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Valle Crucis farmer finds new ways to use old land

By Scott Nicholson


Jim Henson has found a way to keep his 250-acre parcel of mountain land in Valle Crucis by using part of it for crops.

Appalachian State students bundle tree seedlings together at Jim Henson’s farm. Photo by Scott Nicholson

Henson, a Vilas native, moved away from the area to earn a pharmacy degree. He returned 30 years ago when he bought a mountaintop overlooking the Watauga River.

Now he counts on Christmas trees as his main business, but has pursued other crops as he has retained his scientific curiosity.

Henson not only grows commercial-size trees to sell wholesale, he also leases several other fields around the county. He also has a choose-and-cut operation on Circle C farm with Dennis Cook, but he said 95 percent of his trees are for the wholesale market.

However, Henson starts at a much smaller tree than his competitors. He starts Fraser fir seeds collected from high-elevation natural stands on Roan Mountain and Mount Rogers.

After three years, the resulting seedlings are moved out of starting beds and planted in rows, where they will spend another two years before they are ready for transplanting into the field.

The three-year-old seedlings are less than a foot tall and have a market value of 18 cents each.

Another two years will nearly double their size and increase their value to 75 cents. That compares to a wholesale price for a six-to-seven-foot-tall Fraser fir of $24, or $8 per foot if it’s sold as a choose-and-cut tree.

Henson has about 150,000 seedlings, which he also sells to other local growers. The labor for transplanting usually comes in the form of Appalachian State University students who work part-time.

He finds them through a campus employment service.

“I’ve worked ASU students for 25 years,” Henson said. “They come according to their class schedules.”

Henson ships out 10,000 to 15,000 trees per year, saying he’s always grown his own seedlings. Most growers don’t have any income for the first seven years, which is the amount of time it takes to grow a typical five-year-old tree to market size. “I started growing transplants to sell,” he said. “Optimal conditions for Fraser fir are 3,000 feet in elevation, but their natural habitat is much higher.”

Henson still works as a hospital pharmacist four days a month to keep his hand in his professional field, but he’d rather be planting trees. Though he’s shipped seedlings as far as Canada, he sells mostly to his fellow local growers. He expects to sell 80,000 this year, and his laborers bundle them up for market. When a new potential worker shows up on the site, Henson has one simple application question: “Can you count to 100?” That’s the number of seedlings that are tied in a bundle for market.

Henson enjoys his property and cut a series of walking trails across the mountain, which he doesn’t mind other people using as long as he knows they are around. He often walks about 25 minutes from his ridge-top home to the foot of the mountain to his tree operation, taking an all-terrain vehicle in bad weather or when he’s in a hurry.

He placed 139 acres in a conservation easement that protects against logging or development while still allowing him to retain agricultural rights. He grows trees on about 20 acres and leases land on eight other farms. He also lets some trees stay in the field up to  15 years, selling 25 or so trees a year in the 10-to-14 foot range at a market price of about $150.

Henson has tried other commercial agricultural efforts, such as growing rhododendron and ginseng. He had a large operation to grow shitaake mushrooms, but found it wasn’t a viable commercial crop if grown outdoors. Hardwood logs, typically oak, are drilled and inoculated with spawn. The logs are soaked for 24 hours, then shaken and tapped to stimulate the spores. The logs will yield crops of mushrooms every four or five weeks during the warm season. Henson previously had about 10,000 logs and shipped fresh mushrooms as far as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Now he’s scaled back his production and sells only dried mushrooms. “It was very labor-intensive and required refrigerated trucks,” he said of the large-scale operation. “N.C. State wanted to do a research project on shitaake mushrooms. After a year-long study on its economic feasibility, the conclusion was it would not be the crop to replace tobacco.”

That didn’t dampen Henson’s enthusiasm for edible fungi. In fact, he now searches the woods for wild edible mushrooms and urges people to grow shitaakes for personal consumption. “The great thing is you can grow them yourself in your own back yard,” he said. “If company’s coming in a week, just soak a log and you’ll have some fresh mushrooms to cook for them.”

Henson has found 20 to 25 different types of edible mushrooms on his property, calling it “more of a hobby” than a way to fill the refrigerator. “It’s too much work to do 10,000 logs,” he said. “But it’s great for people to grow these. They’re so healthy, with high vitamin content, some immunity-building content, and, mainly, they’re delicious.”

Henson has done some work with mushroom “seedlings” as well, experimenting with tissue cultures and spore reproduction using sterile techniques. It allows him to tinker with laboratory equipment to make the spawn sold for inoculation.

While Henson’s other hobby of cutting hiking trails yields him no income, he’s perfectly happy on his mountain. “I love it so much,” he said. “It’s a great place to live and I like to see the land kept like it is.”