Monday, June 1, 2020

The Joy of Growing Food for Others - What we can learn from a four-year-old farmer

Olivia is a tiny girl, probably somewhere between four and five, that doesn’t really walk from place to place as much as she bounces. Her hair is white-blonde from the sun, she always smiles, and she sings while she talks.

We met her at a Gainesville, Florida farmers market. My wife Natalia sells the fruits and vegetables she produces there, and Olivia and her parents are regular customers. One day last fall Olivia would fall in love with the cucamelon. Also known as the mouse melon or Mexican sour gherkin, the cucamelon is a fresh-market fruit that has the color and size that would be perfect as a watermelon for Barbie and Ken.

Cucamelons have a pickle-like quality and a hint of citrus, and they are a favorite at the market. We eat them in salads and on cheese boards, plucked by the dozens from long prolific vines.
And Oliva just loves them. During the early spring Florida growing season in January and February she’d come back week after week, searching for the fruit even when they were out of season.
“Just a few more weeks,” was always our answer.
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that one morning before the market I rushed out in the greenhouse and pulled a plant from the ground, placing its big white root and scraggly leaves into a pot with fresh soil. That sunny Saturday I’d present it to her at the market.
Her father wanted to pay for it, but there was no way it was going to happen. When you see a child so enthusiastic about a horticultural product, you lean into it.
Weeks went by and COVID19 kept the family away from the market. Each week more and more people returned, and this last Saturday they returned. Olivia carrying a tiny plastic sandwich bag.
“Cucamelons!” she said, as she shook the zip-seal bag with a bunch of the little pickle-grapes.
But her favorite snack was not for her own consumption. She wasn’t there to show off her success, searching for a compliment.
Instead they were a gift. She wanted to give them to Natalia. The food she produced was a gift for someone else. These little berries were something that Olivia produced, at her home, in her soil. With her care and watchful eye, the tiny girl watched a plant grow and produce before her harvest.
And she would share her work with someone special.
The funny part is, she gave a bag of a dozen cucamelons to Natalia, and then wanted her parents to buy more, as our table was filled with them stacked neatly in tiny cups.
This is the important point. It was not about the cucamelons — it was about producing something from a plant, by your hands, and wanting to share it with others. Such gestures satisfy something, an intense nurturing mission, deep in our DNA.
It is the same force that makes the farmer in Manitoba get out to feed and milk the cows on a -20° morning. It is the drive that sends Natalia to the field all day, every day, dawn past dusk, in brutal heat and humidity, only to load the truck on her days off and head to market. It is the satisfaction of having fresh food to share with a community.
And in this microcosm Olivia embodies the drive that every agricultural producer feels. A hard job, fighting against nature while working in concert with it, toiling at a pace the world decides you need to take — in the mission to produce something for others to eat.
I was extremely proud of Olivia and extremely touched. In a time when selfies and narcissistic behaviors are so common, a four-year-old girl wanted to share her limited and coveted resource with someone else. It is a testament to her parents I’m sure, but a behavior that will serve her well the rest of her life.
And yesterday I gave her pot of strawberry plants…