Sowing the farmers' stories 

We amateur suburban homesteaders, with our chicken coops and our raised veggie beds and backyard blueberry bushes, we don't know squat.

It's grand that growing food has gone from hippie hobby to its own glossy magazine genre, but for most of us, it's more gesture than guts.

The fact is, true farming is a whole lot harder than us wannabes could ever imagine: The dawn-'til-dusk labor, the hand-me-downs and do-withouts, the sheer fear of being beholden to nature's whims.

Try as we might to compost the potato shavings and reuse each corn-derived plastic bag until it disintegrates, we will never know the zero-waste reality of having to save every last tomato seed for next year's harvest.

When the midtown rats strip the kale leaves down to the spines, us aspiring agronomists can just truck it over to the store for a fresh bunch of organic leaves. A real farmer would cut down those spindly nude umbrellas, put 'em up in some Mason jars with a pinch of salt and eat 'em come January with a little fatback.

No, no matter how tall my okra grows, I will never escape my cush suburban roots. My only childhood get-back-to-the-land stories involve drinking stolen wine coolers on the back nine of Shalimar Golf Course. My pickling skills are pathetic, and I still haven't grown the balls to butcher my menopausal hens.

That's why I find lifelong farmers such romantic figures. What we call "sustainability," they shrug off as "what needs to be done, chile." When someone tells you she has churned butter from milk that came from a cow that she pulled out of its mother, there can be no doubt that the intimacy with food is genuine.

That no-nonsense authenticity and offhand authority is also what inspired a new exhibit up at the Sentient Bean until Nov. 30. The Forsyth Farmers' Almanac: Growing Up, Growing Food is a series of portraits of farmers "past, present and future" coupled with humble biographies to temper any Martha Stewart hubris. There's a beautiful booklet that accompanies the show, and a special gathering of farmers will tell stories in person at the Bean at 7 p.m. this Tuesday, Nov. 19.

The idea to document the farmers' narrative sprouted from Mixed Greens, a melange of citizens dedicated to providing opportunities at the Saturday market "for connection and contribution for people with and without disabilities."

Some of those interactive, inclusive activities include the Little Green Wagon (a mobile garden where kids can plant seeds and watch them grow every week) and simply providing chairs so that folks can sit and shoot the breeze instead of scurrying off with their canvas bags full of squash and beets.

I was honored to hear a few good yarns last week at the Williams Court Apartments, a government subsidized modern high-rise on Lincoln where several retired farmers now reside. Forsyth Farmers Market bulwark and Mixed Greenie Teri Schell introduced me to Archie Mae Ivey, Carrie Ford, Sybil Garnto and Daisy Fields, who all participated in the project and grew up on family farms way back when Monsanto was just a little chemical company out of Illinois.

Archie Mae stayed pretty quiet in her wheelchair, but the rest were plenty outspoken about life on the farm. All of their families were sharecroppers, which meant they worked the land but had to pay rent to an unseen overlord.

Chores were separated into two categories: Before school and after school. Even on the weekends, there was wood to be chopped, cows to be milked and bread to be baked. If you wanted a hot bath, you boiled water or left a tub out in the sun all day. Flirting with boys meant a chaperoned barn dance two towns over.

"It was the pure ol' sticks!" exclaimed Sybil, a mischievous twinkle in her bright blue eyes as she described growing up in Emanuel County in the 1930s.

Most everything revolved around food. While her daddy's main crop was tobacco, Carrie and her family grew the family's vegetables and had a smokehouse where meats were cured. Before she went off to school every morning, she cooked breakfast for her 10 brothers and sisters.

"And we didn't have a fridge, just an icebox," Carrie informed me.

Daisy rolled her eyes. "You had an icebox? You was in society!"

For these women, the hard work required on the farm is still an important point of pride. Daisy beat her pop at a cotton-picking contest. Sybil bragged that she used to wield a huge crosscut saw to feed the fireplace. Carrie was called "Queen Tobacco" because she could string 1600 sticks a day of the stuff to dry in the barn. She also learned how to drive a tractor when she was 8.

Unimpressed, Daisy dismissed this with a harumph. "You had a tractor?! You are from society! All we had was an old mule!"

Eventually, the promised prosperity of city life lured these farm women to Savannah. Carrie found plenty of work in restaurants, traditional Southern kitchens where her skills shone.

"I could make 300 biscuits in 30 minutes," she chirped to the group.

When Williams Court service coordinator and fellow Mixed Greenie Tammy Kenkel pointed out that she probably never got a day's rest until she retired, Carrie broke into a cackle and said, "I reckon so."

Though they miss their porches and the smokehouse bacon and dawn milkings, these farmers seem content to spend their twilight years with air-conditioning and cable. Can you blame them?

"I like to talk about it. I wouldn't give up my past. But it was hard," admits Daisy. "I wouldn't want my chirren to have to do it."

As I watch my own chirren run out to the yard and pick off the last red pepper to add to the storebought kale for the evening's stir fry, I wonder if our symbolic efforts are enough to connect food back to the land.

My new farmer friends would pshaw it as ridiculous and sentimental, but I sometimes wish we did have to work our fingers into blisters to feed ourselves.

Just for a little a while, just so we know not to take the nourishment for granted.


For more farmer stories, go to facebook.com/ForsythFarmersAlmanac.

Forsyth Farmers Storytelling

When: Tues., Nov. 19, 7 p.m.

Where: The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park

Cost: Free

Info: sentientbean.com


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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