Tugging at my parents to cease socializing after Sunday church, we rushed the two miles home in order to catch The Little Rascals on a fuzzy Charlotte television channel. More than fifty years later, I recall an episode which included three girls singing, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
The song, entitled by that line, gained fame during World War I, and continued to be sung by World War II soldiers. The lyrics voiced public concern that American soldiers, exposed to European culture, specifically Parisian city life, would not want to return to farm life—ominously prophetic words set to a lively little tune.
That television experience coincided with the construction of an interstate highway through my county—a concrete rainbow that brought tourists, strangely accented Northerners, and Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers, all packing monumental change.
In the 1960s of my childhood, the notion of leaving the farm in exchange for city life was as foreign to me as Paris. My ancestors had begun growing apples in the North Carolina mountains before the American Revolution, and a grade-school version of me was determined to keep the streak alive.
Already a statistical oddity, growing up on a family farm, all evidence around me pointed to the opposite. My home county held the distinction of being the highest concentration of apple production in the country. For miles, every acreage-owning resident grew apples. The tiny community where we attended church and gassed-up at my Uncle’s filling station supported three apple-packing houses. Within a five-mile radius of that point, more packing houses sprang up in profusion, outnumbering even the plentitude of churches in my Bible-belt world. And the kids at my local elementary school who didn’t speak apple-talk were the oddity.
April breezes, infused by billions of blossoms, made the air smell of roses—a close cousin of the apple. Outdoor conversations required added decibels to offset the sound of tractors and mighty sprayers projecting chemical mists through the orchard rows.
Fall brought the rumbling of just-picked apples tumbling into boxes, and the sharp odor of burnt diesel as tractors surged to load flatbed trucks with tons of ripe fruit on its way to the packing houses. Inside those busy structures, hives of seasonal workers graded and packed the apples for distribution throughout the country.
My family helped feed the world. Why would I abandon such a noble legacy?
The tragic statistic—transpiring decades before the 1960s—is that only one percent of Americans have the opportunity as I did, of growing up on a farm. Little wonder that nobody’s telling those old jokes about “the farmer’s daughter” these days.
I’m a dinosaur, and to my hurt, I keenly know it. No point in reminiscing about a charmed period of time and place which will never again exist. It’s a corporate world with corporate farms. The changes I’ve seen in the apple-growing industry are, for the most part, pointless to enumerate, because the current generation of decision-makers have no basis to envision images of the experience I carry. If younger folks want to know about the not-too-distant past, they can always Google it.
Change is an inevitability which I observe but do not begrudge, unlike old friends who have moved away in search of permanent small-town status quo. I wonder if any of them have realized that stasis is a fond illusion? That for small-town America, as well as for the family farm, the two choices are either growth or decay. Quaintness be damned! My grandchildren will likely never know the joy of membership in a family farming community. Yet I still hope, as is often the case for those who choose to imitate or recreate a model, that succeeded in their past.
Last week, a friend stopped by to pick up young trees I had grafted for him, graft wood taken from his late-grandfather’s aging tree, a Carolina June Apple. Two of that same variety used to stand below my grandparents’ house, fruit my grandmother transformed into neon-pink jelly. Prized as one of the earliest apples of the season, it lost favor to the minuscule number of varieties deemed worthy of commercial production—it, along with around another 5,000 varieties grown during the Colonial Period of my Welsh immigrants.
The exchange with my friend occurred after he had visited my neighbors, also legacy farmers. He services their gigantic controlled-atmosphere storage units, where they store a sizeable portion of the harvest from the few remaining local growers. Those apples get shipped to far states for conversion to baby food—part of the complex scheme of food production.
From the local pinnacle of corporate apple-growing, my friend stopped to retrieve heirloom-variety trees from my humble nursery. This make me smile with recollection, as it’s a glimpse into the latest revolution, one where Americans are demanding accountability for the food they consume.
“Eat Local,” a popular bumper sticker around here commands. A true sign of the times, it is a clarion for resurgence in small farms, especially those offering eco-friendly grown edibles. And in a shocking turn, a symbiotic relationship has begun to develop in my area, where both corporate and craft breweries want specialty apples to convert to hard cider.
Though I hesitate to say that apples are making a comeback, a blip of demand and recognition is a welcome addition.
My contribution to the movement is a no-spray orchard, which also excludes petro-chemical fertilizers and herbicides. I like to consider it repayment for the karmic debt accumulated by my family’s chemical romance—an association necessary to achieve visually viable commercial apples. Rather than the tiresome handful of varieties, I’m cultivating well over one-hundred exotics and heirlooms never seen on chainstore shelves.
New business models for a New South, for a new world, where change comes with increasing velocity, testing our willingness to either embrace it or be flattened in our stubborn tracks. The good old days never more than a wishful dream.
(Photo credit: Flickr.)