Cover crops provide nutrients and organic matter to the soil in between seasons where crops have been harvested and the ground would otherwise be barren or growing up in weeds. A beautiful option for summer cover crops is sunflowers which are deep-rooted and bring nutrients to the surface of the soil. In addition to adding beauty to the farm, the flowering 5 to 6 foot stalks also attract pollinating and beneficial insects. We sowed them closely to help suppress weeds especially crabgrass. They also require little irrigation to sustain their rapid growth and are largely free of insect or disease damage.
Dried sunflower seeds are a nutrient-laden snack. They are useful in developing cooking oils. Birds (and chickens) love them. They are used in biodiesel production. Cut sunflower stalks offer a beautiful and long-lasting flower arrangement.
We experienced an especially creative use of sunflowers as a cover crop when visiting Brown’s Family Farm in Rougemont at the end of last October with our daughters and grandkids. The farm had sown a large stand of sunflowers and created a fun-to-explore maze. This gave us the inspiration to sow some of the garden later to have sunflowers blooming up until freezing weather.
Next summer save some room in your garden to grow sunflowers. -Larry Newlin September, 2018
We have used compost since we began farming to build soil tilth, increase the microbiology of the soil (primarily fungi and bacteria – billions of them), provide a haven for earthworms, increase moisture and nutrient retention, and increase soil permeability to help the beds drain efficiently after downpours. This spring after a visit to nearby Ten Mothers Farm, we are utilizing shredded leaf compost from Brockwell Mulch near Carrboro as a one to two inch top layer before seeding or planting. For Gordon and Vera of Ten Mothers (proteges of organic farming guru, Eliot Coleman), the benefit of leaf compost on top is for moisture retention, nutrient enrichment, and WEED PREVENTION!
The practice also reduces significantly the amount of tilling required. Tilling brings weed seeds to the surface and reduces microbiota (the web of life). Also, over a course of several seasons, the compost works deeper into the soil and helps roots spread so that plants stay healthy in stressful situations such as drought and excessive heat.
Since we don’t use herbicides, we spend an inordinate amount of time weeding. Cover cropping with rye and oats helps with weed prevention as the shreds of mown grasses worked in the soil have an aleopathic effect on preventing grassy weeds from emerging for a few weeks. Yet, it doesn’t help with broadleaf weeds like chickweed and henbit. We also use landscape cloth to cover the soil and prevent weeds on crops like broccoli and peppers that will be in the ground for more than 60 days.According to Penn State researchers who spoke a few years back at a sustainable farm conference, we have 70% more varieties of weeds in North Carolina than Pennsylvania. We Tar Heels may be dirt poor, but we’re weed rich!
We make a smooth seed bed of the leaf compost and then have seeded carrots, radishes, beets, spinach, arugula, and Asian greens directly into the top layer of leaf compost. Today, we are broadforking to make the soil pliable and working the compost in deeper without tilling in order to make planting directly into the top layer of compost efficient and productive. Watering in the first few weeks is critical as well as protection against freezing nights with frost cloth.
Compost is an up-front expense in our farming practice, but if all goes well, reduce the amount of weeding, reduce our organic fertilizer inputs, reduce watering needs, and most importantly, provide a better yield of healthy, nutrient-dense, and tasty vegetables.
Okra is the stepchild that has been snubbed for being slimy or needing to be fried to death to make it edible. In reality it is the comeback kid – gaining popularity among gardeners and farmers, chefs and food enthusiasts, health professionals, and heirloom enthusiasts.
Gardeners and farmers love it because it is easy to grow, a prolific producer, and exceptionally drought tolerant. Heirloom varieties that don’t grow too tall to harvest (4-6 feet and/or are open branched make harvesting easier. It is a plant with stature and beauty –large fan-shaped leaves and showy yellow blossoms. A row of okra can shade plants in the summer that may enjoy a break from the intense sun.
Chefs and food enthusiasts love okra because of the diverse colors, rich flavor, crisp texture, and use in a variety of dishes. Soups, stews, salads, creole, gumbo, casseroles, grilled, pickled, or fried are popular ways of utilizing okra in Southern dishes. Tomatoes, shellfish, and corn are popular foods to blend with okra.
Nutritionists and health professionals are coming to appreciate okra as a superfood. It helps lower blood sugar, reduces cholesterol, and prevents colorectal cancer. It is a good source of Vitamins B, C, and K, lutein, magnesium, folic acid, calcium, and potassium. Okra is low in calories and high in fiber helping digestion, reducing cravings, and promoting better glycemic control.
Okra has a rich history, and we favor heirloom varieties. An heirloom, according to Webster’s, is: “A valued family possession handed on from generation to generation.” It originated in Ethiopia and spread to West Africa, and thus, it is an important contribution to Southern cuisine from African Americans. It spread from Africa to Brazil and Latin America including the Caribbean and later to the American colonies. Heirlooms are bred true to type from year to year. The Kerr Center in Oklahoma tested a number of varieties, and we have selected some of the top performers:
“Burmese” growing 36 inches high with a high yield
“Evertender” 38 inches high with a very high yield and pods that are tender even when picked larger
“Bowling Red” 30 inches high with a high yield and red-tinged pod making it an attractive landscape plant
“Jade” 32 inches high and bright green leaves producing a very high yield
“Fife Creek Cowhorn” 33 inches high, pods are fat but tender and especially sweet
While heirlooms may be less uniform than hybrids, we like them for a number of reasons. They were passed down through the family because they taste good; they haven’t had the nutrition bred out of them to make them more marketable regarding appearance, shipping long distances, and longevity on the grocery shelf; long harvest season; and the lore about these family jewels connects us to the food we eat.
Lee’s okra salad was the prettiest (in my humble opinion) dish on a long table at last Sunday’s Newlin reunion. Check it out on the recipe page. It was colorful and exuded just-harvested freshness, tasted delicious and no gooey okra. You can prepare it for your next family gathering and share the news about the Southern heritage of our esteemed okra. -Larry
Peaceful River Farm is one of a growing number of businesses to measure success not simply in financial terms but also in social and environmental impact. Farming is a notoriously low margin business where over 90% of America’s family farms rely on at least one family member to work off the farm. North Carolina has lost half of its family farms since the 1970’s. Yet, beyond the financial challenges are the rewarding social and environmental opportunities. These opportunities motivate second career farmers like us as well as a burgeoning number of young people wanting to farm or participate in farming.
Here are the nonfinancial core values that guide our farm endeavors:
- We farm sustainably for health, to protect the environment especially the Haw River and creeks feeding it, to boost the local economy, and to educate and inspire others to buy and grow sustainable produce.
- We seek to offer an inspiring farm to motivate folks to garden themselves — advocating that productive horticulture can be as visually pleasing as ornamental horticulture.
- The care in maintaining an aesthetically pleasing setting also is congruent with our care for the experience folks have in visiting the farm whether for dinner or for a healthy cooking class – we want to knock their socks off with the farm’s beauty and serenity, the delicious food, the knowledge imparted, and the sense of fellowship and common purpose.
- Folks visiting our farm learn why and how we farm sustainably, enriching their experience in visiting the farm.
- Focusing on soil health is congruent with our efforts to educate folks about healthy food and healthy people as well as our expressed intent for farm dinner participants and our customers to obtain the healthiest and freshest food available.
As parents and grandparents we are especially guided by our dream of a better future. A future where healthy and local food is plentiful, where farms and farm communities thrive, where streams and rivers are clean, and where soil is rich and brimming with microbial life. Our sweat equity in Peaceful River Farm is one step in building that better future.
In a few weeks we’ll be planting 1,040 more asparagus roots to add to the 6 beds that are already established. Why more asparagus?
1. It’s the plant that keeps on giving. A crown planted in late winter this year will produce spears for harvesting next year and for the next twenty or so years after that.
2. For farmers it’s a high demand/high margin crop. Plus, its exceptionally drought tolerant – get it through the first year, and you probably won’t need to water again.
3. For consumers, it’s succulent, tender, delicious, and considered a delicacy since ancient times. It is prized as an anti-inflammatory food; it is loaded with antioxidants; it provides digestive support; and it is a great source of fiber and nutrients and is believed to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
4. For farmers and gardeners alike, it’s a snap! That’s the sound it makes when our granddaughter, Eleanor at three years of age, helped to harvest last spring. Breaking the 6 to 9 inch spear near the base, versus cutting it, is the preferred harvesting method – cutting may spread pathogens. The major pest is asparagus beetle, and they are relatively easy to keep at bay by hand-picking them and dropping into soapy water, or by spraying with Spinosad, a natural product derived from soil bacterium.
The major challenge in growing asparagus organically is weed control. We’re planting eight more beds this winter and have covered the grass with 6 mil black plastic to reduce weed pressure. This also keeps the soil relatively dry so that we can till before planting. After tilling and incorporating a good amount of compost, we’ll dig a 5-6” trench and add rock phosphate for long-term root development. Asparagus likes a relatively high pH, 6.5 to 7.0 and does not grow well in soils below 6.0. Ideally, lime should be added a few months before planting according to soil test results. One-year old crowns will be planted in a single row 5 feet from the adjacent rows and one foot apart within the row. The crowns are not fussy and do not need to be spread out over a mounded hill as some instruct – simply drop the crown into the trench. We’ll cover the crowns to soil level (not half-way as some suggest) but will refrain from tamping – the spears will emerge in about a week. Mulching two to three inches will reduce weed pressure. We’ll help maintain weed control by keeping the aisles covered in black plastic and mulching over that.
Retired Person County Extension Agent, Carl Cantaluppi, has done extensive research on growing asparagus in the Piedmont and recommends the male hybrids developed at Rutgers University with names like Jersey Giant, Jersey Supreme, and Jersey Knight. We’ve planted all three varieties but will stay with Jersey Supreme which has thicker spears and provides more harvest weight in field trials and emerges a few days earlier. Mary Washington is a popular variety in this area, but the Jersey hybrids are three times more productive and do not seed around like Mary Washington.
Today, Andrew mowed down the browned-out fern foliage of established beds. Tomorrow we’ll rake up the debris and burn it to reduce the population of over-wintering asparagus beetles. Next, we’ll weed the chickweed out of the beds, apply feather meal for a slow-release nitrogen boost, and kelp for micronutrients and add any minerals based on the soil test results (phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium). Lastly, we’ll add two inches of mulch to reduce weed pressure and make harvesting the spears, which will emerge in a few weeks, easier. Our harvest window will be about 8 weeks. Many of the plants are reaching their peak production years (years 6 through 11), so, we are anticipating a bountiful harvest this spring.
Novelist, essayist, poet, and fellow farmer (southwest Virginia) Barbara Kingsolver reveres asparagus, writing in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
An asparagus spear only looks like its picture for one day of its life…The shoot emerges from the ground like a snub-nosed green snake headed for sunshine, rising so rapidly you can just about see it grow…. Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it is an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries…. Europeans celebrate the short season of abundant asparagus as a form of holiday. In the Netherlands the first cutting coincides with Father’s day, on which restaurants may feature all-asparagus menus and hand out neckties decorated with asparagus spears…. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring equinox, who’s to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?
Like Kingsolver we love asparagus – a spring ephemeral but a long-lasting perennial, tender and succulent but tough enough to withstand droughts, a mysterious patchwork of spears in the spring evolving into a virtual forest of dense ferns in summer, a sought-after delicacy that is readily available in your garden or local farmers market (in season). Surely, this is a vegetable to make room for in our garden and on our plate.
Peaceful River Farm lies between vibrant small communities – the revitalized mill village of Saxapahaw (pop. 1,648), and the historic Towns of Hillsborough (pop. 6,087) and Pittsboro (pop. 3,743). Sustainable farming has as one of its goals the revitalization of small towns. For example, a dollar spent at your local farmers market leads to an additional $0.58 to $1.36 in sales at other nearby businesses – this is more than three times the “multiplier effect” for local communities than chain stores.
In 1980 I was part of an interagency/private organization team in Washington that launched the National Main Street Center. With the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the International Downtown Executives Association providing consulting, design, and technical assistance, a total of 30 demonstration communities were selected in six states – North Carolina was one of them. Most of these communities had been adversely impacted from big box stores in addition to manufacturing and agricultural decline.
That demonstration program proved extremely successful, and each year more small towns have received assistance from the National Main Street Center, assessing their strengths and taking the bottom-up steps to revitalize their downtowns. The results are impressive according to the Center’s website:
Cumulatively, commercial districts taking part in the Main Street program have spurred the rehabilitation of more than 246,000 buildings, and generated $59.6 billion in new investment, with a net gain of more than 502,728 new jobs, and over 115,000 new businesses. Every dollar a community uses to support its local Main Street program leverages an average of $18 in new investment, making Main Street one of the most successful economic development strategies in America. These community benefits would not be possible without the training, education, and leadership of the National Main Street Center.
In North Carolina our urban areas are by and large significantly wealthier than our nonmetropolitan areas. Forty of the most economically distressed counties are rural, dotted withwith boarded up downtown districts and stagnant economies. Fortunately, there are success stories as illustrated by the communities in our area and by the 64 designated Main Street towns in North Carolina which have seen a dramatic increase in business starts, new jobs, and public and private investment.
It is humbling to reflect back on those beginnings 36 years ago and to recognize what can be accomplished with good ideas, professional attention to challenges and opportunities, and local pride and commitment to community revitalization. Small town living has rich rewards for families, businesses, and civic and religious organizations alike. We love the sense of community, the friendliness, the open space, and the connection with nature that living in the country and near small towns affords.
Legislators Address North Carolina’s Food Deserts
Larry was pleased to represent North Carolina farmers in advocating for the Healthy Corner Store initiative at a breakfast for legislators and the religious community recently. In a press release from the North Carolina Alliance for Health, remarks by Bishop Hope Morgan of the United Methodist Church, Representative Yvonne Holly, Colonel Paul Conner of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base’s Medical Group, and Larry of Peaceful River Farm were highlighted. Larry is quoted as stating,
“Obesity is a crisis in our state. By helping put fresh, local food into corner stores, as well as ensuring stores have the equipment to stock the foods and the tools to market the foods to their customers, we create markets for farmers, like myself, and ensure that communities will have access to healthy, local options.”
In a recent WUNC Radio wrap-up of the budget passed by the NC General Assembly, one reporter expressed his pleasant surprise that the $250,000 Healthy Corner Store Initiative was included. The initiative is a bipartisan measure aimed at addressing our burgeoning obesity epidemic, especially among children, and to broaden access to fresh, locally grown produce and food. There are 1.5 million North Carolinians living in “food deserts” without convenient access to grocery stores.
The NC Alliance for Health sets the cost for our excess weight at $17.6 billion a year in medical costs and lost employee productivity. They estimate that having fresh food more accessible will lower diseases linked to obesity — Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and some kinds of cancer.
While NC’s initiative offers a modest start, if a similar test program begun in 2010 in Philadelphia is a predictor of NC’s success, the impact will be strong. Its success has spread to 600 corner stores now offering fresh, local food throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania – a win/win/win for customers, retailers, and farmers.
In his remarks, Larry also highlighted the success of Saxapahaw General Store, one of Peaceful River Farm’s key customers. The Saxapahaw General Store calls itself a “five-star gas station in the middle of somewhere”. Saxapahaw may be out of the way, but it has been transformed from a declining mill village on the Haw River to a bustling new urbanist community where music, food, river recreation, and community blend in a unique way. Three years ago the General Store attained financial assistance from the Rural Advancement Fund International based in Pittsboro to experiment with providing more local, fresh produce to increase impulse sales near the register. An open cooler was installed, and local, sustainable farms were contacted to help keep the cooler full through the seasons. Their produce was identified with handwritten signs labeling the variety and the farm that produced it. Produce and berry sales grew exponentially according to owners, Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff. Peaceful River Farm’s sales to the General Store saw a similar dramatic increase. Great farm food means great dishes, and the General Store has received recognition from Our State Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The News and Observer, UNC – TV, and Garden and Gun Magazine.
The good news is fresh, healthy food may soon be “right around the corner” for thousands of North Carolina’s rural and urban residents.
Popeye had it right – “I’m strong to the finich (sic), cause I eats me spinach”. We’ve been growing a good bit of spinach this winter both inside the high tunnel and outside in low tunnels. There is less weed pressure in the high tunnels, and the leaves are more succulent, but spinach is hardy enough to grow outside through most winters under low tunnels – hoops covered with frost cloth. In the mid-South semi-savoyed versus smooth leaf spinach grows best. “Tyee” has been the variety of choice for several seasons, but our major seed supplier, Johnny’s, substituted “Reflect” this fall, and we like it even better. Some folks wait for the plant until it can be harvested in one bunch – one and done; others like to harvest it as baby spinach; and we like it as a cut and come again crop harvesting it when the leaves are bite size and come back in 10 to 14 days and harvest again.
Chefs love the red edged variety, “Red Kitten”, which we are growing in the high tunnel and will seed again for spring in a few days. It is counterintuitive to think that now is a good time to sow spinach, but the seeds germinate best in soils that range in temperature from 40 degrees to 70 degrees F. Fifty degrees is optimal to produce normal seedlings. We keep the prepared bed warm and dry with clear plastic for a few days before seeding. At fifty degrees F it will take about 12 days to germinate. After watering in the sown seeds, we will recover and begin checking for seedling emergence in about a week – checking each day and then replacing the clear plastic with permeable frost cloth. We’ll pull back the frost cloth on warmer days, and then pin it back before freezing nights.
Spinach is prone to bolting with warmer weather; so, this early start is important for a cut and come again harvest plan. Spinach is in great demand and is one of the more profitable crops. By the time our high tunnel spinach is through harvesting, we should have spinach ready to harvest in the spring beds. Spinach is in the Chenopod family along with its cousins, chard and beets, and for home or market gardeners makes a strong addition to a crop rotation scheme – following a root vegetable in a different family like carrots, potatoes, or radish. It should not immediately follow the cover crop rye.
Recent studies have shown that spinach can offer significant protection against the occurrence of aggressive prostate cancer – the only leafy vegetable with that potency among several that were tested including kale and collards. It is a superfood ranking in the top 10 of green vegetables in the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Darker green leaves will be higher in Vitamin C than paler leaves. Spinach provides antioxidants, helps maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, helps lower blood pressure, aids in cognitive function, and helps protect the lining of the digestive tract. It is low in fat and very low in cholesterol and filled with healthy vitamins and minerals.
Spinach is a super-duper food – grow it, eat it, grow healthier.
Voted #1 by Chapelboro “Best Place for Vegetarians”
We are thrilled to have been voted the best place for vegetarians by the locals here in the Chapel Hill area! Click on the link above to read about it.
Aren’t farm tasks supposed to slow down in summer? Here’s are random thoughts about how our summer has progressed:
We decided after last year that we wouldn’t grow tomatoes in the outside market gardens again – we had about 20% of the production outside that we had in the high tunnel due to pathogen pressures. But what’s a farmer to do when the high tunnel is only 35’ wide x 78’ long and we grew tomatoes in most of its beds last summer? The answer we came upon was to purchase grafted heirloom tomatoes from an NC organic greenhouse. Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and German Johnson were grafted on to disease resistant root stock, and with a couple of inches of compost added to the beds following winter lettuce and spinach, we planted 48 plant trays in each of three beds. According to research at NC State, grafted heirloom tomatoes grown in high tunnels should yield 50% more than non-grafted heirlooms. Heirlooms have the taste that you remember from your grandparents’ garden, but because they are so big and juicy, they are prone to splitting. We have found with this year’s crop that we have fewer culls than last year, and we still have green foliage with good though slower flower and fruit set than earlier in the season (temperatures reach 110 degrees F on really hot days). So, so far, so good. Lee has processed most of the culls roasting them overnight on a low temperature and then peeled and cored to freeze for use in her healthy cooking classes. The demand for heirlooms far exceeds hybrid varieties, and the profit margins are significantly better as well.
Last year we were growing “Straight 8” cucumbers on the north bed of the high tunnel and were producing an abundance of very straight and long cucumbers. About the first of July, the plants looked like they had the measles – large yellow lesions on the leaves and a powdery edge. In a few days the entire plant declined, and we had to rip out the plants at the peak of their production. The culprit was a nasty disease, powdery mildew, which used to creep up from Florida around August but has been coming earlier and earlier due to warmer weather.
After hearing a talk about Cornell/NC State research trials on downy mildew resistant cucurbits, we bought seeds of the trial winner for disease resistance. It is an unnamed variety from Cornell – PMR 264 – it’s a cucumber not a Star Wars robot. Commonwealth Seeds near Charlottesville, VA is the grower and offers an excellent selection of seeds adapted to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic which are open pollinated and organic. The results from our two beds in the high tunnel has been excellent from a disease resistance perspective with vigorous plant growth even into August, but the production has been spotty. A plethora of blooms have largely fallen off unpollinated – perhaps due to the heat inside the high tunnel but more likely due to poor pollination as bees are sparse inside on these hot days. We are still averaging harvests of over 40 pounds per every other day, though some of the cukes are short or misshapen from inadequate pollination.
According to research at West Virginia University by high tunnel guru, Lewis Jett, cucumbers are the number one most profitable high tunnel crop. Nevertheless, we are likely to experiment with this variety outside next summer for improved pollination. It will mean a slower start to the season but hopefully greater yield. The cucurbit trial continues this summer (see our participation in melons below), and we’ll be anxious for updates to see if there is any experience in growing other downy mildew resistant varieties successfully in a high tunnel. Otherwise, we’ll select a greenhouse variety or two that needs little or no pollination from Lewis Jett’s list of recommended varieties and take our chances on downy mildew.
• Muskmelon Trial
We have participated in a cantaloupe trial sponsored by Cornell, NC State, and Auburn Universities to test the downy mildew resistance of eight varieties. Only one of the eight is recommended for North Carolina: “Athena”, which accounts for 70 percent of the cantaloupes produced commercially in the state. All 8 varieties we tested developed alternaria leaf spot early in the season, but all but one of the varieties survived. None of the varieties grew vigorously, and all experienced fruit rotting problems. We use a refractometer to test the sweetness of the different varieties, and Athena scored the optimal 12 early in the harvest season. None of the varieties have been prolific producers. We are not experienced cantaloupe growers, and this research experience does not heighten our interest in growing cantaloupes in the future. The good news is that none of the varieties developed downy mildew.
• Other Summer Happenings:
- We have just completed grading for our second high tunnel which is supported by a “cost share” from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service/USDA. The high tunnel will be constructed in early September and will be located directly to the south of our first tunnel with the same dimensions and design.
- We have also received NRCS assistance to conduct a Conservation Assistance Program organic transition whole farm plan. The plan is being conducted by former Chatham/Orange County Extension Service agent and NC A&T State University researcher, Keith Baldwin, PhD. Keith is highly regarded and was awarded Carolina Farm Stewardship’s 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith is currently the Farm Services Coordinator for CFSA.
- We have recently begun providing produce to a group of independent restaurants in the Triangle through a collaboration with other farmers. We are one of a select group that pool our resources to serve this growing restaurant group.
- It seems early to be planting cabbage, bok choy, kale, broccoli, and collards in this heat, but with 60 to 85 days to maturity, it is important to get them in the ground to avoid freezing weather (especially for the broccoli and bok choy). We are using the written advice from sustainable farming guru, Pamela Dawling of Twin Oaks Farm near Charlottesville, author of Sustainable Market Farming. Pam suggests sowing rows of red or crimson clover about a month after planting around cabbage and broccoli to help crowd out winter weeds and to have a nitrogen fixing cover crop in place through the winter once harvest is complete.
The cooler mornings are enjoyable and we try to get most of the heavier work done before the heat sets in. Tomatoes and cucumbers are still producing in the high tunnel, Asian pears have just been harvested, the summer squash and winter squash are producing fewer fruit, and we are beginning to harvest recently sown arugula.
The bounty of fall will soon approach, and we can’t wait!