The South has long been an agricultural region, but Southern culture’s ties to the land changed dramatically in the mid-twentieth century, when more people began moving into cities and towns. With that trend, the narratives about Southerners being rural, farming people became less and less accurate. As the writer shows us in this essay, an early twenty-first century interest in back-to the-land movements, like urban farming and homesteading, are changing beliefs about what it means to live in the South in a way that includes agriculture.
by Karen Luke Jackson
Not a blast from the alarm clock, but an incessant ringing interrupted my free-fall dream. I fumbled for the landline on a wicker table beside the bed.
“Everybody’s okay, Mom,” my daughter Kerri hurriedly said “but I need your help.”
“With what, pray tell, at six in the morning?”
“I know it’s early, but I just hung up with a clerk from the post office,” Kerri explained. “She wants to know when I can pick up the biddies I ordered. The woman said the chirping is driving them crazy.”
“Biddies? What about Mike?”
“He’s out of town on a business trip. I’d go, but the kids aren’t feeling well. I’m keeping them home from school.”
I climbed out of bed, pulled on jeans and a Tar Heel sweatshirt, and drove to the Hendersonville, North Carolina, postal annex which didn’t open until ten. Knocking on the door, I wondered if anyone would answer. Within minutes, the upper half swung open.
“Can I help you?” a balding man asked, peering over his glasses.
“I’ve come for a shipment of chickens. Someone called my daughter and told her to get them as soon as possible.”
He yelled to a co-worker, who brought him a cardboard box.
“Do you have any identification?”
I pulled out a driver’s license, but since my last name and my daughter’s are different, he asked me to confirm her address. Kerri had been in her new home only a few weeks, and I was still groggy.
“She lives on Harden Circle, but for the life of me I can’t remember her house number,” I said. “Besides, do I look like a woman who wants to steal chickens?”
I’ll never know whether I convinced that postal employee I wasn’t a thief or if he was just ready to be rid of the chirpers. Whatever his reason, he loaded the box into the car’s back seat. I cranked the Subaru, backed it out of the parking spot, and drove the fragile cargo to my daughter’s home.
Perhaps Kerri’s dream of raising chickens, her version of suburban farming, harkened back to stories she’d heard me tell of Aunt Ruth, the woman whose name she bore. As a child in the 1950s, I’d spent hours at my aunt’s farm outside of Ocilla, Georgia, picking purple hulls in the garden and chasing and feeding hens. Yellow kernels of corn popped like necklace beads as I raked them from a cob for birds pecking at my feet.
Soaked in those memories, Kerri declared her intention to pass down the legacy: “I want my children to know food comes from somewhere other than supermarkets!”
A spacious backyard had attracted Kerri and Mike to their new home. It had a large garden plot, with mature peach, apple, and pear trees, and a fenced-in area perfect for a chicken coop. After moving in, she researched the best breeds and ordered a kit to erect a hutch which would shelter their future food supply.
These Silkies were not Kerri’s first batch of biddies. The previous fall, she’d ordered Australorps, a variety from Australia that full grown weighs between six and seven pounds. The breed is also known for good egg production. According to an article on the Internet, if it is to be believed, an Australorp hen holds the world’s laying record—364 eggs in 365 days.
Kerri’s enthusiasm sparked my own. I envisioned fresh eggs for homemade pound cakes and custard pies and supported her back-to-the-land move, in hopes I’d have a permanent supply. But when she told me she’d ordered twenty-five Australorps, I gasped.
“You don’t have room for all those birds!”
“Mom, I know what I’m doing,” she snapped. “The catalog said the chicks would die unless there’re enough in the shipment to maintain body heat.”
“Couldn’t you have bought them locally?” I asked. Local seemed more sustainable to me, but I didn’t say it out loud.
“Well, I could have, but I wanted biddies that were sexed.”
“Yes, this producer identifies the sex of the chicks, so it’s less likely we’ll get any roosters. We live too close to neighbors to own crowing alarm clocks.”
When three of the Australorps grew combs, Kerri sold them along with thirteen hens. Nine birds were left to roost in the orange coop Mike had built.
Then, close to Easter, the grandchildren let it slip that their mother had ordered the Silkies. Unlike hearty Australorps, these bantams are show birds, more fur than feathers. A rare breed that Marco Polo saw during his travels in the Orient, they grow to only three pounds, lay few eggs, cannot fly well, and are quite tame.
I asked my daughter, “Why Silkies? They’re not part of the food supply.”
“Eye candy,” Kerri replied, rolling her eyes.
As if to defend her mom, Audie chimed in, “And they’re just so cute!”
Since my grandson Jackson’s chores included caring for the fowl, I asked what he thought about the new Silkies.
“They’re kinda cute, but when they get older, they’ll be boring like the others. What I’m excited about is the goats Mom says we’re getting soon.”
Five years later, Kerri and Mike bought what I call a “farmette”: thirteen acres primarily pasture, with a house in need of major repair and two barns.
Tonya, a friend of mine since college who grew up in Miami, brokered the real estate transaction. At a stressful moment during a drawn-out closing, she wanted to distract my daughter.
“Your mom tells me you’ve put a deposit on two goats.”
“Learning goats, I call them,” Kerri explained. “We’ll pick them up in the spring when they’re in milk, so I can learn how to make goat cheese and soap.”
What are you planning to name them?”
Without hesitation, Kerri teased, “I’m thinking about calling them Tonya and Karen, after you and Mom.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Tonya shot back.
That exchange sealed our fate. Later that afternoon, Tonya phoned to tell me about our namesakes.
“Guess what your daughter is calling her two new pets.”
“What?” I asked clueless.
“Karen and Tonya.”
“That’s my daughter,” I said, laughing.
“I thought about it after the closing and called her back,” Tonya continued. “Told her I was okay with a goat named after me as long as I’m the smart young ninny and you’re the nagging old nanny.”
Our namesakes didn’t work out, but two Dexter cows did. Sissy and Mary Todd arrived at Sweet Folly Farm — the name the family dubbed their venture — and gave birth to healthy bull calves. A small breed originally from Ireland, Dexters grow no more than four feet high and thrive on small Appalachian farms. All bovine need a guard animal to protect them from coyotes and other predators, so the next farm acquisition was a donkey that the children named Braveheart.
Jackson tried his hand at raising lop-eared show rabbits. As bunnies do, they bred prolifically. After a few months of feeding and cleaning out cages, he sold all but one. “If we get more rabbits,” he told me, “they’ll be the kind you eat. There’s good money in that.”
Even if Jackson does go back into the rabbit business, I’ll wager the hares won’t become food. For although Aunt Ruth could wring a chicken’s neck, pluck it, and fry it up for Sunday dinner, my daughter has yet to slaughter a single bunny or bird.
Karen Luke Jackson’s publications include short stories and poems in numerous journals, two poetry collections, The View Ever Changing and GRIT, and The Story Mandala: Finding Wholeness in a Divided World, a book of essays co-edited with Dr. Sally Z. Hare. A native of South Georgia and a retreat leader with the Center for Courage & Renewal, Karen now resides in a cottage on a goat pasture in Western North Carolina. There, she writes and companions people on their spiritual journeys.