After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:
A customer walked up to my counter one day. “Tell me,” she said, resting her elbow in a quart of strawberries…
I pointed out that she was going to get stains. She removed her elbow and continued her question. I pictured the next customer arriving and saying to her companion, “Oh, these berries on the top are all flat. If they’re flat on top, imagine what they’re like on the bottom.” So when the lady with the elbow left, I examined the berries and picked out the flat ones.
We grew the berries on the farm, in the field right next to the produce stand where I worked. Because in Florida you can’t leave the berry plants in the ground year round, each spring we’d plow them under and in the fall replant. Each October Brad bought 33,000 strawberry plants and it took 12 Mexican guys a day and a half to plant them.
All the produce on the farm was grown in raised beds. So, before the strawberry plants were put into the ground, the Mexican foreman had to come along with the tractor trailing a big fork/tong-like attachment that looked like two long, cupped, many-fingered opposing hands which scooped the earth into mounds. Then he and a co-worker or two would put a roll of plastic on a spindle on the back of the tractor and lay the plastic over the mound. Afterwards, one of the co-workers would roll this huge iron spoked wheel, three or four feet in diameter, having spikes protruding regularly at right angles from its circumference over the plastic, punching holes in it. It looked like a Catherine wheel,
As soon as the holes were punched, the plants were set into the ground. After that, my two Mexican co-workers assembled and laid the sprinkler pipes. The foreman then hooked up the tractor to the well pump, started the engine to power the pump to bring the water from the well and sprinkle the strawberry plants from early morning till sunset for two to three weeks until the roots had grown and taken hold. By mid-December, we’d have strawberries. The berry production cycled in and out throughout the winter season, until April. My two, sometimes three, Mexican co-workers picked the berries for the farm stand or the customers themselves picked them from the field.
Although the farm was much larger, my boss farmed only 13 acres. He is a citrus expert, as I’ve said, and he owns and maintains a grove. He squeezed more work out of fewer workers than anyone for whom I’ve ever been employed. I suppose it’s like marching gladly to the gallows, for the workers produced willingly because he was funny and kind and rewarded us in other ways. We had one cashier, me, and in the busy season, two, to handle hundreds of customers a day. We worked nine to ten hours a day, and when working alone, without even a lunch break. We could eat lunch, but had to eat it in between or while waiting on customers. Two guys, and in the busy season, three, prepared the field, planted and cared for the crops, harvested the fruits and vegetables, washed them and stocked and displayed them in the stand.
In the evenings, just after I closed the stand, I’d see the foreman at the end of his twelve hour day out on the tractor spraying the strawberries and tomatoes and bell peppers and he’d look so tired, gray; I was afraid he’d fall off the tractor. I told Brad. He never fell off the tractor, though, and he sprayed the field from dusk into darkness without using the tractor lights.
For months we lived the farm. We had time for little else. Often we were exhausted. But we were outdoors: we had fresh air, lots of exercise, and fresh fruits and vegetables to pick from the field, free, including baskets and baskets of fresh, round, firm, succulent strawberries. As my real name is Carol, sometimes my two Mexican co-workers called me Carolina. I made up the Gringo part, being not so far from the truth. I also made up recipes from the fresh produce I picked from the field. Since I had neither time nor energy to spend at the stove when I got home from the farm, I kept my recipes simple and quick. I have included some for you at the end of my little book.
as told to Samantha Mozart