4/2/04 Vol. 1 #3

Typical spring week warm, pleasant and sunny the first half and then gray the second half.  Still lots to do though, both on and off the farm.  Betsy and I are still trying to get out from under some of these “extra curricular” activities that we become engaged in, slowly but surely!  We do sit on a number of Boards of organizations that do work that we feel is important to the small farm community.  Betsy is the Treasurer and seems like general counsel for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG), “the” national body for growers of cut flowers other than roses and carnations.  I am in the third year on the board of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG), this is a great umbrella organization that does important work all across the South with family farms.  I encourage you to check out their website for all of the different areas that they work in www.ssawg.org .

How did I get onto this jag?  Oh yeah Monday nights long Farmers’ Market board meeting.  Most folks don’t realize that the Carrboro Farmers’ Market has the organized structure behind it that it does, they think that it “just happens”, you know organized chaos.  That is actually what we want people to think.  In reality the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Farmers’ Markets, Inc. is farmer run and controlled group.  It is directed by a seven member board elected by and from the vendor members.  We also currently have three paid staff that take care of the day to day market operations.  Betsy and I have been involved with the Board for sixteen years now in some capacity or another.  Why?  Because it is so important to our life and business.  The market accounts for 85% of our business and we also believe that it is one of the finest examples of how a local sustainable food system can work.  See you just thought you were buying fresh vegetables and flowers!

On the farm planting continues as we finish up the spring crops and start the warm season ones.  Dianthus (Sweet William), the first Sunflowers and a few other flowers went in and just about the last of the lettuce for the season.  Just before the rains came!  Good thing too because otherwise the end of the week would have been spent setting up irrigation.  Now it’s time to start cultivating/weeding, we got through the lettuces and a number of flowers before the rain.  Trellising peas and fertilizing the flowering shrubs like hydrangeas and viburnums.  Work in the greenhouse moving up the tomato transplants into bigger containers, 720 plants of ten varieties that will go into the field in three weeks.  More seeding in there too, the plants have to keep rolling out so we can stay on schedule.  In between a little construction work on the Packing shed, teaching a couple of classes at the Community college and…

Picture of the week

Look at all of those anemones!

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3/2/05 Vol. 2 #1

They live!  I have been trying to sit down and send out an update for months!  Just an indication of how our winter has been going, way too busy for a couple of folks who are supposed to be “taking it easy”!  I would like to think that I have gotten caught up on all of the things that we need to do but I know that would just be a bold faced lie!  As a friend of ours once said “our recreation is getting in the way of our recreation”!

Let’s see, since our last newsletter we have both had several major excursions and many minor ones.  In December Betsy and I both flew to Texas where I gave an all day workshop for the Austin Farmers’ Market.  We have good friends there who are large cut flower growers and we held the workshop at their farm.  After five days with them, including a quick side trip down to Mexico, Betsy flew home and I headed on west to Big Bend National Park.  I have been going out there, to hike, for over 30 years (starting when I was in high school in Houston).  We had a great 60 plus mile walk across the desert and up into the mountains.

In January I went to New Orleans for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference.  I didn’t have to give any workshops this time around but as a board member we are always busy.  The end of the month Betsy flew back to Italy!  A professor friend of ours is doing a sabbatical in the main cutflower growing region there and as we weren’t very successful in October in seeing much flower production this gave Betsy a great chance to get on some farms.  After several days in and around San Remo she took the train up to see our Italian family, the ones we stayed with in October.  I am not sure that I may not lose her to the Italians!  We have had lots of other extracurricular distractions sandwiched in as well, workshops to give, grants to review, etc.

On the farm we have been trying to pay attention to business but quite frankly have been having a hard time as we have been having too much fun!  We have managed to get quite a bit of work done on both the house and the packing shed.  The weather has made it difficult to get any planting done in a timely manner and we are running a bit behind with some crops.  Betsy has the greenhouse full of transplants and we have managed to get the first 3000 or so lettuce plants in the ground as well as seeding some other flower and vegetable crops.  If it doesn’t warm up soon I am not sure what we will have to sell the first few markets.  We are using all of the tricks that we have to get things to grow faster but really we just need some normal March weather.  The high tunnels are protecting flowers and vegetables (spinach, lettuce, turnips and more), in the field we are covering the lettuce with huge floating row covers of spun bonded polyester.  These 30’X100′ sheets are very effective but also can try a marriage!  Imagine trying to put these out in the kinds of winds we have had the last few days!

We are planting several new things this year and are excited to see how they work out.  I have a new planting of asparagus going in, new blackberries, rhubarb, and artichokes as well as new varieties of peppers and tomatoes to try.  Betsy has thousands and thousands of tulips and lilies planted along with other new flower cultivars.
Believe it or not the first market is only two weeks away, March 19th!  Yikes!  I will send out another newsletter just before then to let you know if we will be there and what we might have.

4/12/06 Vol. 3 #5

Wow!  What beautiful days, this is one of the reasons to live in North Carolina, what seems like weeks of clear blue skies and temperatures in the 70’s.  Even the building pollen storms are not enough to take the luster off.  But spring in North Carolina has one devilish side that most people don’t realize.  Late spring frosts.  We are in one of the worst frost “pockets” in the eastern US here in central North Carolina.  This is why we don’t have much tree fruit at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.  With all of these beautiful days the fruit trees (and other flowering things) get going like gang busters and then a cold front rolls through and the blossoms get zapped, result- no fruit.  Our neighbor Henry (who grows and sells fruit at market) says he is lucky to get fruit two out of five years, especially peaches.  Our frostiness has to do with soils, latitude and intermediate elevation.  50 miles south in the Sandhills, where the peach industry is, the sandy soils there keep the air just a little warmer at night.  Up in the mountains, where the apple industry is, the slopes and the elevation keep things cooler later so the trees don’t bloom too early.

What does that have to do with Peregrine Farm?  Our fruit trees are tomatoes.  We gamble with the very early ones in the sliding tunnels, putting them in a month before our last frost date of April 21st.  While that one thin sheet of plastic gives them some protection it won’t protect them down to lower than 28 degrees.  When these cold fronts roll through we are always on guard for “the cold night”.  The weather folks are always excited about the first cold night after a front comes through but our experience is that the second night is the worst.  The first night usually still has some air moving around to keep the temperatures from diving.  The second night it usually gets very still and the temperatures drop fast.  Such was the case this last weekend, Saturday night it cleared off late and the temperatures stayed up.  Sunday night-Monday morning it was very clear and still, 26 degrees out here at the farm!  Fortunately we felt it coming and tucked the tomatoes under an additional layer of protection of row cover, suspended over their trellises.  All happy and warm, no damage.  The moral here for most folks is don’t plant those tomatoes into the garden until the last week of April unless you are prepared to cover them.  Our big planting is not slated to go in the ground until the week of April 24th, it should be safe by then but we will be keeping a close eye on the weather for sure!

The most critical job this week was moving the tomato and pepper transplants up into larger containers.  We start them all in small “cells” so we can maximize room in the germinating chamber.  After they have grown for three or four weeks we then move them up to larger size cells so they have bigger root balls to go into the field with.  Large root balls mean stronger, faster growing plants and earlier fruit.  It also gives us a chance to choose only the best of the small seedlings to move up.  The critical part here is not to screw up and mix up all of the varieties.  With 22 varieties of tomatoes and 25 of peppers it is easy to do.  I have a spread sheet of the varieties with the number of plants to move up that I give to the staff and then get out of the way!  I have found that confusing conversation generally leads to Aunt Ruby’s German Green being labeled as Dorothy’s Green or worse.

Picture of the Week
Tomatoes nestled all snug in their beds with visions of BLTs dancing in their heads!

4/11/07 Vol. 4 #4

Wow, that was cold!  Five mornings in the twenties with the nadir Sunday morning at 20 degrees!  Everyone wants to know what the damage has been to the crops but it is really too early to really tell about most of them.  The tomatoes survived with some severe freeze damage on the outside rows but they all should grow out of it.  The cucumbers look unscathed, amazing.  The dutch iris actually look great, Betsy has begun to cut a few. and we haven’t had any open completely yet but so far they appear to have no injury.  The big question is the blueberries.  That will take a week or more for the damage to be really apparent.  This freeze is very similar to the April freeze in 2001, when it was 24 degrees on the 18th with high winds.   That season we lost all the blueberries.  Most of the rest of the crops look fine, the sugar snap peas are burned a bit along with other odds and ends of crops.  Time will tell.

Monday I gave my last big presentation of the speaking season in Spartanburg, SC.  While I have traveled around the country quite a bit giving talks on all kinds of farming subjects it is these full day workshops that I seem to becoming known for.  This one, for 60 farmers and other ag related folks, is at least the fifth or sixth where I hold forth for an entire day, attempting to cover the entire subject of organic/sustainable vegetable production.  Can’t be done really.  The best part, is that after an entire day of examples and pictures I think they go away with the most important lesson: this kind of farming is an interrelated system where each action the farmer takes affects other things up and down the line.  Sure they go away with a big notebook full of information, and lots of details on soil management, how to control weeds and more but it is the big picture that I hope has become clearer to them.  It is hard to get a grasp on this complex system when you only hear someone speak for and hour or so.  I am currently working with the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG) on a CD-Rom on Organic Vegetable Production and Marketing that is modeled after my full day workshops.  Now all of this is really just the Readers Digest version of the Sustainable Vegetable Production course that I designed and taught for five or six years at the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.  There I carried on for three hours a night for sixteen weeks!  Full immersion for sure.  Now the real benefit for Betsy and me to all of this is that the more times I have to explain to people how we farm, the closer I scrutinize why we do things in certain ways and, hopefully, we refine the system even more.

Picture of the Week
The perfect rainy day activity, moving up the 2500 plus pepper plants

4/3/08 Vol. 5 #3

The rain has certainly been unexpected and welcome.  Originally forecast for just some drizzly weather it turned into almost three days of off and on rain, almost two inches worth.  Everyone is asking “is the drought over?” and the quick answer is no.  Yes the streams are running well right now and many ponds and reservoirs are full or filling.  I am sure the ground water is in no way recharged and as soon as the leaves come out on the trees and the heat hits it will become evident in reduced stream flows.  The National Weather Service/NOAA is forecasting the next three months to have normal precipitation for our area, better news than before.  I still am apprehensive and we are taking all precautions we can to store water.  The upper pond was still six feet down, the spring that used to feed it has long ago gone dry and there is only maybe five acres of watershed above it so we started filling it this week.  Normally we slowly fill the lower pond by means of a gravity feed, two inch line, that runs 800 feet from the creek at about five gallons a minute.  When the lower pond is full we pump that water uphill to the upper pond using the electric irrigation pump, 24 hours of pumping will nearly empty the lower pond and raise the upper pond by about two feet, something like 50,0000 gallons.  We then have to let the lower pond refill, which can take many days, and then start again.  With the creek running well right now we decided to be more aggressive and pump from the creek into the lower pond at a much higher rate and then relay pump at the same time to the upper pond.  So we borrowed a gasoline powered pump and have it set up on the creek bank hooked into that two inch pipe we already have laid and it is working well.  The gas engine has to be refilled every two hours when it runs out of gas but hopefully with three days of running water we can have both ponds completely full.  96 hours of pumping, another 150,000 gallons of water.

Difficult to get a lot of farm work done this week, a bit damp.  The staff did spend Monday morning in the greenhouse moving up the seedlings for the main planting of tomatoes, from one inch containers to four inch containers so they will have large vigorous root systems when we plant them out in 3 weeks.  About 700 plants of 15 varieties.  Tedious work both in working with the little plants but also making sure not to mix the varieties up and mislabel them.  It’s good practice for when they have to do the same thing with the peppers in a few weeks, 2500 plants of 30 varieties.  Perfect weather to do this kind of work as the plants are not as stressed when it’s overcast.  The sugar snap peas got trellised too.  600 feet of plastic net on metal posts to support the soon to be five foot tall vines.  Otherwise we are doing that early spring clean up of fallen limbs, cutting the last firewood for next winter, and other around the farm odds and ends.

Picture of the Week
The temporary pumping station, this large creek was dry for nearly 6 months last year!