From Brambles and Bradford Pears to Strawberries and Apples

We’ve owned our little 20-acre farm for about two years now.  One of the first items on our to-do list after we purchased the farm from Natalie’s grandparents was to plant some trees—apple trees. We had a good spot for a potential orchard, an unused quarter-acre patch of land that was grown up in brambles and wild Bradford pears. Wild Bradford pears are vengeful creatures, with spiny thorns capable of puncturing a tractor tire. In the spring of 2014, we carefully cleared the pear trees, burnt off the weeds and brambles, and then plowed the patch.

After that, we planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat (which the bees loved) and a fall cover crop of crimson clover.

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The cover crop of buckwheat

We also planted the apple trees in the fall, in November 2014. We planted 12 Winesap, 12 Arkansas Black, 7 Grimes Golden, and 1 Lowry.  These are all heirloom varieties, which we ordered from Century Farm Orchard in Reidsville, NC. The owner, David Vernon, was very helpful. Both the Arkansas Black and Winesap are nearly sterile, so he recommended the Grimes Golden for pollination. We ordered one tree of the Lowry variety for Natalie’s poppaw’s—his name is Lowry.

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You can barely see the apple trees sticking out above the thick layer of crimson clover in spring 2015

The trees are grafted on M 111 rootstock, so they’ll be about 15 feet tall when they’re full grown. We planted them with 20 feet in between trees.  It will take four to five years till they produce an apple. With the extreme drought this past summer, it may take longer. Thankfully, we didn’t lose a tree, but several failed to put on much growth this first year.

So what do we do for four, five, or six years? Well, we could just wait. But’s that no fun.  Hmmm. I’ve got it—let’s plant strawberries. Yep, that’s what we did: we planted 1,200 strawberry plants between the rows of the apple trees this fall.

Right now, the strawberry plants are under row covers, more to protect them from deer than cold weather. But so far they seem to be doing pretty good. If all goes well (and there’s a lot that could go wrong), we’ll have strawberries in four or five months—and apples in four of five years.

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Rows of apple trees and strawberries alternate–the strawberries are under the white row covers in this photo

Country Ham Cutting

Country ham is a staple food in our family – you can eat it on a biscuit, with grits, smothered in red-eye gravy….the options are endless. These days, most people get their country ham from the grocery store – nicely shrink wrapped in plastic. My Poppaw remembers when you just cut it directly off the ham hanging in the smoke house . Back then, most people cured their own meat at home, and his family continued to hang hams until the mid-1960’s when the weather became too unpredictable to continue doing it.

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Last January when we had our first pigs butchered, we decided to try curing our own ham in the smoke house my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents had used for nearly a century. It was a cold winter with the polar vortex spiraling across the South, and Poppaw felt like the weather would hold out long enough so that we wouldn’t loose the ham.

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First, we packed the ham in a layer of salt, brown sugar, and pepper. We set the ham in a homemade curing box with a slatted bottom, which allowed the moisture to drain. After 3 months, we cleaned off the salt, wrapped it in butcher paper, and hung it in an old pillow case in the smoke house.

And that’s where it stayed till last week when we finally cut into it.

If I am honest, I had reservations about what this ham would be like. I mean, how many people do you know that eat ham out of a pillow case? Despite all, I decided to trust the process…and I am glad that I did.

It was the best ham I had ever had (and I’ve had a lot of ham). Quite frankly, my first thought was that I had truly never had country ham until that very moment in my life. Matter of fact – we should all only ever eat pillow case ham for the rest of our lives.

We ate the fully cured pieces straight off the ham and pan fried the rest…which then lead to making biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Sometimes, on the farm we’ll try doing something the old way and it either won’t work or the new way is faster. While buying country ham from the grocery store is certainly faster….it isn’t better. So the next time that the stars align and we have a polar vortex and a ham on hand…we’ll be whipping out the curing box and an old pillow case. After all, you can’t beat this tried and true method of curing meat!

A Collard Peddler

Oh, if I knew then what I know now. Growing up, I had a strong dislike for collards, though I probably never tasted them until I was an adult. That smell, that sulfur stench, of collards boiling was enough cause for me to turn up my nose. This year I planted 1,000 collards, a lot for someone who once despised the things. Either my culinary tastes have improved or my olfactory senses have declined. Natalie says I can’t smell anything.

Earlier this year, I decided to become a collard peddler. I took my inspiration from a man who sold collards from the back of his pickup truck at an Exxon Station in my hometown of Hamlet. He did quite the business. Every year, during the fall and winter, he would be back at that gas station, selling collards. He sold the collards whole, not in bundles or bags. Some customers inspected the collards, examining each leaf, as if at a tobacco auction, before settling on the collard they wanted to purchase.

So far the collard business has been pretty successful, although I believe they aren’t quite as popular here in the western part of the state. It seems like a lot people here grew up eating turnip greens instead. I planted two varieties of collards: Georgia Southern and Flash. Georgia Southern is an heirloom variety with huge, crinkly leaves. Flash is hybrid that grows faster, albeit with a smaller size overall, and produces smooth, bluish-green leaves. Both taste the same, like collards.

I grew my own transplants from seed, which I planted into black biodegradable plastic mulch. This was my first time growing anything in plastic, and I’m impressed so far. The time it saves in weeding outweighs the cost. I planted the collards in double row beds, with 12 inches between rows and about 14 inches between plants in the row. I have a drip-line between the two rows. I strip-till the beds, living enough room to get a tractor between each bed. The ground between the beds is left in white clover sod.

I like the strip-till system. Before, we used to disc the whole garden, and anytime it rained, a muddy mess lingered. After heavy rains, much of the garden stood in water. Now with the clover aisles between each bed we can easily access the collards. The sod helps water infiltrate the ground. This has been the wettest November on record, with over 10 inches or rain this month, and standing water has only been a problem in tire tracks. Of course, the problem with the strip-till system is that it isn’t nearly as efficient with space. With so much ground left in sod, you’re only planting about half of what you could with traditional rows.

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Strip-till rows

Collards are easy to grow, but pests are tough on them. Caterpillars and grasshoppers have been a pain. I had intentions of cutting my collards whole, like the collard man at the gas station, and selling them that way. Instead, I’ve resorted to picking good leaves and bundling them, which adds more labor. I tried spraying some organic pesticides (Bt, neem oil, and sulfur), but they didn’t seem to faze the pests. The good thing about not cutting the plants is that I can continuously harvest more leaves as they grow. After the hard freeze, pests haven’t been as bad. So far deer have left my collards alone. I can tell where they’ve been browsing in the clover aisles, but apparently the deer herd here doesn’t like collards. Maybe for deer it’s an acquired taste, as well.

 

A new desk for a new semester

Ever since I moved into the old white house 8 years ago – has it really been that long? – I’ve had a desk crisis. My cousins, who had lived her before me, left their old corner desk behind – and being low on funds, I was more than happy to keep it.

Let me tell you though – that thing was awful. I grew to hate that desk more than any other piece of furniture that I owned. (Sorry guys – but if you had actually liked it, you would have taken it with you.)

Years down the road, Stephen’s parents found us this fantastic craftsman style desk that a member of their church was throwing away. Cool woodwork, warm color, made from real wood – the only drawback was that the top was really too small to work on.

After going back to school this year and feeling like I needed a really good work space – I called up Poppaw and said it was about time for another episode of Hugh to the Rescue – the desk edition.

Poppaw and I decided that the easiest way to enlarge the desk would be to put a new top on it. My mom suggested adding black metal trim around the sides to hide the fact that the new top was not the original one. The end result – perfection.

To complete the ensemble, I added in my first library desk chair from my student worker days at Wingate. A wood storage box that I found on the farm as a little girl and hid in my grandparents barn – rediscovered still in its hiding place 17 years later. And an homage to the old white house – with photographs of every owner throughout its family history.

So, as I wrap up this post of procrastination – I must say that the new desk is perfect and will continue to be a perfect place to read, write, and craft.

Now it’s time to get cozy reviewing chapters 1 – 3 of The Education Dissertation…what joy is mine.

Old Stuff Works Good

If we had a farm motto at the old white house, it would probably be “Old stuff works good.” We’re chronic reuse it, re-purpose it, “if it ain’t broke” kind of people. While I’d like to philosophically say that we are hip, nostalgic, and connecting to our past….the truth is, we’re kind of tight wads who like fixable, old farm stuff.

Stephen’s most recent acquisitions have been a 1950’s Allis-Chalmers All Crop Harvester and an old Clipper seed cleaner.

all crop harvester

The All Crop Harvester was produced from the 1930’s – 1960’s and is designed to sweep harvest a wide variety of grains and grasses. It allows farmers to harvest crops on a smaller scale without having to own or rent an industrial sized combine.

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Stephen, after months of looking, ended up finding an All Crop Harvester for sale literally across the street in the barn of a cousin. This thing looked rough and while Stephen was having this weird holy grail moment all I cared about was whether or not it worked.

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After a treacherous tractor pull across Pleasant Hill, we got the All Crop Harvester home. Stephen and Poppaw (who is basically a mechanical genius) began tinkering away and before long she was ready for her maiden voyage…well, her maiden voyage after 40 or so years.

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On a bright, Saturday afternoon they revved up our old tractor, hooked the All Crop Harvester up, and made their way to the soy bean field. Within half an hour every old man in our neighborhood was out by the road waiting to watch the old girl in action.

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As I stood there dodging fire ant hills, I wondered whether or not that old machine came equipped with a homing beacon for anyone over 75. If I had known, I would have brought a box of crackers and some drinks to sell – maybe start to recoup some of our initial investment.

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At the end of the day, the All Crop Harvester still knows how to get the job done. It may not be pretty, and it may look a bit complicated – but there is a certain beauty in bringing life back to something forgotten. Well, while we certainly aren’t hip, maybe we’re philosophers after all.