McDowell Technical Community College

The Rest of the Story

By Farmer Doug

This story brings many things to mind today.  We were producing 300-400 gallons of pure sorghum syrup molasses when Farmer Clint was writing this story and this past year we only produced 140 gallons.  The spring weather just did not agree with plant germination so we never got a good stand of sorghum.  The process had changed from using a tobacco hatchet to a John Deere corn binder so we had an easier time with the harvesting.  Clint would have enjoyed watching that process but it would never have done to let him run the machine!  As I have matured more, I personally realize that some of the things that have taken place on the farm must change with my physical ability to do the manual labor that Clint never enjoyed but was always so willing to try and do.

The Christmas trees are another facet that has changed dramatically with this harvest that we just finished this past week.  We started growing Christmas trees on Harrell Hill Farms in 1978. That folks, was a long time ago.  When Clint was helping me shear the trees, we had 50-60,000 trees on the farm to take care of.  He actually sheared 5 trees while I sheared two full rows of trees.  We started in two rows together and I went to the end of my row and came back to him in his row, it was more like 50 to 1, but his trees did look good.

This past Saturday I was on the same hill that Clint was talking about, as we cut the last Christmas tree for wholesale that will probably be cut on Harrell Hill Farms in my lifetime.  I have reached the ripe old age of 73, and am still, thank God, able to do a lot of things on the farm. The time has come to cut back on some of the things like this.  Clint would have looked at me in disbelief if he could read this, he thought I was invincible and could do anything, sorry Clint, I can’t do it anymore either.  I know that Clint would want me to wish each of you a blessed and Christ filled Christmas.  Merry Christmas to all.

Doug

From Gooey Sorghum To The Perfect Christmas Tree

By Clint Pollard – Editor

The varied communiqués I receive indicate that you enjoy reliving my close encounters and personal perils at Harrell Hill Farms. Oftentimes I wonder how it is that Christian brothers and sisters can derive such perverse pleasure from Farmer Clint’s near misses with eternityJ. You may be surprised to learn that my entire lifetime, even pre-farming days, could be characterized by bizarre occurrences. One day I will recount for you how I was run over by an outboard motor after falling into one of Alaska’s most frigid and dangerous rivers. But not now, after all this is Christmas Season and I need to share a holiday farm story.

No “Tap” On A Tree

Call me crazy, but as a boy I remember seeing pictures of syrup coming from a spigot tapped into a tree. It is little wonder, then, that I imagined molasses freely flowing from a tree trunk somewhere in the hills of Western North Carolina. So when Doug first mentioned a “cane field” I conjured up the image of bamboo, thinking we would be harvesting fishing poles! Imagine my surprise when he took me into a thicket of bamboo-like plants and told me it was time to make molasses.

I vaguely remembered him giggling whenever he warned me of the coming cane harvest. He would say things like, “You will really enjoy cutting cane, stalk by stalk, on your knees with a little hatchet.” Having no frame of reference I simply ignored my mentor’s attempt at humor and went about the business of trying not to kill myself in day-to-day farming. Anyway, the premonition of medieval torture was accurate and I spent many an hour chopping down sorghum cane stalks with an itsy bitsy hatchet-like thingy. How hard can that be, you may ask…well when you repeat that tomahawk motion 5,000,000,000,000 times without a break it is a chore! Then comes the dubious pleasure of loading TALL cane stalks onto pickup trucks and hauling it back to the barn. How hard can this be, you may ask…well when you pick up 5,000,000,000,000 LONG sticks and put ‘em on a truck it is a chore!

Arriving back at the barn it’s time to unload the cane and feed it into a GIANT munching thingy…Doug calls it a cane mill, but that’s pretty technical if you ask me. Fact is I call things what they do, and that thing munches cane – pure and simple. As always, I was warned about the hazards of this machinery…I am amazed at the gazillion ways a man can die while producing food products for you folks to eat! And, of course, I had visions of being swallowed up by the GIANT cane muncher, being spit out the other side flattened like Pillsbury Christmas cookie dough!

When ya squish the cane, aka munching it, putrid looking green liquid oozes out of the stalk, drips into a pan covered by a screen, is then siphoned into a stainless steel vat, and squirts out a hose into a heated maze-like contraption where it meanders down various channels for hours on end. All the while ya have to scoop the green slime from the top of the traveling liquid and dump the sludge into a 5 gallon pickle bucket (or whatever comes in the bucket…who the heck cares!) And, FYI, while you are desperately avoiding the boiling substance it is important, also, to fight off the 5,000,000,000,000 yellow jackets which descend upon the sweet, sticky stuff hoping for one more taste of life before being frozen for the winter. And, someday I need to tell you about feeding 5 gallons of the sludge/slime/molasses to 4 little piggiesJ. But that’s not for today, it’s Christmas, remember?

Wonder of wonders, after about six hours of boiling the pale green stuff it morphs into the most beautiful amber liquid and pours out a sweet, delectable molasses product that is to die for! (Not literally to die for, although I nearly fell into the boiling mixture on one occasion.) But I’m here to tell you, if you haven’t sampled Harrell Hills Farms Pure Sorghum Molasses you are a deprived human being.

All that to say, I had to finish making molasses before being taken to the Christmas Tree patch.

Farmer Clint Turns Samurai…

One thing I know for certain, every facet of farming is hard…every product is hazardous…every tool a weapon of mass destruction. (Hmmm, that’s actually three things I know for certain.) Anyway….

Early on Saturday morning, after molasses season, Doug took me someplace on a BIG mountain over at Tipton Hill. He explained that we would be shearing Christmas trees in advance of the annual harvest. As with every other crop field I’ve worked, this one was on a BIG hill and my fused ankle strained to cooperate with the hillside. (If you’ve never tried walking sideways on a hill with an ankle that doesn’t bend, it’s no small chore.)

Farmer Doug Exhibit 1….”Clint, this is a shearing knife,” he said with that Cheshire cat grin. Folks I’m telling ya, I looked at that implement and trembled. This “knife” is really a 3’ razor blade on a stick…in fact I’m pretty sure it’s what they string around a fence to keep inmates in prison. Regardless, what in the heck was I supposed to do with THAT? Quickly I was able to transform my thinking and transport my spirit back to the days of Genghis Khan…here I am, Farmer Clint Samurai Warrior!

Farmer Doug Demonstration 1….”Clint, you shear the trees like this” (and he saunters his TALL mountain man self around that tree, raising the blade high overhead and dropping it with precision on the uneven branches).

Farmer Doug Caution 1….”Clint, the most important part of this entire job is KEEP THE TREE BETWEEN YOU AND THE KNIFE, or you will SLICE YOUR LEG OFF.” (Now I see why people are converting to artificial trees, these real Frasers are dangerous!) By the way, friends, I’m imagining pain, anguish and severed limbs by this point. After all, despite what you may have heard, I am not the world’s most coordinated farmer.

Alone At Last…

Don’t get me wrong, I love Doug Harrell; there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the man. But I enjoy working ALONE…being “one” with the farm…the solitude of the soil…the peace of NOT HAVING HIM LOOKING OVER MY SHOULDER. And, sure enough, Doug finally set out to begin shearing trees. I was convinced that before long I would OWN the shearing process and my trees would look far better than Doug’sJ.

Photo of Christmas TreeMaking Dreams Come True…

I must say, I began to “get into” this activity…it became somewhat of a waltz for me, a bit like “Farmer Clint Wins Dancing with the Stars.” Granted I occasionally tripped over my fused ankle and nearly amputated myself, but the dance was worth it. Think about it, here I am only months into my apprenticeship as a REAL FARMER; I am now making families’ dreams come true by shaping their Christmas tree. This is a romantic notion I don’t care who you are…me, Farmer Clint, carefully and skillfully shaping each Fraser Fir in my path with tender loving care. I’m envisioning the glee-filled squeals of little children as they “choose and cut” MY tree out of this patch. I, Farmer Clint, am helping God to put the finishing touches on THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREE.

Doug The Dream Squisher…

3-4 hours into our day of shearing, I sense Doug approaching down my row. His face is contorted a wee bit, an expression I’ve come to read as…”Ummmm, Pollard, what are you doing?”  Or, “What have you been doing?” Not to be dissuaded, I inquired, “Now, tell the truth, Doug…have you ever seen more beautifully sheared Christmas trees than these?” I could tell that my friend was indeed awe stricken….”Well, he began…they are beautiful, Clint; honestly, they are. But I don’t want you to fall in love with the tree…we just don’t have time to make it a part of our family…I want you to shear it!”

“Douglas,” I began, “this is a family’s dream, their tradition, their hope for the future; this may be their last Christmas together and I want their tree to be perfect!” Crooked grin in place, Doug replied, “And you’ve done that with the 5 trees you’ve finished, Clint. The problem is I’m shearing 25 trees to your 1 and the truck will be here next week to take more than 1,000 trees up north. At the pace you’re going we will only have a dozen or so finished!”

That day, back in early November, I submitted to Doug’s authority as Harrell Hill Head Honcho and completed my shearing task with warp speed – well, as fast as a man with a fused ankle, swinging a 3’ long razor blade can finish. But later on…

Getting Even At The Christmas Tree Lot…

One weekend in early December Doug and Barbara asked me to “man the tree lot”, selling Christmas trees to friends and neighbors. I knew this was my chance to make things right, to correct the error of Doug’s ways…so while he was away I got one of the Samurai Christmas Tree Swords and trimmed, ever so carefully, EACH of the trees on that lot…at last creating THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREEs. I am thinking the heavens rejoiced at the beauty of these symbols of the season.

And just think, Doug doesn’t know about it, to this day! Merry Christmas friends.

Humbled in the hills,

Farmer Clint