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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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A People Farm

My Grandmother, Elspeth Clarke, went to school at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. She relished bringing her friends back to the North Carolina Mountains to get a glimpse of rural southern life. Many of her friends had grown up in privileged homes in the North and were elated to spend a week or two traipsing through the gardens at Hickory Nut Gap and going on long hikes and horseback rides through the mountains. The farm, since the time of my great grandparents, has been host to lots of young folks who want to experience something different from academia and business. Today that tradition continues to exist. Hundreds of young men and women have worked here through the years hailing from all over the world. I would be hard pressed to try and come up with the nationalities that have been represented here through the years. The truth is, Hickory Nut Gap has always had a strong focus on education and personal development, as well as agricultural production.

Sometime in the early 1940’s, My Grandmother sent her friend, Paula Gifford, to the farm for a short vacation. Paula wanted to get away from her home in New Haven for a time and had heard about the McClure’s beautiful spot in North Carolina. The young lady took a bus from New Haven to Asheville and then got a ride with a local out to Fairview. She was dropped off near Smith Farms at the home of Loise and Charles Arrrowood. She used their telephone to call on the McClures who quickly sent someone to escort her the rest of the way. While she waited, Paula talked with the Arrowoods about her trip, her home in New Haven, and about Hickory Nut Gap. She asked the couple what kind of farm Hickory Nut Gap actually was (because even then there were too many little projects involved to get a sense of the whole). Loise Arrowood thought for several moments and then exclaimed enthusiastically “It’s a people farm!”

Telling Stories

 

I love stories. There is nothing so pleasurable as hearing a great story told well. Growing up on the farm, I heard lots of tales about old characters and personalities who worked here over the years. My dad has an incredible knack for remembering the names and details from events that happened around the farm. Not only the things he lived through, but also the ones he heard his parents talk about from before his time. I love listening to him recount those tales in his precise, nostalgic manner. In a sense, stories are how we understand a thing, how we relate to it. They can be our most rudimentary method of communication or our most nuanced. To me, good stories beg to be told. They whisper in breathily in my ear until I can bring them out into the light. I’ve come across some great stories in my search for information about the history of the farm. They are most just fun little tales about living and working on a farm in Appalachia. I thought it might be fun to share some of them. I hope you enjoy!

Elizabeth McClure taking a ride with Aunt Freddie and Aunt Bessie in the Hudson while John Shorter takes the wheel.

When Jim and Elizabeth (my great grandparents) first came to Fairview, they made the drive from Asheville in their new Hudson Automobile. Unfortunately the flooding that had wracked Fairview in the spring also left the little country road impassible for some time. The newlyweds soon learned the dangers of traveling through the country in a city rig, when their shiny new Hudson got mired in heavy mud. John Shorter, an employee at Hickory Nut, and a fellow who would prove to be one of the most devoted and reliable workers for the McClures, had to come with his team of oxen to haul the young pair up the mountain. Upon learning that Mr. McClure was a minister, John Shorter informed him that the names of his animals were ‘Red’ and ‘Brown’, but only because he thought that a stoutly religious man might be offended at their real names: ‘Hell’ and ‘Fire’.

Jamie McClure, Jim and Elizabeth’s first child, was fascinated by many of the farm animals and took great interest in the tasks of the farmers. Once, when he was playing with the sheep, one of the rams butted him so hard it knocked him off his feet. While he was trying to ‘soothe’ that one with his miniature watering can, another ram came up from behind and butted him over again. He pretty quickly learned to keep a wary eye out while walking through the sheep herd and always carried some sort of protection.

Apple picking with the boys. Young Jamie McClure is the second from the left.

Jamie also became very interested in the mystery of chicken eggs. Unlike most children, he didn’t simply ask where an egg comes from, instead he decided to experiment. He ventured down to the chicken house and, finding and unusually docile rooster, he imagined he had tamed it. He snuck the bird into the house and hid it in his closet for several nights. One morning the animal started crowing at six a.m. and woke up the entire household. Jamie had tried to get his rooster to lay and egg for breakfast by prodding it with a stick. He was confused when it failed to produce anything but the loud squawking noises. Afterwards, demoralized by his failure to see scientific results, he bowed to necessity and asked his father, “why don’t roosters have egging powers?”

Looking Back

The past few weeks I’ve been working to put together some information, pictures, and old farm implements to create a history timeline wall in our education barn. It’s a neat project and one that I love working on because all the research ties so closely with my family and what I am doing on the farm. My great grandfather, James McClure, and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Hickory Nut Gap in 1917, so it’s been nearly 100 years that my family has been farming this land! It’s so neat to go back and read through my great grandmother’s letters (a number of which were compiled by my grandmother, Elspeth Clarke) and think about how her life and mine coincide. The legacy that she passed on is still alive today in so many ways. The same is true of my grandparents, and all the workers who have contributed to the farm throughout the years. The farm hasn’t always been a prosperous or idyllic. Through the years there have been ups and downs and everything in between, but I’m amazed at the resilience and dedication that is so evident in the letters and pictures that remain.

Sometimes farming seems an overwhelming task. There is just so much to do, so much to think about and change. At times I grow exhausted in contemplation of the work ahead. This is especially true when the task in question is especially daunting, like raising apples. I love working with the fruit and the orchard is a fascinating and complex world, but it isn’t always an encouraging one. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent counting degree days, studying up on different apple diseases and pests, mixing organic concoctions and spraying them on the trees, pruning, thinning, examining, and praying for the apples, but our crop still isn’t going to be great. It’s not something I should have had terribly high hopes for. This is only my first year of orcharding, but when you put that much time and effort into something, it’s difficult not to hope. What the history project is helping me to see is that, no matter how depressing it may be to see your work fail, life goes on. That may sound a bit cynical, but really it makes me feel hopeful. We may not be the best organic apple growers in the world, but we will continue to do our best and, luckily, we still have family that love us, we have friends who support us, and we can only move forward as long as we keep our heads up and learn from our mistakes.

The Apple Trees in Winter

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

A Little Background

Ha! Reading back over my initial post I realized I forgot to include some very crucial information: my name, for starters, what I’m doing taking over the blog, and how exactly I fit into the picture of Hickory Nut Gap Farm. I’m sure for anyone reading this, the last post was an interesting and completely baffling piece of writing which held very little in the way of context clues about its meaning. I hope that didn’t deter you from reading on. Mark Clarke. That’s my name. As to my connection to the farm, that explanation is a bit more involved.

In 1916 my great grandparents, James and Elizabeth McClure, came to Asheville from Chicago on their honeymoon and were smitten with the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. They were so taken with the area that they decided to purchase an old house (the former Sherrill’s Inn) and a sizeable tract of land for farming. The couple had very little knowledge of the rigors of raising pigs, growing apples, or even maintaining the garden, but with the help of some local farmers and a fiery Presbyterian determination, they began to bring life back into the dilapidated old homestead. Over the years the farm has known many different visions under drastically distinctive leadership, but the McClure descendants have not lost the love of this land that the young couple felt when they first looked out over the hazy peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jamie Ager, with his wife Amy, is part of the fourth generation on the farm and, together, they are the present day managers and owners of the business. I am also a part of that fourth generation. I’m fortunate that the Agers are not only family, they are great employers. My English degree may not seem to connect very effectively with farming, but Jamie and Amy thought I might be able to add something to the business through writing. Part of the vision of Hickory Nut Gap Farm is to educate customers about the farm and what we do here. That’s where the blog comes in. I hope this lends a bit of clarity to my first post and I’m sure all the things I have still forgotten to explain will fall into place as I continue to write about the history and activity of the farm.

Cheers!

Mark

Fall on the farm. You can just see the old Sherrill’s Inn up on the right.