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by Jeff Wilkin

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It Takes a Farmer

Nothing like farm-fresh tomatoes.

There was a time when I had 12 plants growing in my backyard, and new reds were showing up just about every day. They went into salads and chili con carnes, topped hamburgers and chicken salad sandwiches. Bunches more went home with friends.

But the trees above my garden branched out. A sunny yard became a shady yard, and now I harvest only a small number of fruits from containers I’ve placed in a far, maximum solar corner of my property.

My personal tomato shortage was the reason I decided to participate in a community garden plot in Albany this summer. Two friends and colleagues — Karen and Sara — allowed me space for 6 beefsteak tomato plants. The sprouts went into the ground around Memorial Day, and we all took turns watering and weeding.

The experiment hath ended. And there were results both heavenly and hellacious.

Good news first. I know the sun is a powerful motivator for tomatoes, but I could not believe how big my beefsteaks grew. The plants were probably four feet high, and by mid-July, baseball-sized fruits were red and ready. Everything kept growing, and the weight of all this bounty collapsed the puny wire tomato cages I had pushed into the ground.

By August, some of my tomato branches were laying low to the ground — convenient for the rabbits, squirrels or chipmunks that began to nibble at the ripe ones. I began to pick some of the ground fruits, still green, and took them home to ripen. I’ve probably got about 20 or so on my kitchen counter, in various shades of crimson, and I expect they will end up in a roast beef, sausage, chick pea, pepper and onion stew that will go into production tonight or tomorrow.

I tried to water as much as I could. Weeding — I wasn’t sure what Karen and Sara had planted, and I would have hated to have had a conversation that went something like this:

Jeff: “Well, I got rid of six tall, odd-looking weeds that were growing next to the tomatoes last night.”

Karen: “That’s funny. This morning, I couldn’t find the six wax bean plants I put next to the tomatoes.”

I did pick off some weeds that I knew were guilty of trespassing. I had seen some of their relatives in my marigold gardens. And in hopes of raising some downed tomato plants, I installed a long, black pole in the center of tomato central. I was going to anchor some long pieces of cloth to the tomato branches, and tie the cloth extensions to the pole, but the idea failed. A damn green vine eventually had a better idea, and quickly spiraled its way up the pole. The vine has become a tower of flower — home to purple morning glories now blooming beautifully in an elegant, spiral pattern. But I understand they do not do much for my beefsteaks.

During my “Green Acres” days of sweating, watering and getting dirt and mud on my shorts, I began thinking about real farmers, with real crops, and the same problems I was having — weeds, heat, bugs critters. A real farmer, working all day, must hit the sack exhausted. And he or she has no guarantee that what is planted will later pay off. Weather can be a pain, and this year’s drought had to be a killer for a lot of small businesses.

I’ve heard for years that farmers struggle at the market. Everyone wants a bargain, and tomatoes at 99 cents a pound at the supermarket are great for the customer ... but what’s the farmer’s cut? I read about farmers closing their farms, of other agriculturists who just break even. The whole set-up sounds unfair.

And then I think about people who make $80,000 or $100,000 in jobs where they sit at desks all day and work in real estate, law or public relations ... and I wonder why we have anyone in this country who want to farm at all! And these are the people who grow our food! Believe me, I can live without real estate or public relations consultants; I can’t live without consultants who bring me chocolate milk and fresh fruits.

If I harvested zero tomatoes this year, I’d have no problem going to a farm market or stand — places where farmers get most of the dough — and paying $4 per pound for prime beefsteaks. I never worry about spending $14.99 for a 12-pack of Sam Adams beer. Four bucks for two red beauties is a bargain by comparison.

Whenever produce is selling for ridiculously cheap prices, like 99 cents for a pint of blueberries, I always feel that somewhere, a farmer has been rooked.

I have a friend who runs a farm in Pennsylvania. She’s heard complaints from people who think prices for some farm-fresh products are too high.

“Some days I just want to say, “Try growing this stuff yourself,” she said. “Try your hand at starting hundreds of tomato seeds one at a time by tucking them in their dirt cells with tweezers, keeping them warm under lights, watering, then transplanting them outside, digging holes, fertilizing with stinky fish emulsion, mulching, weeding, more watering, more weeding... and if you’re lucky, the bugs, critters, or blight won’t get them in the end. All for $2 a pound?”

A few years ago, my farming friend said, apples were scarce — kind of like they will be this year, after the long, hot summer. She told me, “A woman said, ‘Gee, $3 a quart is kind of high for apples, isn’t it?’ I just calmly said, ‘I think the farmer who grew them and lost half his crop, along with the folks who harvested them, would disagree,’ and left it at that. It’s ridiculously hard work, and I have the calluses and back ache to prove it.”

I don’t know what the answer is. But in these days where more and more people seem concerned about the safety of their foods — and are looking for local farms where organics are in and chemical pesticides are out — it might be a good idea to keep farmers happy. Maybe the federal government should kick in $50,000 annually for every farm in operation, just to ensure that some money comes in if weather or crop disease hands the farmer a disaster.

Anything to keep these people on the job. I had enough problems with just six tomato plants this year. I’d hate to have been fooling around with six hundred!

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September 19, 2012
2:55 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Nice entry, Jeff. Years ago, I joined the Roxbury Organic Farm CSA (community-supported agriculture) in Kinderhook. You basically buy a share of the operation up-front ($540 per year), and leave the hard work to the professional farmer who runs the place. Starting in about mid-June, you get a bundle of fresh produce delivered to your neighborhood every week. It's enough to break your arm, it's so heavy. (I share my share with a certain unnamed Gazette colleague, Art.) Real good quality stuff, good variety, even recipes for the unusual items, every week through Halloween. Then it's every 2 weeks with root veggies till mid-December. Last year was the only down year in the 10 since I've joined - Irene's floods rendered a lot of crops inedible. I still grow a few of my own herbs and tomatoes for kicks, but this takes care of Claudia's and my vegetable needs. You should check it out; they have a drop-off in Albany, too.

September 23, 2012
7:24 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

I agree with your post and the comment. It is very hard work! Having tried to keep a garden going for two years in a row, with not much to show for it except a few beets, green beans and tomatoes, I have great respect for the people who grow our food.
A local organic farm where you buy in, as mentioned above, is a great idea.

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