By Robert Turner
Rugged individualism and the willful practice of self-reliance are historic hallmarks of the Appalachian character and culture. There lives among us a large group of people who think for themselves and consciously practice the arts of self-reliance. They seem to have a keen eye for watching out for their own families and their future rather than simply accepting and trusting the norms of society. I love running into people like this, people who garden, hunt, fish, raise livestock and can their own vegetables. I always learn something.
I encountered one such individual recently: Jason Rogers, a Buncombe County building inspector who failed my plumbing inspection, but stayed long enough to have a decent conversation about canning beans and corn and the proper way to raise an heirloom tomato.
Jason is a big man and he works hard for the county, but when he’s done for the day, he puts on old jeans and a t-shirt and begins his other job—producing food for his family. He grows plenty of vegetables and raises chickens for eggs and meat, sheep for fiber and food, and bees for honey. Jason’s small farm—just two and a half acres in Weaverville—is a good example of how you don’t actually need a lot of land to produce a great deal of your own food. He often trades and shares his food and labor with neighbors.
Jason has several fruit trees on the property and owns an old cider press. He makes his own apple cider and applesauce. He often butchers his own meat and smokes it in a smoker of his own design. He makes his own pasta from scratch, and sometimes he’ll even bake a cake from scratch and not from a box. He makes his own vanilla just for that purpose.
He gives scraps to his chickens and composts the rest. Everything gets recycled back into nature and his garden, including chicken poop—the best fertilizer there is.
When it’s time to harvest and store produce for winter, Jason relies on family and friends to get it all done quickly, and it becomes just as much a social event as a working session. Lively conversation and many stories are told around the table as they’re all snapping bushels of beans. They can put up several months’ worth of food in a day.
Glass Mason jars line the pantry when it’s all done. Jason saves seeds, and shares and swaps them with friends and neighbors. When he finds a particular heirloom variety that he likes, he’ll grow three to four rows of that vegetable just for the seeds. He’ll dry, process and freeze the seeds so that they’ll last for years, perhaps decades. While many vegetables in the grocery store are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or varieties that are chosen and grown to handle long distance transportation, most heirloom varieties come down to us through generations of seed savers just because they tasted so good.
Growing, saving and sharing seeds from heirloom vegetables is like having all of this genetic information out on the internet, except that instead of storing the information on multiple servers and computers, it’s stored in Mason jars in cellars, sheds and pantries in multiple locations across the country, so it won’t get lost. We may need some of the genetic traits from these ancient heirlooms in the future to combat climate change or disease.
Jason believes in self-reliance because it leads not just to freedom from want but to freedom of the mind. It leads to less dependence on others and a conviction in our own beliefs and values.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote some words in the mid-1800s that ring powerful truth for our time: “Trust thyself.” Do not rely on the opinions of others, but use your own intellect and creative power to find the truth for yourself. That is bold individualism and true freedom. Have your own convictions, and don’t settle for secondhand thoughts, particularly if they come from the internet.
To believe what is true in your own heart takes courage and conviction. And it’s easier to hear your own thoughts—that “gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” says Emerson—when you’re alone in nature or a garden.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.