There is no doubt in my mind that full grown pigs are the ugliest animals on the farm. They’ve got stunted snouts, bristly hair, sandpaper-rough skin, flabby haunches, awkwardly pointed mouths… they’re just unattractive. Not only that, but they smell to high heaven and any time you go into their pen they nibble curiously at your shoes, which wouldn’t be so bad except that, without a proper shooing, they’ll quickly develop a taste for leather boots and go for a full on chomp. I can’t even begin to embrace the width of their acoustic production, a category which is rife with sounds as diverse as the throaty grunt and the shrill, intolerable squeal. Even the various titles which we use to refer to them hint at the creatures’ comeliness; pig, hog, boar, sow, etc. They are words that seem to be derived directly from the grunting language of the pigs themselves.

Despite all that, if you asked me to assert which is the cutest animal on the farm, I wouldn’t hesitate to put forward the infant version of this same animal. It may seem strange that a creature can develop from an absolute delight into an unmitigated irritant, but it’s true. For some reason the stubby nose on a piglet is endearing. Their grunts sound almost like giggles. They squeal, but it makes you want to offer protection rather than cover your ears.

We don’t farrow pigs here on the farm. Normally we only raise feeder pigs, meaning they are several weeks or months old when they come to us. One of our sows must have arrived on the farm pregnant because when we went to sort the pigs out a few months ago, we were surprised to find that she was certainly carrying a litter. We made her a cozy nest of hay in one of our mobile shelters and covered the entrance with a tarp to keep out the cold drafts. Sure enough, about two weeks afterward she gave birth to eight of the cutest little creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on. I don’t know exactly what quality it is that makes infants so appealing other than their total need, both physically and emotionally, for protection and provision. Once that obvious need is gone, I find that much of my patience diminishes too. For now though, these guys positively reign in the cuteness department (though Amy and Jamie’s son Levi gives them a run for their money).

It seems little strange to have apples so much on my mind even though apple season is still so far away. Work for the fruit grower certainly comes in spurts, as all of us on the farm discovered with intimacy last Thursday. I mentioned earlier that we are in the process of re-establishing some of the old orchards and increasing our apple production here on the farm. The maintenance of the orchards in the past has been somewhat haphazard and our goal for this project is to develop a more systematic and organized approach to orcharding and to support the overall health of the land through organic and holistic management.

That being said, we have spent a good deal of time up in the orchard this winter. A whole lot more, I’m sure, that most conventional growers might spend on a similar number of trees.

Virginia Beauties and American Golden Russets waiting to be planted

Each young tree requires pea gravel, spread by hand to discourage weeds, compost to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, weeding when the pea gravel doesn’t effectively dampen the weeds, pruning to be sure it grows in such a way as to support the greatest fruit growth, and a second and maybe third application of pea gravel in hopes that the weeds will eventually decide to grow somewhere else (we’ve spread a lot of pea gravel this winter).

Last Thursday we got into a whole new orchard task…planting apple trees! Walker, Jake, and I got started first thing in the morning by attaching a rented drill bit to our bobcat that we used to dig the holes.

Jake gets some instruction from Walker on operating the auger

The bobcat sure made digging 350+ holes a less daunting task

With one person measuring out the proper distance between trees for placement, one manning the machine, and one spreading lime, rock phosphate, and beef bones in the augured holes, we made our way down the rows. (The lime helps increase the soil pH, while the rock phosphate and beef bones add slow releasing phosphorous and calcium, both of which aid in plant growth and nutrient uptake.)

Maciah helps plant some Honey Crisps for the U-pick orchard

We worked quickly but soon realized that, in order to plant the 350-some trees that Jamie had purchased, we were going to have a long day. Jamie came to help around noon and several other neighbors showed up to get their hands dirty and enjoy a sunny day in the orchard. Once all the holes were dug and the minerals put in place, actually planting the trees didn’t take much time. All we had to do was fill the dirt back in around the tree, adding pea gravel around the roots to discourage voles, and then tamp down the earth with our feet to give the trees some stability. When Ann closed up the Farmstore at 5, we were still going at it, so she came up to help. We were feverishly planting trees until almost 7 o’clock when it became too dark to read the labels on the trees.

The boys haul gravel to protect the young tree roots from voles

The only reason that we needed to get all the trees put in on one day was that the forecast for Friday and Saturday was, ‘rain and freezing rain’, a good thing for the young trees once planted, but not good weather to actually be planting in. It was our longest day in a long time but the work was enjoyable and it was certainly a fine day to be out and about. I actually got a little bit sunburned! I guess my winter pastiness was too delicate for the brutal sun of February.

Best,

Sweetbread

I mentioned in an earlier post that my great grandparents came and began farming in Fairview in 1916. That means the 100 year anniversary of Hickory Nut Gap Farm is coming up soon. I’ve been spending some time lately looking back over the old ledgers and notebooks from the farm and reading the letters and journals from the early days. It’s really fascinating to see how the farm has changed, but also what continuities run through the years.

When James and Elizabeth McClure first came to Fairview, they knew very little about farming. They tried their hands at a variety of ventures, some of which turned out to be quite successful while others were more work than they were worth. Through the nearly 100 years of the farm, growing apples is one of the strongest themes that is still a part of our production today.  When the McClures first arrived, there were almost 50 acres of apples that the former tenant, Judge Phillips, had tended somewhat erratically. There were over 2500 bearing trees! We don’t have nearly so many now, but we are working to revamp our apple production in the next few years.

Last weekend I went down to Greensboro with Jamie and Jake to attend the Young Farmers and Ranchers convention there. On Saturday we snuck out of one of the information sessions and drove the  farm truck up to Rockingham County to the Century Farm Orchards to pick up a load of new apple trees. David Vernon runs the place and he works hard to preserve many of the Southern heirloom varieties of apples which have been largely forgotten. Most grocery stores carry five or six varieties of apples: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji… There are a few others that show up here and there and some new ones that are turning heads, like the outrageously fashionable Honey Crisp. David sells trees that most people have only heard their parents or grandparents talk about. They don’t have the marketable names that their more recently developed counterparts do. They go by titles like Arkansas Black, Magnum Bonum, Carolina Red June, Newton Pippin, and Red Rebel. It’s exciting to me to be revitalizing our old orchards with the same kinds of apples that my great grandparents grew here in the 1900’s.  It will take a few years before our trees are ready to bear fruit, but it’s nice to be investing labor into a project with such long term yields.

The apples, beyond the fruit they provide, also lend so much beauty to the farm. My great grandmother was an artist and a brilliant writer. She loved the orchards because they were exquisite in all seasons. In one of her letters to my grandmother, who was away at college, she describes the farm and the orchards in early winter:

The distant peaks are a marvelous, pale smoky blue and there is that indescribable smell in the air—old, dry leaves, rhododendron roots, and the electric magic that belongs to the Carolina mountains. The old apple trees have dropped all their leaves and are a soft, smoky gray. The hundreds of little twigs look almost like a soft, gray mist—so beautiful with the orange and red and gold all around them.

Wishing you beauty even in this bleak month of February,

Sweetbread

In order to understand the workings of Hickory Nut Gap Farm it is, first and foremost, important to meet the crew:

Jamie and Amy are the founders and co-owners of the farm. They have been making this whole thing work since 2000, when they picked up what was then a confusion of endeavors, and began to solidify and realize a new vision for the farm. They have three boys, Cyrus, Nolin, and Levi, and an unbelievable amount of energy and enthusiasm. Any task they have to do for the farm, I’ve seen them master with a wriggling infant in one arm. Amy deals with marketing, company finances, insurance, bookkeeping, and some of the more technical needs of the business. Jamie is a visionary and a mover. He’s always getting fired up for the next project, the next idea, and he has the persistence and drive to follow through (most of the time).

Often, Jamie and Amy are occupied dealing with the business side of things, so Walker Sides is the Farm Manager (that’s a new title for him woot woot!). Walker is an ingenious fellow with oodles of common sense and a clear-headed nature. He’s a good guy to work for not only because he knows so much about the farm, but also because he is willing to jump in and get his hands dirty no matter what the task may be.  He’s got a wry sense of humor and loves to find fun in his work.

My favorite story about Walker is that once, when a salesman called him to try and sell a home security system, Walker told the guy he already had one. The salesman asked what company was the provider and Walker answered, “Marlin”.

“Marlin?”, asked the salesman, “I’ve never heard of them before”.

“Yeah”, Walker replied, “that’s the company that made my shotgun, that’s the only home security I need”, and promptly hung up.

Ann Araps is the Retail Manager and does most of the work pertaining to the Farmstore. She is very small, very blonde, very energetic, and undoubtedly one of the most capable people I’ve ever met. Our customers love Ann. Quite literally. I think there are a number of regulars who come all the way out to Fairview just to see her, forget about buying meat. When I’m working in the store and someone calls, they almost invariably ask for Ann. If I tell them she’s taking lunch and that I can take a message for her, they usually just say, “No thanks, I’ll call back later”.  Somehow she makes customers feel they’re getting a special deal that only she can provide for them. I’m not sure how she does it. Her undaunted positivity is infectious and makes people feel good about themselves and their choices.

Jake Buchanon (pr. ‘Buck-an-an’ not ‘Byookanon’) is the intern this year from Sylva, NC. He graduated from Western Carolina last May and is in basically the same situation as me; farming because he needed to spend his days outside after four years of musty libraries and mustier history books. Jake’s a good ol’ boy, a true Western Carolinian who loves bear hunting, drinking Bud Heavy, and playing baseball. He just stopped smoking cigarettes, but habits like that die hard, so he’s taken to popping dum dums whenever he gets the craving for nicotine. It’s working for him so far but it is a little comical to see him walk off to strike the distant-eyed smoker’s pose and then whip out a sucker instead of a pack of smokes.

Jake loves to talk. He loves to talk about politics, religion, tradition, family, literature, you name it. He really loves to talk about history and if you get him started on the Civil War, you’re in for a longer conversation than you may have bargained for. His gregariousness is a great quality when it comes to the more repetitive tasks on the farm like weeding berries or mulching apple trees. In fact, we have designated a certain term for the odd conversation topics that crop up because of those mind-numbing activities: ‘orchard talk’. Jake is a phenomenal orchard talker and I feel like I’ve gotten to know him pretty well because we are often paired together for long stints up in the apple trees or out on Berry Hill.

Steve Howard is the wholesale manager and the resident Bostonian on the farm. He’s got a sharp sense of humor and an even sharper business sense that doesn’t tolerate too much rambunctiousness. Dealing with restaurants is not an easy line but Steve is good at buddying up with the chefs and making sure that everyone gets what they want and all the bills get paid. I’ve had to pack the deliveries with him in the past and it’s no easy task. Not only can you not forget any of the restaurant orders, all the boxes have to be labeled correctly and properly noted with the product and exact weight included. He is meticulous with regards to the details, and that makes him good at his job. Steve loves to talk about growing up in Boston and the rest of the crew members joke that we could get a number of people in a lot of trouble because he always remembers the first and last names and the addresses of the characters from his youth.

Kat Johnson works part-time in the farmstore but is planning to move to Virginia in the spring to work on another farm. She’s an amazing painter/potter/visual artist/clothing designer.  She has redone a good portion of our apple signs and made the most beautiful painting of an apple life cycle that I’ve ever seen. Kat has spent her time on the farm living in the little shack by the creek with Jake. Her room, which we spent several weeks reclaiming from tangles of poison ivy vines, probably never gets warmer than 60 degrees because its so poorly insulated. She also had to put up with a string of unclaimed black cats coming to the shack and whining to be fed. I’m not sure exactly what relationship she had with the cats, but they always seem to be hanging around the house and I’m fairly certain Jake wouldn’t feed them if even if he had scraps he didn’t want. Kat is quirky and fun and we’ll all be sad to see her go in April.

This is the crew, as concisely as I can present it, anyways. I feel like I’ve left out too much, but that’s probably inevitable when real people are the object of reflection. I hope that at least this provides a glimpse at what the people on the farm are like and what to expect when you come out and visit!

Working on a small farm is a continuous lesson in the complete and unreserved ability to change priorities without a second thought. Some days we set out with a singular goal in mind, one which we’ve been planning for weeks, and then we get a call that the pigs are out or Jamie has a vision for some new project that no one has contemplated before and that idea becomes the singular focus of the ensuing weeks or months even. As a recent college graduate this environment of flexibility is absolutely refreshing. After four years (really sixteen years if we go all the way back to the beginning) of having rigid schedules set years in advance and invariably marked out on the school calendar with no thought for spontaneity, the freedom to address only the most pressing problems as they arise is wonderful.    Alright, public school is not so inflexible as all that, and farming should not be idealized as a carefree or whimsical occupation. Sometimes the newest exploit isn’t exciting. Entire days are literally spent shoveling manure or mucking through pastures or crashing through thickets of multiflora rose, grapevines, and privet to pull out old barbed wire. There are plenty of mundane, uninspiring tasks, plenty of thoughtless physical jobs, plenty of cold mornings when the thought of bed and a hot breakfast is much more enticing than the frost covered seat of the tractor, but, even still, there is a freedom in the work that, for me, lends inspiration even to the least inspiring task. I am never completely certain how the next hour will be spent or what small new adventure is waiting to unfold.

Our special little Black Angus mix can’t see out of his left eye very well so he holds his head as if he’s deliberately trying to ignore you

This morning as I was getting ready to feed the pigs Ann called with the news that the cows were out. We hauled most of the herd down to Rutherfordton yesterday to overwinter and the only ones we left in Fairview were the male Holsteins, the bull, and a unique little Black Angus mix calf.  Holsteins are milking cows. We buy a few males every year for the agritourism season in the fall because they are cute calves and they’re cheap and they look like your average person’s idea of a cow (probably something to do with the black spots). Neighbors and farm families usually raise these calves for meat, but they’re not ideally suited for that purpose so we don’t normally keep them with our herd. What with being bottlefed for several months and having to put up with screaming elementary schoolers nearly every day, they become unafraid of human contact and subsequently they are some of the most difficult animals on the farm to herd. This morning they simply refused to let Ann and me direct them back into the pasture. It was a strange dynamic between the black angus mix, who couldn’t seem to understand what we were doing flapping our arms at him, the Holsteins who clearly thought we were playing some strange and ridiculous game with them, and the bull, who just plain didn’t care what we were doing, as long as he could continue to eat in peace. You just can’t push a bull too hard. You might suggest he move in one direction, but if he doesn’t want to go, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Frankly, I’m surprised that he hasn’t just crushed one of the Holsteins for nudging him with their horns the way they do. It took us nearly half an hour to move the outlandish little herd only fifty feet, but Ann and I were able to get all the animals back into the pasture without riling anyone up too badly, except maybe for some of the neighbors on Ambiance Way. I guess you can’t please everyone.
salutations,

Sweetbread

Our bull isn’t enormous as far as bulls go but look at those shoulder muscles! He doesn’t quite know what to think of this strange little Holstein calf.

 

Well, the New Year seems determined to start off with the same wet, chilly weather and unflagging resolve not to snow with which the last one ended. I’ve been hoping for a good cold winter since June but in the mountains of Western North Carolina you just never know. It was so warm and wet last week that, while Walker and I were sawing up a fallen oak for firewood, we found a big stash of wild oyster mushrooms growing out of the rotten wood. Oysters are a cool-weather variety, but it was a shock to see them thriving in late December. In the fall we grow them in specially designated mushroom logs, but ours were never as big or healthy as these wild ones.

I was in Chapel Hill recently and, while taking a walk through one of the parks, I noticed a group of people huddled off the path in the woods. As I passed them, I noticed they were picking mushrooms from some of the fallen trees. I’m not sure what type they were, but I was impressed that, even in a city, you can forage for food. If you know where to look, that is.

I’m no expert on wild mushrooms and what I do know all comes from Walker. Basically I trust his judgment enough that if he says they’re safe to eat, I’ll let him try them first and then I’ll give them a go. By now I can recognize some of the more common varieties and the tastier edibles. I brought some of the oysters we found over to my parent’s house for dinner that night. Mom sautéed them in butter with some onion and a little white wine—they were extraordinary. Paired with some hearty chicken stew and mom’s homemade molasses oatmeal bread, it was a dinner fit for kings…or farmers. People are so cautious of wild mushrooms these days but the reality is that most of the edible kinds are readily recognizable. I don’t know how the mushroom section in our grocery stores has been monopolized by the small white button mushrooms, but it seems a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love the buttons, (I also learned recently that button mushrooms are the baby form of Portobellos, who knew?!)  I just think there is room for a little more variety in the fungus section at Ingles.

Until this summer I thought that mushroom cultivation was some kind of highly technical procedure of the sort that only stubborn hippies from the 60’s were into (The ones who needed to support themselves but couldn’t bear the idea of conventional work or needed an excuse to grow the psychedelic shrooms without causing a row), but it’s not. We grow several varieties one the farm, when weather permits, in old logs which were specially cut for the purpose. You can buy mushroom mycelium online and then it’s a simple process to cut and prepare the logs. Once the mycelium is introduced you can even force the mushrooms to grow by soaking the logs in water to emulate wet weather. It’s almost comical to walk up in the woods behind the farmstore to find rows of logs laden with shitakes or shimajis sprouting awkwardly from every available surface. I encourage you to go out and try some new kinds of mushrooms. Don’t be cowed by the epicurean haughtiness that surrounds them. Just heat up some butter in a frying pan and sauté them until they darken and become soft.  They go really well with beef, but can make a good match for any kind of meat.

If you look out under oak trees
Or around an old pine stump
You’ll know a mushroom’s coming
By the way the leaves are humped

They send out multiple fibers
Through the roots and sod
Some make you mighty sick they say
Or bring you close to God

So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.

–from The Wild Mushroom by Gary Snider

Cheers,

Sweetbread

I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and, like so many of my classmates, I found myself weighted down by an indefinable dread at the thought of what was next. I wasn’t afraid applying for a job, or finding a place to live, or even beginning to pay my own bills. Those things were concrete. I knew that they would begin to fall into place as I moved forward. No, my real fear stemmed not from inexperience, but from indecision. For so many years my path had been clearly laid out in front of me and now, without regard for academic success or extracurricular participation, life stopped handing me my goals and said, “ok, now you decide”. It was like hiking on a narrow trail for miles with very few forks to choose from and then suddenly the path disappears in a thicket and anything further can only be accomplished by bush-whacking.

When my cousins Jamie and Amy Ager offered me a job helping out on the farm for the busy fall season, I jumped at the chance. Not only did I need direction, I was aching to get my hands dirty, to spend my days outdoors, and to acquire some skills beyond those peculiar academic qualities I’d nurtured for so long. I was a little concerned that moving back home and working on the family farm would be stifling. Unlike so many people who can’t wait to get out of their home town and away from their parents though, I feel blessed to live in a place like Fairview, surrounded by an interesting, loving, and exuberant family. This blog is my chance to give a little glimpse of what our conjunction of land, history, and family looks like—to me, at least. With all my talk of direction, this may seem like moving backwards and maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel that way. Someone told me once that history is not what just what happened, it’s who we are. In a sense, my writing here will be a journal of work on the farm, exploring the history of the land, and getting to know my family members as an adult; all things that I’m confident will help me to understand how I should move forward and where it is I want to go.  I hope that these entries are interesting not just for the stories that I will recount, but also for the learning process that is already taking place and which I will share as best I can, with you.