I remember the first time I saw what is now our home. A 2 1/2 mile hike through an area of the Cherokee National Forest which had not seen a hiker or other legal recreational user in many a year. To a property overgrown with pine trees, so thick you had to force your way between them, snapping off branches as you made your way along. And where there were breaks between the pines it was shoulder high in bramble, multi-flora, honeysuckle, and the like. The only structures on site were a falling down corn rick, home to a squirrel drey, and an old barn, mostly slumped into a pile of rotting timbers and rusting tin.
And I remember Frank, a misty look in his eyes, as he said “Isn’t this property amazing?”
It was showing the classic progression of abandoned farmland. The first successional species to take up in what was once pasture and agricultural land were ground vines and brambles, giving way to pine trees in various stages of maturity.
The property did have a lot of good things on its side, although I have to say they were really hard to see at the start. The property is situated in a “bowl,” tucked down in front of the National Forest, so it was nestled at the top of the watershed. It was downstream from nobody but the bears!! The ridges that circled the property and the fingers that poked out from them towards the “pine fields” were home to a richly diverse hardwood habitat. It had been logged for mature pine in the mid-80’s, but the logging was obviously fairly conservative and it seemed apparent that the hardwoods had not been touched.
The property boasted numerous creeks, and too many good springs to count. And it had a substantial amount of flat bottomland. It did have a lot of potential.
At 305 acres it was obviously not going to be a quick fix. It was intensively farmed in the mid part of the 1900’s, mostly for corn and tobacco, and was used for cattle. As the farmer aged and started to slow down, select areas were left uncut and allowed to grow wild. In the late 1980’s the property changed hands and was used primarily for running cattle, but from what we can tell only on about 40 of its once 80 acres of pasture. (It has taken two men three solid weeks to pull most of the barbed wire off the property). Our next-door neighbor is in his early 70’s and remembers when farmer Fred O’Dell had the whole property cleared. In fact at one time our neighbor Luther used to walk through it to get to the Davis Schoolhouse, in what is now National Forest!
Our plan for re-creating what we would name the Hog Back Farm (a local name for the ridgeline surrounding the farm) started with the obvious – clearing a little space in the pines for a small cabin from which to work. The broken barn was dismantled and sorted into re-usable and firewood piles. We brought in an old box truck and took the box off the back to use as a tool storage shed.
Next we started to think about how to clear some of the land back to pasture. My dream was to have horses, so that was always at the back of my mind. And we would need a garden. Living on the property in the early days made me realize the innate human need to clear a little space for yourself. I guess we are creatures of edge habitat, like the majority of animals and birds who live in the woods. The thick trees made me feel like I wanted to stretch my neck up and catch a breath up above them all.
Now I know to many this may seem foolish, like we overlooked a serious question when we purchased this land, but it hadn’t occurred to us as to exactly HOW we would go about clearing it! So we did what most of us would do. We asked around. We asked locals, we asked graders, we asked tree specialists. And mostly we got what has proven to be poorly thought-through answers. So initially we started out with two chainsaws and a lot of hauling brush into great towering piles. Boy, it was slow. Two men and a crew of brush pullers could clear maybe a quarter acre in a day. And what a lesson that was for me as to how much “stuff” a whole tree is, even a small one. They are heavy, they take up a lot of space, they don’t pile up neatly and, surprise surprise, freshly cut pine trees don’t actually burn that well.
So we were slowly creating these clear areas studded with short stumps and decorated with huge unsightly burn piles. We tried another tactic. We called in the dozer! We had a good bulldozer operator who had done some technical work on our new road, and whom we trusted. He cleared about two acres directly below our house to enable us to put in a garden. And clear it was. Of everything. Except the brush piles. Did I mention those before? Well these were a whole different creature. From the couple of acres we cleared we had two piles approximately twelve feet high, about twelve to fifteen feet wide and about one hundred feet long. Each. And we lived with them for four years in the end!
At this point we started to realize that there had to be a better way. And hence our entry into the world of forestry mulching-a solution that addressed every reservation we had about every other clearing method.
To date, May 2010, we have cleared about 30 acres of pasture on our own land. We have developed a protocol that puts our three horses to good use. We clear and fence acreage, just mulching roughly, and then allow the horses to stomp about, pooping and peeing, and generally speeding up the decay of the mulch. The first pasture had horses on it for two years, and has just been seeded this spring. This area was dense pines primarily, with a little poplar thrown in. The second pasture was cleared this spring of pines and poplar and was even more densely covered than the first and with a little more hardwood. The horses are living there right now. We are expecting to re-mulch it in a single afternoon this fall, and seed it then.
Our farm is giving us the opportunity to experiment with different techniques. It is made up of various areas that were in pasture and agricultural use that stopped being tended to at different points in time. The result is that we have areas to clear that are further along than others in their re-vegetation. The grade and aspect of the property also lends itself to naturally differing growth, hence taking a different approach to it all.
For example, we have approximately 65 or 70 acres of pulp wood, of which about 40 or 50 acres will be returned to pasture. The remainder we would like to return to forest including the hardy new American chestnut hybrid we are currently experimenting with. We have surprisingly few deer considering the habitat; mostly, we suspect, due to an outbreak of hemorrhagic epizootic disease that struck in the late 90s so we constantly working to improve our edge habitat and food source offerings. Unfortunately we also have some unwelcome porcine inhabitants with IQs around 200. If we ever get proficient enough we’ll offer wild boar removal as a service.(We’ll be paid in tenderloin).
About four years ago we cut trails up onto the hardwood ridges to create a loop. We have used them infrequently and they are just about due for a little touch up, so they have held up incredibly well. They were simply cut by pointing the ASV with mulching head in the direction we wanted to walk. In this fashion we created nearly half a mile of new trail in a single day, with good head clearance and fantastic soft footing, not a stump to trip over in sight. One of our access roads was badly blocked after the heavy snow of December 2009, but half a day with a chainsaw and an ASV took quick care of it.
We have many other plans and dreams for our property. We hope to be able to include an intern in the program in 2011, and to undertake some additional projects. We are excited to tepidly investigate cattle as a pasture restoration tactic and free-range meat supply.