Saturday, June 8, 2013

The story of our farm (and the best beef and eggs you'll ever eat)

With all the runnin' around and hard work the folks at Red Hill do every day, we're finally getting time to talk about raising our own beef and eggs. 

It means something to grow up on a farm. This is a family history story of tradition, heritage, values and how Red Hill General Store and Red Hill Farm came to be. I want to welcome you to my home here in the Blue Ride Mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Our Farm land has been in production since the early 1700's when the grandfather of Thomas Jefferson Largen (William "Bill" Largen Sr.) came to Carroll County. He settled on mountain land near Big Reed River in an area now called Dugspur. He built a home and raised a family. He was a farmer. His comfort was knowing his family would always have a place to call their own and land to make a good living. Thomas Jefferson Largen is the great-great grandfather of my dad, the hard-working owner of Red Hill General Store, Tom Largen (pictured below on left). 

Red Hill Farm Chicken Red Hill Chicken

On Tuesday dad and I picked up the store's chicken eggs from his aunt and uncle's farm (Hazel and Glen-Donald Largen). We took 30 minutes to watch the chickens pluck around in the green biodiversity of grasses. Sure, a little summer time spent with family as we snapped a fast picture petting chickens is nothing to really crow about. The hen I held wanted to jump away since she wasn't familiar with the me, the just graduated college stranger.

Collecting Eggs 2Each-Egg-Washed-By-Hand

Eggs are collected twice a day, each carefully washed with a washcloth and hot water, sanitized to USDA Grade-A retail standards, weighed individually and separated into cartons of small, medium, large, extra-large and jumbo by the experienced hands of my great-aunt and uncle. We talked chicken feathers with Hazel and Glen-Donald on our visit. Hazel described her family's two feather beds in her childhood  - soft and filled their chicken's feathers. I guess that's what they mean by feathering your nest.

hazel and glen donald
Hazel and Glen-Donald in the 1990s
It sure is something to be part of this time-honored family farming operation. There is a lot to learn from raising animals. The only way to get the know-how is from someone who's done it before. Knowledge to do and the responsibility of managing the land, when raising cows or chickens, has been carefully passed down through many Largen generations.

I want to share a tiny part of our heritage and history of the mountains - critical for understanding exactly where and who your Red Hill General Store pasture eggs and beef come from. The pictures of my family heritage - online for the first time - were collected and saved by my Grandma Orpha Largen.

Hazel's sister was Orpha (pictured below). They both married Largen boys. Making Gary Largen (who is like my uncle, just a generation removed) and my dad Tommy Largen best friends and mischief makers with a heart for their family farm since birth. They never had much. Some may call them yokels. But our farm's story is one worth knowing.

Family of Eva and Ezra Martin Summer of 1934
Family of Eva & Ezra Martin Summer of 1934 (left to right): Gladys, Orpha, Ezra, Hazel, Eva, Larene (died in fall 1934),  Pauline, (back) Hassie, Belva (and Maggie the last sister was born in 1938).

Tom and Gary Largen in (1979 left) (1985 or 86 above) at the Thomas Jefferson Largen Family Reunion in June

Red Hill cows in 1960
Orpha and Edwin Largen's Cows (Jersey Cows perhaps, and if so this was when they still had milk cows) on their farm by Big Reed Island river in Dugspur, Virgina 1967 
Here's how the farm tradition passed though Largen genealogy (photo below and right: Ruben Largen, who passed down his father's farm, pictured here in 1952 or 51. He died in 1967, according to the handwriting on the back of the photo) -

Largen Family TreeRuben Largen in 1951

You could say we're a family that's been farming here since they used everything but the crow. You better believe the fried chicken my grandma wrote about in the news article below was bona fide local and fresh. Finding good-for-you fried chicken like that these days is scarce as chicken's teeth. 

 Largen Family Gathering
It's the right season to discuss the energetic Thomas Jefferson Largen family; last Sunday would have been their annual reunion gathering (always on the first Sunday in June).
Thomas Jefferson Largen himself (2/24/1863 - 2/23/1961 buried: 2/24/1961)

Mountain-CookingAppalachia Largen Reunion

I'm not sure if the last line in the article, "Everyone agreed to be there again next year," is 100% true, but Grandma wrote it because she knew the reunions were important. The area and people were changing - fueled by a post World War II economy that shifted rural culture from small family farms to factory textile labor. The reunions gave due time to celebrate family, good food, community and the land that is our heritage. 

(photo left and below) Edwin, Tommy, and Oprha Largen at Big Bridge Church 1982 -
(middle row, photo right and below) Gary, Glen-Donald, and Hazel Largen at Big Bridge Church 1982 - 

The story of our farm is a story of those who passed the land and it's values to us. In 1942 The Goad School House in Dugspur was where Hazel, Orpha, their sisters, Edwin (his brother Price) and other children close-by went to get their early book learnin'. I don't think it's anything now, but the school once had its heyday. Here is the spirited class of 1942 - I love Archie Sutphin who grandma labeled on the back as "under the floor" - 

Carroll County is an Appalachian Mountain culture of cows, fields, moonshine, food, quality-time, slow-living, returnable milk bottles and family. Our history of relationships to the food we eat - growing it from seeds of grass and grain shaped by crisp mountain air to be harvested, eaten by our family (the grains), and fed to our animals who drink the same precious cold spring water we do; filtered through layers of root and rich organic soils deep within the high Appalachian ridges - created the culture that thrived among the mountain people. To be this close to your food is to be a part of something meaningful. It meant at one time to take part in the community coming together for the joy of a seasonal process - gettin'-up-hay, corn-shucking, barn-raising - with neighbors or drinking a farmer's moonshine made from the season's unsold corn crop to celebrate a job well-done. My grandparents did many things that contributed to the culture of the mountains in their time:  

Tom Largen's childhood farmhouse on the river 
Bee Keeping on farm
Edwin Largen kept bees in his backyard
Red Hill Cows in 1970
Largen cows in the 1970s - in their natural woody habitat - see cow  (left) sitting like a dog? Grandpa thought it was strange too.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Orpha and Hazel's children got married and had babies - expanding the family into the millennial generation. Gary Largen reads a book to my Cousin (Tom's nephew) Parker (yes, he's adopted and was totally grandma's favorite when we were kids) on his 4th Birthday in August of 1991. 

Parker and GaryParker and Gary reading

Later that year, the millennial off-spring of the Largen clan gathered in September for my 1st birthday party in a 1990-plastic-kiddie-pool-in-the-mountains style. Parker pouts behind my polka-dot-swimsuit while Dustin Largen (Gary's son) helps himself to pouring pool water. We really are the lucky ones.

1990 Appalachia birthday party

Fast forward to 1996. I get a brother! We had a horse and 9 cows. We did decide to get chickens - that we raised in our old blue kiddie-pool (how's that for reusing?). My grandma saved this snippet from our family Christmas card that year -

1996 Christmas Letter
In 1997 or 1998 I started collecting our chicken eggs after school each day. 

Then one Saturday - it happened - I learned where chicken drumsticks come from. A day I'll never forget. Grandma Orpha was at the house at 5 in the morning. Mom made a huge pot of coffee. My Great Aunt Hazel came over too. An outsider would have thought this deed occurred often because everyone joined in to accomplishing the task. It felt more like a party than a job to me. Everyone wanted me to see this and touch that. I saw a headless chicken running down our hill - as squeals and hollers came from the adults - and it sparked many curious questions. Grandma showed me how to pull a tendon in a severed chicken's foot to make the toes undergo a grabbing motion. Grandma learned it as a little girl, so she taught me, and my grandma was a very smart woman. Sure, it sounds gross and I used it to chase my brother, but these were my childhood experiences. Experiences all people once had. What happens when we have no relationship to the food we eat?

Not all lessons gained on a family farm come from activities when grandparents come over, or when you pick strawberries for your first attempt at canning strawberry jam in an All American Pressure Canner. Most lessons are subtle. They are really found in day to day seasonal chores on a farm - like sewing a large garden with heirloom seeds from an earthway spreader - those things we don’t think much about.

A family gathered to work with one another it is worth something. When we worked together I always had fun. I was part of something important.

The way my family works together is in honor of our ancestors who too worked the same farmland. Back in those slow-moving days of our great-grandparents our home had pure water, beautiful mountains, clear streams and clean air. Largen's were poor in things but we were also rich. The food came from their labor on the land or from their neighbors. We were happy. Our land is still producing food in our gardens and giving home to the animals we raise. With land comes a responsibility to community and to the future that ensures that they may be passed on to our children with their full integrity. It may be more important now than ever in history.

Tom and Gary work together raising Red Hill's grass-fed beef. When you eat our pasture beef or eggs you're tasting a piece of Appalachia. The unique taste is from the year's weather conditions and hilltops that support the biodiversity of grasses needed for healthy hay and a temperate deciduous forest ecosystem. Plus, you know the eggs and beef you're eating are more nutritious than almost anything you can buy today.

Most importantly, you know exactly where your food comes from - the same place we've been growing it for over 200 years - on the banks and surrounding land of Big Reed River in Dugspur, Virginia. 

Pasture CattlePasture Cattle

There are many  people in our extended family who make Red Hill General Store and our community thrive with life. We are a family who believes we can make a difference by teaching others to live simple, more fulfilling lives. If we work together to support good business models we can create a stable economy that has a place in it for everyone. We're tired of a tiny number of people getting mega-rich at the expense of the rest of us. We must feather our community nest together. We know it makes for a happier, more fulfilling life when all hard-working citizens get a part of the wealth. When it's shared people are empowered to contribute to the community.

Pasture Cattle at Sunset

That's the way my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Jefferson Largen would have wanted it. We work to protect our land's environmental integrity - for it is what we can truly pass to our children to ensure their prosperous future. We don't always do everything perfect - everyone gets egg on their face sometimes - but we keep learning and adapting processes to make the most good using our common sense. After all, you have to break eggs to make an omelet.  There must be time for good work, good music, and the gathering of community to see old friends (have you heard about our free drive-in movie?).

We can achieve this if we work together as neighbors in the spirit of rediscovering what's most important. I hope you'll join us by supporting our store and trying the food we raise in our pastures. 

Newspaper Clipping If you're in Raleigh - you're closer than you may think - This newspaper clipping (below) I found in grandma's collection is of Betsy Hazlewood who lived at 4yrs just down the road and across the Virginia/North Carolina border. When she grew up, she raised a family  in Burlington, NC - or so information from facebook explains. She lives today in the Raleigh/Durum area. What really stuck out to me was her newly-updated cover-photo (below). I felt a strange happiness and a longing for the place that was shown - for that river land is home. This May, Betsy's cover-photo identity was the very river and land we must have both experienced and knew of our Grandmas. Her Grandma was Belva Martin Mabe. Belva was the older sister to my Grandma Orpha Martin Largen. Our common factor perhaps is knowing the meaning of the land. I don't know Belva as well as my own Grandma but they were neighbors my whole life. She's 91 and still living along the peaceful river. I bet she - just like Grandma Orpha - showed her grandchildren to love the place they farmed, once stuffed their beds with chicken feathers and always would call home for their families. That's right, I was weirdly, truly and deeply moved as I Facebook-stalked my great-cousin's profile updates of random circumstance. 

Betsy's sister Christina lives in Cary, NC and keeps in touch with Dad. There are a lot of "us" in the region - too many to account for on this post - and it makes good sense too.

Genetic relationship, however, is less important than realizing we are neighbors sharing a region of air, water, and land. It matters to realize our culture is created presently by what we do and that is the foundation for what is to come and the future quality of life itself. We have to start thinking like our families did: we are all in this together. 

Folks have to stop shopping like a chicken running around with its head cut off because our economy is no longer your typical chicken and egg situation. We can do something about it. We can choose to build our community culture. We should be building the kind of culture that honors our ancestors (connected to Big Reed River or not) and is a worthy gift to leave as a foundation for our children. The way the world defines success currently, my generation will tell you, is begging for true meaning. We consider it an obligation to invest in things that are good and to stop investing in what deteriorates our own survival.

My dad (and mom!) have taught my brother and I how a good business should work. It's as simple as "doing right" to everybody. It's about doing what you can - with what you have - every chance you get.  It's not just a farm or a general store that makes a region prosper - it's a collective way of life.  

I'm looking forward to posting about the growing ways Red Hill General Store has been working to give back to the community. For now, check out the photos of our home-grown wind turbine on flikr. Here's a sneak peak photo of a presentation by Mr. Randy Webb, a Carroll County High School Agriculture Teacher and FFA Advisor. You'll learn about other green energy we're helping grow in student agriculture leaders and in streams across Carroll County.

Carroll County Agriculture Partnerships

We really like The National FFA Organization. My dad and I both once wore the blue corduroy FFA jacket and now my brother does too. This is the FFA creed adopted in 1929. All FFA members are required to memorize each paragraph. In it are the values taught by family farms. We think these ideas are important for our region and must be shared - 

I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds - achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.
I believe that to live and work on a good farm, or to be engaged in other agricultural pursuits, is pleasant as well as challenging; for I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life and hold an inborn fondness for those associations which, even in hours of discouragement, I cannot deny.
I believe in leadership from ourselves and respect from others. I believe in my own ability to work efficiently and think clearly, with such knowledge and skill as I can secure, and in the ability of progressive agriculturists to serve our own and the public interest in producing and marketing the product of our toil.
I believe in less dependence on begging and more power in bargaining; in the life abundant and enough honest wealth to help make it so--for others as well as myself; in less need for charity and more of it when needed; in being happy myself and playing square with those whose happiness depends upon me.
I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.
We believe supporting the development of local student agriculture leaders is priceless. 

Speaking of supporting good local business - ya'll this is a fabulous one - 

Have you seen Horton Photography's photographs? We were so impressed with her patient quality and mindfulness to the artistic expression of the human experience - we asked her to take some photos for us and we can't wait to share her work.

She'll genuinely appreciate your like on facebook - click the link above! We promise you won't mind seeing her stunning photos of the people who make up our community culture as you scroll through your news feed.

Email her

When we need a dedicated quality photographer, we'll always call Horton's

1 comment:

  1. I love this story, so well told, with fabulous pictures!!! This is the life I would love to productive and memorsble, in such beautiful country. Thank you for sharing!!! bonnie



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