The calendar says it’s time for us to start another market season and winter’s death grip on spring appears to be having it’s fingers pried off one by one, Punxsutawney Phil and Sir Walter Wally were right on with this forecast. We are doing our best to ignore the fact that it is much colder than usual and continue to plant on schedule including the first tomatoes into the sliding tunnels today! It has been an interesting winter and while we have done quite a lot, the amazingly cold and sometimes very wet conditions have kept us inside more than normal and we feel very fat and sluggish coming out into spring.
Over the next few weeks I will give you more details of our winter adventures but the highlights include trips to Texas, Tennessee (twice), Pennsylvania, and last weekend to Georgia. Last weekends now almost annual trip (for me) to the Georgia Organics conference was even better because I finally convinced Betsy to go with me which is the reason we were not at market last weekend for our traditional start. There were a number of events surrounding the conference that were also enticing to Betsy, several Slow Food related things and we both were interested in a full day workshop on farm transition. Farmer friends of ours hosted this all day session as they have just begun the process of transitioning their farm to a younger farmer. While we are not quite yet ready to go there, we do need to begin thinking about what we will do with this place in the end so we are very interested in how it is working for others around the country. As usual I also gave several workshops during the conference and the conference wrapped up with a grand banquet for 1200, held under a huge tent, capped by a keynote talk by Michael Pollan of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” fame.
Here on the farm our 28th growing season is beginning to happen at a much more rapid pace. The staff started last week so now there is no excuse to stay in the house for another cup of coffee. Cov is back for his third year and we are very happy for that. New this year is Glenn who has made several stops at other farms over the past few years and is seriously looking at farming as a career after getting a non agricultural degree at UNC, a perfect fit here at PF. So far we have moved the hoops for the Big Tops, slid the little tunnels to their summer positions (where the tomatoes are being planted right now) and planted a bunch of lettuce and flowers. We are on schedule as far as planting and seeding goes, but the cool soil temperatures are holding things back, with some crops not happy at all. We already had to replant the first outdoor Japanese turnips and the first planting of Sugar Snap Peas looks really bad. On the bright side the beets, carrots and others have come up really well. As soon as it dries out after this rain, we will need to begin cultivating like crazy.
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Anemones say it’s spring anyway
It has been some years since we had a wet spring, one forgets what it could be like. So far this one is what I would call consistently damp, not so much rain that you begin to wonder if you will ever get stuff planted but the frequent wet days do make us rush around trying to get things in the ground before it comes again. This week was just such a case. We usually need about three dry days for the soil to drain enough to be able to till and not do any damage to our soil structure. After last weeks inch plus rains it was just barely dry enough to till on Tuesday but the forecast for more rain on Wednesday was 90 percent so off we raced. Three beds of lisianthus (very tedious as they go in four inches apart), two more beds of mixed flower transplants, followed by three beds seeded to carrots, turnips and radishes.
After all of the recent wet weather the weeds are really starting to germinate and in another week it would be scary. So after lunch I set the guys on getting most everything cultivated even though another day would have made the soil conditions just right. By three o’clock we had covered the most egregious areas including thinning the broccoli raab which had come up like hair on a dogs back. Cov and Glenn then headed off to get some planting done in their own gardens before the rains came. Almost two days work in one but with a rain day coming.
Wednesday morning I am at the desk viewing the radar on the computer as it had not started raining yet. While I am making some notes on the crop plan I realize I had forgotten to seed the second planting of broccoli raab, with this forecast I better hurry out quick. Quick means taking down the deer fences so I can get the tractor into the field, spreading a little bit of feather meal for nitrogen, firing the tractor up and lightly tilling the tops of the beds, carrying the seeder down and running it up and down the beds. A light mist falls off and on as I do all this, then it stops. The rest of the day it barely drizzles and we wonder what all the rushing around was for. Oh well, I am looking at the radar again this morning and it looks like rain for sure again, we’ll see.
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The blueberries are blooming like crazy
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.
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Today we are supposed to begin pulling the plastic over the Big Tops, the giant greenhouse structures that we grow tomatoes and some flowers under. As I sit here looking out the window I can see a slight breeze in the tops of the trees which may mean no covering this morning. 30 by 100 foot sheets of plastic make great sails and any breeze gets exciting when you think you could be carried across the river unless you let go. The Big Tops cannot take a snow load so we uncover them every fall, this also allows us to grow the important soil improving cover crops and recharge the soil with rainfall. We wait until as late as we can to cover them so we can get all the natural water into the soil possible before we have to start irrigating.
This is all part of the inexorable march toward planting the main crop of tomatoes. The cover crop of wheat and crimson clover was turned under a month ago to give it time to decompose and begin to release its nutrients for the tomatoes to use. Last Friday we tilled the beds again, almost ready to cover with landscape fabric and build trellis but first we must pull the plastic roofs over as it is too hard to do with all the tomato trellises in the way. Once covered we can proceed with these preparations so that sometime next week we can tuck the plants into the ground. Timed to make sure we are after the last danger of frost, the transplants have been “in the system” for five weeks so that when they are planted they are at the best stage of growth so they can just take off without a pause. The first sungolds six weeks later, if the wind will hold off.
With all of this rainy weather it is getting difficult to keep the guys busy but we keep having enough dry days to keep on schedule with planting. This week more lettuce and spinach and flowers made it into the ground. The pea trellises went up too. The big spring clean up push began with brush burning, all of the limbs that fall in the winter plus various prunings of the perennial plantings. Not only do we have to get ready to plant tomatoes but next week is the Farm Tour so we have to get buffed up for that too, lots to do.
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We were successful in getting the tomato Big Tops covered!
It must be tour season as we have had 3 different college classes over the last two weeks. Now we get a lot of tourists over the course of the season but this many is unusual even for us. The first group was the greenhouse vegetable production class from NC State. We were the last stop for the day and they had seen traditional heated greenhouses, and unheated tunnels but as usual when they got here they had to rewire the brain because we look like nothing they have ever seen before. First we have the sliding unheated tunnels with a 12 year crop rotation to make sure we maintain excellent soil health. Then we walk by the passive solar transplant greenhouse with no additional fossil fuel generated heat, certainly not the standard as taught at the university. Finally we talk about the Big Tops with no side or end walls just the roofs to keep things dry, looks like a greenhouse structure but?…
The second class was from the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College where many of the things we do here have been replicated like the passive solar greenhouse and another take on the sliding tunnel. This days subject was tomato and pepper production and as we have two tunnels with beautiful tomato plants growing and a greenhouse full of tomato and pepper transplants they are able to see the whole show, short of fruit to eat. The final group was the Organic Crop production class also from NCSU, the idea that they have such a class is somewhat amazing and an indicator of how far we have come. Again we are the last stop but this time they have been to several similar operations and it is harder to get their attention with talk of cover crops, rotations and beneficial insect habitats but I try.
Which leads to this weekend, the 14th annual Spring Farm Tour. Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-6:00 each day. 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. 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 (we are #33 on this years map). The best deal is to buy a button ($25) which will be your pass for as many people as you can stuff into one vehicle, for as many farms as you want. 40 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 have been mowing and picking up around the place and it’s looking pretty shiny around here, nothing like having 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 warm and beautiful!
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A beautiful spring morning, the Lettuce field and the Big Tops all covered
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.
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Bright Poppies on a dreary day
It has arrived, one of the most hallowed weeks of the season, pepper planting week. I know that sounds like Daytona Speed week or ACC Tournament week or something equally exhilarating but this is the last of the big pushes for the spring. Covering the Big Tops and planting the main crop of tomatoes is big, sliding the little tunnels is a big job too but pepper week is easily as complicated and important as those. Sixteen one hundred foot long beds, over 2000 plants, 32 varieties to keep track of I am tired just thinking about it all.
It started eight weeks ago when we seeded nearly 3000 seeds into small 200 cell flats, then four weeks ago we moved the best looking of those tiny seedlings up into 50 cell flats and the perfect two inch cell size for them to grow a good root system. The same week I mowed and turned under the beautiful cover crop on the eight beds that will hold the hot kinds and the more “delicate” sweet varieties, leaving the cover to grow even more on the area that will be the no-till home of the sweet bells. Two weeks ago, before the big storms, I rolled down the huge cover crop in the no-till zone so it would be laying parallel to the direction of the rows of plants. Yesterday, after the month of decomposition, I re-tilled the eight beds giving us a beautiful soil to plant those hot peppers into. I also re-rolled and crimped the cover crop in the no-till zone which will help it on it’s way to dying and turning into a thick mulch on the soil.
Today we will roll out irrigation lines on each one of those eight beds and stretch the landscape fabric over them. We think that the hot varieties and some of the smaller fruited sweets benefit from the warmth of a raised bed and of the black fabric, some of them like the habaneros and the aji dulces take so long to set fruit that the warmer the soil early on in the season is what makes the difference. The vigorous sweet bell peppers do just fine in the cooler, non tilled soil. Today or tomorrow, we will cut slits in the thick mulch of the no-till zone to tuck the plants into. Finally tomorrow we will plant, trying for the last time to not mix up the different varieties so we can accurately know who is who when it comes time to picking and evaluation. Pepper week, it is a long time in the making.
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Pepper Field ready to go
These weeks are all full right now, between harvesting nearly everyday so we can deliver Mondays and Thursdays to Weaver St. Market and sell Wednesdays and Saturdays at the market it would be a full enough schedule. In between we still need to mow and weed and plant and trellis and and and.
Good progress this week on all projects with this last great stretch of spring weather before the temperatures inevitably rise. The peppers went in the ground under maybe the most ideal conditions I can ever remember, overcast with a bit of rain and no wind, they look great. More plantings of sunflowers, zinnias and even some late late spring lettuce. The tomatoes are growing with abandon now and need to be tied up almost every week. Betsy’s prized lisianthus beds get fine toothed attention as the tiny plants are four inches apart in the rows and need careful weeding before the support netting is suspended over the rows making it hard to impossible to get in and weed later. In most respects a solid week.
One major flaw in the season though. Our friend, colleague, student, fellow farmer Ristin Cooks died on Sunday. Ristin, with her partner Patrick Walsh, are Castlerock Gardens and produce wonderful stuff. Ristin had battled various cancers for many years now and was determined to win but in the end couldn’t, she at least was at home, on the farm, looking out over the greenery of spring. I first met Ristin at least ten years ago when she took my Vegetable Production course at Central Carolina Community College, from the first class you knew she would be the one asking the probing questions.
When they started at market in 2003 she immediately became involved and a voice for the new small farmers in the market. Those who knew Ristin knew she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought about some issue and then help to work to make it better. She and Patrick also raised livestock and we worked together on trying to band together poultry producers and on the guidelines for meat producers at the Carrboro market. What I like to remember most though is a picture of her swaying to the music of Patrick’s band, Kickin’ Grass; or sitting quietly, in the rain, at a pizzeria in Italy writing postcards to friends at home. She will be remembered well.
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Ristin with friends at an Italian Farm feast last fall, listening, learning, having a great time
Rain, glorious rain, we have been missing the showers of the last week and have been irrigating everything lightly with an eye towards the sky not wanting to over water if it is going to dump rain on us. Finally yesterday the skies opened over us and we had a good solid rain. Chased us out of the field for an early end to the day but it was welcomed just the same.
Blueberry picking time has arrived and with power. This first week we usually go through the planting with just us kids here on the farm and it only takes a couple of mornings to get all that are ripe. This year the plants are heavy with fruit and it is already taking extra hands on deck to attempt to get them all picked. We like to pick through the rows twice each week and so far we have only made it part way through on the first time around. So many berries this year that it looks like mostly berries on the bushes and not many leaves. Hang on.
Fortunately we have been preparing for this onslaught by getting as many other jobs around the farm done beforehand. Now Betsy and I are mostly alone in working on the other areas of the place trying to keep up with the odds and ends and harvesting the other crops while the forces are massed up on the hill in the blueberry field. This it the change of seasons and for the vegetable side of the business, blueberries are the bridge between lettuce season and tomato season. I have been mowing down old lettuce and other spring crops and turning the residues under in preparation for late plantings of flowers. Soon we will eat the first tomato and we will know that summer is offcially here.
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Berries wet with yesterdays rain
We finally made it to June, seemed like May lasted longer than usual for some reason. I spent most of the morning yesterday on the tractor doing defensive mowing of the vigorously growing grasses around the edges of the field. Defensive because the ticks are amazing this year if you have to venture into that tall grass and because the ground hogs are back and I makes it easier to see them if the grass is short.
Ground hogs are our most feared pest, more than deer. They can and will eat entire plantings of stuff in a day, deer just nibble here and there, if they get past the electric deer fence. We noticed last week that some lettuce had been eaten on the edges of the rows in the field and then some lettuce transplants in the flats in front of the greenhouse had been eaten too. Finally Cov went down to trellis his own pole beans in the bottom field and some critter had wiped out the entire row and had helped themselves to the golden beets too. Several days later we finally spied both the hilltop and the bottom culprits. The ground hogs never seem to show up until it is warm enough in the spring, usually about now, and in the past few years we have not seen one here on the farm as they move around from den to den. We can’t fence them out without huge logistical and maintenance headaches and they just laugh at the traps so I am now on afternoon rounds to see if I can get a shot at them.
In less than two weeks, June 14th, we will be participating in the second Farm to Fork picnic, put on by the Slow Food Triangle chapter and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. The proceeds will benefit new and young farmer programs in Orange county and down at CEFS. Last time it was great fun as chefs and farms are paired to come up with great food. There are something like 26 restaurants participating and we are paired with Watts Grocery this time around, should be entertaining and delicious.
While the mower was on I mowed down the early spring flowers (larkspur, bachelors buttons, etc.) soon it will be summer cover crop time. The blueberry picking rolls on with many hands on deck. Monday we had possibly the largest crew ever with nine in the field, still didn’t put a dent in the massive crop. The third planting of zinnias and celosia are going in the ground just as the first zinnia bloom has been spotted. We ate our first BLT sandwiches on Monday so summer is officially here!
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Beautiful Campanula and other flowers under the Big Tops