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A Christmas Story at HNG Farm

There was a moment today at the farm store inspired by a woman who is staying nearby, that stopped in to shop for food and gifts. She hasn’t been together with her entire family for 20 years but this year they overcame the insurmountable logistical task and are having Christmas in Fairview. It could be said that six busy months of long days in the farm store may leave one exhausted and ready to hide from the general public for a few days but today I felt renewed as we witnessed the spirit of giving in a way I have never experienced before. It happened among strangers and despite the warm, humid December 23rd weather, we all had chills and tears.

It started like this: one of about 60 special orders we cut at the butchery this week was brought to the register, erroneously the wrong name had been heard and therefore the wrong order had made it way to the counter. Jokingly, the customer said to the person behind him that she could pay for that order, a six rib standing rib roast. The seed was planted and while our employee was ringing him up the person in line behind him said silently to the employee that she wanted to pay for the man’s pork crown roast which was being brought out at that time. The total was much less than he anticipated and he asked if everything was rung up correctly. Our employee told him “yes, sir, it was the woman in line behind you, she just paid for your crown roast.” He was in awe and not sure how to respond but then suddenly the two began hugging and crying. This was an amazing, unnecessary and kind act between two complete strangers.

Our farm store is only about 20×40 downstairs, and at that moment we had a rush, so the kind act did not go unnoticed but what happened next was even more unexpected. The gentleman declared he was going to pay for the next person and as the customers in the store gathered their last minute sausage, eggs, and handmade gifts for the holidays each person paid for the person in front of them. The generosity continued and it went on and on for about 20 minutes worth of transactions.

At last, there was a woman waiting to be rung up because she wanted to cover the order for next customer yet at that moment no one was ready to check out. However while she was opening the door for a man with crutches another person stepped in and offered to pay for her order! She was moved to tears and exclaimed that he had no way of knowing how much this meant , as the pork shank she had ordered was for a traditional Mexican dish called posole which was being prepared for her mother, who worked as a translator, to share with some of her clients on Christmas Eve. So this act would indeed benefit many more than just her.

She eventually had to go but left $30 on the counter. The next person, only purchasing $23 worth of goods went home on their merry way having their order paid for and an early Christmas present. The $7 that was remaining was put towards the next customers order who happened to be the person who actually did order the rib roast [originally brought to the counter the first time this happened] and with impeccable timing the brother of the first generous customer who started this entire line of giving came down from shopping upstairs and declared he would cover the rest of the order and so it came full circle!

By this point in time we were all feeling the love and noticing what we as humans can do for each other. I can’t help but wonder was it the season, the love of a family finally being together, or the space that is created for all of us this time of year, that allowed us to remember who we can be to each other. It was amazing to see people share in the good times, support one another through the hard times and give to another person a connectedness that isn’t always apparent in every day life. I hope this story will be told to the loved ones of the people who witnessed this moment today and that there will be acts of kindness and love that will grow exponentially because of her gift. Thank you to this beautiful soul who made today the most memorable day of the season and prepared our spirits for Christmas.

 

From the Farm Front

Last night I sat on the porch while the third rainstorm of the day came up the valley my way and I watched the lightening bugs in the forest and couldn’t help but wonder what soundtrack they were dancing to, if there was was one to hear. Summer has arrived on the farm and what lies ahead in the next few months needs a soundtrack to dance to. The dance has many people, but I don’t envision that its a typical Fairview square dance where you can’t quite hear the caller and your next step will likely end up on someones toes in effort to keep the line moving in the right direction. No, it sounds more like the thunder and the applause of the rain, loud and heavy storms coming my way before I can gather my things, bring in the comforter from the clothesline and head for the house.

The past two nights Granny Annie has joined us for dinner. With John in Raleigh most weeknights and Jamie visiting accounts in Hickory and Charlotte this week we have had some not so organized impromptu dinners. I cooked the boys favorite Pasta Roberto and we had spicy greens and peas from the garden two nights ago. When I got home from picking up Cyrus and Nolin from their afterschool fun yesterday I found, that our proud fisherman Levi, had caught a 16″ large mouth bass from the pond with Granny Annie, which she was sauteing in the pan for dinner. We coupled this with mashed potatoes (Cyrus’ dinner request) and an egg casserole with kale and cilantro also from the garden bounty. Not exactly a well put together dinner, but substance nonetheless, and a chance to sit for 20 minutes that was welcome at the end of a long day.

Levi is in his last week of preschool, my baby is heading to kindergarden after this summer break, and he is so ready. My hope for him is that he doesn’t enter this new school year with another cast on his arm. Two major breaks and six casts later he has the resilience and tolerance of no person I have ever met as he still attempts life with gusto. Nolin played his first Capture the Hoops game today, an Evergreen tradition for third graders, which he will be rising to next year. He also celebrated the joys of two months of ukelele lessons and made $8 busking at the inaugural Fairview Farmers Market at the elementary school over the weekend. Cyrus will be in middle school next year its still hard to believe! He and his cousin Anne were the first buskers at HNG making their ice cream and root beer money playing at the farm store while jamming away on bluegrass songs for our customers. It’s hard to believe that these children I carried in the sling while giving farm tours to preschoolers seven years ago are growing up into the wonderful young people that they have become.  nolinonuke

But the boys aren’t the only thing growing around here:

1. The blueberries are ready for picking and we are opening the upick today. This marks the beginning of berry season with black raspberries and blackberries to quickly follow.

2. I made my first solo appearance on the cover of a magazine. Farm Bureau’s Field and Family wrote a nice article about the farm and our berries. This all was prepared last year at this time which might has well been a lifetime ago because when my friend Sam called to tell me about it, it took a minute to remember that day even happened. fieldandfamilywsam

3. The kitchen and butchery is coming along. The roof is on and we are diligently making all the fun decisions like where to put electrical outlets and light switches. It’s going to be so great when we can serve you food, cut our own meat, create awesome sausages, make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and offer cooking classes over the winter.

4. We just launched our first ever (can you say step outside of your box Amy) crowdfunding campaign on Barnraiser. Get this, we are trying to raise $25K in 30 days. So far we are on our way with 52 awesome supporters donating for some great gifts to total $5785! If you want to be a part of this project and show your love by backing it you can do so here. All this support keeps us going and fuels our enthusiasm for this bear of a project. The benefits to the community we hope will spread far and wide once we open, fingers crossed, in August.

kitchen smokerview [Check out the smoker location back center wall!]

5. Saturday, June 20th we will bring in the official summer season with an Open House: Kitchen and Farm Tour. Burgers and hot dogs will be served between 11-1, with all donations going to our Barnraiser Project. Tours will be given at 10am and 2pm on Saturday. The culvert slides, baby chicks, pigs and creek will be ready for the kiddos to come play. See you there?

6. HNGF Camp will be held in the Big Barn behind the Farm Store so the farm will be alive with lots of children enjoying art, drama, and riding horses over the next five weeks. But don’t worry we have plenty of room for other visitors during that time as well!

We hope you are as excited about the transition from spring to summer as we are and that you will come to the farm to celebrate with us and catch us up on your lives too. The chance to make this land and this business into a place for our community to enjoy has been one we are thankful for and you are the reason we are still going.

Cheers to whats ahead in food, family and community.

amyandjamiecatawbadinner

 

Elle Early Appreciation Day

Elle Early and Grace McAbee
Elle Early and Grace McAbee

As a family business passes through generations of management the culture of the family business  also shifts appropriately.  At the turn of the century things at the farm experienced a change of guard in its own right.

There is a strong oral history in this family telling of the times when Jim, Susie, Annie, Billy, Bobo, Dumont, Mark, and Doug were being raised by Jamie and Elspeth which involves stories about the people that were helping to run HNG from the 1920s through 2000. Most of the employees were local Appalachian people who knew and experienced homesteading as the way things were, out of necessity. Growing a large garden, canning and putting food by, chicken killing day, hog butchering, curing hams, milking cows, picking apples, growing corn and tobacco and feeding a large farm crew each day were some of the tasks getting done. The stories about these folks who made life tick at HNGF are told to our children near bedtime by their grandmother, Granny Annie who reminisces about life during those times and keeps the memories alive.

Nanny
Nanny
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Clinnard

 

Ruth Suttles
Ruth Suttles

I came to HNGF young, idealistic and in love in the year 2000. There were a few of these folks still around when I came to dwell in the Spring House Cottage behind the Big House. Grace, Clarence and Elle Early were some of the teachers of my early learning at the farm. I particularly took to Elle Early and her fierce spirit which true to her name got her out of bed and on the phone by 7:00 to arrange her transportation to work that day. Jamie and I ate breakfast with Granny (Elspeth) in the mornings and one of us usually took Elle home while Annie Ager, who was also up at ’em early, would usually swing by to pick her up and bring her in to work. A usual suspect on the menu at Big House breakfast were fried eggs as there were usually plenty of cracks from egg washing the day before. Granny liked her eggs more on the hard side as she didn’t like “Ager eggs” particularly which tended to be runny. The three of us spent alot of mornings eating together. Jamie and I listening to the long list of things Granny was going to accomplish-people to see and care for, meetings she was to attend and what she was leaving for Elle to get done that day.

Grace McAbee and Elle Early worked at the Big House, mostly on different days as they weren’t the best of friends; doing house keeping, getting flowers for the table, washing eggs, cooking lunch, harvesting and canning the garden bounty and working the apple stand when needed.

Grace was Clarence’s mother. She married at 13 and raised her family of 6 in a one room cabin with a loft just up the road from the farm. Her son Clarence has been a fixture at the farm for nearly 30 years and he still helps with the laying hens and taking care of the Big House repairs. Grace shared pickle recipes with me and taught me how to make apple butter and raspberry jam. She showed me that mayo and yogurt can be substituted in your cornbread and taught me how to feed a crew of twelve people for lunch multiple times a week.

Elle grew up in what used to be the heart of Fairview near Church Rd and walked to the old Fairview School, as she put it, each day. At the time when I first met Elle Early (cursive captial L as she signed her name) was in her mid eighties. On breaks between ironing and cleaning out the fridge you could find her drinking a Pepsi she had been cooling in the fridge that morning and smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette. She had a knack for telling you what she thought and more than a few young, long haired men got a good talking to for the length of their hair and how they should cut it, less they wanted to be mistaken for a girl. Her sense of humor and wit were something I always appreciated as she would catch you off guard if you weren’t quite listening with a good jab or joke aimed at something happening in the kitchen that day. We got to know each other over the years and she would invite me in to thank me for the ride with a piece of pound cake or a cutting from a plant she was growing that I was instructed to take and plant right when I got home. We often walked her gardens, talked about how things were growing and I’d water her plants for her as she put away the groceries we had just bought.

Elle was as fierce in personality and in her thriftiness. I have been by her side when she returned a black Sharpie marker that had dried out and demanded her money back at Food Lion as well as intimidating the sales associate into giving her the discount on Puffs tissue even though the coupon was for Kleenex. She shopped at Ingles as that was the only grocery store near Fairview for a good while but refused to buy Laura Lynn brand anything because she “never like anything that woman made.”

She passed away at age 96 but I still have two sweaters she thought I might like because they were really good to keep a person warm as well as a blanket she crocheted for Cyrus which she gifted us on her first visit to meet him a week after he was born. I reveled at the fact that she made this and the effort put into it because at the time she must of been nearly blind.

During the spring as I drive past her old house on the way to town I always feel a longing to walk her garden to see whats coming up and help her with the little things around the house but as time has passed so has her era. If she was still around I sure could use her energy and gusto at the farm as I know she would keep us all in line. When I’m in my eighties I hope to embody her abilities and appreciation for work well done when I am on that side of life at HNGF.

The Man Behind Hobson Dobson

So there is a city, far far away, where a man named Hobson Dobson lives. Hobson Dobson has super human abilities. He can save people when they are in danger, he can fight the bad guys and do pretty much anything a four year old can imagine whose daily mode of operation was keep up with his big brothers abilities. Hobson Dobson came in to our lives via the vivid imagination of our youngest and his best friend and cousin Hythe.

Hythe’s mother comes from Elizabeth City and I am from Louisville. His mother and I often go back home to visit our families, at least four times a year in fact, so one day when the little boys were talking about their upcoming travel plans it made sense to Levi that he should have a city too, just like Hythe’s Elizabeth City.

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Well Levi’s city, as it became known in our family, was a magical place where all things can be done. If Jamie and I were having a conversation about a challenge on the farm Levi would always be able to solve our problem with a story from his city. When we pursued a line of questioning to learn more about his city (at the time I was pretty interested in relocating there) we found out there was a man named Hobson Dobson who lived there too. Hobson Dobson had a dog named the sound “kheec” and together they were all a spectacular bunch working with superhuman powers to accomplish all things a lively four year old wishes he could do in a day without the handicap of size, strength or age holding him back.

Conversations in the morning while we are feeding the kids breakfast and working out logistics on efficiently driving to and from town each day, often involve discussions about how other farmers are making their cattle business work, when we are taking a load to a different farm to custom graze or how many animals are coming back from the processor that day. As many of you know anytime the adults are talking the little ones are always listening.

One of our long time farmer friends and collaborators is Sam Dobson. We met Sam at a Young Farmer and Rancher Event hosted by Farm Bureau back in 2005. He is the most outgoing dairy farmer I’ve ever met. That day he had on a suit complete with a Holstein tie but the other 364 days of the year you will find Sam in jeans and an old t-shirt milking his organic cows in Iredell County twice a day. In between milkings he feeds, works the fields planting and harvesting alfalfa, and cover cropping clover and triticale for his dairy cows. Sam also manages a beef herd which he cares for daily, moving their break fences as well as fences for our calves which he custom grazes. Sam’s land was deeded to his family by the queen, and they have been a thriving farm ever since. Four generations still have a presence at the farm including his grandmother, his parents and his wife Sherry and son Chase.

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Sam has always grazed his dairy cows because it was the best way to keep up the health of his animals and their milk production balanced with cost and efficiencies. Lucky for us Sam Dobson figured this out just about the same time our business was growing so fast that we could no longer supply our wholesale customers with meat from animals grown on our own leased 290 acres. Sam had a know how, the equipment, and the land base available to finish steers consistently on 100% grass. Over the last ten year he has become a key partner in Hickory Nut Gap Meats production and forage chain supply. He is also plays the role of Livestock Coordinator and Consultant for the dozen other farmers who grow beef for our program.

He is passing along his farming and business acumen to his eight year old son as well. When we stopped by yesterday on our way back from a farming panel discussion in Virginia we found Chase out back taking care of his organic laying hens. He came to his dad last week announcing that he was looking for about four $10 investors to help pay the grain costs until his chickens started laying. The return on investment once they started laying is 2 dozen eggs. After admiring Chase’s operation and set up Jamie pulled a ten dollar bill from his wallet and gave it to Chase. He glowed and so did his mom and dad while we did some calculations about how much revenue he was looking at once he opened the farm stand to sell the eggs.

As far as I’m concerned I think Levi hit the nail on the head. Hobson Dobson is alive and well in the big city of 2000 acres called Dobson Farm. The only thing he missed was the dog’s name which is Freckles not Kheec.

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Can the Bull Come Inside?

Our house is nestled on a slope about 8 feet below a split rail fence. Right now all the lady cows are in Rutherford County finishing up the stockpiled grass from the farm we lease down there and the two bulls are grazing in the Chamomile Field which borders our yard. The bulls seem to get along with each other just fine since there aren’t any cute cows to show off for. The trees along the fence line help to keep their spirits up as it shields them from the rainy weather we’ve had recently.

It’s been a wet couple of weeks mostly marked by mud on our boots, red clay paths throughout the farm store, and the gnawing need to pour the concrete pad for the kitchen we are building at the farm. We try to wait patiently for the rain to stop, long enough to make mopping a worthwhile endeavor and to check for a forecast that suggests we might get something done in the near future. We overcame the urge to be productive one day last week and instead cuddled on the couch watching basketball and those hilarious Capital One and VW Passat commercials while discussing that the next feasible day to pour the pad would be in a week. So we would just have to wait regardless of what the google calendar plan I put together last week indicated. I am from Louisville, KY and Jamie’s from NC so basketball is something that both he, the kids and I do together during the month of March. It wasn’t SO bad to have to wait out the weather I guess. (Note: UL plays NC State on Friday night. Go CARDS!)

But while my mind was being swept away in basketball and how my bracket was performing, I kept having this unsettled sense that I was being watched. As I turned my head, slowly mind you, to see what could be out there, the bull- all 1500 lbs of him- was intently leaning over the split rail watching us through the bay window as if he wanted to come in to get warm and dry by the woodstove too! I looked at Nolin and said, ” Look, I think the bull wants to come inside.” He walked over to the door and said, “ok,” gauging my reaction and teasing me by turning the sticky handle of the door threatening to call the bull “co-um, cuu-uum”.  Levi got on board with the idea and we considered where the bull might sit that Sunday afternoon and which team he would be pulling for. Par for the course with a discussion between two boys, ages 8 and 5, the question was also entertained, “what if he poops and pees in the house mom?” “That would be a disaster boys! [consider mopping that up I think] “lets just let him stay where he is, how about that?”

bull

He’s there at the top of the pasture nearly every morning while we are getting ready for school. Maybe he appreciates the general chaos our household embodies ranging from indoor Nerf wars to celebratory win wrestling matches. (see below) I hope our family of five provides those two bulls with ample entertainment and peaks their curiosity about humans in general. I remember a time when it was final exam week at Warren Wilson and I was splitting my time between studying, two jobs, my friends and a functional amount of sleep, I would often drive back onto campus and pass the cows in the field wishing that I had a cows life of leisure. Some of those lady cows were nearing 10 years old at that point seeing them hanging out on Dogwood all day grazing and socializing spawned a jealously within.  Free time was such a luxury in college and at times still is, but in that moment when my husband was home, my kids were all together and the game was on, I was happy to be on inside the looking out and even happier that the bull was on his side of the fence and not in my living room!

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What ARE We Doing?

Jamie and I often ask this of each other when we are up in the middle of the night catching up on all the things we weren’t able to touch base about that day, taking advantage of the rare quietness in our house while the children are sleeping. The answers could be running two businesses, giving attention to our marriage, raising three boys, driving to basketball and soccer games, or building a kitchen at the farm. It could be gaining more gray hair and lines around the eyes, spending Sunday afternoons working on budgets and cash flow projections, loading pigs, or walking the farm waiting for the grass to grow. Or perhaps if we choose to take a long term scope, we may say to each other, building a grassfed beef and pastured pork brand, developing a regional production model of grass finishing that works in the Appalachian mountain region, raising food that people can trust, creating opportunities for young people in agriculture, serving our customers, and all in all trying to make things work, everyday, holding the pieces together- all of them, all of the time.

We are entrepreneurs, we are farmers, and we are a family. We are putting it all on the line because we think that taking the risk to build our family business is worth it, and we think based on what’s happened so far that you all will like it and that you will come here and to shop, play, and enjoy our farm as much as we do.   We want to create an atmosphere that’s intriguing and inviting — a place to hold your child’s birthday party, a wedding reception, your family reunion, where we will feed you meat raised on our farm, cooked in our kitchen, served by our dedicated staff who treat our business as if it were their own. We want you to think of HNG when you have a free afternoon with your children and you want to show them where their food comes from, what a farm feels like and while you hold their hand walking in the orchard share with them your own memories of your family farm when you worked alongside your grandfather as a child.

Jamie likes to say our mouth just isn’t big enough for the bite we are trying to take. Some days it does seem we are trying to down a half pound cheeseburger with all the fixins on a big sesame seed bun but if you sprinkle that with two days of big opportunities launched and task list accomplished you can, well, sleep at night.

The launch of our new website comes at another turning point as we have now, without realizing it really, arrived at our 15 year plan. This is why we ask ourselves what ARE we doing and how did this happen?  We spend our centered moments thinking through the best way to launch the next piece of our vision for Hickory Nut Gap Farm, Hickory Nut Gap Meats, and our family’s future.

We have plenty of ideas, believe me! There was a point in 2009 when our third son was born that I put a moratorium on new ideas, it became mandatory to only work on the things we had in motion and not add any more to our plate. However, now Levi is 5, Nolin 8, Cyrus 10, and we are gaining some space. They are helping out and interested in what’s next on the farm, and frankly, it’s so cool that they are because I can picture myself working next to my sons in the coming years and feeling so proud of them — that they care and that they may want to be a part of the movement too and that soon they will be the ones with a million ideas.

The next 15 years will be the second phase of raising our children, of our marriage, and of our business. I hope that we have spent our working hours so far laying a foundation that will carry our family and our vision to a place that serves our community what it needs to thrive.

Amy Ager

 

Direction

Repetition.

In farming we learn by repeating a process. Over and over and over again. We pay attention, we try to improve, we do the best we can with the time we have but the reality is that we never really reach perfection. There is always a more productive way to prune the berries, an easier way to move the pigs, a cleaner method of bedding the chicks…

We are constantly learning and trying to change based on experience and observation. We are constantly trying to become better farmers. And that process doesn’t end. That is an exciting part of farm work for me.

There’s always more to know. From visions of future building projects, all the way down to the biology of fungi in the orchard, I think I have learned something new every day that I’ve been working here at Hickory Nut Gap. My last day of work is Friday. My fiance and I are moving back to Chapel Hill where she will begin grad school and I will find a job doing…something. Now that my stint on the farm is almost over, I feel it is a good time to look back to the beginning.

I began writing this blog with a post on direction. I’ve thought on that theme quite a bit during my time here and I can’t say that I’ve come to any definitive answers on the topic. I have begun to realize that life doesn’t run in a straight line. It’s more like— a pig in an unfenced pasture. He can’t always see what’s beyond the next hill, but he will move from one good and interesting thing to the next and be perfectly content with ambling slowly along, rooting at whatever comes his way.

So maybe life has a little more direction and focused action than that. But it’s the contentedness that I think is admirable. Hickory Nut Gap is moving purposefully into the future, but, as a farm, there will always be new projects that crop up, unforeseen and unasked for. Those are usually the most fun, though. Or at least they are the projects where we learn the most.

I think it works the same way on an individual level, for me, anyways. I know certain things about the future and other things I am still figuring out. I’ve learned to accept that and to have a little patience during the trial and error period. Life is a series of trials and errors (mostly errors it seems at times), but that is how we move forward. I know that farming or gardening or working the land will always be part of what I do. I know that I want to be a good steward of the earth, I want to eat good food, I want to be a part of community. The details—those are up in the air.

Best,

Sweetbread

I Wish I Had Paid More Attention in Science Class

When I was a little kid I loved the Young Explorer version of National Geographic.  I loved the science shows like Kratt’s Creatures and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I loved learning about animals and plants and how they work. I would spend hours digging in the creek behind our house looking for salamanders, snails, and crawfish. Though I didn’t really know it at the time, I was conducting a scientific experiment when I took a toad out of the spring house and tried to raise him in a jar in my room by feeding him flowers.

I think lots of kids experience a fascination with the natural world- an absorption in the detail and mystery of life. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, science became dull. I struggled through high school biology and chemistry and then stayed as far from the hard sciences as I could in college. I stuck to history, English, sociology, things I felt that I could connect with more readily. I could get excited about a great book, but not about a new element in the periodic table.

Now that I work on a farm, I only wish I could have retained more of my childhood interest in the sciences. I wish I would have taken biology in college, even if I’d gotten terrible grades. I constantly feel as if I’m having to learn scientific principles backwards. When we encounter a disease in the pigs, I have to identify symptoms then possible origins then I have to research the science to try and understand how to prevent those illnesses in the future.

In the orchard, everything is connected. The bacterial and microbial life, the insects, animals, weather conditions, apple tree age and health… it all interacts in complex and beautiful ways. Understanding at least some of those relationships is crucial in order to make it to September with a decent crop of apples. Right now, for instance, I am thinking about Apple Scab. This disease produces blackened and rotting spots on the leaves and fruit of apple trees. If an orchard is highly infected, much of the fruit is inedible or falls to the ground before ripening.

Notice a little scab on these apples in a painting from 1824 by James Peale

We of course want to prevent that from happening. But it’s not as easy as knowing what to spray on the trees, we also have to know when. That means we have to know a little bit about the cellular activity and reproduction cycle of the disease. We have to understand how temperatures and moisture levels affect the initial release of fungal spores and what organic options we have to try and counteract that release. It’s all science.

I don’t know why it wasn’t more interesting to me in high school, I just know that if I had paid a little more attention, I might not feel so lost when I come across questions like: What is the probability of ascospore release this week…?

Best,

Sweetbread

The Art of Pruning

I don’t claim to be an artist.

Artistry (to my mind) implies a mastery of form or movement. It implies years of practice and concentration added to copious natural talent. It implies deep understanding and a uniqueness of vision or thought.

It also implies beauty, of one kind or another. When someone says “he has mastered the art of farming”, they mean that the individual has developed such a great intimacy and appreciation of the tasks involved in farming that their work has become beautiful. Not just their work, but their farm as well. The flow of beauty between art and artist is not entirely clear, but there is certainly a connecting depth which empowers not only master and craft, but anyone near enough to feel the effects of that relationship.

While pruning the blueberries, blackberries, and apples this winter I have come to realize that even the simple snip of the shears can become an artistic enterprise.

Each tree or bush requires specific attention. Each is unique and full of potential. When I make a cut I have to hold in mind the longevity of the plant as well as its current status. What do I want this plant to look like this year? What do I want this plant to look like in 5 years? 10? The long term health and shape is as important as the fruit producing capacity this year. Maybe I have to sacrifice a cane that looks particularly promising for this year’s crop in favor of one that looks more beneficial in the long run.

It’s also important to analyze the current plant health. I’ll remove any damaged canes and look for signs of disease or damaging bugs. I will also take care to notice other things about the plant like how many primocanes it produced, how the trunk or base appears, and the look of soil surrounding the roots.

Sometimes I realize that I’m not sure exactly what to look for or what certain signs mean. Sometimes I make cuts or lop off branches that I regret a moment later because they make the tree look odd or I see a branch that would have been a better choice. I know that artistry in pruning comes after many years. Years that allow practice and years that uncover the truth about my decisions. (You don’t always know if you made good pruning choices until a couple years down the road).

I have noticed that after a long day pruning one kind of plant, it begins to get easier. Just like you might improve your drawing skills if you drew the same kind of picture over and over for hour. By the end of a day of pruning each decision comes more quickly and more easily.

When I close my eyes now I can see a young blueberry bush, bare still of its leaves, branching out in just the right way. I can see the way it wants to grow. I can see its present and its future, full and green. I can make a few quick cuts and see it open up, fill out, let in the sunlight and breeze. Maybe there is a little more beauty for that.

Cheers,

Sweetbread

If you’re looking for more concrete pruning advice Michael Phillips’ book: The Holistic Orchard is a great place to start. The NC Extension Service is also a wonderful resource with online content and agents who are more than willing to answer questions.

The website is here: http://mecklenburg.ces.ncsu.edu/2010/03/pruning-3/

What Does Pigs on Pasture Mean?

Spring is here!

Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, the weather is warming… but more than anything else, the sign that indicates spring’s arrival is that we finally moved our pigs out of the barn and onto pasture!

There is a long tradition of herding animals in this area. The old Drover’s Road comes right through the farm. Farmers from the West drove their mules, pigs, turkeys, and cows to eastern markets along what is now 74-A. The house that my great grandparents bought when they moved to Fairview in 1916 was actually an old Inn. Fairview is about a day’s walk from the city, perfectly situated for the drovers who were pushing their way east.

One thing I will say about days spent herding pigs: It’s not easy. I have so much respect for those farmers who were driving their animals hundreds of miles. We only herd our pigs several hundred yards. We set up fences and gates to keep them from taking off wherever they please. We make sure to have people ready to block off routes that look enticing. And, even with all those precautions in place, we have plenty of disasters.

Pigs are smart. Once they learn a fence line (especially an electric line where they’ve experienced a good shock) they are loathe to cross it. Our herd has been in the barn all winter, enjoying deep bedded warmth in a small and well defined area. The most difficult part of herding them to new pasture is getting them out of the barn. They know their space, they have rooted right to the edge of the fence line and made the contours their own. When we take the fence down, they can still see the line where their rooting stops. They know from experience that they shouldn’t cross that line.

One trick we learned that helps us get the herd over that mark is to spread fresh hay on either side. This disguises the line and the pigs also like to root in it, searching for food or anything else exciting (pigs find a lot of mundane things exciting… bits of wood, rubber, metal, basically anything they can gnaw on). Once they’ve crossed the threshold, they are perfectly willing to go as far as their chubby legs can carry them.

This week, when we moved the herd out the barn, our biggest issue was that one group moved out over tate line quickly but a second group was more obstinate. Pigs are not like cows. They don’t have the same strong herd mentality. One group took off toward greener pastures while the rest refused to leave their home of the past four months. Zach had to sprint off after the first group and herd them into the corral while Walker and I stayed back to watch the second bunch. Eventually we had to grab several unused metal gates and use them like plows to slowly push the pigs out over the line. Once they crossed it, they ceased to have any qualms about leaving the barn. From there out it was as simple as stopping traffic along Sugar Hollow to allow the porky fellows to make their way to the corral and rejoin the herd

It feels great to see the pigs out in the pasture, happily rooting through dirt and grass, stretching their legs in the wide open space. I also like joining in the tradition of the drovers. I am glad that our route only takes us down the road a little ways and not over mountains and across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain. Hats off to the drovers. They must have known their animals well by the end of a trip like that.

Happy springing,

Sweetbread.

Wet and Cold and Downy Fluff

Chicks arrive via the post office!

Capricious March weather means lots of layers and a steady stream of hot tea and coffee when available. The one place on the farm that will be consistently warm over the next few weeks is our baby chick brooder!

250 yellow fluff balls arrived at the Fairview Post Office this morning. We had to clear out the brooder and put in a nest of fresh hay for the little guys’ home for the next few weeks. It’s always difficult to tell how March weather will affect our first batch of chickens.

Last year we scheduled our first group of chicks just two weeks earlier, at the end of February. While they were fine in the brooder, once we moved them out onto pasture the weather turned nasty. We had several frigid March weeks full of sleet and snow. Because our birds are pasture raised and we have a system set up that doesn’t have a lot of provisions for cold weather, we lost far too many chickens to the freezing temperatures. Chickens will crowd together in the cold to share body heat but they are overzealous in their push for warmth and often smother several of their fellow birds during a frosty night.

Unfortunately for us, Walker decided to go on a two week Vacation to Germany that coincided exactly with our chicken debacle. Jake (the intern at the time) and I had to deal with the daily frustration of frozen fowl without the reassurance of our fearless farm manager. Every morning was the same. We’d slosh our way up the pasture to the house and peer gloomily inside. If there was a dark mass of birds in a corner of the structure, it meant that several had been smothered. We would tally up our losses and make a report of how many we had lost that day, each time bemoaning the dwindling number that would be left for our customers.

We were beginning to give up hope for that first batch, to the point that I remember sending Walker emails apologizing for the fact that we probably would lose the entire group in his absence. The damage wasn’t quite has bad as we’d anticipated but, but the time we sent that first group of broilers to the processor, they were a bedraggled and scrawny few.

We pushed our schedule back for this year in hopes that we won’t run into this problem again, but it’s difficult to tell when winter will release Fairview from its grasp entirely. In any case, the babies are cozy and dry for now, cheeping happily in their new home and bathing in the warmth from the heat lamps. By the time they go out on pasture,  I hope all the vestiges of cold have vanished. I hope the winds are warm, the sun bright, and the nights balmy. I hope spring comes in earnest!

best,

Sweetbread

Warm and Happy to be out of the box!

 

Early Spring

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s still February and we’re enjoying nearly two weeks of balmy spring weather. This fickle month has seen some of the biggest snowfall that we’ve had in years and for the past several days I’ve been wearing short sleeves! I’m sure the cold will snap back into place before too long, but it is restorative to remember what it’s like to feel the warmth of the sun and the energy that begins to pervade every living thing during springtime.

Working outside all winter makes the spring seem even more magical and empowering than ever before and already I can feel the excitement that warmth and growth are bringing to the farm. It’s not just an mysterious feeling either. There are real signs, life that is beginning to well up, green tipped buds,  delicate snowdrops and pale crocuses. Last week we had two new additions to the goat herd and already there have been seven calves born this month! Watching them stumble around the pasture in all their ungainly enthusiasm is as sure a sign of spring as anything I know.

There is a certain vitality that I think gets covered up in winter. It hides itself deep down in the roots of trees, below the frozen dirt, under layers of protection and warmth. In spring though, it bursts out. Jubilant. Like all that life has been just waiting for a little encouragement. Even if the weather does turn cold again, spring has begun. There is not holding back the tide of life that has begun to flow. I’m ready!

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happy budding!

Sweetbread