St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Picking on the Farm

Some memories are sensory.  This morning I was out picking strawberries in the very early morning fog, the plants soaked with dew -- 56F.  It brought back memories of growing up on the farm and being roused out early by Mom to pick fruit or vegetables.  Brushing aside the lush cool wet leaves trying to spot strawberries that are red to the tip and picking it into a bucket took me back 60 years on the farm.  It is a little harder to bend over now, and now I am doing it because I want to, not being driven to the patch by the slavemaster, but the feeling was the same.  Now I do it better, as I pull the occasional weed too and fling the bird eaten berry over the fence for the birds to finish off.  

Written in 2005 --my first year of newspaper columns.
As early as I can remember Mom had us boys help her picking things to eat and preserve for the winter months.   Most of the food on the farm in the 1950s and earlier came directly from our own garden and farm animals.  Things changed quickly after the shortages of World War II were over and soon farm families were pretty much moving into the grocery store age too.  I am going to reminisce a little of those earlier days when what you ate came from what your raised and picked. 

As soon as the ground thawed in the spring there was food to gather.  Dig the parsnips to cook and the horseradish root to grind.  The rhubarb came next, and after a flurry of fresh rhubarb pies it was picked and cut to be canned or froze.  
 We helped plant the garden and hoe it all summer long.  We sometimes had a sand garden on the River Road for melons as well as a large garden at home for everything else.  From May on we boys were rousted out at daylight so we could hoe or pick our rows “before the sun got hot”.  With four boys and Mom we could get through the large garden weekly (sometimes weakly).  
Soon the June bearing strawberries were ready to pick.  Mom had a large bed with the berries in wide rows.  We had to pick each row about every 3 days.  At first the strawberries filled our bellies almost as fast at the pails.  Mom first canned them, but when we got our IHC Freezer from Nickie Jensen, they were mostly frozen or made into strawberry jam and the surplus sold to the neighbors. After about 3 weeks the strawberries had dwindled to only nubbins so we moved on to the raspberries and then string beans and cucumbers.
Raspberries got ripe early in the summer.  Mom always had rows of them to pick too.  You could stand up picking them so it wasn’t so bad.  The wild raspberries on the fencelines and in the woods tasted better but were harder to get too and much smaller.  Some years Mom would concentrate on raspberries, others strawberries and sometimes both.  
Grandpa and Mom raised cucumbers to sell to the Gedney Pickle factory at the receiving station in Grantsburg.  Every morning we hit the pickle acre and carefully picked the small ones.  If you picked the smallest ones you got the highest price. We had to raise the prickly dew soaked vines and look carefully for the little ones.
We hauled them every few days to Grantsburg where Hector Unseth, the Pickle Man, would run them through his sorter that separated them by size and then weigh and pay us.  We never got any money directly as it was all being saved for our school clothes, but might get to stop for an ice cream cone on a hot day.  The pickles kept growing all summer long and really got to be a drag—especially when we did ours and then went to help grandpa do his too
Some of my earliest memories are picking string beans at Mac Fors’ farm on the River Road.  Local farmers would raise a few acres of beans for the Stokelys factory.  They had their neighbors come in and help pick the beans.  We would get a mesh sack and a row and then sort of crawl and pick our way down the trying to fill the sacks with beans.  It wasn’t too hard for me when I first started.  I was too young to walk then but could crawl along fine. 
Many times there were a dozen or more pickers in the field. Mac would be out there picking with us.  He talked out loud to himself.  When my row came near his I could hear him talking about fishing.  He loved to fish and had old wooden row boats on Roger, Wolf and Orr lakes that he used as often as he could get there.  He probably didn’t like picking beans anymore than I did. 
When were done for the day, each sack was labeled with the picker’s name and Mac would them to the factory to be weighed and sold and then pay us the next time for our efforts.  My money was used to pay for the Pablum I ate for breakfast as best I can remember.  
Beans lasted all summer until frost just like pickles.  Later machines were invented by the Paulsons at Clear Lake, to pick beans automatically.  Stokely’s changed to a bean plant variety that produced a lot of beans all at once and switched to machine picking.  Uncle Lloyd Hanson worked on the picking crew many years and got my brother Everett and I a job driving the Chilsolm Ryder machines.  We went 1 ¼ miles per hour back and forth on the fields with a tractor equipped with some rolling brushes picking two rows at a time for 90 hours a week or more. I liked it better than picking them by hand
In August we always picked wild blackberries.  On Grandpa’s farm on the River Road, there were acres of blackberry plants along of the edge of the woods where his cows pastured. They were smart enough to stay out of the blackberry patches.  The canes were often 10 feet long reaching up and gracefully arching over each other and loaded with big thorns making a tangled mess that only bears and farm kids dared enter.  Blackberry plants were downright mean.  You would start picking on a vine and the tip of it would reach over you and grab you from behind.   We had to wear old clothes that it didn’t hurt if they were ripped. When we had finished the day of picking often looked like we had been in a fight with a cat.  However, there is probably nothing better to eat than fresh ripe blackberries.  Blackberries only partially thawed are also a treat.   
Mom always canned sweet corn, string beans, carrots and peas, so of course we picked these.  However the seasons were short.  Shelling peas was more of a bother. In the fall we had to dig the potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips and rutabagas.  Only the beets were canned or pickled.   The rest were stored in the basement in the cool part.  Potatoes were a staple so many hundreds of pounds were stored for the winter. Of course all winter long it was our job to “go down in the cellar and bring up jars of beans, pickles and jam and put a chunk of wood in the furnace”.  Sometimes it was go out to the milk house and bring in some milk or skim some cream off the milk can.    
Dad had an orchard for as long as I can remember.  At the peak he had over 125 trees.  Some years they would yield many bushels per tree.  They all had to be picked and sold too starting in July and lasting until November.
November, when the meat would freeze without a freezer was butchering time.  We usually butchered our own steer or cow, cut it up into frying meat and hamburger and made the fat into soap.  Mom usually butchered 50 chickens or so too.  She kept some over the winter for eggs, but raised a lot just for eating.  We got cut the heads off, help pluck and gut them.  A deer or two might be added for food if we were lucky during hunting season.   We boys hunted partridges, pheasants, and squirrels and sometimes had them for fall meals. We gave up duck hunting when our younger brothers no longer would play “retriever dog” in the cold fall ponds.
This picking all went on while at the same time we were living on a dairy farm with cows to milk, crops to harvest, fences to fix, calves to feed etc.  Nowadays farmers hire migrant workers to help with the farming and picking.  In the not so far past, farmers had children to do that instead.  Working on a farm was sometimes fun,  and sometimes drudgery.  You did know that you were directly contributing to your family’s wellbeing.  

I still spend a lot of time picking my own food.  However, it is mostly in the aisles of the grocery store.  I have a hard time convincing my son and nephews and nieces of how hard we boys really did have to work on the farm.  It was a relief to us when we turned 10 years old and could get a factory job.