August 3, 2015
Mike and Cathy, owners of the fruit and vegetable stand on the top of the bluff, are two of the hardest working people I know. Their stand is set in front of an old-time gas station, a lane with an over-hanging roof resting on two brick pillars attached to a small service building.
You smell the goods before you walk in. Cantaloupes and Calhoun peaches lure one from a hundred feet away. Then the mounds of sweet corn make your mouth water. And there are juicy watermelons—I ate three quarters of one in a single sitting—peppers, white and red potatoes, piles of tomatoes, several varieties of cherry tomatoes with exotic colors of chocolate and lemon, cucumbers, green beans, jars of apple butter, onions, apples, eggplant, squashes and a whole lot more.
I have become sort of an honorary relative, Uncle Gene, who comes over to the stand in the late afternoon, sits in a lawn chair, sometimes helps customers, other times shoots the bull with an amazing cast of steady customers including: Stevie, the old woman who runs the fish stand on Clifton and the Great River Road; the old professor in sport coat and shorts and enormous turquoise necklace and earrings; the 400 pound hillbilly who scowls and doesn’t buy anything; the ancient sisters and their granddaughter visiting from Georgia; the beautiful student from Kenya; the mayor of Godfrey; girls in swimsuits; and little kids who want this peach and that tomato.
Oh yes, and I eat. I walk away with sticky fingers and a butterfly or two attached to me for nectar.
Last Thursday, Mike needed help picking up produce from his source, a Mennonite farm outside Vandalia. We drove his truck-and-trailer down a country road, horse-and-buggies in front of us, two-horse-hitch wagons in front, all headed to the same place. Schnucks semis were in the parade, loaded with corn for their grocery stores.
There were Mennonite farms as far as the eye could see. The farmers were bringing their produce to a central, collective “grocery store”: a roofed, wall-less 10,000 square feet open floor upon which were huge boxes and cloth bags of vegetable and fruit.
Vendors from as far north as Springfield and south as Mt. Vernon gather there every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, to bid on huge lots of produce. Mennonite men and boys, in their signature straw hats and suspendered trousers (no belts allowed), work the crowd and gossip about vegetables—what’s in, what’s out. Mennonite women in bonnets and full-length muslin dresses, serve food and run the business office.
The only business implements allowed were pencils and notebooks. There was no electricity. I had to pee in a windowless restroom with no lights. Mennonites have figured out how to use non-electrical devices which can convert propane gas power to energy in their homes. Telephones are not allowed indoors.
The auction was fascinating. A father and son dressed in western hats and shirts and cowboy boots worked the floor with bullhorns, standing in portable auction stands which Mennonite boys wheeled from lot to lot. Auctioneers: “Hey, start the bidding on 56 dozen grade A corn. Fifty, fifty, seventy-five, a dollar–who will say two?”
Buyers bought huge amounts of certain items—Mike was looking for melons and cantaloupes—and they indicated their bids by touching noses, nodding or raised hands, and Mennonite boys patrolled the crowds and called, “Hey,” every time they spotted a bid.
This has been a bad year for farming in general, great for mosquitoes and horseflies. It is common now to hear farmers talk about global warming and how this region will only support cotton growing by 2040. (The Middle East reached 146 degrees last week.) Here at home, we averaged two inches of rain per week, and a lot of fruits and vegetables didn’t take it well.
I know the feeling. But thanks to Mike and Cathy’s fruit and vegetable stand, at least I’m going to hell with peach juice on my lips.