October 2014
Homeplace & Community

Dirt Bound and “Bitter” Pickin’s

  In spite of the difficult growing conditions, hard-packed dirt and competing bitterweeds, the volunteer peanuts Johnny Garrett discovered on his farm made a good crop.

Gathering volunteer peanuts from a bitterweed field is hard work; but, for Pike County farmer Johnny Garrett, the effort is worth it.

Anyone who would attempt to harvest 60 acres of volunteer peanuts that are competing with bitterweeds for ground space must have a loose bolt or just be a nut.

No one would agree more than Johnny Garrett, a retired Pike County businessman and lifetime farmer.

However, overexposure to hard work for an extended period of time can cause bolts to loosen and rattle a bit.

Garrett, laughingly, admits hard work is now his hobby, not his chosen vocation, and maybe time has loosened a screw or two.

Maybe that’s why he went about gathering volunteer peanuts that were dirt bound and "bitter" pickin’s. But he loved every minute of what some would consider "a fool-hearted venture."

Garrett has deep roots in the red clay fields of Pike County.

As a youngster, he plowed barefooted because he only had one pair of shoes – "Sunday shoes."

 Sam Carroll, a college student who helped Garrett with the peanut harvest, shaking the dirt and dust off the peanuts by hand.  

"The ground would be so hot I’d try to walk on the peanut vines or under the cotton stalks where there was a little shade so I wouldn’t burn my bare feet," Garrett said. "I spent a lot of my young years behind the plow and looking at the backside of a mule."

But, along the way, farming got in Garrett’s blood – maybe from the dirt between his toes or from the sweat beads around his neck. But it got there and there’s no known antidote for farming in the blood. It is best managed by hard work, long hours and a little risk taking.

"I grew up working on the farm and working hard," Garrett said. "I learned to love to work. I’ve always loved field work and there wasn’t much harder work on the farm than going to the peanut field."

Shaking peanuts and stacking peanuts was hard work for the men, let alone a young boy.

"But I did it and never thought a thing about it," Garrett said.

"Back then, we had an old tractor with a ground slide. We’d lay the peanut stack over on the ground slide and the tractor would pull it to the stationary picker set up out in the field. The peanuts would be picked off and we’d pitch the loose hay into the baler. Doodling hay. That’s what we called it."

  Johnny Garrett stands in what looks like a bitterweed patch, but is actually 60 acres of volunteer peanuts.

Garrett, laughingly, said he almost got cured of his love for work at the peanut picker.

"Around the peanut picker was the dustiest and dirtiest place in the world," he said. "I’d come away from the peanut picker so dirty all you could see was the whites of my eyes."

All the dust and dirt from the peanut picker would sift down on the ground and make that spot rich and fertile, and anything that grew there would grow bigger and better than anywhere else in the field.

"Those fertile spots were peanut-pickin’ spots," Garrett said.

Perhaps it was the combination of Garrett’s love of work and his affection for peanut-pickin’ spots that had him out in the hot, late August sun, picking volunteer peanuts.

"I’d rented 60 acres out to Mike Wilson and, for 2 years, he’d grown peanuts," Garrett said. "This year, he was going to grow cotton, but it rained so much out there he couldn’t get the cotton in the ground."

But evidently the rain was just right to bring up a big crop of volunteer peanuts.

Glancing across the field, it appeared the bitterweeds had choked out the peanuts so there was little to be gained from trying to gather the few goobers that dared to grow in the hot, dusty ground ripe for weeds.

Not so, Garrett said.

"Usually, volunteer peanuts don’t make much and the ones that do aren’t worth the effort it would take to get them out of the ground," Garrett said. "But I got to looking at those volunteer peanuts and they’d produced a right good crop. What surprised me was that they were good peanuts. They needed to be picked."

So, right there in the middle of 60 acres of volunteer peanuts, Garrett decided picking the peanuts would be worth the effort. He then took on the burdensome task of picking peanuts that were ground bound and tangled with bitterweeds.

Hard work and perseverance paid off. Garrett loaded his wagons.

Neither Garrett nor Sam Carroll, a college student who also loves to work, ventured a guess as to how long it took to load a wagon with volunteer peanuts.

"If we knew, we probably wouldn’t have done it," they agreed, and added that those 60 acres were a new kind of peanut-pickin’ spot.

"I had to find a way to get the peanuts out of the ground," Garrett said. "The ground was so hard you couldn’t pull the peanuts up or dig them with a pitchfork. I had to find another way."

Garrett’s "other way" was with a "mechanical mule," outfitted with a hayfork. The fork gouged the peanuts right out of ground. Of course, they came out in a tangle with the bitterweeds. Separating the "wheat from the chaff" was hot, dusty work, but it was "well worth the effort."

"We got several trailer loads of good volunteer peanuts," Garrett said. "I thought the children and grandchildren would enjoy sitting around and picking the peanuts off for boiling like we used to do for seed peanuts. They enjoyed sitting around with pans of peanuts in their laps and getting their pictures taken, but they didn’t do any picking."

Not to be outdone, Garrett loaded a wagon with the volunteer peanuts and he’ll haul them to the Peanut Butter Festival in Brundidge Oct. 25.

Folks can go by Johnny Garrett’s Peanut Picking Spot and pick off a bag of volunteer peanuts to take home. And, no, Garrett said, the peanuts won’t have the taste of the bitterweed.

"If they did, they wouldn’t have been worth all the trouble it took to get them picked and they were worth every minute of all the hard work," Garrett said. "And, I loved every hot, dusty minute of it."

Spoken like a tried-and-true, lifetime farmer.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.