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A Near Catastrophe

A farm in the spring is a busy place. I haven’t had much time in the past few months to write much of anything because the whole crew has been scrambling to keep up with all the projects that seem to be piling up in front of our eyes. We also had a major setback when Farmer Jake, our illustrious intern, broke his wrist while playing basketball a few weeks ago. He has been relegated to working in the office and the farmstore, his left arm firmly wrapped in a bright pink hard cast. His absence from the more physically demanding chores has left Walker and Jamie and me with a lot more on our plates than we had anticipated what with apple spraying, taking care of the U-pick berries, maintaining a mowing schedule, feeding and moving the animals, fixing fences, harvesting asparagus and mushrooms, attending farmers markets…

The problem is that there is no end to the chores you haven’t done on the farm, so making time to write can be difficult. There’s always something else that seems more pressing or has more time sensitive consequences than posting on the blog. Considering all that, I’m going to take satisfaction in the small number of posts I have made and, once again, resolve to be more diligent in the future.

What else can I tell you about the past few weeks? We…well, I… did have a near catastrophe with the apple sprayer that scared the wits out of me and very nearly caused a major setback in our attempt at holistic orcharding.

I had been spraying the trees with Kaolin Clay all morning and the tractor and sprayer looked like they’d gotten coated with powdered sugar. The clay is meant to deter the curculio beetle, a pest that lays eggs in the developing fruitlets and can destroy and apple crop without proper attention and management. The clay is ground microfine and when it is applied liberally to the apple trees, flakes off on the beetles and inhibits them from completing their reproductive activity.

When I had finished spraying and cleaned out the spray tank, I headed back up the mountain to park the 300 gallon sprayer in the shed. What I didn’t realize was that I hadn’t completely secured the sprayer hitch to the ball on the back of the tractor. While there was spray in the tank, the weight kept the whole thing from bouncing off but now that it was empty, the contraption balanced precariously on its one set of wheels and was only resting lightly on the tractor ball. As I pulled onto sugar hollow I noticed that a black Lexus was coming around the curve behind me but I didn’t give it a second thought. A slight bump in the road made the tractor seat bounce but then I heard a snap and saw the sprayer handle and connection lines tear from their mount on the tractor beside me. I spun in my seat only to see the oddly shaped machine careening back down the road and gaining speed as it went. The driver of the Lexus seemed oblivious for a moment that the vehicle in front of him was headed straight for the recently waxed hood of his sedan. Or maybe he was just inclined to play a one sided game of chicken. I waved wildly at him and tried to shout over the thrum of the tractor. Finally he  broke out of his momentary stupor and swerved into the other lane. He sped around the whole scene and, without so much as a “ Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you”, ran the stop sign at the top of the hill as if he couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Fairview.

The sprayer didn’t make the curve in the road but instead went straight over the edge of the road, down a steep bank, through a barbed wire fence, and crashed into a rhododendron bush. I pulled the tractor off the road and ran down the barn, legs shaking slightly, to get help.

Walker, Jamie, and I were able to pull the sprayer back onto the road and found that, through some miracle, it hadn’t been damaged beyond reckoning. Only the handle, which extends from the spray tank to the tractor, and the odd little platform on the back of the sprayer had gotten mangled. Everything else was more or less untouched by the accident. I kicked myself thoroughly for not correctly securing the hitch, but I guess sometimes those kinds of mistakes are good. I will never, never pull out without checking and rechecking that connection again. Ever. I suppose it was just lucky that the Lexus driver didn’t play his game of chicken for one second longer, and that the rhododendron bush stopped the sprayer from crashing all the way down the hill, and that the odd little platform on the back that acted like a rear bumper. Oh yes, I’m counting my blessings on this one.

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