From Mathematics to Mulch
By Daphne Bishop
I was lucky enough to catch up with the indefatigable Pat Biggerstaff on a recent Saturday afternoon, which is no mean feat. The 74-year old self-described “crusader” for organic gardening and healthy eating is more likely to be lecturing, teaching college courses, working on her next book (she’s published four), doing her twice weekly television show, writing a column, giving tours to foreign students, or showing horticultural novices the basics of composting, than sitting near a telephone.
But I called at a good time, she said. The Middlesboro Kentucky woman has just launched her newest and biggest project in collaboration with Lincoln Memorial University in nearby Harrogate Tennessee. It’s a twelve acre parcel open to budding organic farmers in a 100-mile area that encompasses three states. It is also welcoming to folks with disabilities or green-thumbed elders who are out of practice.
Pat is fired up about being able to grow wheat at the farm for the bread-baking classes she’ll be teaching. She plans to set up a seed to loaf operation with grain threshing, milling and, she hopes, the construction of an outdoor brick oven. This burgeoning agricultural eco-system will also bring in students and faculty from the veterinary school at LMU, and Pat already has commitments from them for bee hives, rabbits and chickens.
It’s not surprising then that she received the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s 2009 “Farm Public Relations Award,” or that the organization praises her for her tireless promotion of organic gardening, nutrition and agricultural education in a “limited agricultural area.” She refers to her work as “a one man crusade” to teach people to grow their own food, eat healthier, “all the good stuff.”
She’s been an organic gardener for sixty-eight years and started as a kid growing up outside Baltimore during the Second World War.“Everything was rationed then. Our nearest neighbors were three miles away and the nearest town was five miles away, so my family decided we would grow our own food.”
Her passion for the soil and for nurturing the best food it offers intensified as the years progressed. Although she started gardening when the use of chemicals was pervasive, and “organic” was considered odd or backwards, she’s never used pesticides. Fast food is anathema to her as well.
She also holds a doctorate in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University and once worked as an accountant. But, as she describes it, “math was a means to end….I got tired of working, so I said ‘the hell with it’ and I just started a garden.” She had come to Kentucky to tend to a sick friend who later died. “I was retired; I had no big responsibilities, so I put down roots here.” That was more twenty years ago.
Although it is considered a “non-agricultural area,” Bell County is very rural and somewhat mountainous. People in Middlesboro “grow chickens in their backyards and you still might hear a shotgun at night,” she says. She likes to think that she received the Kentucky Farm Bureau award in recognition “that what I do is a lot art. People don’t know how to make hominy any more, or how to salt apples. They are nostalgic for what has been lost, ‘Teach me more,’ people say.”
As part of that teaching, she gives regular tours of her own backyard, where she has forty-two raised beds laid out on about a third of an acre. People come from as far away as Japan to take advantage of her expertise, and while she encourages people to come and see the methods she’s perfected, she prefers to do her own gardening work herself.
Her zeal for “spreading the gardening gospel,” seems boundless. In 2006, she started the “Bell County Organic Gardening Project,” specifically for people on welfare and food stamps. She got people started with raised beds, container gardens and seeds, showed them how to proceed, “and then walked away, to see what would happen.” Four years later, some people are hooked, and one convert to organic gardening still calls her several times a week for advice, she says.
Recently, she reached out to people at a local senior center to let them know that the farm project would also have raised beds that conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I said ‘bring your wheelchair, bring your walker, you can plant a radish, water it, harvest it, get started.’”
The response has been especially moving. “One of the women was crying. She said, ‘all we do is play bingo now; all we do is sit around; all of us were gardeners once.’”
Best of all, the farm project is open to anyone in a six-county area of southeastern Kentucky, the western part of Virginia and the northeast tip of Tennessee.
In addition to teaching non-credit courses at LMU, with topics ranging from how to make natural insecticides to the basics of creating compost, Pat has two weekly television programs filmed on campus. She is also in constant demand as a lecturer at schools and horticultural societies in the region.
She’s written two gardening books and two cookbooks, published them herself and is at work on a fifth. Two have sold out and she is negotiating with a publisher for possible reprints. Rather than write cookbooks with familiar recipes, she wrote “what you could say is country style, folksy, off beat stuff you wouldn’t see elsewhere….recipes for pickling poke and pickling walnuts, for sulphur apples, also how to make hominy and sausage and sauerkraut.” But there are also scrumptious dessert recipes like rhubarb upside down cake and cherry pie with sour cream and graham cracker crust.
Pat is also a big fan of Barbara Damrosch and Elliot Coleman, the Maine-based gardeners, cooks and writers who are patron saints of the organic gardening movement. She hopes to meet them someday during one of her annual visits to Maine.
She welcomes phone calls from gardening enthusiasts and people working to create healthier lifestyles in their communities. She insisted I include her phone number with this article. That’s because she doesn’t have email. “I am computer illiterate by choice,” she says. “For one thing, I don’t have time to fool with it. I’d rather be out digging in the dirt and teaching people to garden.”
So, here it is – (606) 242-2906. Or you can write to her at: Pat Biggerstaff, 304 S. 30th Street, Middlesboro, KY, 40965. If you call, don’t be surprised if you get her answering machine, since she usually starts her days around three am and is in the garden by five. But leave her a message, and you can be sure that she will get back to you.