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Century Oaks Farm

Ozarks Blackberrying

Phil NicholsOne of the up sides of a wet year, here in the Ozarks, is an abundance of big luscious wild blackberries. Unfortunately they don’t come without a price. Here in the hills these tasty black beauties start to come ripe around the 1st of July. I generally figure on checking the year’s output around the 4th and this year was no exception.  

Our neighbor to the north has a blackberry bramble in an overgrown strip abutting our lane and has given me permission, through the years, to pick all I want. So I keep an eye on things during my daily sojourns. On one of our trips to town I recently picked a handful for sampling and my wife agreed that this year’s crop was a dandy.

Into the third day of a four day weekend, I decided that it was time to venture forth into the bush and I do mean bush. Now came the part where the price is paid. The bill is tendered in ticks, chiggers, sweat and blood and the occasional brush with poison ivy. Death by a thousand tiny stab wounds would be a good characterization.

wild blackberries on bush

These aren’t thornless domesticated, tame blackberries. These puppies will rip the hide off your body if you’re not careful. I would strongly advise those new to the game to wear a long sleeve shirt and a leather glove on the toting hand. I used to cut the top out of a milk jug and run my belt through the handle. With both hands empty it was way easier to hold down the given cane with my gloved left hand while I picked berries with the right one. Now-a-days I generally just slip a surplus plastic shopping bag over my left hand. Doubling the bags isn’t a bad idea as the excruciatingly sharp stickers will rip a careless picker’s bag open—depositing the hard won fruits in the weeds.

It’s just about impossible to pick our native blackberries without shedding some blood. Inevitably, no matter how careful you are a thorn/s will grab you as you’re reaching to pick the given berry. It’s best to take the pain and not jerk back when one does stab you. The way blackberry thorns are curved tends to make them sink in even further if you pull back. Worse yet, the razor sharp little stilettos will carve a furrow through your hide if you pull back too precipitately. Better to push gently forward in the direction your hand was going to un-impale yourself. Else you’ll end up looking like a wildcat worked you over.

wounds from blackberry harvesting

A blackberry patch is no place for the weak of heart or feeble of body. It helps a lot if you’re limber enough to pick your knees up to about your chin in order to be able to step down on the six to eight feet high canes as you work you way through. If you try to squeeze past them they’re gonna get you, I can guarantee.

I try to work my way around the periphery of the patch, rather than marching through it. Once you get a path stomped down the next trip will likely be easier.

When they first come on, only a berry or two at the tip of the given branch will be ripe. So it’s a pretty safe bet that should your fortitude allow—you’ll want to make a second or third trip before they are done for the season.

Happy hunting.

Monsoon Gardening

Phil NicholsIt’s been a tough year for gardeners here in the Ozarks hill country. A month of near constant rains drowned many first plantings. I’ve replanted two and three times already and aside from some minor successes the only crops that have really done well came from the first trench row that I managed to get in ahead of the monsoon. We just finished a delicious bowl of ham and beans, cooked with fresh collard greens (from that row). Radishes turned out great and curly mustard (I’m letting it go to seed for saving) was a great add to the outstanding iceberg lettuce salads from that row. Nice crisp young turnips simmered in water with a chicken bullion cube and bacon have also been gracing our table. The only thing that didn’t do well in that row was spinach; don’t know what to say about that one spinach has always been a tough sell in our clime.

garden with standing water

This past weekend finally turned out dry enough to work the soil, so I cranked up the tiller and went to work. Since my bush beans and okra both succumbed to the boggy conditions in the garden and we are forecast for yet another week of downpours, I took a cue from the three hills of melons that I planted a couple of weeks ago. They withstood a torrential onslaught and still managed to keep my watermelon seed high and dry enough to germinate. So I hoed up two long hills for the okra and beans. We’ll see.

My first planting of corn (trench rowed) was really spotty so I kept shoving seed into the ground in an effort to get the four rows filled out. It hasn’t been a raging success but it’s starting to look like corn anyway. Not too sure that the seed I saved last year isn’t the problem. Rather than taking seed from the best ears, I used the nubbins and tag ends. If the crop makes this go round I’ll be a bit more selective; Penny wise and pound foolish.

filled out trench row

I also made a succession planting of my saved seed Bradford Melons. The literature I received from the Bradford family last year gave instructions to create a hill, dig out the center, pour in good composted manure and stand back; once the melons start to vine, weed as necessary until the vines cover the area and then stay out till harvest time. I’ve got nine hills now and will plant six more. With any luck I’ll have some old-timey tasting melons for this year’s farmer’s market that come ripe over a period of weeks rather than all at once.

melon mounds after planting

On the way into work this morning, I pondered why, at 71 years of age, I’m still willing to fight weather, varmints, insects and old age to dig in the dirt. Unlike my ancestors, we certainly don’t have to have the produce to survive. I do enjoy bringing wholesome organic vegetables to our table and it pleases me to deliver them to neighbors who can no longer work the earth but there has to be something more that makes the sweat, toil and frequent disappointments worth the trouble. Still pondering that one.

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Five

Phil NicholsThe Nichols family has survived these past thirty seven years by being willing to do just about any job that came along; including picking up walnuts for cash our first year. Many of the local folk, who are well established and accustomed to life here in the hills, don’t waste their time on such endeavors. They frequently have numerous walnut trees and will allow them to be harvested on shares or just because. Until you’ve spent a month or two bent over scooping these rock-hard nuts into bucks and then heaving them into your pickup or trailer—you simply haven’t lived. The tannic acid in their hulls will stain your hands indelibly black—the only way to get it off is to wear it off. $6.00 a hundred weight was the going rate back in 1982 (I believe it was $15.00 this past year). For rookies a mounded pickup load looked like real money. But you have to drive into to a huller where you scoop them into a machine that strips off the outer shell, leaving just the nuts. Your great looking pickup load is suddenly reduced to a few large mesh bags worth of nuts. If memory serves me we only got around $40.00 per pickup load of back breaking work. But we were darn glad to get it and made several hundred dollars that year. Course it was a bumper year which may only occur once in every three or four—Mother Nature is a fickle lady. 

When Barb finally moved onto the homestead, with our daughter and me, she immediately started looking for work. A local bank turned her down because she was used to making big city money (with AT&T) and wouldn’t be satisfied—or so she was told. She finally landed a gig waitressing for a couple bucks an hour and tips. From there she entered a certified nurse’s aid class at a local vo-tech school and ended up working at a care facility for the profoundly disabled. She spent a couple of years working as a legal assistant to a local prosecutor and five years or so at a local company that made floral arrangements for a national market. As our daughter grew older Barb eventually made the decision to start commuting into Springfield with me, where she worked in a chiropractor’s office, a hospital finance dept. and an orthopedic clinic.

hands covered in dirt after working
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

During that first summer I put in for a job in the maintenance dept. of a small local college but never heard anything. I was turned down for a job doing maintenance for a restaurant chain in Springfield because I was a blood thirsty Viet Nam veteran—or so I was told. With no job on the horizon I agreed to build a pole roof over a trailer house at one of the retirement areas on a near by lake. I no sooner took the job when the college called and asked if I was still interested. You bet I was. An interview was arranged. The Superintendent of the maintenance dept. and I hit it right off. There was one problem—I had given my word to build the pole structure and intended to honor it, even if it meant losing the job I very much wanted. Fortunately the boss understood and told me that I could start just as soon as I fulfilled my prior commitment. Starting pay was $4.00 per hour and I was ecstatic to get it. Seven years would pass and the college became a university before our house was nearing completion and I decided it was time to go onto something new.

I tried my hand at running my own HVAC/Electrical service business for a couple of years and discovered that it just wasn’t my cup of tea. In 1990 I was accepted into the maintenance dept. of then Southwest Missouri State University. After nearly fifteen years of long commutes I retired in 2006 to pursue a new career co-managing a ninety-year-old private Ozark resort community. My co-manager Barb and I worked side by side there for over ten years before once again retiring in 2016.

Working away from the homestead, all of these years, has been what it’s taken to succeed at building our own home and cementing a lifestyle that we love.

Many of our jobs were low wage dead ends or places that we couldn’t abide but we always stuck it out until something better was available.

Moral—if you’re coming to the country either be prepared to do whatever you have to, to make it work, or bring plenty of money. And even that won’t guarantee success.     

In Chapter Six we’ll look at ways other folks in these parts make a living.

Mortgage Lifters

Phil NicholsIn my old age I’ve become a seed saver and plant mostly open pollinated varieties; though I’ve tried just about everything through the years.

A few years back, in one of the heirloom seed saver catalogs that I regularly peruse, I discovered a tomato known as Mortgage Lifter. As the story goes a gentleman farmed these prolific fruits during the Great Depression and they sold so well that he was able to pay off his mortgage—no mean feat at the time.

I’ve found Mortgage Lifters to be delicious and reliable producers—come drought or downpour. As such I’ve forsaken all other varieties.

Through the years I’ve tried cloches, milk jugs, water filled tepees, tricks, like laying a tomato set down on its side and so on in order to give tomato plants a jump on spring. What I’ve discovered is that all the extra effort is just that—a lot of extra effort. And the outcome is seldom better than simply waiting until the ground warms up to plant. I don’t even bother planting sets anymore, preferring to simply plant saved seed.

wet garden following heavy rain

It’s been a very wet spring here in the Ozarks but we finally got a few dry days around the end of April and I decided to take the plunge and get my tomatoes planted.

Can’t remember where I came up with the wire mesh used in concrete pours but I imagine that I salvaged it from some job or other. At any rate many years ago I rolled the wire into baskets about 2’ in diameter. Then cut out the bottom row of horizontal wire to leave ½ doz sharp vertical wires that could be pushed into the ground to hold the cage in place (at least where the rocks weren’t too thick). As the years passed the bottom wires rusted away and I had to resort to another strategy to keep the cages from blowing over once the plants pushed out the top. Steel electric fence posts filled the bill admirably. I just pound them into the ground next to a cage and mate them up with a piece of electric fence wire.

electric fencing around garden

Here in the hills, if you intend to have any sort of garden, you either build a six foot high fence of woven wire, keep a dog near by or trick the deer to an electric fence. I opted for a two wire electric fence. Each fall I roll up the wire and pull the east and west posts to facilitate plowing and discing. Once the spring plowing is done I put the posts back in, run the wire and bait the fence.

I believe it was a Rodale magazine that showed me the way to ensure that no deer would attempt to hop over the short electric fence. I take jar of peanut butter, a stick and coat the top wire at the juncture of several insulators around the perimeter. Deer are suckers for peanut butter and will inevitably try to lick it off. If you’ve ever got crossed up with a hot wire you can imagine what a surprise they get. I refresh the bait from time to time and once the deer are educated they give the fence and garden a wide birth.

tomato cages in place

In keeping with this year’s trench row experiment I dug a hole at the center of each tomato cage and dropped in some composted manure.

Those who garden or farm seriously soon learn that Mother Nature never plays fair. This season was no exception. I no sooner got my tomato seed in the ground when a monsoon came through. The spot for this year’s tomato crop was mostly under water for several days. I am seeing some young seedlings pushing through but suspect that I’ll have to do some replanting; which is pretty well par for the course here. Footnote: all but two of my cages had at least one stubborn tomato holding its own—love those mortgage lifters.

Everything in my first trench row is doing 60 except spinach. I planted some old seed which totally failed to germinate. Soooooooo I opened a new package and replanted. If it doesn’t get to hot to soon we should have some nice spinach.

The saved seed for my trench rowed corn wasn’t the best and germination has been spotty. So I sorted out the best of the kernels and did some replanting this past weekend. We’ll see how that works out.

What’s life without a little adventure?

Let's Talk About Income: Chapter Four

Phil NicholsSeveral months before we made the move from city to country I had my right ankle rebuilt and was laid up for quite a spell. I’m dangerous when there is too much idle time on my hands.

City life was on my hated things list and I wanted a place in the country. My wife and I had actually been looking for rural acreage in and around our home in Bellevue, NE for a couple of years prior to that. Everything was way outside our work-a-day budget. We wanted to stay in the Midwest; the question was where could we afford to be? Back in the days before computer access and cell phones, companies did business with fliers and magazines. I latched onto several of these volumes at our local library and contacted them via snail mail. Missouri, especially the Ozarks region actually had land priced to fit our budget—of course I wouldn’t find out why until many hard licks later.

Thirty-five years old, at the time, and responsible for the well-being of a wife and growing daughter, I didn’t entertain uprooting my city-raised family and dropping them into the wilds lightly. So I did what I always do when confronted with a tough decision—my homework. That included reading everything I could get my hands on concerning actually surviving in the country and formulating a plan.

A prime concern of mine was how to make a living. As it turned out my worries were well founded.

My wife Barb was born in Missouri and spent a good deal of her youth at her folk’s summer place on the Lake of the Ozarks. She had introduced me to that part of the country back during our honeymoon in 1970 and I fell in love with the wooded hills and hollers.

One of my planning fail-safes was to be within commuting distance of a major city—in this case Springfield, Missouri. If we couldn’t find work locally then we would just have to commute. Bearing that in mind we only looked for land within approx. sixty miles of the city. As it turned out, I would end up spending two-and-a-half hours a day for the better part of fifteen years running up and down the highway to work in Springfield. During a number of those years Barb shared the ride and also worked in the city. It was a 110 mile round trip, five days a week.

But that part of our story didn’t start until around 1990.

temporary housing RV

We started our the first year on-the-land with me working to make a couple of ancient trailers livable for temporary housing until I could start building the new house (that hiatus would turn out to be five very long—very hard—years, when our ability to hang on to the dream was severely tested) and Barb still in Omaha holding down a job with the phone company and trying to get a transfer to Springfield. She actually did swing a transfer to Kansas City about three hours north of the homestead and was able to stay with her folks there for a time and visit me on the weekends.

temporary living quarters

Through that first spring and summer that first year and on into the fall, I looked everywhere locally for employment and came up nada. Well, I actually did land one job, repairing electric motors and equipment in a small shop (a job I’d done in Omaha NE after getting out of the Navy), for a week as I recall. I made the mistake of asking the proprietor if he would please hold out social security taxes. That level of bureaucratic involvement scared him so badly that he let me go.

Near the end of the summer, my intrepid bride made the decision to send our daughter to live with me while I put the last livability touches on our homestead. I would enroll our six-year-old in school locally and Barb would give two weeks notice. She had decided that we were going to make it come heck or high water. I wasn’t so sure. Talk about grit—this gal has some!

homestead framing

By the time Barb made the final move, money was getting extremely tight and the dream was close to going up in smoke.

In chapter five we’ll look at some of the ways folks do make a living in the country.

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Three

Phil NicholsApprox. a week and a half had passed since the beginning of my Let’s Talk Income series; we were $381.09 lighter in the kitty, it was Sunday evening and we still had to face paying for the repair of a large flat tractor tire.

Monday was a work day for me so this trip to the tire shop fell to my pioneer wife Barbara.

When I got in from work Monday evening I donned work gloves and set out to do battle with the repaired tire. It had required a new tube. That and labor set us back another $95.08.

Funny thing about a 200lb tire, most folks aren’t up to heaving it into place with one hand and screwing on a lug nut with the other. Sooooooooo I went back to my bag of tricks and dug up a short chunk of 4 x 4, cut off during a post job, to use as a fulcrum for my friend the rock bar. With the tip of the bar under the tire I was able to apply pressure to the bar with a knee while jockeying the tire onto the lug bolts. Then steadying things with a knee and one hand I threaded on several of the lug nuts. It didn’t take long to get things tightened up after that.

tire bar

It was a tad wet to plow but things were going well so I hooked up my ancient two-bottom breaking plow and got to it. Our sand ground drains quickly and most of the garden plowed well though one upper corner was pretty mushy.

two bottom plow

Tuesday evening I hooked up a dilapidated pull behind disc that I inherited with our place many years ago and went to work mellowing out the plow furrows. She’s not pretty, but still does a credible job of working down the soil.

old pull-behind disc

While the two week period I’ve described isn’t necessarily indicative of all life’s ebb and flow, here in the Ozark hills—it’s certainly not unusual. And nothing ever breaks one at a time. We had put out $476.17—oh did I mention that my much put upon work boots had finally fallen apart during this episode and I had to sadly consign them to the burn barrel. The replacements ran $144.93; bringing our total to $621.10—most of it in unplanned expense.

Many a brave soul has come into the hills seeking to simplify their lives; only to discover too late that it takes more than some livestock, a garden and a full woodpile. I know—I was one of them. If you intend to make the move from the city to the country—you’d best have a sound financial plan as well as plenty of grit.

In Chapter Four we’ll discuss some strategies for making a living in the country.

Trench Rows

Phil NicholsWhile contemplating my first garden, on our newly minted homestead, those many years ago—I remember wondering just what I might be able to grow in this dry, sandy, rock infested section of ground that we now called home.

I had been a devotee of the Rodale Press for many years prior to our move to Missouri and knew that I’d need a soil test to figure out how to go about amending our poor thin soil. Question was—where the heck do you go to get a soil test. Back in that day, before computers took over the world, you had ask around to find things out. Well I did and discovered that you could get a soil sample bag and box at the University of Missouri extension office located in the Courthouse about 18 miles west of us. So I trucked on over one afternoon and introduced myself to the extension agent. Sure enough a kit was available.

First you filled out the paperwork telling the extension folks what your intended use for the ground was—row crops, hay, truck garden etc... Then had to dig out a number of divots from different sites in the garden, mix them together, pour them into the plastic bag, seal it, put the whole thing in the box and mail the concoction off to the University Ag Dept. where it would be tested.

digging trench rows

Some weeks later a letter arrived from Mizzou. I expected to see a formula for pounds of lime, fertilizer and other amendments necessary to put my garden to rights. I was somewhat taken aback by the words at the head of the analysis “Devoid of organic matter.”  i.e. this dirt was so poor it would hardly grown a decent crop of weeds. Groan!

Thus started over 35 years of poop scooping in neighbor’s barns, intensive mulching with whatever I could come by and lots of trial and error discovering what would grow and what wouldn’t.

Last year, I purchased some very pricey heirloom Bradford watermelon seeds from a group of Bradford descendants down in Georgia who are attempting to bring back this legendary delight. Watermelon is purported to grow well in sandy ground so I thought I’d give it a try. My intent being to harvest enough seeds to plant an entire melon patch this year. But that’s a story for a later edition.

tiller in garden

Several reviews, critical of the germination and success of the Bradford seeds I’d purchased, convinced me to heed carefully the advice of the new generation of Bradfords who have been successfully growing the melons for a number of years. One of the instructions was to dig a hole in the top of the raised circle I hoed up and fill it with good composted manure. The melons did well in this atmosphere and a light bulb went on in my head.

Around the middle of March I was finally able to get into this year’s garden with the near-new Troy Super Pony I’d picked up at an auction a year or three back (its “counter-turning” rear tines make it the best tiller I’ve ever laid hands on for fighting rocks.  Front tine tillers beat you to death in our rocky ground and when the “forward-turning” rear tines of Super Pony’s giant cousin the Horse dig into a big rock it will drag you from one end of the garden to the other before you can let go.)

My melon experience last season had given me an idea. Once I’d raked out the area and run a string line I employed the edge of my hoe to make a shallow straight row; then came the fun part—hoeing out a 66’ long x 6” deep x the width of my hoe trench.


Late last fall and into the winter I’d pick up ten bags of compost or manure whenever I caught it on sale. I hitched up my old garden wagon (the one the tree fell on) to my ancient repurposed craftsman garden mower/tractor and hauled half a dozen bags from my stash down to the garden.

The task would have been easier if I’d put a tarp over the perforated plastic bags when I stored them and kept the contents dry. Alas, it is said here in the hills—PO folks gots PO ways.

At any rate I got the soupy glop spread out into the trench and raked a light cap of native soil back over it. Once again using the corner of my hoe I made a shallow planting trench and went to work.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. And stay tuned for chapter III of Let’s Talk Income

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