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December, 2010

Dawn Tractors

By Dennis Linden

While any large scale grower would no doubt still consider my small plot of five varieties of specialty garlic a far cry from a volume operation, the commitment it took to plant a field instead of a garden moved my perspective to a very different produce corner, pardon the pun, than the one I am used to from a sales and writing desk.


One of the occupational hazards of marketing perishable produce is that crops must become numbers on an inventory sheet in order for this sector of the business to do its job, which is to move a harvested crop from field to fork as quickly as possible. The first thing to go is the field dirt and then most fresh produce destined for supermarket shelves is sorted, sized, graded and packaged into uniform units that can be stacked for easy transport and distribution. This amazing system can deliver a crop grown in any part of this country to a home refrigerator in any other part of the country within four to five days of its harvest.

However, for those of us who are a part of this process as a business, it is sometimes easy to forget that this wondrous distribution chain starts at dawn with the silhouette of a nameless figure on a tractor working a field or orchard. The professional grower is always up early to get a jump on a day that will end with the last rays of a sun that has moved to the other side of his sky.

Well, I only needed a neighbor’s mini-tractor and, admittedly, did not get to it on that first day until the fall sun had thoroughly burned the chill out of the morning air. But after it took the whole day just to measure out a crop plan based on each variety’s maximum height and harvest date, I finished in the twilight vowing to start much earlier the next day in order to finish getting the seeds all in the ground by the end of it.

Planting one seed and harvesting one plant at a time is the double-edged sword that both protects and limits specialty garlic varieties from being more readily available in the marketplace. This labor intensive crop is impossible to mass produce on a very large scale and, therefore, is not an attractive commercial investment to California’s corporate garlic farming industry. This is one of those rare crops still left to the small, niche market grower and probably the main reason that I find myself in a field planting my own crop rather than inspecting someone else’s production in my usual role as a marketer.

Though I approached this venture because of the market potential that I recognize as a produce professional, the only way this particular vision was going to happen involved a rising sun and several bags of recently harvested seed that must be sown by hand as soon as possible after being prepared for planting. It was my idea to break out of the garden and into a field, so now I must live it i.e. good idea hits the dirt, literally. A reality that included taking four days to plant this crop, rather than the one that I had allotted for the job. Plus, from the ensuing body aches, apparently the use of every muscle from head to my proverbial toes to complete! How can toes ache from planting garlic?

There were a couple of unanticipated perks that did come with the tedium of digging-planting-filling hundreds of holes in the ground. As the process took on assembly line automation, it left one’s mind free to wander. Man left alone with his thoughts was certainly something I had not expected or connected to farming, but there it was! As I worked slowly down each row, planting seed in lockstep exactly nine inches apart, I was also able to plan a few market strategies for next summer’s harvest; do some mental editing of a couple of articles I was in the midst of writing; as well as come up with solutions to all the world’s political and environmental issues of the day! All this while planting a substantial amount of garlic in rows as straight and uniform as a line of soldiers on parade. Who says that men cannot multitask?

The second perk was the background music and entertainment that nature provided for this seeding job as well as all my high-minded musings. Being outside from morning to dusk, I learned that even the sounds of the day move with the sun. In the mornings there was a symphony being played by an unseen orchestra of song birds perched in the trees surrounding the field. Each player greeted the early sun with a unique call that, when added to all the others, flooded the ear with hundreds of melodies that gradually rose in volume as the morning air warmed. In the afternoons those morning sonatas were replaced by the constant back and forth banter of the neighborhood’s crow population. Their conversation also hidden in the trees with only glimpses of movement amongst branches as they kept up a continual chatter. But there was definitely a conversation going on between them; no doubt a critique on the width and straightness of my plant beds. Another occupational hazard – talk to yourself too long in the sun and the birds start talking about you!

On the fourth morning, I found myself standing in the middle of my partially planted plot, holding a first cup of coffee and in field pants now thick with several days of dirt, surveying the work accomplished so far and planning the day’s planting. It was then that I realized that I had become an early morning figure in a field, up early to get a jump on the day. In a very small way, I now understand what motivates those hard working silhouettes who are the very core of the industry that I have been a part of for so very long. With fresh produce from all over the world so readily available, it is easy for all of us to sometimes take this abundance for granted. A walk down the aisles of any retail produce department is a travelogue of the world’s bounty: mangoes from Mexico, grapes from South America, apples from the Pacific Northwest, fresh ginger from Hawaii – all can be traced to hundreds of nameless individuals on dawn tractors. Bravo!