Friday, September 10, 2010

Cookeville, Tennessee: Hector Black, Hidden Springs Nursery

I grew up in New York City. In Queens. And we had a back yard about the size of our living room and I was growing stuff there. And then we lived on my uncle's farm in the summertime. That's what gave me my taste for the country, for growing. Actually, as a little kid, my mom told me that I just loved plants and growing plants. So I started really young with that. Then I got into World War II, for two and a half years in the army and that turned me into a...well, I guess I got a sort of a save the world complex and I became a Ghandian pacifist, nonviolent...of course very interested in Martin Luther King and social justice.

I wound up living communally for about seven or eight years in a religious Christian community. I always had plants, no matter where I was. We lived in the ghetto in Atlanta for two and a half years and the backyard was just nothing but cinders, and so I fenced it and started planting flowers out there. Little kids from the neighborhood watching the bees pollinate the daffodils, they were absolutely fascinated. They'd never seen anything like that before.

I've never been without plants around me.
I've sort of been pulled between social issues and agriculture. We worked for about two and a half years in a poor neighborhood in Atlanta and then we moved out into the country. My wife was in a wheelchair; she was just getting out of the hospital after surgery. We would either have to hire somebody to take care of my wife and our two children or I'd have to stay at home and find work at home. So we put together a couple of greenhouses and I started growing ornamentals and then herbs and all kinds of plants. We were there for about eight years and it just seemed...we knew the guy who worked in what was the "hippie" neighborhood of Atlanta in the '60's, and he told us about a young couple who'd been thrown off their place in rural Georgia because they were hippies and they were smoking pot and he asked if I could take them in. So we took them in and that was the beginning of a hippie farm there in Georgia. We had the nursery and supported ourselves with it.

Everybody helped out in the nursery in one way or another and all kinds of other stuff, a vegetable garden, a vineyard, blueberries, all manner of stuff. That was when I started growing organically, in the late '60's, something like that.
Then the city of Atlanta bought 600 acres half a mile away for an airport and we didn't want to spend our old age under the jet lanes. So we started looking and we found this place here. It was unbelievable just to get into a place like this; the taxes were low, the land was wonderful, the best soil I've ever had to work with. It's bottomland down here on the creek. Compared to that Georgia clay its amazing!

So we moved here with the nursery business and built a solar greenhouse there. I think it was the first commercial solar greenhouse in Tennessee. It's a big one; passive solar. And I wanted to do everything organically that I possibly could. I was very concerned about chemicals in agriculture and the way in which soil gets depleted of organic matter with the use of chemicals. I guess my basic idea was that I wanted to leave the land better than I found it, and not follow the pattern of taking everything out I could possibly get, squeezing every last drop of nutrient out of it.
And that seems to be what happens a lot, because of corporate farming; you don't have that incentive. Your incentive is to pay your shareholders the maximum, and so you're driven to extract the maximum from the ground. You don't think about who's going to be farming that place a hundred years from now.

Eventually we turned the greenhouse into organic; that was very hard to do because in those days...lordy, that was thirty years ago or more...there weren't all these predatory insects and there wasn't very much experimentation in organic growing, especially in greenhouses, where you have a protected environment, very few predators, and the doggone bugs and diseases, oh they go crazy in there. So we started with that and eventually got it into organic.
I had this nursery, and then I had this orchard, twelve acres. The idea was the nursery would feed me in the wintertime, it was edible landscaping. I sold the herb and fushia business and just concentrated on edible landscaping. And then after a few years I had the nursery for income in the winter and I had the orchard for income in the summer and I was running crazy. It was just too much, so I was trying to find somebody to take over the nursery and my daughter and her partner decided they'd like to move up from Atlanta. They took over the nursery.

We've managed pretty well.

I am a member of North American Fruit Explorers. It sort of fit in with my anti war stuff. I organized a couple of trips to Russia during the Cold War. Those were great; I brought back plants from those trips which were growing out there in the orchards. It was a great experience to get other growers into Russia, and then we hosted the Russians here. 'Course the FBI visited me. Oh man! It was crazy; they thought these fruit growers might be double agents or something.

I never would have guessed that the joyful, thoughtful, serene farmer we are talking to has a lengthly FBI file documenting his doings starting in the 50's. Hector Black is as welcoming as a brand new sunrise as he ushers us in to the modest and comfortable home he shares with his wife Susie and her sister who helps the Blacks with daily chores. The Blacks own a blueberry orchard and tree nursery that their daughter now runs and she does a great business sending trees all over the country. They get an income in the summer from the "U-pick" berries and in the winter the nursery becomes the providing business. There is also a huge yard garden featuring a glorious canopied fig tree and all kinds of food crops.
Hector grew up far away from rural Tennessee in Queens New York. As a young man he spent two years in the service during World War II in what he calls a "save the world complex." Now, in his 80's Hector describes himself as a Ghandian Christian pacifist interested in nonviolent anti-war social justice issues and agriculture.
Besides their small farm in the Atlanta area, the Blacks took in a lot of the neighborhood kids who didn't have families to look after them. Hector told us the story of one such child he and Susie adopted as their daughter who was murdered in Atlanta 10 years ago.

His emotions alternate between happiness as he describes his daughter to deep sadness as he talks about the loss of her life. As angry and sad as Hector was about losing his daughter he traveled to Atlanta to oppose the death penalty for the young man who murdered her. Now Hector goes monthly to the nearest prison in Tennessee and visits the inmates on death row with a friend of his and they lead discussion groups. That side of his story has been featured on NPR's StoryCorps and can be found here:
Hector has a knack for seeing humanity where I believe most of the rest of us would have already given up on what we would deem a lost cause.

I mentioned Hector's FBI file- it began with his involvements in peace movements after the war, and proceeded to his participation in the Civil Rights movement and he is also part of a Russian food justice initiative that fell under Uncle Sam's critical eye. Hector tells us all this with a smile and a shrug, as if to say "what can you do?" Later on Hector's helper Patrick also mentions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bailed Hector out of jail once in the tumultuous race demonstrations of the 60's.

As for farming, Hector has a philosophy of leaving the earth better than he found it. His neighbors are curious about this exception living in the community, and Hector reminds us that folks are mainly conservative around here in the "buckle of the Bible Belt." Despite possible different ways of seeing things Hector says there is a "live and let live" philosophy practiced in this community, and no one is hostile.
In Hector's opinion there is a real need for the citizens of this country to change the way we view food and the planet. The dead zone in the Gulf is a testament to human wastefulness and nonchalance, and it should be a big fat wake-up call. The toxic trash we generate will soon kill our food and water sources. "Everything that's alive wants to live" and we need to start caring about where all our waste goes. One partial solution would be for as many people as possible to start growing their own food on a small scale. Our priorities could stand to change- the farm is a social occasion in with people gather to get food and visit and remember who their community is. The public has to care less about the cost of things over the quality.
We ate lunch with the Blacks and Patrick, then Patrick took us on a tour of the property which has 3 beautiful waterfalls on it.


cella said...

wonderfully done ... just want to add that hector is a fine dancer and pianist + susie a great preserver and baker! cella

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I've purchased from their nursery in the past but had no idea of the folks behind it and their interesting history.

Anonymous said...

Their property is beautiful but Hector and Susie are truely what make this little slice of heaven as amazing as it is.

Anonymous said...

I had the priviledge of living and working with Hector and Susie and their extended family on their Georgia property in 1973, when I was nineteen years old. I was very pleased to see their work and philosphy recognized in this article.

George Adair

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed a wonderful work vacation on Hector's farm "Hidden Springs" in April 2014. I mulched his vegetable garden, helped fix a water leak, met interesting people, and learned about social justice, and organic farming. Everything blossoms and blooms around Hector. The world would be a better place if more of us are like him. He's my hero!

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