I know Natal better this afternoon than I did this morning. He’s a short guy, built like a bull, Portuguese, out of the Azores, with a big mustache. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side. Not that he’s known to be fierce; Natal’s reputation is for being a hard-working guy. He’s got to work hard because he’s a California flower grower. Ever since 1991, when the first President Bush signed the ATPDEA, our domestic flower industry has been in a free fall. What were the politicians thinking? Supposedly by opening our markets to flowers from Colombia we were giving the Colombians farmers a legitimate crop they could sell instead of cocaine. Naturally, some of the coke lords saw the Andean Compact as an opportunity to invest in legitimate flower shipping businesses so they could launder their coke dollars. Colombian flower exporters have thrived. And why not?; growers in Columbia pay less for a day’s labor than a US farmer does for an hour, they have no meaningful controls on pesticide use to contend with, and their geographical location at higher elevations in the Andes near the equator provides a consistent cool climate and long days that mimic perpetual spring-like conditions and make for very high quality, long-stemmed roses and carnations. Not only that, but the international nature of the flower market and the standardized 48×20x12 flower cartons which are air shipped by the hundreds of thousands all around the globe combine to create the perfect vector by which the narcotraficantes can export their small packets of white powder to major cities. But don’t get me started; today the US flower industry is almost dead, our greenhouses are empty, and imported flowers are cheap. Our politicians are either naïve, stupid, or corrupt. Any domestic flower growers still in business today have got to be hard workers, real smart, or rich enough to keep losing money year after year. Natal isn’t rich. I knew he was a hard worker, but after today I can see he’s sharp too.
I’ve rented cold storage from Natal all year but I’ve only rarely talked to him. He rents the coolers he doesn’t use for his flower business to other growers. I store potatoes there so I pass through his warehouse from time to time. When I see Natal he’s usually standing at his desk in the middle of the shed talking excitedly on the phone in English, Portuguese, or Spanish. When he hangs up he hustles out, hops in his pick-up truck and speeds off to his green house for another load of Gerbera daisies. But when I went to his cooler at 6am to pull a pallet of potatoes he was seated at his desk looking at his phone. I stopped to talk. We discussed the biochemistry of ripening fruit.
Apples, or any fruit for that matter, give off a gas called ethylene in the ripening process. Ethylene is a gaseous plant hormone. If you’ve ever ripened a hard avocado by putting it in a brown paper bag with a yellow banana you’ve been taking advantage of the ethylene given off by the banana to provoke the avocado to ripen. When you hear the term “gas green tomato” it refers to the process by which tomatoes are machine harvested when they’re still green as grass and hard as rocks and then ripened to red in gas chambers pumped full of ethylene. Right now the apple crop is still hanging from the trees. Once they’re picked I want to store the apples in a cooler so that we can have them for sale through December without losing any to rot or to rats. I asked Natal if he’d have any space available.
“You can’t store them with the potatoes,” he said. Natal went on to explain that the cooler I’ve got the potatoes in shares the ventilation system with all the coolers in the building. The cold air is recycled, so any air that is fanned out of the cooler I occupy would find its way into the other coolers, and if I was storing any apples the ethylene-laden air would soon make its way into the other coolers. Ethylene not only ripens fruit, it causes flowers to mature rapidly. Since the neighboring coolers are full of flowers, my apples could cause the blooms to open in the dark and lose petals and the flower stems could shed leaves. Luckily, Natal had another cooler especially for apples that Life Earth Farm was going to rent. We agreed that I’d talk to Tom at Live Earth and see if I could share their space and park my apples with theirs. Natal’s phone rang. My phone rang. We jabbered in English and Spanish we each hustled off, jumped into our trucks, and sped off.
At 2pm I was back at Natal’s for another load of potatoes. He was standing at his desk talking excitedly on the phone. I walked through the warehouse and entered the cooler at the back. It’s a cavernous space maintained at around 34º, and almost entirely empty except for my pallets of potatoes in the corner. I got to work. It’s time for me to decide how many potatoes I want to save to plant out for next year’s crop. I began shuffling totes around, consolidating the pallets and sweeping. I like working in the cooler. There’s no cell phone reception in there. I also like the cold. Sorting and counting potatoes is my way of “chilling out.” I was surprised when I heard the big door open, and I heard the Mexican music from the warehouse float in. I looked over my shoulder. How strange; two white women in late middle age, both quite conservatively and professionally dressed, wearing heels, with frosted bouffant hairdos had entered the cooler. I motioned to them to close the doors; there’s no point in renting a cooler if you’re going to let all the cold air out.
“Are you Mr. Griffin? One of them asked.
I thought for a second before I answered. They didn’t look like inspectors. And I couldn’t think of anything specific that I had or hadn’t done that required inspection, and I don’t owe anyone money, and I don’t think I’m in trouble with the IRS.
“Yes,” I replied. Whatever these women were up to, they’d certainly gone out of their way to find me. They’d had to drive up a country road until the valley narrowed to a canyon and the redwoods closed in. Then they had to park outside and walk past a ferocious looking Azorean cattle dog that guards the entrance to Natal’s warehouse. Then they had to brave the fierce macaw that patrols the loading dock; a shrieking, swaggering, flapping, psychedelic, avian badass with a beak that can cut bolts; even the dog keeps his distance. Then they had to negotiate around the women trimming flowers and go through a dark dry-storage space full of cob webs before opening the huge door and entering the refrigerator.
“Are you the owner of this business?” they asked. “Mr. Natal said we’d find you here.”
“Hmm,” I thought. “Mr. Natal? This doesn’t sound right. Natal’s a flower grower, not a hair dresser.”
“I’m the owner of A business,” I replied.
“Good,” the older woman replied. “We’re conducting a poll of small business owners and we’d like to ask you a few questions. First of all, what’s your opinion about the ways that Obamacare is going to negatively impact your profit margins?”
I considered the situation.
The other woman spoke up. “It’s cold in here,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of questions. Maybe we can step out into the sunshine and talk where it’s warm.”
“Ladies,” I relied, “if you want to talk to me we’ll have to talk in here. I do have a small business and I am busy. I’m here sweeping the floor and counting the potatoes because I am the designated potato counter and floor sweeper.” I kept stacking potatoes.
“What do you think about the effect of intrusive government regulations?” asked the first woman. “Did you know that the government wants to make you to change all your light bulbs? Would you like less regulation? And taxes; would you like to see lower taxes, or no taxes, or are you in favor of higher rates? And do you want the Government to open up your business to unions? Or do you think that it’s fair that small businesses are going out of business?”
“I don’t think life is fair,” I answered. “Look. Every one of these questions is lush with controversy, and if this were talk radio we could spend all day mulling over the pros and cons of these issues, but I’m a farmer. I haven’t got the time. I’ve got to go.”
“We represent a group that is fighting on your behalf,” the cold woman said. “And for a minimal charge based on the number of employees you have you can help us continue to help you. How many employees do you have?”
“Twenty,” I answered. I was curious to hear their price.
“Six hundred dollars,” she answered.
I had to laugh; that stinker Natal. “Come on ladies,” I said. “We’ve got to go.” I pushed the big door open and we stepped out into the open warehouse with the musica romantica playing, the women working with their piles of flowers, and the dirty-mouthed macaw, asleep for once, perched atop a fork lift. Outside in the sun it was warm and the Azorean cattle dog was asleep in the shade. Natal was nowhere to be seen. He’s not stupid; he’d seen these ladies coming, figured they wanted money and ‘put them on ice,’ so to speak, by sending them on in to hustle me. When I see Natal next I’ll tell him I signed him up at the 900 dollar rate; we’ll see what he says in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
copyright 2011 Andy Griffin
all photos by Andy Griffin
We are selling tomatoes and mystery boxes This Week in Oakland at Camino! We’ll be there Wednesday from 5-7pm, all by preorder. Here’s the Google Form, here’s more information about what we are bringing. Here’s where to sign up for future Oakland Deliveries!
more information || just the order form (we are likely only taking orders until Monday evening/Tuesday am) Camino’s Website
We are also coming to Greens at Ft. Mason this Thursday with tomatoes and mystery boxes and strawberries. All by preorder. 4:30pm to 7pm. more information || just the order form || To sign up for future SF deliveries, we do them throughout the city 12 months a year. You get a reminder email, then decide if you want something or not. Palo Alto/Los Gatos/San Jose/Menlo Park etc deliveries. Santa Cruz Bulk buying list|| Greens at Ft. Mason website
and our UPICK DAYS are this week: Thursday and Saturday from 9am - noon. IF you’re interested, please read our latest ladybug Postcard missive, (info is at the bottom) and look for the next one on Tuesday midday for the most up to date info. We will likely post to our facebook page as well: like to get the info. Andy has been posting photos and answering lots of questions there too. Indian Corn will be available, and pumpkins, and lots of tomatoes to pick
Tomato Sauce Photo Essay from Julia