As I was growing up on my family’s diversified farm in Central Nebraska during the eighties, an era of double digit interest rates and high farmer debt, trying to make a living via agriculture appeared to be a fool’s game and a thing of the past. If the economy didn’t do you in, it seemed that the weather would. Our entire living was based on things out of our control. Yet, my dad would always say, “People will always need to eat”, and he seemed content with that. Moreover, he was proud to be a farmer and what he helped give life to from the earth.
My Dad (far right) and his 2 brothers Don (left) and Bert (middle) selling crimson sweet watermelons at our original roadside stand circa late 1950s.
I loved raising animals in particular, but I was sixth in line of seven kids and so it appeared that there was no room for me to farm long-term with my family even if I decided to. I concluded that any sensible recent high school graduate would get a business degree and enjoy running a small business in some small town and live an easier life that didn’t rely on the weather. Accordingly, I set out to get that degree from our local college which was only an hour away from my home.
As my college years went by, I went home every weekend except once or twice so as to help keep the farm going and the family bills paid. I had about 250 head of hogs myself, so I was very fortunate that my younger brother was around to take care of my animals while I was away during the school week. Truth is, I quickly figured out that I would have gone crazy and lethargic staying on campus during the weekends. Moreover, I was dreading starting my first professional job and being cooped up in an office all day, so I wanted to enjoy the benefits of outdoor agriculture as long as I could. Farm life definitely had its benefits, and its independence was surely one of them.
However, independence has its price. Even though the family cattle and hog operation was year round, the produce operation was what dictated the lifestyle my family lived which could be summed up as - “all work and no play”. With nearly 3,000 acres of corn, alfalfa, wheat, oats, produce, pasture, etc., it was our raising nearly 100 acres of hand-harvested produce that especially required many sacrifices by everyone in the family. I was envious that I was out in the field planting or maybe thinning some watermelon field while in the distance from our local ball diamond I could hear my friends and the joys of summer playing out without me. Many of those same friends would be hired throughout the summer to help us hoe our produce fields in the early mornings before it got too hot. I admit that I would get a little revenge from those circumstances because I would be cultivating the fields sometimes with the umbrella tractor, radio blasting to the hottest tune, as my friends would be manually hoeing that field in the heat. A few good laughs came from those days as we had praying mantis on one of our farms. Many unsuspecting kids would embarrassingly scream as they suddenly felt praying mantis on their head seemingly out of nowhere. Ah, those were good times.
As the days grew longer, hotter, and oftentimes drier, my family and I would crave the first fruits of our labor for what seemed an eternity each summer, until we would finally crack open that first watermelon of the year. Nothing in this world will ever be tastier than a St. Libory, Nebraska, crimson sweet watermelon straight from the field. I suppose all of the hard work that went into raising those melons made them seem that much sweeter, especially if we had the first ripe melons in the area. You see, there was much pride that came with that prize. During my tenure, there were primarily four long-time produce families in our area with their own independent roadside stands. We were friends and rivals at the same time.
Everyone strived to have the first sweet corn or especially the first watermelon ready for sale for the season. It showed that we knew what we were doing – especially if we consistently won.
For me, the pride that came from being first always gave me the extra push it took somedays to go the extra mile, to stay out late to finish the task since there was a chance of rain that night, etc.
Blackstone and Crimson Sweet Watermelons from Placke's Family Farm
As I said, throughout all those tough years, Dad would always say that people will always need to eat. Such fueled his optimism that prices would rebound or yields grow greater. To be a farmer and live to tell about it, you must have that mentality. Anyone trusting the elements outside of his control must feel that way, or you would quickly become frustrated and depressed. Over the years, I have concluded that such is the origination of my optimism and how I approach life. My years of selling our personally grown and harvested produce to our neighbors and friends as well as people from afar that we would never likely see again taught me to always converse with anyone with a smile and respect who they are, where they are from and where they are going.
I hope that sharing some of my past helps to relay to you how family produce growers will always have a special place in my heart and that I will always respect the fruits of their labor. Not only because I have been there, but because I know how difficult such a lifestyle can be. It takes a special strong family to successfully run a produce operation and stay together.
The sacrifices that it often requires rarely seem worth it at the time, but I believe that I am a better person for the lifestyle we led, the work ethic we honed and the food choices that we provided.
My family’s produce operation is still being operated by my oldest brother. His pride for his efforts is just as strong today as it was when we were kids – as it should be. The work doesn’t get any easier. Organic producers would echo that even more so. Raising produce without chemicals is not easy and must truly be a labor of love to be fully rewarded justly. When I first got into organic production in my professional business career back in ’95, I didn’t think that the market would grow as large as it has. However, I quickly became a believer in organic production and nonGMOs. Once I educated myself even just a bit, it started to explain many things to me that I had just taken for granted such as why those great looking conventional fruits in the store just don’t seem to taste the way I recalled as a kid. I also believe that many of the health problems our society suffers today are related as well, but that is a topic for another time.
Placke's farmstand today.
Looking back over my career, I am just as proud supporting our farmers in the organic industry since ’95 as I was raising my own produce to sell back home at our own roadside stand. I am sure that if Dad were here today, he would be just as proud as I am of our Grower’s Organic producer families as well. After all, “People will always need to eat”!
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