Homegrown t’maters do matter to me

The peach season is winding down and oh those Mountain State peaches. The much-touted Georgia peach is just a fuzzy red grape by comparison. I would even go so far as to put West Virginia peaches in a category with those from the aptly named Garden State.

So large and juicy are the West Virginia peaches that it took several near drowning incidents before I learned to take smaller bites.

I guess that the tomato season will soon be over as well. We don’t grow many tomatoes, just enough to enjoy the vine-ripe experience. Like the 1983 Guy Clarke song, “Home Grown Tomatoes” (though I seem to recall him pronouncing it “t’maters”) advises — “up in the mornin’ and out to the garden — get you a ripe one — don’t get a hard one,” except that the saltshaker usually goes along for on-site enjoyment. Another saltshaker sits (not recommended tongue twister material) in my work truck throughout the season — the total tomato adventure.

Though we don’t grow many of our own, our house is always full of tomatoes this time of year. This is largely due to the generosity of friends and neighbors who have grown a surplus.

The children have grown up and moved out, but we’ve managed to remain on the local surplus tomato list. (We finally got the flow of kids’ and maternity clothes stopped and are no longer on the DNR’s fresh road-kill deer list.) Also, the Old Hippie is an expert tomato hustler, ferreting out cheap PYO tomato deals throughout the extended community.

The effect is that every flat surface in the kitchen and back hallway supports tomatoes in some form or another. Some are in boxes, others in baskets and some lying loose. It’s easy to see that several different varieties are represented. A few boxes of newly filled canning jars await being stored until winter.

While stumbling out to my word processor this morning, the heady fragrance of tomatoes and peaches at 4 a.m. reminded me of when I personally handled tomatoes in quantity. At about 4 p.m. — that’s when I would leave on my produce trucking and peddling runs back in the early 1980s. Featured on my truck would be about 80 bushels of peaches, usually obtained as “seconds” from Timber Ridge Fruit Farm, then run by my old friend, Tommy Watt. Tommy’s gone now and his son, Cordell, is in the news a lot lately having been named national Fruit Grower of the Year.

The route would first take me to the farmer’s livestock exchange at Terra Alta. There, for a fee, farmers and produce truckers like me could set up and sell for the day. Competition there was pretty intense but I often sold out. If I didn’t sell out that day, I would camp out for the night and set up at the little farmer’s market at Tathum’s Garden Center in Kingwood the following day. There, the competition wasn’t as formidable and I would usually finish up. On the occasions that I didn’t, it was on to the flea market at Westover with a quick stop at the Masontown VFW to “auction” whatever part of the load was starting to spoil. These folks all lived nearby so were in a position to start up home canning operations on short notice before the over ripe fruit got any worse.

Some of my competitors were starting to handle tomatoes — the boxed, produce market variety. Folks at the sales would often ask these vendors if these tomatoes were “homegrown.” The reply was often something like, “Well, they were grown at somebody’s home.” (These hard, square little tomatoes may well have been quarried in Honduras.) Anyway, I sensed a healthy market for real homegrown tomatoes and went about the local community looking for a volume grower.

These hills are full of potential McArthur Genius Grant nominees. I’m talking about exceptionally intelligent people who have chosen to remain close to agriculture and rural community. Though they may on rare occasion lament not taking advantage of opportunities elsewhere, it’s obvious that they would always prefer the field or orchard to the boardroom. I think we call them farmers. The late Russel “Cubby” Davis was one of these.

Cubby and I worked together in a few different agricultural situations. To put 2 cutups like him and me in the same field for days at a time was almost dangerous. Our humor naturally clicked, and we often kept our crew in stitches — even though the more colorful individuals among our co-workers provided the bulk of our material.

I chanced to run into Cubby at the local auto parts store and put the question regarding commercial tomato growers to him. He became very thoughtful for a moment as if he were working on a math problem — actually, I think he was. “Well… .” Cubby and his wife lived in one of those old-timey frame houses along a creek on Hickory Corner Road near the ridge top community of Hoy in Hampshire County. Cubby always grew a large garden, and this one was doing exceptionally well. In addition to the fertile creek bottom soil, the patch had also been the site of a sawmill many years ago. The sawdust and wood waste added to the tilth and fertility of a soil that could already sprout a golf ball.

Though they had already canned what they would be needing for the winter, the garden just kept on producing. I went to Cubby’s and after agreeing on a price, loaded up a few bushel field crates with ripe tomatoes and some sweet corn that may have otherwise gone to waste. These real homegrown tomatoes were a sensation on the produce route, and I kept coming back to Cubby’s, exchanging my empty field crates for full ones and handing over the cash. That silly tomato grower’s song was popular on the radio then, and we often made reference to it during our transactions; “I’m here for some o’ them homegrown t’maters.”

I was doing rather well and, having considerable insight into an orchard worker’s wages in those days, Cubby probably also saw this arrangement as being preferable to watching this surplus wither on the vine, then bush-hogging it. Peach season lapsed into apple season. The garden kept producing in nearly Biblical proportions until Cubby called to tell me that frost had finally put us out of business. It had been a good run while it lasted. There’s nothing in the world like homegrown t’maters.

 

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