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Volume 15, Issue 42 ~ October 18 - October 24, 2007

Crop Failure at the Grandpop-Grumpy Pumpkin Farm

O farmers pray that your summers be wet and your winters clear.

–Publius Vergilius Maro: 70-19bc

I don’t know about clear winters, but I only wish granddaughter Grumpy (aka Mackenzie Noelle Boughey) and I had prayed more the past six months for warm weather wetness.

Five-year-old Grumps and I took up farming this year, and fortunately on a modest scale. Everyone hereabouts is telling us we better not quit our day jobs.

We got no government subsidies, and we didn’t have to plow our crops under. The hot dry summer did it for us. We flunked Recreational Agriculture 101.

Seeing I’m of New England farming stock and spent much of my early summers plowing, planting, weeding, hoeing, spraying and harvesting, this is not easy to admit. I forgot everything I ever learned — yet I vowed last spring to teach Grumpy of her agricultural heritage.

Grumpy’s Agricultural Heritage

Burtons were dirt farmers, people of the soil. In the Great Depression, Grandma and Grandpa Burton raised crops for market and home consumption, making enough only to pay the mortgage on the farm and put fresh food on the table.

Before I joined the Navy to escape gardening and other chores, New England gave us an equitable mix of rain and dry spells. Temperatures didn’t get too hot or too cool. When bugs appeared, we went to the grain and garden store, purchased arsenic of lead, mixed it into a watery solution and sprinkled it on the leaves.

Potato bugs we flicked off the foliage of the plants into a can with enough kerosene to do them in. Fertilizer was manure; fish heads went into each hill of corn, as Squantum taught the Pilgrims. Hoeing and weeding was done in early morning so the hot sun would kill those uprooted. Even if there were no weeds around, periodically the rows of vegetables had to be hoed to break the crust of the soil so rain — when it came — would penetrate to the root systems.

I can remember Grandpa sitting at his roll-top desk and by gaslight frowning over his ledger. As he did the day he left on consignment in the city a truckload of carrots. He was informed by mail that the market for carrots was glutted, and his truckload was dumped. That after all the weeding and nurturing Aunts Marjorie and Caroline had done to turn out bright orange, perfectly formed carrots to bring a better price.

That visage came to me the other day when I took stock of our agricultural efforts for ’07. Family and friends are right. I’m not about to abandon writing, and Grumpy will continue kindergarten classes at Gibson Island Country School.

As farmers, we are bankrupt.

Grandpop and Grumpy’s Farm

But Grumpy and I had not the foresight to raise even a hill of corn last spring. We specialized. Pumpkins were to be our flagship crop. We planted three hills. Also one tomato plant, one cauliflower and one hill of lima beans, the leftovers from one of Grumpy’s pre-kindergarten classroom projects last June.

The kids had been read Jack and the Beanstalk. As a visual, Mrs. Dunham had passed out sprouting lima beans in a clear plastic bag. We decided to add them to our pocket farm. And they prospered. But I knew as much about limas as Jack of beanstalk fame did. Mother didn’t like them, so it’s one crop we didn’t plant after our parents took up agriculture during the Depression.

Grumpy was all hyped on farming. She had plans to set up a stand to sell pumpkin pies, muffins and Jack-o-lanterns. The cauliflower, her favorite vegetable, we would steam and mash. Tomatoes are also among her favorites. And this fall she would present Mrs. Dunham a bag of lima beans to remind her Jack made a good deal when he swapped his mother’s cow for a bag of beans.

So enthusiastic was Grumps that her fervor spilled over to me. We went first-class. She was to learn that gardening could be fun, productive — and profitable.

But like all farmers, we had to depend on the weather; no need to remind readers what it was like.

Profit and Loss

Now for the financial side of the Grumpy/Grandpop endeavor.

No charge for the lima bean plant. Or for the pumpkin plant sprouted from seeds of the Jack-o-lantern of Halloween last year. But the other two pumpkin plants came from a $3.95 pack of seeds from a certified trophy pumpkin. Grandpop also purchased a Home Depot tomato plant for $3.75 and a cauliflower plant for $3.75.

Add $3.50 for potting soil, $2.75 for potting containers, $6.75 for fertilizer and weed killers — and at least 20 hours of my time and 10 of Grumpy’s. That doesn’t count the time needed to sift fireplace ashes to spread over pumpkin vines to discourage borers.

On the profit side, we got a dozen tomatoes from the $3.75 vine. One was the size of a baseball; the others not much bigger than a golf ball. One green one still lies next to the dried up plant. The cauliflower plant never grew a head, but it has a thick stem a foot high. It had to be sprayed every day to keep the leaves from being eaten. If I duct-tape a head from the market to the stub, maybe Grumpy won’t notice.

The pumpkin plants from seeds we set out have blossomed twice, but they’ve yet to produce a single pumpkin as big as a black walnut. If the weather stays warm, maybe a Jack-o-lantern by Christmas.

All of this from a cash outlay of more than 30 bucks.

By coincidence, twice when temperatures were in the 90s with no rain, I was hospital bound. Those days, our garden wasn’t watered, the cauliflower not sprayed nor ashes spread on the pumpkin vines. Blue Cross doesn’t anti up for lost crops due to medical maladies.

Grumpy remains too young to understand the finances of agriculture and is already looking through seed catalogs for ’08. Me, I’m thinking about interesting her in croquet as a summertime pastime. Enough said.

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