Back row, from left: Dale (Perocchi) Bliss’ brother, Ronnie Perocchi; Carol Perocchi (mother); oldest sister, Kay; “Cowboy George” (father); front row: maternal grandmother, Katie Blake Kendrick Alderman; sister, Martha; Dale. Almost everyone in the family helped out during the harvest season. / Courtesy of Dale Bliss
Editor’s note: This is the second half of “Life on the Farm – the Harvest”; the first half ran Sept. 9. This ends the second installment of our four-part series, “Life on the Farm – a Memory.” Dale Bliss grew up on a farm in Hillsborough County and is sharing her memories of the seasons of farm life there.
The picking begins
The laborers walked the rows, looking for squash that were ready to be picked. Any squash that were small or immature were left on the vine to grow. The farm hands would grasp the squash by the middle and give it a slight twist to disconnect it from the vine. It took care and skill in removing the squash without damaging the plant or the other growing squash on the vine.
Some used knives, but most just used a gloved hand. The bushes were low to the ground and required the picker to bend over. By the end of the day, backs were aching; so were a lot of other weary muscles.
The bright, hot Florida sun would scorch the arms and legs and faces of the picking crew. Many wore gloves and long-sleeve shirts to protect their skin. This was a tan you did not want – a “farmer’s tan” – which consisted of leathery skin on arms and faces and, the most noticeable, a “red neck.”
Heavy lifting required
Strong muscular men with tremendous upper-body strength, like our older brother, Ronnie Perocchi, would walk the rows with a big bushel crate so that the pickers could dump their buckets of squash and keep moving. A full bushel crate could easily weigh 40 or more pounds.
They would then lug the squash crate on their shoulders to barrels that had been filled with water. One by one, the squash were dumped into the water to be carefully washed and cleaned. The strong men would quickly return to the squash patch to continue walking the rows and collecting squash.
A big metal barrel had been set up to wash the squash, using laundry detergent. I remember the feel of the white sudsy soap as the squash were washed squeaky-clean. Daddy used a lot of Tide detergent. It was a cheap product that cleaned the dirt from the squash easily. (Organic products were not available then.)
After we thoroughly rinsed the squash, we poured them on a big table, covered with burlap bags, to dry. Their clean fair skin glistened like a yellow jewel. Each squash was then graded so that it could be individually wrapped in paper for protection and then gently packed into its appropriate crate.
These crates were wooden, wire-bound containers that held about 21 pounds. The slats of wood had space between them so air could circulate around the produce and keep the squash from getting too hot. The wooden crates had to be assembled quickly. My sisters (Kay, the oldest of all us kids; and Martha) and I would help build the crates and have them ready for the packers.
Time out for diversion
For fun, we would take pieces of the splinters from the crates and make squash animals. Those were our friends and playmates – no video games or toys for entertainment. Finally, the squash were quickly but gently loaded into Daddy’s big white truck – a 1-ton Ford that was used for hauling produce and cattle.
He’d had detachable metal sides built so that he could transform it into a cattle cage for hauling cows to market. To “Cowboy George” Perocchi, the value of an asset was determined by its usability. Daddy was a multi-tasker, long before the word became popular.
Once loaded into the truck the crates of squash were securely tied down for safety and taken to the local market – we called it the “packing house” – for sale.
Earlier, I mentioned squash that were considered “culls.” These gems did not go to waste. Friends, neighbors and the farm hands would take some home to cook for a meal. But Daddy took them to another “table,” too. He would use the big Ford truck to haul these cull squash to feed his cattle.
It was a great way to reduce the expense of feeding the cows. Plus, the cows enjoyed this delicacy immensely. He would park the truck in the pasture and call the cows – yes, I said “call” the cows. My father did not believe in using cow dogs or horses to rally his herd. He “bellowed,” and they came running. And he rarely had to repeat the call.
Join me again for the next story – about what happened at the packing house. Many fun memories! I can’t wait to share. Until then, happy farming and happy memories!
Dale Bliss feels blessed to be able to live on the same Plant City farm where she was born and raised. Her father, “Cowboy George” Perocchi, called Dale his “little crate-maker” because she made wooden boxes for their vegetables.