Sunday, March 27, 2011

Manure on Our Strawberries

When we bought the original 63 acres that would became the start of Sandhill Farm (we had the land before the name) we made the deal in April. Not knowing what we were going to do to make a living, as soon as we signed the purchase contract we cast about for someone to rent our farmland, figuring at least there'd be some income from that. The seller, Bob Gilmer, suggested we approach our neighbor to the east, Emery Clark.

Even though most folks had their farming plans set for the season—and as I recall there was a shortage of seed corn that year—Emery was willing to put our ground into soybeans. We shook on it, and promptly headed out of town to collect our possessions and return to begin our country life. That simple beginning was the start of a neighborly relationship that lasted nearly 37 years, and which ended quietly a couple weeks ago when Emery passed away at age 85.

We saw as much or more of Emery than we did of our other neighbors because he lived on an acreage out on the blacktop and needed to drive by our property to get to his cropland, which he visited daily. Every now and then he'd stop by in his rickety old light blue Ford pickup. Parked smack in the middle of the road, he's lean against the wooden side panels and visit a spell, seeing how us city slickers were getting along.

While we only rented our land to Emery that first year, it was several years before we had our own combine and we hired him on occasion to bale our hay or to custom cut our red clover or orchardgrass for seed (those old pull-type Allis Chalmers combines are still terrific for harvesting small-scale grass seed).

Emery's wife, Dorothy, was the Egg Lady, keeping many area families supplied with hen fruit. The Clarks maintained a large flock in an outbuilding about 100 feet from their house. Like a lot of people in the egg business they provided their "Ladies Auxiliary" with artificial light in the cold months, to make up for winter's deficit of sunlight. Over the years, Dorothy got tired of getting up in the dark on cold mornings to switch on the light in the hen house, and I was hired to put in an electric timer to handle that chore automatically.

In the early years especially, it wasn't unusual for us neighbors to swap help getting a tractor or a truck out of the mud, and it was handy for him to have some young bucks around to help with a shovel or pry bar when one person's leverage wasn't enough for the task. It's the kind of thing that neighbors do for one another.

Emery was mostly a straight forward what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, yet had a wry sense of humor that he'd let peek out from under his bill cap every so often. One of his favorite jokes had to do with small fruit production. He asked us one day, "Do you put manure on your strawberries?" When we allowed as how we did (thinking to impress him with our organic practices), he just shook his head and deadpanned, "I put cream on mine."

Emery, here's hoping there is a big bowl of strawberries and cream waiting for you up ahead.

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