Cathy Jones and Mike Perry started with potatoes. In fact, people call them “Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head,” known for their many and interesting different varieties of the tuber. When they first began growing them, most farmers in the area were only growing one or two different types of potatoes, so Cathy and Mike teamed up with a researcher at NC State University to select interesting different varieties – such as Candy Stripe and Peruvian Purple. These days, different strains of potatoes have grown in popularity, but they still try to stay ahead of the curve, cultivating one or two that no one else is growing yet. The pair are now in their 24th year of farming at Perry-winkle Farm, which boasts an incredibly wide array of produce as well as cut flowers, chickens for both eggs and meat, and sometimes pigs. However, they began with just a ¼ of an acre and expanded incrementally as they needed to a new place to plant potatoes every year, allowing for crop rotation, a practice that is integral to their farming today.
Last Sunday afternoon, a group of about 25 farm interns, passionate home gardeners, and a mix of beginning and experienced farmers gathered at the farm in Chapel Hill for a tour. Kicking off the season of CRAFT United Piedmont, they were there to learn about Cathy and Mike’s integration of on-farm diversity and the evolution of their operation over the years.
The land had previously been used to grow silage for dairy farms without much regard for the soil; thus, much of the work at Perry-winkle since the time of purchase has revolved around restoring and rebuilding the stripped, depleted soil.
In contrast to its previous use, Cathy and Mike have always farmed organically and still do, although they no longer renew their certification. They still use all organically-certified soil amendments to address the soil quality and are constantly testing to see what it needs. Crop rotation, cover cropping, and diverse, intensive cultivation have been successful strategies for soil renewal on much of the property. Heat and humidity burn organic matter away, so management of the soil fertility is a constant occupation.
Strength in Diversity
By growing so many different varieties of potatoes, they knew they could intrigue customers, who would buy three different types to try from the market, determine their favorite, and come back for more the next week.
They also wash their potatoes to add to the visual appeal of their market display. Cathy thinks variety and visual appeal are key in drawing people over to the booth.
The farmers market at Fearrington Village was the first one they sold at, though now they sell at two other markets as well. Their eggs and poultry have gained incredible popularity, and at each market, they have dedicated regular customers who seek out and reserve their eggs and chickens.
Flowers are an integral part of Perry-winkle Farm, interspersed among vegetable crops to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Not only do they sell three seasons of cut flowers for mixed bouquet sales at market; they also provide flowers for weddings and other special events.
They’ve included the edible flowers in their salad mixes and include aromatic flowering herbs, like Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil, in their bouquet arrangements. “Most cut flowers don’t have a strong smell, but the first thing most people do when shopping for a bouquet is put it up to their nose and smell it” says Cathy.
They sell produce and poultry to restaurants as well. Recently, they provided whole chickens for The Lantern restaurant in downtown Chapel Hill for a demonstration event with Rose’s Meat & Sweet Shop on how to use a whole chicken.
They also make it a practice to listen and respond to what their customers want – that’s how they started growing arugula. Cathy noted that flea beetles were ravaging the arugula crop, chewing holes in all the leaves—but her customers were so “wild about arugula” that they were still happy to buy the holey product. They see that the quality and taste still make Perry-winkle’s arugula a standout product—with or without the holes!
Cathy and Mike got into the chicken business with nine hens and a rooster than someone needed a home for. Now they have 160 “freedom ranger” meat birds and raise between 100-200 laying birds a year!
At Perry-winkle Farm, they raise both broiler chickens and egg-layers on pasture in “Egg-McMansions” and “Eggmobiles.”
They chickens not only boost their sales, they provide fertility for the soil as they move around the garden areas. Many free-range around the farm as well, including a rooster named “Jimi Hendrix.”
The meat birds can grow to market size in 10 weeks, and Mike can order 80 every two weeks from the hatchery. But just recently, the only local independent poultry processing plant, Chaudhry Halal Meat’s, located in Siler City, stopped their poultry processing operation, so Mike must figure out a new solution. The next closest processing facility is over three hours away in Marion, NC. The regulations around on-farm processing have loosened somewhat recently, so he processed 30 birds on site last week to see what they could do on their own, but the volume of chickens he needs to process are beyond what he can comfortably handle himself with limited facilities.
Some upcycled materials can make essential farm equipment.
One of the Egg-McMansions is made out of an old hay wagon, another is an old pop-up camper. The old hay wagon is currently sitting under a tree, but Mike puts up shade cloth to keep the chickens happy when it’s out in the middle of a pasture. The “freedom ranger” meat birds are moved daily, but are shaded as well, by 10 X 20 carport covers.
At the farm you’ll also find an old beer truck used as a walk-in cooler, and a washing machine minus its interior agitator used to dry their triple-washed greens for market.
“The Simple Life”
Many have called their farming “the simple life.” Mike says, “It’s been an honest living, let me tell you.”
They grow their own transplants in a passive solar greenhouse (shown at right), then transfer them to a cold frame for a week to “harden them off” (get them used to the colder environment), and then soak the roots in fish emulsion solution before putting them in the ground.
They also make their own potting mix and do a lot of hand-weeding. However, while a lot of what they do is by hand, they also believe in paying the money for good farm equipment that saves both time and what can otherwise be back-breaking work. Cathy raved about their tractor’s utility in tilling and hilling rows in one pass.
Farming may seem like a back-to-the-roots simple life, but its hard work. Cathy says having employees to assist with farm labor has been critical to their success. For many years, Mike worked full-time off the farm and would return home to help Cathy with additional farm tasks. Currently they have four employees who work between 20 and 40 hrs a week at the farm and at market. To make such a diverse, successful operation run, it has to be a team effort!
Look for the next CRAFT event in late July, and sign up for the list-serve at https://lists.riseup.net/www/subscribe/craft-up.