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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/

Slowing Down

I’ve had the strongest craving recently for applesauce. There’s something about the pure, unsweetened stuff that I just can’t get enough of. The fall may be the busiest season on the farm, but we still get a few chances to check the pace and enjoy a leisurely morning now and again. With another big farm wedding on Saturday (my cousin Elspeth Hamilton and her fiancé Gabe hosted yet another beautiful ceremony and rockin’ reception at the Sherrills Inn on Saturday), I took a few hours in the morning to remember some of the flavors of fall.

My Girlfriend, Asia, and I went out and picked a few HNGF organic apples early, while the dew was still thick in the orchard clover. We grabbed some Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and several Cortlands for good flavor variety. The organic apples may not look nice, they  may have a few spots and bumps and blemishes, they may resemble the apples you see on abandoned old trees beside the road, but they taste fantastic! I’m partial to the Cortlands for baking because they are a well balanced mix of tart and sweetness, and because my mom always used them. The Goldens are especially good this time of year when they hold just a hint of tang and haven’t yet gotten the mushy texture that they’ll develop later in the season. The Jonathans are especially juicy and add a nice red color in baking.

We spent the morning dicing apples, making tea, and whipping up some good lard and butter biscuits. We boiled our apples a bit longer than the normal sauce maker might (I like my apple sauce thick, more akin to the consistency of apple butter) and pressed them in to a bowl with the saucer. A little cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground clove and we had ourselves a breakfast.

I think I like fall for its color, for the nice weather, for its holidays. I like fall because the sky seems a little bluer, I like the crunchy sound of fallen leaves and the clear, crisp nights that hint of winter. I like fall a lot, but I LOVE APPLES! Apple pie, sauce, butter, tarts, strudel, german apple pancakes, baked apple, apples with pork, cabbage apple salad, or just plain apples!

It’s a shameless plug but; come out to the farm and get started on your fall cooking. There’s no better time now that we’re open until 6pm everyday! You can visit our facebook page to see what apple varieties are available and other cool events going on at the farm.

Fall On the Way!?

It’s hard to believe that fall is nearly upon us. For some reason I don’t feel like summer ever really hit. I suppose there were some hot days, but I just don’t remember enduring very many of those muggy, scorching afternoons that often characterize summer here in Fairview. Heck, I think I only got sunburnt twice this year, and that’s saying something for a pale guy like me. I’m not implying that I mind. The cool weather has been great, but it’s hard to imagine that summer is really nearing completion.

Here on the farm we’re gearing up for the fall season; always busy one for us. We’ve been clearing out the big old dairy barn and rebuilding the baby animal pens. We’ve got baby calves, turkeys, piglets, and goats moved into their new homes. The apples, what crop we have, are ripening in the orchard, and we’ve picked a few bushels of organic Jonagolds, Golden Delicious, and Cortlands to sell at the store. Organic apples may not look as nice as their conventional counterparts, but they sure taste great, especially the Jonagolds, I’m a big fan! I’ve spent so much time in the orchard this spring watching and spraying and hoping and praying, that now it is almost painful for me to discard any of the blemished and scabby apples. Most of those will go to making cider, but some are too far gone even for that. In those cases I find myself eating all the parts that are still good and making myself sick from too much apple. I think I’ve eaten the equivalent of ten or twelve apples during the past few days.

The pumpkin patch is looking a little rough for all the rain, but still struggling along. We’ve also been working on a History Timeline of Hickory Nut Gap that will go up in our education barn for this fall season.The first weekend in September has traditionally been our opening for the fall season and that was this past weekend, so that means the fall season is open! In addition to apples, and baby animals,  we have all kinds of attractions this year. The Corn Maze, the Trike Track, new giant slides, a barrel train for the youngsters… Hickory Nut Gap Farm is the place to be this Fall season! Our farmstore is also open seven days a week from 9am to 6pm. Those will be our new hours all the way through October.

I hope to see you at the Farm! Sweetbread

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.

More Apples!

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

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

Introduction to the Crew

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!

Fall at the Farm- come visit

Customer qoute from this weekend ” this is basically…awesome” that, made me smile! Visit the Farm from 9-6pm seven days a week through October 31. This fall has been an amazing time on the farm. We have had over 1900 visitors so far this season! Folks have been giving us great feedback on the trike track. When was the last time you tried riding a three wheeled bike? Well come out and enjoy riding tricycles with your family, we have two adult and six kid bikes available and a fun little track in our newly opened barn area. When your legs get tired have a little rest on the tire swing while enjoying your maple bacon ice cream (it really is delicous). There are piglets, ponies, goats, baby chicks and calves to pet. We even have a round bale maze, recommended for four feet and under and a pick your own pumpkin patch. Enjoy food from one of our weekend food trucks and sip hot cider by the creek while your watch your kids play and don’t forget to take home some delicious locally grown apples. There is so much to enjoy on the farm this fall, come see us!

Exciting Additions for the Fall

We are gearing up for our 6th season of inviting families to our farm for fall activities and are excited to have expanded our offerings for 2012. Come check out the renovated barn which will include the famous hay pile, new trike track, expanded animal area and performance space. We have food trucks lined up to serve lunch and snacks and have diversified our products with in the farm store to include more beverages, local artists and crafters, pickled good and much more. The organic apples and raspberries continue to ripen and the bale maze is under construction. There are alot of new things in store for you this year, stop by and see us. Current hours are Wednesday- Friday 1-5 and Saturday 10-5. Starting September 1st we are open 7 days a week from 9 am – 6pm.