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The Year of the Life of Pole Tomatoes

by edhawk on May 2, 2016

In the eight, or ten, or twelve acres where we grew pole tomatoes nearly every year of my teens, the previous year’s crop was torn down, turned over and tilled under. Every year, in the early spring, we’d start the whole process once again, from scratch.

As the last year’s harvest was finished with the wire wrapped up and the millions of poles removed, we’d disk the limp tomato vines into the earth, roughly chopping them up and mixing them in with the muddy dirt. But, in the spring, we’d groom the same fields with smaller and finer disc rigs, cutting the earth into a fine, dusty consistency. In the end, these many acres were as smooth and flat as a dining room table top, just a lot bigger and a lot softer.

Once this flat earth had baked in the spring time sun for a few days, we’d hitch a special plow to the back of a strawberry tractor and start cutting furrows into the freshly tended earth. What we called “strawberry tractors” were smaller but powerful little tractors where the front wheels and the water filled rear wheels tracked the same width. Thus, both the front wheels, steering the tractor, and the much larger rear wheels, providing the gravity and plowing force to force the earth into our desired configuration, were all in the same line, hauling the tractor body over the planting surfaces, the wheels only following the bottom of adjoining furrows, leaving the tops of the furrows clean, clear and untouched.Strawberry tractor

The furrows that we cut were as straight as an arrow’s shot, for their length of a couple of hundred yards, and they all started and ended very accurately at a common boundary, for, eventually, they had to mate up with a single, main ditch that carried the sweet water from our hugely deep well on the far corner of the property, sluiced to the various fields all over the property. While, all we were doing was pushing dirt around, we were using surveyor’s transits, snap lines and hundred yard tape measures to make sure we were doing it right. And each year, we checked our efforts over and over again, to get it right, each and every year.

To the casual observer, shoving dirt around might seem like a rude and crude occupation, but to the professional, it truly is an exacting science, requiring all the same tools, skills and knowledge that make highway and building engineer’s projects, successful projects.Central Valley Drought

Once the furrows were plowed, and the feed ditch was well established, the furrows were filled with water, where it slowly soaked into the newly cut earth. We’d let the field bake under the coming summer sun, and when a crust covered the basin of the ditches between the furrows, we’d prepare for the putting up of the poles.

Thousands upon thousands of rough hewn poles, many years old, had been stowed for the winter in stout batches, bound simply with hay bale wire, would be trucked to the edge of the newly prepped tomato field and dumped off. The field hands would set these poles into the crown of the newly built rows about every four or five feet apart. Sometimes they’d use smooth looking, commercial pole pounders to drive the poles deep into the earth, but just as often they’d use pole pounders devised from the junk yards of the farmer’s old and broken machinery, rough cut and sloppy welded together pieces of iron pipe and junk plate metal to exact the same effect as their commercial counterparts. Style wasn’t the goal here, getting the poles into the ground was.

A commercial pole pounder

A commercial pole pounder

When all of the poles were firmly set into their very straight lines atop the furrows, a new load of material, sorely stored for the winter, was dropped off at the head side of the furrows; large spools of smooth, well used, baling wire. Each year, this wire would be pulled taught, from one end of each row of poles to the other, and then fixed to each pole with rounded nail staples, hammered into place by the field workers. At the end of the pole tomato harvest, the poles would be pulled down, the wire being released from the poles at the end of so many claw hammers in the hands of endless field workers.

The newly released wire would have been pulled out of the muck of the last year’s harvest, and as water hoses cleansed the wire, it was pulled up onto large metal spools, to be stored for the winter in cool, dry places, but to be used, once again, in the late spring, to stretch and be part of the pole tomato resurrection.

The thing was, that about the time that the spools of wire were dropped off at the head of the field, everyone on the site started getting a little antsy. The elders of the field hands, knew what was going on, and they had held aside the most broad and staunch of the poles for a special purpose. These heavy poles were sunk deep into the earth, and at an angel leaning away from the line of poles that they were at the head and tail end of. Each row of poles had these massive poles at it’s head and tail. The experienced workers would wrap the wire around these head and tail poles and then sink in several hearty stakes in an arc behind each of these head and tail poles. These were anchor poles, and they were held in place by the arc of stakes wired to them. It was a simple, but messy proposition.

Now came the nerve rattling part of this yearly exercise. The wire spools would be positioned at the head of each row and a worker would walk the length of the row, pulling the start of the spool’s wire in his hand. When he reached the tail of the row, the worker would give the start of the wire to the guy who was driving the strawberry tractor, facing away from the row, at it’s tail. The tractor driver would simply wrap the wire around the rear axel of tractor’s huge wheels. He’d climb aboard the little tractor, rev it up, and then pull that several hundred yard length of wire as taught as he could. When he found the tension on the wire, just before it would break, he signaled the men at the head of the row, with a big wave and holler. With this, a half dozen workers would scuttle into the furrow now adjoining this wire, and start frantically pounding the “U” shaped staple nails to anchor the taught wire to the many, many posts which they had just lately pounded into this very same earth.

There was not simply tension on the wire being pulled so taught by the tractor, there was a hell of a lot tension in the minds of everyone in this field, even the tractor driver himself. You have got to understand that the length of these wire, and the tension to which they applied, if one of the wires was to break while under such stress, the wild, wipping wire could easily take off an arm, perhaps even a head, ask sailors who work under similar pressures with the lines securing their sailing masts or loggers dragging huge trees with overly taught steel cables being strained all the time.

It is no joke, The whipping wires were very dangerous. This was the tense time in the tomato fields. This is why there the massive and reinforced anchor posts at the head and tail of each row. These posts, at both ends of every single row, had to remain strong and secure and not uprooted by the tension of the tractor’s pull.

Now, consider this, there were usually three or four wires pulled on each side of every row of poles, about eight inches apart, to accommodate the growth of the tomato plants, and as much, on both sides of the line of poles. That was a lot of wire pulling, and a whole lot of stress, on the wire and on the workers. No one wanted to get cut in half.

Very occasionally, a wire being pulled by the tractor would break and you could hear it wildly whistling through the air and you’d hear a variety of voices yelling out something like “Down, Down” and everyone would dive deep into the mud of the furrow, letting the old poles take the broken wire’s punishment.

Now, dig it, we haven’t even seen any tomato plants yet.

So, now, the anchors have been set at both ends of each of the hundreds of rows. The wires have been drawn and stapled to the poles. The furrows are straight and secure, The main water channel is solid and secure, the pump at the well head is fine and dandy, all is ready.

Thus, being so ready, we fill the furrows with water, one more time. And we let the water sit for a few days, and we let the earth dry out a little, crusted on top, but still moist when you poke your finger below the crust. The moisture and rich earth below the crust of dried mud is ready. The time is right.

In a very timely manner, a very many trucks come to the head of the field and unload the endless but many small flats of tomato seedlings, grown somewhere that none of us knew nothing about. So now, from sun-up to sun-down, we are on our knees, in the muddy furrows, stuffing the seedlings just under the stretched wires of our so many rows, each seedling being cut into the rich soil about every one or two feet, pocking the earth for each seedling’s planting with our ancient, short trowels, which, until now, had also been stored up for the winter.tomato seedling flats

Once all of the seedlings had been planted, our heavy labor took a pause. All that could be done now, was to let the seedlings grow. We’d irrigate the field every so many days, and we’d venture down the rows to pick bugs off of the leaves and pull up invading weeds that had naturally attempted to intrude and sprout in this well tended earth. As the tomato seedlings grew into more and more adult plants, as we groomed the earth beneath them, we’d also make sure that the growing plants were lacing and intertwining themselves onto the wires so purposely and judiciously pulled just a few days earlier. We didn’t want to have the new growth of the plants falling in the damp furrows below. Moistened leaves were very susceptible to being burnt by the increasingly brilliant, summer sun. And as well, we had to keep the furrows open and clear to facilitate the efficient picking of fruit when it got ripe.

For how the different crops would mature and ripen in the little Almaden Valley, the prune orchards on the hillsides and the would ripen about the same time as the pole tomatoes. The prune harvest lasted about nearly a month, while the tomato harvest last only about two weeks. As I got older, year by year, as both crops got close to picking, I was relegated more and more to the tomatoes and less and less to the prunes. The rancher was managing about six or seven different prune orchards spread out from our valley, over to Coyote and Morgan Hill. He had to stay on the road to keep the prune operations at maximum capacity. The pole tomatoes were at just one place and as picking time approached, they would need constant and intense attention until they were picked clean. As the years passed, I was assigned this attention to the onslaught of the pole tomato harvest. It was a big responsibility for a 15 or 16 year old kid. Especially for a runt kid like me.

Tomato Blossoms

Tomato Blossoms

The tomato seedlings grew and wound their way up the wires strung out all aroud them. After a few weeks, the adolescent plants started popping out little yellow blossoms. With more time, the yellow blossoms fell away, and small, hard green nubs were to be found in their place. We’d irrigate the fields, debugged the leaves and pulled up the ever encroaching weeds. The stringy, wild, white flowered morning glories were the biggest pests of all. Their clinging and spider-web like vines seemed to grow ten feet in a single night. They would crawl up the tomato plants, and weave their fine tendrils all through the tomato’s structure, seeking to steal the sunlight and choke the life out of the supporting tomato structure. We really hated these nasty, fast growing little buggers. With a vengeance, whenever we saw any evidence of the morning glories, we’d yank them out of the ground and off any tomato plants they had a chance to violate.

During the idle times of the field, when it was nothing but well tilled dirt, the morning glories would abound in the virgin earth, becoming like huge, natural, white carpeting on the surface of the land. But during the planting and maturity of the tomato field, these vines with their innocent looking white flowers were the menace of our labors and were not dealt with in a kindly manner.

The little, green nubs would expand and enlarge, and start turning to a paler and more white color as they grew to the size of golf balls, and then tennis balls. And these bulbs of vegetation were no less hard than the golf balls they emulated. By the time this occurred, the plants that were once frail, little seedlings, were now stout and hearty shrubs, strung up in the wires nailed to the aged and oft used posts. These shrubs bathed in the brilliant sunlight above our valley, sucked up all the water we could give them from our deep wells, the well’s water drawn up with our large, industrial duty, electric pumps, endlessly whining and screaming at all hours of the night and day.

In our still and silent rural air, the hoot of an owl, or the yipe of a coyote would carry for miles, and the passing of a railroad train might carry for more than ten miles. In such profound stillness, as the field crops were sucking up all the water we could provide them, the entire neighborhood would ignore the constant turning off and turning on of the huge deep well pumps, controlled by the rustic automation of the day. You could hear the relays clicking and the pumps reving up, then owlfacewhining a few hours at a time, then shutting themselves down to cool off and rest until needed once more. You could hear the neighbor’s well pumps doing the same thing, a half mile up or down the road. But for the necessity of the water to enrich the different fields in the neighborhood, everyone sleeping through the warm nights, with open windows to vent the heat, ignored the coming and goings of the industrial pumps starting and stopping so many times through each, otherwise, silent night, save for the owls and coyotes, and the occasional scream of a cougar.

So necessary was that well water, that you might say that the clicking of the relays and the whining of the big pumps were almost a lullaby to the residents of the valley, relying so much on the yield of the water’s abundance. Everyone slept through these machinations, very soundly and comfortably, knowing of the bounty that lay ahead. It was when these relays and pumps went silent that we laid awake at night, wondering if we were going to have a successful harvest this season, or not. We needed that water being drawn up the clicks and whines. The lack of it made for sleepless nights. In such silent times is when we grow restless, laying awake in our beds, now hearing, all to loud, the hoot of the owl, the yipe of the coyote, the scream of the mountain cat.pump water

prune-box

There would be four of these “prune boxes” on your tomato picking cart

Being gorged with our special sunlight and our pumped up sweet water, the white orbs hanging from the tomato shrubs started to soften, and turn pink. With more sunshine and clear water, the pink turned to a red, then a really deep and rich red. Now, I had nothing to do with the other crop, the prunes. From here on out, if my eyes were open, all I would be seeing were the workings of the tomatoes. Once they started turning to their very red, thin skinned and very soft and juicy ripeness, we had to hustle from sun up to sun down to not only groom the tomato field as before, picking out bugs and pulling up weeds, but, at the same time we now had to collect the field’s fruit at the right time, picking the ready to burst red fruit while leaving the still pink fruit to gather in a bit more sun and water to get really, really red.

Let me tell you, if you think a stock broker on the floor of some New York stock exchange is under a bunch of stress, watching this ticker tape and that, well, thats only about a quarter of the stress one feels when the tomatoes start ripening.

At daybreak, you’d park one or two half ton pickup trucks on the head of the field. Left from the day before, and the day before that, are a variety of specialized, abbreviated wheel barrows, made of ancient fir wood and rustic iron. Simply, these wheel barrows were designed and constructed to carry four “prune boxes” through the rows of tomatoes. As we made our way through the rows, we would be grading the tomatoes as we encountered them. The four boxes laying on the two wooden rails of our wheel barrow were well defined as to what fruit should be placed in each of them. Closest to you were the ripest and least firm of fruit, those tomatoes that were on the verge of bursting. These are what we called the juice fruit. No matter how gently handled, these over-ripe veges would never make it to a grocery store’s counter with any sort of shape or integrity. From the get go, right off the plant, these guys were too ripe to be packaged and shipped. They were only good to be made into tomato juice.index

The next box up on the wheel barrow’s rails, were the handsomely ripe fruit that was already to go, but it had to go in the next day or two or it then ripen into the world of its juice brothers. This grade of fruit went to the local grocery stores, perfect for immediate sale, or maybe to the local fruit stands set up on the edge of the major roads in the neighborhood.

The third box on the wheel barrow is where you tossed the red, but still firm tomato fruit that would finish ripening as it was shipped to a packing house and then on to urban super markets. In the few days that it took this group of fruit to show itself in public, by the virtue of its inner nature and strength, it would finish ripening to a fairly decent quality, all by itself, with no sun or water, in the darkness of the shipping containers in which it was bound.

Now, it was in the fourth box on the rails, where you showed your stuff, your subtle discerning of the life of this fruit (tomatoes are really vegetables, but when we were harvesting, we called everything “fruit;” if we had to send it off to market, simply, it was fruit, the fruit of the harvest.)

The fruit you tossed into the fourth box was the barely pink tomatoes that would be packed in light, pine boxes holding about sixteen or twenty tomatoes, that would be shipped to far away markets on the east coast of the U.S. or maybe to markets as far away as the Orient or Europe. These boxes of fruit would have a good long time to self ripen, at least, as much as they could. We fruit pickers didn’t like the fourth box, as we knew that such fruit would never be anything more than red colored, dry, pithy globes called tomatoes. They’d have no juice, no flavor, no decent texture, but they were shippable merchandise.

Despite all of the people and all of their efforts to put this pole tomato field into ready order, with the poles, the wire and the tractors all included, in the end, it only took about two or three men to harvest its crop, as they went up and down the rows every day, all day long, grading the ripening fruit over and over again, every day for several weeks.

picking pole tomatoes

This photo is pretty close to how our fields were picked, except that I was always bear headed. I’ve never worn any hats.

It wasn’t glamorous work. Having pushed this specialized wheel barrow with it’s four prune boxes down the furrow of each long row (remember, these boxes could hold about 60 pounds of fruit each), at the end of each row, you’d use the hand trowel once used to put the little seedling suckers into the ground to start all of this, you’d use the trowel to knock and peel the mud off the wide, rusted surface of the wheel barrow’s crude flat iron wheel with about six heavy spokes adjoining the wide, heavy rim to it’s hub. Then you’d wheel the cart around and start down the next, endless row, sun rise to sun down, until you could see the color of the fruit.

As the boxes on your cart got filled up, you’d unload them and build stacks on the field head; one set of stacks for each grade of tomato that you had just picked. There would be a stack for the over-ripe juice tomatoes, a stack for the perfect, local tomatoes, a stack for the shippable tomatoes and a stack for the overseas tomatoes. We pickers would be stuck way out in the middle of the tomato field and we’d see the landowner pull up in one of his vehicles with a couple of migrant workers, and have them load our stacked up fruit onto the beds of the idle pickup trucks and drive the fruit to the landowner’s garage, just a few hundred of yards away.

For as much work as this field required of me for my last few years before going off to college in September of 1966, the amount of work I put into this field for the last few years blinded the end of each of those last summers. I worked my ass off and knew nothing but tomatoes and their management. Despite this, we were a very small operation. My boss would bring a couple of migrants to our field, have them fill up the beds of the idle pickup trucks and then drive then to the boss’s garage, just a few hundred yards away. There, in that garage, the boss’s wife and my mom would pack these light weight, white pine boxes with the fruit we just picked. These were warm nights, the the garage door would be pulled up and in the driveway from the main road up the black topped drive to the garage’s cement floor, were a collection of heavy, industrial pallets where the two women would stack their finished tomato shipping crates, so small and delicate. So small and delicate considering the heavy carts and boxes that we had loaded, just hours before. One couldn’t ignore the labor of the harvest as opposed to the marketing of the harvest.

tomato label 2

These are sample tomato box labels. Ours had a reference to Almaden Valley and were very similar in style.

But my daily labors didn’t cease with the end of the light of day, nope, no such luck. As the two ladies guiding my path into adulthood were packing those white wooden packing crates with our fruit that we had just picked that very same day, they had me doing the very same duties that I was applied to when we first moved onto this farmstead; they’d have me paste preprinted labels onto the ends of their white packing crates, a task that was supposed to be assigned to my younger siblings, but had been ignored by the two busy body ladies, tuned in to the newest radio stations on a radio machine sitting in a corner of the garage, and toiling over the latest gossip regarding the neighborhood’s families. I hated pasting the labels now, after my other day’s labors, and I hated listening to their idle, stupid gossip.

I pasted the labels, for all of my work during the daylight hours, I wasn’t going to get fed until both of the moms finished packing all of the fruit meand my cohorts had just picked earlier, that same day. The moms had their view of things with their hair pulled up into tight scarves, talking gossip and commenting on the stupid songs emanating from their cheap radio. I had my own view as well, but I was just a kid, so I had to succumb to the elder’s perspective and keep my mouth shut. But I was starving and I could have eaten a horse. And I could have eaten that horse right now in the raw!

However, back in those days, you didn’t talk back to your parents. Today, some 50 or 60 years later, I see how kids act (I’ve never had any kids of my own, so my experience is simply by observation) but I can’t believe how rude and raucous the nasty little bastards are now-a-days. Who do we blame, the kids themselves or the parents who have allowed the little nasties to grow up undisciplined and spoiled? I’m not a parent so what right do I have to say. However, I am a mature, well mannered, responsible, though somewhat unconventional, adult and I see no need for such rudeness and disrespect to be supported and condoned by the nasty, little gnomes of today. To hell with them and their supportive parents. Let’s fly right!tomato label 1

So I pasted labels onto the pine wood boxes in the light of the garage’s electric lights and waited for the two ladies to finish their tomato packing chores to get my dinner, and I waited as such in obedient and respectful silence. But, always , I got an ample and very nutritious dinner, and let me tell you, I really did sleep like a log, every night, all through the tomato harvest.

Unless you would have actually picked pole tomatoes from the poles, as I and a few of us others did, there are certain, secret things that occurred during those pickings that only the pickers would ever know of. One of the most obvious and obnoxious things, was the thing we called “tomato dust,” a sticky, green dust sprinkled onto your arms as you rubbed the leaves and stems of the tomato bushes while you were picking off the fruit from the bush. In the early morning, this dust would cover your hands and arms and give your arms a green color, but by noon, there would be so much of this “dust” deposited on your arms, that mixed with the dust of the day, your arms would be covered in a very sticky and uncomfortable blackish tar. We’d break about mid-day to eat our bag lunches, to be had in the shade of the idle pickup trucks parked at the head of the field. We didn’t have the time to go home and wash the tomato tar off of our arms, so we’d scrape it off, using the dull side of our pocket knives. At the end of each day of picking, the first thing we’d do, is to scrub off the itchy, cruddy tar from our arms and hands. It was a very uncomfortable substance but it was just one more thing you had to ignore during the intentness of a short lived but profitable harvest.

One of the other aspects peculiar to picking these pole tomatoes, was the sun. Crawling up and down ladders to pick the apricots, put you in a whole bunch of different exposures to the hot, summer sun. But, being bent over the pole tomatoes, in their furrows, where the tops of the bushes would be no higher than your chest, you spent these long, full days bent over, twisting the ripe fruit off their stems. You’d find yourself in these long daytime hours of the summer, bare backed, the skin and hair of your torso and head being constantly baked by the sun. With this constant, extreme exposure to our hot summer sun, my Italian/German genetic heritage left my skin a deep, rich brown.

In those days, being viewed from the back, I’d be mistaken for being a Mexican, so tan was the skin on my back. My belly, though, was as white as a lizard’s, never exposed to the summer sun. We weren’t the sun baskers that religiously rotated their bodies on the chaise lounges up at the country club. We didn’t have the luxury of paying attention to what we looked liked, we just defaulted to the reality of our days. But, just as much as my skin was darkened by the sun, my hair was bleached by the sun, just like the blondish hair on the heads of the hard core surfers over in Santa Cruz. By the end of the summer, the dark brown hair on the crown of my head would be turned to a nearly golden blonde by the bleaching of the sun.

potato bug

Potato Bug

And as I’m recalling these old days, there is one obtuse, little memory that comes to mind. As we’d push aside the leaves of the tomato bushes, to find the ripening fruit, now and then your hand would jump back at you, as you turned up a leaf being held by some ugly, fleshy potato bug. These ugly, nasty little bastards were just so inherently ugly, that every time you’d discovered one, you’d jerk back, to keep every part of your body away from them. They were about the same size as our more familiar tarantulas, but, unlike our more familiar hairy, tarantula friends, these ugly, little bastards looked more like some unearthly, super outer space being whose insides were on the outside, and if they could be of a significantly larger size, somehow, they’d devour you in a second. When I first encountered these ugly bastards, I kept my reactions to myself, embarrassed by my revulsion. Within a few seasons, however, I found that just about everyone, old and young, had the same feelings about these little buggers that I had. Potato bugs are really creepy.

We prepped and weaned and then harvested these eight or ten acres every year, being burnt by the sun and strengthened by the work. We’d pick the fruit during the day, and then stack the white shipping crates onto the pallets sitting under the artificial lights pouring out from the top of the garage. Finally, when the day’s crop was put to bed, the ladies would leave the garage and go the kitchen and finally make our late night dinner. This might be as late as 11:00 o’clock at night. But, finally, the day was done.

But the next day started before 6:00 a.m., and we started doing it all over again.

When the last of the ripe tomatoes were picked and packaged, we’d bring in a whole bunch of the migrant workers, now done with the prune picking, and we’d have them strip the wires off of the poles, and we’d clean and re-spool the long wires with the same tractor that strung them. The the poles would be pulled from the falled tomato bushes and were rebound with baling wire for winter storage. The last thing to be done, now, at the end of this tomato season, was to once more, bring out the big disc rigs and turn the fruitless plants down into the still muddy earth of the field.

But, before this happened, there was one more tradition that had to occur as each pole tomato season ended. Now, at this point in time, the families of the local landowners and the families of the migrant workers would merge together, and fashion long, ample tables, and fill the air with the smells of a grand variety of recipes from the familiar Almaden kitchens, as well as those from the northern provinces of Mexico and all of the families would partake of a grande fiesta to celebrate the end of a successful harvest. It was a fine time for all.harvest dinner 1

But, before the fiesta ended, and before the sun had set, all of the men, both local and migrant, would retire for one last foray in the tomato field, now devoid of wires or poles, and the mushy fruit that was left in the tangle of withered tomato bushes would be used as ammunition for the yearly tomato fight that would last long into the night, an annual tradition, fueled by fine, home-made wine and jug upon jug of the finest Mexican beer. There were no sides to win or lose, there was just the hilarious lobbing of unusable fruit, to and fro, just for the fun of it.

The work was done, the money made, the equipment was all put away. Now was the time to cut loose.

After this, came the winter, and the time to repair the trucks and tractors and plows, the time to sharpen the blades on all of the cutting tools, the time to take account of the numbers that found the success and failures of our efforts.

Soon enough, without ever thinking about it, the spring time would be coming round again. It would all be starting up again, without us doing just about nothing but doing it all over again, year after year, and year after year, again.

And so it goes.

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