The Story of the Reluctant Strawberry Farmer

Mom’s garden dinner

My father liked the idea of being self-sufficient. Thus, almost every spring, as the last remnants of the winter snows found their way into the soil, his mind would be drawn to plans for the summer garden.

His enthusiasm for these plantings was probably influenced in part by the victory gardens that Americans were encouraged to set down during both World Wars. These vegetable patches were intended to reduce the demand for store-bought food during those eras and to give folks on the home-front the feeling that they were doing something to help in the fight. Well, Dad liked the idea. Thus, during any given growing season, the bounty from our family plot might have included green beans, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, pumpkins, watermelons–and strawberries.

And, yes, that brings us to strawberries.

I recall, when I was about ten years old, making one of my routine requests to Dad that he increase my allowance. I discovered early on that if I did this often enough, with just the right amount of whining and pouting, that he would eventually cave, if for no other reason than to get me to leave him alone about it. (Later in life I learned to apply this same technique to get raises from various employers who had had the poor judgment to hire me in the first place).

But not this time—almost immediately things took an ugly turn.

It was that time of year, so, with ideas for the annual garden dancing in his head, Dad decided that rather than getting a handout from him, I should grow some strawberries to sell for that extra cash I was looking for.

That really wasn’t what I had in mind, of course. Even by that early age I had determined that I would much rather spend my summer vacations lying on the lawn, hands behind my head, conjuring up faces in the clouds, than participating in any activity that might be considered productive by normal people. (My grandfather once told my dad, when he complained of my apparent laziness, “Skip is not afraid of work, Phil, he can lie down right beside it and go to sleep!”) But, it was too late. I had opened Pandora’s box. So, to my considerable dismay, Dad proceeded to assign a section of the new garden that spring exclusively to my strawberry growing pursuits.

Great.

There probably weren’t more than thirty or so strawberry plants that I grudgingly stuck in the ground that summer, sprigs Dad had purchased at the local farmers’ co-op. All in neat, tidy rows—at least to begin with. However, my cash plot quickly began to look more like a field of weeds than a field of strawberries. At which time, Dad introduced me to that dreaded tool: the garden hoe—and hand blisters.

So, every weekend for about six weeks, rather than gaily riding my bike around the neighborhood with my friends, I found myself shirtless and sweaty under a blazing summer sun, swatting sweat bees and attempting to dispense with all the uninvited flora that were rapidly appropriating my little strawberry plot. It soon became clear that the only things that didn’t want to grow in there were strawberries.

But, as you might suspect, there was absolutely no momentum in this endeavor. If Dad stopped for one second in his insistence that I get out there and eradicate those weeds, I would instantly cease such activities. Eventually, inertia won out, as I wore him down once again.

In the end I harvested a total of about four puny quarts of funky looking (unsalable) strawberries and no increase in that promised disposable income. Frankly, I never really cared that much for strawberries in the first place.

The exception was when Mom would prepare garden dinners for us. The entrée was strawberry shortcake, which consisted of strawberries mashed with sugar and poured liberally over split-open, steaming hot biscuits. Side dishes included American fried potatoes (quartered, sliced and pan-fried crisp with diced onions, salt and pepper), raw radishes and green onions and corn on the cob—all fresh from the garden. We had sweet corn almost every evening throughout the summer and we kids loved it. My brother, John, and I would have contests at the dinner table to see who could eat the most ears, each slathered liberally with whole butter and a little salt. And Dad loved it, too, because it was free!

In fond remembrance of those days, I prepare one of those garden dinners at least once every summer. And I buy the strawberries at Publix.

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Here’s a little musical ode to my idyllic hometown of Buchanan, Michigan, also known as Red Bud City. Hope you like it.

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2 comments

    Skip,
    One day while I was doing some reading and researching on the internet, I came accross a writing by a Skip Birong. I wondered if you could be the Skip Birong from the Birong family that I had known from the past. I read on and was pleasantly surprized to find out that you were indeed the one. Reading some of your stories brought back some fond memories of your Yazell grandparents, your folks, Carol and John. Not to mention some memories of our neck of the woods off of Glendora Road in Buchanan.
    Now, you were older and were not home much when I was around but I do remember seeing you a time or 2.
    I just had to subscribe to your blog. I have so enjoyed reading your stories and essays! I cannot wait to read what your writings will be about next.
    Thank you for refreshing my childhood memories from 50 years ago!
    :~)
    ~Bonnie Bonham Fuller

    Not many good memories about the family gardens. Lots of tomato worms, splat. Constant weed pulling, it’s good for you. Is that a weed, oops, sorry mom.
    Thank God they were not as concerned about the garden as mowing the lawn.
    Today however I love the non chemical taste of items from a fresh manure fed garden. Worms are still there but they become bird food instead of, splat, for the ants to suck up.
    Your piece makes me hungry, good thing I just ate.
    JMK

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