The Richmond Register

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June 26, 2014

They don’t make strawberries as they did back in the old days

RICHMOND — I’m not inclined to go through my archives at the moment, but it almost feels like the column I’m about to write has almost become an annual thing over the years.

At least I know for sure that that this is not the first time that memories of picking strawberries there on Blair Branch on hot days in June has triggered this keyboard about this time of year.

I grew up on a little subsistence, hillside farm deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, among the coalfields near the Virginia line.

By the time my younger brothers and I came came along, no family was going to subsist for long on what that little 60 acres, a mule, a draft horse, a milk cow, a flock of feathered fowl and a few head of hogs were able to produce.

Although my dad would have much preferred the farming lifestyle, he spent most of his work life where, as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, “It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, where danger is double and troubles are few; Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines. It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.”

Dad and Mom spent several years in the coal camps where Dad worked long hours and weekends along with thousands of other men who were treated scarcely better than slaves.

When the opportunity came for them to move back home with with my aging grandpa, “Pap” Mose Adams, they jumped at the chance.

At that time, numerous, small, mostly non-union “mule and pony mines” were springing up in small coal seams of no interest to the big conglomerates. Most of these were owned by local entrepreneurs who understood that the available workforce needed time to earn cash in the mines as well as work on the family farms.

In other words, Dad had time to be both a miner and a farmer. Part of our farm operation even included “boarding” a herd of ponies and small mules that various mines used to pull coal out of the mines. I have written about that before and will most likely do so again. But it has nothing to do with the strawberries of the moment.

County agents in those days, as they frequently do from time to time now, were keen on coming up with new crops that might thrive in the mountains and provide an economic boom to the region.

Without going into great detail about other misfires, let’s just say that my dad had way too much faith in strawberries as a means of building wealth and establishing a big plantation at the head of Blair Branch.

Not that he didn’t try, mind you.

In addition to just over an acre in his main patch, he put strawberry plants on every square foot of the farm that wasn’t absolutely necessary for something else.

He even talked my skeptical Uncle Willie into setting out a steep hillside with strawberry plants. The county agent also convinced numerous other Letcher County farmers into growing them for markets in the big East Coast cities.

And although they have solved the problem with chemicals in modern times, they had not solved it way back then because the problem with strawberries is that they shrivel up and rot about two days after you pick them if they are not laced with chemo.

They parked refrigerated rail cars and trucks at various locations where we took the berries for shipping. But it soon became evident there was no way to get strawberries from Blair Branch to Boston and make any money in the process.

In the meantime, Dad had invested cash, labor and land in strawberries. So, throughout my formative years, we relied on the local market, sold them to grocery stores and peddled them door to door as our primary cash crop.

Lately, Loretta and I have been purchasing strawberries much larger than golf balls on average, at the local produce counters for $1.99 a quart. When I was growing up what was considered a big strawberry was no larger than my 8 year-old thumb. If you found one one that big, you ran around and showed it off.

If my dad could have seen today’s strawberries, he’d say right after he recovered from fainting, “Boys, if we’d had ‘em that big back when we was growing ‘em, I bet we could have sold ‘em for a dollar a gallon.”

As it was, however, we were lucky to get 50 cents a gallon, even when the mines were working. 

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