Diary of a Mad Watermelons Farmer’s Wife
The phone rings. It’s 5:45. That’s a.m. As in, earlier than 6 o’clock in the morning. In most households – in normal people’s households – this might be cause for alarm. But here on our fresh-produce farm north of Franklinton, a pre-dawn phone call rarely indicates an emergency. Not unless you consider an urgent desire for 200 ears of sweet corn an emergency. n From the wee hours until well after dark, fresh-fruit-and-vegetable seekers ring us up. They knock. They honk, weighing their craving for a famous Washington Parish
watermelon against their reservations about the Dalmatian spazzing out in the driveway. They tap-tap on the door while we’re dressing in the morning. They lay on the horn as we’re sitting down to the first home-cooked supper I’ve managed in days. (One of the paradoxes of growing and selling fresh produce is that most nights we’re too pooped to prepare anything more taxing than frozen pizza.)
During our first year selling watermelons, I surrendered all hope of nursing a 3-month-old in the midst of this madness. Take it from me. Lounging around the house with an infant who has a deathlock on your exposed breast while tearing back and forth to the yard to wait on the public are two activities that simply do not mesh.
Don’t get me wrong: We’re thankful for this chaos. But if you’re curious what it’s like to be one of America’s most endangered species – the family farmer – it’s wise to dispel any notions that “life on a farm is kinda laid back.” In fact, every time I hear “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” I’d like to whack John Denver’s record with a cornstalk.
A love-hate relationship
I can speak for outsiders’ misconceptions about farm life because not so long ago, I was one. In fact, I was a city girl when I moved to Franklinton from Atlanta in 1992 to marry Harvey Bienvenu, a third-generation dairy farmer. Three years later, we bought the 225-acre family farm from his retiring parents with dreams of staking our future on the Washington Parish dairy industry.
“Dream,” as it turned out, was the operative word. In the following years, wholesale milk prices plunged to historical lows, partially because of gigantic corporate farms out West flooding the market with milk. Where a big Louisiana dairy farm might milk 300 cows, corporate dairies in New Mexico milk 10,000. For small and medium-size farms such as ours, milking 120 cows, more or less, the going got pretty rough.
Somehow we hung in there, long after lots of Louisiana dairies didn’t. At the 11th hour, we were rescued, at least temporarily, by a nationwide program in which, essentially, farmers paid other farmers to quit producing milk. Ours was the only Louisiana bid the program accepted, and we took the money and ran. Contrary to those stories you hear about farmers getting paid princely sums not to farm, the amount we netted after bills was just princely enough to tide us over until we could figure out something else.
Now, as long as I’ve known him, Harvey has had a love-hate relationship with farming. On the one hand, he’s never so happy as when gazing over a golden panorama of freshly baled hay or engrossed in some farm project. On the other, I can’t count the times I’ve seen him dog-tired, discouraged and swearing that “we have got to get out of farming.” In his defense, farming of any type is not for the faint of heart, but dairy farming in particular is one of the toughest, dirtiest and most thankless jobs in agriculture.
The upside of farming, on the other hand, is the obvious: being master and commander of your own schedule and your own Ponderosa, lots of fresh air and big sky, raising your children in a rich learning environment, seeing the tangible (and sometimes literal) fruits of your labor. But the financial return puts the poor into Standard & Poor’s. And fresh air won’t buy baby new shoes.
So, in fall 2003, when we abruptly found ourselves cow-less and, yes, expecting a second baby (at the ages of 41 and 44), Harvey, who has an agribusiness degree from LSU, fixed his sights on getting a job. A Real Job, by God, with health insurance and 40 hours and all that normal-people stuff.
Meanwhile, just in case, strictly as a little insurance policy, mind you, he planted 10,000 watermelon seeds in his brother’s greenhouse across the road. In the very, very unlikely event that worst came to worst, he reasoned, we could fall back on Washington Parish watermelons, which, like Ponchatoula strawberries, are renowned far and wide for their spectacular flavor and juiciness. Not that he was ever getting back into farming, you understand.
The rest, well, you can figure out for yourself. As winter became spring, my farmer spent more and more time on the watermelons and less and less on the classifieds. The next thing I knew, we were watermelon farming. Big time.
To steal one of my husband’s sayings, growing, harvesting, marketing and delivering 25 acres of watermelons is not just like talking about it.
With lots of help from our tireless LSU extension agent, Henry Harrison, and lots of advice from experienced Washington Parish growers Gary and Todd Bond, Ricky Ingram, and Pete Fricke, we embarked on our watermelon education.
In March, after the risk of frost (or before, depending on your nerve for gambling), watermelon vines are transplanted from the greenhouse to the field. In our case, the job is done by hand. An undertaking of these proportions requires every warm body available. This year, our 4-year-old, Andy, cautiously drove the four-wheeler that pulls the trailer loaded with seedlings up and down the long rows. (Raising two sons on a farm may sound like an ideal source of cheap labor, but, in the long run, it’s definitely not cost-effective to grow your own.)
Once the seedlings are in the ground, there’s a whole list of surprises Mother Nature can spring on you: insects, worms, diseases, fungi, microorganisms, weeds, drought, excessive rain and marauding wildlife.
In 2004, we were hammered with about 40 straight days of rain, something like the fourth-wettest June on record. The upshot? We did a bang-up watermelon business for nine days before the plants simply drowned, leaving thousands of unripened melons to rot on the dead vines. This spring, a drought stunted the yield, creating a regionwide watermelon shortage. For us, that meant filling only a fraction of our wholesale orders from truck peddlers and grocery stores – our annual bread and butter.
When your family’s livelihood is at the mercy of the climate, you can routinely expect to find your husband wide-eyed and watching The Weather Channel at 3 o’clock in the morning. That is, when he isn’t patrolling hourly for wild hogs and deer, which are just as fond of watermelons as everyone else.
Finally, harvesting begins in mid- to late June, the earlier the better, since, logically, demand and prices are highest before the Fourth of July. Harvesting or “pulling” watermelons is every bit as physical as you’d imagine. Averaging 30 pounds but often weighing up to 50 or 60, watermelons are easily snapped off the vine but must be manually hauled to a wagon 40 or 50 feet away. Rather than staggering back and forth across rough, plowed ground in the broiling Louisiana heat while lugging the equivalent of a small child, pullers form a bucket brigade. Standing in place, they toss the melon from person to person until it reaches the wagon.
Playing catch with watermelons, by the way, is also not just like talking about it. This year, we lucked out and hired a fine group of high-school football players who were young and strong enough to handle the job and gullible enough to accept it.
A cast of thousands?
There are many things to be said for life on the farm, but “kinda laid back” you can forget.
A summer day could find us doing any or all of these things: harvesting watermelons; loading melons onto peddlers’ trucks or our own; hand-picking hundreds of ears of sweet corn; tending and picking squash, tomatoes, okra, new potatoes and cantaloupes; running the fruit stand in front of our house (which is really just a dollar-store canopy); baling, storing and delivering hay; working toward future crops such as peanuts, hay, peas, butter beans, turnip greens and pumpkins; taking telephone orders; making sales calls; feeding and caring for 24 hogs; repairing tractors and equipment; maintaining the grounds and buildings. That’s excluding the bookkeeping, housework, supervising little kids, my freelance-writing career or life in general.
Perhaps you’re picturing a cast of thousands, or at least dozens. But apart from hiring a little seasonal help for hand-harvesting and delivery, I’m talking about just my husband, our one and only real employee, Daniel Lambert, and, in some instances, me.
Talk is not cheap
When I was in my 20s and working on the 18th floor of a building in midtown Atlanta, I dated a winemaker who ran a small vineyard and winery in north Georgia. Occasionally he would wax philosophical about his retirement fantasy of peddling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road, passing his days chewing the fat with the customers. Considering myself (erroneously) something of a big-city sophisticate, I regarded this ambition of his as mildly annoying, if not downright horrifying.
Suffice it to say, that memory was quite humbling this past summer when I found myself selling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road, chewing the fat with the customers.
And, boy, did we chew. There is something about home-grown produce that brings out the chatty in people. I heard about the farms and vegetable gardens of their childhoods. I heard about their canning and freezing techniques. I heard so many recipes I considered compiling a cookbook. And naturally I heard about all the supposedly fail-safe methods for choosing a good watermelon. There was the time-honored thump method, the stem-inspection method and the method of looking for the telltale yellow underside where the melon lay ripening in the sun. Finally, there was the folk method of balancing a broom straw atop the melon to see if it comes to rest crosswise or lengthwise. I never can remember which direction means what, but some people swear it works. For the record, we guarantee just one method: cutting it open and tasting it.
With each sale, I was drawn into the lives of casual acquaintances and total strangers. They told me about their families, their jobs, their illnesses, their joys and struggles. I sold cucumbers to a New Orleans interior designer who’s been featured on Home and Garden Television. (When she drove up in her Jaguar and dark shades I could have sworn she was Sally Struthers.) I sold watermelons to Chuck Norris’ cousin, who allowed as how the actor is so short he has to stand on a box to kiss the starlets. I sold sweet corn to a widow who told me her daughter hasn’t come home in years, and to a Mississippi professor who’s presented papers at Oxford University (or maybe she just meant Oxford, Miss.).
One steamy morning, an attractive, dark-haired woman stopped by wearing a campaign-style button that bore a soldier’s picture. When I asked, she explained that the picture was of her nephew who was seriously wounded in Iraq, but who, thankfully, was going to recover. And this, she added with a sad smile, reaching to clasp a dark ribbon I hadn’t noticed beside the button, was to honor her son. He was a U.S. Marine, the first person from Washington Parish killed in Iraq. Whether because of the heat, exhaustion and stress (minutes earlier the county agent had confirmed our worst fears about the watermelons) or because her story would drive a dagger into any parent’s heart, it was she, ironically, who ended up consoling me before driving off with her squash. She later became a regular customer and would hop out of her car exclaiming cheerfully: “No crying today!” Meeting her gave me a whole new perspective on crop failures and other ridiculous reasons to feel sorry for myself.
If you grow it, they will come.
At the end of each day, my dearest wish was to retreat into the cool house and not talk to anyone for several hours. Who knew hustling cantaloupes could be so emotionally draining?
Summer is over.
Once again, the season didn’t go quite as well as we’d hoped. Once again, we’re burned out and anxious about our future.
So far, however, we’re avoiding our semiannual conversation about the futility of farming, the imperative of finding another livelihood, the fact that we aren’t getting any younger, blah blah blah. Maybe we’re sick and tired of discussing it. Maybe we’re secretly, perhaps foolishly, hanging our hopes on the fall crops. Or maybe deep down we know that despite everything, we’ll probably be right here come next summer: taking corn orders at 5:45 in the morning and selling sweet watermelons to the world as it passes by.
Hey, it’s not such a bad life, you know.