Harold Long is a full-blooded Cherokee Indian and proud of his heritage. Through his well-known Cherokee pottery and his extensive traditional Cherokee vegetable varieties, Long is doing his part to carry on Cherokee traditions.
Harold and Nancy Long operate a small, all organic vegetable farm on the Cherokee Reservation in Cherokee, N.C. Most of the bean and tomato varieties they grow on their farm go back hundreds of years in Cherokee culture.
Though his pottery depicting traditional Cherokee cultures is well known through northwest North Carolina, at heart Harold Long is a farmer. “It is important for future generations of Cherokee to move forward, but equally as important to not forget their past,” Long says.
Thanks to a recent grant from the Western North Carolina AgOptions program, the Longs were able to double the size of their operation. In addition they fenced most of their organic farm, allowing them to maximize both yield and quality of the many heirloom varieties they grow.
Among the vegetables grown are pickling cucumbers, called Acie by the Cherokees. These small, succulent cucumbers are used to produce a number of pickles, relishes and spreads sold throughout northwest North Carolina.
Greasy Bean is another traditional Cherokee variety they grow. “I got the seed for this variety from Berea, Ky.,” Long says. In 2008, he began saving seed in hopes of spreading this variety to other Cherokee farmers in the area.
Elmer Gray, a Berea graduate from Jackson County, Ky,, is a plant geneticist and is interested in saving as many heirloom beans as possible and has spoken to groups about the importance of maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible because, once lost, these plants will not be available for future use.
“When my children were very young, we started growing vegetables for the Lexington and Berea farmers markets,” Gray recalls. I didn't throw away my seed catalogues, but I did start growing and marketing beans that my mother had grown and the vegetables I grew up with as a child,” he adds.
For nearly 30 years Gray has been an avid collector and grower of many beans and tomatoes which he collected throughout the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Several of these varieties can be found on small farms and gardens in and around Cherokee, N.C.
Brown Speckled and Long White Greasy beans are among 30 or so native bean varieties that Gray has resurrected from small family gardens in western North Carolina. Both are North Carolina beans and both are excellent quality, but prone to damage by Japanese bean beetle and Mexican bean beetle.
The Longs grow early, mid and late-maturing beans to spread out the growing season and provide a longer fresh market for their western North Carolina customers. Cherokee Trail beans and Lazy Housewife beans are two 85-day pole bean varieties they grow. One of their most popular beans is a 55-day bean called Empress.
Most of their bean varieties are classified as heirloom. What determines an heirloom variety is open to some question.
Among the definitions are:
• A piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance of real property.
• Something of special value handed on from one generation to another.
• A horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals
The fastest growing among their heirloom varieties are heirloom tomatoes. Many of these tomatoes have been grown for hundreds of years by Cherokees. Many go back to the infamous Trail of Tears which forced Cherokees to grow native varieties just to survive.
The Trail of Tears, was implemented after the Cherokee Nation seemingly won a U.S. Supreme Court case preventing their removal from the hills of north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The 1838 march of Cherokees from the Southeast for resettlement in Oklahoma remain among Americas darkest days.
Pioneer, U.S. Congressman and Alamo hero Davy Crocket resigned his congressional seat and moved to Texas in response to the forced march. About the U.S. decision to relocate the Cherokees Crocket said, “"I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized."
For his part, Long just wants to keep Cherokee traditions, pottery and farming, alive for future generations. “When we started growing heirloom varieties, we also started saving seed. Now, we have our own little heirloom seed company,” Nancy Long says.
Among the heirloom tomato varieties they grow are: Cherokee Purple, Mr. Stripee, Brandywine, Aunt Rubie’s Dream, Hillbilly, Brewsters, and Tommy Toes.
They also grow red okra, which is used along with their pickling cucumbers, in local restaurants. They also sell their crops at their family market and at area farmers markets.
“We chose to go with heirloom varieties because of the enhanced flavor. Heirloom varieties can’t easily be grown commercially because they don’t mature uniformly or store well for long periods of time. These varieties are ideal for our local fresh markets,” Harold Long says.
“We want to keep as many of these varieties as possible going. They are a part of our heritage and are scattered with time all along the path of the Trail of Tears,” he adds.
One of the most unique crops the Longs grow is Cherokee corn beads. These corn varieties grow to be knee-high and the stalks turn various colors, producing beads, which don’t as most people think, come from the corn kernels.
The corn beads are dried and hardened and made into various pieces for Cherokee children. Braided hair, held in place with corn beads is a Cherokee custom that has survived for hundreds of years.
For all their crops the Longs use compost provided by the Cherokee Indian Reservation to fertilize their crops. They use neem oil to help with pest management, but hand labor is the most reliable form of weed and pest management.
Organic neem oil, typically used at 70 percent active ingredient, controls numerous diseases and insects. It provides limited, but broad spectrum control of white fly, aphids, scale and other insect pests common to vegetables. It also has limited activity on black spot, rust, mildew and scab diseases common to vegetables in the Southeast.
Growing vegetables at higher elevations, like Cherokee, N.C., provides some production challenges, but offers some marketing advantages. Many of their fresh market crops fill voids between spring and fall harvests of commercial vegetables.
“We would love to expand our operation, Long says. We simply don’t have room for much expansion here on the Reservation,” he concludes.
Keeping the traditional Cherokee varieties alive through his farm and his pottery is a passion for Harold and Nancy Long.