Tag Archives: farming

The Dog Days of Summer

Needless to say, the weather this year has been crazy— the long winter that swept 20-degree weather through Easter weekend, to the 100-degree weather that descended upon North Carolina a few weeks ago. We have entered into the dog days of summer, technically from July 3- August 11, which refers to the hottest and muggiest days of the season. The reason for this title is because at this point of the year the sun is in the same region of the sky as Sirius, the brightest star visible from Earth. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. The ancient Romans believed that Sirius actually gave off heat, and when it was in the same region as the sun they thought it contributed to the heat on earth—thus, we have the dog days of summer. So here we are, covered in humidity with very abnormal weather patterns, still in a drought in parts of the state, and yet farmers must keep farming.

 

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I called Bill Walker of Walker Farms to hear how they have been dealing with the recent weather. Walker Farms is located in Randolph County, just south of High Point, or “red clay country”. When I asked about the recent wave of heat, Walker responded by saying that this heat hasn’t hurt his farm nearly as much as the long winter did. The dry heat can be dealt with through drip and overhead irrigation. It is definitely better than too much rain, as the old saying goes, “you can make it rain but you can’t stop it.” Farming in clay soil is beneficial during hot spells because clay stays relatively cool, especially compared to the sandy soil down east. The heat did hurt Walker’s first squash planting and then the rain came and “scared the next planting to death…but we’re surviving;” he didn’t seem too phased by the weather, they’re just working with it and rolling with the punches. It seems that odd weather patterns come as no surprise to Walker anymore.

The long winter and basically non-existent spring is really what messed with their crops this season. The cold season crops such as cauliflower had a hard time producing because the cold stayed for so long and damaged the fruit and the general growth. Certain plants like colder temperatures but they are usually planted in the cold and then they grow as the season gets slightly warmer; that didn’t happen this year. The winter settled in for the long haul, gave the spring crops a hard time, and caused a slow start for all the summer crops. It affected the pollination of the peppers so they came on really slowly this year. Up until very recently the peppers were producing very little, but after the recent evening storms they’ve finally caught up with themselves and begun to produce. Walker pointed out, however, that it might have been a good thing the peppers produced so slowly because when the heat hit they all would have gotten burned. The Globe Eggplant came earlier than the smaller eggplants this year, when it is usually the opposite— the plants have definitely noticed a change in the weather.

wild grass in the nature.

According to Walker it seems that recently every year has had some extreme weather. Perhaps extremes are becoming the norm, but farmers have to continuously learn and adapt with the seasons. This is exactly why it is important to invest in local agriculture: because these smaller-scale farmers have the ability to adapt and to change. Large monoculture crops will get hit with a disease and wiped out in one fell swoop, but smaller-scale farmers can plant different varieties and pay closer attention to how their crops are doing. The answer is not to create a roundup resistant strain of corn in the lab so we can spray more herbicides and not have to weed, the answer is to work with the land as we know it to be and plant accordingly. Farmers, like Bill Walker, that really know what they are doing are the ones that are going to change the food system for the better and it is our responsibility to support those farmers. The interesting thing is that if you want there to be more sustainable food, you have to eat it. So eat on all you foodies and environmentalists, you are doing more good than you realize.

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”.

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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.

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Photo by Wilkerson Farms

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

 

Meet Your Farmer–Cox Family Farms

This past Friday I had the great pleasure of visiting Cox Family Farms in Goldsboro, NC. Robbie and Janie Cox have been farming together for twenty-six years, their farm just down the road from the family farm Robbie grew up on. Robbie has been farming this particular piece of land himself for forty years. It has been in his family forever and he cleared the land and cultivated it himself. When I asked him why he decided he wanted to farm he replied with a smile: “Because I like it.” He and Janie (and their two sweet farm dogs) were excited to show me around their farm and explain their projects. You’ve seen their vegetables on our order page—bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash—they have about 10 acres in vegetable production, three greenhouses, and two hoop houses.

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Inside of a hoop house
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Outside of a hoop house
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Outside of a greenhouse

The greenhouses are used mostly for growing the cucumbers and starting seeds in the cold months, right now one of them is full of herbs that are drying. Hoop houses are essentially greenhouses that are not heated, often used to get a jumpstart on the season, they warm up to be about two weeks ahead than the crops in the field. For Cox Farms, the red bell peppers do the best in the hoop houses. They water all of their crops with drip irrigation, which is essentially a line of black tape between every row with holes poked through it. It is a more efficient way of watering directly at the base of the plant and in a steady drip instead of a flood. With forty years of farming under his belt, Robbie is an arsenal of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. “When you’re a good farmer your plants will talk to you, they’ll let you know what they need. I go out and look at mine every day.” It takes a long time to learn this stuff—I’ve heard it takes ten years just to feel established and knowledgeable as a farmer, and then you can really start–but you never stop learning and adapting. “I’m still learning every day,” Robbie emphasizes. A really interesting innovation that they use to start a lot of their seeds during the bitter cold winter months is an insulated Maola truck. Heating a greenhouse enough to start seedlings is incredibly expensive, but heating a well-insulated back of an 18-wheeler is not so bad. He has grow lights set up that are on a timer and plenty of space to start all of their seeds for the spring season.

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Robbie Cox explaining his seed-starting method
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The back of the Maola truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is located in their packaging plant, which is a huge open room with a conveyer belt used to grade and sort their vegetables and tons. Off to the side they have their coolers which are enormous walk-ins the size of several rooms that have different sections in them to store their vegetables at the needed temperatures.

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A scale in the “lobby” of the cooler
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Separate rooms within the cooler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Packaging plant

Robbie and Janie once trained racehorses on their land. In their office they have a wall of newspaper clippings of their horses that have traveled more around the country than I have and won different races. But training racehorses is hard work and they decided to shift their focus to their vegetables. This summer they decided to replace their horses with IMG_0186chickens and got 200 Rhode Island Reds mixed with Brown Sussex laying hens, outfitted some old horse stables, and fenced in 5 acres of land. The first thing they showed me when I arrived at the farm was their chicken set-up. Let me tell you, these are some of the happiest and friendliest chickens I have ever seen. They instantly came up to us when we opened the door (probably looking for food) but they even let us pet and hold them (something that not many chickens enjoy). Their nesting boxes are in the horse stables along with wooden planks for them to roost on and food and water. The stables are well ventilated with huge doors, which is important for keeping down the smell and ammonia build-up. There is a large covered, open space for the chickens to scratch around and explore before they are able to open up the coop for them in the mornings, but once they are allowed outside, the chickens run to the sunshine.IMG_0184 Right now the hens are fenced in to a slightly smaller area to keep them from eating the recently sown wheat seed in their grazing area for next season. But they are certainly not going without, their outdoor enclosure is equipped with a section of tall weeds for hawk protection, a big trailer for shade, plenty of space to wander and scratch, and some leftover veggies to munch on. Robbie and Janie love their chickens, their excitement was tangible and contagious. As we discussed the difference between store bought eggs and farm fresh eggs, we decided you can barely compare them: the deep yellow yolk, the strong white, the rich flavor (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). There is always something to be said about farming with compassion, not only is it better for everyone involved but the product is incredible.

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Robbie petting one of his hens
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Robbie showing me how to hold a chicken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I got to hold a chicken!
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Inside the coop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What struck me the most about visiting Cox Farms was how welcome I felt. Janie instantly greeted me with a hug when I arrived and I left with gifts of eggs and pecans. They are proud of their farm and are happy to show their hard work and lifestyle to those interested. They have customers who will come to the farm to buy directly from them–especially for their famous orange watermelons, which sound like they are worth a trip to Goldsboro. Farming to them is about good connections with their customers and providing good product that they are proud of. They have regulars that come back every week because they’ve gotten to know them, farmers that they know and share knowledge with, businesses (like Papa Spud’s) that they work closely with to reach out in the community. This seems to be the best way to bring a community and people together: good farming and good food. We all have to eat, and farmers like Robbie and Janie are maintaining the spirit of community with their work, all we have to do is join in.

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Janie Cox and I with some of their eggs
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Robbie and Janie Cox (notice the horses and medals behind them)

Meet Your Farmer–Britt Farms

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Photo by Britt Farms
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Field of covered strawberries–photo by Britt Farms

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to Vernon Britt, owner of Britt Farms in Mount Olive, NC, or as he described their location, “the ‘toe’ of Wayne County”. I called him on a dreary afternoon and caught him sitting in his tractor waiting out the rain so he could pull the row covers off of his strawberries. Such is the life of a farmer, you’re lucky to catch them out of the field or in a still moment, but when you do it’s a treat. Vernon was cheery and kind and graciously took time out of his very busy day to speak with me. He has been farming his whole life; as a child his parents grew corn, wheat, tobacco, beans, peppers, squash, and the like. His grandfather raised hogs and cows in the woods which essentially became Vernon’s childhood playground. His father’s last harvest was in 1980 and the farm was run by different family members until 2006. Vernon was working full time doing sales for Lowes in Goldsboro and dabbled a bit in raising hogs until the price of pork dropped. In 2006 he came home and took over the farm himself, 2007 was their first vegetable harvest and they’ve been going strong ever since. Vernon and his wife, Jennifer, are the only full-time workers and they have seasonal workers that come every summer. They still have cows that they sell through Smithfield and their main vegetable crops

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

include strawberries, peaches, potatoes, onions, greens, and “a little bit of everything.” Strawberries are their biggest crop with five acres in production currently. They sell their produce primarily at the NC State Farmers Market in Raleigh, have a CSA of their own, and work with wholesale businesses.

 

The desire for farming was instilled in Vernon as a child from his father and grandfather, but “the way they farmed then wouldn’t work now because of new diseases and insects. The chemicals we use are a lot softer than what they used.” He went on to describe how farmers once used pesticides and herbicides that would kill everything in the field. Now they still use chemicals but instead of coating the field at the first sign of a problem they scout their fields first to see if their crops have a pest or disease and then pinpoint that problem specifically. “There are a lot more beneficial insects than pests,” he emphasized. “Weather is always a challenge. About the time you think you’ve got it figured out you’re totally wrong. Every day is a

ss_5_10_3challenge around here.” But I can tell from his tone, as he looks over his strawberry field in the rain, that it’s all worth it. He finds support in the farming community surrounding his farm, he and about four or five other farmers in the area work together and share knowledge. If one farmer is having a hard time selling all of one crop the others will help him out and vice versa, along with sharing experience and ideas to deal with pest or disease problems. It seems like a model from the past, but just what our local food system needs: collaboration instead of competition.

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Photo by Britt Farms

As winter approaches, preparation is the name of the game. The work on the farm will shift from fieldwork to work in the greenhouses and barns. During high summer, when there

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

aren’t enough hours in the day, if a tool or machine breaks it’s fixed as quickly as possible. The wintertime is dedicated to maintaining and properly repairing the damage from the summer. They will also begin starting seeds for the spring in December and by January their time is fully dedicated to planting and preparing in the greenhouse. Some crops will still be available in the winter such as previously stored sweet potatoes, pecans, kale, collards, lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage that can take the frost. They are looking into some new projects as well, and winter is the perfect time for scheming and dreaming. On the surface it may look as though things are slowing down, but for farmers, slow is an adjective rarely used and Vernon Britt is no exception.

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

When you buy produce from Britt Farms you can rest assured that your produce was grown with care in every step of the process.

Fall Is Here

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This past Tuesday morning I went to the State Farmers Market with our Assistant Manager, Justin, to meet some of the farmers we work with. Tuesdays and Wednesdays we pick up produce from Cox Farms, Walker Farms, and Wise Farms at 6:30 AM. The Farmers Market doesn’t open until 9:00, but at 6:30 (or even earlier) there are several farmers in the parking lot in front of the market with boxes and boxes of produce set up to sell to their customers who buy in bulk. These farmers were kind enough to talk to me and answer all of the questions I had about their farms—something I’m sure they were not thrilled about so early in the morning. But there’s something reassuring and grounding about talking with farmers, their rhythm of speech, their subtle jokes, their deep love of what they do. All three of these farms are family farms, they’ve been working the land their whole lives. When I asked the owner of Walker Farms how long he had been farming he quickly responded, “75 years…”and then smiled wryly and said, “and I’m 74, but my mom was farming before me and I was there.” It’s in their blood, the soil they were born upon and have lived in their whole lives. As I walked around to talk to the different farmers they seemed a little confused about why I was there but quickly warmed up, offered me scuppernogs to try, and called me back over to ask more questions.

As we transition into fall these farms will shift into their fall and winter crops or into just caring for their livestock. Wise Farms continues to grow through the winter and is currently in a slower point of their season (believe it or not) as they wait for their seedlings to grow and their work to pick up again. Toward the end of October and beginning of November their greens will finally be getting big and ready to be harvested. The end of summer means the end of tomatoes, okra, summer squash, eggplants, and peppers; but it also means the beginning of beets, greens, carrots, winter squash, and other root vegetables. We’ve grown accustomed to the convenience of being able to buy produce at any time of the year from whatever zone we desire and have lost the knowledge of living by the seasons. Farmers have not, their lives are defined by the ebb and flow of mother nature: the energy of high summer, the rest and rejuvenation of winter, and the exciting transitions of fall and spring. A lot of wisdom can be gained from paying attention to the seasons and listening to the ways each one is beckoning us to live.

I think the first step to understanding and noticing the seasons (because they affect us whether we pay attention or not) is by being aware of what is in season. In Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir-of-sorts, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she recounts a year of eating food either grown by her family or grown in their geographic area. At the beginning of the book she discusses her family’s decision to move from Tucson, AZ, a land of stolen water and very little natural vegetation, to West Virginia, a land abundant in both. Living in a place so disconnected from agriculture it became glaringly obvious to Kingsolver how separated our culture is as a whole. In a desire to seek lost knowledge and to learn how to provide for themselves under the laws of mother nature, they take on the task of learning what it truly means to eat locally. One of the first issues that Kingsolver tackles is the lack of understanding we have of what vegetables grow in which seasons. This is such simple knowledge that we are no longer taught and our easy access to food from all over the world has hurt our ability to understand nature’s rhythms. Kingsolver came up with what she calls the “vegetannual”, a visual representation of seasonality.

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“To recover an intuitive sense of what will be in season throughout the year, picture a season of foods unfolding as if from one single plant. Take a minute to study this creation—an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we can harvest. We’ll call it a vegetannual. Picture its life passing before your eyes like a time-lapse film: first, in the cool early spring, shoots poke up out of the ground. Small leaves appear, then bigger leaves. As the plant grows up into the sunshine and the days grow longer, flower buds will appear, followed by small green fruits. Under midsummer’s warm sun, the fruits grow larger, riper, and more colorful. As days shorten into the autumn, these mature into hard-shelled fruits with appreciable seeds inside. Finally, as the days grow cool, the vegetannual may hoard the sugars its leaves have made, pulling them down into a storage until of some kind: a tuber, bulb, or root” p 64.

The season is changing and I don’t know about you, but fall is my favorite of all. Let’s celebrate the transformation by taking time to notice nature’s abundance as the leaves fall and the nights get cooler.