The green hills and rich bottomlands of the Minnesota River Valley welcomed me as I drove down Highway 101. I was returning Peter and Carmen Marshall’s red 1996 Ford F-150 pickup, a load of empty burlap potato sacks in back. Carmen’s the woman with the big smile at the southeast corner of the Fulton Farmers Market every Saturday, selling fresh produce from Peter’s Pumpkins & Carmen’s Corn.
The day before, when I’d arrived to interview her for this article, I’d promptly locked my keys in my car. There are few things worse than hearing that little click as your car automatically locks itself up with you on the outside. Carmen had lent me her truck so I could get home. Now, coming back with another set of keys, I was getting to sit up high like a real farmer working the big truck’s tall gear shift, pushing it back and forth as I drove down the soil-rich valley with the window cracked open.
Carmen and Peter met in a pumpkin patch in 1997. She was teaching elementary school in Chaska as part of a cultural exchange program with her native Peru. Peter is from a long line of farmers in the area; his late father was an early vendor at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Carmen’s elementary school students wanted to visit a pumpkin patch, so she arranged a field trip. The pumpkin patch was Peter’s, and the field trip unexpectedly successful. Carmen and Peter got married in 1999.
In 2000 Peter and Carmen built a beautiful white house on their farm. Almost every bit of available space around the house is used for growing. They farm 20 acres out back, the field there lined with row after row of corn, cabbages, onions, strawberry and raspberry bushes and tomato vines. The Marshalls rent more land a short distance away, making a total of over 50 acres in production. The heavy rains this spring flooded two of the fields, delaying some of the crop by several weeks. But don’t worry. The corn Carmen’s bringing to market now is sweet, tender and delicious. After our cold spring, the tomatoes in the field are still green, but definitely on the way.
We drove over to one of the corn fields where Carmen needed to turn on an electric fence. “Raccoons can clean you out in a night,” she told me. “They take down a whole stalk just to have a little nibble from one ear.” As we were walking in we passed a pumpkin patch, the still-green pumpkins lying on the ground. Carmen used the top of her ballpoint to etch the word “Welcome” on one of them. “When the pumpkins mature, that word will still be there,” she explained. “We get $2 more for a tattooed pumpkin. People really like them.”
Back at the farm, we stopped at the ‘high tunnel’ — a plastic green house where tomatoes were growing out of the ground, ripe and red. Peter likes peppers so there were several Scorpion plants there, one of the hottest varieties. Next to the high tunnel, the laying hens haughtily surveyed the scene from their coup. I looked behind the door of a shed, which was full of tractors. I asked Carmen why so many. “Peter loves tractors,” she said. “He has eight.”
I was sorry to have to leave Carmen and Peter’s, and looked longingly back at the red pickup as I climbed into my car. Driving away, I wondered what my wife would think if I decided to take up farming as a career change.
Jeff Alden is the vice chair of the Kingfield and Fulton Farmers Markets. He is a business attorney in Minneapolis.