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Heroes Of The Soil

By Tom Poland
web posted May 15, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH – Many of my lunches this summer will be simple but delicious. Tomato sandwiches. I grow my own in the back yard. The instinct to grow things is hardwired into us. Somewhere along the highway running from hunter to gatherer, we learned to stay in one place and grow things that sustain us. Of course, it’s easier than ever to let others grow what we need.

Don’t see that many gardens in the city. Growing up rural, I remember gardens aplenty. We spent mornings shelling field peas and butter beans, shucking corn, and chopping corn too. Shelling butterbeans would eventually give you a raw spot on your thumb. I remember how my Granddad’s 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. As we become more urbanized, as more kids grow up far removed from farms, people lose touch with what it takes to grow things. Fruit and vegetables magically appear. The many convenient ways we get food creates 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, and 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 Publix and looking at the beautiful produce, but there is a better way to enjoy the labors of farmers, a place that makes grocery store produce look like dried peas: any decent farmers market.

Large fans shift air about that’s strangely sweet. The fragrance of fresh vegetables and fruit commingles with the overripe air of discarded produce, a fragrance absent in supermarkets.

You’ll find flowers, sod, and an assortment of Southern riches in a farmers market that make summertime delicious to the eyes and taste buds.
One Saturday late in July I went to a local farmers market and spied a beautiful stand of crooked neck squash, striped watermelons, purple plums, 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, “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 was from Brooklet, Georgia.
Farmers seem the truest, most honest folks on the planet. Talking to her was easy as she loaded me 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 I got a basket of crooked neck squash and as we talked she explained that she stays here all week selling produce that was grown beneath a Georgia sun. Her husband goes back to the farm and gets another truckload ready for her to sell. Teamwork that’s much needed in this era for small, family farms are getting to be an endangered species. Farming’s a tough way of life that keeps getting tougher.

I’ll just stick to tomatoes and a pot of mint for my iced tea. Yesterday, I planted an heirloom beefsteak tomato and 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.

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. Pray for adequate rains, too.

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