Growing a beautiful life

Brush Country farmers Sandy (at left) and Fane Irvine are joined by Fane’s “best buddy,” Ben, in front of Sandy’s favorite crop – her sunflowers. Of gardening, Sandy says, “It gives us something to do together.” Fane has a slightly different take, he said, “It’s hard work, but hard work won’t kill you.” L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Fane Irvine, a soft-spoken Pocahontas Countian, has spent his life on his family’s farm in the Brush Country, where he and his wife, Sandy, have grown a good family and a productive farm.

“I like farming,” Fane said. “I’d never think of a life anywhere else.”

His parents were Angus and Edna Irvin, and Fane was the only boy among four sisters.

He was born in the same house where he and Sandy, his wife of 48 years, live today.

The couple even met on the farm.

Sandy’s parents were Clyde and Leeta Ryder. She was born at home in Neola in Greenbrier County. At a young age, she came to the Brush County to live with her aunt and uncle, who happened to live near the Irvine family. Fane’s sister – coincidentally also named Sandy – was Sandy’s best friend

Fane and Sandy married on a Friday in May 1973. They had both been working in Virginia – Sandy at a fiber mill and Fane as a welder.

“That Friday, we each took off from work at two o’clock and started looking for someone to marry us,” Sandy said.

And what made them decide to have such a spur-of-the-moment wedding?

“I guess we just quit fighting long enough to get married,” Sandy said, laughing. “He was bossy, and I was stubborn, and now it’s the other way around.

“We went to four different preachers before we finally found one to marry us. They were either busy or not there.

“Finally, we found the preacher of the Hot Springs Methodist Church.

“We had to wait for him to finish his supper, but he married us,” Sandy said, smiling.

“There wasn’t any honeymoon,” Fane said.

 “I was making about a dollar an hour,” he added.

“For our honeymoon, we came home and planted potatoes,” Sandy said, matter-of-factly.

“We didn’t have any honeymoon trip, and we haven’t gone on very many trips, I guess,” Fane said.

“Well, I’m going to have a trip,” Sandy assured me.

“I’m headed to Pigeon Forge one of these days, and we’ll see if he wants to come with me.”

One reason Fane and Sandy haven’t done much traveling may be because they were busy working, raising three children and farming.

Fane worked for Alltel, then Frontier for 32 years, and Sandy worked as a custodian at Green Bank Elementary, Marlinton Elementary and Hillsboro schools for almost 20 years.

Sandy also held down the fort at home and was quite the seamstress in her time.

“I made lots of my girls’ clothes, and I sewed for lots of people,” she said. “I made the uniforms for the Baptist Church School, and I sewed a lot of the wool outfits back in the day when the 4-H kids were showing purebred sheep in the ladies lead line classes and had to have all wool outfits.

“I’m trying to become a quilter now,” she said modestly.

Fane and Sandy have three grown children.

Their daughter, Rachel lives in the Panhandle and has two girls – Ericka, 23, and Hannah, 20.

Their second daughter, Amanda, lives here in Pocahontas County, as does their son, Fane Robert.

Amanda has two girls – Abigail, age 11 and Olivia, age 9.

Fane and Sandy’s only grandson is Fane Robert’s son, Levi, age 8.

“The grandkids have always liked coming here and helping out in the garden and around the farm,” Sandy said. “They’ve really helped out a lot, especially last year.

“Rachel’s girls were out from school a lot, and they were here a lot.”

But back to that vacation thing. It’s not like the Irvines never took a vacation at all.

“We took the kids to the beach when they were young,” Sandy said. “The girls were seven and six, and Fane Robert was about two or two and a half.

“We went to Top Sail Beach in North Carolina,” Fane said.

“I’d never been to the beach,” Sandy added. “We were driving, and I kept seeing this blue, and I finally said, ‘what is that?’
“Fane said, ‘it’s the ocean’ and I said, ‘well, let’s just turn around.’ I can’t swim, so I’d just get my feet wet and then be watching the kids playing in the water.

“We stayed about a week and that was the only time we went to the beach.

“Mostly we liked to go to the fairs, Agriculture Days in Pennsylvania – anything about farming,” Sandy explained.

“The kids were in 4-H, and they showed sheep and hogs – and a calf once – at the State Fair.

“We’d take the camper and stay a week, and we’d have a good time,” she remembered.

Sandy had to run to the kitchen for a little bit, but Fane and lifelong friends and neighbors, Tom Campbell and Greg Irvine, showed me the acres of potatoes and watermelon, behind which was a beautiful long-distance view from the top of Brush Country.

We were also joined by Fane’s “best buddy” – a particularly handsome Golden Retriever/ Great Pyrenees cross named Ben.

Irvine and Campbell are more than just good friends, they’ve helped out on the farm and in the garden for years.

“They’re pretty good help,” Fane said. “But you’ve got to get onto Tom to get him to do anything,” he teased.

Looking over the many acres of produce growing around him, Fane remembered something that the Vo-Ag teacher at the high school used to say.

“Mr. McMann always said nothing but brush would ever grow up here.

“Well, I guess he was wrong.”

Fane and Sandy’s farm now consists of a beautiful house and outbuildings, manicured lawns, a vast expanse of crops in the fields, and high tunnels.

They reminisced about how the farm used to look and how much work it had taken to get it to its present state.

“When we got married this farm was almost all in woods,” Fane said. “There were a lot of pine trees. We cleared it all by hand – with a brush hook, a cross axe and a power saw.

“We used to cut red brush every winter,” Campbell said. “It was a job.”

“Things really improved when we got that tractor and a brush hog. Then we really went to work on the brush,” Fane said.

“My dad said, ‘you’re going to ruin that tractor using it like that,’” he remembered.

“And I said, ‘that’s what it’s for.’

“Back in the day, everyone had a garden and a milk cow,” Fane continued.

“We had two milk cows, and we always had hogs, and we raised some of our own beef.

“We raised beef cattle and sent the kids to college with the beef money. We sold the last of the cattle two years ago,” he added.

Our tour brought us back to Sandy, who walked with us past the two high tunnels to see her flowers.

“We’ve never had chickens,” she said. “I don’t like chickens.”

“Last year and this year we have the biggest gardens we ever had,” Fane said.

“We cut back a little on green beans and green onions this year,” Sandy said. “But we’re still raising a lot of pumpkins – 42 varieties – we added three varieties this year.”

There are two high tunnels – one is 72’ x 30’ and the other is 72’ x 20.’

Add two acres planted in pumpkins, a half acre planted in potatoes, a half acre in corn and their high tunnel gardens of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, onions, cucumbers and cabbage.

I asked Sandy about her favorite crop.

“Well, I love to eat tomatoes – raw right out of the garden,” she said. “I like to fix sweet corn, and I cook a lot of squash.

“I used to can a lot, but I’ve given it up. I don’t have the time. I’m too old to garden all day and stay up until three in the morning canning and get back up at 6:00,” she explained.

“I think the best thing about gardening is that it’s something good to keep you busy.

“I guess I like raising the pumpkins the best. They are so pretty and there’s such a variety.

“We sell most of them for decorations – most people buy them for that.

“But there are about half of the varieties which are good for cooking.

“We also grow winter squash, gourds and ornamental Indian corn,” she explained.

Their sweet corn is five feet tall now and looks like it will be a bumper crop.

Of course, there are rows and rows of gorgeous tomatoes, some already ripe, in the high tunnel.

Fane keeps the high tunnel looking spiffy by dealing with the weeds with a rototiller or weedeater.

Fane’s favorites are the tomatoes.

“I like to see them turn red,” he said with a shy smile.

Sandy also loves growing flowers and takes particular pride in her sunflowers.

“I plant them early so I can look at them as long as I can,” Sandy said. “I also love gladiolas, but they’re not looking so good right now. We had a wind storm yesterday and they blew over.”

We arrive at the sunflowers and Sandy points out the unusual varieties with names like Strawberry Cream, Sonia, American Beauty and a deep maroon group called Moulin Rouge. 

Then there are several lovely pale yellow beauties – the exact color of lemons.

“I’ve gotten the prettiest mix of sunflower seeds right here at the Dollar Store,” she said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of my flower seeds from there over the years.

 “As far as produce goes, we shop for seeds in the Harris Seed Catalogue and Valley Supply, and we get a lot of young plants from Riverside Plants and Mulch – a Mennonite nursery in Dayton,” Sandy explained.

“We’ve never traveled much – too much to do, but the garden gives us something to do together.”

“It’s hard work, but work won’t kill you,” Fane said with a smile.

The Irvines sell their produce at the farmers market at the Green Bank Senior Center and also have customers come to the farm on Saturdays to buy.

“We get out and meet people, and it’s nice to visit a little,” Sandy said.

It’s late on a hot summer afternoon, and as Sandy and Fane get ready to head back to the shade, the subject of that trip to Pigeon Forge resurfaces.

Sandy has apparently made up her mind.

“We’re going this October, and we’re going to stay a few nights,” Sandy said, confidently.

“One night,” Fane replies.

“Three nights,” Sandy insists, crossing her arms.

I guess we’ll have to stay tuned for the Pigeon Forge report, but my money’s on Sandy.

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