ROLESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Hal Gurley was trying to figure out a way to pay taxes on his family's northern Wake County land nearly three decades ago when he and his grandfather planted two rows of collards.
From those 100 seedlings, a business plan grew and grew.
Gurley, owner of the The Collard Patch, a pick-your-own roadside market about 20 miles northeast of downtown Raleigh, unwittingly became a frontrunner in the farm-to-fork movement so trendy in today's culinary world. His U-pick patch is now one of about a dozen such places in the Triangle that offer collards.
Over the past three decades, Gurley has added rows and rows of the leafy-green plant that has become a must-have at Southern New Year celebrations. He offers two varieties to his U-pick customers - the Morris Heading collards that produce broad, waxy leaves that vary from green to blue-green and the cabbage collard with a lighter green leaf that is popular Down East.
On a recent afternoon, Gurley got out one of the golf carts he uses to transport city dwellers and suburbanites through his earthy enterprise, which now pays the taxes on the family land and more.
"I tried to find a niche to get in," Gurley said as he surveyed the six acres of collards, garlic, yellow granex onions and young, strawberry plants that he hopes will bring a bumper crop in late spring. "Once you get into your niche, you stick in it."
Gurley grew up outside Rolesville with agriculture in his blood. His grandfather was a farmer, and Gurley helped with the planting and picking in his youth.
In high school, Gurley wondered about doing something other than farming to make a living and set off for N.C. State University after graduation.
It was not long, though, before the pull of home brought him back to Rolesville and a quieter, slower-paced rural refuge less than a half-hour from the bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic in North Raleigh.
Gurley married "a city girl from Zebulon," who eventually warmed to the quietude, and for a while the two commuted between two very different worlds a short distance apart.
About five years ago, Gurley lost his suburban job at an electronics company in Wake County. Now at age 55 he makes a living at the roadside farm stand and from leasing a few rental properties.
Collards, the staple of Gurley's fall crop, are a big seller from the two weeks before Thanksgiving until shortly after the New Year.
To his taste, there only is one way to cook the greens - with ham hocks and a hog jowl. Some people like to cook a pot with a traditional link sausage to lend a smoky, spicy taste or a smoked turkey leg. Some culinary experimenters have tried to rethink the Southern classic, dishing up pasta with collard greens and onions, stuffed collard greens with a Middle Eastern flair of rice, pine nuts, garlic, dill or a simple sauté in olive or vegetable oil.
"People, all the time, ask me how I like my collards," Gurley said, acknowledging the host of new recipes for the traditional dish. "I tell people, 'Cooked and on my plate with a piece of cornbread.'"
With four golf carts at the ready and a homemade saw on hand to slice through the base of the big, leafy plants, Gurley and his handful of helpers at the roadside stand on Pulley Road expect business to pick up Monday before Christmas and then next weekend and the couple of days before the start of 2014.
They hope people will be enthusiastic about a trip away from the decorated evergreens inside their homes to the open-leaved plants rooted in a different holiday tradition.
There are many theories among historians about when collards and other greens became the dish to symbolize the heaping hope for wealth and good fortune in the year ahead, along with the prosperity that black-eyed peas are reported to bring.
Adrian Miller, a writer, attorney and certified barbecue judge from Colorado, wrote about some of that history in "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time."
In the book, published by the University of North Carolina Press in August, Miller writes that collards indeed came to the American South with the African slave trade.
But the leafy green also has roots in the ancient region that is now modern Turkey and were cultivated by Greeks and Romans. They also were an important dietary staple during the harsh winters in western Europe in the Middle Ages as well as in colonial America.
Gurley, a chatty and amiable man, whose mother used to tell him repeatedly that he'd "never met a stranger," enjoys learning as much as he can about his customers and the fruits of his labor.
While sawing through the base of a cabbage collard plant on a recent overcast day, Gurley brightened as he shared how he knew collards really were sweeter after the first frost, as Southern lore holds.
Researchers at N.C. State University, Gurley said, had tested leaves before and after a frost and noted how ice crystals changed starches to sugars and protein flavor compounds.
"I try to learn as much as I can about all this," he said. "It's just something I've really enjoyed."
Gurley says he hopes others can take that enjoyment from his farm to their tables.
Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com