Rain, rain, rain marvelous rain! Another 1.8 inches last Wednesday and Thursday. Everything looks great, the weeds are growing too but the ponds are full now! Of course there are always downsides to everything but considering the need for the water I won’t whine too much. We are in the middle of lettuce season and when the plants are getting big enough to harvest lots of rain makes them very fragile and susceptible to disease. We plant the lettuce three rows to the bed twelve inches apart so there is not much air flow around the plants when they get to harvest stage. It is like your closet in the middle of the humid summer, fungus and mold loves to grow in these conditions. There is a soil borne lettuce disease appropriately called “bottom rot” because that is what it does. Our strategy for control is raised beds, many years in the crop rotation, and careful watering at the late stages. Well just before the rains started I irrigated, as I get to where I never believe we will actually get rain, then we got over three inches in the last week. We have seen a fair amount of the problem but I think have worked through all the bad beds. Adding insult to injury I had to cut Weaver Street Market’s lettuce in the rain last Thursday. I waited as long into the afternoon as I could hoping the rain would stop as wet lettuce is very tender and frankly cutting in the rain is not much fun. Finally I gave up and spent two hours hunched over with lettuce knife in hand. Of course by the time I got to Weaver Street’s back door the rain had ended but they had the lettuce they needed, such is the life of a produce grower.
Yesterday was the second installment of covering the Big Tops. This time it was the set that covers Betsy’s flowers that don’t like to be wet when it’s time to cut them. Four bays each covered with 30′ X 100′ sheets of plastic. We had the perfect windless morning and the A team on hand to perform. After three years of trying different approaches we now have settled on a four person system. Two people control the corners on one end and we pull the plastic over the top from one end to the other. Betsy is working a long push pole moving down the length of the tunnel helping the plastic over the top and I scamper around, some on a step ladder, some on the ground pulling the leading edge down as we make progress down the tunnel. Finally with it all draped over the top we clip the starting end on to the end bow and then got to the opposite end and pull the excess down that way and clip that end off. With these tunnels the clips just hold the ends in position. The plastic is really held on with a roping system that criss crosses over the top of the tunnels and are anchored on the legs. It is quite a show as Betsy and Joann pull the rope back and forth over the top as Rett and I follow tightening it. We approached a new world record, covering four bays clipped and roped in three and a half hours! We may be heading out on the road to make the big money!
Pictures of the Week
The upper pond last fall is now finally full! This is two months worth of irrigation water.
Everyday begins the same at this time of year. I am usually out of the house around 6:00 to let the turkeys out before the increasing light makes them too fidgety. We close the doors to their shelters each night at dark and most of them are self-loaded with the rest having flown up to the peak of the shelter to roost for the night. In the morning the top sleepers fly back down and taunt the locked-up groups by strutting around just outside the chicken wire walls. So, out they come for another day, pecking for bugs and discussing with each other what happened last night in the other shelter. Then I walk down to the irrigation pump to turn on the water for the day. When it is this hot we water everything for two hours a day, every day, and it is most effective if we do it early when it is cooler. You can tell that fall is on its way because the spiders are getting serious about stringing their webs across the paths to catch every thing in sight. I assume it is either to gather lots of food heading into the winter or trying to catch a ride for the new borns to another location so they can set up shop. In the early part of the year you can walk all around the farm and never run into a spider web. Now I have to find just the right stick, each morning, that I hold out in front of my face and chest to intercept them before I get a face full of spider! This morning walk can be up to three quarters of a mile or more depending on side jaunts, which gives me a chance to think about what needs to be done this day and to contemplate other issues. It is not quite a perambulation of the bounds but close.
Today I was thinking about the tragic passing of a friend, neighbor and fellow farmer, Chuck Glosson. Chuck was accidentally hit and killed by a car on Saturday morning while we were at market, he was only 33. The news spread quickly though the market community as we all returned home that afternoon. Many of you may remember Chuck who sold at market from 1993 until 2000. He and his family set up right behind our Saturday stall where Chapel Hill Creamery is now. The next to take over the family farm, a farm that has been in the family at least 200 years. Chuck finished High School and went right into farming with his father and it was a true partnership from the beginning. A true traditional family farm, they raise cattle, pigs and chickens. They also produce corn, wheat, soybeans, grass seed, hay, straw and many more crops, some to feed the animals and some to sell. At market Chuck was an innovator. He was the first to sell beef and pork. They sold beautiful produce and cut flowers. They immediately had a loyal customer following because of the huge diversity of product but mostly due to the fact that Chuck was the friendliest, kindest, and most sincere person they ever met.
We first met Chuck when he was about to graduate from High School. He came by the farm one day because another market vendor suggested he go see what we were doing. He was sure of staying on the farm and thinking about how he would fit into the family operation. We walked all around our place and he asked good questions and soaked it all up. In the years since we have bought straw from them, asked them about raising pigs and other crops. After Hurricane Fran, when we had to move our transplant greenhouse after it was flooded, Chuck came over with one of their huge tractors and towed the structure up the hill and helped us set it on the new foundations. He was always happy, willing to help and was a great listener. The kind of farming that the Glossons do is completely different than what Betsy and I do but we had an understanding of each others daily lives. Chuck has always been the picture, in my mind, of the future of traditional mid- size farmers. Now I don’t know what image I will have in my head when someone talks about young conventional farmers but I will always know that I was friends with one of the finest humans to have ever walked this earth.
Picture of the Week
Bourbon Reds perambulating their bounds in the early morning.
After two straight Wednesdays of early starts to cover the Big Tops I am finally back on schedule with the news from the farm. It’s hot and getting dry, dry, dry and we are working to get enough water on everything but the newly transplanted small seedlings would really like a rain to get them established. Our standard spring planting procedure is to plant on days just before a rain is due to arrive so everything gets a good drink of water. The past few weeks the weather has not cooperated in that way so we move to our summer dry weather system of preparing the planting bed and then burying a drip irrigation line right down the middle of the bed. We then plant the bed and drag a hose along to water the little plants in well and then let the buried irrigation take over. This irrigation line is buried just a few inches deep so we can weed over it but it also makes it so the water, that slowly drips out of its openings, moves out through the soil soaking the bed and the plants roots. That’s the theory and generally it works. When the top few inches of the soil is as dry as it is now and a hot dry wind blows it is almost impossible to get the whole bed wet with the irrigation line. We would have to run it for hours and hours to wet it completely and then the established plants in neighboring beds would be too wet. So the next move, if the rains don’t come and the little plants are drying out, is to roll out the micro-sprinklers to artificially rain on them. These little sprinklers run on low pressure like the drip irrigation lines do but can throw a fine spray up to ten feet but then we irrigate up the all the weeds too. No easy solution other than a little rain, maybe tomorrow?
For the second year in a row we are working with NC State on an interesting research project with grafted tomatoes. In other parts of the world with limited agricultural land and intensive plantings it can be very easy to begin to have problems with soil-borne diseases from planting the same kinds of crops in the same place year after year. One solution is to use a disease resistant rootstock and graft the variety of vegetable you want on top of it. Just like fruit trees where they use rootstocks to control the size of the tree and then put say a Golden Delicious on top. In places like Korea and Japan and Israel a large percentage of their tomatoes, melons and other fruiting vegetable crops are now grafted. Last year we/they tested two rows of tomatoes here on our farm, just out in the field, testing three different rootstocks just to see the growth and yield differences. This year they wanted to have the research plot under the Big Tops just like the rest of our tomatoes and to use one of our usual varieties. So we decided on testing our favorite tomato, Cherokee Purple. We grow more Cherokee Purples than red tomatoes and so it is a very important crop for us. Just in case they had trouble producing the grafted transplants in the lab at NC State we started a whole set ourselves so we wouldn’t be without our favorite kind, assuming we would just give those plants away if the graduate student ended up with enough plants. Then we got nervous and decided to plant those plants anyway just in case there was other difficulties with the grafted plants, this is research after all, things can happen. So now we have twice as many Cherokee Purples than ever before! It could make for a very tasty July!
Picture of the Week
Setting up the micro-sprinklers to try and water up the new zinnias
Glorious weather this last week and a little eerie, similar to when hurricanes are around and they suck all the moisture up into their circulation, creating strangely clear skies with clouds moving in directions completely different than normal. None the less we have been enjoying almost sweat free work and getting things done in the afternoons that we would normally just put off because it would be just too beastly to be out “there”. At some point you know the other shoe must drop and so it did this week. That shoe being the continuing and deepening drought. Sunday I was going down to turn the irrigation on and and found the gravity feed line, that we use to run water out of the creek to help keep the pumping pond full, was not running. This happens from time to time, especially when the creek flow is very low. I walked back up to the head of the field to check the creek and the line to find the creek not running at all. This is not the first time we have seen the creek dry up but it is very unusual (it has happened maybe 5 times in 26 years) and is a sure sign of seriously dry conditions.
This drought is one of those insidious ones where it is not really apparent unless you are trying to keep plants alive and producing. We think of most droughts as hot monsters that clamp down and it doesn’t rain at all for weeks. This one is tricky, a little cool weather here to lull you into a false sense of comfort, a bit of rain there to make you say to yourself “well it rained just the other day”. With the creek dry we are now down to using the last above ground water we have. The “upper pond” as we refer to it is about two months worth of water when full, but after months of evaporation it was down about two feet already. That was before I ran its water down hill to the pumping pond yesterday as it was less than half full. We can refill the pumping pond about 4 times from the other until it is dry too. Maybe six weeks of irrigation. So it goes, daily watering to keep it all happy, cutting off crops as soon as we decide they are done, checking for leaks, deciding which crops are marginal and maybe won’t get any water at all or we won’t plant for fall as there just isn’t enough water to go around. There are good things about droughts too, especially for us organic growers. When it’s dry we have much less plant disease problems because the fungus and bacteria that cause the problems can’t thrive in dry conditions. Weeds too are slowed down, they either don’t germinate at all or are not as vigorous and easier to kill. And mowing is a marvelous thing, mow an area and it lasts for weeks, some areas of the farm I have only mowed once this year!
Picture of the Week
The pumping pond half full, water from the upper pond coming in at the top right.
Made it to September, on paper anyway, sure doesn’t feel like it out in the field. August turned out to be one for the record books- the hottest month ever recorded at RDU airport by almost 2 degrees, that is huge as far as weather averages go! 30 days over 90 degrees another record and the second driest August ever. Now can we break the record for the number of days over 90 degrees in one year? It stands at 72, I know we are close. I pulled more water out of the upper pond yesterday and that leaves just one more round until that water hole is dry. With this kind of heat that is about two weeks worth of water left. If it cools off it will be just enough to get us to the end of our season, a little over three weeks away. Almost everyday I am cutting off the irrigation lines to more beds of crops that are just about finished for the season. Betsy is down to about ten beds of flowers now and I have mowed down the rest. On the vegetable side we are soon to be down to eight beds of tomatoes, twenty beds of peppers and and some odds and ends. It is just at half an acre of crops that need water every day when the temperatures are in the 90’s, but that is still just under 3000 gallons a day! Boy am I glad that I am not trying to plant fall crops, except that we do need to get some flowers in the ground for next spring and, of course, we need to get the winter cover crops planted in the next month, not unless some good rains come though.
I want to thank everyone for the feedback on last weeks newsletter about what defines local food. It was as I expected and I am fairly sure that it will be how the Farmers’ Market comes out on the subject in the end. I used the meat example because, for the farmers, it is the most complicated as far as logistics and regulations. I always want to try and solve the most complicated situation first, if possible, because then the simple ones are an easy fit into the new solution. Of course with the increased demand for local products, like meat, it leads processors and suppliers to eventually fill the need, but it takes time and money (and people of vision). Until then I feel the Farmers’ Market should make it possible for it’s members to operate viable businesses without compromising it’s long established goals and rules. As a market we have always been careful about setting precedents because once the horse is out of the barn it is almost impossible to get it back in.
Picture of the Week
Summer Crisp lettuce a miracle of shade cloth and daily irrigation
We’re back! Almost all of us anyway, Betsy is still in Colombia (South America, everyone looks at me and says “South Carolina?”) until tomorrow and hopefully will be rested as she will have to hit the ground running on Friday to prepare for Saturday market. A fairly typical break for the rest of us think. I did get in a few days of hiking and camping up in the mountains before Betsy flew away. Since then I have been puttering around the farm doing some small projects, reading, sleeping, eating and trying to keep things watered.
This drought is getting serious now. The forecast for the end of the week is for several days with a chance of rain above 50 percent but I am not holding out much hope. In the last two months we have had a scant two inches of rain. All of the rains have gone either north or south of us. The big creek is dry and we have been pulling water out of the upper, back up, pond for some weeks now. The last few days of near 100 degree temperatures have applied a brush stroke across the farm of brown crinkly grass and weeds, the true colors of a drought that has been masked until now by the cooler temperatures of this unusual summer.
Fortunately we do have enough water to get us through the end of this season, mostly because we only have about seven weeks left and there are only so many crops left to water. The little bit of fall planting we do has been going in on schedule, has been watered up with irrigation, and generally looks good. More radishes seeded yesterday and some Swiss chard too. The biggest potential loss is our summer cover crops, seeded six weeks ago they should be waist high by now but are at best ankle high, as our main source of organic matter to improve our soils this is never a good situation. Hey it could rain a lot this week and things will take off, lets hope!
Picture of the Week
Cowpea and Sudangrass cover crop, looks good where there is small irrigation leak