|There’s No Cooling Off for Truck Farming Couple|
Think it’s tough walking around outside when the temperature is pushing toward 100 degrees and the humidity isn’t far behind?
Air conditioning has a way of rectifying that, but such is not the case for Jerry and Karen Wingard who spend their days in the oppressive heat picking tomatoes, okra, peas, watermelons and lots of other specialty produce.
They don’t have an air conditioned office where they can cool off. Catching an occasional breeze helps, but, for the most part, it’s like working near a blast furnace more often than not from late spring to early autumn.
Don’t pity them, though. They love what they do, especially being together out in a tomato patch or back at their produce stand in the little Butler County community of Mckenzie which is south of Georgiana.
"My daddy did this, too," said Jerry, 56, as he checked over his latest batch of "maters" in a bin where customers line up to select what appeals to them. "That’s about all he ever did and it’s about the same for me."
Karen, 42, appreciates cool comfort a lot more than her hubby. She used to work at a Butler County nurse uniform plant that basically withered on the textile vine thanks to trade agreements that sent most of those jobs overseas.
"It was air conditioned where I worked," she said. "I never realized how hot and how hard picking tomatoes could be until I started doing it every day. Being out in this heat most of the day can really take it out of you."
Jerry and Karen met two decades ago following failed first marriages. They are soul mates and the love and affection they have for each other is evident to anyone who sees them at the produce stand.
"They are two of the most dedicated people I’ve ever seen," said Levon Glisson, who manages Andalusia Farmers Cooperative not far from Wingard Produce. "Truck farming is very hard work, but they’re down-to-earth people who never seem to complain about anything.
"Jerry’s word is his bond and that says a lot about him. When it’s time to get something done, the Wingards get it done."
Other Alabamians involved in row crop and specialty crops are just like the Wingards—men and women who are up early in the morning and spend the day in their fields tending to a variety of fruits and vegetables.
There is a big difference between row crops and specialty farming, but the bottom line is the same, according to Harold McLemore, a marketing specialist with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.
"No matter what the price might be, there is always a market for both of them," said McLemore. "The difference is there’s always a price for row crops. When it comes to produce, however, you’ve got to know your market and just how much to grow."
McLemore points out that changing times and mechanization have made row crop farming a lot easier and less expensive than it used to be when manual labor was the key to success in that field of endeavor. It also cost a lot of money to pay those who picked the crops.
"Today, mechanized equipment allows one man to easily handle 300 to 400 acres at a time," McLemore said. "When you’re dealing with produce, you’ve got to have your labor set up as well as refrigeration to protect what’s planted."
McLemore and co-worker George Paris are proponents of plasticulture which involves placement of plastic over rows of vegetables to enhance growing. They point to Alabama’s neighbor to the east as an example of just how successful it’s become in Georgia.
"They’ve got 35,000 acres in plasticulture production over there and Alabama’s only got about 3,000 acres," said McLemore. "We have an opportunity to improve our production and marketing if we can just find a way to expand that operation."
At one time, farmers in several Alabama counties grew strawberries. There are a lot fewer today and California has gained a near monopoly on berries across the country.
"I’d say half of the strawberry consumption in Alabama involves what’s grown in California," McLemore said. "At the moment, they are running out of water out there and we have an opportunity to grab some of that market. We don’t want it all, just our share."
In late July, McLemore and Paris joined Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks and Assistant Commissioner Glen Zorn at the inaugural Farmers Market on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery—right in front of the State Capitol.
Farmers from throughout the state were in booths lining both sides of Dexter, offering fruit and vegetables grown on their land. Some misjudged the response and, too late, discovered they didn’t bring enough tomatoes, peaches, peas, okra and other crops for sale.
First Lady Patsy Riley officially opened the Capitol Market and announced to one and all that a garden has been planted behind the Governor’s Mansion where a variety of items have been growing for the past several months. Another market is planned for next year and there’s a possibility more than one may be held each year.
A major concern for Alabama agricultural leaders today is the aging of farmers in the state. Many find their children and grandchildren have no interest in farming, raising the possibility of having to sell their land or leasing it out to individuals or large corporations.
The Wingards are well aware of that possibility but, for the time being, they intend to continue producing fruit that goes quickly when customers drop by to examine what the latest arrivals are in the bins at their stand.
A few days ago, they were busy checking out the latest pile of tomatoes that would soon find their way into sandwiches and salads in Alabama and nearby states. They knew long before they dumped them into the bins which ones were good and which ones were bad. That’s because they picked ’em.
Their produce stand won’t win any awards for structural appearance, but that’s not something they care about. It serves its purpose and repeat customers bear that out.
Located along Crum Foshee Highway, the business has become a regular stop along the way for families heading to and from the beach. Many folks call Jerry and Karen by their first names because they’ve gotten to know them so well through the years.
They produce a lot more than tomatoes, of course. It’s unlikely they could stay in business very long with only one item to sell. That’s why they sell a wide variety of produce. They even sell colorful hot peppers.
"People seem to like ’em and they go fast," said Karen. "We let them know how hot they are. They can flat burn your tongue."
The produce stand isn’t enclosed, and the only comfortable spot to be found during the Dog Days of July and August is a cooler where the Wingards keep their watermelons.
"I come in here a lot during the summer," Karen said, as she stood halfway in the cooler, half a watermelon in her hands—a knife stuck in the middle. "I cut a square of melon and eat it when it’s just too hot outside like it is today."
Alabama used to have a lot more farmers who specialized in produce like corn, peanuts, watermelons, tomatoes and peas.
Because the work is so hot and so hard, many have given up and now use their land for cattle or trees or both. That leaves the Wingards and a dwindling number of other farmers to pick up the slack around the state.
Strong winds from storms occasionally blow down their old wooden sign out front, but Jerry always puts it back in place for motorists to see as they zoom up and down the highway.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.