My First Farming Venture

Tom suggested that since I was not going on to school that I get my feet wet in a little farming venture. I was all in favor of that! He said I could rent fifteen acres of open ground from Sinaloa Ranch. We decided I would plant five acres of tomatoes and ten of banana squash. The first thing I did was to plant a tomato seed bed near the house, where it would be easy to care for. I used a Planet Jr. planter, which consisted of a seed box with metering device, a drive wheel and press wheel and two handles for pushing it. I planted one pound of seed, but I sure don’t remember what variety it was. Of course Tom was coaching me on everything, so I really was not making any decisions. Next was to prepare the field for planting. I used an old three bottom plow, drawn by a four mule team. What hard work! The plow had to be lifted out of the ground for turning, using two long levers. I think I worked harder than the mules! Since I was still in school I was only able to work on the weekends. The regular skinners took over during the week, otherwise the ground would never have been ready to plant.

When the field had been plowed, disked and harrowed down to a smooth surface it was time for the final preparation for planting. My best recollection is that I used a sled with runners six feet apart to mark off the rows. Riding the sled, pulled by one mule, I made pass after pass, each time trying to keep one runner in the old mark. After laying out the rows, I crossed the field, laying out the plant spacing. When finished the field looked like a giant checker board. The last thing to do was to make furrows in the direction that the water was to run. This I did with one mule and a walking cultivator. We were now ready to transplant tomatoes.

When the plants were ready, water was run in the furrows. At the same time I started digging plants by using a shovel to loosen the soil, then pulling a large handfull at a time. I used a butcher knife and block of wood to trim the tops down to about eight inches. In some cases the roots were also trimmed slightly. Next was to dip the roots in a slurry of water and soil, being certain to get them thoroughly coated with mud. Finally the mudded plants were placed in a shallow hole and the roots covered with damp soil. In this way they could be held nicely for two or three days.

When the water had soaked three or four inches up the side of the furrows we were ready to transplant. It was important to place the plants in the mud without allowing the root to double back at the bottom. The best way to do this was to put a finger along the length of the root and push it sideways into the mud, then pushing more mud in to fill the hole. Not surprisingly, this process was called "mudding in".

Since soil temperature is a factor in root growth, we placed the plants where they would catch the most direct sunshine. My rows ran North and South, so that meant the west bank of the furrows would receive the morning sun and start warming the soil early in the day. Had the rows run East and West, we would have planted on the north side.

When the ground had dried sufficiently I used what we called a "sidehill plow" to throw dirt up against the plants. To the extent that I could cover the soil that had gotten wet, I could stop the weeds from sprouting. This single bottom walking plow was pulled by a single mule, preferably a very patient mule. Mostly the mules were well trained. By using the reins I could show them just where to walk in relation to the plant row or furrow. What made this plow different was that the moldboard was sort of in the shape of a "V". Where the two sides joined it was hinged to the bottom of the plow frame. When you swung it one way, it threw dirt to the right, and when you swung it the other way, it threw to the left. Thus I was able to throw dirt to the west no matter which way I was going. I was told that this plow was invented by someone in Northern California, soon after farming started in the state. The normal plow threw dirt only to the right, which is not too practical when working on the side of a hill.

The next step was to cultivate on both sides of the rows. This was done with another Planet Jr. creation—a riding cultivator, mounted on two large wheels and drawn by two mules. What made this tool unique was that the two cultivator frames were mounted in such a way that they could be "steered" with two foot pedals. This allowed for making small corrections when the mules got a little to one side or the other. The cultivator was raised out of the ground with hand levers. Since the plants were evenly spaced in the rows, I was able to cultivate crossways also. When all this was done I cleaned up the weeds around the plants with a hoe. When it was time to irrigate again I made ditches in the centers between the rows.

About all I can remember about planting banana squash was that Alan and I did it with a rather crude planter. This consisted of a small walking type cultivator, pulled by a single mule. Behind a chisel point we fastened a tube with a funnel in the top. This tube delivered the seed into the opening in the soil created by the chisel, then the soil closed in

around it. One of us drove the mule and handled the cultivator while the other walked along side with a bag of seed, dropping two or three seeds at a time into the funnel. We planted my ten acres and twenty acres for Sinaloa Ranch.

I should mention that while Tom started me on this project, it was Bob Cannell that guided me on a day to day basis. Also, the ranch financed everything. I paid for water, labor, land rent, etc. after the season was over, and the crops were sold. That was a very painless way to get started!

I kept pretty busy through the summer irrigating, cultivating and hoeing weeds. I also worked for the Ranch when not busy on my project.

I had contracted with Kern Foods to buy my tomatoes. As I remember it , the price was $19.50 per ton, plus $2.00 per ton for delivery to the cannery, in the East Los Angeles area. When the time finally arrived to start picking, the Ranch crew was busy harvesting grapes and walnuts, so I recruited a number of high school students, including my younger sisters. I’m not sure whether they were attracted by the idea of earning some money, or by the fact that Mr. Pollack gave permission to miss school!

The field was picked at least three times, maybe four. For all the later picks I was able to get the crew from the Ranch. I used the Ranch truck to haul the crop to the cannery. When we were all finished I had delivered about sixty tons—twelve tons per acre. Tom had told me at the start that I could expect about ten tons per acre, so I felt good about that. After the season was all over, Sam Ellison, Kern’s field man, came by with a bonus check for another two dollars per ton! That was totally unexpected, but much appreciated.

There is never much of a market for banana squash in October, when it is ready to harvest. That means that it must be stored, hoping for a better price in December and January. Few growers had facilities for storing indoors. In my case we hauled it to an open area near the house to be stacked like cordwood, in rows about three feet high. After a few weeks I started sorting through it, throwing out the ones that were going bad. These I sold for hog feed ,earning about enough to make wages. At some point we started to get a few orders, starting at $35 per ton. Gradually, the price started to creep up. Some deliveries were made to the wholesale market in Los Angeles, others directly to retail markets. Eventually we were getting large orders, to be loaded in boxcars at the Strathearn siding in Simi. These, we were told, were to be shipped to army bases Knowing what I know now about banana squash and freight trains, they must have really arrived in GREAT shape! These last orders ranged up as high as $100 per ton, an unheard of price. Over the years I have been acquainted with many squash growers, and only one that I can recall that would admit to getting that price.

All in all, it had been a very good year. I made a few dollars on the tomatoes, and a lot on the squash. Naturally, I did what any prudent person would do in that situation---I bought my first car! It was a 1937 Plymouth coupe. I should remember to the penny what it cost, but I don’t. My best guess is somewhere between $500 and $700. Since there were no new cars available, used ones were at somewhat of a premium. The rest of the money I deposited into an account with Sinaloa Ranch, to draw a little interest, and be available for future needs. Possibly setting up housekeeping?

I realize that I have told you much more than you ever wanted to know about farming in the good old days, but the changes that have taken place in my life span are rather striking. Hopefully, I can touch on those changes in some future chapter.

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