July 12, 1998
Friday the 3rd was the first big picking day, and my back was killing me afterwards. I couldn’t keep up with Paula. She picks about 50% faster than me, but I feel I’m catching up. Either that or she’s slowing down so as to not to embarrass me.
Saturday was the first St. Albert Market. This is the largest Market in Western Canada, with well over 200 hundred vendors. This year, the starting gun was replaced with a cannon shot. Unfortunately, no one told the vendors and at precisely 10:00 AM, the blast sent people scurrying for cover. The market is a five hour-long affair, but we were sold out just after eleven. Bernie and I went for a coffee, while Paula put copies of her book on the table and started flogging (she sold eight copies).
Bernie usually hawks in front of the table, offering free samples of the sugar snap peas. He treats the markets as street theatre, and will do anything to push the product. Juggling is a favorite trick. He targets families and gives samples to the kids, who love them and then pester Mom for more. It works. What can I say? “Did you have a coffee today? Well, now you need a pea!” He jokes, he banters, he flirts – anything for a sale. Bernie and I will even sing “Super Freak” if it helps make the close.
On Sunday, we embarked on “Kitsch Tour ’98,” a voyage of discovery to see all the weird things hiding in Central Alberta. All the small towns of the area have a “world’s biggest” something. Glendon, for instance, is home to the world’s biggest pyrogy. Andrew has the world’s biggest mallard duck. You get the idea. Our voyage took us as far as Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. The last time I was in Saskatchewan was 27 years ago, and I was unconscious the whole time.
Monday and Tuesday it was back to the salt mines, er, I mean the pea fields, for weeding. The back field needs a lot of weeding. Those peas won’t be ready for harvesting until August, but unless we get the weeds knocked down, they’ll never be ready. Wednesday, I picked for a bit, then it was off to Edgefest ’98. Thursday was more picking, then off to the Fort Saskatchewan market (which is not in Saskatchewan – in fact, it’s the closet of the three markets, about half an hour or so away). This market is in total contrast to the big St. Albert market; perhaps 25 vendors, tops, and only two hours long.
Which brings us up to Friday the 10th, and the cycle repeats itself with another long day of picking. My back held up pretty well today, but the heat was oppressive. We started at 6:45 AM. We had thought of starting at about six, or even earlier, but there was no way our bodies were going to function. Paula’s parents have been visiting from Victoria this week, and we sure need any extra hands we can find on picking days. Her father, Joe, joined me in the pea fields to start and by 7:15, Paula, both her parents and I were madly picking peas. (Bernie has been working in town all week.) Every forty-five minutes or so, Ben or Lila (whom have I dubbed Drinkboy or Drinkgirl respectively) bring liquid sustenance to refresh us. Sometimes we don’t really need a drink, but I always drink anyway. I will need it later. Besides, as Paula says on picking days, if you’re not peeing a lot, you’re not drinking enough. The four of us picked until about ten o’clock and gathered about forty gallons of peas. Now a real break was in order, and we adjourned to the house for forty-five minutes or so. Bernie’s cousin Barry, sometime part-time help around the farm, arrives just in time for the break.
We return to the fields. We’ve been picking on the first pea field, now we’re checking out the second pea field. A pea field will give you about three weeks worth of picking. The first field is petering out and we’re checking the second field to see if it’s ready. Paula is surprised – it’s a lot more readier than she was expecting. We set to work and pick lightly – we’ve already got lots of peas, so there’s no need to go nuts. We’ll save a lot for next week. We get another fifteen gallons off this field, but if we’d gone at it we could have doubled our pea total. Another quick break, and Paula’s parents depart for Victoria. It’s down to the three of us. The strawberries await.
Another drink break, and away we go to the strawberries. Our first assault lasts about an hour, and then we need to stop. It’s high noon and we’re hot, hungry and thirsty. Lunch break lasts well over an hour, including the nap.
The picking isn’t hard work, but it’s repetitive, back-breaking, dull, repetitive, boring, tedious, and repetitive work. And when you’re picking on days like this one, it’s hot, muggy and tiring work. The speed and enthusiasm of our first hours in the field have long passed. The early morning cloud has long broken, leaving only the deep cerulean sky and the blazing hot sun. This will be the hottest day since I arrived. By mid-afternoon, it will be hot enough to fry an egg on your back. Sweat will pour off us in torrents. We will get progressively slower and dopier. Drinking breaks will become longer and longer. We will use any excuse we can find to get out of the sun.
We get back to the strawberries, but we know the weather has finished us. We plod along slowly and eventually get close to 20 gallons, but we’re beat. Barry has to leave at three, but Paula and I hang in until four. Paula says it was a good thing it was a short picking day and I look at her incredulously. When the beans start maturing, she explains, we will pick from sunrise to after sunset. We will not leave the field, except to go the bathroom. Food and drink will be supplied to us in the fields by Drinkboy and Drinkgirl, and we simply will not stop until all the ripe beans are picked. We will do this in whatever weather condition exists: rain, sun, or snow. The only thing that will pull us off the fields will be lightning. And even then, it will have to be a direct hit.
A little voice in the back of my head starts going, “Working vacation? What the hell were you thinking?”
The sheep are a lot of extra work (and money for feed) and Bernie seems no longer convinced they are worth the effort or the expense. I can tell this because every time he walks past the two slated for butchering next week he says, “On Tuesday, you’re lamp chops, motherfuckers.”
Arthur the Goat is surprisingly spry these days. Since he was a baby goat, he walked with a limp, walking on his hind right ankle and sort of dragging his foot along the ground. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, but it sure made all of us wince. But a few days ago, he suddenly started walking properly, putting all the weight on the foot, instead of twisting his ankle. He’s still limping, but now he’s started running and jumping and bounding about, full of energy and life. He still thinks he’s the family dog though, and tries to climb into the trucks when we go away, or he tries to get into the house at night when we turn in.
The turkeys, which looked like strange gray crows when I arrived, are now starting to actually resemble turkeys. Paula is already taking orders for Thanksgiving.
So back to the big St. Albert market on the 11th. We leave the house in both trucks around eight-ish for the drive to St. Albert. We arrive around nine. Set up is pretty simple. First, we grab a table off of Bernie’s brother’s Frank’s truck. Frank is a serious farmer – he has the three stalls beside us at the market, and three times as much farmland. He has greenhouses, tons of heavy machinery and is in this to make money. And he’ll do that – he will do five to six times the business that we will. He sells the same produce we do (plus a whole lot more), but ours are organically grown always look better and taste better.
After setting up the table, we erect the canopy over it. The canopy is an ingenious green contraption that unfolds like an accordion and literally takes two minutes to set up. Paula starts arranging the produce on the table, while Bernie, the kids and I start bagging the peas in one-pound bags. I will be bagging peas on this day for close to four hours until they’re all sold. Paula thinks that thanks to our efforts in the fields the day before, this is the most strawberries she has ever brought to market. And we will sell them all. Bernie stands in front of the table and begins his performance, while Paula and I close the sales.
It’s a slow day. Most of the produce is usually gone by eleven-thirty (even though the market lasts until three), but today it takes until one. Bernie’s voice is nearly gone and he’s beat. We look at each other and both know how the day went: yeah, we sold out, but it took forever. A slow but steady stream of customers make for a successful, yet hard selling day. Everyone’s beat. We’re going to enjoy our day off tomorrow. Bernie and I do a walk around of the market and buy some wild boar pepperoni. (It’s hot!) We can’t wait until three so we can get out of here and go home.
Bernie went up north for a couple of days for work. He’s been working almost fulltime since I got here, which leaves less time to do his farm chores, but on the other hand it’s a regular pay cheque coming in for the family. Unfortunately he took his computer in for repairs before he left. The fan wasn’t working and the CPU was overheating to the point when the computer would just seize up. Even more unfortunate is the fact that his computer is the one hooked up to the phone line to access email, so we’ve all been offline now for six days. I can still write stuff on my computer in my little house, but there’s no phone line in the house so I had been using his computer to send my email. Now that his computer’s back, there’ll be a whole lot of email going out over the next few hours.
Last night Paula and the kids and I went to see the Free Will Players’ excellent production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” They performed at an outdoor venue, and the thunder and clouds overhead prompted numerous ad libs concerning the inclement weather. “The Comedy of Errors” concerns the usual subjects of British farce: mistaken identity involving twins separated at birth (two sets in this case), money, and sex. It was quite well done and typically British, and it makes me wonder if Shakespeare was the first to really popularize this form and turn it into a staple of British entertainment. You can almost see the Carry On gang doing this production.
We took two lambs in on Tuesday. They’ll be lamb chops on Friday. We cornered them one at a time in the yard and walked/pushed/dragged them out to the truck. The geese seemed quite upset at the whole affair and when I began intoning, “Dead lamb walking,” they really got aggravated, and began squawking and honking and flapping. They seemed to be the only animals who knew what was going on. It wasn’t very hard to load the sheep into Bernie’s pick-up, but it makes for an unusual sight, two lambs in a pick-up driving through the city. This is the first time I’ve been involved in slaughtering animals (even if it was only in the most tangential sense), but it was easier than I thought it would be. But now Paula’s saying Arthur the Goat may get shipped in September, and I don’t want to hear about that at all.
So far the farming life is still fun and interesting. But ask me again in ten days or so. The last couple of weeks of July and the first two weeks of August are the prime picking and selling times. We are going to be working our asses off the next few weeks. We’ve basically given up on weeding, and are saving ourselves to concentrate on straight picking. The first pea crop is just about all done, so now we’re concentrating on the second. The strawberries are almost over, too, although there may be a second crack at them come late August. The normal peas are ripening and we’ve been working them, along with the broccoli and cauliflower. Tomatoes and beans are still a ways off, but will be ready before long.
I like living out in the country. It’s quiet and peaceful and I really like that. And here, it’s also close enough to the big city that you have all the attraction and benefits of the city (culture, entertainment, mass-market consumables), and yet can quickly escape to the country and avoid all the downers and perils of the city (culture, entertainment, mass-market consumables). Someday, this is where I’m going to live (not in Alberta per se, but in the country).