Wayne Conger says that most people have never eaten a tomato.
By that, he means that few people have tasted anything other than what passes for tomatoes at Winn-Dixie, Publix or other grocery stores. Not that they don’t look great – big or small, they’re nice, deep red, plump, round and virtually unblemished. Makes you wonder, he said once, how anything that looks so beautiful could taste so bland.
Over the years, tomatoes and other food plants have been cross-bred for hardiness, insect resistance, disease resistance and colorful, good-looking end products; however, the qualities in these hybrids that made them easier to grow and better-looking on the produce aisle often came at the expense of tastiness.
At Cherokee Creek Farm, Conger and his wife Alicia, have made a full-time operation out of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables, rather than modern-day hybrids. “Heirloom” varieties are the same as they were decades ago, perhaps as far back as the late 19th century; these are your grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s vegetable plants. Unfortunately, some are extinct, or have been lost, but many were saved year after year by farming families and gardening enthusiasts – people who appreciated them for the way they tasted, handing the seeds down to new generations of growers.
Today, there are seed companies that handle heirloom seeds, which can be ordered online.
Besides having only heirloom fruits and vegetables (with Aji Dulce shrubs scattered throughout to attract bees), Cherokee Creek Farm is completely organic. No chemicals, no fertilizers other than natural compost, and certainly, no pesticides. And since these heirloom plants aren’t as disease or insect-resistant….
“It’s labor-intensive,” Conger says, hand-picking worms off the wide leaves of the okra plants.
“But when you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t seem like work,” Alicia adds.
Farming is in their blood. Wayne grew up in Hialeah, a small town at that time, and recalls spending a lot of time with his grandfather in the garden, picking fresh vegetables. Wherever he lived as an adult, he always had a garden, even if it was only a collection of containers on a balcony.
Alicia grew up on her grandparents’ farm near Gainesville, where corn, watermelons and peanuts grew abundantly, where cows roamed the pastures and chickens provided fresh eggs. Fishing, swimming, gathering eggs and plenty of room to run around are some of her favorite childhood memories.
Although they both pursued other rewarding professions as adults, they still held a love of the land close to their hearts. In 2003, they purchased land in Madison County and Cherokee Creek Farm was born, named for Wayne’s great-great grandmother, a member of the eastern band of the Cherokee Nation, and Alicia’s great grandmother, a Creek from the south Alabama region. Cherokee Creek Farm is Certified Naturally Grown, and is a reflection of the Congers’ belief in sustainable agriculture and respect for the land and the wildlife it supports. Most of the 100 acres is a wildlife sanctuary. High fences keep hungry critters out of the growing areas, but there are four feeding stations nearby, regularly supplied with corn. The white-tailed deer love it.
“Certified Naturally Grown” seems to agree with the plants. In spite of having no chemical fertilizers, the plants are tall and the stems are sturdy. As an example, the okra plants tower overhead and the stems rising out of the soil are almost as thick as a small child’s wrist.
The difference is that, at Cherokee Creek Farm and other organic farms like it, they feed the soil, and the soil takes care of the plant. Most commercially produced fertilizers feed just the plant, adding nothing to the soil. Over time, the soil gradually becomes more and more depleted, requiring more and more fertilizer to get the same amount of yield, a cycle that eventually becomes unsustainable.
The soil is the key. It has to be fed and cared for; at Cherokee Creek, that means a combination of mushroom compost, chicken manure and wheat straw. The one thing to remember about using manure is to add it to the soil at least one month before planting (and make sure that’s at least three months before harvesting) so as not to burn the plants.
The soil has to be loosened for planting, but not with a garden tiller which loosens only the top layer, compacting the layer directly beneath. A plant’s root system cannot penetrate any lower than the tiller’s blades can reach. Instead, Conger uses a “broadfork,” a two-handled pitchfork-type tool with 12-inch tines that can be sunk into the ground by stepping onto the top edge between the handles, much like one would step on the top edge of a shovel to push it down into the soil. Then, one steps back and pulls the handles backward to lift the soil upward. Then, just move back nine inches and repeat the process all over again. For a video demonstration (not Conger, but someone using the same technique), go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22WjBjLiRoE).
This is another labor-intensive part of the organic farming operation, but it helps create the mound of loosened soil that is weeded and shaped into eight-inch-high raised plant beds, getting them ready for the compost and the plants.
Then, it’s time for the plants to go in, each plant raised from seed in small “cow pots” (between 1000 and 2000 tiny pots each year, made from dried cow manure) that can be set into the ground, pot and all. Alicia plants everything by hand.
Finally, there is the irrigation. The idea is to wet only the soil, not the plants, in order to inhibit mold, mildew and fungal growth, so that means no overhead irrigation or sprinkler systems. Instead…TO CONTINUE READING THIS STORY CLICK HERE OR PICK UP A COPY OF THE AUGUST 27, 2014 EDITION OF THE MADISON COUNTY CARRIER