The Eastham Turnip & Art Nickerson
Last fall, on October 27, Arthur Nickerson of Eastham, fondly referred to as “Art Nick, the Turnip Man,” died at the age of 93. His death marked the end of an agricultural era.
Growing up in the depression, Nickerson started farming turnips on his own at the age of 12. In a 1982 oral history interview with the Eastham Historical Society, he recounted how, as an industrious youth, he “borrowed a piece of land” off of Whelpley Road in Eastham to farm for “spending money.” This was in addition to working the family land with his father, the same way it had been done, for at least two generations before.
As an adult, Nickerson took a break from commercial farming. After retiring from his business, Nickerson Auto Body (now Nickerson Service Center) on Route 6 in North Eastham, he decided to return to his agricultural roots. As an Eastham native, he focused on what he knew, growing asparagus, turnips and, surprisingly, cantaloupes. Unlike other turnips, the Eastham one is uncommonly large, sweet and white, with a purple crownas it matures. One of Nickerson’s seven children, Janice Nickerson remembers a record-breaking, 18-pound turnip her father grew.
The Eastham turnip is an heirloom: an open-pollinated varietal passed from generation to generation for over 100 years. There has been much speculation over the origin of the legendary turnip. Some believe it is more rutabaga than turnip. Others believe it is related to the Macomber turnip from Westport, Massachusetts. Still others debate the turnips true appellation boundaries, since Orleans was part of Eastham until 1797. Charlie Horton, an octogenarian formerly from Orleans, with generational roots in Eastham, passionately believes the turnip is descended from Scotland’s version of the turnip, called a neep.
Nickerson added to the lore about the Eastham turnip. According to him, the good-draining, sweet, sandy soil in North Eastham works magic on the root vegetable, producing its memorable taste. In a November 17, 1991 article in The Boston Sunday Globe, Nickerson, known for hissense of humor, said with a grin, “I gave some seed to a friend of mine, Joe Francis, who knows what he’s doing around vegetables. But he couldn’t get ‘em to develop. I guess you just can’t raise an Eastham turnip in Truro. It must be the sand’s better here.”
As the last known grower of the turnip in Eastham, Nickerson had the honor of being the sole producer of the heirloom seeds. In his 1982 interview with the Eastham Historical Society, he said he did not sell the seeds. He added, “As far as I know I am the only one now that’s got any seeds.” It appears he might very well have kept the turnip from becoming extinct.
Janice Nickerson explained the lengthy and tedious process her father went through to procure seeds for the next planting. Specific, large turnips were selected to be put in a pit dug below the frost line. They were covered with seaweed and then sand to insure their safekeeping for the winter. Then the dormant turnips were removed during spring and replanted, hopefully producing flowering stems 4 to 5 feet tall. From these yellow flowers, seed pods formed and the seeds, which are the same size as poppy seeds, were extracted. After threshing and winnowing, tweezers were painstakingly used in the tedious process of removing any unwanted pieces so the planting equipment did not jam.
Another of Nickerson’s five daughters, Audrey Bohannon described how her father cared for the seeds. “My father ensured we always had dated storage of seeds because one needed to prepare for the worst; preserving extra seeds in case they didn’t come up, in addition to havingthem for next year’s planting.” Part of the Nickerson family livelihood depended on the outcome of the unique and desired crop and Nickerson did his best to guarantee the harvest.
Turnips were historically planted following the final harvest of asparagus, after the fourth of July. Nickerson waited to pull the crop until after the first frost, when the vegetable reached its full sweetness. At his height of farming, he grew turnips on Raymond Brackett’s farm where the Main Street Mercantile is now located on Route 6. At the time, Brackett had the oldest and largest farm in Eastham. In fact, it is believed Nickerson got his turnip seeds from the more senior farmer. On Brackett’s farm, Nickerson and fellow farmer Joe King planted an impressive 90 rows 300 feet long.
Some of Nickerson’s children and grandchildren still raise turnips the old-fashioned way, on the 2.5 acre homestead. They admit it takes a lot of effort between the thinning of the plants and weeding. Talking about his well-known dedication to the Eastham Turnip, Janice Nickerson stated, “My father had a passion for this and you need a passion, since it is hard work.” Nickerson also had an enthusiasm for Eastham and he devoted many hours of his time to the community, including building the first rescue truck for the town in 1962.
Nickerson and his turnips had a loyal following. He shipped the sweet vegetables as far as Florida and Alaska, to people who had come to love the sweet turnip, grown in Eastham’s unique terroir. Even Colonial Williamsburg requested some bushels for a special gala.
It was undoubtedly due to Nickerson’s devotion, determination and old-fashioned farming techniques that the heirloom seeds are still pure “Eastham,” maintaining the turnip’s true lineage. Today there is a resurgence of interest in the vegetable. Many commercial farmers are raising it on and off Cape. Selling for around $3 a pound, with the average Eastham turnip weighing 8 pounds, the vegetable can be profitable. Due to its popularity, one must be aware of Eastham turnip imposters: turnips, regardless of where they were grown, being sold as the heirloom turnip, but are not.
Art Nickerson might ask, is any turnip really an Eastham turnip if it is not grown in its namesake town? Sadly, due to the lack of farm land, there are few people currently growing the acclaimed turnip in Eastham’s sandy soil. To make matters worse, demand is exceeding supply.
Orleans farmer Judy Scanlon is a big supporter of the Eastham turnip and she is increasing supply. She wants the whole world to be able to enjoy the sweet vegetable. “We are grateful to Art Nickerson for preserving this local heirloom crop,” Judy passionately stated, “but we feel to continue to preserve it as a local specialty, we need to encourage others to grow it.” She is doing just that by selling Eastham turnip seedlings and seed at her Lake Farm stand on Monument Road, along with donating the seed for sale through the Vermont Bean Seed Company.
Scanlon’s seeds can be traced back to Nickerson’s. She received her seeds from the late David Raphaelson, who grew the Eastham turnip on Widgeon Drive in Eastham and generously gave all his garden proceeds to the non-profit Dream Day on Cape Cod. Esther, his wife, stated he acquired the seeds from Eastham resident Ben Mastro, who used to own Uncle Ben’s Market in North Eastham. Mastro grew his seed from one of Nickerson’s turnips.
Farmers Bob Wells of Eastham and Julie Winslow of Orleans are currently growing Eastham turnips from Scanlon’s seed. Both attend the Orleans Farmers Market and their turnips, like Scanlon’s and the Nickerson family’s, are also sold in local stores. Last year Wells planted nearly 6,000 turnips on his 5.7 acres, called Redberry Farm. Not surprisingly, he sold as many as he could pull. Commenting on the validity of the lore of the Eastham turnip, Wells said, “There is lots of information out there and intrigue, some of it true and some of it legendary about this silly plant.” And perhaps the plant’s mystique is another reason the sweet-tasting turnip is treasured.
As buying locally has become more mainstream, Eastham’s interest in its turnip has increased. For five consecutive years locals have celebrated the vegetable with a harvest festival. Each year there have been more events added: turnip poems, turnip songs, turnip bowling, Mr.Turnip heads, turnip jokes, many original turnip dishes and contests like, “Are you smarter than an Eastham Turnip?” Hoping to the keep the venue fresh, the Eastham Turnip Festival Committee has decided to take a year off in 2009.
No one knows who grew the first turnip in Eastham, or the heirloom seed’s exact origin. Art Nickerson’s personality definitely added to the plant’s legend. But what many locals do know is Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without the Eastham turnip. In fact, for many, Thanksgiving on Cape Cod has become synonymous with the Eastham turnip, just as the “Turnip Man” Art Nickerson has become synonymous with the Eastham turnip.
Locally-grown Eastham Turnips can be found at avariety of restaurants and many local stores. Make sure to ask, just in case.
Eastham: The Eastham Superette, Sam’s Deli
Orleans: The Orleans Farmers Market, Friend’s Market, The Village Market, Phoenix Fruit, Judy Scanlon’s Lake Farm Stand
South Wellfleet: Rich’s Farm Stand, 124 Route 6
Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for seven years, with her husband and their two daughters. Before children she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a local Weston A. Price Chapter Leader. She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.