HALLSVILLE - Retired chemist Dr. Doug Ford, 72, stepped away from his lab at LeTourneau University, but his mind still swirls in wonder with each new discovery.

The object of his new post-career passion isn't in a sterile environment with artificial lights and white coats but in the field with real sunlight and rich earth under his boots.

He and wife, Kathi, 70, grow ribbon cane and gourds these days, as well as crops that border on the unusual.

"I like novelty crops," he said, using a small machete to whack away at a row of ribbon cane. "I also grow peanuts and a little cotton."

The couple's somewhat uncommon crops for this area are among the expected highlights of Henderson's 27th Annual Heritage Syrup Festival on Saturday, which historically attracts more than 20,000 guests with an affinity for sweet stuff.

Ford is on the hook to deliver 2,500 ribbon canes before festival guests arrive.

"The cane is in its heyday," he said, pausing from the harvest. "This time of year, it's matured out … it's my favorite time of the year."

 

LAB TO FIELD

The Fords, married 19 years, call their little slice of farming paradise in Hallsville the Chinquapin Gourd Palace.

They sell peaches, gourds and other seasonal produce mostly on the honor system. A sizeable amount of their efforts are devoted to growing ribbon cane and educating young people about the wonders of syrup making and farming in general.

Mrs. Ford is the resident guru on gourds.

She's a beautician by trade, but moonlights as a gourd artist and crafter, offering classes on transforming the bland looking fruit into something fabulous.

"We have kids come out on field trips," Mrs. Ford said. "We show them around … it's a lot of fun. I'm doing things I never thought I would do."

There is a strong connection between farming and science, and Ford, as an educator and sixth-generation farmer, seems eager to reveal it to young minds through hands-on experiences with the field as the classroom.

Ford is a product of Rice University and holds a doctorate in chemistry and physics.

He enjoyed a variety of career opportunities over the years, including a stint with NASA, but eventually returned to East Texas, settling in at Le Tourneau University in Longview until retirement.

Along the way, he quietly returned to his roots, devoting entire summer breaks to working the land.

"I wasn't really interested in farming at first, I thought I'd had enough as a kid," Ford said, adding, "Never say never."

 

A SWEET HARVEST

For those who have never seen ribbon cane growing in the field, it resembles stalks of corn, sans the cobs.

"It grows really thick," Ford said. "It likes heat and rain, but you have to irrigate. We're almost too far north, it really likes the tropics."

Ribbon cane dies back in the winter and then returns when the weather warms up again.

It's really a grass with benefits - making syrup and munching on, to enjoy its flavorful juice.

Some people buy it to divide and grow their own plants, Ford said.

To harvest the cane, plants are cut off near the ground, and the top growth is removed.

What's left is a long pole, similar in size to a closet rod used for hanging clothing.

To access the sweet stuff from the cane, you first peel back the tough outer layer to reveal the inner growth.

"This is what kids really like," Ford said, demonstrating the chomp and slurp technique of tasting the juice. "This is one of my favorite crops. I guess it's the kid in me. … I just want to taste it."

There's apparently an art to making syrup, and the Fords are still getting their feet sticky in learning the ins and outs of the business.

The couple has been growing their ribbon cane for several years, but only recently completed the permitting process to sell their products.

A small building constructed of 150-year-old lumber holds their syrup-making equipment.

Canes are squeezed to collect the juice. A wood fired evaporator helps condense the liquid into syrup.

Flavors are affected by a number of factors, including weather, soil, fertilizer and production techniques, he said.

"It takes between 60 to 75 stalks to make one gallon of syrup," Ford said. "Henderson will get 2,500 stalks. … They'll make about 30 gallons in a day."

Some other types of specialty syrups include maple, comprised of juice from maple trees; and sorghum, made of sorghum plants.

Vickie Armstrong, director of the Depot Museum in Henderson, said the city's annual festival would not be the same without Ford's ribbon cane.

"I see it growing," she said. "I watch every year to see how the cane is growing. I wanted our cane to be from the East Texas area. Mr. Ford does a great job."

Coincidently, the Fords' booth can be found in the back area of the depot grounds.

With so much riding on the timing of the ribbon cane harvest and decorated gourds for Henderson's signature festival, one might assume the couple is feeling the pressure to produce.

Or not.

"We really love it," Mrs. Ford said. "We have an amazing life."

 

TWITTER @TMT _ JACQUE

Reporter

Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.

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