Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.
I’m going to paint a picture for you. Waterfalls and woods open up to fields against a mountainous backdrop. A ways down the road, the sunshine bounces off of cars parked along the embankment of a river. As you pull up, questioning whether this is the right place, your assumptions are confirmed when a rope bridge appears, laying out a pathway from the world you know to acres of bounty just feet away.
Welcome to River Valley Farm, run by David and Barbara King and their family. I teamed up with Blue Ridge Mountain Bounty to tour the farm and what we saw was astounding. A list of what they grow? It would be easier to list what doesn’t grow on this ten-acre farm in Abingdon.
From fig trees, insulated by plastic and expected to yield several buckets of nature’s candy, to mulberries and gooseberries, they not only grow standard fruits and veggies but rarer specialty plants as well. Years of living with and listening to the land has resulted in an oasis in which they live off of.
I tried fennel, which is straight licorice to your senses, savored strawberries, and was introduced to several farming methods demonstrated by David and his son, Elam. Movable hoop-houses made from ten-foot pipes bent by a local welder are easily taken apart and moved around the farm to keep up with nature and accommodate production.
The feature photo was photobombed by their resident cow and comedian, Faun. Every animal I met had personality, and each hand tool well-worn. Theirs is a unique story, starting in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and landing in Southwest Virginia to find new family and new community. Speaking to Barbara and their youngest child, Malinda, you get a sense that community, living simply, and faith are the cornerstones of their lives.
Community is defined as “a feeling of fellowship with others”, and I received that the moment I stepped foot on their farm…the kittens running around didn’t hurt either. Enjoy the interview below and check out their products at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and Blue Hills Market in Abingdon, Virginia!
S: How long have you all lived here?
David: Twenty-two years.
S: Twenty-two years. And how did you find this place?
D: Well, we were living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
S: Ah, yes! I grew up not far from there in Maryland!
D: OK, yeah! So, we and several other families wanted to live in a more rural area and we had several different friends in this area. So, they helped us to find this place.
S: And you have children in the area, so a few of them were very young when they moved here?
D: In fact, our three youngest were born here. We have eight children. The three youngest are still home and five oldest have all left and are living in this area. That’s Ranger (the fluffy dog). He’s old and got a little bit of lameness to him.
S: I’m so interested in the bridge too. When you first moved here, is it the first thing you built? And did you get a group of people to help build it?
D: Well, there were two other families that moved here with us at the same time in 1995 and there was no bridge here. The first summer we got together, the afternoons we would be bridge building and the mornings we would be farming. That type of thing. Men and several boys, some neighbors pitched in. It was quite a task to put that up.
S: It’s amazing. I’m trying to figure out how you constructed it. I just wanna run around on it.
D: Well, you know, we put the pillars in place and we put holes in the pillars for the cable. The bridge is held up by four cables as in two on top where you hold your hands and two cables underneath. Lots of people have been on that bridge at one time.
Elam: We’ve never had anybody fall off either.
S: Ha, that’s great!
D: First, we’re going to demonstrate on how we use a bulb planter to plant the plants on the black plastic that we’ve laid. Right here, this is a bulb planter that actually opens up. Most bulb planters don’t do that. They’re made in one solid piece. But for us, we like this. And then just set the plant in, shake the dirt out…pretty fast. Our farm here consists of ten acres cleared, and we rotate with the grass fields and some corn for the animals…‘cause we have a small herd of goats, we have two horses and a cow, and we have enough land that we can do it. So, about half will be vegetables in one year and the rest will be grass fields and some will be for field corn.
S: How long had you been farming before you came here?
D: Been a farmer all my life. Grew up on a dairy and produce farm. My parents had both a dairy and a produce stand, retailed from the farm, and so that’s what I grew up with. So, when we married back in 1982 that’s what we wanted to do. We’ve been produce farmers all our married life.
S: Had Barbara grown up on a farm as well?
D: Yes, on a dairy farm.
S: It was in your blood.
D: Our inheritance as farmers, yep. Here’s our melon field, as in both cantaloupe and watermelons. Of course they’re real tiny yet. Again, these are plants we started in the greenhouse and we did the bulb planter method of putting them in here. This is an area where we had a lot of greens and herbs last fall. This is cilantro that has bolted, and we do our best to let cilantro bolt and bloom because one of the things we want to do here for natural insect control is having a lot of things blooming throughout the season, because that attracts the beneficial insects. It brings them in and they have a habitat they like and then they go to work at getting the bad bugs. You know, the way nature intended. But the more we work on having flowering plants around the farm and amongst the produce the more effective that is, which is called “farm-scaping”.
S: Malinda, what’s your favorite part of living here?
Malinda: I like being homeschooled here.
D: And we could talk about the fact that this farm is a place for our children to bring their friends. We have a volleyball set and we love having them over for playing and things like that. Summer picnics and potlucks.
S: It just seems like such an incredible place to grow up too. I mean, this is such an amazing place.
D: Well, that is why we live here. For different reasons of course, but because of it being an excellent place to raise our family—our oldest being about twelve years old when we moved here. Here, let’s stand over on the bridge for a photo. We love this bridge, it’s our link to the other side. All our produce goes over this bridge. We have an express wagon that we put it on and we’ll pile it as full as we can.
S: Six AM on Saturday mornings?
D: Ha, yes! That’s right. Welcome to our high tunnel where we grow crops year-round. Along there we have some herbs, as in rosemary. This is the French sorrel, where Elam is there is a big patch of oregano, and beyond that is a fairly big patch of thyme. To the side there we have blackberries. Amazingly early. They are actually an ever-bearing blackberry, kind of a rare type, where they’ll bear an early crop and then the next crop will come in, like, August and produce ‘til frost. But having some inside here just extends that season even further.
Elam: They’re starting to get pink down there.
D: Yeah, there’s a couple pink ones which means in ten days there’ll be ripe blackberries!
S: Yes! And it smells incredible in here.
D: It has to do with the basil, I think. Our hoops (hoop houses) are movable. This whole structure was sitting over here in the winter time and the advantage to having it movable is we can have crops “over wintering” here and when they’re not done yet, come April 1st, we can just let them stay here and start over.
S: And “over wintered” means grew too long to be useful?
D: Over wintered just means they survived the winter. Sometimes when we have harsh winters it will actually kill them because of the cold. But this year was relatively mild. Here is our cucumber hoop house. I know that they’ve started to ripen. Right here is one of them. This is the greenhouse type that sells for like two dollars apiece at stores at this time of year, especially. This is a row of gooseberries. In about a month these will be ripe, pink gooseberries. To those who aren’t familiar with gooseberries, I like to say they’re kind of like an early grape.
S: You know I’m going to have to ask about the granola as well. Please tell me about it!
Barbara: Oh, we love it because it’s so crunchy! We make it with the big oats and then the brown sugar, maple syrup, real butter.
D: The secret is the slow baking. I call it baking to perfection.
Barbara: And we don’t bake it on high temperatures. No higher than two-fifty, and usually only for a little while and then I put it down more and more as it dries.
D: Let’s go in the greenhouse. There’s the wood stove pipe to keep it warm in the winter. There’s a couple solar panels. This is where we raise our plants. And this is a unique kind of compost tea or fertilizer tea. Spray it on the leaves and they’ll take in the nutrients, so there’s a lot of trace minerals and different things that feed the plants in this mixture. The reason there’s a little bubbler in here is it enhances the bacteria, the life in this mixture. Putting air into it. Another reason I have this is I’m experimenting with a small hydroponic system, organic hydroponic. And these are little fig trees. Right here, little figs that are just one of the sweetest fruits. These cucumbers were planted here late March and they’re in good production. Picking all these cucumbers, this is actually a thrilling part of the farm to be able to harvest this nice kind of cucumber this early. These are burpless and seedless. And burpless…normal cucumbers will generally make you burp from the gas, which isn’t that comfortable. But there’s a few varieties of cucumbers called burpless and they don’t do that. Easier on your stomach.
S: Do you use your horses for your farming?
D: I do some with horse and some with tractors. One of our primary cultivation tools, it’s called a one-horse cultivator, where we hitch the horse and somebody will be guiding the horse and the other person will be back here behind it. It will adjust down narrow where lots of stuff is growing, and then we’ve got adjustability real wide if you take this wide of a swath. I can adjust as we go. We also have a two-horse cultivator, as in a riding cultivator, where it’ll throw soil on the row and cover the weeds and not cover the corn plants. It’s kind of unique, it’s hard to find a piece of tractor equipment that will be equivalent and can do that same thing. The only cultivator that I’ve found that had that amount of precision. The other thing is that as I’m sitting on the cultivator I have something like stirrups where my feet go and I can guide the cultivator this way or that way.
S: Ahh, look at that beautiful horse!
D: That’s Sparky. You can pet him if you want to. Here we have a row of peach trees. There can be some years where there’s a lot of work to growing peaches and having to thin them out. Nature tends to send way too many and when there’s way too many then none of them can get big and sweet. It’s like nature can only put so much sweetness into a fruit crop and if it’s spread out into too many, then none of them are sweet.
S: Interesting. So, you number the amount you have?
D: Sort of, yeah. We look for defects and we look for saving the biggest ones. We have thirty-three trees and we planted them in order of ripening starting here with, let’s see, eleven different varieties. So, this is the earliest kind and they’ll ripen in July. Just kind of moving down the row in ripening order. If we just had one type of peach tree there would be, let’s say, a three-week window of having ripe peaches. But, this way we have closer to two months. July, August, and maybe into September.
S: You have grandchildren in the area too, don’t you?
D: Two grandchildren, yeah.
S: How old are they?
D: One and two.
S: I bet they can’t get enough of this place.
D: Well especially the two year old, he just loves it.