THE HIGH-HANGING FRUIT

 

Whenever I wedge my body into an airplane seat, I wish I were shorter.  Otherwise, I’m happy to be taller than average.  It is helpful in such disparate contexts as viewing art, playing tennis and picking blackberries.  This morning, we did the latter, and I benefitted from the abundant fruit available where small children and most adults do not reach.

My wife, Katie, and I arrived at the farm at 7:04 a.m.  Confident the early hour promised a private experience, we were startled to find the parking lot nearly full.  A stream of pickers spread through the rows of bushes like pac-men on a video screen.

Forty minutes later, we’d gathered eight pounds of fruit and headed home to commence a jam-making frenzy.

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Not necessarily in chronological order, the process involves cleaning the fruit, sterilizing the jars, measuring the sugar, adding the pectin and, here’s where I come in, mashing the berries in a special contraption to remove the seeds.  Once upon a time, when we were both younger and less experienced (about four years ago) we made blackberry jam WITHOUT removing the seeds. The taste was good but the consistency resembled dry grape nuts.  Not recommended.

  By the end of the three-hour process we beheld fifteen eight-ounce jars and the prospect of Smuckers-free life for the next 10-12 months.  Whoopee!  (We have already given some away….)

 

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I cannot say the agrarian life style is exactly coursing through my veins.  If I went back three hundred years to some Ukrainian village, I’m confident my forebears would not be found tilling the soil; rather, they likely sold the hoe to the farmer.  Canning and “putting up” provisions as household activities never crossed the threshold of my childhood nor my married life until we moved to North Carolina and found ourselves close to several “Pick-your-own” opportunities.  Along with visits to a strawberry farm and occasional support for the local famer’s market, Katie and I now make jam creation an annual event.

The motivation for this activity is a several-fold.  First, it’s fun for those lucky enough not to pick berries every day for a living. Second, the end product of fresh-fruit jam making is delicious.  Third, there is a sense we are preserving (no pun intended) a farmer’s lifestyle otherwise under assault from many factors, such as urbanization, traffic and labor shortages.  Not all of the factors of modern life are harmful to the farmer – – some are probably viewed as wonderful opportunities.  For instance, we would not live two minutes from the berry farm if some other farmer hadn’t realized his land was more valuable as new homes than cultivated.

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Though I’m not an agricultural economist, I think it’s safe to say the remaining local farmers who own their land (as opposed to tenant farmers) do not face a forlorn future.  On the contrary, their land’s value has soared so much that their labors, I imagine, are constantly measured against the temptation to “cash in.”  By picking their crop and cheerfully paying to do so, we hope to encourage the farmer to continue farming.

 

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Our farming efforts at home consist of six tomato plants wedged into the townhome-sized side-yard that also contains our air conditioning compressor.  The crop is treated like the newborn child of first-time parents.  We water it daily, trim its lower branches meticulously and support its limbs with stakes so it doesn’t stress too much.  We worry at the dearth of pollinating insects and do our best to shake its fragile yellow flowers to promote fertility. Each little tomato that emerges is like a jewel.  We guard against wicked, non-pollinating insects who might emerge to chew on the foliage.

 

 

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How many tomatoes will we harvest? Enough for several salads?  Enough to support a spaghetti dinner? Maybe.  A neighbor who grows with enough chemicals to support the economy of Delaware has scores of tomatoes hanging from every branch, like a Christmas tree in tricolor green-orange-red.  But our organic plants refuse to offer unearned gratification. We seek satisfaction in quality, not quantity.

And so it goes with our blackberry jam. It is said: “One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp.”  But a farm stand is not in the offing.  It’s also said:  “Everything in moderation.”  I’m happy to have used my reach and grasp for enough blackberries to provide a season of deliciously spread toast.

 

 

 

 

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