1994: Gram rummaged around clumsily in a kitchen cabinet and came out with a square, lidless Tupperware container.
“Take this,” she said, handing it to me. “Just get the reddest ones.” She took a few hobbled steps across the linoleum floor to the back porch door and pointed a wrinkled index finger at the three tomato plants not far from the screen porch. “That one in the middle will have the most ripe ones.”
The tomatoes were in my great-grandparents’ backyard, planted in the middle of circular wire cages on the edge of an overgrown field, whose three-quarter acre outline whispered of simpler, yet more toilsome times. Woods bordered the field on two sides. The backyard and the tomato plants bordered one of the field’s short ends. The other long side of the field gave way to decades-old grape vines and a well-worn path down to an old barn, where, years ago in my mom’s childhood, Grandad kept his mule. In the early 1990s, Gram & Grandad were in their 80s. Tomato and cucumber plants were all that were left of their once large garden. Several miles down the road, they had also helped Grandad’s parents, my great-great grandparents, farm tobacco for many years. My great uncle says that his grandpa called Gram the best stringer in the county, “and Grandpapa Rhodes didn’t hand out many compliments,” my Uncle Tommy added.
I can still remember the smell of Gram and Grandad’s back porch–the smell of screens (screens have a very distinct smell that becomes engrained in your memory if you’ve spent childhood time with your nose pressed against one, peering outside), of grass, of chicken cooking, of summer, of the musty smell of an old cupboard where Gram kept jars and knick knacks, where I liked to play. I stepped barefooted down the grizzly-grass covered back steps, the screen door flapping to a squeaky close behind me, and hopped across to the tomato plants. The cherry tomatoes were thriving in the heat of the North Carolina summer, only because of painstaking efforts to keep them watered with the garden hose.
I remember tip-toeing around the tomato plants as if they might bite me, gingerly pulling the very red ones off the plant and dropping them in the Tupperware. When I was satisfied that I’d gotten the best ones, I ran back inside and timidly showed my harvest to Gram, who was now stirring gravy on the stove. Gram smiled down at me. “You did good,” she said, and turned to the sink where she rinsed the tomatoes and put them in a bowl on the kitchen table.
The tomatoes were served plain, just salted, alongside vinegar cucumbers, Gram’s biscuits (that weren’t really biscuits – they were more like yeast rolls and they were magical) and chicken gravy, and cantaloupe from the produce stand down the road. Years later I realized something that today, feels profound: in that old kitchen in a little house in Rockingham County, my great-grandparents gave me my first taste of agriculture. And not just literally my first taste of homegrown produce (which I’m sure actually happened years before that, in that same kitchen), but also my first realization that food is grown by people, not grocery stores. My first memory of the path from garden to table. My first observation of the labor of love, grit, sweat, and tears that gardening and agriculture require. Of course at five years old I didn’t yet understand or appreciate all of that, but I do remember thinking there was something special about Gram and Grandad and people like them. Even at that age, I knew everyone didn’t have a garden (neither my parents nor any of my other relatives ever had one); everyone didn’t have the skills, knowledge, or interest in being cultivators of the land.
2021: This week, as I snapped a picture of my kids sitting on our front porch, watching Matt and my father-in-law on tractors in the field, I wondered: what will be their first memory of agriculture? How extraordinary, to have so many early farm memories to pull from. On the contrary, to Gram and Grandad, the memories they gave me of eating tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden were nothing extraordinary. In fact, it was completely ordinary.
Where I grew up in the 1990s, in a small town on the border of North Carolina and Virginia, many older folks still lived lifestyles reminiscent of farm families — the families they grew up in, in the first half of the twentieth century. While most men in my grandparents’ generation had other full time jobs away from their homes while raising families, many still farmed small acreage on the side, grew small (or large) gardens, and put away (canned) much of their own produce in the summertime. By the 1990s, these agriculturally-based practices were becoming fewer and further between, but my great-grandparents remained a testament to this lifestyle, in parts and pieces, until they were no longer physically able. They were a sector of a generation that lived by faith, patience, grit, and courage to continue cultivating, even after it was no longer the ordinary thing to do.
These practices and traits, that were once very ordinary, that kept us humble and close to nature, have today become extraordinary. Our kids are older than we were when they have their first ‘taste of agriculture’, and that experience is more often through a video or a book rather than real presence in the farm to table pathway (don’t get me wrong, books and videos are wonderful!). Grocery delivery services create an expectation of instant gratification and the naïveté that all fruits and vegetables can be grown anywhere, in all seasons. The art and science of being true cultivators of land, crops, and animals, and the faith with which one must live to constantly be at Mother Nature’s mercy — these are not common, ordinary traits by today’s standards. Living by faith, cultivating with courage, and waiting patiently, season after season, on God’s and Mother Nature’s timing are today extraordinary traits that take intention to develop in this age of Amazon Prime, Uber Eats, and Shipt (Shipt, especially, has a very fond place in my heart).
Many will claim “hashtag buy local” and “hashtag know your farmer” without fully realizing or understanding these tenants of agriculture and farming. As spring approaches, if you are able, find a local farm to visit where you can pick berries or tulips, or just observe the plants growing in the field or greenhouse. Ask the farmer when the crop was planted, and what storms were weathered to put that product in your hand. Ask your kids where food comes from. And if they say the grocery store — you have somewhere to start. Let them think about and name their first true taste of agriculture.
I myself probably couldn’t keep a squash plant alive with someone holding my hand (hey, I’m only married to a farmer- I don’t claim all the skills for myself). I’m terrified of a pressure canner and the only thing I know how to preserve is pickles (and if you know Matt, you know he’d sooner starve to death than survive off of pickles). But I gratefully remember my first taste of agriculture, and I know – I’m striving (painfully, at times) to live with the faith, the patience, and the courage to cultivate good things like the generations before me, and like the farmer beside me.