Fall on our own mountain homestead in the Ozarks is a glorious—albeit hectic—time! A time for roaming the woods without summer's fear of ticks and snakes, for getting acquainted with trees that are new to us: the burgundy-turning dogwood and blazing sweet gum. It's the season for hunting hickory nuts and walnuts, cutting and stacking wood in preparation for winter, watching with satisfaction and a feeling of security as the woodpile grows. Fall is for harvesting and drying and gathering. And now also seems like a good time to let you know how two members of the Geritol generation (we're both pushing 40, one from either side) are makin' it on our mountain farm in north-central Arkansas.
Seems impossible, but it was less than 18 months ago that my husband left our Chicago suburban home with a suitcase full of back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, a copy of Moral's Buying Country Property, and my fond farewell ringing in his ears: "Don't come home till you find it!" After 20 years, we had had it with suburban living and the rapid encroachment of the city. We had seen the creek in our yard change, during a 15-year period, from a clean brook bubbling with trout to a polluted sewage ditch. Bill was fed to the gills with both the daily nine-to-five routine and the 6:15am-to-6:15pm drudgery of commuting. For my part I had about come to the conclusion that writing commercials was not exactly the world's highest calling.
Years of vacationing in various parts of the country had led us to believe that we would most enjoy the friendly greenery and longer growing season of the Ozarks, and a quick trip over Thanksgiving convinced us that there was a place just right for us somewhere back in the hills if we could only get to it. So in February we bought a truck and in March my husband, who had some time off from his job, began the search in earnest.
Armed with maps and real estate catalogs, Bill visited small town realtors and talked to people in country stores. Finally—with the aid of the Strout Agency in Marshall, Arkansas—he came upon the place.
Our land is described in the contract as "40 acres, more or less." Actually it's more like 62, and came complete with a house of sorts, two stock ponds, a young orchard, a garden spot which Bill was told had been worked organically for 50 years, a "picturesque" old barn and sheds (i.e., in need of new roofing), a tired outhouse and woods—lots and lots of woods. We paid $12,000 for the whole shebang and are quite satisfied with the deal. You might do better and you might do worse, but with the way land prices are soaring, we recommend that you do it soon.
With our savings and the proceeds from the sale of our former home we were able to pay off the farm. That left us enough to make the place livable and to subsist until we become established here and find outlets for our work: crafts, painting, woodworking, gunsmithing, and the sale of surplus from our garden and orchard. To us, it's important not to have a mortgage payment—or bills from the credit card company, or the like—staring us in the face every month. Just since we've been here, we've seen one young couple forced to leave their homestead and return to smoggy L.A. to work for two years because they just plain didn't have the money for the tools they needed to run their place. There was no other way for them to get the cash.
Well, a lot can happen between March and the end of June, as we found when we pulled up to our new home in an 18-foot Ryder rental truck, towing our pickup behind. Our land, we immediately noticed, had joined the back-to-nature movement. We were dismayed to see six-foot weeds filling the garden site and choking the baby trees in the orchard. Then we discovered that—amazingly—our lawnmower could and would handle the situation. So, for hours a day, Bill pushed the roaring machine through the jungle. (As I recall, one of our reasons for wanting to leave suburbia was that Bill detested cutting the grass. Somehow, though, this is different. Another annoyance was people going through our fences. Now we have cows instead.)
We were told that no one puts in a midsummer garden around here because of the heat and dryness. Our tiller wasn't due to arrive until mid-August, however, and we decided that if Jack Roland Coggins could keep a late vegetable patch going in Nebraska, we could certainly do so here. (See "Keep Your Vegetable Garden Growing Year Round") But there was all that nice land right outside our kitchen window and finally we couldn't resist putting in "just two rows and a couple of hills." We showered our experiment with saved rain, dish, and wash water (plain soap, no detergent). When plants began springing up, the temptation was too much for us: We added just a few more rows and a few more hills. And then some more, until half the garden space was under cultivation. And all done with pick and shovel, since the ground hadn't been worked in two or three years and was quite hard.
In our exhilaration at finding that we could actually make things grow, we threw in a row of sprouted mung beans. These developed into sturdy plants about a foot tall, which required staking with light sticks or branches. After the pods turned completely black and crisp we shelled them out and put the seeds into jars ready for sprouting again as needed. Pinto beans and cowpeas we handle in much the same way. Next year we'll want a lot more drying legumes for protein-packed soups and chili over the winter months.
We learned a great deal from our mistakes and observations, and our efforts were bounteously rewarded especially in the areas of beans, cantaloupe, and squash, which we could hardly keep up with. (The peas never made it to the table, as I can't resist them raw and not from the garden but in it.)
Our one hill of Sugar Baby watermelons was a delight from the minute the babies started "hatching." From the first they're perfect little miniatures. You could pluck one and place it on a tiny platter in a doll house. And then they start to grow. We're sure there's a little man in there with a bicycle pump, and every time we turn our backs he whooshes 'em up some more. Our only questions were, "When can we eat them? How do you know when they're ready?" One day we could contain ourselves no longer and Bill pulled out his pocketknife and hacked us out a couple of jagged slices right there in the garden. Pure ambrosia! This particular variety gives four ample servings per melon, and the rind pickles well.
Thanks to the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Freezing and to the generosity of our neighbors, we very quickly became canning experts. First someone brought us a half gallon of blackberries, and we learned how to make jelly. It turned out beautifully and we're looking forward to trying wild muscadine, wild plum, and persimmon later this year. Next season we should have our own apples and will make our pectin per the instructions in Beatrice Trum Hunter's The Natural Foods Cookbook, thus saving 45¢ or more per batch.
We were invited to pick the surplus from another neighbor's cucumber patch and must have garnered almost three bushels, which we put up into half a dozen kinds of pickles. Our favorite—and by far the easiest recipe ever—is my dad's dills:
To a clean, sterilized half-gallon jar add:
2 level Tbs. uniodized salt
1 scant Tbs. mixed pickling spices (only one dried pepper to each jar)
1 clove garlic
1 sprig dill
Fill the jars with cold water and seal them. Turn them over and shake them three or four times. Cucumbers may be eaten after four or five days, but tomatoes are better kept two or three weeks.
That's all there is to it! No vinegar, no boiling, no hassle. Perhaps because we've never had optimum storage conditions—or maybe because no processing is involved—we do occasionally come up with a spoiled jar, but the rest are so unbelievably good that we consider it worth the gamble. The measurements were adapted from an old-timey crock pickle recipe (or "receipt" as they used to call it).
We've also stashed away jars of peaches, squash, beans, tomato juice, tomato sauce, and a combination ketchup and chili which we dubbed "ket-chi." The various mixtures take so long to boil down, though, and heat the kitchen up so much, that I turned the remainder of the tomatoes into juice. If we want more sauce in the winter, I can make it then (when a little extra warmth will no doubt be welcome).
Another seasonal joy has been the persimmon tree in our front yard. We've been experimenting with the fruit and have enjoyed persimmon bread a la Euell Gibbons' recipe in Stalking the Wild Asparagus... a lovely, spicy brown loaf which would make a marvelously different gift for any occasion. Since our freezer space is limited at present, I tried freezing only one cupful of pulp for future reference ... but ruined at least a quart which I was attempting to can. The Ball Blue Book (normally a most reliable source) recommends steaming or cooking the whole persimmons till soft. Well, they're soft anyway and I should have stuck with Victor Croley, who said in "When to Pick Persimmons and How to Preserve Them" that cooking the fruit causes it to become astringent again. He was so right!
We also made "leather" by putting the persimmons through the good old Foley food mill (remove the spring, as you do for any large-seeded produce), spreading the pulp in a thin layer in a couple of baking pans and drying it in the sun for a few days. Cut into pieces, it can then be used as you would dates. And very nicely, too.
Another method—which we found to be great when you have just a few persimmons to process each day—is to wet your hands and squash the individual fruits, seeds and all, into flat patties which you put on a cookie sheet, cover with cheesecloth and sun dry. After a few days of putting them out in the morning and bringing them in when the sun no longer shines on your drying area, you'll find that the "pancakes" are about the consistency of dates. Then you can tear them into small pieces (removing the seeds) and store the bits in jars. (I've been sitting here admiring one of the seeds: it's large, with a glossy, bronzy chocolate color with slight texture. Seems a pity to throw them out. They'd make fine jewelry, or seed pictures ... or something.)
Also, this fall, we've joined the cult of the mycophagists. No, that's not some obscure religious group! I mean we've become avid mushroom hunters. Admittedly, this is a dangerous occupation if you don't know what you're doing ... and at first we didn't.
In our walks through the woods we were captivated by the various "mushrooms" in all shapes and colors—red, blue, green, you name it—none of which we would have touched with a fork. Then our neighbor brought us a real curiosity of a fungus (it looked like coral) and this we recognized from our booklet Edible Wild Mushrooms (Extension Bulletin 357, free from the University of Minnesota). It was clavaria—sure-fire, no chance of error, perfectly safe. All the same, I must admit to a bad case of "imaginitis" after eating some for the first time.
Following my speedy recovery, we went gathering; we'd learned from our full-color leaflet that this particular variety dries well. Once we got the hang of locating our quarry (they push the fallen leaves up in a mound over them) we gathered and sun dried enough to half fill a three-pound peanut butter jar. We've also used clavaria fresh in spaghetti sauce, casseroles, scrambled eggs, and—delight of all delights—just plain sauteed in butter. We feel like the richest people on earth with our own "mushroom farm" and are hoping to find a giant puffball someday. Just one of those monsters, frozen or canned, would feed us royally for a year. (Of course, I must caution you not to eat any mushroom or fungus unless you're absolutely positive of its edibility.)
Although we're cautious enough to avoid mistakes with mushrooms, we've still made enough to fill a book. There was our first effort at hauling water in open containers. We wound up with the cleanest truck bed in the county. And the good money we paid for sand and gravel for construction, before we learned from a neighbor that the nearby river deposits both neatly, in separate piles, at a certain bend. And the time we protected and encouraged some spotted yellow insects because they resembled ladybugs—and they almost ate us out of house, home, and garden. (Moral: When you pack your reference books for immediate access, be sure to include one on insect identification.) And the beans that had half nelsons on all our young cornstalks before we realized that—in order to grow these crops together—one must plant the corn first and let it get a head start.
One thing we did manage to do right was to get a map of the orchard from the lady who sold us the place. Do remember to ask the seller for such a diagram if you buy a farm with fruit trees. It's an invaluable aid to identification and to planning for additional plantings.
Another good move we made, and one we recommend, was to get to know the local government soil conservationist. (OK, if you don't like some of his advice, you don't have to take it.) Ours carne out—an hour's trip each way and half of it on the world's worst roads—to inspect our pond situation and recommended a channel catfish crop. He even told us how many our particular facility would support: 100 if we wanted to let them feed themselves, 300 if we gave them commercial food or grew or mixed our own rations. Then, later, he sent us a note and a map to the farm of a local catfish grower who was selling his three-to-five-inch fingerlings. So, for a nickel apiece, we now have a pondful of good eating and a helpful cash crop as well ... with no effort on our part, since we opted for the smaller number at this time.
Make no mistake about it, homesteading is hard work: hauling rock, cutting wood, building, repairing, getting ready for winter. But we feel more than compensated by the pleasures of getting acquainted with our land: discovering a fresh deer track by the pond, watching a strange little caterpillar in a bouquet of wildflowers as he camouflages himself by gluing petals down his back, gaining the confidence of the tree frog which has taken up residence in the dipping pan on the back porch, enjoying the sunset over the ridges. And as the whippoorwill begins his nightly refrain of "take-a-bath-take-a-bath," we put the water on to heat for our bucket shower on the back porch and rejoice that we've finally joined the ranks of them that's doin' ... up on the farm.