Monthly Archives: January 2015

Meet Your Farmer–Wilkerson Farms

Wilkerson Farms is located in Willow Springs, NC and is owned and run by Chris Wilkerson. His family has been on the land since the 1800s and his grandparents and father raised cattle as well. After serving as a Marine, Chris moved back to the farm in 1995 and began working full time. This was when he began his farming endeavor, starting out with one or two cows and slowly building from there. He sells at the Holly Springs Farmers Market and just recently joined the Saturday Market at Rebus Works in the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh. Chris has one employee currently named Adeline, who I met with to learn more about their practices.

Photo by Wilkerson Farms
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

Wilkerson Farms raises Black Angus crossed with Hereford Cattle, Tamworth and Hampshire pigs, goats, and sheep (the goats and sheep are more like pets than anything else). The Angus Cattle are grass-fed and grain-finished. This means that for the majority of their life they eat grass straight from the pasture and the final few weeks they eat grain that Chris gets from a local mill. The reasoning behind grass-fed grain-finished is that the grain adds a marbling to the meat that is closer to the texture and flavor that customers are accustomed to. Completely grass-fed beef has a very different flavor and texture, so cooking it can be a huge learning curve; Chris wanted to make this an easier transition for his customers while continuing to be all natural. Finally, they work with a local butcher in Siler City, so when you eat their meat you can be sure that not one step of the process has traveled very far. This is their first crop of

Photo by Wilkerson Farms
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

pastured pork, so they’re learning and growing the herd this year. In February Wilkerson Farms will be the home to many calves, piglets, kids, and lambs–don’t worry they’ve already promised to send us multiple pictures! They sit on 100 acres and are about to move both the cows and pigs to new areas in the pasture. They are building an insulated hut for the pigs because piglets need more protection from the elements than the calves. Last year the calves came during the ice storm (of course) so they had to pull a horse trailer out into the field for the calves to find shelter and warmth. The calves all curled up in the horse trailer to keep warm and all of them survived! So right now they’re playing the waiting game until all the babies come, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a ton of work in the meantime. Managing and feeding their animals is hard work and time consuming, especially when they have pregnant mamas, and as Adeline said, “the babies won’t come between 8 and 5”.

wilkerson3
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

An interesting aspect of Wilkerson Farms is that their farmland butts up against subdivisions on most sides and more development is on the way. This was the first thing I noticed as I was driving in–you go through wide rolling farmland, then hit subdivisions, and right in the middle is the farm. At first it does not seem ideal to have a farm surrounded by development, not to mention the growing problem of the loss of farmland in NC. But the more Adeline and I spoke about it she unveiled a beautiful aspect of such a set up: it brings a customer base they would not have otherwise. The people who live in those subdivisions can literally walk down the road to buy their meat; and our developed world has begun to come full circle and brought us back to an aspect of our roots that has been lost–the farmer who is also our neighbor. Of course, this is not without it challenges. Most people were not raised on or around farms, so there is a learning curve for surrounding residents. Adeline told the story of a time when a dog got into the pasture and then a little boy went in after him, which normally would be fine, but this time the bull was in the pasture. No one was hurt, but they had to go and get the boy and the dog out of the pasture and away from the bull. Wilkerson Farms gets to inadvertently participate in educating customers and neighbors about farming just by existing so close by. They are open on the farm every Saturday from 9-12 when the market isn’t open and on Fridays during market hours during the summer months for customers to come and buy directly from them. They hope to continue to be involved in education and would like to do more farm tours, but that will come with time. Small-scale farming is very labor intensive and with only one full-time employee they have to slowly build up their growth and their goals. When I asked Adeline what was the most rewarding aspect of farming to her she responded by saying: “I enjoy everything: interacting with the animals and with the customers. It is important to keep the North Carolina farming tradition alive…seeing family farms coming back is so rewarding.” Wilkerson Farms is actively involved in keeping this tradition alive and when you buy meat from them, you are too.

wilkerson4
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

You can find updates and pictures directly from Wilkerson Farms on their Facebook page or on their website.

 

Honeybees Need Love Too

As you may have read, we have an increasing problem concerning the decline of our honeybee population. There have been many different explanations for the cause of such extreme loss: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), global climate change, pesticide and insecticide use, nutrition problems, viruses, and mites. Whatever the cause, this widespread loss is especially troubling; approximately “one-third of our food depends on bees” (Modern Farmer) including apples, blueberries, cucumbers, and almonds. The long and short of it is that we are dependent on honeybees for our food, so it is time to start living in a way that values and protects honeybees, an interesting challenge to those of us who are not beekeepers or farmers. The first step is always becoming informed about the issue and what is being done to deal with it.  There are many people working in diverse ways to build up a healthy population of stronger bees.

honeybees

The term “honeybee breeder” is a new one to me, but fortunately for us there is a network of them across the country that are working on a hardier honeybee called the “survivor stock”. Modern Farmer’s Katie Mast wrote an article on these breeders called “Honeybees: Keep on Survivin’ ” These breeders have been focusing on finding hives that have the best pest resistance as well as the ability to survive winters and other harsh elements, breeding these bees, and introducing them into different regions. Some breeders focus on producing healthy queens, some research comes from the lab and uses instrumental insemination. But the general approach is to introduce survivor bees into areas in hopes of spreading their genetic advances. Honeybees are very susceptible to inbreeding so new stock has to be brought in fairly consistently to avoid more loss. This is an ongoing experiment that is not an exact science, but is necessary for a step in the right direction. As these breeders continue to actively support stronger bees, we need knowledgeable beekeepers to care for and foster the bees and mentor new beekeepers.

Papa Spuds’ local source of honey is from the father-daughter beekeeping team, Sarah and Al, otherwise known as The Pleasant Bee. I called Sarah to talk to her about their hives and to hear her insight on the loss of honeybees. Sarah works at a honeybee research lab as her day job, so when I told her about the Modern Farmer article, she was able to give me HONEY11a lot of information about issues that beekeepers are facing. CCD was identified in 2006-2007 and was noted as widespread in 2008. Unfortunately, the term Colony Collapse Disorder is widely misused and is often blamed for the overall loss of a hive, which is incorrect. The symptoms of CCD are very specific: the hive seems very healthy but there is one queen and only a handful of workers attending to her, most importantly there are no dead bee bodies, it’s as if they just disappeared. This is particularly strange because worker bees don’t abandon their queen–if they were to leave the hive they would take her with them. Research has shown that CCD is most likely linked to a virus called Nosema that is carried by Varroa mites, a very serious predator to honeybees. Varroa mites essentially suck blood out of honeybees and carry many different viruses that are harmful to honeybees. Varroa can be tested for by using powdered sugar or rubbing alcohol which causes the mites to fall off of the bees; the general threshold is that treatment is necessary if there are three or more mites per 100 bees.

In their eight years of beekeeping The Pleasant Bee has never experienced any serious hive loss, just an ongoing battle against Varroa mites. They have 20 hives spread out around the county in about five different locations in order to ensure that the bees have enough access to food. They harvest honey twice a year right after a big honey flow and basically leave the hives alone in the winter. If you open a hive when it is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit you could freeze the bees, so they make sure the bees have at least 50 pounds of honey to eat in the winter and let them be. Sometimes in the spring they have to supplement the bees food with sugar water before the flowers begin to bloom. The second biggest threat to bees is nutrition. We live in an increasingly industrialized world, so there are far fewer flowering plants available for bees.

Bees Flying Around Flowers

Here is where you can easily do your part to help support the health of all different kinds of bees (there are 4,000 different bee species in North America and about 300 in North Carolina). You can plant flowers in your yard that attract bees and other pollinators. Sarah introduced me to an App made by a company her research lab has worked with called Bee Smart App–you put in your zip code and it brings up the plants natural to your area that attract bees and other pollinators. I downloaded the app to see what it is like and found it to be highly informative and extensive. You can select by pollinator, bloom color, sunlight, soil type, and plant type to plan our your garden perfectly. So, if you need some floral inspiration to motivate for the spring, this is a good place to look. In the meantime, to support honeybees, just eat their honey!

Coreopsis
Lobed Tickseed
trumpet honeysuckle
Trumpet Honeysuckle
Showy Phlox - Phlox speciosa
Hairy Phlox

 

Winter On The Farm

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
-John Steinbeck

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the winter weather has descended upon us at a shocking rate. My lack of a suitable winter coat or boots have become apparent as well, and more importantly, the fewer vegetables that can grow in this weather. Winter on a farm can be a harsh time and is often just as much work; while not as much is growing, protecting the crops becomes much more of a priority and a job. Some farmers use row covers, some use hoop houses and green houses, others harvest everything and then store the produce that will last, some farmers that have livestock are still caring for their animals and preparing for babies to be born. I got curious and decided to research what farmers around the country are doing in the winter and found these musician-farmers in Maine and insight from 5 different farmers around the country about their travels, extra reading time, or workshops and tours. But alongside farmers with multiple jobs, we have farmers who are working hard throughout the winter. I called several of the farmers that we work with to hear how this cold snap has affected them and what they focus on during the cold, winter months.

Britt Farms
When I called Vernon Britt he was out in the fields in his tractor checking on his crops. I asked him how the cold snap affected his farm and what they were doing to deal with it and he chuckled and said: “we’re doing what we can.” But that is just modesty, they’ve been covering all 6 acres they have in production with row covers to protect their crops. Row covers are rolls of fabric that you drape over crops and secure down to protect them; there are many different kinds of row covers but Britt Farms uses spun-bond polyester row covers which allow rain and sun in but not pests. It takes quite a bit of labor to put out 6 acres of row covers, secure them, and then take them up when the weather warms up. No crops really love the intense cold that we have experienced this past week, but generally kale and collards do well in the winter; both get sweeter after a frost.

Cox Farms
I then spoke with Robbie Cox to check up on their beloved chickens and how they survived the freeze. Fortunately their produce has been harvested and is in storage so they didn’t suffer any loss in the cold. They are focusing on their chickens, on preparing for the next season, and on staying warm. The chickens seem to be enjoying the cold weather and Robbie has been keeping heat lamps on their water so it doesn’t freeze. On this past Saturday they were already sowing pepper and tomato seeds that will be ready to transplant in April. It seems that the summer is not too far away knowing that tomato seeds are going into the soil, we truly do have warmth to look forward to.

Wise Farms
Gary Wise currently has 25 acres of winter production, so this cold weather has forced him to be especially innovative. He is also using row covers but only covering up some of each crop (except kale and collards) because he has so much in the ground. He had just been going around his farm and checking on the crops when I called, and discussed how much labor goes into laying out the row covers. He then likened this cold snap to a hot spell in summer, “each season has its own challenges”, in the summer you have irrigation and weeds and in the winter you have cold snaps. Once the temperatures drop to the lower 20s it is time to put the row covers on and they can come off in a few days. Gary uses a very thick kind of row cover that needs to be taken off after a few days because it blocks the sun. But after looking at his crops he did say that the ones under the row cover looked great. This next week is supposed to warm up a bit and rain, which will be good for the greens. The cold weather dries up crops similar to the way it dries up your skin, and cold rain will revive them. The winter for the Wises is not so harsh as you might imagine.

This time of year definitely has a toll on the farmers, but they’re ready for it. Next time you eat something from one of their fields remember how much work they put into making sure it was protected from the weather. Fortunately there are always things around a farm to warm your spirit even when your toes have lost all their feeling. Take these cute farm animals in sweaters for example:

goatsincoats

I would save this link for a day when you can’t shake the cold creeping into your bones.

2015: The Year Of The Edible Excursion

Welcome to 2015, everyone! It’s the time of year when we all start assessing what we want to change about our lives and what we want to focus on in the coming year be it reading more, exercising more, eating better, etc (or even eating more squirrel like this writer for Modern Farmer).  I’ve always been pretty bad at making New Years Resolutions. I take on too much and expect myself to suddenly change every bad habit I have overnight. I’ve begun to try looking more at the New Year as a chance to make small lifestyle changes to work toward a larger goal. This article from takepart.com puts New Years Resolutions into a perspective I can get behind. The idea of “positive power” is so helpful for shifting my approach to one of “empowerment” and enrichment instead of self-restriction and self-deprecation. It is easy too look at everything that you are not doing well and allow that to take over your perspective. Frances Moore Lappe says to start by “eating as if every bite matters, because it does.” Eating locally is a huge lifestyle change and when I made the choice to eat as locally as possible it was one of the most difficult shifts I have ever attempted. It started out simply as a challenge to myself. I understood the importance of buying local and supporting the local economy, and had done an incredibly good job of romanticizing the idea of delicious, beautiful, local produce. I had just finished reading Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen; needless to say I knew very little about what I was getting myself into. I had to learn how to make changes in small steps and not focus on what I was doing poorly but instead focus on ways to enrich my life. It took a while to understand that it is perfectly alright to slowly work up to the lifestyle that I believed in–and I will probably always be working toward it. But once I allowed myself to slowly move forward and opened myself up to the journey, my motivation emerged. If you pay attention, eating locally can lead you down a surprisingly diverse path, and if you’re like me, there’s no going back.

What I find especially interesting about the local food movement is that everyone seems to stumble upon it for different reasons: health reasons, environmental reasons, curiosity, community building, books, documentaries, etc. It underlies so many different passions and connects so many different kinds of people. This is why taking small steps to a lifestyle of eating locally, participating in your local economy, getting to know those who grow your food and everyone in between, is a valuable pursuit. It’s not about denying yourself but about enriching your life as well as enriching the lives of those around you. It really is a paradigm shift. When you choose to eat locally, you are investing in the person who grew it, in your local environment, and in your local economy. It’s about putting value back into the place where you live and it helps you get to know the place you call home. You pay attention to the weather and start to notice how that affects your produce, you become aware of how much work it truly takes to get quality food on your table. Since becoming involved in the local food movement, I have met people from all over the world and from all walks of life. It has allowed me to truly understand and engage with different perspectives and brought me to a new understanding of myself, my home, and the world; eating locally allows us to live in the reality of how connected we all truly are to each other and to the soil we usually forget to notice.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist and the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, had a beautiful perspective on how even small steps can change the world. In the documentary Dirt! she tells the story of a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire while being laughed at by the other larger animals. The hummingbird’s response is: “I’m doing the best I can.”

I often listen to this story when I’m feeling overwhelmed by how small I am in the grand scheme of the world, but all we can do is to do the best we can, and that is enough. So whatever your focus is that brings you to local food, foster it. Let it take you down the crazy path of the community around you, and have a little fun. Make your New Years Resolutions less about strict denial and open them up to inspiration. Enjoy the journey. If nothing else, you’ll be well fed.