A farmer friend was on his way to pick up 150 pounds of cucumbers, together with as much eggplant as we could spare to help him fill a big wholesale order. I’d told him in advance that we’d have the cucumbers, no problem, but the eggplant was a different matter and we could only shake loose of about 35 pounds. As it happened, however, when I weighed the eggplant we’d set aside, we were a few pounds short. After a quick calculation, I figured another five eggplants would do it and headed out to the field, bucket and snips in hand.

I felt like a criminal.

The thing is, eggplant is Dana’s crop. Just like I almost exclusively care for and harvest the peppers, Dana is in charge of the four varieties of eggplant we grow. She harvests all of it herself.

If a harvest day rolls around and Dana isn’t here for some reason, no one jumps to volunteer for eggplant duty. We just look at each other nervously when the subject comes up. Dana is the pro, and none of us feel worthy of taking her place, even for only a day.

Dana was indeed here when I headed out for the five eggplants, but she was out in the field harvesting tomatoes with Mary, nowhere near the vicinity of the eggplant rows. I reasoned with myself that I only needed five, for heaven’s sake, and there was no good reason why I couldn’t go out and snip them off myself. Nevertheless, I snuck quietly through the farm gate as if I were cheating somehow. I managed to dodge Dana on my way back to the garage, my eggplant booty safely nestled in the bottom of my bucket, and was grateful for not having been caught red-handed.

It got me thinking about how much work is done by hand, red or otherwise, on a small farm like ours. Larger farms rely on automation so much more than we do. Transplanting, for example, can be accomplished with a spiffy – and surely expensive – implement that’s pulled behind a tractor. Two people sit on the back of the implement and feed transplants into the contraption while the machine sets the plants into holes and squirts a blast of water on top of each one.

There’s no such thing at our farm.

Look at the end of this bed and you’ll see that Farmer John did indeed use the tractor to pull a trailer load of late season butternut squash transplants from the greenhouse to the field, but that was the extent of the mechanization. John dug the holes by hand; Kris and Ayla set the plants by hand into each one; and the drip tape (which had been laid by hand) attended to the subsequent watering detail.

The sales pitch “Never been touched by human hands!” certainly wouldn’t apply to our business. Tomatoes in particular are touched – ever so gently – by human hands at least three times before they make it to market. First, of course, each tomato is hand-plucked from the vine and carefully placed into a harvest bucket (after someone’s hand first pulls off the stem so as to keep that tomato from poking a hole into the one next to it).

Once the harvesters have a couple buckets about one-third full, they carry them to the awaiting crates for storage until market day. As they remove tomatoes from the buckets, the harvesters take another peek at each one to be sure there are no fatal defects. They also use a damp cloth to wipe off any debris that might be stuck to the tomato, before placing it upside down in the crate.

Early in the tomato season, flaws are few and far between. Now that multitudes of insects are trying their best to eat up – or at least uglify – the fruit, it calls for closer scrutiny. Often, corroboration between tomato pickers is required…

… so that a consensus can be reached.

Even after such care has been taken, a tomato can surprise you. It may appear innocent enough, yet during the night it can inexplicably erupt into a gooey, stinky mess. Again, this tends to happen mainly this time of year and because of it, we like to harvest each farm stand’s tomatoes two or more days before we set them out for sale.

To keep predators away from the precious cargo, Farmer John stacks filled tomato crates in our house. (Never should you refrigerate a tomato, so we wouldn’t dream of putting them in our walk-in cooler.) The afternoon prior to market, I look at every tomato one last time, moving each one from crate-to-crate – by hand – as I complete my examination.

You’ve probably seen the old gag associated with the “Never touched by human hands!” claim, where chimpanzees are doing the work instead. Ha ha. Jokes with monkeys are cute, right? Well, we might not be as adorable as a gaggle of chimpanzees…but you can rest assured that our hands are a heck of lot cleaner.

* * *

Here’s what we’ll be bringing to the farm stand this Wednesday:

Icebox watermelons, Mideast melons, Tropical melons and ‘Sharyln’ melons (these are all a wonderful surprise – we weren’t expecting to get so many – but Wednesday will definitely be their “last hurrah” for the season!); lots of tomatoes (perhaps not terribly beautiful, but good enough to pass all the inspections!); oodles of Asian cucumbers (two varieties); peppers galore – super sweet Corno di Toro, red bells, green bells, white bells, Cubanelle frying peppers, and jalapenos; four varieties of eggplant (you know who picked them!); bunches of basil; some yellow squash; bags of arugula (yay, it’s back!); butternut squash; two varieties of acorn squash; spaghetti squash; those delicious Rattlesnake green beans (another great surprise!); and jars of Angel Valley Farm Wildflower Honey!

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
Saturdays 9:00-1:00 in Jonestown on FM 1431 at the blinking yellow light; and
Wednesdays 10:00-2:00 in NW Austin at the Asian American Center on Jollyville Road (1-1/2 blocks north of the intersection of Jollyville and Duval)