Nelson Farm Memories: Then + Now, with Margaret Henderson, Nelson County

This film was directed and produced by Laura Bell as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Farm Memories: Then and Now, with Margaret Henderson – Nelson County

by Laura Bell

When Margret C. Henderson mentioned that her parents were sharecroppers for, “a white man,” there was an obvious distain in her voice. Margret noticed my puzzled expression. I was surprised that sharecropping would be common in Nelson County in her lifetime. She responded, “That’s just the way it was.” After some research, I learned tenant farming in Virginia was common well into the 1930’s. Framed as a means to offer freed slaves a ‘start’, the tenant system was often more domineering and unfair than one might imagine. Virginia farming changed dramatically after the Civil War. Due to post war poverty and social change, thousands of former slaves and white farmers lacked the farmland, seeds, and livestock needed to begin farming. Many land owners divided their plots of land and entered into labor contracts with tenant farmers. Sharecropping remained common in the South until the Great Depression.

The date was Monday March 12, 2012, and Alex Howle, Katelyn Kresse-Smith and I had piled in Katelyn’s car for the drive to the JABA day care center in Nelson County, Virginia. Constance, who works at JABA, was the first to grant us an interview. After displaying some nervousness and curiosity about the project, she began talking about her life in Nelson. She described the life of a child on a sharecroppers farm. Her family raised chickens, beef, and pork with a medley of vegetables.  Because crops are temperamental and money must be paid to the tenant, a large family had great difficulty providing materials beyond what was produced on the farm.  To meet needs, it was necessary for the children to work hard. Margret said she hated farm work as a little child tied to a weeding row, but now she appreciated her food and life heritage. If they didn’t have to learn to preserve foods and prepare for the future, she might not have learned how to can from her mother.  After a grain crop was ready to harvested, the planter or landowner took the crop to market or to a mill. The resulting money, or food product, (after deducting the tenants required amount), was used by the farmer for things like food and clothing . She explained that after grains were ready to be harvested, her father would take them to the local mill where the grains were kept on ‘reserve’ so that they could be retrieved whenever the family needed them.

She seemed surprised that I should care what she ate and why. She admitted her farm fresh healthy eating was superior to much of the processed foods she has today, although when asked why other people do not choose a farming lifestyle, she had no hesitation in saying, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to.” Margret’s conclusion is a bludgeon of reality that threatens to destroy the new idealized interest in farming. Although she acknowledged that living on a farm and growing your own food was healthier and was all in all a good life, it is also hard work with unstable and sometimes few returns. In reality, how many people are willing to work so hard for only the possibility of a return?  Unfortunately, this is the situation in which the U.S. finds itself, and until drastic changes occur, farms similar to the one that Constance grew up on will continue to struggle to persevere.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Farm Memories: Then and Now, with Margaret Henderson – Nelson County

by Laura Bell

When Margret C. Henderson mentioned that her parents were sharecroppers for, “a white man,” there was an obvious distain in her voice. Margret noticed my puzzled expression. I was surprised that sharecropping would be common in Nelson County in her lifetime. She responded, “That’s just the way it was.” After some research, I learned tenant farming in Virginia was common well into the 1930’s. Framed as a means to offer freed slaves a ‘start’, the tenant system was often more domineering and unfair than one might imagine. Virginia farming changed dramatically after the Civil War. Due to post war poverty and social change, thousands of former slaves and white farmers lacked the farmland, seeds, and livestock needed to begin farming. Many land owners divided their plots of land and entered into labor contracts with tenant farmers. Sharecropping remained common in the South until the Great Depression.

The date was Monday March 12, 2012, and Alex Howle, Katelyn Kresse-Smith and I had piled in Katelyn’s car for the drive to the JABA day care center in Nelson County, Virginia. Constance, who works at JABA, was the first to grant us an interview. After displaying some nervousness and curiosity about the project, she began talking about her life in Nelson. She described the life of a child on a sharecroppers farm. Her family raised chickens, beef, and pork with a medley of vegetables.  Because crops are temperamental and money must be paid to the tenant, a large family had great difficulty providing materials beyond what was produced on the farm.  To meet needs, it was necessary for the children to work hard. Margret said she hated farm work as a little child tied to a weeding row, but now she appreciated her food and life heritage. If they didn’t have to learn to preserve foods and prepare for the future, she might not have learned how to can from her mother.  After a grain crop was ready to harvested, the planter or landowner took the crop to market or to a mill. The resulting money, or food product, (after deducting the tenants required amount), was used by the farmer for things like food and clothing . She explained that after grains were ready to be harvested, her father would take them to the local mill where the grains were kept on ‘reserve’ so that they could be retrieved whenever the family needed them.

She seemed surprised that I should care what she ate and why. She admitted her farm fresh healthy eating was superior to much of the processed foods she has today, although when asked why other people do not choose a farming lifestyle, she had no hesitation in saying, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to.” Margret’s conclusion is a bludgeon of reality that threatens to destroy the new idealized interest in farming. Although she acknowledged that living on a farm and growing your own food was healthier and was all in all a good life, it is also hard work with unstable and sometimes few returns. In reality, how many people are willing to work so hard for only the possibility of a return?  Unfortunately, this is the situation in which the U.S. finds itself, and until drastic changes occur, farms similar to the one that Constance grew up on will continue to struggle to persevere.

Gardens, Quinces and Nelson County, with Elizabeth Ferguson

This film was directed and produced by Alex Howle as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Gardens, Quinces and Nelson County, with Elizabeth Ferguson

by Alex Howle

Elizabeth Ferguson is a native and life-long resident of Nelson County Virginia.  Now, as an aging African-American woman, she recalls being raised by her mother and grandparents.  Her earliest food memory involves the raising of gardens and livestock.  She, her mother, and grandparents raised most of their own food from a garden.  They preserved the fruits and vegetables from the garden by canning in the summer for the rest of the year.  They also raised livestock, some of which was used for meat.

Figure 1: Quince, The Simple Green Frugal Co-op http://simple-green-frugal-co-op.blogspot.com/2012/01/quince-paste.html

When asked if she knows of any fruit or vegetable that once grew in Nelson County when she was a child but is now either rare or no longer grown, Mrs. Ferguson recalls the quince.  Her grandfather had a quince tree when she was growing up.  She describes the fruit as being like an apple, but the size of an egg.  Her grandmother used to make preserves and jelly with the fruit, but she does not see it much anymore.  In fact, there are many, including this filmmaker, who do not know what it is, and have never even heard of it.

Mrs. Ferguson continues to by saying that the families in Virginia who did have quince trees had quite a few in their yards.  So, the quince was relatively common in Nelson County.  However, it is now longer as prevalent.  What happened?  She recalls a particularly dry year, after which most of the quince trees died out and she has not heard much about them since.Having only ever heard the name, but not knowing anything about the fruit itself, I set out to learn more about the quince and its connection to food heritage in Nelson County.  The quince is a small deciduous tree that originated in Southwest Asia.[i]  It is a relative to the apple and pear, hence its resemblance to both.[ii]  The fruit is bright and golden when ripe, but is rarely eaten raw because it can be hard and sour.[iii]  The fruit is high in pectin, which makes is better for use in preserves.[iv]  Its strong fragrance also ideally suits it for use in jams or jellies.  In fact, the word marmalade derives from the Portuguese word for quince, “marmelo.”[v]  The fruit is also commonly roasted, baked, or stewed.[vi]

Figure 2: Champion Quince http://quincefive.org/index1.html

In North America, the quince is now rare because of its susceptibility to fireblight disease.[vii]  The U.S. now produces only about 200 acres of the fruit commercially.[viii]  The quince is primary used today as a dwarfing rootstock for pears.[ix]  But in Central Virginia, the quince is beginning to back a comeback.  Vintage Virginia Apples has planted more than ten varieties of the quince, including the Champion, which is one of the few varieties that is sweet enough to eat, the Crimea, which has a pineapple and citrus fragrance, and the Havran, which bears a fruit that can reach more than two pounds.[x]  The strong fragrance and delicious jelly of the quince may someday soon be well-known again in Virginia due to the efforts of Vintage Virginia Apples and the people who understand the heritage of the quince.

The quince has a long and illustrious history both in American and abroad.  The acknowledgment of the heritage of the quince helps provide a wider glimpse into the history of Virginia, the United States, and the global environment.  The quince, though rare in Virginia, lives on in the memories of those who know its smell, uses, and taste, and will continue to live in the imagination of those to learn about it and, perhaps, seek it out in the future.  By actively reintroducing the quince into the food culture of Virginia, Elizabeth Ferguson’s food heritage can be preserved.  So, go out and eat a quince!

Links:

Vintage Virginia Apples:  http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm

Endnotes:


[i] Quince. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quince. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Marmalade” in Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper apud Dictionary.com

[vi] Quince. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quince. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Quince Varieties. Vintage Virginia Apples. ©2001 Vintage Virginia Apples. Site updated on: 7/17/2007. http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm. Accessed March 9, 2012.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Figure 2:  Champion Quince
 http://quincefive.org/index1.html

Gardens, Quinces and Nelson County, with Elizabeth Ferguson

by Alex Howle

Elizabeth Ferguson is a native and life-long resident of Nelson County Virginia.  Now, as an aging African-American woman, she recalls being raised by her mother and grandparents.  Her earliest food memory involves the raising of gardens and livestock.  She, her mother, and grandparents raised most of their own food from a garden.  They preserved the fruits and vegetables from the garden by canning in the summer for the rest of the year.  They also raised livestock, some of which was used for meat.

When asked if she knows of any fruit or vegetable that once grew in Nelson County when she was a child but is now either rare or no longer grown, Mrs. Ferguson recalls the quince.  Her grandfather had a quince tree when she was growing up.  She describes the fruit as being like an apple, but the size of an egg.  Her grandmother used to make preserves and jelly with the fruit, but she does not see it much anymore.  In fact, there are many, including this filmmaker, who do not know what it is, and have never even heard of it.

Mrs. Ferguson continues to by saying that the families in Virginia who did have quince trees had quite a few in their yards.  So, the quince was relatively common in Nelson County.  However, it is now longer as prevalent.  What happened?  She recalls a particularly dry year, after which most of the quince trees died out and she has not heard much about them since.Having only ever heard the name, but not knowing anything about the fruit itself, I set out to learn more about the quince and its connection to food heritage in Nelson County.  The quince is a small deciduous tree that originated in Southwest Asia.[i]  It is a relative to the apple and pear, hence its resemblance to both.[ii]  The fruit is bright and golden when ripe, but is rarely eaten raw because it can be hard and sour.[iii]  The fruit is high in pectin, which makes is better for use in preserves.[iv]  Its strong fragrance also ideally suits it for use in jams or jellies.  In fact, the word marmalade derives from the Portuguese word for quince, “marmelo.”[v]  The fruit is also commonly roasted, baked, or stewed.[vi]

Figure 2: Champion Quince
http://quincefive.org/index1.html

In North America, the quince is now rare because of its susceptibility to fireblight disease.[vii]  The U.S. now produces only about 200 acres of the fruit commercially.[viii]  The quince is primary used today as a dwarfing rootstock for pears.[ix]  But in Central Virginia, the quince is beginning to back a comeback.  Vintage Virginia Apples has planted more than ten varieties of the quince, including the Champion, which is one of the few varieties that is sweet enough to eat, the Crimea, which has a pineapple and citrus fragrance, and the Havran, which bears a fruit that can reach more than two pounds.[x]  The strong fragrance and delicious jelly of the quince may someday soon be well-known again in Virginia due to the efforts of Vintage Virginia Apples and the people who understand the heritage of the quince.

The quince has a long and illustrious history both in American and abroad.  The acknowledgment of the heritage of the quince helps provide a wider glimpse into the history of Virginia, the United States, and the global environment.  The quince, though rare in Virginia, lives on in the memories of those who know its smell, uses, and taste, and will continue to live in the imagination of those to learn about it and, perhaps, seek it out in the future.  By actively reintroducing the quince into the food culture of Virginia, Elizabeth Ferguson’s food heritage can be preserved.  So, go out and eat a quince!

Links:

Vintage Virginia Apples:  http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm

Endnotes:


[i] Quince. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quince. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Marmalade” in Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper apud Dictionary.com

[vi] Quince. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quince. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Quince Varieties. Vintage Virginia Apples. ©2001 Vintage Virginia Apples. Site updated on: 7/17/2007. http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm. Accessed March 9, 2012.