By Jill Ettinger
It’s a fairytale story if ever there was one: budding, idealistic farmers meet in the high peaks of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains and find more in common than just the 40-acre border of organic land they share.
Meet Carole Anne Rose and Curly Miller of Sweden Creek Farm. While they started out as neighboring farmers, who had “come together from very different paths,” it was their commitment to eating and growing organically and to the organic “lifestyle,” along with their mutual love of music, that brought them together, says Carole Anne.
After many years of gardening and selling herbs in New Jersey, Carole Anne decided to grow herbs and edible flowers herself. “I retired from my computer job at AT&T and bought a farm in Arkansas,” she explains. It turns out the property was right next to Curly Miller’s. Curly had been a fan of mushrooms his whole life. After attending a seminar in 1986, he quit cutting firewood commercially and got started growing shiitake mushrooms. The two merged their business models (and lives) delivering shiitakes, herbs and flowers locally.
Eventually, Curly developed rotational techniques for growing the mushrooms “that are outside the box as far as anything that you would ever read about,” he says. The need to have mushrooms available daily pressed Curly to learn how to grow in the winter. This, he says, “is what has kept us in business with steady supply, and now has become the preferred growing season.” That’s because greenhouse growing provides “more control and a rhythm and consistency.” And it has paid off: “We are one of the largest farms that grow year round (on logs) and have consistent supply at both a wholesale and local level.”
Carole Anne says Curly has “come to deeply understand the art and science of growing shiitakes.” She credits his interest in the biology of the fungi and his “continual experimentation, observation, efficiencies, and improvements over the years make it possible to grow up to a ton of mushrooms a week, every week, 52 crops a year, year after year.” In addition to shiitakes, they grow most of their own food—throughout the winter they pick fresh salad, greens, root crops, and cabbages in unheated hoops (high tunnels; see photo below).
Despite the sacrifices the couple has had to make to keep the farm running, it’s the “joys of living every day on this extraordinarily beautiful farm, growing delicious and abundant food for our family, making a real contribution to the organic movement, and being part of the local family farm community,” that has made it all worth it, says Carole Anne. Curly echoes the sentiment: “The rhythm of farming is my reward.” The opportunity over the last 26 years to connect with customers has provided added inspiration, he says.
And then of course, there’s the music.
The couple developed an Old Time but modern fiddle and banjo sound that recalls ragtime and jug band eras—“Extreme Hillbilly,” if you will. Their band, The Old 78’s, tours and performs at festivals and has recorded CDs, which receive regular radio airtime. Music is a lot like farming, says Curly, who began playing classical violin at age eight and rock guitar as a teen. It requires “discipline, focus, practice, determination, and some of that natural talent that each of us has.”
Carole Anne loves the connection to the farmers that came before her. “There is a well-documented tradition that early homesteaders and farm families would work their butts off all day but then gather at a neighbor’s home to play music and dance all night,” she explains. “So I’m thinking that there is also some sort of connection between the hard work of farming and the joy of using that same type of coarse energy for music and fun!”