On his West Jefferson farm, Blue Ridge Naturals, Alan Hanson utilizes traditional greenhouses and hydroponics to grow a wide variety of plants, including many heirloom varieties. He and his wife, who is an Ashe County native, moved here from Minnesota in 2000 to farm a plot of family land. Alan says he grows a little bit of everything.
On a tour of his greenhouses in February, Alan remarks that there are now eleven hours of sun, a tipping point—together with the angle of the sun—for when everything starts to grow again each spring. Even if cold temperatures return, plant growth will slow but then come right back.
Alan notes that heirloom greens work well in hydroponics, but tomatoes are more difficult. He turns to another hydroponic plant.
“[This] celery overwintered. [...] It’s probably almost 95, 99, percent water, [...] so how did it not just burst the cells? [...] Celery is really a tough plant.” Alan points out another plant on the ground that he had pulled out and noted that “it’s re-rooted itself.” Plants just want to grow, evidently.
Tatsoi greens beginning to show spring growth are fresh, green, and taste wonderful. Alan points to another hydroponic plant and remarks that store-bought varieties would be heavily sprayed, but he doesn’t have to use sprays since the vegetables never touch the ground.
Alan’s greenhouses help him grow his plants in challenging conditions. His large white-ribbed chard, an heirloom, survived the below zero cold snap in late December. “Parsley is extremely, extremely tough. Cilantro is very tough. Tatsoi, bok choy, broccoli. Broccoli is very tough.” Other heirlooms that Alan is growing in the in-ground part of his greenhouse are Purple Moon kale and Southern Giant Curled mustard.
One local heirloom Alan likes to grow is the Ashe County Pimento pepper.
“I got some from the [High Country] Seed Swap one year.” Alan explains how he grows this pimento pepper. “I start them in the [little] trays, [...] and I’ll transplant them in bigger trays if I’m going to sell them, or just go directly into the ground once they get [...] 4-5 inches [tall].” He plants some outside and others in the greenhouse but says they grow better in the greenhouse. When asked why that might be the case, he speculates, “Probably less wind and less weather on them, but sometimes it almost gets too hot. They seem to be really good closer to fall. [... If] it gets too hot, a lot of things are shut down and then [they] pick up again in August.”
Alan then holds out a handful of Hatch Chili pepper seeds and explains that they come from Hatch Valley, New Mexico. “They have very specific peppers out there. [...] Big Jim is a Hatch Valley pepper. [They have] the perfect soil and weather.” But they also grow very well for Alan in his mountain greenhouses. Unlike the Ashe Pimento, the Big Jim does not mind the hot weather.
Alan sells both heirlooms and conventional varieties. “Different customers want heirlooms. Some just want hybrids. Now, I do both, like the Big Boy and Better Boy—they’re more disease resistant. [...] Some people want the nice orange ones. Just Mr. Stripey, the Black Krim, the Black Tula, the Cherokee Purple. They’re hard to grow, though. [...] I don’t spray anything, and they’re really hard to grow.”
Carrots that survived the late December freeze are still growing in Alan’s in-ground greenhouse. “I can't grow them for anything in the summer,” he says. “I do them in the fall and over winter. Pure sweetness.” Another heirloom that Alan grows in the ground is Golden Acre Cabbage, an old variety. “[Cabbage] would get too heavy [to grow hydroponically],” he says, but many varieties grow very well in the mountains.
Alan compares the growing season in Minnesota to the growing season here. “It’s easier to grow up there. [...] Longer days [in the summer…]. It doesn’t get dark until about 10:30 up there. The summers were warmer and longer. [...] It’s challenging to grow here.”
One of Alan’s favorite heirloom greens to grow is claytonia.
“[It’s] great for winter, super cold hardy. […] That, mache, your beet, spinach, and kale—you could survive in the winter on certain things. Swiss chard, that’s been going for two years and hasn’t died.”
His greenhouses bear this out: there are so many types of vegetables that overwintered well—beets, chard, broccoli, spinach, leeks, onions, chives. “I’ve been selling them [through the] High Country Food Hub,” says Alan. “People just love that in the winter.” He then points out two varieties of heirloom collards—Georgia collards and Morris Heading—and then several types of beets. “One I grow is really long and slender. It looks like a carrot. [...] They’re called Cylindra. [...] I [also] do Chioggia (beets). It’s an Italian heirloom, and it’s probably an old variety. It looks like a bull’s eye [when you slice it]. Very delicious.”
Alan grows an heirloom Candy Roaster winter squash, but not in large quantities. “I just do a few plants, and you can get some nice big [squash].” He stretches his arms out about two feet apart to illustrate the size of these large winter squash. The heirloom that grows the best for Alan, he believes, is the large white-ribbed chard. He also finds Asian greens easy to grow—plants like bok choy and tatsoi. “They’re all in the cabbage family.” They are not heirlooms from Ashe County, but they grow well in the mountains, “Because I'm sure [our] climate is very similar with the parts of China.”
Alan’s farm boasts all kinds of plants: local heirlooms and conventional varieties, herbs and root vegetables, greens and tomatoes. Growing hydroponically eliminates the need to spray the plants, which allows him to grow without spraying, and growing in-ground in his greenhouse creates ideal conditions for overwintering many crops. By incorporating nontraditional growing methods that mitigate some of the challenges of growing in a mountain environment, Alan is able to preserve these heirlooms and share them with his customers.
Interview with Alan Hanson by Brenda Smith 1/22/23 and 2/23/23