Back to the Land in the Ozarks

Since 1978, Kay and Ted Berger have forgone the amenities of "civilization" and built a life as Ozark farmers

Alex Sandy Primm April 30, 2023

Ted and Kay Berger have been friends and a long-time inspiration to me. They produce incredible fruit and veggies on their farm, which lacks air-conditioning, TV, Internet and flush toilets. Their two grown children live in cities with great jobs and use all these seeming lifestyle necessities.

Ted and Kay, who both grew up in small towns near Akron, Ohio, and met in college, moved onto their homestead on Earth Day 1978. Their  farm lies in a wide valley on the South Prong of the Jacks Fork River. The river is one of the twisty, spring-fed streams of the Ozarks, the highland region between the Appalachians and the Rockies that has traditionally attracted strong, independent-minded residents. As Peter Raven, former director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has noted, the ancient Ozarks have geology, flora and fauna genetically similar to that of Sichuan and Yunnan in western China.

They helped me find folks to interview for a multiyear U.S. Geological Survey project. I stayed at the Berger’s garden shed or house many times while doing oral history for that project about land use changes in the nearby Ozark National Scenic Riverway.

True river rats who know how to use and enjoy the upper Jacks Fork, the Bergers are some of the most successful, generous and cheerful back-to-the-landers in the Ozarks. The following profile is an excerpt from my latest book, Ozark Voices: Oral Histories from the Heartland, published by McFarland in 2022.

We’re talking about a friend’s party where wild hogs were roasted. The conservation agents had been called to put traps in the forest that David Haenke, a local sawyer and musician, has been managing for many years. These wild hogs have become a real ornery pest in the Ozarks lately. Trapped about eight young ones, 40 pounds apiece. Cooked up four hams as part of David’s 70th birthday party.

“They tasted really great,” Ted said. “Nice and tender. It reminds me of when we had a problem with a neighbor’s hogs. It was while we were still getting settled into the Ozarks in the early ’80s.

“Mary North had them, I forget how many, some would supposedly get loose and end up at our place rooting up our gardens and wherever they chose to go. She didn’t care where they went, was even a little proud they were smart enough to go eat off the neighbors’ places. They were all huge, but usually we could shoo them away before they caused too much of a problem.

“I was working for another neighbor as the off-bearer at his sawmill, and was rushing off to work one morning. This big ol’ boar with tusks looked up at me while rooting in the garden. I just wanted to shoo him off good, maybe with a little buckshot in his rear end. So I grabbed the 12 gauge and went out to the garden.

“He looked up at me when I hollered, ‘Get on home!’ Instead of running away, he charged me! I had no choice but to shoot him between the eyes, and hurry off to the sawmill, though I did stop by to tell Mary quickly what had happened. Put in a good morning, then that afternoon John came by. He was working for Mary North.

“ ‘You better get off to Mexico,’ John said. ‘Mary’s got the sheriff to issue a warrant for your arrest.’ ”

Kay jumped in. “That’s what I remember, you came by school just as I was getting off in the afternoon. You didn’t know where to go and what the sheriff could do.”

“Finally I did end up in court,” Ted said. “Small claims court. She sued me for loss of that boar. So I sued her for damages to our place.

“Mary even brought in the boar’s head. She’s kept his head in the freezer to show how big he had been. The lady judge was mighty impressed, she judged against me, but then found for me too. Mary got the bigger judgment. All because she brought in that half-frozen boar’s head.                   

My wife Cath has been stressed because we’re going on a long trip. This afternoon she’s become awfully happy.

“You should see what Ted brought by.” She hurries me into the kitchen. It’s a bushel of veggies: organic green peppers, a variety of huge heirloom tomatoes, okrey, string beans, corn smiling in its shucks, onions and garlics. The only thing lacking is sweet potatoes, but it’s August. They’ll be harvested in another month: Ted’s Reds, famous in our corner of the Ozarks. This gift of veggies powered us all the way to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where we visited his sister.

Garlic grows on Ted and Kay Berger’s farm in the bottomlands of the upper Jacks Fork River. (Alex Sandy Primm)

Ted has been growing organic veggies commercially four decades on a rocky few acres along the upper Jacks Fork. He hauls garlic, sweet basil, jalapeños, etc., from his farm north of Willow Springs 60-plus miles into Springfield, Mo., weekly. In autumn 2012, he joined the next stage of the sustainability revolution with two shimmering hoop houses. One 20 by 48 feet, the other 60 feet long, his carefully planned structures have changed his life. Friends helped him finish the job with stout plastic covering, then he hand-dug dozens of growing beds over the winter. Now he can grow veggies all year!

“This is why I hang out at the river when it gets hot like this,” he said in July. “I’d go bonkers if I worked all the time I could.”                               

Most Thursday afternoons during July and August a bunch of us go to some nearby river and hang out in the shade, swim, fish and drink beer.

Last week Ted had marinated veggies Kay had chopped up so small he felt they’d fall through the grill. We built a driftwood fire. When it was down to a big bed of coals, Ted hauled a sandstone slab from the riverbed, flopped it on the glowing embers and in 20 minutes the rock made the finest grill possible for some sausages and bluegill along with the produce.

A big guy, originally from rural Ohio, Ted has been living in the deep Ozarks since he came here in the early 1970s. Working outside on his farm almost every day has made him strong, but that takes a toll. He visits our Quaker dermatologist buddy Van Stoecker in Rolla annually or more to get his skin cancers checked out. Both he and his wife Kay don’t run along their nearby county roads for fun and exercise as much as they used to. Knees can act up occasionally.

Ted bikes now when he can. A few years ago we went to Tim and Lynda Roehl’s for a potluck before an Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Big Smith concert, two of the better local bands. Ted wanted to ride his bike back to the farm instead. Good exercise: 20 miles to Willow Springs, then another 10 to home. It was a summer evening but he made it by dark on a busy U.S. highway then the twisty local highway. He wore a reflective vest. Everything planned, that’s Ted’s way. Nothing squirrelly.

This planning inspires his winter adventuring. More than anyone I know, Ted loves to explore the Ozarks. He has little desire to visit other regions or states; his neighboring hills and hollows offer enough excitement. Only one person might equal him, his buddy Mac Gum who used to be principal at the middle school where Kay was a sixth grade math teacher for several decades.

Mac and Ted resemble the famous Smith brothers. Do you remember them from their sweet cough drops? Trade and Mark, was that their names? I most remember them with their big beards on little cardboard boxes that held the tasty medicine. That’s what Mac and Ted have, giant fluffy grey beards, summer and winter. Good for catching beer foam.

Winter’s traveling time in the Zarks, no ticks or snakes. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft set the pace almost 200 years ago for winter exploration here. Ol’ Henry rambled south from Potosi into Arkansaw Territory to study mining resources in hopes of landing a plum federal job and spent much of his time lost and hungry.

Ted’s rarely lost. He loves studying the maps and planning routes, keeps records of where he’s been, who’s been on this usually just day-long expeditions, and a list of where he wants to go in the future. He has to stay close to his dairy goats, hard to get a day off from farming. The U.S. Forest Service owns about 1.5 million acres in the Missouri Ozarks, about the same in Arkansas. Other agencies and the states also have great areas for hiking, once deer hunting season’s over. And not many people hike here, especially the way Ted and Mac hike: off the trails, up and down the ridges, following the creeks to find a spring, cave or high bluff.

Jacks Fork River near Buck Hollow.

We’ve seen many amazing places on these adventures. One of the better hikes was into what’s been formally named the Roger Pryor Backcountry by Pioneer Forest, a private operation started in 1951 by the St. Louis conservationist and forester Leo Drey but since 2004 managed as a not-for-profit foundation by a volunteer board. I knew Roger when he was battling the Corps of Engineers about the proposed Meramec Park Dam in the 1970s. Leo and Roger made quite a partnership; many pockets of Ozark wilderness and amazing parks resulted from their 20+ years of work until Roger succumbed in 1998. A rotund, happy guy like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, I think he sort of finally exploded at 53 he was so full of life, folksongs and anger at those who despoil the earth.

Just as Roger was a boisterous, outspoken advocate for the wilds, Ted’s the opposite, a soft-spoken activist who will occasionally write letters for various causes but prefers to do, hike, make jokes about the holier-than-thous or make beer rather than pontificate. Twenty years ago he spent many winters writing short pieces about his Ozark experiences, but I think he found efforts to get published hardly worth the endeavor of polishing his prose.

Besides, winter’s best for hiking. Big Creek on the middle reaches of Current River, and at the heart of the Pryor Backcountry, once harbored a lively community of timber workers, farmers and families, a general store, churches and schools. Now no one lives along this great small-mouth bass stream, one of many “Big Creeks” in our region. It flows out of the Roger Pryor Wilderness, which also provides passage for the Ozark Trail. Planned to cover some 300 miles, the OT may eventually connect the Meramec River in the northern Ozarks to Arkansas’ trail going south to Ft. Smith and the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma. Historically hunters of the Osage nation followed this north-to-south migration annually to hunt deer in the gnarly Ozark hills.

Hiking the ridges can take it out of you. Ted and Mac seemingly run up them. Most of the rest of us huff and puff. Ted’s routes usually stay off trails, but there aren’t many human signs where he likes to go. Still we’re often surprised to find old cabin sites back in the hollows. It’s not uncommon to find masses of Jonquils nodding in early spring sun where no one has lived in decades. Ozark wilderness carries signs of people trying to make it here, even if it is just a rusty trash dump or a pile of cherty flakes from flint knappers along a high creek bank. It makes me sad to see once productive fields on creek bottoms now grown up in greenbrier and cedar. Little farms never made much money here, though they did pretty damn well in other ways.

Climbing up and down these ridges reveals why folks settled here originally. It’s just incredibly beautiful and fertile in the creek bottoms. The hillsides grow huge timber, pine, oak and hickories which themselves must have been a big attraction. Because of the karst topography, springs and streams tend to run year-round reliably. In winter, which sun will warm up into the 40s usually, we spend a lot of time taking on and off boots to cross streams. The freezing water stings but makes you laugh and feel alive too.

On this one memorable Big Creek hike we must have crossed and hollered at the freezing water a half-dozen times. Winter hiking’s inspiring because you can see so deep and far. We made a big loop and saw many neat camping spots that would be great for a few days in warmer times. In the shadow of one undercut bluff, the icy Big Creek circled into an eddy that created a tiny peninsula of foam hanging onto branches by the shore. Though the air was no longer frigid thanks to afternoon sun, the water hovered still just at the freezing point.

In this freezy pool, the temperature was cold enough so pieces of foam formed into tiny icebergs, one round, one more an ellipse-shape, as perfect as a primal football or Frisbee. The perfect mini-icebergs circled endlessly in the swirling water as if they could be Christmas decorations in a downtown store window.  Except there was no music, no crowds watching, no Santa Express railway in the North Pole, just us four chilly hikers, no reindeer, nothing electric but the many digital images my buddies snapped of these precisely endlessly circling icy floaters. Perfection equal to a fat momma bluegill fighting to protect her nest in summer.

Echo Bluff State Park in the Missouri Ozarks.

Just as purely winter precise, downstream a north-facing bluff of stained black limestone maybe a hundred feet high seemed illuminated with thick strings of icicles. They looked like staffs of a musical score, which faintly glowed in weak sunlight reflecting off the creek. This weathered, icy rock became a vast sheet of a frozen Bach fugue that made all our frigid boot changes worth any effort or discomfort. This cold, pure music of winter along Ozark creeks rings as the clearest signature of hikes with Ted, Mac and friends.

Ted also played mandolin for a while, but now concentrates on growing, his goats, coming up with solar or labor-saving devices and keeping up with his daughter, son, family and friends. Years ago we knew his sister Lee who helped out on the Plumbottom Farm, before she moved to Colorado. A registered nurse, Lee’s working on a major expansion of an assisted living facility for the local public hospital. She and her husband Dwayne hosted Cathy and I when we went West to escape August heat for a few days. Both these couples have adopted the semi-popular “paleo diet,” which features eating no grains or beans to focus on healthy meats, veggies and fruit. Ted and Mac both usually have ample supplies of venison and wild turkey, which makes such a diet easier.

Kay’s not quite as enthusiastic about paleo fare, but Ted does his share of cooking so she doesn’t complain. It’s sort of a joke to Kay, like Ted’s running up and down the ridges. Kay goes her own pace and catches up quick enough. Conveniences like an outhouse, an artisan well and wood for heat and cooking meet your needs when you live in a quiet valley in paradise with no ornery neighbors other than armadillos exiled from Texas in recent years.

“Our father was a big influence on us as we were growing up,” Lee explained to me as we went hiking in the mountains outside Steamboat one day. “He had a subscription to Prevention magazine and was an organic gardener in the 1940s and ’50s. That’s part of the reason Ted got so interested in farming…

“But there was also the Vietnam War. That affected his eating too. You should ask him about that sometime,” Lee said.

Recently Ted explained that. “When I was in college in the late 1960s the comedian Dick Gregory was invited to speak on campus. I was very impressed.”

That surprised me, I’d forgotten what an activist Mr. Gregory has been. “Dick Gregory was on a hunger strike at the time,” Ted recalled. “He was just drinking juice to protest the Vietnam War and was skinny as a bean pole, just skin and bones. It got me to thinking.

“I wondered how thin I could be till I would be disqualified for the draft.” Most of my friends were thinking the same thing as Ted was about this time. Undoubtedly someone has written a compilation of all the strategies of avoiding the Vietnam military draft, which underlays the plot of Arlo Guthrie’s famous “Alice’s Restaurant” ballad and tale.

“But they changed the draft when I was in college. They started assigning numbers to all the guys who had registered. Each year only so many men were needed,” Ted said. To make a long story short, his lottery number never came up. But he lost a lot of weight and became more interested in diet, health and agriculture. Kay and Ted met in college, worked in youth services and eventually found an ideal farm to live their dreams in the Ozarks.

As back-to-the-landers they’ve been unusually successful at staying true to the ideals of their youth, Henry David Thoreau and organic agriculture. Kay usually carries a cell phone when out and about, but they’re the only folks I know who lack an Internet connection at home, air conditioner or TV set of any kind.

The trade-off has more than paid. Lately they’ve been harvesting strawberries in December and have greens all winter long. Though Ted started farming with oxen he trained himself, he now uses Italian BCS tillers, which he makes last for a decade or longer. His home-made beer is as good as anyone’s, but he confessed that as a paleo-person, all those carbos aren’t too healthy. He said they may have to start growing grapes.

Alex Sandy Primm

Alex Sandy Primm has been a freelance oral historian in the Ozarks for 40 years. His work in detailed in 2022’s Ozark Voices. Previously he was curator of the Ozark Agricultural Museum at Maramec Spring Park, near St. James, Mo., and a regional coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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