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
Busy week, the last out of town conference trip of the season combined with typical spring chores. Who would have thought that I would be in Kansas City twice in the span of two months? In January I flew in to be the keynote speaker and a conference presenter at the Great Plains Vegetable Growers conference, a new group to me and I had a fine time. In the back of my head was the knowledge that the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) was having their 20th anniversary meeting in late March, also in KC. For us, once the market season starts, we just don’t go away, too much to do. But the SARE program holds a special place in my heart and in the development of Peregrine Farm. SARE is the federal government’s effort at promoting sustainable agriculture through an innovative grants program and then information dispersal. Split into four regions of the country, I spent seven years in the 90’s as a farmer representative on the Administrative Council of the Southern Region which reviews the grants and oversees the operation of the regional program.
Extremely unusual for a government program, it is very participatory and diverse. The Administrative Councils have representatives from universities, industry, NGO’s, state and federal governmental organizations as well as farmers. They discuss and debate the future of agriculture and how to direct that future towards more sustainable solutions via the carrot of grant monies. Not only was I exposed to the newest cutting edge ideas in farming and the leading minds in sustainable ag but also how this kind of group operates. The politics and relationships involved, how to manage large groups of diverse opinions to come to decisions, where the money goes. In the end I was elected to the august position of council Chair (I think I left the room at the wrong time). This took me to the National Operations meetings where I was able to work with my counterparts from the other regions. In all it was a very formative time for us. So late March be damned, Betsy particularly thought I should attend partly for the conference sessions but also to see old friends. Off I flew early Tuesday and returned late last night tired but glad that I did attend infused with new ideas and renewed contacts.
Here on the farm the staff and Betsy have been making great headway. The early tomatoes and cucumbers were planted on Tuesday, waiting until just after what we hope was the last night in the mid 20’s. As it has become more common in recent years we are having to do variety trials to find a replacement for a longtime favorite vegetable. This time it is the early red tomato we have relied on for great early production with great flavor. Most tomatoes are not suited to planting this early and the ones that are, usually don’t have very good size or flavor. Burpees Early Pick hybrid is the one we have grown for years and it has performed reliably but in today’s modern seed industry they have decided to discontinue it’s seed production, damn! We had some seed left and are growing it alongside three new varieties in the hopes of finding good replacement. In a few months you will get to taste the results. Big cultivation and weeding week, looks like they got everything cultivated while I was gone. Weed control is all about timing and the soil conditions were ideal this week. If all goes well, that will be the last time we have to do any cultivation on the early spring crops.
Picture of the Week
Newly planted tomatoes
OK so the rain has officially put us behind as far as field work is concerned. Plants are backing up in the greenhouse and hopefully we will get them all in Thursday and Friday. We also really need to get some cover crops turned under so they can decompose in time for us to plant the cash crops that will need their nutrients to grow. The scariest thing is the main planting of tomatoes is to be planted in two weeks and we have to get the Big Tops built over the field they are going into, and fast! The most difficult part of the process is drilling the legs into the ground. They go in, or are supposed to go in, thirty inches deep. You till a field for a quarter of a century and you think you know where all the rocks are but it turns out that you only know where the rocks are in the top twelve inches, there are parts of the planet down there that you can only hope you miss. We started with the legs yesterday and so far not too bad, 15% have hit rocks we couldn’t work around. We knew this field would be a trial and feel if it stays about the same we will be fine. Big rocks mean we have to get a BIG jackhammer to bust them up. We will drill or attempt to drill in all 95 legs and anchors first and then go rent the jackhammer and finish up the troublesome holes all in one day. If we can get the rest of the legs in today then we can quickly finish it up early next week. Let’s hope, because tomatoes wait for no one!
The rest of the water pumping went well last week and now both ponds are essentially full. Lets hope they stay that way and the only use for that water will be to swim in this summer when it’s hot! Things are really greening up fast now and with all this rain and warm temperatures it will all move really quickly, crops and weeds. We need to get the last of the lettuces in the ground as well as seeding of the last spinach, and radishes. Believe it or not we need to seed the first Zinnias and plant the first Celosias too. Betsy even started mowing this week, you know that the last frost date is approaching when the first summer crops go in and the weedeater comes out!
Picture of the Week
Cov hanging on for dear life while we drill in legs for the Big Tops
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.
Picture of the Week
Anemones say it’s spring anyway
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.
Picture of the Week
We were successful in getting the tomato Big Tops covered!