Garden to market: There's hard work behind those local veggies

By Charles McRaven

I’m finding out some of what it takes to get those big red tomatoes and peppers,  bright green melons, and yellow squash to the farmer’s market Saturday mornings.

I’m driving a tractor as slow as it’ll go while my son-in-law Daniel rides behind on a piece of machinery equipped with a wheel with spikes, punching holes in the black plastic that covers the rows.  He’s snatching tomato or broccoli plants from flats of little starter boxes with one hand, shoving them into the holes with the other.

A 300-gallon tank overhead streams water and liquid fertilizer down into the holes.  We’ll put 1,000 or so plants in the ground before noon, and he and his friends planted 15,000 onions last week.

With my proven black thumb, I’m abandoning my own weed patch this year, trading work for veggies from the seven acres Daniel and our daughter Ashley are farming. He’s a master gardener after having worked at Dave Matthews' farm (The Best of What's Around), at Monticello for two years, and spending three years running a CSA in Delaware.  Consumer Supported Agriculture is popular now, with members paying a set fee, receiving a variety of whatever’s ripe each week.
Daniel’s opted for machinery at this new location here near home, instead of multiple paid helpers. One contraption hills the tilled soil, lays down drip-irrigation pipe, the black plastic, and covers its edges with dirt in one pass.  The greenhouse-started plants go into those spiked holes, after about six weeks from seed.

When I can’t be there, Ashley times her stints on the planter or other machine for baby Lydia’s naps in the car, while four-year-old Reuben rides the creeping tractor with his dad.  Ashley designed commercial interiors before: they met when Daniel worked part-time at my other daughter's (Lauren McRaven) crêpe shop on Water Street.  Like most women I know, Ashley’s better at planting than Daniel or me.

He’s planned it all out: staggered planting times for a longer ripening season, what gets planted next to what for compatibility.  What needs the black creek-bottom soil and what, like sweet potatoes, can go up the slope where the topsoil’s thinner. 

And then there’s the need to keep pests away.  We drove metal fenceposts and strung solar-powered electric wires–– he put peanut butter on them to teach the deer to stay away.  Groundhogs are trapped and exiled, bugs sprayed with as organic a repellent as possible.

Then there’s the weather: they lost 400 tomato plants in a freak late freeze.  A hailstorm flattened young plants once. The black plastic holds ground moisture in and keeps the weeds out, but irrigation–– with thousands of gallons of water–– is necessary in the dry months.

Weeds: a cultivator defeats them 'til the corn gets too high and the spreading plants too wide.  But there’s still an invasion of them to be dealt with by hand before they can go to seed, and come back forever.

Then there’s harvesting: 800 pounds of tomatoes isn’t a big day, nor is a truckload of sugar peas picked off of stakes strung in endless rows. There's also a lot of hand washing, which happens next to a huge walk-in cooler keeping things fresh. This is when they’ll need as many hands as they can get.

And after all that, the produce must find buyers beyond the few first-year CSA members.  That’s when most of it will go to those Saturdays, and to the canopy-shaded farm wagon stand off the highway.

The planter’s wheels slip sideways off a ridge, leaving a drunk’s staggering row. Can’t let those spikes cut the water lines.  An ache starts between my shoulder blades: this tractor doesn’t have power steering.  These rows are 600 feet long.

We crawl.

Ah, but it’s toward bushels, mountains of daily-picked veggies to die for.


Charles McRaven is a master stonemason, published author, and general jack of all trades. He's also the only two-time Hook short story contest winner.

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