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Raising food is hard work

Teresa Bjork
My legs are dotted with black-and-blue bruises. My right elbow is criss-crossed by red scratches. I’ve got a small rash on my wrist that I keep itching, and there’s a swollen mosquito bite on my bicep – which, by the way, is so sore that it hurts to reach for the mouse next to my keyboard as I’m typing this.

Yesterday, I got a crash-course in what it’s like to grow food – not as a hobby in my backyard garden, but to actually feed a family, or rather, several families.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy. And gives me a true appreciation for the hard work that all kinds of farmers do every day.

I’m volunteering this year for Farm Bureau’s Giving Garden, a project for the United Way of Central Iowa. The United Way asked the Farm Bureau home office in West Des Moines to set aside a little space on its campus to grow a garden and supply fresh produce to the Food Bank of Iowa.

So far this year, the Farm Bureau Giving Garden has grown and donated more than 800 pounds of produce for local food pantries. More than 60 employees at Farm Bureau Financial Services and the Iowa Farm Bureau are volunteering their time in the garden.

This week, it was my turn to work in the garden. Most weeks, there isn’t a lot to do but pick a few weeds and run the garden sprinklers.

What I didn’t realize was, after a hot and humid weekend, all the tomatoes are ripening at the same time. That’s right – all 30 tomato plants were loaded with tomatoes so ripe they almost burst when you touch them.

And not all the tomatoes were pretty. Some were soft, rotten and covered with mold. I had to pick tiny slugs off several tomatoes.

Plus, over the summer, the tomato vines grew together into a tall jungle, with no space between the plants. So I couldn’t walk the rows to pick the tomatoes. I had to crawl on my hands and knees, underneath the canopy of vines, to pick the tomatoes from the center rows.

Every time a wire tomato cage scratched my elbow, I remembered that I’m due for a tetanus shot. When I got home and whined to my husband about how my arms hurt after carrying 30-pound crates of tomatoes, he said, “Then what good are all those bootcamp classes you’ve been taking?” (Admittedly, he has a point.)

Needless to say, I learned a lesson yesterday. Gone is my fantasy that someday, if this writing gig doesn’t work out, I can become a tomato farmer and set up a roadside stand.

It also reminded me that tomatoes don’t just show up at the grocery store, looking shiny, red and perfectly round. Someone’s got to pick those tomatoes, not just for an hour over their lunch break, but as a full-time job (although farms that grow canning tomatoes do use mechanized tomato harvesting equipment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJbDIaqK50U).

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.