Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brunson’s]

This month I had the pleasure of meeting a new farm on the block. Having sold at Wytheville Farmer’s Market previously, the Abingdon market is lucky to welcome Thirty-Three Acre Farms to it’s fold.

Owned and operated by Donna Huete-Brunson and Tim Brunson, this gorgeous piece of land high in the hills of Rural Retreat is exploring every resource nature has to offer. With an impeccably designed garden layout full of wooden boxes, they utilize the sloping hills and build into the ground, not just above it. Repurposed wood and metal make up the greater portion of their home and workspaces, with antique doors and windows adding character and vibrancy in every corner of the farm. With solar panels powering the majority of their energy needs, I fell in love with their set-up.

The Brunson’s and I also have traveling in common. Love of it, stories from it, and dreams of it. Donna and Tim are life enthusiasts above all, having lived all over the world until they ended up in our gorgeous Appalachian corner of the country. Married in 2009, they live to make projects become reality. If I learned one thing about them, it’s that they dream it and then they do it…and we are the lucky ones who reap the benefits. English peas, carrots, potatoes, blueberries, onions, honey, syrup, jams, salsas, lamb, chicken, eggs…

Another topic that came up was the importance of small to mid-scale farming as a more manageable and cleaner way to raise food. I, personally, am an advocate of antibiotic-free and hormone-free farming. Grocery stores offer lots of food that’s had a needle in it’s butt, a time-release antibiotic on it’s ear, with it’s dinner consisting of other animal feces. Sounds fun, right? “You’re almost hit hard for not doing it the ‘right’ way”, Tim said in regards to feeding animals from more nutritious sources. And he’s right. It’s not possible for everyone to afford and I’m tired of it breaking the bank and forcing families to choose. So, when someone asks me why I buy local? It’s to support the folks who raise food ethically until we can make sure everyone has access to it.

Now that I’ve stepped off my soapbox, I’d like you to enjoy the following from my visit with the Brunson’s! And make sure to stop by and say hello to Donna and her sister, Danielle, at the next Abingdon Farmer’s Market!


 

Sarah: How long have you all lived here?

Donna: Four years.

Tim: Four years when you moved up, yeah. I say that because…I’ve still got a job. In fact, I’m leaving tomorrow.

D: He works in Texas. He works all over the world, but right now he’s in Texas.

T: Yeah, right now Texas is the center of the world.

D: Oh, my onions are crazy.

T: Those are the overgrown onions and what’s left. But she’s leaving these because the bees feed off them.

S: Those are beautiful, oh my gosh.

D: So, that’s why I leave a lot of the flowers.

T: I call them weeds, she calls them flowers.

D: …Because the bees all come.

T: The definition of a weed is a plant out of place. And that potato right there is a weed because it’s in the sweet potato bin.

S: This is so organized. Wow.

D: That’s what happens when you’re married to an engineer.

S: Understandable. Why did you guys want to move up here? Or how did you find it?

D: We actually looked all over.

T: We had dots all over the map. Here’s where we did holidays, let’s go here looking…

D: We went to the south of Mexico, we went to Arkansas, Northern California. It was really cool, we loved it. It’s not really easy to be a small, homestead type person there. It just isn’t. We collect our rain water for our chickens and you can’t do that there.

T: You can’t stop the water from flowing.

D: No. So, we decided no and then we went to Arkansas and didn’t like it. I have family…my Mom’s family is from a little tip area of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia. I have tons of cousins up there.

T: Huntington, West Virginia.

D: Yeah, which is where she grew up. I have cousins there, I have cousins in Knoxville. Cousins down in Raleigh. So, its like, I actually have family within about three hours all over. You know what I mean? I’ve been to this area before and so has Tim and we both loved it.

T: It’s what the people tell you when you come here. You get all the seasons. It’s thirty-seven degrees latitude, which is….she lived in New York City, I lived in Northern Montana…forty below sucks. We’ve lived in New Orleans and Houston. One ten, humidity and bugs. The weather is good here, the rolling hills, the hard woods. It fit all of our criteria.

D: It’s beautiful. It was just bare lands when we got it, so everything up here we built and cleaned. We bought the property before we actually moved up here, so we used it as a holiday home for awhile. Tim at the time was working in an international group where his company was and he would be gone sometimes for six weeks at a time. He got stuck in the Middle East one time for a very long time. And then our son went to college and he wasn’t around anymore, so it was like, well I could be alone for weeks at a time in Houston or I could be alone for weeks at a time in paradise. So, I quit my job, we sold the house, and moved up here full time. This is what I do now!

 

S: So, you guys have vegetables and you have chickens and bees.

D: And those are our sheep, and there’s a cow over there somewhere.

T: We’ve got one cow. We don’t keep many cows right now because her here by herself, it’s hard to manage cows, but sheep she can manage. And we sell the meat at the market.

D: And I’ve got two goats. And those are our donkeys.

T: They keep the coyotes away. They’ll kick a coyote into next year.

D: They’re really sweet.

S: What are these right here?

T: The cloches? So you can get an early start on these cabbages, you can start them in early spring with them. They’re like miniature greenhouses. Bought those for Christmas. Those came out of the UK. I think the French actually invented it.

S: That’s so clever.

D: They used to put raw manure on the bottom, dirt on top, and it would start to decompose so they could plant their vegetables in the winter. And it would create heat.

S: It would be great for wine country.

D: That’s what we’re going to do next year.

T: It’s gonna be five rows of a hundred feet long of grapes.

D: Here we already harvested the potatoes, and we planted green beans there. We’re gonna dig this up probably in the next week or two and then…I don’t know what we’re going to plant there. Maybe more beans. And we’ve already harvested all our broccoli.

T: I started with those beds there. That timber came from when the wind blew down the trees over there by the A-frame house. When I started this design, we just started repeating it. It’s going to be terraced down on the side because of the slope.

D: But it’s really helped my projection because it’s so much easier to keep weeded and it’s a lot easier to harvest.

S: When it’s raised in the boxes? That’s great because I hear so many people talk about their backs.

D: Yeah, I might have five more years of crawling around on my knees. But after that I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. But this actually works really well.

T: I’ve already put away four cords of firewood. There’s not a sixteen year old that can keep up with me! But yeah, it’s an advantage of it. When we got to this design…I mean, it just works. This is all going to be blueberries. We’ve had good luck with blueberries in this spot, but we don’t have enough of them.

D: And we got all these from Tamara. I actually bought a lot of starter plants from her.

T: Here, eat some…

S: Ah, so good! What’s your favorite part about working here?

D: That I can stumble out in my pajamas to go to work. I put on my muck boots, t-shirt and pajamas…I do!

S: Do you have a special connection with the chickens or sheep?

D: I actually…my business card calls me the “crazy chicken lady”. I love the chickens. I have like sixty five chickens.

T: We were in a controlled community in Katy, Texas and she wanted chickens so I went by the code of the place and built her a little fence in the back…and she had a half dozen chickens in a subdivision in Katy, Texas. Hidden in the corner.

 

D: Hidden in the corner. I love the baby lambs, I love my goats. The goats are so much fun. My husband does his own composting, a four pile system. The raw compost. ‘Cause we collect all the poop from the donkeys and the chickens and start composting it with stuff leftover from the garden. We’re so lucky because our farm has so many resources here, it’s just amazing. Like, I tap the trees for maple syrup.

T: And we now have electricity to the barn because she now has freezers for the lambs. Until then, we were all on the solar. Heat with the boiler outside, wood stove inside. There’s plenty of firewood. Some of it falls down on it’s own.

D: Black raspberries! We have them all through there, everywhere. They just grow wild. So, I make a lot of jam. Some of them are ripe, which means I need to put my boots on and…

T: I see a couple dark ones back there.

D: Yeah, me too. All wild. We’ve got about thirty five chickens over there. Come on Carlos! (to the donkey) And that’s Sophia. We named them after the King and Queen of Spain.

S: I love that! Hi, how are you? (to the donkeys)

D: I have horse treats I give them.

T: They’re miniature Jerusalem donkeys.

D: They’re good. They’re supposed to be over there but we had some new babies and for like the first two weeks they don’t like the babies very much. So, I have to keep them separated for a little bit. We had unexpected babies.

T: Juan Carlos and Sophia. Her chickens are coming to see her!

S: Look at them!

T: The white one is always first. Look at him!

D: My sister rescued him from the Tractor Supply reject…you know when their chicks come in and not all of them are healthy? He’s a meat chicken. He doesn’t know it. They’re fat and happy.

S: Look at you all. Living your best life.

 

D: We collect the rain water here for the chickens.

T: We’re gonna set up an attachment on that barn because that next pasture down, we haven’t got it closed in yet. But it will be a cistern system where we catch the water and it’ll go down a pipe down to there, and I gotta do one from the house to the garden. The garden is about three feet higher, elevation wise, which is just about the right height for a whiskey barrel. So, it’ll be my cistern that will come off the house into that and that’ll give me enough head to push it up to the garden. We’ll just have a tub out in the garden that we can put it in.

S: You’re curious aren’t you? (to the fat & happy rescue chicken)

D: He is!

T: He’s the one who’s always up first because he wants all the feed.

S: Look at him! Still following me.

T: He thinks you have feed in your pocket.

(headed down towards the sheep and goats)

D: Those are the two babies. They were born a week ago, Friday.

T: They’re getting milk when their tail’s wiggling. If their tail quits wiggling, they’re not getting milk. That’s how you know. Here comes the daddy. We call him Shaggy.

D: We give them minerals, so they think you’re bringing them minerals. Hi, boys and girls. Hi, Spotty Spot! And the goats are very friendly.

T: Especially if you have a banana.

 

S: So, since you’ve been here and been going to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, is there anything you’ve noticed about the community here that’s different or that you enjoy?

D: We actually know our neighbors here. We lived in a subdivision and there would be a hundred houses and we knew four.

T: And we know everybody to the Smyth County line.

D: It’s a very friendly place.

T: People watch out for you and everything.

D: I like the community down in Abingdon. I think it has a really nice energetic feel. And it’s kind of nice because it’s a mix of generations.

S: That’s why I love going on Saturday mornings, because it’s like I’m going to see members of my family or something.

D: I could easily be a hermit, like easily, so it’s really good for me to get out and do that because I could stay up here all the time and never leave. It’s actually my therapy. Digging potatoes and digging carrots are actually my most favorite things.

S: There’s something about having dirt on your hands.

D: I know! My sister’s like, are you in a bad mood? Just go dig some potatoes.

S: I’m learning that if I start to get anxious about something, I just need to go out in the garden.

D: You really do. It really helps.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the King Family]

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.


 

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