5/25/05 Vol. 2 #12

We started the annual clean up/rescue of the Blueberry rows yesterday.  Now that they have been in for fifteen or sixteen years they tend to mostly be forgotten and just a another part of the landscape until it is time to pick them.  We mow the grass between the rows a few times a year but the birds love to sit on the branches and “deposit” weed seeds under the bushes in places that make it hard to get at.  We do mulch the rows heavily every few years but this hardly stops the well fertilized weed seed.  It would be OK if they were just harmless annual weeds but as time goes on it is things like small trees, and the vines that like to cover the plants like trumpet creeper, morning glory and our favorite, poison ivy.  So every May, just prior to the berries ripening, we go out armed with gloves and pruners and cut out these woody invaders, mow as close as we can and maybe do a little selective weed eating.  In the end it is much cleaner and pleasant for the endless hours of picking to come.  Everybody has been asking when will the blueberries be at market.  I went back into the records and found that the average first picking has been May 25th (Friday) but as cold as this spring has been and from what I saw yesterday I don’t think we will make it.  The earliest ever was last year on the 22nd and the latest ever has been the 31st, with the exception of 1997 when we didn’t have any blueberries at all because of a very late freeze in April.  That was the same year that we had frost on Mothers Day, set the lowest high temperature record for June on the 6th at 59 degrees and the record June low of 48 degrees on the 10th!  I guess there can be stranger seasons than this one has been!

The last of the wholesale lettuce goes out tomorrow and in general it has been a good lettuce season, we will still have lettuce for market for weeks to come but the selection becomes narrower each week.  Behind the lettuce we immediately turn under the residue and have been planting more warm season flowers, the third planing of Zinnias awaits tomorrows lettuce harvest so that they can get in the ground, a week late!  The field tomatoes have finally decided to hell with the cool weather it is time to grow so we had to go through and prune and tie them up to the trellis for the first time this season.  Many more passes will be made over the next several months to keep them climbing up the fences.  The Turkeys are three weeks old now and will get to go outside, for the day, for the first time tomorrow, always very amusing to watch.  Betsy is now cutting flowers everyday and the walk in coolers are filling up and are a riot of color, it finally feels more like our normal routine.

Picture of the Week
Incredible Sweet William, what a great long lasting flower!

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!

5/3/06 Vol. 3 #8

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.

5/17/06 Vol. 3 #10

The endless lettuce season rolls on.  At least it feels endless these days as I go out to cut four mornings a week.  The staff arrives each morning and I brief them on the days jobs and end with “of course I will be cutting lettuce if you need me”.  Mondays and Thursdays I cut for delivery to Weaver Street Market, Wednesdays and Fridays I cut for the markets and the restaurants.  Usually two, sometimes three, hours each morning.  We are now into the fourth week with one big week left to go.  Lettuce is one crop that I do all the harvesting of.  It is such and ephemeral plant that it takes sometime to develop an eye for which head is large enough and tender enough to cut.  In a few days the heads that I pass over will be big enough to then take, in a few more days they will be too far gone, getting tough and bitter.  The hotter it gets the faster this progression occurs.  The weather of the past few weeks has been about as ideal as we get in North Carolina as far as lettuce is concerned so the pressure has been off a bit.  It is easy for me to train the staff on what is the right size of turnip to pick and how big a bunch is but the lettuce thing is more like “is this flower at the right stage to harvest?”, it is subjective (hence the reason why Betsy cuts almost every flower stem on the farm).  Twenty four heads to a case, six cases and hour if I have to search around, ten cases and hour if the planting is really uniform, that is one head every fifteen seconds!  I am counting the seconds until the season is done.

Big event at the Market this Saturday.  The Market is having a fundraiser for our sister market in New Orleans and all of the farmers and fishers who where devastated by hurricane Katrina last fall.  Like the Carrboro Market which was open two days after hurricane Fran crippled this area in 1996, the Crescent City Market was up and running only weeks after the water receded in New Orleans.  Markets are an important social component for towns and cities as well as sources of food.  Muffulettas and Gumbo prepared by a dozen Triangle chefs will be available to go for $10/serving, for more details go to the Carrboro Market websiteAll proceeds will go to the Crescent City Markets and their efforts to bring their vendors back into production.  Come on out for the good food!

It has been the normal orchestrated chaos this week with more planting of summer crops, more zinnias, sunflowers, celosia, cucumbers and another planting of Cherokee Purple tomatoes.  Weeding, trellising of flowers and vegetables, mowing, harvesting and on and on.  The turkeys got so wild last week that we had to trim the wing feathers on all of them.  After chasing the little miscreants all over the farm, including one that spent the night out because we couldn’t catch him at all, we decided we had to make sure none of them could fly until they learned better behavior, maybe this is where the term “grounded” came from that our parents threatened us with as kids.  Well this was no idle threat for these birds!  They go out to the field permanently tomorrow.

Picture of the Week
Sugar Snap Peas already loaded up with many more blooms on the top of the plants

9/5/07 Vol. 4 #24

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

5/28/08 Vol. 5 #11

The sprint is on now, the blueberries are beginning to ripen and the urgency to get other things done around the farm before we are all lost to berry picking is keen.  This is one of those transition weeks in the season when old crops begin to wane and the new ones are beginning to flex their “you need to come work in me” muscles.  Thankfully this is the last week and fifth week of wholesale lettuce deliveries to Weaver Street Market.  For seventeen seasons we have grown all the spring lettuce for Weaver Street and it dictates the pace of my spring work.  We plant nearly 9000 heads beginning in early February, covering, cultivating, irrigating until the late in April when I cut lettuce four mornings a week.  Monday and Thursdays are the large harvest days for the stores.  Early in the morning I call and get the orders from the produce departments so I can start cutting first thing when the lettuce is cool and with dew.  Most days it is twelve to sixteen cases, 24 heads to a case, some days it can be twenty or more.  It is the one thing on the farm that only I harvest, there is an eye one has to develop to know that the head is big enough for the stores.  I fall into a steady routine, Red Leaf is first as it is the most heat sensitive and usually I have to cut the most of it for the orders.  I move right to left down the beds after I cut a number of heads out to have a place to set the crate.  The lettuce is three plants across the bed and hopefully they are all the right size otherwise there can be substantial skipping around.  Cut the head off with the special lettuce knife at the base and then inspect the head for quality, peeling off a few of the old outer leaves, littering the ground around my feet with them.  The first layer in the case is three rows of three, layered in like singles; then layer of six heads followed by the final layer of nine.  I can barely get 24 full size heads in a case but do, carry it to the back of the truck, snap the lid on and pick up another empty crate.  Green Leaf follows next, then the Boston, Romaine is always last.  Romaine can take the heat better and is the easiest to cut and clean when I am getting tired.  When it is really large I tell myself it is like cutting down redwoods.  If the planting is really uniform I can cut ten cases an hour, fifteen seconds a head.  When I have to skip around it slows me down to six an hour.  With the days order cut I pull the truck down into the deep shade for a few hours before I take it into town.  Wednesday’s and Friday’s cuts for market are smaller only around eight cases but still the same.  After five straight weeks of wholesale lettuce I am ready to do something else every morning, it’s time for the season to change.

Big day yesterday the turkeys moved to the field.  The first time a batch of turkeys is exposed to something new they get crazy, this group seems especially jumpy so we have been careful in this big transition to the outdoors.  First we let them run in and out of the brooder to the field shelter just to get the hang of it.  Then we move the field shelter further away from the brooder and put food and water in there.  Finally we close the brooder and make them stay the night in the field shelter.  This group has not been high on the scale of early adopters, plenty of distress chirping and generally not getting it at first.  On field moving day we have to catch each one and carry it to the new field where we have moved their familiar feeders and waterers, lots of panic and chasing around.  Once they are all in the new field we move the field shelter (the new mothership) into the field and leave them alone for the rest of the day.  We were worried that come night fall we would be herding them around to get them into the shelter for the night, not being the highest achieving group.  Hallelujah, at dark they were all self loaded and we just had to close the door!  Transition complete.

Picture of the Week
Cozy at first light, waiting to be released for their first full day in the field

5/6/09 Vol. 6 #7

This is the kind of weather that berry and lettuce growers fear.  In the winter and early spring we hope for plenty of wet days to keep things cool and help the little plants grow.  During harvest season we prefer to have widely spaced rains with brilliant sun in between so the berries and lettuce can dry before the dreaded molds get a foot hold.  When we were in the wholesale blackberry business this kind of weather would give us sleepless nights.  We just knew that the beautiful glossy black berries we sent to the grocery stores would all be turning white with mold in the produce coolers and we would have to give them credit for many dollars worth of hard earned/picked fruit.  Because we were not going to spray fungicides it is one of the reasons we got out of the blackberry business.

On the lettuce side there is a soil borne fungus that is commonly called bottom rot and the lettuce heads just melt down.  Not all heads and just in places here and there in the field.  When the lettuce is at harvest stage and densely packed together on the beds the soil underneath them never sees the sun and stays moist, perfect for molds to grow.  We compounded the situation with this rainy period by irrigating Monday afternoon because we had to and weren’t sure if the storms would come, water on water.  Our only defense now is when we harvest, to try and cut the middle row out of the three on each bed to give them better airflow and hope the sun comes out.  Looks like we have a few more days to wait for the sun to appear.  Just when we are in the early weeks of delivering lettuce to Weaver Street Market, classic.

On the rest of the farm this is clearly a changing of the seasons.  The last of the lettuces are being planted while the first tomatoes and zinnias are in the ground and the peppers are going in next week.  In preparation for the peppers and other warm season crops the last of the huge winter cover crops went under the mower or the roller this week.  Some of the rye and vetch combos were mowed to turn under for the following crops but most were rolled down to provide mulch and slow release fertility for the sweet peppers, late tomatoes and winter squash all to be planted in the next few weeks.  The last pass through weeding the onions and other late spring crops, have to get all of these chores rounded up before the end of the month and the beginning of blueberry season.

Picture of the Week
Bright Poppies on a dreary day

9/2/09 Vol. 6 #23

Whoopee!  We made it to September!  As you know we don’t usually, instantaneously, go right into fall when the calendar flips months but it sure feels that way this week.  Our farming friends in Texas are celebrating too as the temperature finally fell below 100 degrees after months above it, now if they can just get some rain, makes one realize that our summer has not been too bad.  The lowering angle of the sun and the darker mornings are the first signs that fall is really around the corner.
We have had shade cloth on the transplant greenhouse and some of the little sliding tunnels all summer to try and moderate the temperature a bit.  The lettuce we have had for the last few weeks is only possible with some shade cloth and consistent irrigation.  Likewise the celery and Brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving, that have been in the ground since late July are only really possible with the help of shade cloth (in my opinion anyway).  But now the amount of daylight is so much different than just a few weeks ago that, today, we are taking all of the shade off for the rest of the season.  Too much shade and the lettuce, in particular, gets wacky and starts to twist as it grows.  We have learned this one the hard way when we first tried to grow lettuce in the late summer and had an entire hoop house cork screw up and didn’t harvest a single head.
Soon we will be mowing down what cover crops we have and the remains of the other summer crops and begin the preparation of the soil for next years crops.  It is a slow process this dismantling of the summer farm but one that feels good as it goes along.  Tomatoes and trellises out.  Lisianthus and Celosia trellises out.  Irrigation lines taken up bed by bed as they are no longer needed.  The Big Tops uncovered, rolled and stored for another winter.  Soil amendments spread to help feed next seasons crops.  Finally by mid October it is all seeded to cover crops for the winter and another market season comes to a close for us.  Breath deep, you can smell fall just around the bend!

Picture of the Week
The lengthening morning shadows of September, celery and Brussels sprouts under shade