Family Farms in America



My First Garden
by Farmer John Peterson
From the book, Farmer John on Glitter & Grease

Farmer John in a field holding a large, just-picked cabbage and smiling, he wears glasses, a baseball cap, a blue work shirt and jeans

When I was little, my mom happily toiled amongst her vegetable and flower gardens on our farm; occasionally, I helped her—obediently, with little enthusiasm or interest. I remember my sister was usually assigned the task of shucking the peas. My mom would often be disappointed at the few peas that resulted from my sister’s efforts; being the loyal brother, I would never show my mom the site amongst the pine trees where my sister was throwing the unshucked peas when she got tired of shucking. But mom found the pile eventually.

I was in my late twenties when I had my first garden. It was three acres. (Let me clarify something about gardens: in the Midwest, 1,000 acres of vegetables will still be referred to as a garden. You could have a fleet of four-wheel drive Steigers disappearing over the horizon to get the vegetables planted, and the dairy and row crop farmers in the area would still say, “I see he’s planting his garden. He must like that gardening.”)

So, my first garden was three acres. I was raising 700 acres of corn, hay, wheat and soybeans at the time, along with some cattle and hogs. It was the late ‘70s, and financial peril was approaching. My mom had a popular vegetable stand, so I decided to raise some muskmelons to sell there to offset the mounting losses from the rest of my operation. One of the farms I was renting was mostly sand. I had heard that muskmelons do well on sand, so I put some muskmelon seeds in with the soybean seeds when I was finishing the last three acres of the 13-acre soybean field. I predicted that I would harvest 2,500 muskmelons and get one dollar per melon, and that this windfall would make a mockery of my soybean enterprise.

I got one muskmelon out of the whole project.

From the start, my garden was lacking finesse. Germination of the melons was sparse. The field was a foxtail mecca, so weeds were another setback. The soybeans didn’t seem to welcome the melons in their midst; the few melon plants that emerged seemed to creep timidly, apologetically, into the spaces between the soybean rows. And it was another dry year, on this unirrigated sand.

When I scouted the field for the last time in late summer, I saw the lone melon huddled amidst the beans and the foxtail, plump and tan against the dry black sand. Why one, I wondered? Why not none? Or a few? One melon in the whole field! I am not sure why I refused to harvest this melon. Perhaps I wanted the drama of a complete failure. Perhaps I just resented the whole melon venture altogether. Maybe I was confused about whether to sell the melon or to eat it.

I remember seeing the melon again when I was combining the beans. Even though, by this time, it was so beyond ripe as to be inedible, I thought about stopping the combine and getting out to inspect the melon, honor it a bit, wonder at it. But I was mesmerized by the high pitch of the combine’s gyrating cycle bar, by the whap of the reel gathering the soybean plants, the whine of the hydraulics, the drone of the threshing cylinder. I watched the melon tumble into the feed auger to begin its journey through the combine. I kept glancing behind me at the hopper filling with soybeans, wondering if I would see traces of this melon splat into the growing mound of soybeans, but the melon seemed to simply vaporize inside the combine. I never saw a sign of it in the hopper. I wondered if there might be yet another melon in that field, one that I had missed in my final inspection that summer. But, no, this was truly the only melon in the whole three-acre garden, I realized, as I finished the bean harvest and plummeted further into insolvency.

In a way, however, it wasn’t the only melon that resulted from my first garden. Now, 25 years later, as I reflect back on that melon field, it seems that the melons that never materialized then were in a prolonged period of dormancy, that they resided patiently in an invisible realm, awaiting the right time to spring forth under my renewed care. Now melons, and many other vegetables, flourish on my 90-acre community supported farm (garden?), Angelic Organics. I sometimes wonder if I would even have a farm today, if I had eaten or sold that lone muskmelon 25 years ago.

Read the Farmer John Q&A >>

Get a recipe for beets with mustard sauce or curried carrots >>

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