On May 6, I went to Holland Bottom Farm in First Electric Cooperative territory in Cabot and bought 6 flats of strawberries. We ate 1, gave 1 away, and made 24 pints of jam with the rest. When I popped a delicious strawberry into my mouth, it was like entering a time machine and traveling back to 1982. I have picked and eaten a lot of strawberries, and before May 6, I thought the best strawberries were from the sandy river bottoms in Montrose, Iowa, however, I must say that Holland Bottom Farm strawberries are equally good and maybe just a shade sweeter. Holland Bottom Farm strawberries are worth waiting in line for, and they are the inspiration for this month’s column.
John Lennon wrote the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1967, a year before I was born. Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children’s home in Liverpool, England, and Lennon would sneak off to play in the orphanage’s gardens. My strawberry fields were quite literally strawberry fields, and like Lennon, I, too, have many fond memories. I started working in my first strawberry field when I was 12 years old, picking fruit for 25 cents a quart. I worked for a great man named Aaron Becker who was 83 years old and ran a small roadside fruitand- vegetable stand. I knew Mr. Becker from church, and he offered me a summer job picking strawberries. I would ride my bike 3 miles to his farm early in the morning, and I would pick as many strawberries as I could before it got too hot. Often, he would keep me on after for other farm work, and he paid me $3 an hour. Riding my bike home with a pocket full of money was always a great feeling.
I worked for him the next summer, but by the time I was 14, it was recommended that I try to get a job at a much larger strawberry field in Montrose, Christensen Farms, which was owned by Guerden and Sadie Christensen. I called and asked if I could work as full-time summer help but was informed that they only employed kids ages 16 and older for full-time work. Even though I wasn’t offered a full-time position, I was offered a chance to pick strawberries for the same 25 cents a quart, and a larger field meant more quarts, so I said yes. Montrose was a bit too far for my bike, so my dad, a mailman, drove me there early in the morning and picked me up after work.
I hit the field running and picked as fast as I could, and it wasn’t long before I was picking faster than everyone else. I also drew the attention of an older lady who was picking strawberries. I could see that she was keeping her eye on me. It appeared as if the 2 of us were having an informal competition to see who could pick the most. The faster I went, the faster she went, and if I jogged to the truck with my flats full of strawberries to get new empty ones, I noted that she was hustling too. By the end of the morning, I was worn out and had picked a lot of strawberries. As we were cashing out, I asked the foreman, Gary, who that lady was. He laughed and said, “Young man, you have just met Sadie, and she owns this place.”
My dad didn’t get off work until 4:30 p.m. and had a 30-minute drive to come get me, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I had packed a lunch and brought a Louis L’Amour novel to read. I set up on a picnic bench on the farm in the shade, and right after lunch, I heard Sadie asking for some help putting a new liner in a small duck pond. All the workers were too busy to help since they had more pressing farm work to do. I put my book away and began pulling the old liner out; I went up and knocked on the door and offered to help her put in the new one. We worked that afternoon and got the new liner in.
She invited me into her kitchen and offered me some pie, and we had a great conversation. I told her that, although I was too young to work there full time, I was grateful to pick strawberries. My dad picked me up, and we went straight home to do our farm chores. That night, the phone rang, and my dad answered; he spoke for just a few minutes, and then I heard him say, “No problem, he will be there in the morning.” My dad turned to me and said that I must have done something right because that was Christensen Farms, and they would make an exception to their ages 16 and older policy. I was hired full-time.
I can’t tell you how great a day that was. The minimum wage was $3.35 per hour; they paid $4 per hour, and they also worked six days a week. This represented an enormous opportunity for me, and to this day, I remain thankful to the Christensen family who truly treated me like family: Guerden Sr. and his wife, Sadie; their son, Guerden Jr., and wife, Carol; their son, Tim, and wife, Tammy (disclosure, she is my dad’s niece, and I am sure she put in a good word for me); their daughter, Nancy, and husband, Gary. My first boss, Ryan Christensen, was a great leader and later became an even better friend, and his brother, Mark, became one of my best friends. I have so many memories and learned so much during those years. This foundation led to opportunities I have today.
I recently watched late-night television hosts mock Arkansas for our new law that makes it easier for 14- and 15-year-old kids to get jobs. My life experience would indicate that the joke is on them. Some of the best things that ever happened to me as a kid were getting a job, making money, and learning the value of hard work and teamwork at Christensen Farms.