Yahoo! we finally made it to September! I thought August would never end, now we just have to get past this damned hurricane season! I comment often on how, in the 23 years that we have been farming, we have seen every extreme weather record broken- the coldest ever, the hottest ever, the deepest snow, etc. I have not researched the records but I don’t remember ever having four of the first seven storms come across North Carolina and now Frances will probably impact us in one way or another, it has to be some kind of record. The 3.2 inches of rain we got from Gaston has things pretty well soaked. We went down to harvest winter squash yesterday and just about got the tractor stuck in the field and what was left of the tomatoes is pretty ugly now.
We want to thank everyone who came out to (or tried to, as it was sold out) the Slow Food Dinner at Pop’s restaurant last Wednesday to raise money to help cover our part of our airfare to Italy in October. It was good food even if it was louder than a rock concert in that room! I have had several people ask how they can make direct donations and it can be done to the local Slow Food chapter. Betsy and I are a little taken aback by this fund raising stuff, maybe farmer pride, as we are just so used to making our own way. Thank you all again.
The turkeys have been totally integrated this week, moved to yet another field and now allowed to roam together. Everyone is getting along fine and the heritage birds don’t seem to notice the new white intruders sidling up next to them on the roosts at night. The reservation forms and deposits are beginning to come in and about a third have been reserved already. Those of you who had birds last year I do need to have your information (that is if you want a turkey this year) so that I don’t screw up and not hold the right size turkey for you (my memory is not what it used to be). I do have a record of what kind and size you had last year if that helps you any. I also realized that those of you who have never had a locally produced pastured turkey might want a little more info on how they compare to each other to help in making the decision on which bird is the one for you. Last years experience taught us that all of them were excellent and far superior tasting to any other turkey we had ever eaten. That being said there are three major differences between the heritage birds and the whites. First is size, the heritage turkeys will not be any larger than about 15 pounds and the whites will not be any smaller than 15 pounds. Second, the heritage birds have a higher ratio of dark meat to white meat for those of you dark meat lovers, this is not to say there is not a lot of white meat just not the huge breasts of the whites. Third, the meat is firmer and more full flavored on both types that what you may have had in the past, with the heritage birds having the chewier (not tough) dark meat and more flavor overall. I hope this helps, in addition here is a link to three New York Times articles about the heritage birds with the third one a taste comparison of eight birds. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/nytarticle.html
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Even on a drab day the celosia are incredibly vivid.
Let’s see how does that go? Forty days and forty nights…? Another 3.2 inches of rain in the last couple of days making it hard to get anything done. I was on the tractor on Monday beginning to get soil prepared for winter cover crops and was chased off by the rain, now it will be another week before it is dry enough. The gravel that was on the driveways is well on its way down to Jordan Lake, we have at least a half a mile of roads on the farm that will take a few days to pull them back up the hill, some of them look like the Grand Canyon! It is times like these that we look brilliant for deciding to stop selling the end of September, these are precisely the kind of conditions that make it really hard to produce consistently good fall crops. Heavy rains that make it hard to get crops started followed by huge disease, weed and insect pressure. I take my hat off to those at the market who continue on in the fall! I hope that you all will continue to support them at market knowing they are waging a considerable battle to bring that produce to market.
We did manage to get the winter squash out of the field, washed and in storage, look for them this week. Not a great yield this year, got them in a little late and then too much powdery mildew disease. The last of the tomatoes came down this week as well, now the turkeys will move into that field and finish the clean up. Mowing, mowing, mowing trying to keep up with the grass and taking down the remnants of the summers crops so we can someday get them turned under.
News on the turkey front. After talking to a large pastured turkey producer in California it looks as if we can keep the turkeys unfrozen/fresh for Thanksgiving. This whole situation is very frustrating in that you can not get a straight answer from either the NC Department of Agriculture or the USDA as to how long you can keep a turkey at what temperature. There simply are no official written guidelines or regulations, amazing. Fortunately we have connections that put us in contact with this producer who also is a processor and knows exactly how to do it properly. Nothing like hands on experience to clear up a problem! The last hurdle is to check with our refrigeration guy to make sure that our walk in coolers can be operated at the temperature that we need to keep the birds at. I will let you know next week if we will have the birds fresh and not frozen. For those of you who want a frozen bird we can still make that happen too. About half the birds are reserved now, I will make sure that I bring reservation forms to market for folks to fill out there if they would prefer.
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The sleepy creek just below our house (which is 100 feet to the left)
I am gulping down the coffee and typing fast as there is a lot to do this morning. The impending rain has us picking peppers this morning so we don’t have to do it in Ivan’s rain on Friday. Of course it drizzled all night so it won’t exactly be a dry experience out in the field. This is what we have been training for all season. Early in the year when it’s wet and you look at the staff and say we need to go out and get soaked they can look at you in great disbelief, now they are trained professionals and know that it has to happen and now is better than later in a driving rain. The other reason that I have a lot to do is that I have to get on a plane this afternoon and fly down to Georgia (I know right into the path of the hurricane) to give a full day workshop to a group of farmers tomorrow. I usually don’t do this type of engagement in the production season but they were extra persuasive. I have been having a hard time wrapping my head around the subject (whole farm planning) and that combined with the weather forecast I am less than excited about the whole event. Let’s hope that the forecast is correct and that they don’t close the Atlanta airport tomorrow night before I get on the plane back home. If I am not at market on Saturday you will know what happened!
We have managed to get something done this week, the dismantling of the farm for the winter is moving along. If we had one more dry day we would have had cover crops seeded on one and a quarter acres but it will now have to wait until we dry out from Ivan and maybe get them in before Jean. It is a many step process to get all of the soil ready for the winter and next year. We first mow off the remnants of the crop (what the turkeys haven’t eaten), next we have to pull up and coil all of the irrigation lines that may be left. One pass with the tractor and disk to chop up and incorporate the debris so it can begin to decompose. A second pass if needed to spread any lime, phosphorus, and potassium mineral amendments (based on soil tests that we previously took and sent to the State labs for analysis). A third pass with the tractor and the chisel plow to loosen the soil deeper. A fourth pass with the disk again to incorporate those amendments and finish the job of breaking up the soil. A fifth pass with the tractor and hilling disks to raise up beds so that in the spring when it is cold and wet the soil will dry out fast so that we can till and get crops planted. Finally we spread the cover crop seeds, some with the tractor but many by walking the rows with a chest mounted spinner so we can place them exactly where we want them. Oats and crimson clover where the lettuce will go, rye and hairy vetch where the peppers will go, triticale and clover before the early tomatoes and so on. This is the only time all year we work soil like this and it takes days to do it right and dry weather to make sure we get the soil just the way it needs to be without doing any damage to it’s structure. We are about half way done.
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All of the Zinnias and Tomatoes gone, soil almost ready and turkeys living it up in the Asparagus patch
How long can this month and weather go on? A whopper of a storm last night with copious lightning, I just hope that the electric fence charger didn’t get fried with one of those strikes. The silver lining to the month of July is that it is the best part of the of tomato season and we are at the peak this week and last. While many folks are asking about when the pepper roaster will come out (not during this hot weather I can assure you!) I always say we have to get through tomato season first. Sometimes they say “I didn’t know you grew tomatoes?” Crest fallen I remind them that we grow just a few varieties that they should try. Tomatoes and their many varieties, colors and shapes were my first vegetable obsession before peppers. We have grown tomatoes for market since 1986 but just reds with a few cherries and pink German Johnsons because that was what everyone grew around here. In the early 1990’s we started reading about heirloom tomatoes and started growing a few varieties in 1994 including Cherokee Purple (what a find!).
People often wonder why we grow so many different kinds. Tomatoes are more than just about flavor. The range of colors on the plate, the amount of juice, the textures, all contribute to the experience. People also like different flavors or levels of acidity, or the chefs like to match certain varieties with certain dishes, like wine. Over the years we have worked on finding the best tasting and producing varieties in each color group. Then we rely on both our market customers and restaurant chefs to guide us as to what they really like. For many years we were trying to find a high and low acid variety in each color as well. Many folks ask for a high acid tomato so we have tried to find them. I have come to believe that while flavor especially acidity does have have a great deal to do with variety, the way we grow those plants can over ride those genetics at times. Peoples memories of how tomatoes tasted from there grandmothers garden can also be deceiving but in general I would say that in days past, in the south, the tomato plants didn’t grow as vigorously as we can get them to grow now. In another correlation to wine, we may do too good a job in building our soils and growing the plants so that they don’t “hurt” enough like grape growers like to refer to wine grapes that make the best wines. We have grown at least fifteen “high acid” red tomatoes and every time they don’t taste any more acid than our standard red Big Beef (an excellent tomato). So the active search for a high acid red has ended. I am sending out our Tomato Guide as a separate attachment. Let us know what tomatoes you like and how they fall in our listings of flavor.
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Just a few of the varieties, clockwise from bottom, pink and red Italian Oxhearts, Red Zebra, Big Beef and Early Pick, German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, Paul Robeson, Striped German, Orange Blossom, Sun Gold and Italian Red Cherry
The August of our discontent, at least the month is about over if not the discontent part. This is a lengthy newsletter with lots of details so please hang on. First as a person who makes his living outdoors and constantly dances with the weather, I have always had a fascination with “severe” weather events. Having lived through a number of those events I get a certain uneasy feeling in my gut when they happen elsewhere, as if I know what others are experiencing. The news and pictures from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are such that it overwhelms my capacity to comprehend. We have friends (farmers and non) and family who are now cleaning up from the storm and we can only will them the strength to get the job done.
Our travails pale by comparison and it is just a matter of time until we work our way through them (the big market truck is still in the shop, the walk-in cooler is broken down etc.) but there is one farm problem that we are wrestling with that we may not be able to solve. Many of you have been asking when we will begin taking orders/deposits for turkeys. Last year we began last week. The reason for the delay this year is we are still not certain we will be able to get the birds processed. I have been waiting several weeks to let you all know what is happening as we try to come up with a solution. The situation is this: the place we have had the turkeys processed, in the past, is the only small scale inspected poultry plant available to independent producers in North Carolina and within at least 300 miles. The operator of this plant is selling and trying to leave the state as soon as possible. This leaves us and many other small producers, without the proverbial pot to…. Several of us have been trying to work out a deal to lease the plant, with the option to buy, so we can keep it open in the short term and maybe eventually have it operated by a small scale producers cooperative of sorts. Very exciting possibilities in the long term but huge and very complicated problems in the short term. In short we are not having much luck along this route and I would have to say our chances are 50% at best right now.
This leaves us with really only two options. The first is to process them ourselves, a prospect neither of us are in favor of. The law allows farmers to process, without inspection, their own birds (up to 1000 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). It is a lot of work and we have never done it before but have friends who have. The second is to sell the birds off live and escape without further expense to us. This of course does not help with your Thanksgiving plans of having one of our turkeys on the table. Our current plan is to go ahead and take reservations/orders as we are running out of markets we will be there to physically take them. If it turns out we cannot get them processed, we will then refund the deposits in plenty of time for you all to arrange for other turkeys. Attached is the order form and instructions.
This access to poultry processing plants is a very big problem for small scale poultry producers and limits the potential for consumers to be able to buy and eat much higher quality poultry. The health benefits, flavor and eating quality of birds that run around on grass is so much higher than everything else available in the grocery store as to not even be comparable. It also severely limits small farmers from diversifying into poultry and potentially making their farms more sustainable. Not everyone wants to or is able to process their own birds. For all other animals it is fairly easy to find a processing plant near them but not for poultry. This is why we are trying so hard to save the one plant we have because the cost and difficulty in building a new facility is so large that is may not be feasible for a group of small producers to achieve. Wish us well.
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Red Bells ready for the picking
Well I’ve been up since 4:00 a.m. trying to reserve plane tickets to Italy. As these things go on the Internet sometimes, I have yet to successfully complete the transaction (it is now 6:30). We have finally heard, quasi-officially, from the Slow Food people that we have been accepted to attend the second Terra Madre conference in Turin Italy! Some of you may remember that we were very fortunate to have been nominated to attend the first ever world gathering of food producers two years ago. That experience of convening with 5000 other farmers, ranchers, herders, gatherers, etc. and the on farm housing has colored many of the new things we do here on the farm. The exposure to cultures steeped in artisanal foods and old breeds has made us explore new (to us) varieties and food production ideas. The on going attempt to form a successful poultry and meat processing cooperative has partly sprung out of the knowledge that with out it, local farmers will not be able to move towards further sustainability of their operations. So we are off again to Turin the end of October. This time not only with 5000 food producers but also with 1000 chefs and over 150 academics from around the world. Slow Food is correctly expanding their aim to include the professional people who cook with local foods and can most quickly affect peoples palates and minds. Our local chapter (convivium in Slow Food parlance) put forth an ambitious slate of people to attend and it appears as if almost all were accepted to go. This includes our good friends, chefs and customers Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill and Andrea Ruesing of Lantern Restaurant. Our delegation will also consist of at least eight animal producers and eight representatives of the seven local producer-only farmers’ markets. We see this as a great opportunity to help move our local food system to a new level of understanding and cooperation.
The Slow Food organization and it’s mission resounds closely with what Betsy and I have been trying to do for the past twenty five years. In the words of it’s founder, Carlo Petrini, producing food that is “good, clean and fair”. We have always tried to grow products with great flavor and eye appeal (good), in a way that is sustainable (clean) and treats us, our employees and our customers well (fair). With over 80,000 members world wide there appears to be lots of folks who think similarly.
Otherwise it is a rain day as the remnants of Alberto pour down. We now appear to be in the monsoon season. In preparation for todays storms we did cover the last of the Big Tops under which the late tomatoes are to be planted. The trellis is up and probably tomorrow the plants will be slipped into the ground. We also got the first layer of trellis on the hot peppers. Unfortunately the huge storms on Sunday had laid over many of the tall Poblano and Anaheim plants. So we stood them back up and secured them with the trellis strings before any more damage occurs today. In general the peppers look really good but need a little more heat to really get going. The eggplant and tomatillos are now in as well. The turkeys are wearing trench coats and rubber boots, it was hard to find some small enough for Shrimpy.
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On a sunny day the birds are eyeing Betsy’s lush Zinnias
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.
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Fabulous Annabelle Hydrageas at their peak
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.
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The dry creek bed with the end of the gravity feed water line