Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tomato Tales

This year, as a way for the boys to earn some money, we decided to have them raise tomatoes and sell them by the road. Our neighbor had been doing that for several years, and Josh had helped him the last two years because of the neighbor's failing health. When the neighbor passed away this past winter, his widow offered us the use of his little tomato stand and the use of his garden space for raising tomatoes.

In early May, Deb took the boys shopping. They came home with what they thought was 200 tomato plants. They discovered a little later that they actually had 250 plants. They went to two different places to buy the plants, and one place put more plants in a flat than the other place. So now we had 250 plants in the greenhouse that needed to be kept watered until the danger of frost was past.

Putting out that much money ahead of time, with no guarantee of ever getting it back, was tough on the boys. Sixty bucks is a lot of money, and put a good dent in their spending money. Even so, there were a couple times when the plants in the greenhouse got a little dry from neglect, and I walked in to find their big investment looking very droopy.

All of them survived, however, and soon they had the rather daunting task of planting that many tomato plants. It was a lot of work, and had to be done in a short time, because of a week long vacation we were planning at the end of May. This trip forced us to plant about a week earlier than we would otherwise have planted. Frost is still possible near the end of May, and we watched the weather closely.

The day before we left, the weather forecast included a frost warning. That evening, in addition to packing for a week-long trip, we had to figure out how to save 250 tomato plants from frostbite.

It was well after dark when we finally finished our makeshift protection. We put the sprinklers on the tomatoes in the neighbor's garden, after scrambling to find enough hose, and a large fan hanging from a ladder would hopefully keep the frost from settling on the plants in our garden. This consumed our entire stock of extension cords. The thermometer that I placed in our garden recorded a low of 33 degrees that night. One degree above crop failure.

The next expense came when the plants needed to be staked. We managed to find enough wood to make stakes, but the boys had to buy their own twine. Staking tomatoes consumes enormous amounts of twine, and the big roll they had bought last year when they were selling firewood quickly ran out. They found baler twine at a local farm supply store, and bought about 4 miles of it.

The staking was even more work than the planting. We handled it bit by bit. Stake one or two rows today, one or two tomorrow, a little at a time until, after a couple weeks, the stakes and twine were all up.

At this point, they were having doubts that this venture was worthwhile. They had a lot of hard work and about ninety dollars into it, with nothing to show for it except a large spider web of orange baler twine hanging in the garden. It was wait-and-see time. Keep the plants watered and wait and see if anything happens.

About mid-July the first tomatoes started to ripen. Out of the entire patch, we were getting first one or two per day, then five or six. When we finally had enough for a quart-sized box, we did some fixing up to the stand, which was rather weather-worn, and parked the stand with a single box of tomatoes in the front yard. A sign announced, "Tomatoes, $2.00 per box."

The box was gone within a half hour. In the money box was the first income from the tomato business. Two bucks, in small change. Since the stand was now empty, the boys rolled it back up the driveway and parked it out of the way by the big Forsythia bush.

The next day, there was enough for one more box. Again, they parked the stand by the road with its lone box of tomatoes. Again, the tomatoes disappeared in the first half hour. Four bucks down, eighty-six to go to break-even.

A few days later, there were enough tomatoes for two boxes, which also sold quickly. There were more doubts. Half of the patch planted in the neighbor's garden was showing signs of blight. The scrawny plants probably didn't even need the stakes and twine that surrounded them. Although the plants located in our garden were doing much better, they seemed bent on producing lots of rich foliage and very few tomatoes. One row in particular overgrew the stakes and twine, the plants becoming so large and heavy that they started to pull the stakes over.

But production did continue to increase. As I'm sure anyone who has raised a few tomato plants can attest, once a plant has developed a full head of steam, it seems to want to bury you in tomatoes. We eventually reached that point. One day, we had a couple boxes of tomatoes left over at the end of the day. It seems that we finally saturated the clientele of the neighborhood.

Most of the time, the tomatoes simply disappeared, being replaced by cash in the box, so we never got to meet many of the people who stopped by. We had people leave too much money, too little money, or sometimes no money at all. One person decided to rearrange all the tomatoes in the boxes, taking the best ones for herself, and then mistakenly left a one and a ten-dollar bill in the box. When she didn't come back to claim the extra money, we figured it was the cost of the "premium" tomatoes. Occasionally someone would come up the driveway, needing change or just wanting to talk. One woman in particular told the boys, "I just love your tomatoes. I come about twice a week." It was nice to see that we actually had regular customers.

We had been regularly making deposits into the boys' bank accounts from the tomato sales and from their weekly paper routes, which is also collected in one-dollar bills and small change. We count the cash, make an electronic transfer from our joint checking account, and stow the cash in a safe place. One day we brought it all out onto the kitchen table and counted it all out. A few-hundred dollars in one-dollar bills can look like an enormous amount of money, especially when counted into neat piles on the table. It can also make quite an impact on a child who, just a couple months before, was questioning a ninety dollar investment. Those doubts were now gone and the boys are now convinced that it was well worth the hard work. The bank teller was also amazed when I came in with a large big pile of singles and about ten pounds of change.

A wet, mostly dreary September effectively ended the season. The tomatoes are gone, and so is the income they generated. Having no regular income other than their weekly paper routes, the boys will have to make their savings stretch over the winter. This will be a lesson in restraint, particularly since there will need to be enough left over in the spring to buy next summer's plants. Right now, that seems like eons away.

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