Countryside: April 2023

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Peach trees display an early bloom at Chiles Peach Orchard on Jarman’s Gap Road. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

‘Too Soon to Tell’ about Frost Damage to Local Fruit 

Farming’s a gamble, said Nelson County Agriculture Extension Agent Grace Monger. “We should all be grateful that we have local growers who accept some risk and loss.” Orchardists (and their customers) worry that a mild winter followed by cold far into the spring causes early flowering and then potential loss of the buds to the cold, a loss that means a reduction in fruit.

Local grapes are likely fine, said Monger. “We haven’t had cold enough temperatures to damage the vines in their dormant stage, and we’re just starting to see the grapes waking up. Strawberries may have seen some damage, but it’s too soon to tell.”

While we’re enjoying the gorgeous blossoms of the orchards, producers are assembling tools for frost prevention to take the edge off cold nights.

Actually, said Monger, a certain level of frost is okay for tree fruit. “It’s certainly not desirable, but it can reduce labor costs in season.” All the blossoms on a peach tree will turn into fruit, and the sheer number requires more energy than the tree can provide, so farmers remove much of the immature fruit by hand.

A production goal is one peach for every six inches of bearing wood. Without thinning, the tree would be stressed and the peaches tiny, she said: “So a little frost is okay, and some of us consider that to be natural thinning.” 

Monger said she considers the last threat of frost to be around Mother’s Day. She has faith in Albemarle and Nelson County producers, who are both experienced and innovative. “They’ve persevered through much worse than a late frost.” Her advice to all of us: Support them. “Buy local fruit direct from the farm.”

Meanwhile, it’s too soon to tell if we’re going to see major damage in the area, she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Crozet Farmers Market Opens May 6

The Crozet Farmers Market will open on Saturday, May 6, in the grassy field behind the Blue Goose Building on Crozet Avenue.

If you’re a potential vendor, now’s the time to discuss your product, market rules and available space with Market Manager Al Minutolo, 434-823-1092. The cut-off time for new vendors is April 20.

The Crozet Market is an authentic grower and producer market, providing vendors space to sell locally grown produce, homemade baked goods and handcrafted items. Last year, vendors contributed $1,000 to the community by way of a donation to the Crozet United Methodist Church’s Grace Grocery. The grocery serves local families and children, and cash donations are particularly welcome because they add to the amount available for the purchase of food at the Food Bank. Often, $1 will buy 8 to12 pounds of food.

The market offers locally grown vegetables, bedding plants, vegetable starts, cut flowers, homemade baked goods, handcrafted jewelry, lotions, local honey and maple syrup, wood crafts and pottery.  

Have your own garden? Bring your questions as well as samples of pests or problem plants, to the Horticulture Help Desk, staffed by volunteer Piedmont Master Gardeners every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the market season.  With their training and access to the Agriculture Extension Service, the staff will answer your questions about plants, pest control, and plant diseases.

Market hours are 8 a.m. to 12 noon every Saturday from May 6 through mid-October.  

Ladybird Farm offers Community Shares

Wildrock now has a resident farmer, and he’s ready to expand the CSA he began last year. Kyle Crawford approaches the idea of community-supported agriculture a little differently from most farmers, allowing his clients a certain amount of choice in their weekly pick-ups.

Kyle Crawford is the farmer at Ladybird Farm, now offering CSA shares. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Crawford spoke about his farming philosophy at a recent gathering of the “Plant-based Crozet” group, which meets each month to learn about nutrition from growers, doctors and dietitians. He’s been a working farmer for about ten years, after graduating from the University of Maryland with a horticulture degree. His experience is with small-scale organic vegetable farms in Maryland and Virginia, which also included managing chickens, pigs, sheep and goats. 

Without the assistance of animal manure at Wildrock’s Ladybird Farm, Crawford has learned a lot about others ways of building up his soil organically, with careful use of plant compost and cover crops. In his talk, he made a distinction between “soil” and “dirt,” showing slides that showed a lifeless expanse of bare ground compared to a handful of healthy soil, full of roots and microscopic activity. When he cuts a cover crop, he chops in the roots and stalks a bit, but avoids working the soil any more than necessary. He’s had success planting clover in his pathways, creating a heavy stand that keeps down the weeds at the same time it adds nitrogen. The clover bloom brings in pollinators as well. He’s also a fan of buckwheat, which grows fast and attracts pollinators. He’s found he can plant a new crop right in the stubble from the chopped buckwheat.

Crawford has been fascinated with insects for a long time, and has studied them closely to learn the helpful predators that control the caterpillars, beetles and worms that decimate garden crops. In season, his garden is full of ladybugs, toads, assassin bugs and spiders. “For every pest, there’s a predator,” he said.

The Ladybird CSA will deliver to downtown Crozet on Wednesdays, starting in May. For more information, or to join, visit ladybird.farm/csa/.

North Garden Welcomes Albemarle Garden Tour

With woods, pasture, wildflowers, vegetable gardens, pools and courtyards, three North Garden properties are destinations for the annual Albemarle County Garden tour, sponsored by Garden Clubs of Virginia. The date to view these gardens is Sunday, April 15. 

Tillman Garden in North Garden is on the 2023 Albemarle Garden Tour. Submitted

At Tillman Gardens, on the tour for the first time, Mary and Bill Tillman converted a pasture into a grove of native trees, intentionally choosing ones that would thrive in hot dry conditions. Some of the natives they planted are Carolina Silverbell, Franklin Tree and Yellow Buckeye. They’ve also chosen native shrubs and perennials that do well here. A greenhouse provides warmth for citrus trees, and raised beds supply the family with vegetables. A row of blueberry bushes provides enough berries for year-round muffins and pancakes. The Tillmans modeled their barn after an older outbuilding, and used traditional Southern farm cottages as a model for their home. They chose a shady spot for perennials that need only dappled sunlight, and some should be in bloom for the tour: Virginia bluebells; the modest twinleaf, named in honor of Jefferson and used for medicinal purposes; and bellwort, also used for medicine. Besides viewing the gardens, visitors are invited to attend potting and propagating demonstrations at Tillman Gardens. Nature walks will depart from the parking lot here at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

A classic parterre is part of the landscape at Upper Bundoran gardens. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler.

At Upper Bundoran, built in 1952 by Frederic William Scott, Jr., and Elizabeth Pinkerton Scott, you’ll find the sizable legacy of Mrs. Scott, who was an active member of the Albemarle Garden Club. She planted many of the property’s majestic trees, and labeled them with their common and botanical names. The current owners bought the home in 2017, and invite guests to walk through the entrance to the back terrace. A new guest house is connected to the main house by a courtyard with a central fountain and an arbor-covered patio. A French-inspired walled courtyard with a fish pond and espaliered wisteria is one highlight; another is the boxwood parterre, a formal garden with a fountain as the centerpiece. Mature trees include a very large Hackberry that provides abundant food for birds, two mature China Firs, and a Carolina allspice. This is the first time in more than 40 years that Upper Bundoran has been on the tour: The property is awaiting admission to the Smithsonian Archives of gardens. Make sure to sample the complimentary cookies here.

Home Paddocks in North Garden is a stop on this year’s Albemarle Garden Tour. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler

Home Paddocks is on 105 acres a little less than a mile from the south fork of the Hardware River. With south-westerly views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it features formal entrance plantings with a large English-style walled garden in back. This walled garden, inspired by the owners’ 17-year residence in Europe, has gradually transitioned from fruits and edibles to be mainly ornamental. Over the years, landscaping additions were a vegetable and cutting garden, chicken coop, pool, herb garden, and a wildflower garden. The farm has been home to the family, cows, horses, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, a tortoise and a turtle. The owners are Jeanne Marie and Bret Holden. 

This is the Garden Club of Virginia’s 90th annual tour, which includes many Virginia counties, and runs from April 15-22, with the Albemarle tours taking place April 16. Online tickets are on sale at VaGardenWeek.org. Proceeds fund the restoration of historic public gardens and landscapes in Virginia, as well as two research fellowships in landscape architecture. Start the tour at the Albemarle headquarters, 5005 Edge Valley Road in North Garden. Food trucks will be at the headquarters, as will a variety of vendors.

Prices Creeping up for Feeder Calves

Farmers paid top prices for cattle at Staunton Union Stockyards in March, with prices still rising. Travis Funkhouser, stockyard manager, said his Tuesday and Friday sales generally do better than the national average because of the quality of Valley- and Piedmont-raised beef. Grass farmers are taking advantage of the lush spring growth this year and willing to pay a little more at auction with the expectation that the calves will gain a pound or more a day in their fields. Funkhouser said he has a handful of regular buyers at auction who resell the animals to other farmers. 

After the March 31 sale, Funkhouser highlighted one lot of 77 home-raised, thin-fleshed steers that brought $2.51 a pound and another lot of 16 that went for $2.23. Farmers paid top prices for the smaller calves (under 400 lbs.), with one lot of 12 going for $2.63. The stockyard sells mostly feeder calves, with one Tuesday auction a month selling finished animals. 

Averages in the last March sale were $2.49 to $2.80 per pound for steers in the 300- to 400-pound category; $2.05 to $2.20 for heifers in the same range; and $2.10 to $2.69 for bulls. The heavier cattle ranged from $1.58 for 700-800-pound heifers to $2.03 for 600- to 700-pound bulls. Sales in early April will feature cow/calf pairs and bred cows.

Sale results and highlights are featured on Staunton Union Stockyards Facebook page the day after the Tuesday and Friday sales.

Census Deadline Extended

Virginia farmers still have time to be counted in the 2022 Census of Agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). NASS will continue to accept completed census questionnaires through the spring to make sure all farmers are represented in the widely used data. This census takes place every five years, providing information that helps policy makers with decisions about policy, farm and conservation programs, infrastructure and rural development, research, and education.

NASS will follow up with producers through the spring with mailings, phone calls, and personal visits. Farmers are encouraged to complete their census either online at agcounts.usda.gov or by mail as soon as possible. Everyone who received the 2022 questionnaire should complete and return it, even if they are not currently farming.

The results will be released in early 2024. 

To learn more about the Census of Agriculture, visit nass.usda.gov/AgCensus. You’ll also find frequently asked questions, past census data, special study information, and more at the link.

NASS is the federal statistical agency responsible for producing official data about U.S. agriculture and is committed to providing timely, accurate, and useful statistics. 

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