Gardening Appalachian Style

Read about one vegetable gardener in Kentucky who tends to her crops the old fashioned way.

| October 2016

  • Berries in Hands
    Mae Raney Sons began gardening as a child in the 1920s and continued these low tech gardening practices throughout her entire life.
    Photo by Deirdre Skaggs
  • Row by Row
    "Row by Row" by Katherine J. Black tells the stories and gardening styles of over 35 Kentucky farmers.
    Cover courtesy Swallow Press

  • Berries in Hands
  • Row by Row

Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners (Swallow Press, 2015) by Katherine J. Black is an intimate look at home vegetable gardeners from across Kentucky. The gardener's profiled by Black are as diverse as heirloom tomatoes. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Can and Dry and Pickle" which gives a look into the life and garden of Mae Raney Sons.

If I suddenly had to live off the grid or if the world as I know it was coming to an end or if I entered a time machine that took me back to the 1920s, I would want to be with Mae Raney Sons. Born in 1915 to S. B. and Hannah Lee Raney, who owned several farms in Menifee County during the course of her girlhood, Mae remembers how to live well in the old-time way. She knows how to preserve and store food without refrigeration and how to maximize the length of the garden season by using nature’s resources. And although over the years she gained electricity, a freezer, and a rototiller, and what was once a means of survival is now a habit of being, she never lost her zeal for the hot, sweaty work of growing a garden and putting up food for the winter. Mae said, “I think it is healthy for the body to get out there and work and sweat. It makes you stronger. That’s why I am here at my age, exactly. And [because of] the good Lord, too. You can get out there and work, and you’re not only fixing something for yourself or for the neighbor but it’s healthy. It’s why I do it.”

Mae fell in the middle of nine children. Her father was a schoolteacher in local one-room schools. He began teaching in 1900, and as was customary at that time, he passed the state teacher’s examination that allowed one to teach with a high school diploma. In Mae’s own words, “My dad didn’t know anything about farming. My mother was the farmer.” In the early part of the twentieth century, eastern Kentucky farms, still oriented toward subsistence, could be quite diverse in crops and livestock. Mae’s memories illustrated how her mother’s farming practices fell squarely within this agricultural history.

“I can remember when we had wheat fields,” she said, and recalled ‘shocking it out.’” Her mother spread out a white sheet on which she beat the stalks to release the husk-enshrined kernels. One of Mae’s jobs was to be a “walker.” After putting on clean shoes, she and other children walked on the kernels to break the husks so they could be swept away. Mae’s mother would “fan the husks away, then stir, and fan again, stir it, and fan again until you had the wheat kernels there. They would take that to the mill and have it ground. Then you could sieve it.” According to Mae, the family grew enough wheat to provide most of their own flour needs.

When Mae remembers the wheat growing and her role in producing the household’s flour, she pictures, too, the split rail fence that enclosed the field to keep out livestock — theirs and the neighbors’. Mae’s family did not have just one milk cow; they had a herd. Besides moving them beyond their own subsistence, having such plenty allowed them to help neighbors in need. Mae remembered, “My dad took this cow to the neighbors’. They had a baby and no milk. I can remember him putting a halter on one of the cows and driving her over and turning [her] over to the neighbors so they could feed their children.”

Hogs were also a staple of the household’s agricultural economy. While the family raised yellow corn to feed livestock, especially in the winter, hogs on the Raney farm ran free on acres of fenced woods, living off mast. “Back then, there were beech nuts from big beech trees. They are scarce now,” Mae said. “There’s a blight that’s stopped them from [bearing] nuts. Well, the hogs would go and root the leaves back [on the forest floor] and gather them nuts and they would eat them nuts.” And when a sow had babies, Mae explained, she made her way out of the woods with the piglets to be fed corn, greatly improving her ability to nurse adequately. The health of the piglets and the sow meant not only that the Raneys would have plenty of pork for their large family but also that the excess could be sold, traded, or shared.

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