Freeze: Lessons from Rowan tomato fields
Life’s lessons can be taught in many ways. As a young farm kid in the South Rowan area, there came a time when I needed a job. Many of my peers were working for Patterson Farms, and my dad thought that my brother and I should work there, too.
The name Patterson was synonymous with some of the finest commercial tomato farms in the state. At age 15, I started on one of the greatest adventures of my life, one that I thought could easily have been made into a book. It might still be.
We worked summers and some other weekends during the years until high school graduation. I was used to working on our farm with dairy and beef cattle, growing hay and gardening.
Most of the teens who worked for the Pattersons were similar to me. They had farm backgrounds and no real aversion to work. Yet, we weren’t sure what the responsibility of holding a regular job was all about.
Most were boys who spent long days planting, pruning, tying and finally picking various varieties of tomatoes. There were smaller crops of squash, beans, corn and even cotton. A group of girls worked in the tomato grading shed, and a few lucky guys got to work alongside them. But that is another part of the story.
The farm was a family venture, owned by James Patterson and his sons, Frank and Carl. The complete process of raising tomatoes from seed and then commercial packaging and marketing kept as many as 50 employees busy. Just down Patterson Road, cousins Leonard, Hubert and Chester Patterson also farmed tomatoes and other vegetables. I entered this world as a young and na ve teen and exited it as a young man. Here are some of the lessons learned along the way, with just a touch of humility and humor.
One of the first things I noticed was just how nice those girls working on the farm looked. That was long ago, before the term “hot” was used to describe girls. Hot in those days just meant that the temperature was over 90 degrees just about every day in the fields. All of the new workers or rookies spent all day in those fields. We came to work early, usually about 7 a.m., and were out working till late afternoon. The biggest reward came with the end of the day, when one real sighting of those girls was possible as we clocked out for the day.
Along the way, there were many farm traditions. New tomato pickers had to go through initiation. Initiation consisted of a term called “marking,” when one of the older boys would grab the back band of the new guy’s underwear and yank it up as high toward the neck as it would reach. Of course the underwear was ruined, especially if it would stretch high enough to hang it over the head, but at least now the rookie was one of the guys.
Soon afterwards, when no adults were around, there was the initial tomato fight. Just imagine acres of tomatoes, with lots of experienced arms waiting to chase the younger guys down the rows while throwing small green tomatoes at a rapid fire pace. It usually began with the term “Run!”
Drinks and lunches were cherished in the field, and lots of wisdom was shared at these times. We thought the older guys knew everything about girls, sports, school and so much more. It was during one of those lunch periods that I thought that juggling glass Cheerwine bottles would be cool. It was, until one split my head open, the first of several times that stitches were required.
But the real lessons learned generally came from Frank and Carl Patterson and occasionally from the older guys who led the work crews. They taught us to work in groups and to be productive. We knew we could have a good time, but the work still had to be done. Responsibility, discipline and accountability were practiced on a regular basis.
Imagine being responsible for picking a row of tomatoes, and then suffering total embarrassment as one of the owners or older guys would stop the process to let you know just how poorly your row was being picked.
A day off was almost impossible to get, largely because we were hired to pick tomatoes when they were in season. We worked six days a week, sometimes in the rain and wet fields. We tried to lift multiple, heavy boxes as we loaded the trucks. It was common to come home very dirty, sweaty, thirsty and tired.
But we loved it all, and it was a true joy to go to work. From the first time a teen was trusted to drive a truck, a large tractor, or even lead a small work crew, that teen began to mature and grow toward adulthood.
Forty years ago, many of my life values were forged in those fields. I desperately didn’t want to disappoint the guys I worked with, nor the ones I worked for. Every worker did his part and genuinely cherished that time together in those fields. In fact we celebrated after work, when both the girls and guys played softball, basketball and football in farm fields and yards, went swimming in the community pool, sledding on the hills and frankly spent as much time together as possible. Fast friendships were formed, many that still flourish today.
It was a wonderful time of life, one I will never forget! I’m glad I got through this without explaining the time I picked cotton for 9 cents a pound, clad only in my underwear.
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David Freeze lives in southwestern Rowan County.