After the confrontation with my parents, I began to see just how difficult adult life could be. My mother now rarely spoke to me, and when she did, it was an unpleasant exchange in which she never missed an opportunity to criticize my decision, just as Eric had predicted. Of course, I never missed an opportunity to point out its advantages. At first these advantages were only apparent to me and consisted simply in trusting Jim’s character and his potential rather than in any tangible successes, at least financial ones. For in truth the Russell farm was at the moment just as Dad described it—at a subsistence level. Nevertheless, I persisted in defending Jim, and, as a result, during the weeks and months right after Jim’s visit, Dad had his hands full mediating between my mother and me.
But my next concern was to tell Jim about Frankie and to do so as soon as possible. I had really risked a lot in telling my parents about the proposal without having told Jim about my affair with Frankie, and I remained vulnerable until I could settle this matter with Jim, who could, after all, completely change his mind about me once he knew. And I couldn’t blame him if he did.
On our date the Saturday following the dinner with my parents, I took up the challenge. In fact, I had a lot of things to tell Jim, for I had been thinking a lot about his proposal, my acceptance, and what I needed to change about myself because of our relationship. First, Jim needed to see, not just hear in words, but see in deeds, that I was as committed to him as he was to me. I intended to become his biggest champion and his greatest asset, even more than his mother and sister and his Uncle Ed were. What he had said about being partners I intended to put into action. I decided that somehow I was going to get a car and drive out to Locust Hill on Saturdays to help him with the farm work. Besides, by this time I had in some vague fashion fallen love, not just with Jim and his family, but with Locust Hill itself. This was only an indefinite impression at first, but with every visit to the area that impression became more and more vivid.
When we arrived at a small diner on my side of town that Saturday night, I asked for a rear booth, a request that put a puzzled look on Jim’s face, but I didn’t want anyone else to hear what I had to tell him about Frankie Preston. After placing our orders, I took a deep breath and began.
“Jim, I do have something I really need to tell you, something personal that I should have told you before. And if this information changes your mind about me, I’ll understand.”
Immediately, he leaned toward me and said, “This information involves Frankie Preston, doesn’t it?”
“Why yes . . . yes, it does,” I said with some hesitation and confusion but as matter-of-factly as I could manage before continuing. “You already know that I dated him even after you and I started seeing each other, right?”
“Sure, I know that.” He seemed to have already prepared himself for this moment. “What you might not know is that Frankie has never been quiet about his relationships with girls, including you. Although I’ve never spoken with him face-to-face, I’ve heard plenty from other guys at school, especially after they knew that I was seeing you.”
I could feel my face redden with shame. “Then you already knew that Frankie and I were . . . well, lovers? When you proposed, you knew that about me?”
“Yes, I knew you were one of his lovers.”
“But you proposed anyway?”
“Yes. You’re having been with Frankie Preston is not what’s important to me. You’re being with me is. Our being together is, making our future together is—that’s what is important to me.”
Although I was now even more deeply ashamed that I had been so naïve, so foolish, and so reckless with Frankie—I also felt tremendously relieved. Then Jim continued, “Actually, I’m the one who needs to make a confession to you, something you couldn’t possibly know.”
Because of what I already did know about Jim’s character, I just couldn’t imagine that there was anything that he could tell me about himself that I would find truly confessional. “Is it Wanda you want to tell me about? That you kissed her on some other birthdays that you failed to mention before?”
“No, not Wanda.” Jim laughed briefly but then quickly returned to a more serious mood. “When I was working at painting the inside of El Caballito, I often worked alone. The older Ramirez daughter, Rachel, was still living with her parents then. They would send her over with lunch for me, as a way of thanking me for the help. Sometimes Rachel would stay and talk while I ate. She was a very pretty girl, about two years older than I am, and very lonely living here. At least that’s what she said. Well, to get right to the point, a few times she stayed longer than she should have, and we made love.”
“You made love in the restaurant, while it was still under construction? Where? How?”
“On a bar stool. It’s not really that hard to do.”
“Well, you’ll have to show me that trick some time,” I said with a laugh. I was astonished but relieved that Jim’s confession wasn’t something worse. In fact, this new human dimension made him more appealing than ever to me.
“Be glad to!” he replied. “But back to my story. One day shortly after I finished the painting work, Rachel was gone—returned to Mexico on her own—her parents said. Went back to be with an old boyfriend she had there. He had written to her saying that he couldn’t live without her anymore, that he now had a good job, and that he wanted her to come back and marry him. And that’s just what she did.”
“You were awfully young then, Jim. Did you really love her—I mean even when she wasn’t straddling on a bar stool?”
“No, Cassie, I can’t say that I loved her. I was barely sixteen then and didn’t know enough about love to realize whether I loved her or not, but I certainly didn’t resist her either.”
“So you’re saying that the saintly crucifer of St. Benedict’s made love to a Mexican girl on a bar stool?”
“And you say she’s Rita’s sister, the cute little hostess at El Caballito?
“Yes, that’s right. You remember correctly.”
“Well, Rita is certainly a pretty girl. So, if Rachel looks anything like her, I’d think that most boys would have trouble resisting her, not that I can speak all that well for boys—or barstools. Besides, that was before we met. I guess what your story proves is that we both have a checkered past.”
Of course, it also proved that there was more to Jim than soil test kits. Then, unburdened by our confessions, we just smiled at each other while holding hands across the table until the waitress delivered our fried chicken dinners.
As we ate, I broached my next subject. “How would you feel if I came out to the farm to help on Saturdays?”
“That would be great, Cassie. We’d love to have you come. But don’t feel that’s something you have to do.”
“I realize that, but it’s something I really want to do. I’ll need to get a car because I don’t want you to spend the time and gas to come for me every weekend. Save all that for our dates! Guess I’ll have to work some on my dad for help with a car.”
“Maybe I could help a little with the money part. I’ll be getting a payment from the grocers’ co-op for our first delivery of potatoes this season. Their checks come at the end of each month. When I get it, then I’ll have some extra cash.”
“No, no, no! You need that for your own family and the farm. I’ll need a car soon anyway because of the other thing I want to tell you. Instead of going to Morgantown to the university, I’ll stay here and go to the local campus with you.”
“Wait now, Cassie, you shouldn’t do that!” Jim protested. This was the most upset I’d ever seen him. “Going to the main campus is what you’ve planned on and what your parents expect you to do. It’s where most of your friends will be going. You’ve got to go, too!”
“But it saves my parents a lot of money if I stay here—no room and board for the first two years. Our in-state tuition is so low that room and board is the biggest expense anyway. And money is a big concern of Dad’s these days. It’ll be a big relief to him, I think. Also staying here will allow me to get a part-time job to save some more money. Dad, for sure, will be in favor of that. He’s been encouraging me to get a part-time job. Maybe I could even work in the produce department of a grocery store.” I said this part with a half-grin. I was learning to be a little sly myself. “Maybe I could learn about that retail end of the food business.”
Jim gave me a serious look for a moment, then, catching on to me, grinned also and said, “You’ve really been doing a lot of thinking about us, haven’t you?”
“As you said yourself, Farm Boy, committing to each other now allows us to make better decisions for the future. Now I’ve made some.”
Asking Dad for help with a car and announcing my change of plans about campuses triggered another round of arguments with my mom, who prophesied that I would quickly become a slave on Jim’s farm. (I didn’t dare tell her that his real plan was for me to become a sturdy fertility goddess.)
“This is probably just what he’s been planning for you all along, and you’re just gullible enough to let him get away with it!” she shouted at me as she was wiping the kitchen counter. “He’s dragging you down to his level, exactly what I thought he’d do!”
“Dragging me down? Mom, let me tell you something. I’ll have to improve a lot to get to Jim’s level. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Of course, I left out any reference to Frankie Preston in this argument. But the more Mom attacked, the more resolved I became to make a life with Jim.
Overhearing us from the living room, Dad finally had to intervene. “Cassie’s idea about going to the local campus actually makes good sense, Helen, with or without Jim Russell being involved. I’d thought about suggesting it myself, but I was concerned that Cassie might be disappointed at not going to Morgantown right away like Eric did. And work experience on the farm, or elsewhere for that matter, can be very valuable. I can vouch for that; I did plenty of odd jobs when I was a boy. No reason why girls these days can’t do the same. Cassie can still graduate in the same amount of time. Also, even part-time experience helps a person get a job later on.”
Mom remained unimpressed despite Dad’s argument but retreated as she usually did after he would finally speak up. But only temporarily. I knew that she was just waiting for a new opportunity. Dad, however, seemed relieved, and as soon as Mom was busy in another part of the house, he stopped by my room to say so. He said that he had been worrying a lot about paying for college and the increasingly unstable situation at his plant. He thanked me for deciding to help out.
Later that same week Dad and I went used car shopping, with the proviso that I would repay him as soon as possible. Jim had jokingly told me that people who owned Fords were, by long standing tradition, looked upon with great favor in Locust Hill. Even the Lowerys owned Fords, he said. That was fine with me since I wanted to stay far away from Frankie’s dad, who sold Chevrolets! We soon found a reasonably cheap ‘56 Ford two door sedan, powder blue and trimmed in white, with white leather seats, probably an expensive car when it was new. On the next Saturday I rose at daybreak, tossed a gym bag with a change of clothes and a bag of toiletries in the backseat, and drove my sort-of-new blue and white Ford sedan to Locust Hill.
To get to Locust Hill from Parkeston you take Shawnee Highway, the main route south to Ripley, Point Pleasant, and Huntington. The highway runs roughly parallel to the Ohio River, sometimes within sight of it but mostly not. First you drive through South Side, the part of town where Dad worked, and then go about six miles southwest. At first you pass through mixed residential-commercial neighborhoods—drive-ins and gas stations next to houses, a golf driving range, a dead oil baron’s estate, a nursery, a cemetery, and so forth. That part of the county is dotted with place names from the Old Testament, names like “Gihon” and “Bethel.” However, as you approach Locust Hill, these Biblical names start to give way to place names based on nature, like Meadowbrook, Squirrel Hollow, Pine Road, and Willow Lane. Soon you arrive at a country village with a few businesses, including a general store, surrounded by farms and houses; at that point you’ve arrived in Locust Hill, West Virginia.
Most of Locust Hill sits on or just above the Ohio River’s eastern floodplain, which possesses richer soil and flatter tracts for farming than the county’s eastern uplands. Naturally, the earliest settlers in the area took this floodplain land for their farms, and for the most part, their descendants still possess those farms, except where factories have moved in to take advantage of the Ohio River’s barge transportation and water supply. The area was surveyed by the young George Washington and his friend Colonel William Crawford when it was still part of Virginia Colony. A plaque by the little log cabin library on the far west side of Locust Hill says so. The Shawnees eventually captured, tortured, and killed Crawford for his part in the adventure. And we all know what happened to Washington.
Off to the west of the river, in Ohio, the land gradually flattens into the plains of the Midwest, but on the West Virginia side, to the east, it rises quickly to become the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Even though not part of the floodplain, the upland soil in the vicinity of the village spreads generously over the rolling wooded hillsides, rich and deep and relatively easy to work, with a generous aquafer lying close beneath the soil.
The area’s weather is normally quite favorable for farming as well. Winters are usually not severe, but often bring a fair amount of rain and snow sweeping down from the Great Lakes. Droughts are infrequent since the summers are quite humid with frequent late afternoon thunderstorms that form out of the thick air and sweep up the Ohio Valley, drenching the farms and small towns as they go. The following morning the summer sun returns, the humidity rises, and the process of heating and storming begins anew. The biggest farm problems are hail falling on tender crops, lightning strikes, and damage from occasional high winds.
On this spring day, because I wanted to explore the area a bit more, I turned off Shawnee Highway at the first road into the village, which is called Lowery Lane. It took me past some of the village’s most important landmarks. On its west side stands the elementary school which Jim, Sandy, and Wanda as well as Jim’s dad and his Uncle Ed all attended. Next comes a general store owned by the Crandall family. There Jim and the other older students in the village would wait in cold weather by a pot-bellied coal-fired stove for the school bus to take them to our high school on the far side of Parkeston. In fair weather they would simply stand outside on the store’s concrete porch and razz each other about manhood issues while the girls, according to Jim, stood on the other side of the porch or in fair weather down by the elementary school pretending not to hear.
Then comes Lem Dietrich’s barber shop, which Jim mirthfully claimed was the real spiritual and political center of the village, at least among the farmers, as they decide many a contentious issue there while waiting their turn in Lem’s single barber’s chair. And finally there is an auto-and-tractor repair garage owned by the Lowery family. On the north end of Lowery Lane is the Locust Hill Baptist Church and beside it the Crandall’s home, both located right at the intersection with Shawnee Highway. I thought to myself, Jim and his family drive right past a perfectly good Baptist church to go to Mass at St. Benedict’s more than ten miles away!
The rest of the lane’s east side is taken up by the Lowery dairy farm, which had long been the largest farm in Locust Hill. At the far end of the lane is the Presbyterian Church. Much of the eastern slope of the village consists of woodlands filled with groves of honey locusts that stretch up and over the hill and give both the village and the area their name. Eventually, the woods disappear behind the hill’s ridge. Centered a respectable distance back from the road and opposite the Crandall’s general store is the Lowery farmhouse—a large red brick, ostentatious home with bright white pillars in front, made to resemble a Southern plantation house and hence quite out of place in Locust Hill with its smaller and simpler farmhouses, some of them dating from pioneer times. The oversized Lowery barn located to the left and behind the house is a brilliant red with white trim. It is so well maintained that it doesn’t look as though it ever got any actual use, although there are plenty of dairy cows grazing around it. Both house and barn, I eventually learned, were intended to assert the dominance of the Lowery family in the community above and beyond any utilitarian functions.
After about a quarter mile, Lowery Lane intersects Lost Creek Road, which itself intersects Shawnee Highway just a hundred yards or so to the right. But there I turned left and climbed the hill to Ridge Road, a narrow, mostly gravel road running roughly midway along the western slope of the ridge. And there I made a right turn shortly arrived at the gravel drive to Jim’s farm.
By now the sun was fully lighting the sky, touching the new green leaves of the trees, and lighting up the few remnant daffodils with their golden heads bouncing in the morning wind. The edges of the woods were brightened now by the whites of the dogwoods and the intense pinks of the redbuds, just as Jim said they would be. And everywhere waving at me were the namesake trees of the area, the honey locusts, with their spring-fresh compound leaves aflutter.
I parked my Ford behind Jim’s truck and started toward the house when I heard Sandy call from the barn, where the collies were barking. Then Jim’s mom also called to me from the side porch while Jim drove up in the tractor. Quite a welcoming party, I thought!
They had delayed breakfast until my arrival, and I was glad they did since I had slipped away from home without so much as drinking a glass of orange juice and with my parents still asleep. Normally for me breakfast was cold cereal and a bit of fruit. In Locust Hill, however, breakfast rivals dinner! There were hot biscuits sliced in half and smothered with gravy containing red bits of country ham, eggs-over-easy with crisp bacon, fresh strawberries and cream, coffee, and juice. Eventually, I had to confess that I was stuffed and could eat no more, which was absolutely no exaggeration.
“Ah, but you’ll find a need for the energy from all this food,” Jim explained. “You’re about to learn why country folks eat big breakfasts.”
“That’s for sure,” Sandy chirped. “We have a big day planned for you.”
“Now be easy on Cassie, kids,” their mother cautioned. “After all, we want her to come back.”
As soon as the breakfast dishes were done, we all headed outdoors to work. Jim presented me with a wide-brimmed straw hat, a bright red bandana, and a new pair of leather gloves—all from the Farmers’ Cooperative store—and a new pair of sunglasses from the Crandalls’ general store, the one I’d passed on Lowery Lane. For my part, I had remembered to wear my “sturdy” shoes along with wool socks, and a denim jacket with black shorts. And I had applied suntan lotion. “These are all yours now,” Jim said. “Tie the bandana around your neck to prevent sunburn. No need to become a redneck just yet. And don’t overdo it on your first day in the fields.”
“Yes, boss. Anything else?” I asked.
“Just this,” he said. Then he kissed me on the mouth. He was beginning to make a habit of that.
After that Sandy and I went to the barn and, starting with the duck pen, cleaned out the old straw, took it to the compost bins on the other side of the house in bushel baskets, filled the now empty baskets with the surprisingly light-weight mature compost for use in the “Mush-Room,” returned to the barn with the compost, replaced the old straw in the pen with fresh from the loft, a bale of which Sandy lowered down with a rope, and finally put out fresh water and feed for the ducks. Then we followed the same routine for the guinea coop. This work was made easier by the fact that the ducks had left their pen to spend the day in the nearby pond while the guineas had gone wherever guineas decide to go, ranging in the fields to scavenge for insects. Sandy had let them both out at daybreak, placing them under the trusty supervision of the collies Lad and Lady, who were also nowhere to be seen around the barn. As for Wiz, every few minutes he was still declaring his territorial supremacy to any creature that would listen. Seems everyone got to work early on the Russell farm!
That left us the chicken coop to do. Since the hens were all busy pecking at feed in the outdoor pen by now, we cleaned out their coop first, entering from a narrow door inside the barn. By the time the coop had been refreshed and a few stray eggs collected, Lad and Lady had returned to the barn. Sandy directed them to chase the chickens from the outdoor pen up into the coop, which they promptly did. The hens seemed to be familiar with this routine and so offered no resistance, climbing the ramp into the coop right away while the collies watched them closely. Only Wiz, proud champion that he was, continued to strut about the pen protesting the dogs’ invasion of his territory. But several forceful nudges from Lad sent Wiz, too, climbing the ramp, although cackling the whole time louder than all of the hens put together. Sandy then closed the little sliding door at the top of the ramp behind Wiz, and we promptly set about refreshing Wiz’s small kingdom.
When the renewal of the coops and pens was completed, we went to the “Mush-Room.” Sandy opened the door and switched on a light; the room had no windows; in fact, it had no exterior wall; rather it was lined all around with shelves reaching from floor to ceiling, all with shallow wooden trays on them. Each section of trays had a small sign with a date on it. One section had a second sign that stated in green letters, “Next.” The room was warm and had a thick, moist, earthy smell. From the “Next” section we removed the trays, starting at the top. They were covered with white button mushrooms, which we plucked and put into small cardboard boxes lined with newspaper. We had removed the boxes, folded flat, from a storage room in the barn, opened them into box form, and reinforced them with tape. If the mushrooms in any tray were smaller than average, Sandy explained, we needed to change out the compost, putting the spent compost into an empty basket, which, when filled, we carried back to the compost bins for recycling on our next trip in that direction. We replaced the spent compost in the tray with the mature compost we had just carried to the barn in the bushel baskets. Next, we sprinkled the harvested trays with mushroom spawn, watered them, and place them back on their shelves. Finally, we checked and sprayed the other trays with water, moved the “Next” sign to another section, and placed a new date sign on the section we had just harvested—all before closing the door, leaving the mushrooms again to grow at their leisure in the dark.
“But we’re not done yet,” Sandy warned. “We still have to weigh and seal up the boxes.” Just inside the barn doors was a scale covered with a blue tarpaulin which Sandy removed. We carried the boxes to it and weighed each one. As we did so, Sandy wrote the weights and tares on the boxes with a sharpened carpenter’s pencil and also recorded the information with a pen in a ledger book that she kept in a clear plastic container beside the scales.
“The Co-op people will weigh these boxes too,” Sandy explained, “but we need to know for ourselves just how much we’re selling them.”
“Do they ever cheat you?” I asked.
“No, at least not intentionally, but people do make honest mistakes, so it just makes sense to write everything down. We don’t want to cheat them, either.” Sandy didn’t sound thirteen years old now. This was important business. If mistakes were made, bills might not get paid.
Finally, we loaded the boxes, ten of them, into the back of Jim’s truck. I felt a great satisfaction at seeing the boxes of mushrooms that I had helped harvest waiting to go to town. The farm’s work was clearly well thought out to avoid wasted effort, conserve both time and energy, and minimize cost wherever possible. Moreover, the Russell family’s livelihood depended on doing the work correctly, day-in and day-out, seven days per week.
As we finished putting the boxes of mushrooms in the truck, Jim drove up on the tractor, saying that he needed to change out the tiller he’d been using for the cart. As he was doing that, Sandy and I joined Mrs. Russell at the vegetable gardens, bringing the spent mushroom compost with us. Jim’s mom was harvesting lettuce, both leaf and iceberg varieties. She snipped the leaf lettuce with garden shears, leaving some so that it could regrow. The iceberg heads she pulled from the ground and cut off the roots for composting. She placed both types of lettuce in separate cardboard boxes larger than the ones we had just used for the mushrooms.
“Okay, girls, how many boxes of mushrooms did you fill?” Mrs. Russell asked.
“Ten, Mom,” Sandy reported, “About what we normally get from that set of shelves. When the weather gets warmer, Cassie, we won’t have to heat the Mush-Room at all since the natural heat will produce more mushrooms per tray, so then the harvest goes up.”
“How much do you get for a box of mushrooms?” I asked.
“This type of button mushroom typically brings us about five dollars per box, depending on the weight,” Mrs. Russell answered. “So, you just helped us earn fifty dollars, Cassie.”
That sounded a bit meager to me for a morning’s work, so next I asked, “What about these boxes of lettuce, what do they sell for?”
Sandy answered this time, anxious to show that she understood the business as well. “The leaf lettuce fetches us twenty dollars per box and the icebergs about fifteen.”
“Why the difference?” I asked. “Since the iceberg heads are heavier, shouldn’t they earn more?”
“Spoilage difference,” said Mrs. Russell. “The leaf lettuce doesn’t hold up nearly as well but has a higher customer demand in the stores. Besides, the weights even out somewhat. The icebergs are heavier, that’s true, but you can’t pack as many heads in a carton as you can bunches of leaf lettuce. And there’s more waste for the customer to iceberg lettuce.”
Clearly, there really was a lot to know about farming besides when to plant and when to harvest. This is a real business, I thought, not just tinkering around in a garden to raise a few tomatoes.
Then Jim showed up with the tractor and cart. We loaded the filled cartons of lettuce onto the cart. Then the four of us spent the rest of the morning harvesting and boxing up the rest of the lettuce crop. Next Jim drove the cart back to the barn, where we weighed the lettuce, and then took the boxes to the carport so that we could load the lettuce cartons into the truck next to the mushrooms. Sandy and I hitched a ride on the back of the cart, while Mrs. Russell walked back to the house to wash up and make lunch. I could scarcely believe that we had already been working nonstop for five hours.
After a late lunch of tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches, Jim and I drove the morning’s harvest into town. As we went down Lost Creek Road, I asked Jim to follow it straight on to Shawnee Highway instead of taking a right turn onto Lowery Lane since I wanted to see the rest of the village. As we turned right onto Shawnee Highway from Lost Creek, he pointed out that, on the other side of Shawnee, Lost Creek Road becomes Cemetery Road.
“Named after that picturesque little Locust Hill Cemetery right over there,” he said, pointing to a spot about fifty yards away on the left. “The old German farmers who were among the first settlers in Locust Hill and helped start up St. Benedict’s parish are buried over there, along with some of the other early settlers.”
At the same intersection was an evangelical church of a sect I didn’t recognize with the local volunteer fire department station standing next to it. “I’ll need to become a volunteer fireman myself when I graduate,” Jim noted. “It’s pretty much a community obligation for young men here, once they are out of school. A few even volunteer to help around the station while they’re still in school, but I’ve not had time for that.”
Farther down Shawnee on that same side of the highway was the local Methodist church and beside it a Pennzoil service station. On the other side of the highway, with their backs to Lowery Lane, were a veterinary clinic, the Locust Hill Farmers’ Cooperative, and the Lowery Diner, in that order. Finally, where Shawnee intersected the other end of Lowery Lane, we came back to the elementary school and the Baptist church. I chided Jim about the Baptist church being so close for his family and St. Benedict’s so far.
“True, but St. Benedict’s is pretty close for you. Would you like to meet us there for Mass sometime?” he asked. “Just to see what’s it like, if nothing else?”
“Wow, my mom would flip if I did that,” I exclaimed. Then after considering for a moment just whose life was being affected, I replied, “But yes, why not? She’ll get over it eventually.” Then, for no particularly good reason, I slugged Jim in the arm.
“You’re awfully rough for a city girl,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road but smiling. “Wanda never hit me.” Then I saw him risk a glance at my legs. “But you’re worth it, I guess,” he added.
The independent grocers’ alliance warehouse was located downtown in a building that ironically had once been an A&P store. We backed up to the receiving door and rang a buzzer that summoned a clerk to open the door and receive our produce.
“Well, here’s Mr. Jim again!” the clerk called out as he hoisted the door up with a chain that rattled through a pulley. He was a heavy man with a blue denim shirt and tan suspenders holding up his black pants. “What ya got today, Jimbo, and—oh, well now—who’s this with you? Don’t look like your sister.”
“We’ve got lettuces and mushrooms this time, Bill. And this is my fiancée, Cassandra Clark. Cassie, this is Bill Wasserman; he’s the one who usually checks in our crops.”
“Pleased to me you, Bill,” I said while reaching out to shake his hand.
“Same here, Cassandra. Fiancée, huh? Can’t believe you’ve grown up so fast, Jim. You’re gettin’ a good boy there, Cassandra. I can vouch for that. Known him a long time, him and his dad. Both real good people.”
“Yes, I’m a lucky girl,” I replied, but the way that Bill was looking me over while we were unloading the boxes suggested that perhaps he thought Jim was the lucky one. Bill was probably charmed by my fetching red bandana or perhaps the yellow straw hat dangling down my back. Or just maybe by my black shorts.
After some more chit-chat, Bill weighed the boxes, placed green labels on them on which he wrote the weights, and at the end gave Jim a carbon copy summary of the transaction which Jim promptly spot checked against the ledger he had brought along and then said, “Okay, Bill, looks like only normal variances. See you next on Wednesday. I’ll have strawberries then.” And with that we climbed back in the truck while Bill noisily rolled down the freight door.
“Don’t we get paid yet?” I asked before we drove away.
“Afraid not, Cassie. Not until the end of each month. Then the alliance sends us an itemized list of the sales for the month along with a check. Since they’re the customer, they pretty much dictate the sales terms. For us growers to have any leverage at all with them, we have to rely on our Locust Hill Farmers’ Co-op through which we negotiate prices, just as the individual grocers rely on their alliance to boost their bargaining power with us and their wholesalers and other suppliers.”
“I’m lost. What are these alliances and co-ops you keep talking about? I should have asked before.”
“Well, theirs—the grocers’ alliance—is an organization formed by nearly all of the independent grocers in the city joining together, mostly to try to combat the big grocery chains. The organization uses the collective purchasing power of the entire group to keep costs down for each individual grocer. There are a lot of organizations like theirs all over the country these days.”
“So, they pay us less than the individual grocer would have without belonging to the alliance? Am I right?”
“You got it. At least, that’s what they hope to do. In effect, they shrink demand by representing themselves as a single customer. And they can do that because for all practical purposes we have no other place to sell our produce, except to a few independent grocers in the county and at roadside stands in the summer, but only a very few of the independents are large enough in their own right to ignore the grocers’ alliance with its membership fees. Anyhow, we have our own farmers’ cooperative to negotiate prices with our customers. In effect, we shrink the supply of produce to just one local source. Same idea as the grocers’, but the other side of the table, so to speak. I believe you saw the store our Co-op runs along Shawnee Highway. Our headquarters is in the same building, upstairs.”
“Sure, I remember it—a building that looks like a big red barn, except with store front windows and an asphalt parking lot. I saw customers going in and out too.”
“That’s it. Well, it has a community meeting room over the store where the Co-op board members meet to determine Co-op policies and deal with its other business, such as reviewing the store’s operations. Four-H and other community groups meet there too. The Russell, Lowery, Kessel, and Cunningham families were the original founders. Uncle Ed is still one of the board members. But just about all of the farmers in Locust Hill are Co-op members these days. Very few hold-outs.”
“What will it take for you to be a board member?”
“Have to be nominated by a current board member and elected by the general membership. Have an election every two years. Those elected also have to pony up a hefty leadership fee each year to help cover the organization’s administrative expenses. So, I can’t afford that just yet. I’m lucky just to chuck in the normal membership fee, except that I do gradually get the money back from discounts on the cost of seed, equipment, and so forth, even work clothes—and higher prices on what I sell than I could get if I tried to negotiate on my own. So, it’s worthwhile, but it’s another one of those cases in the ag business where the money goes out first and then trickles back in later on—that is, if the sun shines, the rain falls, and the crops grow.”
“Farming is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined, Jim. There’s a lot to keep up with in addition to the obvious risks of weather and insects and such that most people know about.”
“Yes, there is, Cassie, a whole lot. Mom still helps with the paperwork for the farm, but we don’t keep track of nearly as many things as I would like.”
“Well, such as how different varieties of crops perform compared to others, with accompanying notes about the growing conditions—weather, soil, and such. For example, if we are having a dry growing season, which tomato variety should we be growing? Or which crops grow best in which field, and what did we grow in that field last year? What’s the best variety of cantaloupe for us to grow here in the Ohio Valley? When are natural controls better than insecticides and herbicides? Or which insecticide is best for a potato beetle infestation? Or is it cheaper just to let guinea fowl do the job? Lot of cost-benefit analysis that few farmers can take the time to do.”
“Gosh, from what I’ve seen so far, I’d bet on those guineas.” I offered.
“And normally you’d be right. But then how many guineas do you need to keep for a given size crop area? If you had just a potato farm, pretty soon you’d need more guineas than you could afford or manage, even with the best collies in the world helping you. And guineas are a bit stubborn, as you saw. I’d need an entire pack of collies just to round them up each day and protect them from the coyotes and foxes that would come from everywhere to prey on them. Experience can tell us the answers to all of these things, of course, but only if we’ve bothered to collect the data. Otherwise, the experience produces no wisdom. And a good memory isn’t good enough anymore. Might have worked for old Hesiod, but not for us. Too many variables to track. Yet that kind of information can make a big difference in a farm’s profitability over time. There are so many things that farmers can’t control, so they need to use data from real experience to control what they can.”
“So, you’ve read Hesiod, have you?”
“Why, yes, I have, when we studied mythology in tenth grade.”
“I thought so.”
“Because you sound like him sometimes,” I said with a laugh. “So, tell me, what if just this one farmer named Jim Russell had an accountant to do all that data collection as well as produce a monthly income statement and balance sheet and pay the bills and make purchases for the farm? Would that help Farmer Jim at all?”
“Why it certainly would—that is, if Farmer Jim could afford such an accountant.”
“Well, what if the accountant were Farmer Jim’s wife? She might even be willing to work for a reasonable price—if Farmer Jim treated her nicely, that is.”
“Would a reasonable price be room and board plus loving companionship? Is that nice enough treatment? I hear he can’t afford much else right now.” Then he reached over to put his hand on my knee.
“Then I guess that’ll have to do—for now. But some day I expect a big payback,” I said as I grasped his hand. “In the meantime, keep your eyes on the road, Farm Boy.”
The rest of that afternoon we spread compost on the harvested vegetable plots and replanted lettuce and spinach, expecting to eke out another harvest of cold weather crops before the daily temperatures became too hot for them.
As we worked together, I learned to understand Jim in his favorite environment. On the farm he was masterful. Gone was the slumping posture and the sadness that clung to him in school and other settings. Here in Locust Hill, he was completely at home in every sense. As I got to know him better, I came to realize that he knew the names and natures of all the trees and shrubs, even the weeds, knew them as though they were his friends or even his family members. He could grasp the soil in his hand and know if it was ready for planting. Or he could look at the sky—the size, shape, and coloring of the clouds, their direction, speed, and height—and then give a good prediction of the coming weather. “Rain by sunset,” he’d say, or “Clear and hot for the next day or two.” Good knowledge to have when you’re deciding whether or not to cut alfalfa for hay. And though I was learning how important Catholicism was to him, I could see that another powerful religion spoke to him daily in the fields and woods, and that, even at nineteen, he already knew its language as few people ever do in an entire lifetime.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)