Heroes of the Soil

My lunches have been simple but delicious all summer. I’ve pretty much lived off tomato sandwiches. I grow my own tomatoes in the back yard. Here in the city we don’t have that much land for planting a garden, so I satisfy my urge to farm in a simple manner: bush tomatoes in one half of an old whiskey barrel. I’m always thinking of other things I’d like to grow. The desire to grow things is one of those instincts hardwired into us. Somewhere along the human highway running from hunter to gatherer, we learned to stay in one place and grow those things that sustain us.

(The way things are going we all may resort to growing our own food soon, but that’s a story for another day.)

Growing up back home, I remember gardens aplenty. We had gardens and I remember mornings spent shelling field peas and butter beans, shucking corn, and chopping corn too. Shelling butterbeans would eventually give you a raw spot on your thumb. And shelling peas wasn’t a joy. I recall how my Dad made a pea sheller from the rolls of an old-fashioned washing machine. It worked though it smashed some peas and sent others flying all over the place.

I don’t recall, however, seeing roadside stands in Lincoln County. Maybe that’s because everyone back then had a garden. I remember for sure my Granddad Poland’s watermelons. I remember how his back porch would be stacked end to end with striped, dark green, elongated melons known, I believe, as a Congo watermelon.

That was then; this is now. Progress keeps changing things. As we become more and more urbanized, as more and more kids grow up far removed from farms, people are losing touch with what it takes to grow things. Fruit and vegetables magically appear. The many convenient ways we get food these days has created a disconnect in the minds of many as to what is actually behind a basket of tomatoes or peaches. And that, of course, is a ton of hard work, but my how the work delights the senses.

Is there anything lovelier than baskets of fresh peaches or tomatoes? How about ripe, shiny bell peppers? Or what about a basket of purple plums? I love going to grocery stores like Publix and looking at the beautiful produce, but there is a better way to enjoy the labors of farmers. This past Saturday day, my friend, the legendary Trix, and I went to a place that makes grocery store produce look like a bag of dried peas. We drove down to the Farmers Market, a collection of sheds that stands in the shadow of Williams Brice stadium.

Large fans shift the air about here, air that’s strangely sweet. The aroma of fresh vegetables and fruit commingles with the overripe air of discarded produce. It’s a fragrance strangely absent in supermarkets. In fact, supermarket produce has no smell at all.

You’ll find flowers, sod, and an assortment of Southern riches in the Farmers Market that make the summertime delicious to the eyes and taste buds.

I walked around with my camera and soon spied a beautiful stand of crooked neck squash, striped watermelons, purple plums, large pods of okra, and succulent cucumbers. And then, lo and behold, large orange sacks of Vidalia onions appeared. A short, weathered woman overlooking all these riches spied me. She walked over and said, “We’ve got Vidalias.”

She’s got to be a Georgian I figured, knowing that you can’t label onions as Vidalias unless they are the real deal. Sure enough, she’s from Brooklet, Georgia, a rural outpost just outside Statesboro.

There’s something about farmers. They seem the truest, most honest folks on the planet. Talking to her was easy as she loaded us up with a bag of Vidalias, cantaloupes, a nice watermelon, which she slapped several times. “Hear that,” she said. “That’s how it sounds when it’s ripe. Listen,” and she slapped it three more times. “Got seeds, now.”

Next we got a basket of crooked neck squash and as we talked she explained that she stays here all week selling produce grown beneath a Georgia sun. Her husband goes back to the farm and gets another truckload ready for her to sell. Pure teamwork.

I know that the current Farmers Market is destined to close by October. That old bugaboo, progress, aided by politics, is again rearing its often-ugly head. A new and better farmers market is being built over here just off I-26 and I-77 on Highway 321. This new market will feature a restaurant, an RV park, amphitheater, an agricultural inspection station, and will sprawl 2,500 feet of frontage along I-26. It’ll be bigger than seven Super Walmarts. Sort of sounds like a place to go on vacation. “C’mon kids, pile in the car, we’re going to the Disneyland for Collards and Daisies.”

When I asked this Georgia farmwoman from Brooklet what she thought about this new and improved market, worries flooded her face. She’s not sure it’s a good thing. “We got a lot of walk-through traffic here,” she said, “students and poor folks wanting fresh produce. They won’t be able to find us as easily.”

She doesn’t think the new, distant location will draw pedestrians like the quaint old market next to the stadium did. Farming is fraught with risks and anything deviating from a tried and true formula must be eyed with suspicion. The good folks of Columbia, South Carolina, are changing the ultimate destination for her and her husband’s hard work.

Of course, there’s a story behind the story here. Those of you who’ve come to see Georgia play the Gamecocks over here know that their stadium lacks anything even remotely akin to a campus atmosphere. You can circle the entire complex and you’ll spot three trees yielding shade. All three are large oaks and all three are in the Farmers Market. I can show you where some grass is, too, if you really want to know where it is.

For a long, long time the University of South Carolina and its fans have wanted to grab that property. It’ll soon be theirs. And the new Farmers Market? Well, it’ll be a ways down the road, toward Charleston. I’m sure I’ll check it out next summer, but I’m even more certain of something else. Growing my own tomatoes.

Fall and football are just around the corner, but I’m already dreaming of homegrown tomatoes sliced thick and piled on whole wheat bread slathered with mayonnaise, a dollop of sour cream (try it, you’ll like it), and a slab of sweet Vidalia onion. Add a little salt and pepper and it beats a grocery store’s wax tomatoes by a country mile. Sadly for me, it’s as close to farming as I get. There’s something about growing things that makes you a better human being, and this world needs all the good human beings it can stand, not to mention fresh vegetables.

Farming’s a tough way of life that keeps getting tougher. The next time you sit down to a squash casserole, a bowl of beautiful strawberries, or a cool refreshing salad filled with cucumbers and Vidalia onions, send up a special prayer for those true heroes of the soil, Southern farmers.

Georgia Riches Photo by T. Poland

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