By Karen Cohen
This article was originally published in the Mountain Messenger on March 8, 1996 and was Karen Cohen’s first article for this region.
My husband Tim and I moved here almost a year ago in 1996. April Fool’s Day to be exact! We moved from the Garden State of New Jersey. Our whole clan still resides there, so I won’t knock it. I will say there isn’t too much state left to garden in! Pretty soon, they’ll have to change the state’s motto to the Automobile State! That’s why we pulled up our stakes and moved onto greener pastures, but not to raise cattle or to graze sheep. We came here to do what we do best – grow food!
Back in New Jersey we ran a successful organic produce stand at a local Farmer’s Market. We developed a dedicated following of concerned folks who enjoyed eating fresh, unsprayed vegetables. Our yoga teacher had a huge yard which encompassed two open acres. It was a beautiful field and she offered it to use. We named it Fawn Meadow because deer frequented it daily. It came free of charge as do all gifts from heaven and we did our best to restore the fertility to the exhausted soil. We knew it had been farmed long ago because of all the old farming implements we found strewn about the place. The field had been cleared of rocks and boulders that were neatly stacked to form a stone wall running around the property lines. There in the field, the sun shone all day long and everything grew in abundance.
When we went to sell our produce at the Farmers Market the first few weeks of the opening season, we had just one table set up with the lettuces, kales, mustard greens, and some herbs that we grew. Since it was early May, most of the major crops were not yet planted. We were embarrassed by how little we offered but were happy to sell out each week and to be the first to head home with cash in hand. It wasn’t much but enough to call a profit.
We introduced folks to old time varieties of vegetables known as heirlooms. Produce too delicate to ship and sit on supermarket displays, we were able to grow and sell to interested clients. There were times when we were able to raise crops that no one else could. Radishes and lettuces that hated hot temperatures were grown all summer long with a little help. We used shade cloths made from old bed sheets and torn window screens to protect the greens from the blazing sun.
My husband tried explaining this method of planting to a farmer friend whose stand was next to ours at the market. He was a nice guy about 25 years old and just getting interested in helping out on his dad’s farm. They owned 500 acres and this young fellow got to ride an air-conditioned tractor with his stereo headphones blasting as he drove. He never planted a seed in his life and gave us a blank look as we outlined our simple procedures. Even with his knowledge of farming, he knew no one who planted seeds by hand anymore. He remarked that we were “real” farmers and we took that as a profound compliment!
With a handful of saved seeds and worn hoes tucked under our arms, we headed here to West Virginia in search of fertile soil, just as the settlers had done over 100 years ago. Although land here is abundant, it is often rocky, eroded by cattle or too hilly to grow on. Prices are affordable compared to the North but still not “dirt cheap”. So we continued our search and found a spot.
We have spent all of 1996 nurturing a small garden plot, 75 x 75 feet. Our landlord warned us that nothing would grow but we managed to reap a bountiful harvest after preliminary preparations. We grew over 75 tomato plants and 60 pepper plants, all from seed, canning most of it. That was a new experience for us.
We are not sure if we’ll ever be able to grow food for a living. We do know that the joy of growing our food is something we would never trade for a million bucks. This time of the year, the catalogs arrive, we select our seeds, and start early crops indoors. I will continue to share our “growing” joys and experiences with you good people who, like me, enjoy dropping seeds into the soil as one of the divine pastimes of a wonderful life. Nothing beats nature’s way.
(Karen Cohen is an organic gardener, photojournalist, and avid explorer. Email your tips, comments, and questions to email@example.com, and Happy New Year 2023!)