By LYDIA BERGLAR
Adding to Dade County’s growing list of boutique farms, Ragged Oak Farm opened its pumpkin stand on September 23. The Lookout Mountain farm and the pumpkins are part of Noel and Erin Durant’s efforts to bring fresh life to their Durham Road property. The name, Ragged Oak Farm, comes from the lone oak tree standing on the western edge of the property.
Noel has roots in Chattanooga and on Lookout Mountain, and after spending four years in Colorado, the couple returned to the mountain. Currently, they are caretakers for a nearby property, and they’ve been familiar with the Ragged Oak property for a while.
Once a part of the Durham Mines, the property served as an unofficial town dump for a number of years. Noel explained, “When this was the coal mine, part of it may have also been used as a convict cemetery. Then, it became a de facto dumping site. For the last 100 years, it’s not been well cared for.”
The Durants once hoped to purchase a completed dream home and property, but now, they are working to create such a place from the ground up. In Erin’s words, “We spent years looking for the perfect farm, something picturesque with rich soil and a classic farmhouse, but we never found it. Our attitude shifted, and now we want to raise our boys with the perspective of making a place better and watching it be restored. Instead of looking for the most beautiful place you could possibly find, what could it look like to take a place that isn’t so beautiful and make it better?”
Noel works for Trust for Public Land (a conservation non-profit), he and Erin studied natural resources at Clemson, and both have worked on organic farms, so appreciation of nature is a significant part of their lives.
The Durants were surprised to find that even with its history as a mine, the property’s soil is not contaminated. They worked with the UGA extension office to get a soil test, but even after receiving positive results, Erin worried that nothing would grow. They used chicken litter and leaf mulch to provide nutrients, and now, they’ve harvested over 200 pumpkins in their first season.
The couple plans to raise their two sons, Lachlan and Palmer, on this land once they’ve built a home. Erin said, “We’ll probably never have a mature shade tree in our yard, but we’ll get to watch trees that we plant grow and watch the soil improve over time. It’s a practice in optimism. It’s an attitude we’d like to pass onto our kids.”
When the Durants first bought the property, trenches, pits, and barbed wire shaped the land. With help from their friends at Hartwood Land Management, they had the land graded, beginning to prepare their future home site.
As to why they chose to grow pumpkins, Noel explained, “I worked on a wildland fire crew out west, and one of my friends on the crew paid for his college education through a pumpkin patch. He had many acres of pumpkins.” Noel and Erin laughed, “We’re not going to pay for our boys’ college educations through these pumpkins.”
Noel continued, “It feels like a very visible and visceral fruit of the land. Pumpkins are a reason to gather and have a farm stand and bring people out here.” Erin added, “It’s like celebrating a whole season. Just the thought of a pumpkin patch makes you feel happy.”
They planted seeds for twelve varieties of heirloom pumpkins in June, harvesting roughly 15-20 of each variety in August. Choosing a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, the Durants opted for pumpkins that go beyond the typical orange jack-o-lantern style. While all can be used for carving, cooking, or decoration, Erin noted that one in particular, the Winter Luxury, has an amazing flavor and smooth, velvety flesh.
She added, “From pumpkins that can grow to be up to 100 pounds to more petite pie pumpkins to winter squashes, our collection spans the spectrum. We have vivid green, charming pink, whimsically striped, delightfully warty, enchanting Cinderella, classic Jack-O-Lantern, and even pumpkins renowned for their mouthwatering seeds.”
Lachlan’s favorite is the Rouge Vif D’Etampes which means “vivid red” in French. He also proudly showed off the Porcelain Doll (a pale, pink colored variety) and the warty Grizzly Bear.
After harvesting the pumpkins, the Durants cured them in the sun. Once the pumpkins are hardened and ready to last for multiple months, they are stored in a cool space with plenty of airflow. If taken care of, pumpkins can last a long time. Erin said, “One variety supposedly stays fresh for up to a year.”
Naturally, this first season included kinks to work through. Because water is not yet connected at the property, Noel spent many evenings hauling large water totes, a generator, and a pump to the field and watering into the night.
Additionally, the Durants learned all about squash bugs. Noel said, “We had to learn how to deal with squash vine borers that bore into the center of the plant.” While not certified organic, the Durants stay away from using pesticides and herbicides. Neem oil and the old-school method of picking off pests by hand worked for them.
Noel said, “Being first-time farmers, this community was so helpful. We asked around to find out who hauls chicken litter and who has leaf mulch. Folks are so willing to help.”
The local community also offered information about the Durham Mine history. When Noel worked with Lula Lake Land Trust on the Five Points trail system, ideas for trail names came from Greg Bradford and his knowledge of coal mining terminology.
Noel added, “I’ve talked with Dwight Blevins, the unofficial Durham Road historian. He’s been a great resource, sharing oral history of where different buildings were and stories of families that were part of this community. Many people don’t realize the lost history of this community. A lot of folks think it’s Rising Fawn or New Salem, but it’s Durham. This is its own place.”
Located on Lookout Mountain at 2525 Durham Road, Rising Fawn, the farm stand will be set up 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Saturday through Oct. 21 or until pumpkins run out. For their first year, the Durants plan to see which varieties are most popular and how quickly they sell.
Erin is also setting up several Saturdays that a professional photographer will be available to take photos for an additional fee. A red vintage farm truck, pumpkins, and the autumn weather will offer a social media worthy photo setting.
Follow the Facebook page “Ragged Oak Farm, LLC” for updates, photo shoot dates, and to learn more about each variety of pumpkin.