7/26/06 Vol. 3 #20

This has been one of those weeks when people begin to ask “when do you have time to farm?” as I go from one meeting to another.  I have to admit that I have not spent as much time in the field this summer as I usually do.  Mostly due to the on going wrangling at the poultry plant and the Growers’ Choice Cooperative I have been running around central North Carolina a lot.  We knew heading into this season that this was going to be the case but felt that we could handle it this year because our staff is so good.  It has been!  We are extremely fortunate to have a group of people who have been with us for several years and begin to know the system as well as we do.  We joke that Joann understands my handwriting and speech patterns better than Betsy does!  When I scrawl the restaurant orders down, with my own abbreviations, Betsy will show it to Joann who knows exactly what it says.  Most mornings now, as they arrive at the farm, we sit under the little shed we use to store straw in and go over that days jobs.  I usually can say we need to do X,Y and Z and they head off to spend their mornings without me at their side.  Picking tomatoes, trellising flowers, weeding Lisianthus they now know how to do it as if it were their own farms.  Of course Joann has her own farm, Castlemaine, and Rett has just left us to move to his new farm in the mountains.  Will is starting a new farm down in Chatham county and Rachel is in her third year working on local farms after her boyfriend Lee worked for us before that.  We have always tried to create a working situation here where, as they learned the system, we let them operate it without excess supervision.  Just enough to make sure the quality and efficiency is there but not so much that they feel micro managed.  Generally we have managed to successfully hit that balance, sometimes we miss the mark but never with disastrous results.  It is difficult in our situation in that we can’t have permanent, year round help.  Because we are seasonal we have to make the job as enticing and rewarding as possible and become efficient and effective teachers so that they can get up to speed quickly without the frustrations that can come with learning something new.  We have been very lucky with staff for many years and this year they have made it possible for me to be distracted by off farm projects, I can’t thank them enough.

It is a little eerie when you go to deliver produce and there are life size posters of you by the door.  Tomorrow night (Thursday) Panzanella restaurant and Weaver Street Market are having another of their local Farm Dinners this one featuring us!  This one will benefit the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, five percent of the proceeds will be donated.  This is where I taught the Sustainable Vegetable Production class for six years and many of our excellent staff have taken classes there.  The format is they have a number of special dishes made from the featured farms produce along with their regular menu.  Yesterday we delivered a huge array of produce for Peter McKloskey to work with.  Five kinds of tomatoes, Poblano, Anaheim and Serrano peppers.  Red Torpedo Onions from Italy, Cucumbers, those great Galia Melons and of course flowers for the dining room.  I know that he is going to stuff some of the Poblanos and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Melon for dessert.  Every summer we threaten to have an on farm open house and dinner during tomato season but never seem to be able to get around to it (I wonder why?), this is the next best thing and we don’t have to do the cooking!  Come on out and enjoy the produce of the season.  5:30 to 9:00, no reservations necessary.  Betsy and I will be there eating too (are you kidding, our food and we don’t have to prepare it!).

Otherwise it is business as usual on the farm.  Tomato picking twice a week, peppers once a week, with plenty of maintenance in between.  Tying up tomatoes and peppers, fighting back the encroaching weeds, mowing, mowing, mowing.  Betsy is of course cutting flowers everyday.  It is kind of like the steady buzz of the crickets at night, it just goes on and on.  The turkeys are all now in the Blueberries, divided by a section of fence.  This is the “get acquainted” period where they can talk to each other through the fence but the bigger birds can’t pick on the little (and strange to them) ones.  In another 10 days or so they will all run together and it will be like old home week, by then they will just think of each other as cousins they haven’t seen for a year but will feel comfortable hanging around with!

Picture of the Week
A foggy morning as the cousins stare each other down

8/30/06 Vol. 3 #24

We look skyward as we do the rain dance hoping that something will come to erase that crispy look and feel the farm has been developing over the last few weeks.  Now that Ernesto is on his way I hope we didn’t dance too gleefully as they are now calling for up to seven inches of rain before Friday afternoon!  Now we go into batten down the hatches mode.  Mostly that means we have to pick quite a bit of stuff for Saturday market this morning before the rains start.  Fortunately peppers are one of those vegetables that can be picked quite early and their quality holds up beautifully for days.  When you see how long it is possible to hold peppers one begins to wonder how old those peppers in the grocery store actually are, but I digress.  Anytime that it is dry, for this length of time, we also get lackadaisical about making sure everything is put away completely so it doesn’t get wet.  So we need to circle the farm and make sure there is nothing laying out in the weather.  We also need to pull the gravity feed intake out of the bone dry creek in case it floods as well as keep an eye on the river levels over the next few days as we might have to pull the irrigation pump if it actually rains that much.  Not much wind associated with this storm so at least we don’t have to make sure everything is tied down too.

Further signs of fall this past week as the days get noticeably shorter and the staff begins to move towards their fall and winter schedules.  Rachel started back at UNC this week so we only have her help on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.  Joann, who keeps a schedule that makes us weary to think about (she runs her own farm, mostly runs ours and also works a couple of days a week at Weaver Street Market!), is beginning to pick up more shifts at Weaver Street for the winter season.  Rett is already gone to his new farm in the mountains.  Will is still hanging in there for the next month or so until we have the place put to bed for the winter.  Several mornings a week it is just Will, Betsy and me to hold the place down.  Soon as my mother used to say it will be “just us chickens”.

We have just four Saturday markets left in our season so the end is in sight.  That means it is turkey reservation time!  We always wait until now to make sure we have a fairly accurate number before we start to take peoples names and deposits.  For those of you who got birds last year I will also send out a separate message just to make sure you don’t miss it in the regular newsletter mix.  We have 84 birds on the ground right now with many of those already spoken for, so don’t delay.  Attached is the turkey reservation information and form.  Eerily like last year we are not exactly sure where we will be getting the birds processed.  The local plant is in a state of transition and so we may have to go out of state or process them ourselves.  The law allows farmers to process, without inspection, their own birds (up to 250 turkeys a year) and sell them to the public.  Many people argue that in many ways this is a safer and cleaner option than large plants (like Perdue).  In either case they will be frozen just as last year at a state of the art freezing plant that results in excellent meat quality.  Because we are going to Italy before Thanksgiving we are going to process the birds early so we don’t  have to worry about them while we are gone.

Picture of the Week

The dry creek bed with the end of the gravity feed water line

3/29/07 Vol. 4 #2

Every year people ask “so what are you doing different or new this year?”.  I think that most times it is just a way to ask about the farm in general.  I usually search my brain and come up with a smattering of new tomato and pepper varieties or a new radish but those kinds of changes don’t really make any difference in how Peregrine Farm runs.  We (hopefully) are long past any major infrastructure changes, the last major one being the arrival of the Big Tops.  No new greenhouses, large pieces of equipment or walkin-in coolers.  We are at the point, after 25 years, that we are just fiddling with the knobs and fine tuning things.  There is one big change this year though and it is more important to how we operate than any other component of the farm.  Our staff.  For the first time in ten years we are starting with entirely new help.  We have been extremely fortunate to have had a string of great people and every year at least one of them would return for at least a few days a week.  The continuity that this provides is wonderful and the integration of new people into the program is much smoother too.  But all good things come to an end and our last group all decided to move on at the same time.  Joann is finally on her farm full time and we couldn’t be more pleased for her.  Rett is starting his new farm near Asheville.  Rachel is graduating from UNC and headed out.  Will is working on developing his new farm too.  Julia decided to stay at home in Wisconsin to work and farm up there.

Hired help is the most important single input on intensively managed small farms, both in getting things done but also in cost.  Most small farms like ours spend as much as 50% of gross on hired labor!  This doesn’t leave much for every thing else and a return to the owners.  We have worked very hard (fiddling with the knobs) to reduce this number to less than 20%.  We have managed to do this by becoming very efficient in how we do things, not growing crops that take excessive labor, using help only for critical farm related needs and by hiring really good people plus training and paying them well.  I am pleased to report that, once again, we have two great people for this year.  Elizabeth is from South Carolina but has worked the last two seasons on farms in this area, Elise Margoles’ Elysian Fields and Bill Dow’s Ayrshire Farm.  Cov is from Charlotte but traveled widely with stints on farms in California and last year as an intern at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro.  After nearly a month here on Peregrine they have not left running down the road screaming!

This is one of those transition weeks on the farm.  The first tomatoes went in the ground (in the sliding tunnels) and the last large planting of lettuce was put in too.  From now on just about everything we plant will be warm season crops so while we are just barely beginning to harvest the cool season crops our minds are already partly in June.  Great rain this morning which will help a lot but we began the process of putting out the irrigation this week.  Those high 80 degree days forced our hand.  Just about everything on the farm got cultivated and weeded this week and are much happier now.  Soon we will have to start putting trellis up to support all those flowers and peas that will grow fast from here on in.

Picture of the Week
Elizabeth and Cov planting Lisianthus

6/20/07 Vol 4 #14

It’s always the way, work hard to beat the rain and then the rain decides not to come.  It is summer cover crop planting time and we had been watching the forecast thinking it looked like a good bet that we would get rain to water up newly sown seed.  First it looked like the front would come through this evening and so we had Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to get it all done then, at the last minute, they pushed the time forward to this morning.  Yesterday was a sprint finish to slow race that’s been unfolding for a week or so.  As the spring vegetables come out we mow off what’s left and to help keep the weeds down, the same with the early spring flowers, finally we give it all one more mowing and cut it all in with the tractor.  I did that last Sunday since it was dry enough to work soil after the last rains.  I like to let it lay there a few days allowing all the just turned up weeds to perish in the intense summer sun, that was the slow part of the race.  Yesterday was the seeding day.  First spin out the cowpea seed (we always plant a legume to capture the nitrogen from the air for free) and then because it is a large seed and needs good soil cover to germinate we have to cover it lightly with the tractor, so around and around I go.  Then I walk back over the rough field and spin out the sudan grass seed (we always plant a grass with the legumes to grow huge amounts of organic matter to feed the soil), the grass seed is small and doesn’t need to be covered especially if a good rain is on it’s way.

Of course that was not the only item on the mornings agenda which included some last minute mowing and tilling for some other crops we wanted to get planted before the rain.  Cov and Elizabeth trellised some celosia and continued the red onion harvest, with other projects I would throw in from time to time as I came by.  Check in with the NC State research folks who were out to take measurements of their tomato plots.  I did manage to get most of it done by noon when the staff leaves and we disappear into the house for the heat of the day and it was a hot one!  I planned to go back out late and finish up.  By 3:00 there was the rumble of thunder and it looked like even earlier rain, damn!  So back out I go to finish the seeding and to roll out some Italian bean seed that we brought back to try, seed some more cucumbers and the rain starts to fall, just enough to chase me out of the field but not enough to get the ground wet.  Done, a three T-shirt, two sets of shorts day.  Now this morning it appears as if the rain has passed us by and there is no more forecast for a week or so, I may have to try and water these cover crops up, arghh!

On the tomato-stealing-critter front we had to resort to surrounding the tomato tunnels with the electric net fencing as I have not been able to catch the varmit in the big Have-a-Heart trap.  Thanks to all who sent suggestions for the best baits, looks like eggs and sardines are universally successful around the country.  I went with the sardines option (in Louisiana hot sauce) and the culprit managed to get the sardines out three times without getting caught in the trap!  I was beginning to think this was the Cajun Einstein of raccoons when it started to eat ripe melons out of the other tunnel and carrying them a hundred feet away.  Now I suspect our varmit is a fox.  The fencing has worked to keep it out of the tomatoes so the last job yesterday (on top of everything else) was to surround the melon tunnel too, it looks like a medium security detention center out there now.

Picture of the Week
Medium security electric net fencing around the tomato and melon tunnels.

7/4/07 Vol. 4 #16

A holiday today, well kind of.  Cov and Elizabeth are off today and we are taking the afternoon off but only after a morning of irrigating, flower cutting, mowing, tilling and a few other regular jobs.  Then later on we will head over to my sisters house for a little grilled food, adult beverages and cut throat croquet.  Our contribution to the meal is of course produce, especially the tomatoes.  This is the first full week of the big tomato harvest as we have picked at least a few of every single variety for this year, twenty in all.  So we will arrive with a large platter, the colors of the tomato rainbow- reds of Big Beef and Early Picks; yellows of Orange Blossom, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Nebraska Wedding, Azoychka and Sun Golds; the pink of German Johnson and the yellow and red stripes and swirls of Striped Germans; dark deep red of Cherokee Purple playing off the bright greens of Aunt Ruby’s, Green Giant and Green Zebras.  The juices of the sweet and fruity ones mixing with the higher acid kinds.

This is the great reward after months of careful tending.  It is always fun to introduce the new staff to the different varieties and their nuances of flavor and ripening habits.  Every Monday and Thursday we spend the mornings picking the 1600 feet of row.  Everyone becomes a specialist in certain varieties.  Cov is in charge of reds, learning to not pick them too green as they take forever to get fully ripe and can hang on the plants longer than all the others.  Only unblemished Italian sauce tomatoes are put in the box, no “freaks” with them.  The German Johnsons are much more tender so he has to change gears when he gets to them.  Elizabeth is the Cherokee Purple queen, fully 500 feet of row to pick and sort, they have the most difficult stems to remove with out damaging the fruit and sometimes one must resort to using needle nosed pliers to pull them off.  She is also responsible for the Orange Blossoms and if she gets done with the purples quickly helps me with the three other yellow kinds.  I start with the monster Striped Germans, so large that it takes two hands to pick them, carefully extracting them from between the vines and the trellis wires trying to not scar them.  I then move to the green-when-ripes, interpreting if it still green or if it has just enough golden cast to it to be picked.  The Sun Gold cherries are a shared job by who ever gets done first.

Bucket after bucket is brought to the back of the truck where each fruit is inspected and wiped with a cloth, sorted into three boxes by color and quality or set aside in the “have to eat today pile”.  The knife comes out as we get the first of the new varieties and slices are sampled between cleaning tomatoes.  Surprise at a high acid yellow tomato, amazement at the beauty of the interior of the bi-colored ones with red swirls through the fruity flavored yellow flesh, the reassuring solid full flavor of a Cherokee Purple, popping Sun Golds as one walks by the row that has them.  Finally finished we slowly drive the load down to the packing shed and the air conditioning to keep them from ripening too fast.  Stacks of boxes by variety and ripeness are built, long rows that run around the room.  Finally bags are filled with the “have to eat today” fruit and the staff heads home, stained a sticky green from rubbing up against the tomato foliage, talking about tomato sandwiches, salsa and gazpacho for lunch and dinner.  Life is good.

Picture of the Week
A great set of Cherokee Purples

4/16/08 Vol. 5 #5

Welcome to last frost/freeze day!  28 degrees this morning and by the look of the forecast this should be the last night below freezing this spring (don’t borrow money based on this prediction).  In Chapel Hill most folks use April 15th (April 11th is the official date at the RDU airport) as the average last frost date but out here along the Haw river we are always three to five degrees colder and I use April 21st as our safe date. We’ve had too many close calls in the early years, sleepless nights worrying about tender plants.  Polar Cap Farms we call it in the spring, our staff always complains about how much colder it is out here in the mornings as compared to their houses in town.  Now it’s safe to plant the tomatoes outdoors.  It’s not that we are risk averse, hell we’re farmers after all, but we just don’t roll the dice the way we used to in the past.  I guess it’s the benefit of having weathered so many growing seasons, might as well not fight it and just wait until it’s right for the tomatoes needs, not our calendars.

The construction of the Big Tops is going well.  We did get all the legs screwed into the ground last week except a dozen.  Monday we rented the BIG jackhammer and busted up the parts of the planet that stood in the way.  Having done this before, I was not looking forward to it but it actually went well and only took a morning to do.  This years staff, Cov and Dan, had never had the pleasure of running such a beast so after I worked the first six holes I turned the last six over to them.  They started the morning in their early 30’s and ended it in their late 30’s.  So now the legs and anchors are all in and most of the attendant braces.  By the end of today the frame should all be finished and maybe we can pull the plastic over by the end of the week.  Right on schedule to get the tomatoes planted early next week, whew!  Late last week we turned our attentions to getting caught up on planting and managed to get almost all the backed up plants into the ground.  We even got a little rain to help water them in but I am afraid I will have to get the irrigation set up this week too.  Why does it happen all at the same time?

Farm Tour this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-6:00 each day (who added an additional hour?).  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.  Now in it’s thirteenth year, 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.  The best deal is to buy a button ($30) which will be your pass for as many people as you can stuff into one vehicle, for as many farms as you want.  35 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 will be mowing and picking up around the place, nothing like have 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 a bit mixed but it goes on rain or shine!

Picture of the Week
As they say, this is a “file” photo from the last time but you get the idea

6/4/08 Vol. 5 #12

Well we made it to June and the heat appears to have arrived with it.  High 90’s the end of the week and a whole week in the 90’s?  Why is it we can never just gently go thru the 80’s for a while and then into the brutal temperatures?  Oh well it makes the blueberries and the tomatoes ripen faster.  After last season without blueberries because of the record Easter freeze and the madness that it is trying to keep them picked we are now in the middle of it.  This week or next is going to be the peak of our blueberry crop, with next Monday probably the peak day due to the high temperatures.  Blueberry picking is the only time we hire extra help on the farm.  The whole operation is designed to run with a steady flow of human energy, just the two of us and two more part timers.  But there is an atmosphere that develops around blueberry season as new faces come to pick and join in our now established social structure.  For nearly 3 months it has just been the four of us doing the dance of employee-employer, student-teacher, worker-supervisor, advisor, helper, friends.  We now know each others routine, style, jokes and now there are new opinions, ideas, senses of humor.  Blueberry picking is maybe the best job on the farm, unless you hate tedious tasks, but with the new faces and discussions in the field it seems to go quickly.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful setting on the hill, almost always with a slight breeze and the birds calling nonstop.  Everyday you end up on the otherside of the row from someone new with new stories and questions.  Other farmer friends of mine say I should hire migrant workers to pick, it would save money.  It might and we used to hire some local Latinos when we were in the wholesale blackberry business and they are amazing workers.  I have come to appreciate the other benefits of having these new faces on the farm, it gives us a boost, it gives the staff a break from working only with each other, it exposes these new people to farm work without some of the grittiness of it.  It is this social side of a sustainable farm that really makes it work, not just the crops and the tractors.  Soon enough it will be back to just the four of us, avoiding the heat, picking tomatoes and peppers and flowers, telling the same old jokes.

Pictures of the Week

3/26/09 Vol. 6 #1

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

4/29/09 Vol. 6 #6

We survived the Farm Tour but just barely, it was damn hot!  We had good and interesting tourees as always and despite the heat they seemed to enjoy them themselves and the farm.  We spent so much time late last week getting irrigation set up that we didn’t get tomatoes planted until Monday of this week but the big planting is now in the ground.  “Only” fifteen varieties this year, sometimes you just have to go back to your base and do what you do best, plus it gives us a few more plants of all the kinds we all love best.  Plenty of Cherokee Purples, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Aunt Ruby’s German Green and more, can’t wait.  With this dive straight into summer we are now running hard to get things planted and keep up with what has been in the ground and waiting for some heat to really start to grow, weeds included.

Just wanted to let you all know about a meeting you might be interested in next Monday the 4th.  For some years now we, at the Carrboro Farmers’ market, have been talking about forming our own “Friends” organization like many markets around the country, to help support the market and work on community issues around sustainable agriculture. The Friends of The Carrboro Farmer’s Market is being developed as a tax exempt organization to undertake charitable and educational activities related to agricultural issues.  We want to hear your ideas of what you would like to see from a Friends organization and explore opportunities for you to be involved in its formative stages and future projects. Come join us for fun evening and help build greater support for sustainable agriculture!  The meeting is going to be held at the Carrboro Town Hall (where market is held) at 7:30 p.m.  This meeting is open to all, so if you have some ideas you’d like to share, please come and bring a friend. If you’re interested in attending , please email info@carrborofarmersmarket.com

On another farm front, as you know we are very proud of the people who have worked for us and especially the ones who have gone on to start their own farms.  You may also know that we have helped several get started by letting them use part of our land to grow their first crops.  We are pleased to announce yet another farm start up with Cov’s debut at the Wednesday Farmers’ Market last week.  He is using a half an acre in our bottom field and is producing some beautiful stuff down there.  Look for him in the other shelter on Wednesdays.

Picture of the Week
Cov at his first market, farm name yet to be determined