This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
“Crows are family.” This wasn’t precisely the first utterance from Denton Parkins, but it was certainly the most arresting. He’d already gone through a list of remedies for crows and mice, his major competitors in the pumpkin and strawberry market. Crows, it seems, are wily creatures and sociable; he proposes to me that, they “scope us out.” I sense that he and the crows, from long dwelling together, have become familiar with one another’s faces. And apparently the crows at Green Acres Farm know him as well as he knows them, personally. What does a farmer do when he wants to correct his personal family of crows? Spare the rod and spoil the bird? Apparently, that’s not effective discipline for the hardy and intelligent crow. Not much had been working to stop them from chowing down on choice bits of, typically, twenty linear miles of pumpkin seed rows. So in this fall’s pumpkin-growing season, he’s thinking he should haunt them. Better scare the crows. More about that later.
Twenty linear miles? Just so. Planted by Mr. Parkins and his field hands, by hand—Every. Single. Seed. See the sweat fall, mingling with moisture already in the soil. Confronted with such ancient toil, I’m afflicted with an image of myself as an urban blockhead who waters a patio tomato plant in a fifth-story window box (and calls it gardening). Before this “aha” farming moment, I experienced scheduling the interview as hard work. Mr. Parkins was “out in the field,” he “couldn’t talk.” Now as we chat at the farm, where land and nature call for much harder things, I wonder what gets a man in the fields come early morning. He’s quick to say he’s out there because he likes to watch things grow and because he likes a challenge. Clearly the past two decades have served up a menu of challenges, but his conversation moves easily over and past them. The discussion on transitions from dairy farm to multiple row crops to his current biannual production of strawberries and pumpkins puts a light in his eye. Of eight children, he’s the one who embraced the family farm. “You like it or you don’t,” he says.
He clearly likes it. His degree in agriculture notwithstanding, there’s a wider and critical range of interconnected topics on which he (and presumably any good farmer) gladly stays current. A few of these include immigration law, economics, proper food-handling, water quality, and nutrition. Consciousness of nutritional quality drives his decisions on the processes of cultivation and harvest. “Farm-fresh berries are juicy and tasty. Shipping berries can’t compare. Their water content is low so as to reduce spoilage during shipping and then market shelf-life.” Few of us totally resist the off-season supermarket berries, but, oh, how berry lovers long for the fresh spring crop!
Pumpkins occupy a slightly different niche. Come fall, Mr. Parkins participates in the festival of the pumpkins. The production of their beauties takes much preparation and care. He scours countless catalogues for the seeds of “fun, colorful, and funky” pumpkins. With plantings of over a hundred varieties, many of which are edible, no pumpkin lover would have cause to go away empty-handed from Green Acres. He verifies our contemporary North American way of the pumpkin: “It’s about ninety-eight percent décor” and around two percent food. Our recent cultural memory sees wild piles of pumpkin on fall front porches, jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, and the edible pumpkin pie only at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s always been that way, we think. But not so hasty. Archeologists have discovered domesticated seeds of the orange field pumpkin in a cave in Mexico, dating them to more than 8,000 years ago. Furthermore, the history of pumpkins as food wends all the way through Native American lore and the records of our early European settlers. So pumpkin, wild and domesticated, is no latecomer to human life. Green Acres cultivates fall delights that we now participate in but which span time and human families.
Denton Parkins gets excited telling the story of how climate, situation, history, and the order of nature (plus a savvy extension agent) constrained his choices and compelled the creation of Green Acres’ double-crop method. “We’d be a different farm if we were someplace else,” he says. The farm is situated smack dab between the urban centers of Milan and Jackson, so most of his business emerges from their citizenry. Nevertheless, 26,000 cars pass by every day, and the farm can’t help but draw strawberry and pumpkin seekers from a wider range. Drawing in food- and beauty-loving folk rather than transporting to market is part of the vitality of the concern.
But there’s more: he’s got convictions. His strawberries and pumpkins are harvested by hand. Passionately committed to hand-picking as the best way, he says, “I can’t imagine a machine that could pick my crops. I hope they never make one,” which is why he hires field hands to do both planting and picking, recruiting from and conforming to the federal H-2A temporary labor program. He considers his workers as family, which becomes clear at day’s end. “Excuse me. I need to go out and say bye to my hands.”
It could be that his care on this note is informed by an interruption of care for the farm. A third-generation farmer, he knows the curious history and lore of his grandfather’s farm. Historical record confirms that Green Acres came to be where it is because the original homestead was taken over by the 1941–1943 development of the Milan Arsenal. 1,500 farm families were displaced as a result of the munitions needs of World War II. Though there was compensation, family lore says that his Granddad negotiated up the price of his farm during the process because he had meticulous records of production profits. “Meticulous” runs in the family. And last, he’s motivated just a hint by the California and Florida growers who captured the strawberry market years ago, a market that had been strong in West Tennessee. Successfully giving us local and farm-fresh strawberries during spring delivers at least a little comeuppance.
And now, concerning crows. He asked me, “Do you know anything about crows?” I give some lame memory that they keep the land cleaned up. He has his launch pad. After just that day planting twenty miles of rows, he’s anxious to keep them at bay. He’s tried about everything. How do you scare crows? What about the old-fashioned scarecrow, complete with plaid, tattered clothes? Fake owl or hawk? Strings of pie tins? Green Acres has tried out the whole batch of crow deterrents with limited enduring success. Hence the latest deterrent Mr. Parkins is testing: dead crow decoys. Pest control manufacturers are now aiming to “be the crow.” The general idea I gather from ad copy is that the decoys create a hostile environment and signal DANGER. Current science suggests that crows understand, reason, acquire memory, and imagine. My own wacky theory: the crow may harken back to images of dead kin, experiencing not physical fear but a stranger fear—the uncanny feeling of menace associated with haunting. I rely on Mr. Parkins to test results of applying the theory of dead crow deterrence. After all, he knows his crows.
At interview time the seedbeds were sowed, and the farm was mainly quiet. Seeds awaited the sprouting vines and flower trumpets. Green Acres Farm thrives by harmonizing with modern and ancient agrarian wisdom. Its steward is not one to go too far against the grain of nature.
Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, Jill Webb and her husband Steve have called Jackson home for nearly thirty years. She teaches at Union University as a nursing professor and serves as the Assistant Director of the Honors Program.
Originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, photographer Katie Howerton moved to Jackson in 2011 to study Graphic Design and Drawing at Union University. She discovered Our Jackson Home in January 2015 and used it as a guinea pig for her senior design project, creating the first issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine. After graduating she was given leadership over Our Jackson Home at theCO, where she now runs the blog, designs the magazine, and coordinates events. She and her husband Jordan live in Midtown and are active members of City Fellowship Baptist Church.