Friends Drift Inn Farm – What We Grow
We Grow Okra By the Bushel!
Okra is identified with the Deep South, something we ain’t. Friends Drift Inn Farm is in the heart of Appalachia, the Upper South. But that does not stop us from growing okra! The fact is our okra is said to be an heirloom variety grown for generations a few counties over the mountain from us.
We like okra on the grill, seared with just a little olive oil. We freeze okra to add to winter soups and Kentucky Burgoo. We love fried okra battered with cornmeal and served with bourbon tomato jam. Among my friends, I am known for making okra pickles for personal use. Nothing says late summer to me like a Bloody Mary made with homegrown tomatoes and garnished with a pod or two of pickled okra!
We started raising okra because we could never find truly fresh okra in the local groceries. Now, as market growers we produce okra to sell at the Pikeville Farmers Market and to our chef friends. On good years, we can literally pick every day.
Okra is a heat loving plant. The leaves are huge and tropical. There is little point in putting okra out early, the soil must be warm. Okra seeds must be soaked overnight to help loosen the outer seed coat and allow the plant to sprout. Once the seedling emerges, okra grows quickly in the heat. Most varieties begin to yield at the 50 to 60 day maturity date.
Okra have beautiful blossoms, a soft buttery yellow with little ridges that remind me of Grandma’s dinner plates. Akin to the hibiscus, the flowers are well loved by our honeybees.
Plants flush from the bottom, and if you are not watchful the first okra pods will get past your inspections. We cut okra pods with a clippers, and place in harness buckets as we make our way down the rows. Okra, once mature enough to yield, must be picked every two days. It grows fast!
Okra picking can make you itch. We wear long sleeves to pick, even when the thermometer reaches the triple digits. Picking okra is like pushing through a tropical forest.
The Culture of Okra
Optimal picking size is about the length of my pinkie finger. However, we grow an heirloom okra that stays palatable at larger lengths. For market, we send the smaller cutting; carefully placing them in upright cartons. We keep the big ones to fry up or freeze.
In the Deep South where the growing season is long, okra plants are cut of at waist height in late July or early August, forcing the plants to re-flush. The earlier in the season, the tenderer the okra will be. Cutting the plants helps to prevent crops from getting woody. We do not have the luxury of a season long enough to accomplish this, so most years we do a second planting two weeks after the first to insure a consistent okra product.
In the fields okra serves as both a barrier crop and a trap crop. The quickly growing tall plants serve to separate varieties of beans that might otherwise cross pollinate. Because the leaves make an attractive landing pad, insect pests often make meals of the okra leaves. The okra plant is rarely adversely affected, and bugs tend to neglect the other crops we grow. This sustainable agriculture practice allows us to grow okra without spraying.
As the popularity of okra has grown locally, our clients have asked for more varieties. In addition to our Kentucky heirloom variety, we are adding a red variety to our okra line this year.
At the end of the season, as the okra slows production we use dried okra pods and cuttings in our fall floral arrangements and farm crafts. Many pods are dried so we will have seed for the following year’s crop.
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