When my teenage son and I bounced from Boonville in the middle of January we were merely embarking on a visiting mission — a vacation, so far as we knew. For that reason we packed only our dogs and the sleeping bags that they proceeded to shit on in the camper shell, and we left all of our remaining cows, farm implements, and miscellaneous tools in the hands of whoever seemed capable and willing to keep track of them. “Don't want to truck ice to the eskimo,” a friend had said, and I agreed. Farm implements and cows are not in short order here in the Midwest.
The real reason I didn't have the heart to haul tools out of Boonville was I didn't want to leave all the friends there, but now it looks as if we're going to stay in these Hoosier hills. I've somewhat signed on to work with Grizzly and Bambi Brown, produce growers who recently returned, tanned and sun-bleached, from Florida where the husband and wife of two decades managed harvesting operations over the winter, working in pepper and tomato fields near Miami.
We carried out the job interview in one of their many greenhouses where the temperature was probably comparable to South Florida. The Browns were repotting various species of flower starts. They talked about the irrigation techniques in the white sands, said pepper growers down there benifitted from an unusual killing frost that wiped out most of Mexico's crop in January, driving the price of bells from around eight dollars a bushel to nearly forty.
“Spec's been growing organic out in California,” said my uncle, Huck MacQuayde. This was his birthday and his sister had already taken him out to lunch where he'd put away several pitchers of beer along with most of a Mexican buffet. They call him, “Huck” around here. That was his nickname long before I was born, so I don't know where he got it. He's one of those people that no handle can do justice to. He was doing a huge service by personally driving me over to the produce growers for an iterview, as his presence was worth more than any reference on earth. “Lettuce, carrots — I told him you all might not be opposed to new ideas.”
“Organic,” said Grizzly. “Ha.”
“Them big growers we know who sign up as organic use more chemicals than we do,” said Bambi.
“I can tell by the smell what they're spraying — they just pay the USDA inspectors and get on with business — nobody checks up on it. They're just paying for the goddam label.”
“You ever heard of how they use horse blood?”
“For what, a pesticide?” No, I'd never heard of using horse blood. “A fungicide? A foliar feed?”
“I don't know.”
“No, I never heard of it. I didn't ever fool around with organic pesticides too much. Instead I just grew crops the bugs didn't eat — like hay. I guess lettuce and carrots did okay. We didn't have too many bugs out there on account of the cold nights.” I told Grizzly and Bambi about the killing freezes Anderson Valley had registered in June and September over the decade I'd farmed there, which amazed them.
“That's a shorter window than we have!”
By a long shot, I said. I hadn't been growing watermelons commerically for most of a decade, on account of the cold nights. Not commerically in the same sense that Grizzly and Bambi were doing, as they'd sold over a hundred thousand seedless melons to Wal-Mart the previous summer thanks to the drought that had wiped out Georgia's late crop. That same drought had extended the growing season in Indiana, with October one of the hottest on record, so dry that combines harvesting soybeans and corn had spontaneously combusted in the fields all over the region, including Uncle Huck's. He'd been cutting soybeans one afternoon when he'd started whiffing smoke from the cab, thinking, Hmmm, and climbed out to investigate, finding the rear end of the machine already in flames. Quickly, he'd unloaded the contents of the hopper into a grain wagon, then parked the blazing triumph of modern technology in the harvested part of the field and made haste to exit like Americans evacuating Cairo or Libya in recent weeks. Soon the flames exploded from hydraulic lines, and then the diesel tank sent fire into the sky while Huck jumped on the tractor and frantically pulled a disk implement in circles around the scene, creating a firebreak. He'd had the tractor and disk on hand because combines were igniting left and right, and the risk of fire was on the front of every farmer's mind.
“Spec got tired of trying to grow organic,” said Huck. “He got tired of growing rabbit food for #$%%s and #&^^%%$*#s.”
That wasn't actually the case, but I didn't argue. “Mostly I just wanted to work with somebody else for a change — I'm tired of being in charge. I was losing too much hair over it.”
We shook hands on the deal.