Snow Days

The biggest snow since 2004.  Hard to measure accurately as it came in various forms.  When we got up at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning there was around 4 inches of a nice powder, about then is when it became more sleet like and denser.  Maybe another inch of this stuff fell but it weighted down the lighter snow underneath.  What we ended up with was 5-6 inches of heavy crusty snow.

We were up that early to go out and sweep the snow off of the unheated tunnels so they wouldn’t collapse.  It is one of the drawbacks of having structures to grow crops in the off-season, they are vulnerable to big weather.

Fortunately the Big Tops are uncovered for the winter so we don’t have to worry about them but the six sliding tunnels we do have to watch.  Since we built our first tunnel in 1997, only three other storms have forced us to go out in the middle of the night to clean them off.  The worst, of course, was the record 20+ inch snow of 2000, when we stayed up all night, going out every 2 hours to sweep. By the end of the night we were almost hallucinating from exhaustion.

Usually 6 inches of snow doesn’t make us nervous but with the potential weight of this stuff we had to be cautious, good thing we were. We saved the tunnels with one good cleaning but our old pick-your-own stand collapsed under the load, onto the big pickup and the car.  Looks worse than it is, just a few dents in the vehicles but we will have to rebuild the roof before the Farm Tour.  I have taken some ribbing about the quality of my construction on this shelter but it has weathered almost 30 years of storms including Fran’s 80+ mph winds and two 20 inch snow falls.  Just wish we hadn’t parked the vehicles under it this time!

So it has been four days now of being snow bound and this is what we have designed our home and farm for.  We just make sure there is plenty of firewood and food and then just enjoy it from the comfort of the house.  Once the tunnels are safe we have no other worry’s, even if the power goes out.  We do wander out and around the place just to view and usually I dust the cross-country skis off and tour the neighborhood, but not this storm.

Look how deep the snow is between the tunnels from cleaning them off

Each day I have walked the 3 miles round trip up to get the newspaper, it is the closest we can get the N&O delivered.  The road is still a sheet of ice and few cars have been up and down it.   There have been plenty of folks out pulling sliding devices including this pure country version with a riding lawn mower pulling two plastic sleds.  

I also had to chuckle to myself as I walked by this house.  Two weeks ago they were out mowing the lawn!  Not that there was anything to mow but maybe it was wishful thinking.

This kind of event doesn’t happen very often here.  This is only the eighth time since we have lived here on the farm that we have had this much snow or more, so we look forward to these snow days.  As long as the tunnels are OK.

3/19/04 Vol. 1 #1

Happy Spring to all!

Betsy and I hope that the winter has been good to you all and that you have been enjoying the first vestiges of Spring.  Tomorrow (Saturday) is the first Farmers’ Market of the year and the first day of Spring.  To mark that occasion we are also launching our e-newsletter.  We hope to send out one each week during the season to let you all know what is going on here at the farm, what crops are coming along, and other farm related items that we think that you maybe interested in.  They will be brief and not take up too much of your time.  We get so many questions from folks about what’s going on out here that we felt that this would be a good way to keep people up to date.  If you wish to not receive this newsletter just reply so to this message or just let us know at market.  On the other hand if you know folks who you think would be interested in news of the farm then please feel free to forward this to them and encourage them to e-mail us to be added to the list.

What’s been going on?

For us it has been a fast and furious winter with lots of projects being started and completed, entirely too many meetings and lots of fun and educational travel.  Betsy has taken on the mantle of the most traveled this off season with trips to Vancouver (she let me tag along for this one), Florida, Missouri/Oklahoma, Virginia, and most recently Ecuador!  All flower related and she saw and learned a lot of great things.  We have always felt that it is very important for our business to continue our education and research into new things, in fact we still spend up to 5% of our gross income on this continuing education and we hope that you all reap the benefits of it!

Things here on the farm are lurching into spring.  We have been planting indoors in our unheated high tunnels since late last year and outdoors since the beginning of February.  Generally the crops look good and we have been able to stay right on schedule until this last week when the rains have made it too wet to work the soil.  I imagine that we will be right back on track by the end of this coming week.  As a bit of insight into what it takes for us to schedule and produce the almost 200 varieties of vegetables and flowers that we grow we plan the entire season usually in early December and then order seeds.  It turns out that we are planting something into the field 47 out of the 52 weeks of the year!
Picture of  the Week
Sliding tunnel with anemones, collards and lettuce

3/26/04 Vol. 1 #2

This is that time of year when we seem to go around the clock but we sure packed a lot of living into this week!  One of those seemingly endless meetings that I alluded to last week started off this week.  I went down to Robeson county to participate in a panel discussion to help kick-off Small Farms week.  A lot of activities surround NC A&T State Univ. Small Farms week including the naming of the Small Farmer of the Year, this year it is our very own Stanley Hughes who sells with us at the Saturday market!  Betsy and I were chosen in 1995, a long and dusty time ago.  Got home in time to help Betsy cover a wide variety of crops with floating row cover in anticipation of the cold.  18 degrees here on Tuesday morning, everything looks fine tho’.

There are a few critical weeks in every season (tomato and pepper planting weeks being two) this week happened to be one of those as it is the week that we “slide” our sliding tunnels/greenhouses.  For those of you who have been to the farm before you have seen our six 16’X48′ tunnels on rails that we move to cover sensitive crops.  I takes the better part of two days to complete that move which includes taking the end walls off, unbolting endless bolts, the actual slide and then putting it all back together again.  We got smart this year and actually split it into two days (Tuesday and Thursday).

Picture of the week

They hate it when I make them stop half way for pictures!  Sliding off of early planted flowers and over the tomato beds with trellis installed

9/22/04 Vol. 1 #27

First day of fall, how great is that news!?  Twenty 28 weeks ago I sent out the first newsletter and it was just before the first day of spring.  Since then we have been on that wild ride the growing season always gives us, most of it is a blur right now but will actually become clearer as the fall rolls on and we can step back and look at it.  What a difference a week makes, last week we were preparing for Ivan and this week is quintessential clear fall weather.  Soil preparations for the winter and next year are going smoothly and we will get most everything seeded down to cover crops before the next rains come early next week.  Because cover crops are the backbone of our soil fertility program I get a very “focused” in getting them in just right.  The perfect time to get them established is now thru the first of November and it is ideal to catch a rain just after seeding them.

Of course there are other things that we need to get done as well.  The first of next years flowers went in the ground yesterday, yes the next season has already begun for us, from now until mid November we will plant a half an acre of flowers for spring harvest.  There are other “putting the farm to bed for the winter” chores beyond the cover crops.  Maintenance on the sliding tunnels, we move any dirt away from the rails, sweep them down and give all the wood parts a coat of linseed oil (it is all untreated wood because we don’t want the arsenic leaching into the soil where we are growing food).  Taking out the rest of the trellising, pulling up the last drip lines and stowing it all away.  The last big job is to move a quarter acre of “Big Tops” to it’s new field.  That should take about a week in total and I want it done before we go to Italy in less than four weeks, yikes!

There is work to do on the house, work to do on the packing shed, the driveways to drag back up the hill after all the rains and people ask “what do you do in the off season?”  Before we know it, it will be March again and time to start back to market!  As Saturday is our last regular market for the season, this is the last weekly newsletter of the year.  I plan to send one out monthly through the winter just to keep you updated on what we are up to, look for one just after we get back from Italy and then one just before the special Tuesday before Thanksgiving market.  If we don’t get a chance to say it to you either this Saturday or before Thanksgiving, we do greatly appreciate your support of what we do here at the farm!

Picture of the Week
The first 3000 flower plants for next year, Sweet William, Delphinium, Campanula and more!

3/31/05 Vol. 2 #4

Boy are we tired today!  Yesterday was the big moving of the tunnels day.  We have these six 16’X48′ greenhouse structures that we slide back and forth on rails so that we can cover sensitive crops and yet still have all the benefits of outdoor culture.  We only move them once a year but usually it takes parts of two days to finish the job as there is endless unbolting and rebolting of the parts so that when high winds come they don’t end up in the next county.  One of the problems with greenhouse or protected growing is that you can build up disease and insect problems as it is the perfect warm, moist environment for them to thrive.  By uncovering the growing areas we get all the natural soil building conditions (freezing and thawing, snowfall and rainfall, full sunlight) and we can grow our soil building cover crops as well.  It is a lot of work but in a sustainable system we need to work with the ecosystem in all the ways that we can.  The reward for all of us are things like tomatoes that taste great a month earlier than we could have them from the field.

One of the reasons that we are so tired is that we got it all done in one day so that today we can plant another quarter acre of asparagus before the rains come tonight!  Because these asparagus will be in the ground for the next 10-15 years we don’t want to rush through the job of preparing the soil and planting, even though that is how it feels!  We started the preparation two winters ago with soil tests and mineral amendments, then growing cover crops to build the organic matter and to help reduce the weeds, today we will lay out 2200 plants (crowns they are called) in six inch deep trenches and cover them lightly.  As the season goes on we will continue to pull more soil over them until the trenches are filled.  With any luck we will harvest the first few spears next April!

The rest of last week was filled with deer fence maintenance (stinking deer!), tomato trellis building and planting of some new blackberries.  As you may know we started Peregrine Farm as a pick-your-own berry farm.  After fifteen years in the blackberry business we thought that we would never plant another one on the place but Betsy has missed not having some berries, at least for us.  As I can’t ever just plant a few of anything I thought that I was restrained by just putting in a 100 foot row.  Two new very promising varieties maybe we will have some next June (2006) at market!  The staff is back in full force with Joann keeping us straight, Rett (back from two months in Brazil) keeps us laughing, and new this year is Rachel who is attached to one of our alumni, Lee, and came highly recommended.  It is all we can do to keep up with these kids.  Spring is really here now!

Picture of the Week
The sliding tunnels, the wooden rails are visible at the bottom of the picture.

3/29/06 Vol. 3 #3

A little stiff today, yesterday was tunnel sliding day.  Not quite an Olympic sport like luge, a bit more like dog sledding.  Our crack team has done this together so many times now that what used to take parts of two days to complete we did in four hours!  Now I will admit that we only moved four out of six tunnels but I am still quite amazed at our efficiency.  One person has to go around and un-bolt everything (twelve bolts per tunnel) while another takes the front walls off.  Then two people take the back walls off while others are attaching the pull straps and spraying linseed oil on the rails to “grease the skids”.  Finally on the count of three the five us us lean into the straps and the thing lurches forward (this it where it is dog sled like).  Tug, pull, tug down to the other end (only 50 feet away), a little fine tuning to align the bolt holes then the re-bolting and end wall re-installation begins.  Once its all done it appears as if they have always been in this position until you notice that the bright lettuces and other crops that had been protected under cover are now outside squinting in the strong sunlight.

Today the early tomatoes go in the ground inside the their newly moved homes.  With this warm forecast they should be really happy and just take off.  A harbinger of changing seasons.  When you plant the last big round of lettuce and the first round of tomatoes and sunflowers in the same week you know that really warm weather is now only 6-8 weeks away.  Betsy’s big planting of Lisianthus went in this week as well, 3600 tiny plants spaced “exactly” four inches apart in three rows on each bed.  It’s like a precision drill team.

We had an interesting experience last Sunday afternoon and again Monday night.  The Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) committee was meeting in Pittsboro.  RAFT is a collaboration between Slow Food, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Chefs Collaborative, Seed Savers Exchange and a few other groups.  The aim is to identify food plant varieties and breeds of animals that are indigenous to the US and in danger of being lost from lack of use in culinary traditions.  Once identified they can then be promoted and hopefully saved.  This is how the heritage turkeys where brought back from the edge of disappearing.  Sunday we participated in a blind tasting of four breeds of chickens.  The principle purpose of the exercise was to develop a tasting protocol that can be used for most poultry and then easily modified for other animals as well.  Once developed then good descriptors of the various breeds can be arrived at so when chefs and consumers want to know the qualities of a breed they can be given a fairly detailed description.  After carefully describing, both numerically and verbally, and tasting the white meat, dark meat and the skin of four different chickens and then the next night having a wonderful full meal prepared with the favored breed, Betsy and I are off chicken for a while!

Picture of the Week
Squinting lettuces next to the new warm home for tomatoes

4/26/07 Vol. 4 #6

Farm tour weekend, wow, always enjoyable and always long days.  We had our usual modest sized crowds which makes it much easier for us to visit with everyone and answer their specific questions.  Some of the farms, especially those with animals, have told me that they had more than 1000 visitors!  There is no way we could deal with numbers like that and enjoy it as much as we do.  It was great to see everybody especially our customers from market, we also get quite a few people who are farming or are seriously looking into it and they ask really good questions about why we do things in certain ways.  One of the highlights was the three van loads of farmers and extension agents who drove all the way up form Louisiana for the tour!

With the hubbub of the farm tour behind us we now turn to the next big projects on the list.  Yesterday we covered the four bays of the Big Tops, over the flowers, moving quickly before the winds came up.  We can now begin the last cultivation and weeding in those crops before we have to start trellising them in the next few weeks.  There are only a few big “hurdles” we must clear each year so we can move on with certain crops and this is one of them.  They punctuate the season which is dominated by little steps each day on the way to the end of the year.  Sliding the tunnels, preparing for planting tomatoes, covering the Big Tops, preparing for planting peppers; those are the ones that always loom large in my mind, three down, one to go.  The big planting of tomatoes went in Monday and they are very happy with this warm weather.  “Only” seventeen varieties in this planting including some new large sauce types from Italy and a cherry from Italy which is one of the Slow Food Presidia, special crops or foods that have been designated as such to help save them.  Here is a link to more information about Slow Food’s efforts to save endangered foods.  Pea trellis went up yesterday, the sugar snap peas have grown out of the freeze damage of a few weeks ago and are wanting to climb.  More flowers and vegetables have been planted and now we settle in on the chores of cultivating, trellising and keeping them watered.

Well many of you have been asking about the turkeys and if we will be raising them this year.  We normally would have the little poults here by now but have been waiting to receive word about the status of the new processing plant.  I finally talked with them on Tuesday and while they are making good progress on building it they could not assure me that it would be ready for Thanksgiving.  So the decision has been made for us.  No turkeys this year.  After two years of the stress of not knowing if there would be a place to have them processed we feel it is best to wait until we know for sure there will be a facility.  This is one of the big differences with turkeys as the heritage types, like the Bourbon Reds that we raise, take a full six months to grow so we need to be assured of the outcome far in advance.  With chickens they only take a little over two months to raise and are easier to get the chicks for, so those farmers producing them can still wait and have several flocks this year when the plant is ready to go.  Sadly no excellent turkey for Thanksgiving or stories of Mr. Tasty as the season unfolds.

Picture of the Week
Just covered Big Tops and newly trellised Sugar Snap Peas

3/21/08 Vol. 5 #1

Happy first day of Spring and Easter!  Alright so once again the winter has zipped by and I have managed to be so busy that I didn’t get one newsletter out.  I would have to say that this has been one of the most densely packed winters we’ve ever had but we did get a lot done and find some time to have fun too.  Dominated by the construction on the house, which has occupied most of my brain power since October, and punctuated by trips away to conferences, before we knew it, it was time to start planting again.  People always ask who do we get to do the construction work and then look quizzical when I say we do all the work.  We did hire a mason to do the foundation and to build us a fireplace and an electrician to make sure we don’t burn the house down but everything else we do ourselves.  It takes a bit longer sometimes but the end product is exactly what we want and Betsy is an excellent assistant.  The whole project has turned out great and is “almost” done.  Some entrance steps and a few other outdoor things remain but I hope to have them done in the next week or two.  The funny part is we keep asking ourselves “who’s house is this?”

There were too many conferences and farm related meetings away from the farm this winter and I will have to have a word with my agent about over booking.  We try to schedule just one a month but sometimes things pop up after we have committed to another group and we just can’t say no.  The highlights for us are the new and interesting people we meet who are changing the face of food and farming.  Our own “home” conference of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association was a good starter along with the 1200 attendees at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s conference in Kentucky.  As always I had fun at the Georgia Organics conference a group I have worked with for many years now, it is pleasing to see it grow from a group of 20 or 30 to over 600 this year.  The most unusual meeting and highest honor for us was to be inducted as fellows in the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans and Chefs.  An offshoot of the Southern Foodways Alliance, this new group brings together those folks, from across the south, who have been working for a long time in food and farming for a weekend to be able to share ideas and experiences.  Betsy and I are still trying to figure out exactly how it all works but it is certainly an interesting group of people.

On the farm things are moving a pace.  The greenhouse is full of transplants, believe it or not, we seeded peppers yesterday.  Almost all of the lettuce is planted in the field now as are the onions and most of the spring vegetables.  The peas are up and look better than last years poor stand.  The little sliding tunnels are full with early greens and flowers and today we will slide the last three so we can plant the earliest tomatoes and melons in the next week or two.  We are thankful for the rains we have gotten in the last month but we still need more.  One pond is full but the other one still is six feet down.  We will begin to fill it from the creek (which only started to flow again on New Years eve) in the next few weeks.  To be honest we are still very worried about whether there will be enough water for this season, we are planting like there will be but know that if the drought persists we will have to make decisions about what to water and what to let go.  The staff started this week and so now we really know that the winter is over!  No more late mornings with another cup of coffee, no more random unscheduled days, every week is full with a plan now.  Welcome to our 27th growing season!

Pictures of the Week

The finished livingroom and incredible anemones

4/8/09 Vol. 6 #3

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.

Picture of the Week
Warm tomatoes

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