Welcome back, Steve
By Jeff Salter
Like most everybody, I suppose, I hate to break off an interesting conversation right in the middle, before my talented friend has a chance to finish. But my back-and-forth with Steve turned out to be so lengthy, that we simply had to split it over two appearances. Here’s Part One, which appeared last month:
That portion of the interview dealt mostly with Steve’s background, his writing, and what led him to write. [It also features links to his blog and to a couple of samples of his writing.] Today, in this second half, we’ll deal with some of Steve’s numerous other talents and interests — besides writing.
- Welcome back, Steve.
[ *** SVH *** ] — Hi Jeff! It’s great to be back as your guest. I had such a great time with part one of our interview. It was nice to hear from old and new friends who were curious about this guy from Rhode Island who ended up in Kentucky. I can’t believe that one month has gone by so quickly, and how many things have happened since December. The healing process from my surgery seems to be 100 % complete, and the same is so for tackling the dreams and demands of our farm. Thank you for the invitation. I look forward to corresponding with our readers in Part 2 of our interview.
- Tell us where you lived before you moved to Kentucky. How do you respond when people suggest you might be a “yankee”?
[ *** SVH *** ] — Ah, I am a New Englander, through and through — born and raised in Rhode Island. I grew up in the little town of Ashaway and loved it there. The Pawcatuck River runs on the border of Ashaway and Westerly and drains into the Atlantic Ocean. When I was 13 my dad gave me a boat. On that river I was able to live a Tom Sawyer life. When people refer to me as a yankee, which happens more often than not, a part of me longs for home…but not because of why you may think.
Yankee is a relative term; heck, anybody born on the north side of the Mason Dixon line can be considered a yankee. But, where I come from, there is a special kind of yankee… a swamp yankee. I, proudly, am a swamp yankee. We are the group that keeps the old times alive and real… we’re the long story tellers. We remember our roots. We invented “yankee ingenuity” and do our best to pass it along. Once a year this spirit is commemorated with Swamp Yankee Days. Hit-n-miss motors, maple syrup tappin’, saw mill operating, old tractor drivin’, found-this-old-implement-out-in-the-barn-and-got-it-workin’, Honey bee keepin’, doing what’s never been tried before and making it work, kind of people… and I do miss them dearly.
- Tell us about the multi-faceted enterprise we know as Harmony Acres. About 15 years ago, was this something you ever imagined you’d be doing?
[ *** SVH *** ] — If anyone had told me in July of 2003 that I’d be living on a farm in Kentucky the following July (2004), I’d have thought they were crazy. Honestly, I never even drove a tractor until after moving here. We brought two miniature horses (Harmony and Star), along with Amanda’s quarter horse (Cowboy), plus our dog (Bailey) and two cats (Skittles and Chester) with us when we moved. Sadly, they’ve all passed on.
Since our horses were the foundation of the farm, we based the unfinished barn around their needs. After the previous owner relocated the property’s resident cows, Donna and Amanda took out all the barbed wire and we set all new lines with a horse friendly tape fence. After the first year I had the crazy idea to start a blueberry field; 5 of our 28+ acres and 3000 plants. We laid out the field, drilled every hole, and (with the help of my brother and some friends) we planted 3000 bushes. After three years of hard drought, lack of irrigation and poorly researched planting methods, our field, for the most part, failed. We tried to limp it along for a few more years, but finally waved a white flag and moved on.
We helped a friend thin his thornless blackberry patch and he let us bring home some cuttings as starters. I started with two 100 foot rows. They took off like wildfire. I planted a third row the following year, and three more rows a couple of years later. We now have 600 feet of trellised blackberries, from which Donna and I picked 350 pounds last year.
I started working on an orchard – apples, peaches and pears – on part of the property where the blueberries used to be. We salvaged about 20 blueberry bushes and have them on our front property, as well as a little strawberry patch.
The three of us have experimented with gardens all over the farm. We have tried many different things over the years, tossing what doesn’t work, and keeping what does.
Amanda has been the brain behind all the expansion of fields, fences, run-ins, and horses. She is the owner of her horse business. She (very orderly) keeps all the records, schedules, and horses’ care. She also has a site, Harmony’s Cheesecakes, where she will bake a delicious cheesecake to order. She also bakes and sells shortbread.
Donna is certified for canning our produce; jams, relishes, pickles, to name a few. She also bakes different breads as the season permits. One of my favorites is her blueberry gingerbread. It’s hard for a guy to watch his figure, with these girls around.
This has been a growing venture that I never would have imagined when we first moved here.
The cabin BEFORE renovation.
- Anyone who has an operation such as yours also has a LOT of equipment. How do you keep everything running… and ready for the next project?
[ *** SVH *** ] — I have less equipment than one might think. We brought our old Sears Craftsman mower down here with us and I bought a 1956 Ford 600 tractor with a 6 foot finish mower shortly thereafter. I have collected several implements for the old Ford over the years. Most of our hauling is done with a garden tractor and dump cart. We later added a Cub Cadet garden tractor with a 54-inch cut and a locking differential option for when hauling conditions are slick. The Ford is a tough old gal, but I’ve rebuilt the carburetor and put in a new starter. One time the wiring caught fire out in the field…but for the most part, greasing every fitting every time, keeping things tight and sharp, and checking all the fluids have been a good maintenance program (thanks to my grandfathers on both sides). My biggest problem has been with flat tires. I had contemplated changing the name to, Flat Tire Farm at one point, but bought some “no flat” tires for the dump cart instead. So now the harmony in Harmony Acres remains.
The cabin exterior AFTER renovation
- In addition to your full-time culinary job – and all the daily duties of tending to the acreage – I see that you assist your wife (Donna) in the gardening, harvesting, and canning of various consumables. Plus, you seem to help your daughter (Amanda) with the horses and the riding lessons. Where do you get all that energy? Are you ever tempted to say, “The [gardens / horses] are YOUR job, Hon. I’m gonna take a nap.”?
[ *** SVH *** ] — Ha! The three of us love each other so much and make a pretty good team — it requires the combined effort of all. We do have our designated jobs, more or less, but will never let any one struggle if something is out of the ordinary. I am usually the enthusiastic one with the bright idea for a new whatever, or to clear a different spot, or to add a thus-an-such. I always say that all any project needs is time and money. Getting those two things to coincide is the hard part… so we try to use what the land provides. I’m not sure where the energy continues comes from… but I try to make the most of it while I still can.
Interior of the renovated cabin
- I know that little FORMERLY run-down cabin holds a special place in your vision of Harmony Acres… and now (I believe) your daughter resides there. What was it about the cabin that caught your eye? How much work did it require to retrofit it to its current living standards?
[ *** SVH *** ] — When things started happening with the sale of our house in RI, it happened fast! Suddenly our place was sold and we had not yet found a place here. When we flew down and began looking, we loved the land or loved the house, but never loved the two together.
This farm had been taken off the market, pending a survey. When that survey reflected slightly less acreage than the buyer had been told, he backed out and our agent was allowed to show the place to us. When we crested the driveway, Donna saw the covered wrap around porch and I saw the cabin. We both fell in love! We liked the gently rolling acres and the house, being a simple single level with extra wide hallways and doors, was one we felt we could retire in. We were signing the papers when that original buyer returned to see if the property was still available. It wasn’t… it was ours now. What a small window of opportunity we’d actually had — nothing like being in the right place at the right time.
The cabin existed before the house, even before the previous owner. They did live in it and had some crudely run plumbing and wiring, and a two seater out house by the creek. There used to be an open porch on the side of the cabin which we closed in to add to the living space. The cabin had a 200 amp service on it but no septic. The plumbing – run to a water heater, sink, and shower stall – all led directly into the creek through a single pipe which had burst (and destroyed the floors) long before we moved in. In retrospect, it would have been easier to doze the cabin over than repair it, but I am nostalgic, a romantic, and…thrifty (cheap), so we made things work as we had the money. I spent 13 years on and off restoring it. The floors were ripped out, some joists replaced and I had to jack and level the entire cabin, one corner at a time. We replaced the windows, doors, opened up between the main cabin and the old porch adding support beams and walls. A chimney was ripped off the side of the cabin, and soffits were cut back. Amanda and I put new metal on the roof. All the wiring was completely replaced. I hired a plumber to run the water lines and vents. I also hired a septic guy to put in a new system and build a road from our driveway to the cabin. When Amanda showed an interest in it, special attention was given to the kitchen. I’d been given a lot of old lumber and made the best possible use for it. The cabin is approximately 470 sq. ft. and I am absolutely head over heels with the way it came out. Truth be told, it is nicer than the house.
Donna’s uncle had come to visit the first summer we were here. Donna had him take a picture of us, all holding pitchforks, in front of the cabin to be used as Christmas postcards to be sent to our friends and family up north. When some of them received the cards, they actually thought the cabin was our only dwelling and that we had lost our minds for moving down here.
The rather pitiful truck BEFORE Steve began restoring it.
- Tell us about that old pickup truck you acquired and are actively restoring. Is there something particular about that model / year that caught your eye? Or would almost any pickup from that era have scratched your itch?
[ *** SVH *** ] — In high school I always had some type of old Chevy truck — the ’54 panel, a ’51 stake body, a ’53 pickup. Also a ’56 Buick for cruising and even a ’71 super beetle painted panther pink. When Donna and I first bought my grandparents house back in the late 80’s, I had restored the garage and turned it into my body shop. I restored a slew of old vehicles; some for myself, and some for friends.
When the kids reached an age where they were interested in animals and the 4H, we sold the house and bought a small 2 ¾ acre farm. I traded my body shop in for a barn. It wasn’t until Amanda was about to turn 16, that I put my skills back to work. Amanda wanted to learn to weld. We found a 1976 Ford Ranchero and restored it as her first car. She helped every step of the way, and loved participating in the Somernites Cruise circuit.
Several more years went by and the itch for restoring an old truck was strong. I was actually searching craigslist for a 1954 Chevy pickup, my favorite year. There was something about that 1966 Ford pickup that I really liked. I liked the short-bed and the step side (or flare side, as the true Ford enthusiast call it) feature of the bed. But most of all I liked that it was an old Kentucky State Road Truck, still covered with the remnants of the decals from its glory days. There have been times where it has almost got the best of me, but I can picture the finished work. I really want to honor the truck by restoring it back to original. I’ve traced, measured, and photographed every decal and number on the truck, and intend on replacing them once the truck is repainted to the hideous yellow that it once was. I think it’s a cool piece of history.
Truck’s front & side — during renovation
- Harmony Acres has fields, hills, trees, dwellings, barns, cabin, and house. Is there anything else you wish you had on your acreage?
[ *** SVH *** ] — Do you mean besides a few brawny youngin’s to help with the chores and finding an old mason jar full of money? Haha!
I look at the farm as a work in progress. It seems to evolve as our dreams and wallet allow. We also have a fully functioning RV site with water, septic, and a 50 amp outlet. Donna and I have tossed around the idea of building a cabin for the two of us to retire in, on the front property. That would give Amanda the option for the house, and allow the other to be a rental or Air B and B.
Amanda would like a large indoor arena, but that is way out of budget. We will be adding at least two more run ins for the horses and hopefully another for the sheep this summer.
There is a beautiful spot on the farm with a huge white oak with branches the size of a big tree! A porch swing currently hangs there. When you look out from the tree towards the field, the rolling land makes a natural amphitheater — we’ve actually hosted a wedding there.
There is another corner of the property close to the orchard where a large number of Virginia Pines and cedars. The cedars host a fungus (cedar apple rust) which plays havoc with our apple trees. My future plan is to cut down the diseased cedars and use them to build a large covered platform next to the white oak. It could be used as a stage to host musicians… or serve as a camping platform. With all my heart, I try not to waste anything we take off the land.
We also have a couple of fencing projects which we may add to the mix soon. There’s never a dull moment at Harmony Acres!
Every part of the truck required work
- You live way out of town, with one boundary of your acreage actually bordering another county. Yet, you all three work in Somerset. Do you do most of your business in Somerset? Or do you shop and interact in Nancy… or other towns / villages?
[ *** SVH *** ] — Now that we all work in Somerset we do try to consolidate some of our shopping there. We generally take the bypass home, and that means that we miss going through the center of Nancy.
There is just something special about living in a small town, but Nancy’s corporate limits take up a lot of real estate.
For a small town, Nancy has a lot to offer. We frequent a couple of restaurants, the hardware store is well supplied and the prices are reasonable. It just makes sense to go there, rather than use extra fuel to drive to Somerset. Plus, you can talk to a guy who actually knows about the product he is selling.
Nancy has two banks and we all do business there. I always enjoy the personal face to face interaction with the tellers… getting to know one another. One snowy day, I stayed home because the roads would soon be covered. One of the tellers called to let me know they were closing early, in case I needed to do any banking.
Another time I was talking to the teller inside when I noticed something different outside at the drive thru window. There sat a man on horseback, doing his banking at the drive thru! You won’t find that in the big city anymore.
- Steve, as I look over these questions in the second half of our interview, I’m impressed that you’ve achieved what many / most of us dream of — except for those who thrive on the hustle / bustle of places like NYC or San Fran, or N’awlins. I’m reminded of Eddie Albert as Oliver Wendell Douglas in Green Acres who left Time Square for a little farm near Hooterville… except that your phone is indoors, your spouse is far more talented and capable than Gabor, and you don’t have a pig named Arnold. Any final comments?
[ *** SVH *** ] — Hahaha! I’d be lying if I said making the move wasn’t scary. Also, I may have learned a thing or two from Oliver and Lisa, oh, and of course, Arnold. All in all, I’m glad we gave Green Acres a try… and if there ever comes a time when farm livin’ is no longer the life for me, at least I can say that I gave it a try and enjoyed it when I could. We’ve learned a lot and made some pretty good friends!
Thank you again, Jeff, for considering me for this interview. It sure has been a lot of fun and I’ve truly enjoyed it!
[JLS # 472]