Hickory Nut Gap Blog/e-Newsletter

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Goodbye Hay

That’s a bad pun and one that’s not entirely appropriate as we haven’t grown or cut hay at Hickory Nut Gap for several years now. For some reason I can’t seem to begin these blog posts without some sort of joke or catchphrase, even if they’re terrible.

When most cattle farmers find out that we don’t cut hay, they are incredulous. “What, how do you feed the cows during the winter? You must spend a lot of money buying bales”, is a pretty common response when someone finds out we don’t raise our own hay or make corn silage. The fact is though, we don’t need to. What’s the secret?

Strip grazing.

Though you may begin to fantasize of shirtless young farm hands moving cows through languid green pastures, this is not an ag. version of strip poker . Strip grazing and related terms like mob or intensive grazing are gaining ground among agricultural as well as foodie communities around the country. If it’s new to you, strip grazing is a simple idea with extraordinary consequences in the pasture. Basically, our cows are not permitted to graze on an entire pasture all at once. If they were, they would eat only the choicest morsels of grass, leaving or trampling everything that is less desirable. This is not only an inefficient system in terms of food availability, it also depletes pastures of vital nutrients and encourages the growth of those plants and grasses that the animals don’t find particularly pleasant.

The cows run out of food faster, and when things grow back, there is less good stuff to eat.

Instead, we divide our fields into narrow strips with plastic posts and wire reels. The cows are permitted to graze on one strip of pasture for an allotted amount of time depending on the time of year, number of cows, and size of the pasture. When they have consumed all the grass in one strip, we remove the reel and posts separating them from the next strip, and then put up a back fence to keep them off the part of the pasture that has already been grazed.

This method forces the cows to do several things. First, it gives the animals less choice of grasses to eat, thereby forcing them to consume all of the existing forage rather than just the best parts. The hungry animals also eat more of the available grass before needing to move to a new strip. Finally, the manure, which is a vital part of the cow-pasture relationship, is evenly distributed throughout the pasture instead of being concentrated around the richest parts of the pasture with the best grass: fertility distribution made easy.

Strip grazing allows us to utilize pasture space more effectively and draw out our forage through the winter. We stockpile grass instead of cutting it all down and stockpiling hay.  Strip grazing also helps to maintain healthy pastures and keeps us from needing to feed hay, even in the winter when the grass is no longer growing.

This is a long post, but I hope that the material is at least interesting, if not revelatory. Explaining the things I learn on the farm helps me to better understand the concepts myself and see the gaps in my own understanding.

best,

Sweetbread

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!”

Beyond Your Control

There are some things you can control, like the heater in your car, and other things you can’t, like how many Turkeys you manage to raise successfully despite predators, finicky weather, and random disappearances. As a farmer, you have to learn this lesson early on. There are just too many factors that are beyond your influence.

We were feeling great about our crop of turkeys this year. We felt great when we only lost a handful of chicks in the brooder. We felt even better when we managed to count 380 birds the day we moved them out to the pasture. We were ecstatic when, after a few weeks, we had only lost three or four of our fowl to hawks and they were quickly growing to the size that would make them an unlikely meal for most predators. We estimated that we’d have at least 350 by the time thanksgiving shoppers showed up. With that number in mind, we started selling birds. Of course, 350 was supposed to be a conservative guess. If we only promised 350 birds, that would leave room for transport and processing damage and any other slight problems that might arise.

The other evening Walker got a call. It was Amanda from the Foothills Processing Plant informing us that the numbers were in…324 birds, not counting those damaged during transportation. That is the kind of phone call you don’t dread. Not only because it meant dozens of customers would be left out to dry, but it also meant that, somewhere along the line, we’d made some big errors in judgment that couldn’t be undone.

As we piled boxes of birds into the cooler this morning, Amy said something that made me really appreciate this job, even in the midst of a minor crisis. She handed me one of the 60 pound boxes and said, “It just makes me feel so bad to disappoint customers. I mean I know it’s not our fault exactly, but I can’t help but think if we had worked a little harder at a few details, we wouldn’t be letting all these people down.”

It wasn’t as though Amy was worried about the extra work this debacle cost us or the credibility of the business. She wasn’t even most concerned about loss of profit. She was thinking about the customers who were so looking forward to a Hickory Nut Gap, pasture raised turkey for their Thanksgiving who wouldn’t be able get one. I know that lots of businesses tout customer service as a core concept in their mission statements, but it meant so much to me to hear so directly that our goal is to give customers the very best product we can muster– to give this farming thing our best shot– our very best. Whatever the weather, whatever surprises come up, this bunch of farmers is going to put in the effort because there is value in a job well done.

Sweetbread

This summer we put together a hoop house just above the barn to help us accommodate larger numbers of pigs. The house looks like a long greenhouse without all the air circulation and ventilation mechanisms. In order to feed the pigs we plan to keep in the house through the winter, Walker recently ordered two new pig feeders from a catalogue. The feeders are steel, seven bushel, flap style contraptions that arrived in large boxes; some assembly required.

I loved Legos as a child. It was exciting to build my own space ships and castles from old lego sets, but I also enjoyed getting a brand new set and following the instructions until I’d built whatever model was on the box. Legos come with great step by step instructions in a colorful booklet. Kids can put these things together because the instructions are so good! Ag companies could take a few leaves from Lego’s book where instructions are concerned.

Our pig feeders came with a single diagram that attempted to show how each nut and bolt was supposed to fit. Not only was it nearly impossible to see all the directional arrows because the diagram was so small, it left out some crucial bits of information.

Despite the lack of detail in the manual, Walker and I were making good progress when we came up against another problem. While trying to attach the body of the feeder to the base, we realized that the rivets that had been assembled on the base were actually aligned incorrectly. This threw the alignment for the entire feeder off so that none of the bolt holes lined up.

When Walker called the company to ask if we’d perhaps done something wrong, he was told that there was no mistake, they were just cheap feeders. “They’re made in China. You’ll just have to drill some new holes or bend the frame or something”, the salesman told him.

It surprised us a little how flippant the salesman was about the shoddiness of his product and the insignificance of customer service.  The mindset of modern capitalism is “cheap and easy”. Growth is more important than craft; dollars matter more than durability. It’s funny that so many people talk about sustainability these days when most of our production is built to be replaced within a year or two. Food issues seem to be at the forefront of the argument for an ecologically conscious consumer/ producer relationship, but it can’t be the end.

As farmers, we need products like pig feeders and waterers and tractors to last despite heavy wear and tear. As cooks, we need pots and pans that don’t scratch and burn. As business people, we need telephones and computers that don’t need to be upgraded every six months. The list goes on and on. So, while the sustainable food movement is a vitally important step in protecting the delicate ecology of this planet, it has to be a stepping stone for other issues. I don’t know exactly what this means in terms of systems. That will mean big shifts in big businesses. But as an individual I think the choices are everywhere and I make them all the time. Where will I spend my time, my energy, and my dollars. I think that too often we are asked to take up the local movement merely as consumers. “Voting with your dollars”, is a slogan that we often hear. But we are not merely money spending figures, devoid of inherent value. We can invest our days and the strength of our backs and our intellect as well as our paychecks.

Maybe we won’t be able to buy a well-crafted pig feeder in the year 2013. Maybe there still won’t be one available in 2014 or 15, but hopefully, one day, it will be possible to know your pig feeder maker, just like you know your famer.

Sweetbread

Some Thoughts On Death

When school groups come to the farm for field trips, I’ve noticed that, among the parents and teachers, there exists one of two ideologies about the kids’ farm education. When we take the youngsters up to see the baby chicks or the calves and piglets, the question of longevity inevitably comes up. “What happens to them when they grow up?”, “Where are all the mommy pigs?”, “Why do you keep them inside pens?”… When these sorts of investigations arise, I always take a glance at the parents to see how graphic I need to be. Can I use the word slaughter? That is only for the most extreme (often those alternative outdoor experimental schools). Can I talk about hamburgers and bacon? Sometimes the parents react more strongly to this than the kids.

On other occasions, the teachers are gung-ho about delving into the steak-ness of a cow. The other day I was leading a group of third graders through the farm tour and their teacher wouldn’t let up. During our visit to each of the animal pens he pressed the kids about what meat that creature was good for. By the end of the field trip I was surprised that the kids weren’t looking at each other and trying to figure out what the most tender cut of human would be.

Truth is, I don’t really appreciate either of these mentalities in the chaperones. I think that an over exuberance about the end product misses the point just as completely as an inability to talk about the difference between a beef cow and a dairy cow. I think the parents can learn just as much as their kids from a trip to the farm. What I know about small scale farming is that all the details have to be intimately connected in order to sustain a healthy system. Whenever Jamie leads a farm tour, he talks a lot about biodiversity. We are trying to mimic a kind of natural biodiversity in which plants, animals, fungi, lichen, bacteria… all work together. If we focus too much on one part of the system then we blind ourselves to the beauty and intricacy of the whole.

We don’t raise animals just for meat. That is a part of what we do. But we also manage our cows on pasture in such a way as to increase the nutrient density in the soils, prevent erosion, protect from drought, and encourage other pasture critters to thrive. We put our hogs on land overgrown with multiflora rose and scrubby trees that we hope to turn into pasture after a time. We keep our goats out on poison ivy and privet control. A local bee-keeper has several hives around the farm to help pollinate our fruit trees and pasture flowers. While it’s important to acknowledge that the animals do die and that they provide us with delicious, fresh meat, it’s equally important to understand that the animals are an imperative part of the farm ecosystem. Not just in their death, but in the way that they live and interact with all the other forces that are in the constant flux of birth, growth, and death.

I know that’s a lot to take in for a third grader. It’s a lot to take in for an adult! That is what agri-tourism is all about, though. I hope that at least some of that will make it through to the folks who come visit this place, or any farm for that matter.

Sweetbread

Soil and Sacrament: Book Review

I recently finished reading Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, a new book written by my cousin-in-law, Fred Bahnson. Fred is director of the Food, Faith, & Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He and his wife Elizabeth, live on a small homestead in Transylvania County, NC with their three sons.

Soil and Sacrament is a deeply personal account of Fred’s search for a life of faith, community, and work. It is also a beautiful study of the way in which food and spirituality are profoundly and inextricably connected. Fred visits several food-and-faith communities throughout the book and finds that “soil work reveals the joyful messiness of human life…”

I like thinking of farming as a representation of a spiritual truth as well as a reality in its own right. Everything on a farm or in a garden is so profoundly interconnected that the work does force us to pay close attention to each component in order to sustain the health of the whole system. I know that the only way for me to maintain a healthy outlook regarding work, and to maintain a healthy ecosystem within the farm, is to meditate on the relationships that exist there without assuming certain truths that may, at first seem self-evident. Fred’s book made me realize that the communities of grasses, fungi, animals, and trees on the farm are, in many ways, similar to the communities of people that live here. There are interactions in the natural spaces that mirror those in the human ones and are mirrored again on a spiritual level.

I found great pleasure in reading Fred’s book, not only because of the interesting stories he tells, but because his writing is beautifully crafted. The depth of thought and intentionality that drives the book is so apparent in every page. I also know firsthand that Fred is a masterful gardener and his knowledge of the actual work about which he writes gives that much more credibility to his prose.

You can pick up a copy of Soil and Sacrament, as well as Fred’s other book, Making Peace with the Land, at the farmstore. I definitely recommend that you do! (wow, this feels just like a grade school book report only, I enjoyed doing this one. Funny how you can’t stand something until you age out, then you wish you could go back and do it again!)

Sweetbread.

Walking

So, I’m thinking of buying a car. This will be the first vehicle I’ve ever owned and part of me is sad that I won’t be forced to walk everywhere anymore. It may have made my life a little more difficult at times, but there was something grounding (literally and figuratively) about not being able to just jump in the car whenever I felt like it. The pace of my day moved a little slower. I had to think ahead and build in 15 or 20 minute to everything I did to account for time spent walking to and from each event. Most of all, I love walking to work. The house that I rent now is only ten minutes from the farm on foot. I like the walk to work in morning when I can think about the day ahead and enjoy the beauty of the waking world around me. I like the walk home in the evening, too, when I can let my body stretch after a long day and maybe dunk in the stream by my house to cool off from a hot afternoon.

I saw a statistic the other day that only two percent of Americans walk to work. Two percent! I don’t know how accurate that is, but I’m proud to have been a part of that small number, even if I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

I still probably walk several miles at work every day. I guess I just like how connected my day feels when it isn’t broken into separate categories by a commute or a significant distance. I’m moving to a new house in November. My roommate is getting married and I won’t be able to afford the rent by myself. I’ll no longer be able to walk everywhere I need to go. That prospect has made me realize that I’m so blessed to live in a place where my community, my work, and my family are so closely intertwined. I can just as easily walk to my parent’s house as I can to my best friend’s, or my job. Walking allows me to know very intimately what those distances are and what lies in between. It makes me pay attention to things that I normally wouldn’t; the ripening of berries in the summer, the daily change of color in the leaves of an old sycamore, the way the clouds move across the sky at night. It makes me aware of my own limitations and also of my own capabilities. I can make it to certain places but only within a relatively small radius of home. I can get rides of course, but that only makes me more aware of my dependence on my friends and community.

I hope that this new drive (only about 8 minutes by car) doesn’t make me less attuned to my sense of place or community. I know it may sound silly, but I think a thing as simple as that will have an effect on the way I perceive my home and my place on the farm. I guess it is a step away from the farm. I’m still not sure what it is toward, but I hope that whatever it is, I will be able to hold on to the lessons I have learned here from a life that moves at the speed of my own two feet.

best,

Sweetbread

My little house. I’m moving out at the end of October and I’m sad to say goodbye.

Germans, Brazilians, Farviewians, and Pirates

Last summer we had a fellow working with us from northern Germany named Thies Winkelmann. Thies was a great worker and unfailingly cheerful. He loved to work hard and he loved to drink beer. He also loved to grill. Not just any kind of grilling, though, he loved Churasco. Churasco is a Brazilian style barbeque for which the meat must be brined at least a day in a tub filled with salt, onion, garlic, lemon, rosemary, bay leaves and assorted ground spices. Thies made Churasco for the farm crew several times during his summer here and would get excited just thinking about the succulent grilled meat. He gave us the recipe, but all the measurements were for 20lbs of meat, enough to feed 40 people! Of course, on our first attempt, we decided to double it.

The Fairview Feast is an event that we hold every summer here on the farm. Originally it was conceived because we’d joked about how much fun it would be to attend a medieval feast. Drinking from goblets, ripping into crusty loaves of bread and tender drumsticks, cheering loudly and making enthusiastic toasts and huzzahs, what more could you want from a meal? Our first year, we held the feast in August on a hill overlooking the farm. We slaughtered a goat the day before and spent all day roasting the meat, baking bread, and apple pies, and setting up tables and benches in our spot. After that The Feast became a tradition, each successive event more boisterous than the last. Each Feast also has a theme: medieval, roman, barbarian… This year we went with pirates. The Buccaneer Banquet.

Because it was such a busy summer for the crew, we decided to make The Feast a more low key event. It went down this past weekend without too much fanfare, but plenty of rousing cheers.  We stocked up meat from the employee boxes for several months and, on Thursday night, made enough Churasco brine for 40 lbs of meat. It sat in a big cooler in the fridge for two days and when we took it out to put on the grill, the aroma of rosemary and garlic were wonderfully strong.

I’m not an expert at the grill. I always seem to run the thing too hot and burn the meat, or else I keep too few coals and it takes forever. On Saturday though, it all came out perfectly. The meat had soaked for so long that it was tender and bursting with flavor. I’ve never been good at planning far enough ahead to marinate meat that I’m cooking for myself, but after tasting that Churasco, I know I’ll start. Even though it rained all day Saturday, we had a good crowd come out in their swashbuckling garb and we devoured all but a few pieces of the meat we prepared plus a variety of vegetable dishes that people brought and some good home brews. Folks from Fairview certainly know how to have a good time, even in the rain.

Here’s the recipe, though you may have to scale it down based on how many people you’re trying to feed. Truth is, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble getting rid of any leftovers!

Shiver me timbers!

Sweetbread

Turkey Jargon

As an aspiring farmer, educator, and writer, I thought it might be a nice component of this blog to include a vocabulary section. This is as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s. There are just so many interesting words involved with farming that most people will never have the pleasure of learning. I love the feel of some words, the taste as they leap from the tongue. Some match their subject, while others are confusing in their possession of some characteristic completely opposed to the thing they describe. Every vocation and hobby has its own jargon; a vocabulary that is specific to the needs and desires of those individuals who deal with a certain set of problems and tools on a regular basis. Farming may encompass several sets of terminology because farmers deal with such a wide range of daily tasks nevertheless, there are certain words that I’ve come across during my work here at Hickory Nut Gap that are just too good to keep hidden within the farming community.

Here are my words for today: Caruncle, Wattle, and Snood. These words sound like they came from a Dr. Suess book but they are real terms for the anatomical aspects of turkeys! The snood is the protuberance that hangs from over the male turkey’s beak. This fleshy finger is supposed to have a function in attracting females. The wattle, or dewlap, is the red flap that hangs under the beak. It also is an ornament which the toms (male turkeys) use to attract the hens. Caruncle simply refers to all the fleshy bits that hang from a turkey’s head and neck, including the snood and wattle.

Turkeys that are competing for a mate will often defer to the Tom with the longest snood.

I find these words perfectly suited to the curiously endearing birds that we raise once a year. The turkeys are vastly superior to their fowl (foul) counterparts, the chickens. They are intelligent, they are great foragers and every time we move their pen they rush into the new grass to delve for bugs, berries and seeds. They make strange clicking and barking noises that morph into full blown gobbling as they mature (actually only the males gobble). Every time we drive up with feed, they rush to the fence barking excitedly, and mill around as we empty the feed into troughs. They are not so interested in the grain as they are in us and the noise we make driving up. Walker, Zach, and I have contemplated the idea that maybe the reaction is a form of protection. If any predator approached the pen only to find 380 barking turkeys advancing on them, it might just make them forget their hunger. In fact, one day a few weeks ago, someone forgot to turn on the electric fence that encompasses our turkey house. When one of the fall interns, showed up with the feed, the turkeys were so excited that they rushed her and, finding no significant deterrent, knocked down the fence and chased the poor girl back down the hill! They’re not even fully mature birds yet.

Young turkeys attacking the comfrey that grows in the orchard.

Here’s to wattles and snoods,

Sweetbread

Fall Field Trips

Hickory Nut Gap will host school field trips throughout the fall season. Tuesday through Friday there are two time slots; 9-10:30 or 10:30-12, for classes to come out and learn about the farm. We can accommodate groups of any age group or size. The cost is only $5 per student and chaperone and no cost for teachers. Call 628-1027 or email Ann Araps at ann@hickorynutgapfarm.com to set up a time and date for a class to come out.

Curriculum for these trips may vary based on the size and grade level involved. The kids will have an opportunity to learn about a variety of farm animals and plants; from calves and baby chicks, to apples and blueberries. Students will also get to sample some of the apple varieties that we have available. After the farmer lead portion of the field trip, classes will have access to one of our picnic areas for lunch and then are welcome to stay and enjoy the other activities on the farm like the corn maze and the nature trail.

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