Sunday, May 13, 2012
My first paying job
The rows of green plants stretched their long arms down the garden. Each row was about 50 feet long and there must have been at least 20 rows in the acre and a half that made up my family's farm garden. Peas and beans, broccoli and cauliflower, kale and cabbage, corn and strawberries – most grown from seed, or in the case of the strawberries, from small plants, all of it feeding a family of nine through the four seasons.
In the fall, after the first frost, my father dug up the garden with his old rototiller. He hauled the rusty machine from one of the sheds hugging the barn, frog-marched it to the garden, and then spent the day walking up and down the length of the garden, ploughing under the past season's producers, now limp and black from the frost. The asparagus patch was left to its natural demise, while the strawberry plants were covered with a protective layer of straw. Snow soon blanketed the dark earth. During the long winter months, my father studied the seed catalogues, consulted with my mother, and then, in February, ordered the new seeds.
Spring tiptoed to our farm, fresh and green. When the wet snow finally disappeared and the soil had dried, my father and the rototiller re-appeared in the garden. The new furrows curled back, dark and crumbly. Earthworms squirmed through the clods of overturned earth, finding their way back into their tunnels. Seagulls from some distant unknown lake flew in to feast on the worms.
One warm spring Saturday, Dad organized the annual planting day with the the 'big kids' – the four oldest children. After a breakfast of porridge, we put on our work clothes – navy twill pants, plaid cotton shirts, black rubber boots trimmed in orange, and red baseball caps. We trooped to the garden and took our stations alongside the rows, which Dad had earlier marked out with pegs and string. Each of us was responsible for planting a different row, thereby reducing the likelihood of squabbling.
Our first job was to trench the rows. Dad handed out hoes. We drew shallow wavering lines in the earth, trying our best to follow the path of the string marking the row. I opened my package of pea seeds. Holding a handful of seeds in my palm, I closed my fist and then carefully rolled a seed at a time past my index finger and thumb into the waiting trench. “Not too close, not too far apart,” cautioned Dad, before turning to my brother Peter who held the package of carrot seeds.
We bent to our work, dropping the seeds into their rows, hoeing them over with a thin layer of earth, and patting the soil firm with our palms. Each planted row earned us five cents. This may seem like pittance today, but back then, in the late '50s, five cents bought a lot of candy.
Tending the garden was the source of our first income. The standard increment was five cents: five cents for hoeing a row, the same for weeding strawberries. When the plump red berries appeared, ten cents for each 4-quart basket. The exceptions were the cucumbers, potatoes and corn later in the season – these commanded 25 cents per bushel basket.
In the warming days of May and June, we spent hours in the garden, rucking the soil with our hoes and slapping at the mosquitoes. Dad kept the earth between the rows weed-free with weekly forays of the rototiller. Occasionally, he would let one of my brothers drive the machine, but always with an attentive eye. Unless you grasped the handles firmly, the machine would gallop away on its own and lurch drunkenly from the path, shredding the young plants.
The first vegetables to be harvested were asparagus and lettuce, followed by tender green peas. Ten cents for a four-quart basket of peas. Our dilemma: yield to the temptation of gobbling the sweet and crunchy peas, or, earn more money – and more quickly – by resolutely placing each pod in the basket. Of course, we couldn't resist snacking, and the path was soon littered with empty pea pods while neon green pea scrapings lined our fingernails.
In late July, we headed over to our neighbour's farm to earn more cash raspberry picking. Mrs. Barsevski's front field boasted row after row of raspberry bushes. When the fruit ripened, it had to be picked quickly while at its peak. Mrs. Barsevski, her Slavic head wrapped in a blue gingham kerchief led us to various rows, each with a tower of empty veneer pint baskets at the end. “Eat as much as you want,” she said to us in her thickly-accented English. I picked until my pint basket was level full with berries and brought it to her. “No, no!” she laughed, taking the basket out of my hands. “More, more! The peoples, they want full basket!” She proceeded to add berries, until the basket looked like a small mountain of red. We loved picking for Mrs. Barsevski. Not only could we eat as many raspberries as our bellies could hold, but she paid us 10 cents a pint – twice as much as we got at home. And she always supplemented the fruit with slices of freshly-baked apple strudel.
As the summer lengthened into August, beans overran our garden. We could barely keep up with their ferocious sprint. My mother took charge of freezing the vegetables. We topped and tailed green and yellow beans for hours, blanched batches in pots of boiling water, then packed the beans in plastic bags and layered them in the large chest freezer that stood against the wainscotted pine wall in the summer kitchen. When the beans got older and tougher, we put them through a mandoline slicer, which made them more palatable, and again, froze bags and bags. I can't recall that we got paid for this part of our family food production – I suspect my parents considered freezing vegetables a regular part of our chores.
Autumn once more, and with it, the end of the harvest. No use hoeing anymore – Dad would soon set the rototiller to destroying the spent plants. The freezer was full of layer upon layer of frozen beans, corn, peas and kale. Shredded cabbage sat in the stoneware crock, fermenting into tart sauerkraut. Jars of dill pickles lined the cellar shelves.
I shook my piggy bank, grown heavy with the summer's crop of nickels, dimes and quarters. Its maraca beat was music to my ears.