SMN Archives/Regional News

Regional News 5-31-00

Modern-day Homesteaders

By Thomas Crowe

At the far end of the Caney Fork community, near the headwaters of Sugar Creek and at the end of a rocky dirt road which borders the Roy Taylor National Forest in Jackson County, you’ll find Jackie Palmer and her husband David Smith at their Dark Cove farm. In a north-facing, high mountain cove bordered and protected by neighboring ridgelines, this unique family farm is a sheltered ecosystem and world of its own -- or so it seems to one coming from anywhere outside in the larger world.
On a recent afternoon, David was found down at the bottom of their newly drained and re-dug trout pond fixing the drain valve, and Jackie was busy digging holes and transplanting rhododendrons on the side of the pond where their rustic and cozy little house sits.
Jackie and David are originally from Thomasville, Ga., and Chesterfield County, South Carolina, respectively. They met while working at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Swain County. Married at the Forest Hills Country Club in Cullowhee, they began a scholastic career that spanned 10 years, studying and working in such places as Harvard, MIT, Peru, and Finland, but always looking forward to their return someday to Cullowhee. Jackie subtitled her Ph.D. thesis from Harvard, “In Persuit of a Dream,” and inter-leafed the cover with a hand-drawn picture of a cabin in the mountains.
After returning to the Western North Carolina mountains and working for two years as a professor of biology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee (where she had received her bachelor’s degree some years earlier), in 1992 Jackie began pursuing that dream she referenced in her thesis. She made an abrupt shift in career philosophy and turned her focus and energies toward self-employment and self sufficiency.
Her decision to become a 21st century homesteader and farmer followed an academic career that seemed destined for success. She received many honors and awards for her research work and teaching, had been a Smithsonian Institute Research Associate, recipient of a prestigious Madame Carriere Fellowship, recipient of several major grants, and had lectured and given presentations and papers at major symposiums in such far-away and exotic places as Finland and South America,

Down on the farm
Now, after eight years of restoring an 80-acre piece of land that was bought by Jackson County native Clarence Aiken back in the late 1800s from the Cherokee, land that was part of a Cherokee land trust and which had been heavily logged, Dark Cove Farm is a nearly self-sustaining operation. The couple pride themselves on the variety of cottage industry enterprises they’ve developed: a production pottery business, a breeding business of award-winning Alpine dairy goats and Great Pyrenees dogs, a wildflower honey business, and a rainbow trout farm. In addition to the businesses, Jackie and David are careful about the overall maintenance and stewardship of the 80 acres that is the Dark Cove Farm (the name coming from the fact of its north-facing location and winters with few hours of direct sunlight).
“Things were pretty grown up and run down when we arrived here,” David says, sitting on the porch overlooking the trout pond and sharing large bowls of homemade goat milk ice cream with a visitor.
“The pond was covered over and the road was barely passable. In the last eight years we’ve kept only the one acre cleared around the house and pond, enhancing and enjoying the forest solitude.”
“Yeah,” Jackie chimes in with a child-like smile, “we’re just like a couple of kids livin’ up here in the woods -- having so much fun.” She puts another big spoonful of the homemade ice cream into her mouth and laughs. “We feed the goats all this health food -- sea kelp and stuff -- and then we eat the ice cream. We just sit up here on our deck and eat ice cream all day. The honey, the goats milk, the chicken eggs ... everything goes into the ice cream. Really, we’re running an ice cream farm here.”

“And when we’re not making ice cream, we’re digging around on the property trying to find this perpetual motion machine that rumor has it was invented and built by one of the previous owners who is said to have buried it somewhere on this land. So, you see, we have a sort of idyllic life up here in the woods,” Jackie said.
While David and Jackie maintain a sense of humor about their lives and their farm, there is a more contemplative and work-intensive side to their existence. The farm businesses are self-sustaining but don’t yet provide the resources to support Jackie and David. So Jackie works as much as 56 hours a week away from the farm. She is in her third year as a biology consultant on a grant at Clemson University. Spring is the planting period for her thriving landscaping business in the Cashiers area. David holds a steady job at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) near Western Carolina University. Somewhat ironically, he’s the technology/media coordinator.

“We both work hard to pay our way here. Striving continually for a partnership. I share in the joy and responsibility of our lifestyle, and as a partner in the business which was essentially created by Jackie,” David says, walking up a cleared logging road amidst a spectacular ground cover of 30 acres of blooming spring trillium and wildflowers.

“I find my greatest reward, really, in the wildflower walks and the things that are simply here, all around us. We were in the right place at the right time to be able to get this place. We just took advantage of the opportunity. In that sense we were lucky. We’ve tried to live here as simply as possible, yet to be an integral part of the world around us. And we’ve been lucky in another sense -- to be surrounded by nice people here in the Caney Fork community. While we want to try and make a living on this land, we aim at having a minimal impact on the land while we are here. To let it do its own thing, to continue to be its own ecosystem, while we merely act as stewards for this little watershed,” David said.

Back at the house in the pottery studio, Jackie says the goal for the various farm businesses has never changed.
“It is and has been our aim from the beginning to eventually become self-sufficient from things we can generate and produce on this land. It is our dream to be able to live here without outside income. But in the process we want to do it right,” she said.

“We began with a Forest Management Plan which we’re adhering to and which will do as little damage as possible to the land. For instance, Dark Cove is its own watershed, with its own headwaters that feeds into Sugar Creek, that feeds into Caney Fork Creek, that feeds the Tuckaseegee River. There are 11 permanent fresh water springs on this property, which all drain into the trout pond, so it’s important for us to take into consideration such things as runoff from any clearing we do here so as to not have any negative impact on the natural life of the pond whereas the raising of fish is concerned,” she said.

Jackie also had the Natural Heritage Foundation do an inventory of the property.“They’ve designated our place as a high-diversity cove and rich cove forest. They identified over 200 plant types, with some rare abundant communities of such things as purple larkspur and trillium,” she said. “So it’s now up to us to protect these areas and to encourage their natural development. At the same time, we’re doing all these things with animals and bees, so it demands a certain sensitivity and balance in our planning and work with regard to these enterprises.”

The goat herd of alpines is a “closed herd.” That means Jackie pays close attention to where the goats go, who comes on to the property and what kind of contact the animals have with other people and animals. “I breed for milk production and for temperament and for ease of hand milking,” she said. “All baby goats are bottle fed from birth, which assures that they are tame and are healthy. My herd is tested, certified and accredited by the USDA and we’ve won trophies and ribbons at National Dairy Association shows. I never milk more than six does at a time and when we’re milking the does we generally average about 2 gallons a day per goat.” The milk is used to feed the babies, to make cheese and yogurt, to make goat milk soap, and, of course, the ice cream.
“My goal is to have a naturally healthy stock with a minimal amount of necessary medication and non-natural influences from the outside. These are all qualities that I pass along to the buyers of my goats, as well,” Jackie said.

The Great Pyrenees dog breeding business goes hand in hand with the goats. These are large (up to 150 pounds), white dogs that are livestock guardians as opposed to attack dogs. They are used in Europe as babysitters to protect children. They are the oldest known breed of dog on the planet (4,000 years) and are bred as a gentle dog dedicated to guard their charge.“These dogs bond with the herd -- in our case, my herd of milk goats -- and work for and with the herd rather than primarily for their owner/farmer. We intend to begin breeding for sale in 2001,” Jackie said.

The pair have been in the bee keeping business for 15 years. “We have 20 active hives, which is about as much as we can manage at the present time. We rob our hives twice a year -- in June for the darker “early flow” honey made from tulip poplar and locust, mainly, and in August for the sourwood honey. In our extraction process we don’t use heat and use a course filter in order to keep the honey as natural as possible and full of nutrients. We also use the honey in making goat milk soap -- a very good face and hand soap, and use the wax for our line of beeswax, hand-dipped candles.

“The fish (rainbow trout) are bought locally as fingerlings, and we try and keep them all the same size. We harvest the fish two or three times a year. If we’re going to pull the fish out of the pond on a Saturday, we call our customers on Wednesday so they’ll get them while they’re still fresh. All the fish are presold locally,” Jackie said.

“I’ve been making pottery now for about eight years. I learned the craft and the business at Haywood Community College. In the early days I used other people’s kilns to fire my pots. I was a ‘cowbird’ potter, I guess, putting my eggs in other people’s nests. I produce wood-fired stoneware. I use clay and glaze material from this area as well as other natural materials such as honeysuckle vine and river cane for ornamentation. My pottery is designed to be highly functional and is sold on special order through wholesale accounts at certain select stores in the region, such as City Lights Bookstore in Sylva,” Jackie said. She uses a fast-fire wood kiln, a labor-intensive process that takes about 12 to 18 hours and continuous stoking for the fire to reach and maintain a 2,300-degree temperature. It takes about a pickup truck load of wood for each firing, wood collected as scrap from around the farm. She uses mostly pine and poplar. “I prefer a natural design and glazes that show up the natural characteristics of the clay,” Jackie said.

“All these cottage industries must pay for themselves in order that we can continue,” she said. “At this point they do, but not much more than that. Also, we’ve tried to get into enterprises that don’t overlap a lot in terms of timing. So we can spread our time and energy around to take care of all the various things we are attempting to do. All this, as both David and I have said, with as little waste and as minimal an impact as possible,” Jackie said.
While their dream of self-sufficiency remains, for the moment, just out of reach, Jackie and David have taken large strides toward achieving that goal. “While we can make a living doing things exclusively here on the land, we still need to go outside to bring in income for the bigger projects such as dredging the pond, buying a portable sawmill, keeping our trucks running. So, yes, we do make a profit here at Dark Cove, just not a huge one,” Jackie said. “I’m still doing the consulting or research work, keep up a gardening business (designing, planting, maintaining gardens locally), and the occassional lectures or seminars on pottery and biology. We’ve still got a few big hurdles to cross before we can think about being here in Dark Cove all of the time. But we’re getting close, now. And, frankly, I can’t wait.

“We don’t have any grandchildren, so no one’s going to come and take care of us when we get older. We have to be set up and ready for that eventuality. Hopefully, we will get there with plenty of time to spare. Time we can spend taking wildflower walks and making lots of hand-cranked ice cream.”

(David Smith and Jackie Palmer can be reached at Dark Cove Farm by calling 828.293.3791, or by writing to Dark Cove Farm, Box 944, Cullowhee, North Carolina, 28723.)

The Smoky Mountain News