Narrative 1 – “I consider us a bridging generation”

I grew up here and my first memories of it are as a dairy farm. I’m 61, and my husband is 67. We’re getting old. This farm’s been in the family since around the end of the 1860s in some form or another. I have a written history. It’s about 200 acres and the earliest record of a deed is to my great-grandfather. He was a surveyor and a farmer, so he was gone from home a lot. Then my grandfather, his son, Carl, got this part of his property. In the World War II years, the Depression, there was government money to start small dairies to supplement the war effort, so he built two of them. The old dairy barn was built in those years, and there were test demonstration farms– that sort of thing. So after my dad got out of college and World War II, he came back and started dairying – modernizing and dairying.

Then probably in the late 60s, dad decided to get out of the dairy business, went into beef cattle, and took a job at the high school. He was beginning to see that there wasn’t a future in farming at that point–at least farming of that nature. He saw 52 dairy farms at the end of World War II and there are none now.

As a kid, I was involved in farm work. I was always running around on the farm and I raised 4H calves. That was college money. We all had to feed the cattle and I hung around the milk barn some, but I didn’t have to milk or anything. My brother loves to garden, but he didn’t ever want to follow-up the farm. He probably pulled the heavier part of the farm work and wasn’t happy about that. He went to college, majored in hydrogeology. I was more interested, but Dad was always almost pushing us off the land saying, “Don’t be tied to this. Go on with your lives.” Dad had an open attitude for women, but he told me, “Go on, get out. There’s no future.”

My dad went ahead and let a company put a cell tower on our other tract because he wanted income for his widow. Although she loves it as much as I do and doesn’t want to leave or sell it, my sister is more practical about it. She says, “Land is only an asset if you are willing to part with it.” I think we also have a practical side in our heads about that may be necessary someday, and let’s try not to feel guilty when somebody needs money for education or a health emergency. I hate to see the small farms cut up, but I’ve never been critical of people who felt like they needed to do something.

Now it seems like things are coming back, but in a real different way. Most of our farm is leased to a cattle farmer at this end, and then at the far end – my sister’s part of the farm – she raises horses. An old family leases the farm that’s upstream and part of our son’s end of the farm now. They’re go-getters and they have a lot of corn. What’s interesting about our tenants is that H- is my age and always wanted to farm but went into insurance. I don’t know that there was family land. His son really loves this life, so to make ends meet he’s a fireman in Atlanta and does three days-on four-off. It’s truly cropping in the sense that they presale their crop to a chicken industry type thing. It’s interesting to me young farmers will still try to make it on a larger scale.

Then we have a lot of smaller farmers, maybe organic, who are more interested in food and having variability in what they grow. I hope it lasts. Dad gave us the sheep many years ago; I think it was to try to make a little bit of money. But as this whole local food thing swept the country it caught my imagination. This is the right way for agriculture to go, and it may be the best way to keep agriculture alive in Murphy County.

We’ve given this young couple we know from the market a little advice on sheep. just getting started. What a great couple they are. Goodness, they’ve taken on a huge thing. I see them and we go, “How can you do that by yourself?” It’s really neat to know that there’s that age out there interested in doing what they’re doing.

We in this generation, we have children, look ahead and think… Our son seems to be kind of grounded here, but it doesn’t translate into labor or interest. He works in town and our daughter lives in Maxell County nearby. The next generation, they lack the commitment at this point in time. I know I’ve changed a lot from 30 to 50, so there may be… I don’t think we can predict real well. They may want to live here, but will they want to lease it, or would they even mess with the headaches of that. It makes you wonder what might happen long after we’re gone. There doesn’t seem to be anybody lining up going, “I really want to get into that” I can understand it. It’s hard. We do it but we’re retired; we have a pension, so we don’t rely on farming for our living. If we did it’d be different. Nobody’s got it in their heads to sell this yet, but you do think, “How far can this go on?”

I don’t know of a farm family that doesn’t supplement in Murphy County. Osage Farm is so huge they may be as close as I can think. Then my husband and I worked at the local high school. He was a counselor and I taught environmental science. I was one of those burnt-out teachers you hear about, so I retired a little early. Then until the economy tanked, I worked for my sister and her husband who live on our family’s other farm and have an environmental consulting firm. I worked for them several years delineating wetlands. Even early on, there was more income coming in than just from the farm. When I was growing up, my father ran the dairy and my mother went to work for Farmers Home Administration.

Now that we’re retired we have more flexibility. When I quit teaching, I said to my husband, “We could supplement our retirement income with the wool and meat from the sheep, and by growing flowers, herbs and vegetables and taking them to the farmers’ market.” For several years we’ve done that, and we just go with the flow. It’s not like we’re out there 5 AM to nighttime. Most Saturdays you’re pulling down 100 bucks; An excellent Saturday, $250 to $300. But, if that goes into a fund and you can buy a gate or a chainsaw, then that works out pretty well. We probably don’t really make any money, but it keeps the land in use and it’s kind of a neat life.

From early on we worked with government agencies to get conservation advice. At times, for example, my dad let Cobinta come out and do a study. Way before that we took advantage of the trees and supplements the TVA gave or sold cheaply to farmers. My dad used to talk about how when he was growing up that the creek was more full of sediment than it is now. He was an ag major so he knew a lot and he grew a little impatient with programs that were in your face about conservation and run-off. Today, we work with the ag extension; I know them real well. I’ve been on the voluntary ag district committee to try to get farmers in that. It’s funny how things have changed over the years with the land trust and grants and stuff. With that we’re in a better position.

Then a few years ago my husband and I sold a conservation easement on part of the farm to protect from development. My dad didn’t agree with us doing that. He said, “It’s never good to put those limitations on the title of your property,” but we went ahead and did it and it gave us some income to put back in. We had to drill a well to get the cattle out of the creek, and we drilled another to get them out of parts of the farm that weren’t in the easement. Those were terms. We left a couple of places for farmstead buildings in case some day somebody wants to do more intensive farming. It’s more a soil easement because if we die and nobody were to farm it could just go back to being a forest. Some of the easement is forest now, so it’s a mix. But nobody talks like that or anything. We don’t want to see the whole thing reforested, but worst-case scenario…

This land is conserved because we are emotionally attached to this place because it’s been in the family so long. It’s beautiful. It grows up. I get frustrated and it’s aggravating to work on and always be tied to, but there is a real deep aesthetic and emotional attachment, enjoying the seasons and walking on the farm and seeing the people that are farming it and doing a little bit ourselves. I guess I read too much Wendell Berry. I just thought this is the right thing to do. This is what’s happening to farmland. My gosh, we have to save some places to grow things. I hope farmland continues to be here– for the production of food, or for beauty, or whatever people want to do with it.

There’s a bit of a disconnect between some of the conservation programs, their restrictions, and what it’s really like on the ground for farmers like us trying to lease land. They come out every year, do an inspection and we have to put up lots of fence and so on. The buffers are established around the stream and that’s good, but you can’t lease land and make money if you’re having to put up lots of fence. I wish they had a more of a practical knowledge and acceptance of what it’s really like to farm. I don’t mean to sound… We’ve worked with Soil Conservation and entered into an agreement to do creek bank restoration, so we feel real positive about conservation. I think it’s important; some of it you want to do before you’re told you have to. This is the watershed for Fenton’s water supply, and so there’s more emphasis and money, and there’s matching funds available for the work or for grants even for the work.

My dad used to say, “I thought about selling this place and moving to the Piedmont where there were bigger farms. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing even just leaving it in the family because you all love it so much, you’re not going to…” He was aware that land could tie you down. That it could make you land poor so you wouldn’t have anything but land. His sister, they wanted to send her to Berea College, but she didn’t get in at first because her dad owned too much property– because of the land.

I met my husband when we were both at Western working a program. I was out of college and he was just ready to start graduate school. He’s from the Piedmont part of the state. His father was from Virginia, and his mother was from Carthage. They met in World War II. She was an army nurse and he had been to VMI and majored in chemistry. When he got out of the war they moved to New York and he grew up on Long Island, until he was like 11 or 12. He grew up taking the train into the City to meet his dad when it was safe for two little boys to do that. Then when they saw an opportunity to move back south they came to the Asheville area.

My husband would spend time on his uncle’s tobacco farm growing up, so he always kind of loved rural life and the things associated with it. He really enjoyed my dad a lot and enjoys the farm, but he doesn’t have– Goodness knows he’s taken on a ton of the work that goes with it, but he was pretty much a city kid. We’ve been back to see his old neighborhood and it’s been fun to just compare the real differences in the way we grew up.

I run the little weaving cabin that’s right next door to the hiking club right up here. My grandmother and Lucy Manheim, who started Penland School was her first cousin. I don’t know how it worked between the two women, but my grandmother went to Penland School and learned about weaving and came back to the farm and started what you might describe as a little cottage industry. They called it Magic Strands. There was an old stone-based building over there and she had some looms in there and ladies from the community would come and weave, and then she would help them sell their work.

Today, those old looms have all been replaced and put in the little weaving cabin. Same philosophy: every Tuesday, mostly women, we weave. Sometimes we have a man that comes. We come about 9:30 or 10, bring lunch and then go home, about 4 is standard; in extreme cold or extreme heat about 3 because it’s an old cabin. Some of us try to sell work and some of us don’t.

We hike a little bit. I grew up hiking a little bit with my 4H leaders, and my husband drags me up Mount Mary once a year. I always try to give an excuse not to go. It’s interesting environment. I had a botany professor that said you can go to Canada and North Carolina if you just go up in elevation, it’s really cool. One couple we’re friends with are always telling us about hikes they go on, so I think I get it but it’s not my passion by any stretch of the imagination. We “walk” – we say we walk in the woods. We own this other property with logging roads, so we take the dogs and go walking. I love walking on the farm; that’s more enjoyable for me. We have a place way at the end of the farm. We call it Kay’s Beach, because when she was little we would go and build little dams, but it’s a real sweet spot too that we go just to get in the water on Chatuge Creek. If you told me I couldn’t walk the farm I’d be– Being a biology person I would just rather go slow and look. Hiking to get somewhere bores the crap out of me.

My husband went out to northern California a few years ago and said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful. That Central Valley–” I don’t talk to many people that leave that beautiful country. I have a nephew that was living in Portland and a niece in Olympia – citizens of the world. My nephew is a great builder and he is real busy in Portland, but every now and then they’ll go down and work in the medicinal marijuana industry. It’s good money, you know. Then they turn around go back. My nephew would say, “Oh man they just had you this wad of cash to pay you… I’m not sure about all this.”

We were lucky, because when I was in college I checked into what I would need for veterinary school, and I needed to go down to NC State. I was still on the edge of that generation where you were probably going to be a nurse or a teacher as a woman. Although I was real independent and didn’t think about any man bossing me around, there could have been a career tract had I been willing to move. But to come back, that was huge for me. I don’t know how you make these decisions. You just kind of take it and run with it and life works out.

I was just reading the other day about the elm, Dutch elm disease. I don’t even know that we have elm around here. I think that’s why elm was sticking in my head. I think that has to do with my interest in biology or the fact we’ve had trees threatened too. Chestnut of course you know was the blight. These diseases come from other countries and just move down the Appalachians and can wipe out… The chestnut blight of the 20s that killed everything. I remember just being around and talking to my dad and he remembered the chestnut blight and how awful that was, because you could look at the wood, it was such a great tree for mast, for wildlife and for building. And his old home place down there had a ton of chestnut in it, but I thought of how awful that was to see, because he said you could just see them dying everywhere on the mountains. And then of course hemlock and the hemlock woolly adelgid is the same thing. Dogwoods, because we have them in the yard are really beautiful, but they have their own diseases.

I’m trying to think of the trees at the farm that I enjoy the most. Paulownia the princess tree, which is the best tree. I laugh because it’s an invasive. There’s a big one growing up out of the foundation of that old house down there, not making me real happy right now. Cherry and walnut are real special. My dad and I used to make some furniture and cherry, he made the mantle and we made that table ib the farm together and the table in the kitchen. I love to work with pine. It’s soft, forgiving. That lamp is a piece of pine that came out of the old house. It was a post and we just made… But it just seems like maybe we’ve not used it too much to build with, but I love the grain and I love the openness of it. But cherry and walnut have always been prized. There was a mill on the farm in the 19-teens, and they made coffins. Well, they also ground corn and wheat, but– Those two woods are commonly used and desired.

In retirement, my dad enjoyed woodworking. He turned the old dairy barn into sort of a woodworking shop. We would play on the lathe and built some pieces. He grew up thinking cherry and walnut are the prettiest, you know, but to me they darken. Chestnut on the other hand, we tried to make some things out of the chestnut that came out of the old house and it was hard and unforgiving, but it was pretty. I laughed and called it pre-wormy chestnut, because it was built before the worms got into the dead stuff.

Locust makes great firewood. Oh man it’s the best. My brother, I used to say I was going to wrap up a locust log and give it to him for Christmas, because he’d just salivate over any dead locusts around the farm. “That’s mine! I’m going to get that for firewood.” It’s also real serviceable for the fenceposts on the farm because it doesn’t rot easily. That’s just the way I relate to that tree.

Speaking of weaving, many, many years ago there was a shuttle factory near here. I have one shuttle that’s dogwood. It’s really soft and smooth, doesn’t catch yarn. You’d have to talk to a forester, but I think they depleted dogwood at one point in history by cutting for these shuttle factories — shuttles for industry, because a handweaver is not going to use up that many.

Poplar, we call it the weed of the woods. It grows quickly, grows well, especially in these fertile hollows. Maybe I’m pulling on my education or just what my dad would say, but I wonder sometimes if you’re going to get a different balance of species in the woods where logging is taking place. That’s not a criticism of logging, because I think we need to log, but poplar is quick to– The Forest Service people can tell you, If you want some of these hardwoods to come back you’d have to go back in and maybe cut the poplar growth back to allow the oaks to come on slowly. We saved a little oak tree at the corner of the farm. It was just a sprout, but I thought it would be nice to have a tree there, so we saved it to grow bigger. We’ll see. We cleared around it and made a post to straighten it up a little. I don’t know that the balance would get so out of whack you wouldn’t always have both, but— We pay a lot of attention to trees. I try to look at log trucks going down the road, and my husband and I will say, “Well gosh, look at that load of pine, where did they get that?” But technically, I would just leave it up to the foresters to tell us what the ramifications of cutting are.

We cut our own firewood, usually just if a tree is down. My husband cut those up and we have a log splitter, but we don’t build a lot of fires. Around holidays we do a lot of burning in the fireplace, and we have an oil furnace but we’re thinking about going back to a wood stove in the basement to supplement in the winter.

I certainly believe in wild areas, but I do believe in a multi-use philosophy of the forest. When I grew up, fathers or mothers were either farmers or loggers. They used these natural resources for livelihood, so I’ve always had an openness and patience with that. In fact, on this wooded property we have a forest plan, and it won’t be too many years before we’re ready to do some cutting on that. I have a feeling mostly what will come out of there is poplar. Those can be used at the sawmill, especially for secondary woods: cabinet pieces and things like that.

This year we grew potatoes, peas, peppers, beans, cucumbers, two kinds of squash – zucchini and yellow squash, and onions. We also took spinach, kale, kohlrabi to the market. Lettuce– We grew zinnias and sunflowers. Those are important economically. We also have broom corn. It’s literally more of a sorghum cane. If you think of an old-fashioned broom like that, that’s what it is. It grows really tall and if you were going to make a broom you’d strip the little seeds off each strand. It’s fun to grow and from now until the September, cut it about two foot long, take it to the market, and people like it for fall decorating. It’s real pretty. An old gentleman that worked for my dad on the dairy for many years, he’d grow it. He’d hang it in the barn, so I was kind of fascinated by it. Then I saw it in the Johnny seed catalog and thought, “I’m going to try this.”

We grew some winter wheat too. It’s decorative and a cover crop. That’s important actually. We put it in our garden spots in the fall to hold the soil. It’s good for weed suppression and control, because it really limits what else comes up early on so you have a little area with a monoculture that you don’t have to deal with. We’ve also done some clover. If you plow them back under it adds nutrients to the soil. I wouldn’t think the wheat takes a lot out of the soil.

We haven’t known quite what to do with this wheat this year. Some people just lay it down and plant right in it – no-till. We mow it. Since we didn’t do as many flowers and herbs this year, we had these places where winter wheat was still standing. We finally mowed it and already it’s coming back. What we’ll probably do this fall is plow that all under and sow more. Then some of the places we’re wanting to return to regular pasture we may sow with fescue or something, re-fence, and let our tenant just run his cattle in there.

Spring has gotten warmer. For us, it’s gotten increasingly harder to grow peas because they like it cool, and yet you need daylight time. What happens is they get too hot early in the season, so we’re going to give up on peas. That’s just for us to eat; that’s not to sell. As climate change occurs, I’d think it’d get easier and easier to extend your growing season. If people have a hoop house or a greenhouse, they could get very close to providing something for a small market year-round. If there’s a positive to climate change that would be it.

We’ve had a dry year. We have water at the lower garden, but– This part of North Carolina has been through some pretty awful droughts. Then we’ll have some seasons where you almost get all your rain in a week. It’s cyclical… I hope. Tied up to El Nina and El Nino. I don’t know if it’s a trend yet, but we keep having these hottest years on record, so how can you think that it’s not progressing.

One thing we are not going to do much this year is a fall garden. You can do those cooler weather crops like broccoli or things like that deep in the fall. It seems like you have less trouble with insects and weeds in the fall. Collard greens, kale, even lettuce if you shade it at the beginning a little bit, you can do those too.

It seems to me like some of the things that plague crops are worse. I’m thinking insects. Colorado potato beetle and the bean beetle– Those seem harder to control. God, the bees have been so bad. My husband got stung this morning weed eating. We also have our struggles with invasives. You struggle with invasives all the time. I don’t know where they come from. Some come in hay that’s brought in. They’ll take over a farm if they get in there and you let them. Multi-floral rose has certainly increased. That awful weed- spiny amaranthus, pokeweed… Almost all of them have increased if you don’t keep control of them.

One of the biggest ones the extension worries about in pastures is Johnson grass. Cows don’t eat it. It grows higher than pasture grass, and they’ll lease you a sprayer that comes down and mops an herbicide atop the Johnson grass rather than killing everything. It’s really awful in our pasture across the creek. We don’t ever want to spray, but my gosh if you didn’t it would be incredibly hard to control them. You could quickly lose the productivity of your farmland. And farmers, they don’t have the time. They have other vocations.

What else drives us crazy? Canadian thistle. Goldfinch love thistle, but the problem with thistle is it’s real mean and tough with spines, so if it gets in your pasture cattle won’t graze up close to it. I’ve seen a pasture just taken over with the stuff and it’s pretty awful. I would say that’s gotten worse in the last 20 years, at least on our farm and others. It’s just so prolific; it makes thousands of seeds. We really try to never let thistle get out of control.

I was just looking at my kudzu baskets. You can add kudzu to the pain in the… At church we had this kudzu festival once, because it’s much maligned. But then you see it smothering out so much other stuff and you have a hard time– The bloom is the best-smelling flower; it just smells spicy. You often can’t see the flowers but it’s in under there. Oh, it’s about the time for it to bloom. I know this lady who’s made jelly out of the bloom. It’s not real flavorful, but– And my dad used to say cattle love kudzu and it is so nutritious, so he would sit around and laugh, “What we need is something to bale the stuff.” You can’t really work it with equipment – it’s a vine.

Another invasive is oriental bittersweet. People consider it decorative. They buy it in the fall and it’s got all these red and yellow berries and it looks fall-ish, but then hell, they put it out and it chokes trees to death. There’s one up at the weaving cabin that’s huge. It’s a vine and it really…

My biggest concern is with just the land itself, with the ability or care someone leasing the farm is going to pay to it… to invasives. and just the quality of the land and pastures at risk. It makes you wonder what might happen long after we’re gone. I mean there doesn’t seem to be anybody lining up going, “Man, I really want to get into that.” I can understand it. It’s hard. We do it but we’re retired; we have a pension, so we don’t rely on farming for our living. If we did it would be different.

Once I spoke at some kind of farm thing and I said I consider us a bridging generation. Hopefully farming is going to stay here, but it’s going to have a really different look than it did. I think that’s real difficult for the older folks who farm. They’re naysayers, and I don’t blame them, but they may be not cognizant of the fact that there are people who want to live in a different way. They aren’t necessarily thinking of making tons of money, but they really want a life closer to the land. That’s what I hope happens.