About Frank and Carrie
We fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2005 when we swapped our recently remodeled Victorian in downtown Asheville for a beautiful, abandoned 300 acre property in the mountains of East Tennessee. The idea was to move closer to the pastimes we enjoyed or wanted to explore – hunting, gardening, animal husbandry, horsemanship and backwoods living in general – Or maybe there was no clear idea, just impulsion accompanied by justification. It doesn’t really matter, we are here and we’re not moving back!
Despite coming without access to power, running water or any usable structures (and without access in general) we thought we could make a go of it. The land was haunting and surreal – an abandoned farm (plus 2 graveyards) situated in an upland basin surrounded almost entirely by National Forest. It had everything – steep, rolling and flat terrain, numerous creeks and springs, decent stands of hardwoods, as well as a dilapidated system of logging and farm roads. The previous owner, a resident of Alaska with whom we forged an amicable lease-purchase agreement, knew almost nothing of the property; he had simply bought it as an investment some years before. Twenty years of neglect had left former crop fields and pasture in an advanced state of succession. A few wetter acres were merely overgrown with saplings, multi-flora rose, sumac etc., but the majority was a tangled jungle of yellow pine, poplar and cedar ranging from three to ten inches in diameter. Our first goal, however, was a place to live.
Building a Cabin Without a Road
My former business partner, and good friend Nate, and I began construction of a 16’ x 18’ cabin in the spring 2004 while the property was still a “hunting lease.” Owning a construction company provided the necessary expertise, as well as a helluva lot of re-purposed material. It it didn’t account for the lack of a usable road. The property had no right-of-way, an issue that wouldn’t be fully resolved for another eight years. Our only option was an overgrown mud bogging route – initial failed entry attempts included a borrowed bulldozer and an appearance in federal court – apparently no amount of passion and/or ignorance is sufficient to offset unapproved rehabilitation of national forest lands. We also tried filling the enormous mud-bogging craters with brush and carpet scraps pillaged from the dumpster of a local carpet outlet. (This strategy usually allowed for a respectable entry pass at just the right speed, but not often an easy exit, especially after rain. Much was learned about the mechanical advantages of good cable rigging and caffeine).
Over a series of long weekends and treacherous supply hauls we managed a modest cabin, comprised mostly of materials recycled from remodeling jobs and scrap from the old collapsed barn. Those foolish enough to accompany us for a “work weekend” seldom returned. By the end of 2004 the base footprint of the cabin we now call home was “ roughly” complete…accept for power and running water and insulation and really anything that might constitute an amenity. We also managed to drag in and plumb an ancient, leaky Knox Meal Master – a kitchen mainstay for impoverished Appalachian households for nearly a century ( thus beginning our enchantment with traditional wood cook stoves). Shortly after, we rehabilitated the old forest service road, this time with appropriate permitting, and were now able to expand our efforts. Sadly, both pickups trucks were casualties of war, the stalwart 1995 Tacoma to “ repeated terrain encounters” and my lovely red 1986 F-150 to arson – not everyone was excited about the loss of quality mud bogging in the area…
Early Attempts to Clear Abandoned Fields
After repeated attempts to clear the 90 plus acres of former pasture we realized that all traditional methods only created further issues and setbacks. We wanted to “work to scale” but also to use the available biomass (i.e. the pines and cedars) in a beneficial manner. We tried both hand clearing and bulldozing. The hand clearing was grueling and ineffectual, while the bulldozer destroyed the soil structure and left enormous brush piles and erosion issues – you never go for a haircut and tell the barber, “ go ahead and take a little scalp.” It was at this juncture that research turned up the fledgling field of forestry mulching. We learned that we could kill all birds with one stone, turning thick 5 to 15 year old successional growth into mulch right on the spot. The mulch also protected the soil from erosion while degrading into a rich, black layer. We experimented with different levels of re-growth, inclination and aspect. In every case we were ecstatic – old cattle ditches were filled with mulch, reforested field areas were selectively thinned, farm roads and survey lines were recovered. We even cut horse trails with excellent mulch for footing and good clearance. The results were other-worldly, the machinery however, was not. Forestry mulching is a high impact sport. First generation mulchers, and many still being built today, were basically experiments perpetrated on those in forestry and excavation trades. When they weren’t overheating, they were disabled by engineering issues. It wasn’t pretty but we persevered, refining techniques, improving maintenance, and providing necessary feedback, requested or otherwise, to the industry.
Our Family Expands
Our son Silas arrived early in 2007, and slowed proceedings somewhat. His arrival eventually became impetus to finally cobble our disparate solar components into a functional off-grid power system. (Upshot – have a professional design and build your system… and yes, you do need all those finicky little proprietary clips and bits. We spent several days designing and welding a stout solar rack in order to save money. Total savings – about $8…hmmm. We also simultaneously built a pump and filtration system, with some thoughtful plumbing assistance from Kingsly Pugh of Harvest the Sun, to bring creek water to the house – we are lucky enough to own the watershed and brave enough to drink from the creek with minimal filtration.
In typical homesteading fashion things didn’t quite work exactly as planned. Just as we were becoming comfortable with our new amenities came a strike of lightening – Literally! Thanks to a direct hit to our system we were returned to our previous primitive living conditions for another eight months before repairs were completed….Perhaps in some mysterious way we procrastinated. Then followed the Great Recession. Progress continued on the farm but work was slow. Much time was spent planning and looking forward. By the end of 2011 there was light at the end of the tunnel… a tiny economic flickering, a few timid clients with miniscule budgets nursing us forward with a tree job or lot clearing here, a road or wall there, some occasional pasture restoration etc. By the end of 2012 we were again profitable…and a lot meaner and leaner. Like other companies who escaped the ravages of economic collapse we were back with renewed vigor, better organized and more deeply committed to customer service, improved field standards and education. The economic downturn gave us the necessary time needed to flesh out a formal working philosophy, Integrated Land Management. It also gave us time to get many of our farm endeavors, horses, chickens, cows and, more recently, rabbits and geese underway. This included new access. By the end of 2012 our right-of way issues were finally resolved, freeing us up for 2015’s mile long driveway construction project which cut 20 minutes plus off our daily commutes….ometimes it isn’t just the little things that make the difference, it’s the big ones.
In 2013, our second son, Cade, arrived and the pace quickened. We brought several new talented, hard-working employees aboard and updated our equipment arsenal. As an industry leader in responsible land restoration and development we also decided it was time to give something back. 2014 allowed us to the opportunity to contribute both muscle and expertise to a few worthy causes close to home including, Asheville Community Yoga, St. Matthias Episcopal Church and The Hot Springs Community Learning Center. Work can really be more enjoyable when you take money out of the equation. We are also, finally, close on the heels of legitimate farm production. We’ve started a management intensive rotational grazing program for cattle (the bull rotates on his own schedule) and begun experimenting with seasonal grass plantings….Can’t quite see the horses figuring into future profits but we continue to push our equestrian clients towards a growing understanding of Natural Horsemanship…
More than a decade into it, our commitment to the revitalization of the region’s delicate ecosystems and native resources continues to grow. We are currently experimenting with a variety of natural soil amendments, such as fish hydrolysate, myccorhizael additives, as well as native grass plantings, loblolly pine savannahs and small fruit cultivation. Each year we mulch several acres of abandoned field in an effort to reach our target goal of 100 pasturable acres. This year we hope to up the ante by sustainably logging 30 to 40 acres of poor successional growth under our Forest Stewardship plan. We are hoping some early successful growth post timber harvest will create major habitat benefits.
As of this writing, Christmas 2016, I’m hobbled by recent ankle surgery and can barely keep up with our V & V field commitments which are certain to expand following the massive Gatlinburg fire. Some much needed rain may finally give me the time to design a respectable barn and pond and catch up on some home improvements. Stay tuned for more rural madness and adventure in 2017.
Frank Vogler holds a B.S. in Political Science and B.A. In Classical Guitar Performance from Vanderbilt University, Nashville Tn. His graduate studies were conducted under acclaimed classical master Robert Guthrie at Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tx. Frank maintains interests in Continental Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Conservation Biology and Professional Wine Tasting, as well as more physical pastimes such as Yoga, Hunting and Natural Horsemanship. Frank is an experienced woodsman, carpenter and heavy equipment operator, as well as a passionate stone mason and land designer. He is also an avid writer and strongly believes in the virtues of quality education, constructive discourse and environmental conservation.