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.

Advertisements

Groundhog Day

Of all the holidays, real or not, observed or not, given-a-day-off-with-pay or not; there are only two that we view as agricultural based celebrations.  Thanksgiving of course is the grand, end of the harvest season celebration.  Hopefully we have had a good growing season and the larder is full of food to carry us through the winter.  The animals are fat with summer and fall feeding either on pastures or in the woods and are ready for winter too.

Groundhog Day is the celebration of the awakening of spring.  No it’s not true spring but it is halfway through winter.  Originating among many cultures around the world, they all started getting antsy halfway through the long cold dark period and began to look for signs of when it would end.  They looked for natural signs that the earth was warming up and hibernating animals were chosen as the best predictors.  Depending where they were it was bears or badgers, in the New World it was groundhogs.

For us it does coincide with when we begin to plant the first crops out into the field.  In most winters we put out the first lettuces, fava beans and onions the first weeks of February.  Soon to follow are peas, radishes and turnips but it is not until early and mid March until it is really warm enough for serious planting.  Groundhog Day does mark the tentative beginning of spring/end of winter but you better hedge your bets.

The prognosticators are mixed in their forecasts this day.  Punxsutawney Phil says six more weeks of winter.  Sir Walter Wally (I’m sorry I’d be embarrassed to come out and look for my shadow too with that name) says it’s an early spring.  Dunkirk Dave from Dunkirk, NY did see his shadow but the forecast for six more weeks of winter was invalidated due to artificial lighting.

The National Weather Service gives both the 30 day and the 90 day forecast as below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation.  This says six more weeks of winter to me.  They also say the groundhogs are only right 39% of the time.

We don’t even begin to see groundhogs around here until April or later so as forecasters of the weather for this farm they aren’t very useful.  Looking out the window at the light rain coming down on top of the 3 inches of snow and ice left from the weekend it looks like spring is still some ways off.

So my recommendation this Groundhog Day is to celebrate making it most of the way through this cold winter with the knowledge that spring is truly on its way.  Because we have an ongoing battle with non-weather predicting groundhogs we usually mark the day in North Carolina fashion with some sort of smoked pork dish!

9/1/04 Vol. 1 #24

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

Picture of the Week

Even on a drab day the celosia are incredibly vivid.

8/24/05 Vol. 2 #24

Hallelujah the weather has broken!  We needed some kind of positive sign to reassure us that we were not descending into some kind of special hell.  After all the fun we had on “vacation” it continued into this week.  Including both trucks breaking down and going into the shop.  It is kind of hard to run a farm out of a small passenger car!  We should have the big market truck back by tomorrow but it will mean no market today (Wednesday).  Fortunately things on the farm itself appear to be growing well and most projects are occurring in a timely manner.  The dismantling of the farm for the winter rolls on.  First any trellising that was in place is taken down, rolled up and stored for next years use, then the “mechanical frost” arrives with the mower.  The way the grass and weeds are growing, with all the rain, this is a huge psychological boost on its own.  All of the buried irrigation lines are then pulled up, coiled, and sorted into save for next season, or not.  Soil samples are taken to be sent to the State lab for testing so we will know what minerals we may need to add for the next years crops.  Then it is back on the tractor to turn under all of the crop residue so that we can prepare the beds for the spring crops.  Finally a winter cover crop is seeded to hold the soil over the winter, capture nutrients left over from this seasons crops, and grow some more organic matter/food for the soil microbes.  Every week another section or two are taken out until by mid October it’s all finished and a green haze of newly sprouted cover crops covers the whole place.

There is still planting going on for this year as well.  The celery, kale and more leeks went in for Thanksgiving.  Lettuce and parsley was seeded to be planted out in few weeks, also for Thanksgiving.  Soon we will begin to plant the over wintered flower crops that will sit there until next spring for the first blooms of the year.  The older, heritage turkeys moved to the blueberry field, next door to the younger, broad breasted birds and their leader Buckwheat.  Much eyeing of the neighbors and posturing going on until they all run together in a week or so.  They too are glad the heat has broken, now they are happier to run about the place, chasing bugs and each other.

Picture of the Week
The Maginot Line, the older birds trying to impress the new kids.

6/7/06 Vol. 3 #13

One more shot of beautiful cool weather with occasional rain.  I always feel like we are cheating or escaping from something when the weather is like this in June.  I know full well that the relentless heat of summer is hiding just around the corner and then we have to settle into a more measured pace just to make it through until September.  Having been born and raised mostly in the South you would think that I would be used to the heat and humidity but that gene never got passed to me.  When we moved here twenty six years ago from Utah, we lived in a tiny duplex in the middle of a field in Bynum while we crafted the plan for Peregrine Farm.  That first summer, in that non-air conditioned box, was hot as hell and we thought we were going to die!  We would lie awake at night with the tiny window high on the wall above, a box fan feebly trying to move hot air around us.  Thoughts of cool nights in the mountain west would somehow coax us to sleep.  I always assumed that I would acclimate and get used to the heat and while it did happen, somewhat, I still cower when the forecast reads in the 90’s.

The blueberries roll on.  After last years record crop it is hard to judge just how this years will end up.  My best estimate is that we have about a third of last years harvest, maybe half a normal year.  It is hard to say exactly why.  My best theory is that it was so warm this late winter it caused the bushes to bloom very early.  They started in late February and consequently many blooms and fruit were lost to frosts that came afterward.  It makes the fruit that is left a bit larger and maybe more flavorful because they get all the good stuff they don’t have to share when there are too many berries on the plant.  I was told yesterday that our berries were served last week to the former White House pastry chef, of twenty five years, and he said they were some of the best he had ever had!  With not so many berries to pick we are actually able to get other things done on the farm like critical weeding and tying up the tomatoes.  We are also beginning the process of taking out the spring crops to be replaced by summer cover crops or more summer flowers.  Out come the irrigation lines, mow down the weeds and what is left of the spring crop, turn under the residue.  If we are planting another crop then a little feather meal is spread for nitrogen, the bed is tilled again, then a drip irrigation line is buried right down the middle of the bed.  Planting follows quickly behind.  Last week more sunflowers and seven more beds of zinnias (the third planting of the year).  Soon those fields that don’t go on to summer crops will be turned under and sown to big summer soil improving crops.  The next batch of turkeys arrived on cue last Thursday morning.  Forty broad breasted bronzes, all happy and running around in the brooder.

Picture of the Week
Purple Bouquet Dianthus flanked by Campanula and Safflower

6/21/06 Vol. 3 #15

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.

Picture of the Week
Fabulous Annabelle Hydrageas at their peak

7/5/06 Vol. 3 #17

The day after July 4th, we gave the staff the day off as it was going to blistering hot anyway.  Normally we would have worked a little and then taken the rest of the day easy.  We did the little bit of work but then had to go truck shopping.  I would rather walk across hot coals than go to a car dealership but Betsy’s little truck had finally gotten so unreliable (it is only twenty years old I don’t understand why these trucks can’t last longer) that we had to do something.  The big white truck is what most people see at market and when we do wholesale deliveries but the little truck is Betsy’s work vehicle.  It goes around and around the farm with buckets of water for the flowers and moves plants and supplies and more.  About twenty Saturdays a year it goes to market too.  Usually carrying 20-30 buckets of flowers it is this duty that makes it critical to the farm business. So while we only drive it less than 1000 miles a year we couldn’t carry on without it.  If you need a wheelbarrow and don’t have one there is just not substitute.  We have debated for years what to do, maybe a different kind of vehicle, or an on farm “stuff mover” and it always comes back to the same formula, one big truck, one little truck.  Last Saturday we had to borrow Rachel’s truck to get everything to market because the old girl just wouldn’t go.  This just won’t do so off we went on mission to knock it out quickly.  Believe it or not two stops later after very direct no nonsense haggling on our part we drove home with a new work truck for Betsy, I still wonder about the color name though “Impulse Red Pearl”.

Today is finally cover crop seeding day.  It dried out enough this week to get the acre of spring crops (or the remnants of) mowed down and turned under.  The rains are coming back tonight so I really need to get the soybeans and millet sown to take advantage of this next wet window.  This is always a race but made even more difficult with trying to get it all done before we have to go to market this afternoon.  These cover crops are the life blood of our soil fertility program.  In eight weeks we can grow up to eight tons per acre of organic matter, in place!  It is one of the miracles of raising crops.  That you can spin out about 150 pounds of seed and then two months later mow down 16,000 pounds of material and captured over 100 pounds of free nitrogen out of the atmosphere is mind boggling.  Include the fact that we don’t have to spend hours running up and down the road hauling manure or compost and then spreading it on the fields, my back and the environment are applauding.  When we turn these cover crops, also known as “green manure”, under they are broken down by the millions of soil inhabitants and all those nutrients are released for the next crop to use.  The earthworms, fungi and bacteria are all applauding too.  What a system nature developed over the billions of years!  Maybe I will take the Impulse Red Pearl over to our farm supply to get the seeds.

Picture of the Week
A sea of Lisianthus

7/12/06 Vol. 3 #18

Now the weather is returning to more normal summers conditions this week but in general we are all looking at each other and saying “I don’t ever remember a summer like this”.  This, this… not so hot.  No complaining here mind you but it does sort of throw one off balance.  Just as you have your brain programmed to expect one thing and act in a certain way it doesn’t happen.  The only comparison is back in 1991, which we always refer to as the Mt. Pinatubo summer.  That summer that volcano in the Philippines erupted and sent huge amounts of ash into the stratosphere which circulated the globe for months.  The result was a very cool summer in North Carolina,  we barely got into the 90’s.  Back then we were in the midst of the long and expensive “Raspberry Experiment”.  The most noticeable result from that cool summer was that the raspberry canes grew almost twice a tall as normal and the following year we had the best harvest we had ever had.  It turns out that it is too hot here for raspberries to grow vigorously, but that summer it was more like the conditions further north where they produce them in abundance.  Soon there after the raspberries came out of the ground never to be planted here again (under threat of certain penalties from Betsy!).  So while we are not experiencing as dramatic conditions as that year it is still affecting crops here on there farm.  Most noticeably the tomatoes are still not producing at the level we are accustomed to.  Every Monday and Thursday we go out and pick and while we are getting some of all the varieties we are not bringing back the number of boxes that we should be.  Normally this would be the peak week of tomato harvest but it will be at least next week if not later.  Yesterday we were up working in the peppers and the rows that are on black landscape fabric are moving along well but the rows planted no-till are way behind.  The soil is cooler under all that mulch which in hot weather a good thing but this season it is holding those plants back.  Just when your brain is programmed one way…

We did manage to get the cover crops all seeded before the big rains last week and they are up already and looking great, little soybean plants raising there fat heads out of the soil and the millet with one blade pointed straight up towards the sky.  The turkeys have all been rotated around the farm.  The little guys as we call the Broad Breasted Bronzes right now (they will eventually weigh twice a much as the Bourbon Reds) graduated out to the blueberries from the brooder and are extremely happy lazing the days away in the shade of the blueberry bushes and taking group walks around their new grassy enclosure.  The Bourbon Reds have moved into Betsy’s first and now abandoned Zinnia patch (we plant Zinnias five times and she is now cutting off the second batch).  This is the same field that had the leeks, radicchio and the last lettuce among other crops so they are now eating the crab grass and other weeds while hiding out in the four foot tall Zinnia rows like outlaws only to come creeping out when someone walks by the fence.  The last Zinnias get planted this week and the Brussels Sprouts for Thanksgiving went into the ground this week too.  Despite the different weather we still march on with the calendar assuming that normalcy will return.

Picture of the Week
The effects of cool weather.  The same varieties next to each other but the plants on the warmer black fabric are much larger and have large peppers on them.

9/6/06 Vol. 3 #25

It is amazingly dark these mornings and it makes it hard to get going.  We pulled all the shade cloth off the little tunnels this week because the days are getting so short that the crops that were under the shade get too leggy trying to stretch for the diminishing light.  In August those same crops (lettuce, Brussels sprouts, celery, etc.) can’t take the heat so we give them the extra shade to get them going but with a snap of the fingers it becomes too much shade.  We now know that Labor Day is the changing point and by then the heat has begun to break as well.  Ernesto brought very nice rain without much wind, we had 2.5 inches that came down gently.  Then we had a monsoon type down pour on Monday with 2.5 inches more in about thirty minutes.  The river didn’t rise much and the creek is barely running again but things look much better around the farm, now the ground will not be so dry and I can begin to get soil ready for the fall and winter.  The early tomatoes get taken down today as we have to make way for planting campanula and other flowers for next year and so the preparations for the next season begin in earnest.

This is sometimes a difficult time of year for us as we have one foot still in this growing season, trying to make sure we get everything we can out of the crops that are left, and one foot in the next growing season.  We know that a big part of next year’s success is rooted in what we do over the next few months and so we become a little schizophrenic this time of year as we look way ahead while trying to keep a focus on the last few weeks of market.  This is one of those “sustainability” things that we realized a few years back.  In a conventional farming system the plans for the next growing season or crop only need to be made just before planting happens.  A conventional farmer may make the decision on how much corn to plant based on the commodity market in the spring and then just has to use fertilizer in a bag and plant.  For us the crop rotation dictates what crops go where and how much we will plant is based on what, you, our customers tell us you want.  Most of our “fertilizer” is from the organic matter in the soil that we resupply by growing cover crops in that same soil and then turning them under.  It is a much longer term view of farming.  That is why we stopped raising the fall cool season crops so that we could instead concentrate of getting the farm ready for next year.  Of course being able to go on vacation in October is not a bad side benefit either!

Picture of the Week
Lettuce started under shade, it will be ready in a week or two

9/5/07 Vol. 4 #24

Made it to September, on paper anyway, sure doesn’t feel like it out in the field.  August turned out to be one for the record books- the hottest month ever recorded at RDU airport by almost 2 degrees, that is huge as far as weather averages go!  30 days over 90 degrees another record and the second driest August ever.  Now can we break the record for the number of days over 90 degrees in one year?  It stands at 72, I know we are close.  I pulled more water out of the upper pond yesterday and that leaves just one more round until that water hole is dry.  With this kind of heat that is about two weeks worth of water left.  If it cools off it will be just enough to get us to the end of our season, a little over three weeks away.  Almost everyday I am cutting off the irrigation lines to more beds of crops that are just about finished for the season.  Betsy is down to about ten beds of flowers now and I have mowed down the rest.  On the vegetable side we are soon to be down to eight beds of tomatoes, twenty beds of peppers and and some odds and ends.  It is just at half an acre of crops that need water every day when the temperatures are in the 90’s, but that is still just under 3000 gallons a day!  Boy am I glad that I am not trying to plant fall crops, except that we do need to get some flowers in the ground for next spring and, of course, we need to get the winter cover crops planted in the next month, not unless some good rains come though.

I want to thank everyone for the feedback on last weeks newsletter about what defines local food.  It was as I expected and I am fairly sure that it will be how the Farmers’ Market comes out on the subject in the end.  I used the meat example because, for the farmers, it is the most complicated as far as logistics and regulations.  I always want to try and solve the most complicated situation first, if possible, because then the simple ones are an easy fit into the new solution.  Of course with the increased demand for local products, like meat, it leads processors and suppliers to eventually fill the need, but it takes time and money (and people of vision).  Until then I feel the Farmers’ Market should make it possible for it’s members to operate viable businesses without compromising it’s long established goals and rules.  As a market we have always been careful about setting precedents because once the horse is out of the barn it is almost impossible to get it back in.

Picture of the Week
Summer Crisp lettuce a miracle of shade cloth and daily irrigation