The Planted Row: Don’t leave anything on the vine

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Farm Forum

Purple hull peas are in season for the next few weeks on the Wise Family Farm back in Mississippi. While I don’t miss picking them, I sure miss eating them.

When I was about 9 or 10, my grandfather decided to start a you-pick pea patch to earn a little money in retirement. This was the beginning of our family’s commercial vegetable operation.

Peas are a staple food in the South, and people came from miles around to pick in my grandfather’s patch. However, some people were willing to pay extra to have their peas picked for them, so granddaddy paid me a little money for each bushel I picked for him.

When I started out, it was taking me over half an hour to pick a bushel, and there was no way we’d fill all of our orders at that pace. So my grandfather showed me how to pick a bushel in 10 minutes. He kept his back bent and his bucket in front of him, and he didn’t stand up or slow his hands until he filled the bucket. You can’t imagine how uncomfortable this was in temperatures over 95 degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity, but he did it, over and over again, for several weeks during the summer. That’s the way he was.

Granddaddy was 59 when I was born, and during my childhood and early teen years, he was the hardest worker I knew. He seemed immune to the Mississippi heat, and I would often become tired long before him. You couldn’t stop the man from working. If he wasn’t eating, praying, or telling a joke, he was working or thinking up some new chore that needed to be done.

It seemed like he could do anything. When I was 10, my cousin and I helped him build a shed. He did most of the hard work, and we did most of the learning.

Over the years, I watched his strong arms turn wrenches and his nimble fingers tie fishing lures. He could look across a seemingly flat piece of land and tell me exactly where the low spot was and what I needed to do so that it would drain properly. He was an expert tractor driver, operating without trouble on slopes that seemed far too steep. He knew exactly how to maintain the trees, grass, and crops on his land. He was, quite simply, an excellent caretaker of the earth.

I only knew him as an old man. When I try to imagine him as a younger man, I think of all the jobs he must have done regularly to accumulate that vast store of practical knowledge, and I start to realize that I don’t really know anything about hard work.

In my late teens, I recall him handing me a wrench while we were adjusting some cultivators and saying that he needed to rest. This seemed so unlike him, and I asked if he was OK. He said he had to start slowing down, that he couldn’t do as much anymore. It was like someone hitting me in the chest.

My grandfather didn’t pick many peas after that. After a few years, he had to resign himself to watching from the edge of the field, sitting on his utility vehicle while we worked. He would give us advice as we neared him, and I know it hurt him to watch others complete a task that he knew how to do better.

Eventually, he was forced to stay inside, and that’s when he truly began to die. I missed the last 3 years of his life when I moved to Alaska. While I don’t regret the move, I often wonder that I made that sacrifice without thinking much about it.

Like the peas, we’re only in season for a short time. Two losses in my family last week have reminded me not to leave anything on the vine.