The sweet smell of the harvest

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Occasionally I have to make an early morning drive down to Tallahassee.   It is an easy drive through some of the most productive farmland in the south.   You see the sun coming up, often with the morning mist in the air.  It is most special when you smell the sweet smell of harvest.

If you live in this part of the world, harvest used to mean peanuts.   Now it means peanuts and cotton, with record amounts of corn thrown in.  However, nothing gives out such a distinctive aroma as a freshly plowed field of peanuts.

This past week, it hit me before I even saw the green peanuts inverted in the field.  It is a whiff like no other; a smell that grabs me and instantly takes me back almost 50 years.  The flood of memories it unleashes spans from early childhood until after my children were born.   Thirty years later after leaving the peanut business this smell is still an instant trigger to my memory and my past.

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It happens every year; that first field plowed that jars the recollections of my youth.  I think of the old trucks kept under sheds all year until harvest time.   There were no drying trailers sent to the fields.  It was the farmer’s responsibility to get the peanuts to the drying plant.   Most of those vehicles were older than I was at the time.   I learned to crank them all.

These trucks would sit for days waiting for a chance to be transferred to a dryer.   Depending on the harvest conditions and the amount of time they had to wait, they would begin to go through a heat.  It looked like the south part of town was on fire.

The spectacular fields of green would become brown as the peanuts would be plowed.  Inverting them so the nuts were on top of the ground instead of under the vines was a huge economic improvement to the farmers.  With luck, a few days later a cloud of dust in the distance indicated that peanuts were being harvested and wouldn’t be lost to a late storm.

I remember watching for rain.   We wanted rain as the peanuts were growing, especially as they began pegging.   Then as harvest time came along, we watched for rain so the nuts didn’t rot in the field.   Farmers of my youth were always at the mercy of the weather.   I made a promise with God that I would never pray for the rain to stop again if we just received enough for a particular harvest.   It is a promise I never have broken to this very day.

The long hours at the peanut mill during harvest meant that there was little time to eat.  Having been in the burger business for 30 years, I still remember the burgers from Pauline’s City Café as being the best.   She dipped grease from the griddle to melt the cheese.  They were then wrapped in Saran Wrap to keep them warm and to keep the dirt out as they were carried to the field.   They were so good.

We bought and inspected peanuts 24 hours a day.  Labor Day was traditionally the busiest day of the year since school children were out of school.

The smallest and poorest of the farmers might see much of their crop lost due to weather or poor harvesting conditions.  It was then that I saw small wagons of peanuts come across the scale that had been picked by the children trying to salvage just a few dollars for what was surely a disastrous crop for their family.

I could go on and on.  Just a quick smell of a freshly plowed peanut field brings back these memories and many more.  It was the time I learned the value of hard work.  It was when I learned that some had it much worse than me.   It was when this boy learned to become a man.   In many ways it was the best of times.