True Cape Roots

In the 1920s, prices for turnips started dropping. You can hear Cape Codder Isabelle Brackett (1904–1997) on those tapes, too.

Her family owned the general store, the store that sold fertilizer and all the other farm goods. “People could not pay their bills,” Isabelle said. There was a drought, and soon it was the Depression. “They couldn’t afford to cultivate their turnips. The turnip crop did not produce the income that people were depending on,” Isabelle explained. “They’d spent the money for fertilizer and worked and cultivated and the turnip crop was a failure. That was really the beginning of the time when people began to forget turnip farming.”

True Cape Roots

Then there’s  the memories of Shirley Nickerson (1921–2010), Art’s sister. “The last year my father planted turnips, the truck used to come around and take them to a market in Boston and then they would pay you what the going price was. For the last load he sent, he got a bill back for the freight,” Shirley recalls.

That, for most Cape Cod farmers, was the end.

The thing about turnips is they’re biennial. These stubborn vegetables take two years to complete a lifecycle, so to get seed you have to plant  twice—once the first spring, then again after the roots have overwintered.

True Cape Roots

Turnips are a commitment. You dig a pit below the freeze line, at least three feet, and throw the turnips in. You cover them with seaweed and put on top of that a light covering of sand. Then when spring comes you have to dig the turnips up, carefully, and then plant the best ones back in the fields and wait for stalks to appear. Eventually, the pods come—many, many pods off of each plant, filled with seeds, round and tiny, like pinheads. “If you’re doing it the correct way, you’re collecting seed for the next season,” says Janice Nickerson, Art’s daughter, who lives in Eastham and is still raising turnips.

The pods are ready when brown, the seeds inside dry and dark. The birds love seed pods, so that’s a fight, and you have put up netting to protect the plants. “Then you thresh and just take the pods and rub them with your hands, and you have the little seeds,” Janice says, “and then you have to winnow—that’s the tough part.”

Winnow is an old word, and it used to be a common one. When you winnow, you make sure to pick out all the pieces of pod, anything that might get stuck in the planter. That, of course, is before the planting. Then you have to plow, rototill, fertilize, and then start all over again.

It’s no wonder that by 1982, when Art Nickerson was recorded, he said as far as he knew, he was the only one who still had any seeds. “We’re getting along in years and everybody that raised turnips is dead and gone, including Mr. [Raymond] Brackett [b. 1893], who was just buried this week, the oldest, largest farmer in Eastham,” Art said.

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Elspeth Hay lives in Wellfleet

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