August 16, 2010

A good harvester has to learn to choose and pick

Maine at Work: Ray Routhier also discovers one important rule of cultivating a green thumb: Don't cut it off.

By Ray Routhier
Staff Writer

BUXTON - It hadn't occurred to me that farmers need good eyesight.

click image to enlarge

Ray Routhier picks a zucchini at Snell Family Farm in Buxton. It was fun to find large squashes, but the farm owner told him customers want smaller ones.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


TITLE: Farmer, Snell Family Farm, Buxton.

WORKER: Ramona Snell, 57.

HOURS: 4 a.m. to sometime in the afternoon. Most of the workers start at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and work six to eight hours.

DUTIES: Planning what to plant, what to pick and what needs to be done on a daily basis, as well as planting, picking and transporting a wide variety of produce, including cut flowers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, beans, melons, lettuce, beets, scallions and potatoes.

SALARY: $8 to $12 an hour for most workers on the farm. "Sometimes Johnny and I don't take any money, depending on how we're doing," said Snell of herself and her husband, the farm's owners.

SURPRISING FACTS: Sun exposure is the biggest concern for workers on the farm, and several have had procedures to remove possibly troublesome skin cells. The growing season has been so good this year, Snell picked a fully grown, perfectly formed pumpkin on Aug. 10.

PERKS: Munching on a fresh snap bean or juicy melon whenever you want; being outdoors on beautiful days.


MAINE AT WORK takes an interactive look at iconic, visible or just plain interesting jobs done by folks in Maine. Reporter Ray Routhier shadows a worker or workers, reports what he sees and tries his hand at some of the job's duties.

IF YOU'D LIKE to suggest a job to be explored in this feature, e-mail or call 791-6454.

But it became apparent when I began trying to pick zucchini and squash at Snell Family Farm last week. The path I walked on was thick with weeds, obstructing my vision somewhat, and the plants themselves were a tangle of vines and leaves, creating some sort of strange vegetable jungle.

In the midst of all that, it was my job to find zucchini big enough for somebody's dinner, but not so big that a grocery buyer would be overwhelmed.

"The big ones we can leave; most buyers at a farmers market don't want that much," said Ramona Snell, 57, who runs the farm with her husband, John. "So you can pick them pretty small, as long as they look ready."

When I found one ready to pick, I bent down and cut it off the vine with a small knife. But again, there was so much foliage blocking my view that at one point, I cut my hand as well (just a scratch).

Then, as Snell instructed me, I picked the shriveled blossom off the vegetable and laid the zucchini in a handmade wooden box so it would be "nice and pretty" for customers the next day at farmers markets in Portland and Saco.

Snell left me alone to pick, while three other workers also picked in the field around me. I spent a lot of time on my knees looking for zucchini and cousa, a Lebanese squash that was sort of greenish-white. Not knowing what it was supposed to look like, I think I might have picked some that weren't quite right. I know I picked some zucchinis that were way too big, about the size of a football.

Even though I had nothing to do with growing the zucchinis, finding a big one somehow made me proud, so I picked a few before remembering that Snell had said customers don't want a year's worth of zucchini in one fell swoop.

"Don't worry, we'll go through them after and take out any that aren't right," Snell said.

As I pulled a wagon full of zucchini and squash through the weeds, the bright sun beat down on me. At one point, Snell was harvesting in the same area as me but finding many more ready-to-pick veggies than I was.

"They say you become really proficient at something after 1,000 hours, so I've done my 1,000 hours many times over," said Snell, who has farmed for a living with her husband since 1976. "And I guess I know where to look."

As Snell picked zucchini, she wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. She said long-term exposure to the sun was the main hazard of her job on the farm, and that she and other workers there have had procedures over the years to remove potentially troublesome skin cells.

"When we hear about people lying in the sun for fun, we just think that's crazy," said Snell.

Afterward, Snell and I and three other workers took the zucchini and squashes to the barn. Inside, there were several women arranging flowers to be sold at farmers markets.

Snell said a big part of her job is planning -- what to pick and when, for whom and where.

"We know we have two farmers markets tomorrow, so we have to know what sells there, what we need to have ready," said Snell. "The planning is actually my favorite part. I love looking at seed catalogs in the winter, planning for the next season."

Snell added that the popularity of farmers markets has helped keep her family farm in business, as that's a big part of their sales. They also have apples in the fall (although a frost this year has severely damaged the crop) and pick-your-own raspberries.

Later in the day, Snell took me to a patch of land that her farm leases in Scarborough.

There, we tested some green beans. Yes, they were certainly ready for picking, I advised. Then we began walking up and down rows of melons, mostly varieties similar to cantaloupe. Picking these is tricky, Snell told me.

"We want them just when they're ready, when you just gently push on the stem and they fall off without much pressure," said Snell. "But we don't want them to go by, either."

Snell picked one she thought didn't look quite right. It didn't have enough of the rough "netting" farmers usually look for on a melon.

But it was a good size, and fell off the vine easily. So to make sure, she cut a slice and ate it. She gave me a slice, too.

"That's pretty good. I guess this one was ready," Snell said with a smile.


Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:


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