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Farm To Farm

With the exception of a few heat waves in mid July that never lasted more than a couple days in the mid nineties, the unusually cool summer continues in the Ohio valley. Sterile clouds sail overhead in the afternoons, followed by starry nights with low humidity and temperatures down in the fifties, weather more typical of summer on the Northwest Coast. No complaints from me or most of the other vendors at the Saturday Farmers' Market in Bloomington. In a typical July the night time lows might never have dropped below 75° the whole month, with a thick, muggy atmosphere that renders showers and baths impotent.

The breezy, Boonville-like days have allowed the luxury of sleeping in until nine or ten, not exactly what most people picture as the life of farmers. Jetta wears a sweatshirt with a hood dangling between her shoulder blades, pulling her knees under the front while smoking a cigarette on the sofa in the mornings, six days a week, though on Saturday we have to awaken before dawn in order to make the hour drive up the slalom of Hoosier uplands and pull in the market parking lot by 7:30, after which point enterprising farmers are allowed to claim our spot if we haven't called to say an emergency came up and we would be late. This past Saturday morning we were unable to make the phone call, and we had no idea what time it was because we had no standard clocks in the house except the unplugged old school one on the wall that is forever pointing to 4:20. We were unable to telephone the market master because Jetta or her toddler of less than two years had misplaced the cell phone, our only source of information as to what time it was.

Her parents were in charge of the toddler for Friday night and until we would return from market, Saturday. "I should have warned you Jetta would lose the phone," said her dad.

"I know you're mad at me; you just don't want to say anything," she said, paranoid.

I shrugged. Honestly, I was surprised I hadn't lost the cell phone yet, or left it in the rain. I wasn't even one hundred percent sure that it hadn't fallen out the front pocket of my overalls.

Nevertheless, we had no idea what time it was as cool, northern rain pounded the windshield and the red light came on, warning to check the fuel. "Man, I should have aired up the back tires yesterday," I said. With a heavy load, tires with low pressure really cut down fuel efficency. This was our first big load of the season, with over two hundred cantaloupes, maybe sixty watermelons, and a bunch of sweet corn and potatoes. We were headed down the steep grade leading to Lake Monroe, and after a few years of running low on fumes, I knew that the red light usually went on while pointed downhill, but went off going back up. "That light should go up once we climb the other side."

Nope, the light stayed on, so we had to stop for fuel at the one station between the lake and Bloomington. Glancing at the clock behind the counter, I realized we had about five minutes to complete the last fifteen miles of the haul, so I only purchased enough fuel to get to market, thinking with the rain there might be a few minutes of grace. The rain let up, though, and by the time we pulled into the Bloomington market sheepishly, sneaking past the glances of other vendors, sure enough a couple Amish boys in their suspenders and straw hats were setting up tables in our spot, and their father with his trim beard and mustach shaven was lugging boxes of peaches over. "Sorry," he said. "The rules are, if you're not here by 7:30--"

"I know, man. It's a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

It turned out that another spot was available under the pavilions on the other side of the market, one into which we were allowed to pull our truck.

"Rough night?" another vendor had to ask. Of course most of thos folks had set up their tables an hour prior.

"No, not really. We lost the cell. Didn't know what time it was." Really, the night hadn't been that rough. The previous weekend we'd gone out dancing in a nearby town and the band hadn't gotten warmed up til midnight. We stacked the cantaloupe and watermelons on one side of the table, the potatoes, the salad mix and sweetcorn on the other, and were soon making change. Hardly anyone else had lettuce, and nobody else had organic sweetcorn, watermelons, or cantaloupes. The watermelons we had, these "Little Baby Flower" hybrids from Johnny's, had thin rinds, and several had split revealilng choice red flesh that we hollowed out with our fingers, pouring vodka into the concaves and taking turns sipping. By eleven we had sold out of watermelons and I was offering cantaloupe for only one dollar apiece to customers "if you buy anything else from me," I said.

"You can't just give your stuff away," said Jetta, biting my shoulder. "You're worth more than that."

"Man, if I get down to fifty cantaloupes, I'll charge full price." I didn't want to advertise the cheap price on a sign--the Bloomington market is one of the most competitive in the United States, and vendors expect top dollar. A quart of potatoes, maybe a pound and a half, sells for four or five bucks. Cantaloupe go for three or four. "But I don't want to haul them back home."

Jetta made frequent trips to the cab to mix the watermelon juice with the vodka, and after a while it was only her drinking because I'm just not that big on vodka and was content to wait for beer at the Uplands Brew Pub after the market.

"What you need with that watermelon is some good vodka," said the vendor next to us, a self-described "retired" gentleman with white hair who we were getting to know on account of being late and reassigned the alternative space. Rather than produce, he was selling "Wiggling Winnie's Organic Fertilizer" in bags, mostly. He didn't appear to be doing much business until we started talking while Jetta was away on one of her frequent trips to the bathroom where she got sidetracked speaking with the many street string bands that play fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, and what not for the bustling crowds. Turned out that the fellow was not really attempting to sell his magic compost to consumers, rather that "about forty vendors at this market use my product--they buy it by the ton," he said, actually giving us a complimentary bag. "The first bag is free."

Using a special breed of nightrcrawlers and biodynamic techniques, he offers a compost innoculated with nitrogen fixing bacteria. "After a few years of using my product, you won't need to add nitrogen anymore."

Unfortunately I neglected to get his name, though no doubt "Wiggling Winnie's Organic Fertilizer" is available online. Upon learning that I'd done organic farming in northern California for more than a decade, he added that some growers in that region were already purchasing truckloads.

I told him how excited I was to try the stuff on my late sweet corn, where I could do a real trial run on few rows. Then came Jetta striding back through the crowds, almost sprinting, her turquoise sari parting at the side to reveal the tying strings of her pink bikini. "Sorry it took so long," she said, panting. "I bought one of their cd's--"

At the brewpub, once the market was over, we unloaded most of our remaining cantaloupes to some friends, then retired to the cab of the truck to enjoy the unusually cool breeze and take a nap before attempting the drive home. Slightly buzzed, Jetta started crying. "Something was wrong at the market. I could feel it."

"No--nothing really. You were more buzzed than I was, and maybe I was a little uptight trying to keep the table stocked, but I knew once we got here and I had a beer and burger I'd be okay. It was no big deal."

"You're mad about the cell phone."


"No. I think it's funny. I went without a cell phone the whole time we lived in Mendo." I really wasn't torn about the phone, or about her getting too buzzed at market. The same things could easilly have happened to me. Jetta and I have perhaps too much in common, personality wise. The previous week she'd confessed to having fouled out of nearly every high school basketball game playing for Verona--one of the smallest schools in Indiana. I hadn't played in high school, only through eigth grade, but had the same record. "I never felt like I'd played a full game unless I fouled out," I'd said.


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