Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reading the Hill Country's Agricultural Landscape, Part Two

Our Saturday outing this month was held on September 20th, two days after I spoke at The Studio at Serenbe about reading the local landscape. After pointing out remnants of past agriculture in the area in my talk, the obvious next step was to take a trip to see current-day farm projects in the Hill Country. We visited two farms: Serenbe Farms ( and Wayne Stradling's cattle operation and orchard. We began our morning at Serenbe Farms, an organic CSA farm (to which I happen to belong, I freely and joyfully admit) managed by Paige Witherington. Paige led the five of us on a tour of her farm, sharing stories of her own background, tales of the challenge of farming the red Georgia clay, and a variety of her experiences with various vegetables. (Okra and basil are easy, eggplant is abundant no matter how few the farm has grown, and winter squash have been particularly difficult lately.) Farming is an art of balancing dozens of variables at several scales, from market demand and interest (yes to red peppers, no to gladiola bouquets) to soil chemistry parameters. At one point, she showed us a patch of fallow ground between a farm plot on one side and the Hill Country Montessori Herb Garden on the other. She explained that they will probably never grow vegetables there (unless in raised beds) because there had previously been a house on that site, and the soil was very poor. The land remembers, holding onto traces of the past that shape its present use.

After regaling us with memories of her days in the oh-so-fertile flat fields of the Hudson River Valley, and taking us past her farm machinery collection, including her pride and joy John Deere tractor, she led us into her new greenhouse (to the left in the photo above). It felt so spacious after the humble accomodations her former (and now unused) small greenhouse had afforded. Then we followed the main farm road uphill, past the HCM Herb Garden (the brick structure just right of the farm road in the photograph above), to a sequence of garden beds, each with their own stories -- pasts of failure and success, futures carefully scripted (a mix of different families of plants from year to year, with many fallow spaces in-between). The farm has bee hives, egg-laying chickens, and dozens of varieties of vegetables -- including three kinds of okra! I took the photograph below of one of the okra plants in bloom, a promise (or, after several weeks of okra, perhaps more of a veiled threat) of okra-yet-to-be. The plant is lovely -- a southern belle (bell?). But I cannot eat the pods fast enough. This week, Leonard Presberg offerd me his share of the okra harvest for the week -- a half pound. I am thankful, yes, but also looking forward to a weekend trip to Delaware, and four days without okra!

We all had a marvelous hour learning from Paige. I most appreciate her enthusiasm for learning new things, and her recognition that each year and each field and even each plant will express itself in ways that differ from others around it. We stopped, for instance, at a couple of rows of hops Paige is working on trying to grow for an Atlanta microbrewery. There, she pointed out how most of the plants are doing poorly, yet one variety of hops has overgrown its trellis and is climbing a trellis pole toward the sky.

After an hour with Paige, we took off down Hutcheson Ferry Rd. toward Palmetto, to tour Wayne Stradling's retirement estate, complete with lots and lots of cattle and old apple and peach trees. He met us with his shuttle arrangements above -- tractor pulling trailer with wooden boards for seats -- assuming that I was bringing a group of children. But the five of us were "young at heart", as the cliche goes, and we had a grand time on a sort of a hayride, up paths and through uncleared meadows. Wayne told of his farming experiences, as his tractor roared along and exhaust fumes filled the air. He talked about trying to obtain more water during the drought, and about which kinds of grass are best.
After talking with us, Wayne proudly showed us some of his cattle, including the two specimens below. He shared some groundfall Granny Smith apples with the herd, but they were rather reluctant to oblige with a show of devouring them. They sure were cute, though, particularly the young calves! At the same time, I will admit that, throughout my visit, I kept thinking of the forbidden pleasures of organic hamburgers.

At last, as we bumped along the road (of sorts), I reflected upon how the wonders of the Hill Country's rural landscape become particuarly noteworthy when one gets off the roadways. Then, for instance, I can feel renewed amazement for being able to experience such bucolic farm scenes as the one below (looking past a pasture oak and toward Wayne's farmstand off Hutcheson Ferry Rd.), yet live only a dozen miles from the City of Atlanta.

At last, the Stradling Shuttle delivered us back to where our cars were parked. Toward the end of our trip, Wayne admitted that he farms because he loves doing so (not for the money, because his operation just breaks even -- yet he keeps his hundred head of cattle on over a thousand acres, most of which are owned by neighbors). He continues to add acreage to his cattle operation, despite being currently 77 years old! I commented to him that many people his age have opted for retirement villas and golf instead of an active farm life, and he responded that he knew several friends who did that, and they are all dead now. I was very much amazed to find he was that many years old, since I had always assumed he was 65, at most. Maybe when I retire, I'll keep cattle, too....

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