Editor’s note: This is the first half of Part 2 of “Life on the Farm – the Harvest”; this begins 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.
In my last “Life on the Farm” blog, planting season had just wrapped up. Our father, “Cowboy George” Perocchi, an American farmer of Italian descent, was wiping his sweaty brow after completing an integral step in successful farming as he came in from the field. After months of watering, fertilizing and meticulously tending the crops, it was finally time to reap the rewards.
Harvesting required more laborers – or, as Daddy referred to the extra help, “farm hands.” He was not a “windshield farmer” who rode around in his vehicle, occasionally opening the door and stepping onto the soil – or, worse, just rolling down the window to take a peek. Not “Cowboy George.” He was hands-on. In fact, even at harvest time, he provided a lot of physical labor.
During the harvest, he would employ local neighbors, stay-at-home moms, loyal friends and retirees and, of course, his family members. Some of the farm hands needed the extra income, but a few wanted to experience, first-hand, life on a farm.
Often, Russell Brown, a young local auto mechanic, would leave his shop and show up to help carry the squash from the field to the packing and sorting tables.
First in the field
“Cowboy George’s” day started long before the rooster crowed. He would grab a cup of hot black coffee that had been poured into a bowl so it would cool faster, gulp it down and head out for the squash patch. He drank it straight; no cream, no sugar.
The coffee was his wake-up call; the caffeine gave him the jump-start he needed to face the day full of mammoth tasks. No one got to the field before Daddy; it just wasn’t an option. Laborers would arrive at sunrise, but George didn’t have time to welcome the daylight. He had too many tasks to complete before the pickers invaded the rows of produce hanging heavily from the vines.
I loved the smell of the squash patch in the morning, and the sight of the dew glistening on the bright yellow blooms. I would look for the vegetables on the vine. It was like hunting for Easter eggs – a real prize.
Nothing went to waste
Harvest season was not a special season just for our family; the entire neighborhood marked it on their calendars. Locals would show up hoping to take home the “culls” – the squash that were not marketable. These might have had a few blemishes on the outside but were perfectly serviceable for family-favorite recipes like fried squash or, my favorite, squash casserole.
The local deputy sheriff, A.J. Keene, who was a longtime family friend of Mother’s, would drive to the squash patch in his squad car to patrol the field when my father was out of town. Often, he would stop and chat, or even grab a crate and help.
While the pickers began gathering at the field, Daddy and our family commenced setting up the picking, packing and washing stations under a large, old oak tree. This served as the area where the produce would be carefully washed, graded and packed according to size, color and appearance. “Fancy” was the best grade, with “Number 1” and “Number 2” being assigned to lesser-quality squash.
The fancy squash had to be uniform in size, brightly colored and without a blemish. Squash less consistent in size and color were downgraded to “Number 1” or “Number 2.” They were still perfectly good for eating but were not as appealing to consumers.
Watch for the second half of “Life on the Farm – the Harvest” on Friday, Sept. 16.
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.