Mountain tradition, not yet lost

Ashe County is rich with traditions and values. Like other counties in the High Country, time has a way of impacting lives, evolving and changing with experiences and struggles.

Hunting, trapping and farming have been a part of Ashe citizens since the county was founded more than 200 years ago, including traditional crops and cattle operations. But the fine mountain art of making molasses is struggling to survive.

Chad and Janie Poe are one family that is hoping to pass it along for at least another generation. Chad's regular business is his construction company, Poe Dirt Work, but he's also got part-time interest in a farm passed to him through family which yields potatoes and a few other varying interests, like heirloom corn, peppers and Christmas trees and wreaths that can be sold at local farmers' markets.

"We have never done the molasses before," Chad said. "I had done it when I was a kid, helped some other people do it. But as far as actually making it, I had never made it."

That changed earlier this fall, and some of his work may actually find its way to tables this winter via Christmas presents.

Poe received a grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA to construct a building and cooking area for making molasses and maple syrup. Production of maple syrup will commence about February, and his initial batch of molasses happened a couple of months ago in October.

"We got through and we sold out before they were ever made,"Janie said. "It ended up being really good."

For Chad and Janie, the production isn't intended to be a large-scale commercial venture. And they fully understand why others don't jump in to start an operation. Start-up costs from scratch would be thousands of dollars.

"I was more interested in the maple syrup, and talked to some people about it," Chad said." I talked to a man up in the coal country of West Virginia. We sell some stuff in Abingdon (Va.) at the farmers' market. He had done it, and I got interested in it. And then the molasses, I just wanted to do it.

"There's a lot of work in it, but it's not that bad. It's not as bad a work as I thought it might be. There's not a lot of money in it, but its something to do. But the maple syrup business, I don't know about that. It would be more of the moneymaker. It costs a lot to get into the maple syrup. I've got a grant from RAFI that helped me do that. It costs a lot of money to get into it if you didn't have the set-up, compared to what money you would make. It'd take you several years to come out on it."

Chad said he had good help in his venture, with assistance from Cliff Dillard and Dave Sexton. He also got sorghum from Barry Goodman.

"It was like an heirloom seed," Chad said. "It's an old-time seed, handed down from years. You don't go to the store and buy that. It's more true to the old-timey molasses."

The Poes said they hope to do more molasses in 2012, and will probably tap about 100 trees for maple syrup this coming year, adding to it in the future.

For them, it's a way to make use of a farm once worked by Chad's great-grandfather, to try new things, fill in the winter gap before construction season arrives in April, and hopefully pass along a mountain tradition.
"It's not a big money maker, but I like messing with stuff like that," Chad said. "We'll do more than we did this year. We're looking forward to it."

From Ashe Mountain Times by Alan Wooten

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