12/19/05 Vol. 2 #30

Well the year is truly winding down.  This is the time of year for planning and introspection.  I am sitting here surrounded by seed catalogs, spreadsheets and notes from the last season trying to make myself order seeds.  Maybe its the short days and the low angle of the sun but it is difficult to get the brain headed in that direction.  Instead Betsy and I have been having long talks about the future and what it might look like, both for us and Peregrine Farm.  Now this is a common practice for us this time of year but after the tumultuous season that gave us many twists and turns we seem to be looking at life a little harder.  We think that most folks see Peregrine Farm as a constant with few changes but in reality we are changing all the time, both the farm and us.  For Betsy this has been the year of all things Italian with a keen interest in their culture and artisanal food.  She even suggested, that maybe for a change, that she take over the vegetable production and I run the flowers.  I raised an eyebrow at that one.  For me the big change that has knocked me out of my comfortable patterns is taking over the poultry processing plant.  Very scary at times but intellectually stimulating too, we still think that it is such a important piece of the local food system that it must happen.  The wish list of changes is forming; new crops (lots of artichokes, baby swiss chard, pigs?), new places to see (Italy again, Kenya for Betsy, southern Utah for Alex), new techniques to try which I will not bore you with now.

The biggest immediate change though will be the passing of my father Sam.  Many of you knew him as a fixture at our stand at Market.  Others may know him from his years at the University of North Carolina.  For Betsy and me he was a constant supporter and sideline advisor of our work for 25 years, and of course for my entire life.  Many people ask how I got into farming and I usually reply that my father was a rabid gardener and my mother a fabulous cook.  We grew up working in his gardens and eating three home cooked meals a day from her kitchen.  He lived a colorful, varied and determined 84 years.  He was first exposed to gardening as he grew up in rural Arkansas and spent summers with his grandparents.  Early morning trips with his grandfather to pick breakfast berries, gorging himself on figs while sitting under the bush and more.  He was the first in his family to go to college.  He lived in Memphis where he met Mom.  Spent time in the Pacific, in the Navy, in World War II.  A life long movie nut he went to cinematography school at the Univ. of Southern California before deciding to settle down and become a librarian.  They moved to Atlanta where he graduated from Emory Univ. and my brothers were born.  His first grand garden was in Columbia, Mo. where my sister and I were born.  He began to develop a style that included wide choices in plants in large beds with fences, patios, and garden art.  As kids we lived outside during the warm months and we all had small personal gardens with radishes and more.

He took us to Connecticut where he started the Univ. of Conn. Medical School Library.  Gardening continued to consume him and with the help of the “homegrown” work force he transformed a difficult hillside into a terraced wonder.  During our stay in Connecticut he made a business trip to Chapel Hill and returned telling Mom that he found the place for them to retire and garden.  A detour to Houston, Texas and the medical center library was the nadir of his gardening life.  Miserable climate and soil on a quarter acre suburban lot.  One Christmas we had railroad ties and top soil brought in and we built him a garden.  8 feet by 16 feet and two feet high he would come home from work, make a drink and go out and work in the garden, it helped keep him sane.  Finally he became director of the UNC Medical Library and his garden dreams unfolded.  The house that they remodeled and he designed and the gardens became the culmination of a lifetime of moving, travel and collection.   Over three acres of rolling terrain, granite boulders and mature hardwoods eventually would comprise the gardens.  Early on Betsy and I helped build the bones of the place with rock walls, raised beds, brick patios, pergolas and more.  Betsy spent many days with him going to nurseries and others gardens feeding their plant lust.  For those of you fortunate enough to visit the place and eat Mom’s food understand how they could influence ones life.  The picture below, while not crisp, is typical.  Pop sitting in the garden holding court with friends while Mom looked at him, trying to figure out where he was headed.  We will all miss them both, and we thank all of you we have talked to since his death.

I will leave you with two book suggestions for Christmas gifts or just winter reading.  The first is a couple of years old “Local Flavors- Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers’ Markets” by Deborah Madison is one of the best reads on the importance of farmers’ markets and local food with many great recipes.  The second is brand new “Fields of Plenty- a farmer’s journey in search of real food and the people who grow it”  by Michael Ableman.  An excellent read about many sustainable, artisanal food producers around the country.  It also includes many recipes by the farmers themselves.  Betsy and I know many of these growers.  Between the two I think one can begin to get an accurate picture of a small farmers life and what inspires them.
Betsy and I hope you all have enjoyable holidays, eat well, rest up and stay warm.

3/23/07 Vol. 4 #1

Oh my!  The first market is tomorrow!  Every fall I say I will put out a newsletter once a month to keep you all up to date on our off season antics and somewhere in December I get distracted and drop the ball.  That usually means we are so busy doing off-farm things, that when we are here, it is difficult to find time to get a newsletter out.  This winter has been just such a time.

Betsy’s trip to Kenya, in December, to look at the cut flower industry there was thought provoking.  Some of the largest cut flower farms in the world, including the largest rose farm, are clustered around Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi.  Primarily run by Europeans they were big, but not with the infrastructure or the diversity we have found on farms in Europe.  Primarily for export, they concentrate on a few crops and use a lot of hand labor in sometimes very rudimentary facilities.
Kenyan post harvest facility

The fact that they paid their help $1.50 a day was appalling to Betsy.  When she was in Ecuador a few years ago they also used a lot of local labor but treated them very well.  At the end of their trip they toured the Rift Valley and the Central Highlands around Mt. Kenya, with a guide, and saw many amazing natural things.

The unusual warmth of January threw us off our usual deep winter pattern of time in the house reading and doing desk related tasks.  We knew it was too early to plant in the fields even though it was very tempting.  Between meetings we puttered around on various small projects including, of course, getting seedlings started in the greenhouse.  Early in the month I was the keynote speaker at a sustainable ag conference in Maryland, a good group that I had not experienced before.  The end of January Betsy and I both went to Louisville, KY for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference.  This is one of the best farming conferences in the country and the best in the south.  Over 1200 attendees made for a very active time.  I presented at several workshops including giving a day long short course on organic vegetable production.

We came home, ready to get to work in the fields and the weather decided to change to winter.  That threw us off balance again as we held back on planting some crops out into the fields until it warmed up a bit.  The extended cold weather and dry conditions also made it hard to get soil prepared in a timely manner as the cover crops that we depend on so much for soil improvement grew larger than normal in the warm early winter and then wouldn’t decompose when turned into the dry cool soil.  We would turn them under a month in advance, as usual, and then a month later on planting day till the bed again to prepare for seeding and they looked like we had just turned them under the day before.  In the end all the early crops look pretty good just behind where they were at this time last year.  The rest of the leviathan rolls forward as always.  The sliding tunnels are all moved as of yesterday and the first tomatoes go in the ground on Monday.  The huge array of tomatoes and peppers have been seeded in the greenhouse and are beginning to come up, 22 varieties of toms and 25 of pepper this year!

On a sad note we lost a dear friend last week just as market is ready to start again.  Faye Pickard passed away unexpectedly.  Miss Faye as we called her (and that was her email address too) has been one of our diehard regulars since our first market in 1986.  One of the early shoppers (you know who you are, there before 8:30) on Saturdays she always was there unless she was off to be with her grand kids.  She loved Cherokee Purple tomatoes the most and we always saved the first ones for her, sometimes even before we had a chance to eat one!  As a true southern lady she grew up eating out of the garden and was determined to introduce her kids and grand kids to the pleasures of eating good fresh food.  She had succeeded as she would tell us stories of her kids asking her to bring tomatoes from the market or the grand kids eating cucumbers right out of the bag as she would come in the door!  I try to impress upon audiences when I speak about markets that it is more than just selling your products, it is really about the relationships you build with your customers, they become a part of your farm too.  Miss Faye was certainly a part of ours.

Picture of the Week
Italian Ranunculus inside one of the sliding tunnels with Lettuce outside

9/26/07 Vol. 4 #27

So once again the end is here, one more Saturday market.  Just as the finish line is in sight, the starting line appears.  Yesterday we planted the first seven beds of flowers for next spring- Sweet William, delphinium, scabiosa and more.  Today leeks go in for next spring too.  This is one of the main reasons we stop selling at this time of year so we can concentrate on growing for next year.  Sure it’s also about the improved quality of life that comes with a reduced schedule and enjoying the fall weather especially after this brutal summer but it is equally about getting ready for next year.  The coming year is really made the preceding fall as we prepare the soil with mineral amendments and raise up the beds we will plant next spring then seed them down with nourishing cover crops that will protect and improve them over the winter.  We will slowly plant flowers and vegetables to overwinter too so they will be ready for those early markets next March.  Finally we are planning and ordering seeds and plants and dreaming of new things to entice you and interest us.

Then there are the projects we can only do in the off season and the meeting season begins all too soon as well.  The big project has already started, the final addition to the house, a living room.  The mason will finish the foundation today so that it will be standing there waiting for me to strap on the tool belt in two weeks to frame it up so it can be dried in before it gets cold.  This means the rest of the winter will be filled with interior and exterior finishes, I promised Betsy that I would have the construction done by the time we were 50, I figure a year late is not too bad.  The meeting and speaking calendar is already full too, beginning next week when the national cut flower meeting is in Raleigh where Betsy is an integral player and I will be giving a presentation.  Two more conferences in North Carolina in November including the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s meeting in Durham, where I am giving multiple talks.  December takes me to South Carolina to speak at the Vegetable Growers conference.  January is too full, with trips to Tennessee, Missouri (where I am the keynote at a vegetable growers conference there) and Kentucky.  Late February I am off to speak at the Georgia Organics conference and March might take me back to Missouri.  Betsy is thinking about heading to Italy in February for a cut flower conference there and then to see our friends while I am hopefully hiking out west.  In between all of this will be sheetrock and trim and painting and flooring; I wonder when I am going to get to read those books on my side table?  We will keep you updated on all of the off season activities will a monthly newsletter.

Finally we want to thank all of you who have sent kind messages through out the year in response to one grousing or report of yet another obstacle we have encountered and reported to you.  It is our hope that through the newsletter that you get a feel of what everyday life is like on a small farm like ours.  Sure there are hard things that happen but majority of our work is calm and rewarding.  The good news is that after all that has happened this season (late freeze, drought, no blueberries or turkeys, poor and late spring crops) we have roared back and have had the best season we have ever had (as far as gross income).  That is a tribute to a resilient, sustainable farming system we have developed over the years, of which all of you are no small part, thank you again for your support!

Picture of the Week
Construction begins

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