Peregrine Farm News Vol. 7 #11, 5/19/10

What’s been going on?

Oh what beautiful rain! We didn’t get quite a much as others, somewhere around an inch and half initially, but then last nights additional shot probably brought us up to two inches. Of course I irrigated everything on Sunday, not going to be fooled again by the forecast, Oh well those beets will just size up quicker. Everywhere I went on Monday people were smiling and commenting on what a great rain, even our mechanic was ecstatic.

Of course working in the rain can be a challenge but we have enough stuff under cover now that, for at least a day or two, we can keep folks busy. The one thing that I can’t avoid is cutting lettuce in the rain. We cut Weaver Street’s lettuce to order, the day of delivery, so Monday morning I carefully watched the radar and went out when it looked like there would be a lull in the action. Worked pretty well and I only had to cut the last two cases in a strong shower. I have had times when it was full rain gear and the rain was just pouring down, this was not so bad. I did get the guys to come out from under cover to pick the broccoli raab during the lull and they managed to get pretty wet too.

This strange spring continues to surprise us. This time it is the extreme earliness of the blueberries. The earliest we have ever begun picking is the 22nd of May, with the average first picking being the 25th. We could have easily picked on Monday, the 17th, this year! From this early ripening and general look of the crop, my guess is it is going to be a fast and short season with fewer berries than normal. The first pick through will be today and we have a couple of additional hands coming to help, hold on it will be a fast ride, maybe three weeks.

Farm to Fork picnic this weekend and today we are harvesting the produce that Ben and Karen at Magnolia Grill will be using for their dishes. Beets (all three colors), Sugar Snap Peas, Turnips, Easter Egg Radishes, lettuce and Spinach. Their dishes are going to be Cornmeal Cake with Blueberries & Sorghum Buttermilk Cream and Spring Vegetables with Hickory-Smoked Rainbow Trout & Beet Ricotta! For those who got tickets to the now sold out event, we look forward to seeing you on Sunday. We are sorry for those who couldn’t or can’t make it but we will give you a full recount next week.

Picture of the Week

Turkeys just out after a day of rain, brooder on the left and the new mothership on the right

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

5/5/04 Vol. 1 #8

Happy Cinco de Mayo, too bad there aren’t any peppers to celebrate with!  Crazy week this one, way too much going on.  We barely missed the bullet last Wednesday morning as I last wrote.  I went out to find a heavy frost, the place was white!  All looked good and the tomatoes under the “Big Tops”, that we didn’t cover, looked unfazed; that would pay for those structures alone!  Whew!  It was great to see everyone out on the Farm Tour, a little damp but still a great turn out.  I may be getting old but it is a long weekend for us, especially Saturday following market, but we love to show folks were it all comes from and how we do it.  Lots of rain, 2.6 inches through Monday and things are good and wet now.  The new Poultry Villa is complete and ready for the 60 Heritage turkeys that are due tomorrow morning, it took some focused work to get there, hard to do when we have so many things going on.  Lots of folks have asked about ordering turkeys for Thanksgiving.  I will send out more info as we get a little closer to fall, don’t want to count those turkeys until they are hatched!  We are supposed to be planting peppers this week, one of the last Herculean tasks of the spring, I am thinking that due to the wet soil and hectic schedule that we will wait until early next week, I know, I know don’t worry the pepper roaster will make its debut on schedule.

Tomorrow is the launch of the first really new market in the family of markets that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Farmers’ Markets operates in maybe 20 years.  While we have moved the original midweek market around town several times we have never operated more than two markets.  This new Thursday afternoon market (3:30-6:30) in Southern Village will be an great new addition.  It is being held on the green across from the Lumina theater where they show the outdoor movies in the summer.  The folks who run Southern Village have been great to work with and are excited to have us there.  Betsy and I are going to attempt to sell there as well, it will be a stretch as we have honed our production to meet our current market demand.  We plan to have most of the vegetables and a large flower selection.  Betsy even plans on being there to sell!

Picture of the Week
Green Boston Lettuce, this is the peak of the season

6/16/04 Vol. 1 #14

Gray, damp, humid, snippets of rain, not much sun.  Nothing grows or blooms fast but the diseases.  Now don’t get me wrong, a little natural water is a welcome thing (our ponds are full again) but a bit of sun in between the showers would be great.  This is exactly the kind of weather that we put the “Big Tops” up for.  In weather like this the tomatoes would go from looking green and lush and in a week start showing brown dying leaves on the bottom and in several more weeks black to the top.  Not so this year!  They are high and dry under the roofs and look fabulous.  There is a little foliage disease here and there but nothing like we have had in years past.  Betsy is also struggling to find enough flowers to cut, with no sun there is are not many buds opening.

Most of the week we have been dealing with the repercussions of what seemed to initially be a short 15 minute thunderstorm on Friday night.  In the daylight after Saturday market we saw the results.  We had a burst of wind over 40 miles per hour and maybe over 50.  Buckets and other things blown all over, limbs up to 4 inches broken off, sunflowers, dahlias, and peppers laid down and the front corner of one of the “Big Tops” leaning to one side.  Every year we have some kind of weather event that makes its mark on the season, some in big ways like Hurricane Fran, some in small ways like this one.  The job on the schedule for this past Monday was to begin trellising the peppers, 48 hours too late for this storm.  Once peppers fall over they are predisposed to lay down the rest of the season, so we put in a string support when they are 12-18 inches high to keep them straight.  As they grow through the season we put additional layers of support in to carry the weight of the fruit and branches.   All of the hot peppers and some of the sweet ones where blown over and then they started to grow upright again giving them a bend in the trunk and branches.  We have them all strung up now but this S curve in the plants and their predisposition to lay down will haunt us all season as we try and manage them.  It is a lot easier to pick peppers if they are standing up and not laying down in the rows or the aisles.

Not all things moved sideways on the farm this week, we did get a lot more planted before the big rain on Friday.  More flowers including the third planting of zinnias and a specialty melon trial we are doing to see if we can have some exotic melons for you in September!  The soil moisture is perfect for pulling weeds in some of the beds we haven’t been able to take care of while picking blueberries and the staff trellised quite a few of Betsy’s flowers (so they won’t get blown over!).  The turkeys are having a grand time out in the big world, running around under the hydrangeas and viburnums and eating all kinds of weed seeds and bugs!

Picture of the Week
Modern art pepper plants

6/30/04 Vol. 1 #16

Rain, rain, rain.  We’ve had 3.5 inches in the last two weeks and it would be alright with us if they turn the tap off for a bit.  Hallelujah for  the “Big Tops”, the tomatoes still look great as well as Betsy’s lisianthus and the staff can still work even if it rains (of course if they are like us they are looking for a day off).  The fairly continuous rain at market on Saturday once again made us think about how great our customers are, coming out and supporting us and the other vendors at market even in the rain.  It also makes us think about how basing our business around outdoor Farmers’ Markets is at the whim of the weather and other factors beyond our control.  We consciously have moved more of our business towards the markets over the past few years for several reasons, first we just love to be at market, to see everyone and hear what you all think about the products that we sell.  Second it fits with our scale of production, when we were more in wholesale we had to keep growing more to meet their needs, it was never enough.  Third it is better income than wholesale because we can sell for closer to a retail price.  On the other hand the market life can be relentless with no way to overcome days with bad weather or other problems, we can’t just take the stuff home and bring it back next week, that’s why they are called perishables.  I explain to the staff and others, including family members, that 75 percent of our business is done at the Farmers’ Markets and so Saturday, in particular, is not to be trifled with.  No weddings, no family reunions, no extracurricular activities on Friday or Saturday morning during market season.  We have about 100 hours a year to make our living, we don’t mess around with that.  So when the forecast is for rain it makes us pause, then we are always pleasantly surprised when the customers come out.  Thank you again.

Despite the rains we have a fairly busy week going on.  Several groups touring the farm including the graduate students in floriculture from NC State and the student interns from the Center For Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro.  We host them every summer during their intensive week on Soils.  They come to see how we manage our soils sustainably and to see how a small farm can be profitable.  These groups always ask good questions that make us think about why we do things the way we do, I think that its always good to look in the mirror from time to time.

The next 40 turkeys arrive this week as well.  We get them in two batches because the Heritage birds take at least 26 weeks to get to size but the Broad Breasted birds grow so fast that they only need about 18 weeks to get huge.  We are hoping that we won’t have any 30 pounders like last year by getting this group later.  The Heritage birds are getting big and have moved to their next location, maybe a picture next week.

Tonight (Wednesday) is Panzanella’s Local Food dinner with part of the proceeds going to support the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  Look for our tomatoes on the menu and the flowers that Betsy donated to spruce up the festivities.  Go and eat great food made from local products and support our local sustainable farming non-profit!

Picture of the Week
Despite the rains look at how beautiful the Lisianthus and Celosias look!

6/29/05 Vol. 2 #17

WooWee!  It’s raining!  I was starting to get a bit nervous and told Betsy that if we didn’t get rain early in the week that we would have to start pulling water from the upper pond, as the lower pumping pond was getting too low.  I hate to have to start using that water as it is a sign of serious drought.  The upper pond is two months worth of water and once we start using it there is no filling it back up until next winter.  The lower pond, while not very deep, is easily replenishable both by it’s slow running spring and the gravity feed line that we have into the creek (which is also slow running right now).  Last week I said that we were pumping about 10,000 gallons a day but the creek and spring are only giving us back about 5 – 6,000 gallons a day.  After two weeks of solid irrigation you can see the problem.  With this rain headed into it’s third day this will buy us the time we need for the water to fill back up.

Of course with the rain I am now kicking myself for not having gotten more ground ready for seeding of the summer cover crops (he is never happy).  The forecast has been for such dry weather, including headed into this bit of rain, that we didn’t want to put seed out there that would just sit there and maybe not come up at all.  We have only had a bit over a half an inch so it’s not so wet that I won’t be able to get out there and till the soil soon afterwards but it sure would have been nice to get them in with this gentle rain.  I did get the sliding tunnel ends seeded yesterday just as the rain started but still have another half acre waiting.

The second round of Turkeys did not arrive last week and we are hoping that they will make it this week.  We are working with our processor, who also raises his own birds, to buy the 35 broad breasted birds that we need to round out the flock.  It looks as if the bronze variety that we want to get may, once again, not be available and so we may have to get whites again.  Like I say, it is always something new with this turkey venture!  Otherwise things are settling back down to more normal pace now that the blueberry season is over.  We are back to our normal 70 hours a week of hired help down from a high of almost 200 hours two weeks ago!  Soon we will be in our mid summer routine of picking tomatoes twice a week, peppers once a week and general chores the rest of the time.  When it gets really hot we like to maintain a steady and not too frantic pace, better for the mind and the body!

Picture of the Week
Even on a dreary day the Zinnias are bright

4/26/06 Vol. 3 #7

Well we anticipated waking up to a grey and damp morning.  Basically a rain day.  We had arranged for the staff to come on Thursday instead of today, to take advantage of the weather and to try and snatch a kind of day off.  The sun was out!  Now as I continue on the clouds have rolled in and I feel more secure in our partial sloth this morning.  This is not to say we don’t have plenty to do today with market this afternoon but at least it will start slower.  After the long Farm Tour weekend and the run up to tomato planting it is good to pause for just a moment, after all it may be the last rain day for a long time!

We did have great rain on Saturday, not great for market and it limited the crowd some for the Farm Tour on Saturday afternoon but it was the best rain we have had since maybe January or even December, 1.3″ and a little more last night.  With the rain forecast for today we will be able to finally get both ponds to full pool.  I have been sweating over this for a month or more as we have been trying to increase water flow out of the creek and into the lower pond.  I knew all we needed was a good rain to give us a break from irrigating the crops so we could move that water to the upper pond.  One more good day of pumping and we will have it done!  The race has been against the season, once the leaves are fully out on the trees the creek flow diminishes as it gets hotter because those trees really start sucking moisture out of the ground.  The hotter it gets the more we have to irrigate and then there is no way to get caught up unless it starts to rain.  The good news is that the USDA and National Weather Service has changed us from an “extreme” drought to just “severe” and the forecast for us, through July, is to be on the edge of “some improvement early in the period”.  I think I will still make sure the ponds are full!

The Farm Tour was entertaining as usual.  We always have about the same numbers of folks each year now.  Because we have been on the tour all eleven years and are not as sexy as those farms with lots of animals our visitors are more predictable.  We either have our great Farmers’ Market customers coming out to see what we are up to this year or we get people interested in going into farming and want to ask specific questions about how we do it.  Both groups are fun and we enjoyed seeing all of you!  The main planting of tomatoes were tucked into the ground yesterday!  A careful choreography as there were five of us planting twenty three varieties in ten different rows.  650 plants in all.  The staff want to know my rationale for what kind goes where.  With the Big Tops there is a lot of extra water on the outside rows coming off the plastic roofs, the same result for the down hill ends of the rows.  I carefully put those varieties that need extra water on the outside rows, things like the Green Zebras or Viva Italias who suffer first from too little water.  The interior rows get the kinds that always explode with too much water, like the very sensitive Striped Germans and Sun Golds.  The new test varieties go on the ends of the rows so we can keep an eye on them as we walk by everyday.  It was supposed to only be 18 varieties in this planting but Betsy snuck in five more that we brought back from Italy last fall so I had to find room for them somewhere.  In addition to those we have three new varieties that we are hopeful for, Mule Team (a red), Lillian’s Yellow, and Dorothy’s Green.  I can taste the sandwiches now!

Picture of the Week
Striped German and Green Zebra  tomatoes tucked into their warm raised beds, protected from the wind by the crimson clover cover crop and the rain by the roof of the Big Tops

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.

6/21/06 Vol. 3 #15

The first day of summer and now the days begin to get shorter.  While we have been fortunate to have cool weather last far into June the days getting shorter are still a sign that it is all down hill to fall now.  I know we still have lots of summer season to go but in our minds we are always anticipating the next season, seeding crops for it, making plans around it. etc.   This long term view of the world is important for a farmer to have, partly to be prepared for what is to come so we are ready to take advantage of it (“have to make hay while the sun shines”) and partly to see past what might not be going well this season (“there’s always next year”).  I find that having an understanding of the long cycle of the seasons allows us to better plan our crops and how they best fit into the agro-ecosystem.  What summer cover crop works best before a fall planted flower crop that if planted at the right time and temperature will not have horrible weed problems next spring to fight.  Those flowers need to come out in time for another summer cover crop (different this time) that will be mature enough in time to run the turkeys through and will build organic matter and nutrients for the following springs lettuce crop which needs lots of nutrients but never uses them all.  When the lettuce is done we can plant late summer zinnias and sunflowers that can soak up all that excess nitrogen but will be done in time to plant a winter cover crop that will feed the next years early summer flowers and on and on.  A farmer friend of ours says “I only have about twenty more times to try and get this right”.  In some jobs you can try and get it right instantly, or the next day or the next week.  In farming we only get one chance a year and we better see it coming!

It is summer cover crop time and as the spring crops come out we are preparing to turn the residue under and seed those soil improving crops.  I wish I could have gotten it done before the big rains of last week but will all work out.  We were lucky again to get good rains but not as heavy or as much as some our friends.  Two inches on Sunday last and a steady 1.6″ from Alberto.  Some of our fellow market farmers had as much as fourteen inches from the various storms last week!  Blueberries are finished and because it was such a light crop we are not in too bad a shape coming out of the season on the rest of the farm.  This weeks big job is the red onion harvest.  We have to wait until the tops start to fall over which is the signal that they are finished growing.  It is best to harvest when it is dry and warm so that he necks of the onions dry out well.  If it is too wet then the chances are high of some kind of disease infecting the freshly cut off neck and causing the onion to rot.  Perfect weather this week, but the staff always feel like I have staked them out on and ant hill when I say its time to harvest onions.  We carefully pull each one of the 5000 plus plants, cut off the top leaving a inch of neck, cut off the roots, wipe off any excess dirt and place them in ventilated trays.  The trays are then put into our passive solar greenhouse to cure and dry.  Then over the next few months we will clean a few boxes each week and bring them to market.  It is a lot of work but the quality and health benefits of these red onions are worth it.

Picture of the Week
Fabulous Annabelle Hydrageas at their peak

6/28/06 Vol. 3 #16

Rain, that is what has been going on.  7.3 inches this month.  Not as much as many other folks have had but wet just the same.  When we first moved to the farm in 1982 we lived in a tent for eight months while we began to develop the farm and build the first part of the house.  We had planted 5,000 berry plants in March and struggled through a very dry April to keep them alive.  We would fill five gallon buckets, by hand, out of the pond put them on a trailer behind the tractor and slowly drive up the hill to the field and hope that all the water wouldn’t splash out on the way.  We would then carry those buckets up and down the 20,000 feet of row and pour a little bit of life giving water onto each one.  Finally in late April the irrigation company we had contracted with to install our system arrived and we spent three very long days running thousands of feet of two inch PVC pipe up to the field to carry the water to the drip lines that we buried down each row next to the plants.  I always joke with folks that we lived in a tent while we put in $6000 worth of irrigation and I am still married to the same wonderful woman!  Now we could water all those new berry plants and our future.  In May it began to rain.  Every day we would stand under our little twenty by twenty tin roofed tractor shed/kitchen/world headquarters and watch as the rain dumped down on us.  The dirt track that ran past the tent and shed would run like a river and the lightening would shake everything around us.  The month ended with seventeen inches of rain!

Out in the field the plants were now happy but so were the weeds that we had unleashed by turning over soil that had held the weed seeds for years just waiting for someone to come along and bring them to the sun.  The May rains gave them extra vigor and we saw our berry plants disappearing into the jungle.  I carefully worked my way up and down the four miles of rows and hand weeded a cylinder around each plant after I found them first.  It was a race as the weeds: lambsquarter, pig weed and ox-eye daisy grew to head high.  I finally got on the tractor and stood on the seat so I could look down and find the cylinders I had created around each plant as I carefully mowed the aisles between the rows.  The battle with the weeds carried on through out that first summer (and still continues today) but we had saved the crop.

Fortunately we are going to have a dry spell coming the next five days or so and we will be able to get in and start to fight the weeds back.  We now have more equipment and tools and more help to do it with.  After years of cultivating, hand weeding and rotating crops our weed seed bank is not what it used to be but just letting a few big ones make seed will set a portion of a field back five years, so we are ever vigilant.  There is a section in the new Zinnias where it looks like we spread grass seed with a butter knife, or spray painted the ground green.  Last year we had Dahlias there and couldn’t till or mow the grass in them and couldn’t keep up by hand so some grass went to seed anyway.  We may end up mowing those Zinnias down early so that grass can’t make more seed, better that than making the problem even worse.  When organic farmers are surveyed about what is their number one problem it always comes back weeds.  It has been that way since man first started farming.

Picture of the Week
From the archives.  The early camp with tent as bedroom wing, ah the good old days!

6/6/07 Vol. 4 #12

Just when you think that you have seen it all in 25 years of farming some new wrinkle appears.  We are in a pitched battle with some kind of varmit who is eating all the ripening tomatoes in the little tunnels!  Don’t be messin’ with my tomatoes!  In the past we have found a few things (mostly melons) with tooth marks in them and only one or two a year, but this critter is having a grand old time working it’s way up and down the rows eating or biting into a dozen or so a night.  We put traps in the tunnels a few nights ago and caught a possum and thought OK problem solved but yesterday morning someone had been having a picnic again and the trap was tripped but no one inside!  So now they are getting crafty, maybe a raccoon?  We upped the ante baiting the trap with peanut butter (the universal food used to attract all wild things from mice to buffalo) and now slices of apple.  If this doesn’t get some results then we may have to surround the tunnels with the electric net fencing we use for the turkeys and that will keep them out but also make it harder for us to get in and work.  I am not yet ready to sleep out there with the gun but I mean we are talking about the first tomatoes of the season here!

What a great rain on Saturday night, we had an inch and a half that seemed to all soak in.  Now we can not only let the pond fill back up a bit but we can also get some things planted that just didn’t make sense to do unless there was some moisture in the soil.  Tuesday we finally planted the quarter acre of winter squash (acorns, butternut, spaghetti, sweet dumpling) which should come up nicely now that we had an additional bit of rain last night too.  A bit late to get the squash in the ground as our rule is it needs to be planted in May otherwise we lose the fruit to pickle worms in August.  But it was just too dry the last few weeks to get them germinated and it is one of the crops that I don’t plan on irrigating, especially when we are watering the rest of the farm and running low on water.  So we’ll see, maybe the first of June will be OK and we will slip past the flights of the pickle worm moths.  It is seasonal change here on the farm, cool season crops coming out and the beginning of the harvest of the warm season ones.  Peas and pea fences came down yesterday, the irrigation lines came out of the larkspur and bachelors buttons, soon all will be mowed and turned under ready for the summer soil improving cover crops.

Picture of the Week
Rat Tail Radish Pods