breeder for these Bronzes and the later into the summer you go there are fewer available because the their fertility goes down and so the hatch rate is low. We have wanted to raise this type because although they are a broad breasted type which means they are prone to the sorts of inbreeding problems associated with large birds we think that they may be hardier than the white kinds and also be more adapted to our outdoor, pasture management system. We’ll see. They look great so far!
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A peek at good things to come, Big Beefs
What can I say, 102 degrees behind the greenhouse in the shade, 99 degrees on the porch, deep in the woods. We are pumping lots of water to try and keep everything happy. So far it seems to be working. We are having some trouble with the tomatoes, especially the large ones like the Striped Germans and Kellogg’s Breakfast. When ever it is this hot it seems they can’t get enough water and will have hollow areas inside them just beneath the outer layer. It actually has an official name “Puffy Wall”. Supposedly caused by a combination of high or low temperatures way back at pollination and a nitrogen:potassium ratio that is out of whack. All I know is we see it when its extremely hot, it is almost like the tomatoes start to dehydrate from the inside. They still taste fine but sometimes are not the perfect slicing tomato for the plate.
This has been a week or so of turkey high jinks. This morning topped it off. Last night they did not go into their shelters at dark like they always do, so when I went out to close them up they were all down in one corner of the field sleeping in the grass. I figured it was the heat and just let them stay out for the night. This morning when Betsy went out at 5:30 for her walk she came back in immediately and rousted me out because forty odd birds were outside the fence and wandering all over the farm! With not too much herding we got them all back inside the fence, eating and drinking like it was all normal. This was after a long week or two of “turkey issues”, that started with the big guys picking on one of their own so badly that we had to put the injured bird in the Turkey Hospital. After a week the bird, now know as Buckwheat, was all healed up and eager to get back with his pals so I carried it down and put it in with the others. Immediately they started after him again so I took him back to the hospital. The next night I slipped him in the shelter with the others thinking that they would wake up the next morning not notice another bird amongst the crowd (turkeys seem to have no short term memory). All went well and when I let them out the next morning they started back in on him. Puzzled I took him out again and set him up in his own outdoor area, under the figs, as he couldn’t continue to stay in the 4′ X 4′ hospital room. Maybe when I moved the rest of the group in a day or two they would be so distracted by new turf that I could put him in then and no one would notice.
He was so lonely that he would just sit there and call to his buddies. At one point he even flew out and ran down to the others pacing up and down the fence wanting to get in, but the bullies were trying to get at him through the fence! So we put him back under the figs and grabbed one of the others and put it in with him so he would have company. That bird just sat and called to his friends and eventually flew out and went back to the others. Nothing was working. As the “little boys” were now three weeks old and ready to start going outside we decided to put Buckwheat in with them until they graduated out to the field in a few weeks. When everyone gets integrated after awhile all will be back to normal. Kind of a Trojan horse trick. So off we went with Buckwheat under armand put him in with the little guys. Love at first sight! He was walking around like the big man on campus and they were all huddled around his legs. Now almost a week later it is Buckwheat and his posse!
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Buckwheat and the little boys
Just when you are at your weakest they always pour it on! Last weeks weather was bad but this week is just grinding it in. Good thing we are going on break next week to recover. After 21 straight weeks at market we are crawling into the mid summer break, and this heat just reinforces why we take it. We have taken the second week in August off for years now, as a way to get some recharge for the end of the harvest and marketing season. It is planned for when the first tomatoes crash and before the colored bell peppers really get going. Now I always refer to it as a “break” and not a vacation because Betsy and I don’t really get to check out. We give the staff the week off with pay and they usually leave town. That leaves us here to water, and irrigate, keep and eye on the turkeys, pick a little bit of stuff that has to be harvested, etc. The break is in not going to markets and doing regular deliveries. We usually do a few hours of chores in the cool of the morning and then find some kind of diversion in the afternoons, eat a lot, take naps, read and other general sloth. To that end there will be no newsletter next week and we will not be at market Wednesday 8/9 and Saturday 8/12.
In preparation for all of this we have been mowing old crops down and generally tidying up the place. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t thinking clearly, we agreed to have an open house for the company who manufactures the Big Tops (Haygrove). Well it is today! Hottest day of the year! We have tried to gussie up the joint as much as we can but what they really want to see is how well crops do growing under the covers. Well on top of it being time for the tomatoes to expire we also have those unusual diseases in them as well so it is not exactly a beauty pageant in the tomatoes. We are so tired and it is so hot that it is hard to muster enthusiasm for having a group of folks here this afternoon, maybe the 100 degree forecast will limit the crowd, only the truly insane will come out to look at the tunnels and with the sweat running down into their eyes maybe they will think it all looks great! Now the stuff that they don’t want to look at does look good. The late flowers are doing really well in this heat and the peppers look respectable along with the limelight hydrangeas. It is so hot that the turnips, radishes and other crops that we need to plant this week will have to wait until early next week to go in so that they don’t just vaporize in the hot soil.
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Celosias and Asclepias and the proper distance for viewing the quality of the crops in the Big Tops
While not what some would call a million dollar rain, last nights rain was worth a lot to us. 1.3 inches of much needed water on those crops that are not irrigated (cover crops, winter squash, corn, hydrangeas and the like) and a mental boost for the irrigator. The creek had dropped to a trickle and the line from the creek to the pumping pond was likewise down to a trickle. Yesterday after nearly two straight weeks of daily irrigation the pumping pond was getting seriously low, I was even beginning to eye the water stored in the upper pond. Once we start taking water out of the upper pond there is no recourse, no resupply for that reservoir other than winter rains. So at least for this morning the wolf has backed away from the door. A rain like last nights will last us for four or five days and then we will have to fire up the pump again and if we are lucky the creek will show a little more life and help fill the pumping pond back up before we have to start major irrigating again. Of course everything under the Big Tops and the little tunnels still needs water but that is less than a third of the normal daily irrigation needs. Every little bit helps!
Major dog days of summer now. Highs in the 90’s everyday and the air (especially after last nights rain) if getting thick. We are in that lets- not-get-too-physical mode, a steady even out put of energy to get us through the mornings and then go and hide in the shade for the rest of the day. Harvest first thing in the morning while it is sort of cool, a little weeding, a little trellising, change the irrigation, watch the sun get higher and the temperature spike just before noon (or it seems to). It is summer after all.
Something to look forward to next week though. Tuesday evening at Panzanella restaurant (in Carr Mill next to Weaver Street Market) is our “Farm Dinner”. This is the third year we have worked with them on a dinner centered around what is at the peak of the season. So obviously this one will be tomato heavy but also with cucumber and sweet corn undertones. Come on out and enjoy their air conditioning. The restaurant is open as usual and their regular menu is also available. They will have specials (usually several appetizers and entrees) using our produce. Tomorrow I will be going in to visit with Chris (the head chef) to get an idea what dishes he is thinking about and how much produce and what kinds he has in mind. It is always fun, and we will look for you there!
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Three foot tall Lisianthus brightening a grey day
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
Well we made it to June and the heat appears to have arrived with it. High 90’s the end of the week and a whole week in the 90’s? Why is it we can never just gently go thru the 80’s for a while and then into the brutal temperatures? Oh well it makes the blueberries and the tomatoes ripen faster. After last season without blueberries because of the record Easter freeze and the madness that it is trying to keep them picked we are now in the middle of it. This week or next is going to be the peak of our blueberry crop, with next Monday probably the peak day due to the high temperatures. Blueberry picking is the only time we hire extra help on the farm. The whole operation is designed to run with a steady flow of human energy, just the two of us and two more part timers. But there is an atmosphere that develops around blueberry season as new faces come to pick and join in our now established social structure. For nearly 3 months it has just been the four of us doing the dance of employee-employer, student-teacher, worker-supervisor, advisor, helper, friends. We now know each others routine, style, jokes and now there are new opinions, ideas, senses of humor. Blueberry picking is maybe the best job on the farm, unless you hate tedious tasks, but with the new faces and discussions in the field it seems to go quickly. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful setting on the hill, almost always with a slight breeze and the birds calling nonstop. Everyday you end up on the otherside of the row from someone new with new stories and questions. Other farmer friends of mine say I should hire migrant workers to pick, it would save money. It might and we used to hire some local Latinos when we were in the wholesale blackberry business and they are amazing workers. I have come to appreciate the other benefits of having these new faces on the farm, it gives us a boost, it gives the staff a break from working only with each other, it exposes these new people to farm work without some of the grittiness of it. It is this social side of a sustainable farm that really makes it work, not just the crops and the tractors. Soon enough it will be back to just the four of us, avoiding the heat, picking tomatoes and peppers and flowers, telling the same old jokes.
Pictures of the Week
Hmmm, let’s see what’s the news? HEAT!!!! Talk about a rude start to the summer, bang, here I am. The 100’s really pushed the blueberries and Friday we could only get two out of six rows picked there were so many and turning blue in front of our eyes. So Monday we called in the troops and had eleven of us out there going hard. We did manage to get through those four unpicked rows and the fruit quality was really good. Thank goodness they are blueberries and not blackberries. When it gets that hot blackberries actually get sunburned and get white sections on the berries where the color has cooked out of them, technically it is called “leaking” (I am not making this up). So now we are caught up and Monday was the peak day of the season. We can now easily manage the rest of the season (only another ten days or so) with four additional pickers. Whew! As is our standard practice we do not work out in the fields after noon and this week it has been hard to stay out there until noon. Betsy and I have been out early letting the turkeys out, irrigating and picking other crops before the blueberry picking begins at 8:00.
Two interesting extra curricular activities this week. The first was a Slow Food co-sponsored event at Meredith college with the Durham-Chapel Hill Dieticians group. Two short films about local food were viewed and then a panel discussion followed. It is always interesting being the farmer on a panel of other food related folks. Great questions about our local food system but barely enough time to just begin to scratch the surface. Yesterday I went to the State Legislature to speak to a group of legislators about organic agriculture in North Carolina. This Organic Legislative breakfast was just that, it started at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria, in the basement of the Legislature building. While they ate organic food brought in from North Carolina farms, myself and three other farmers told them about our experiences as organic producers. This is the second year that Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other sustainable ag non-profits have put on the breakfast. The idea is not to really press them for anything in particular but to just make them aware of organics and sustainable farming and hopefully more comfortable with the idea. As I went to get coffee I overheard several of them saying to each other “Who knew we had organic pigs here in North Carolina?” Nothing like a pork product to get a politicians attention.
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Turkeys and Hydrangeas