From Staff Reports
Inspired by her grandparents who survived the Great Depression through victory gardens in their backyard, Charla Emery is restoring an acreage just eight miles from Jefferson that already enables her family to grow and harvest crops twelve months of the year.
She has vegetable gardens, orchards, and flower gardens, as well as chickens, ducks, and bees, all of which play an important role in her horticulture effort.
The Emery home is 106 years old, and the property it stands on reemerged from the ashes after the infamous Bear Creek Fire in 2011. This lays claim to being the largest fire in East Texas history, burning more than 43,000 acres in Marion and Cass Counties and taking five days to get under control.
The Emery family bought the farm shortly after the fire and have lived there since 2012. Having bought the farm from Lockett descendants, they are only the second landowner since the original Texas land grant.
On a warm Monday, Emery’s honey bees seem very docile as they frequent the water fountain and then return to their hives, and butterflies flicker from one plant to another.
Located across the road from Shiloh Church in Cass County, the farm originally belonged to Royal Lockett, Emery explains. Before the Civil War, he bought a lot of land that included most of what was on the west side of Highway 59 from Jefferson to Linden. They terraced it to grow cotton, and then after he died, the land was divided up amongst his children.
Descendants include one of his grandsons, after whom the W.F. Lockett Stadium in Jefferson is named, and Pamela McCasland and her sister Deanna Mitchell, from whom the Emerys bought the farm.
“We are honored to be stewards of the farm,” Emery told the Jimplecute, “and we want to always keep it open for others to see and to experience how life was in that period of time.”
Inspired by her grandparents, Emery said that others in her family had been an inspiration too. For instance, a great aunt and uncle had about eight upright freezers in the 1960s that would always be full of produce from the garden.
When she and her husband, Mike Emery, bought the farm after the Bear Creek Fire, she said she walked the land and noticed that among the huge amount of burnt timber on the property, there were remnants of plants. She could see bulbs, including lots of irises, a lot of shrubs, and a whole lot of other native and heritage plants re-emerging from the ashes. Within six years she was more than “pleasantly surprised.”
Over time they were able to identify many of the plants and aim to keep them going. “We hope that the purpose of the farm is nothing but native and heritage plants.”
Part of Emery’s inspiration for a new start is to use the Back to Eden gardening method that relies on deep mulch that she gets from tree trimmers.
“The Back to Eden method is layering and layering and layering of basically tree trimmings. It’s what we use. So, when we see those trucks come through we offer them free dumps – and we’ve incorporated it (the mulch) into our orchard and vegetable garden and flower gardens with great success.”
Growing vegetables and her lawn have helped Emery overcome the basic challenge of not having enough water on a Texas farm.
Initially, she had a potager (French kitchen garden) about 50 feet from the house, in full sun. But they couldn’t get enough water to it. Relying on the water cooperative that she says seems to price water “a little like gold after a certain amount,” she decided to move the kitchen garden behind the house where she could both navigate and maintain it.
With two cisterns meeting variable water needs they opted to do rainwater collection which has worked well.
In terms of lawn, having spent a lot of money keeping their bahia grass green, they now don’t bother to water it, having decided that even though many people hate this indigenous grass, it survives drought and will green up very quickly after rain. It is also resistant to everything from tractors, ATVs, trucks and the grandkids’ slip-and-slides.
“In our opinion, it is the easiest grass to have. No fertilizer required, no water required, and just a little mowing here and there.”
While Emery says there is probably no way they will ever be a 100 percent organic operation, she avoids using pesticides and does try to use natural farming methods.
She keeps bees so she doesn’t want to spread pesticides into the vegetable garden. Instead, she keeps ducks, currently Lucky and Ducky, that eat larvae in the soil. “That’s where the majority of your insects in a vegetable garden generate from. So the ducks have a fair responsibility to keep our garden clear.“
She has about fifteen different breeds of chicken and they do their job going through the piles of kitchen waste, weeds, grass clippings, and leaves.
“We are basically just planting on the surface with seeds. We are not turning the soil. The chickens provide us with all the fertilizer we need in addition to what is decomposing matter and we are just having great success.”
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