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July 27, 2009   Email to Friend 

SQUASH MOUNTAIN: Loyd Brothers Farm Keeps 'Em Coming All Summer
By Darryal Ray

Jackie Loyd has been producing all kinds of squash by the truckload for 15 years now.
It's 100 degrees and not even noon, but the boys of summer are already hard at work. On their hands are gloves; on their arms, a pair of tube socks with the "toe end" removed.

It's the kind of ingenuity that comes easily when a mid-June sun is bearing down on you and it's your job to pick, load, wash, sort and pack one of nature's most prickly vegetables -- squash. Crooked neck, zucchini, butternut, acorn and straight neck.... You name it, the Loyd Brothers Farm grows it. Lots of it.

This year, Jackie Loyd, his brother George and nephew Chip will grow about 240 acres of squash on their Jackson County farm on the Alabama-Tennessee line. That's why their vegetable fields (including squash's itchy summer sidekick, okra) are filled with migrant workers this time of year. "You can't grow stuff like this without migrant workers," says Jackie. "It's impossible. We pick every day. As many people as there are out of work, there's not anybody coming out to pick squash."

Jackie, who is 66 and goes from daylight to dark six-and-a-half-days a week, will be the first to admit the work is hard. The sun is hot, the hours long and the leaves of the squash plants make you itch like the dickens. Hence, the "arm socks."

"The workers had rather pick okra than squash," says Jackie. "I've seen workers' arms break out so bad picking squash that they won't show up to work the next day. But they'll show up to pick the okra."

In fact, 70-year-old George Loyd says the farm plants okra each year as a safeguard to ensure the migrant workers do come back each summer.

"Okra's a good crop to raise, but we more or less plant that to make sure the workers have something to do," George says. "If something happened to our squash and they didn't have anything to pick, they'd stop coming. The okra can survive a drought better than squash."

The okra patch covers 12 acres, but the Loyds also grow watermelon, pumpkin, cabbage, soybeans and wheat. Through the years, they've grown as many as 19 different crops like pepper, cucumbers and green beans.

The centerpiece of the farm's 3,000 acres today, however, is squash.

It's been that way for 15 years now, ever since Tennessee Vegetable Co., shut down its line, effectively slamming shut the Loyds' market for what was then their No. 1 cash crop -- green beans.

Neither George nor Jackie can remember exactly why they decided to try 20 acres of squash to take the place of their green beans. "Just a wild guess," Jackie says with a laugh. "We decided to try squash and cucumbers at the same time, and it's hard to do both of them because they are both coming in at the same time and neither one will wait on the other."

"When we first started, we didn't know what we were doing," says George. "There wasn't anybody around to tell us what to do or how to do it, so we just started experimenting and we finally got it worked out about four or five years ago."

The greatest challenge was learning how to best space the squash, and getting the planter set up. The Loyds' 12-row planter was set up on 30-inch rows, but they had found they needed each squash plant 18 inches apart. "If you get it tuned up right, it'll plant whatever you want it to," says George. "Just get a little Bondo, and start stopping holes until you get what you want."

Likewise, Jackie discovered that setting the proper vacuum pressure on the planter was crucial as seed prices rose. "Those seeds are expensive!" Jackie says. "Getting that vacuum pressure right saves a lot of money. I plant one seed every 14 to 18 inches -- I think Auburn University recommends two or three seeds and thin them out. But at $153 per 1,000 seeds, you don't want to do any thinning out!"

So, on average, the Loyds plant about 6,000 seeds per acre -- or about 1.4 million seeds over 240 acres. Planting begins in mid-April and continues every 30 days until the first frost. "It comes in quick," says Jackie. "You plant the seeds, and in 44 days, you're picking it. The butternut and acorn squash are ready in 90 days."

It keeps on coming, too. Up to 50 migrant workers keep busy picking, loading, washing, sorting, packing and shipping as one field after another becomes ready.

The sheer volume of the harvest underscores why farms like Loyd Brothers couldn't survive without legal guest workers, said Brian Hardin, director of agricultural legislation for the Alabama Farmers Federation. Hardin said that in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, the state's horticulture industry (fruits, vegetables, nuts, greenhouse, nursery and turf products) had gate receipts of $800 million.

"Many farms in Alabama simply couldn't make it without legal guest workers," said Hardin. "The intense management of that industry requires a lot of help because when the harvest comes in, you've got to have the workers available. Otherwise, you lose it all."

That's why the Federation supports federal legislation to make agricultural workers from foreign countries more easily available to agricultural employers. Without it, the Federation says, more and more of our food will have to be imported.

At the Loyd Brothers' farm, the squash comes and goes quickly. By July, the largest of three storage coolers -- a 20-foot by 40-foot cooler with a 14-foot-high ceiling -- will be filled almost daily. And that doesn't include the two pickup truck loads of culls each day.

Every other day, a tractor-trailer loaded with 1,600 to 2,000 boxes filled with 20- to 30 pounds of squash leaves the farm. Last year, the Loyds shipped close to 60,000 boxes (or 1.8 million pounds) to produce buyers like Piggly Wiggly, Associated Grocers and Flavor-Pic. In turn, they ship the squash on to grocery stores from Texas to New York.

"You can't sell straight neck squash in the South, and you can't sell crooked neck squash in the North," says Jackie. "You can't tell the difference other than one's straight and the other is crooked. They're both yellow outside and white inside. On the crooked neck, you have to cut the crook off so you get more squash to eat with a straight neck because you can slice it all the way to the end.

"It's just habit," says George. "Everybody around here has always raised crooked neck. It would be nice if you could raise just one kind, but it's OK the way it is."

When fall arrives and the temperatures begin to fall, the squash production fades away. In its place, another gourd springs up -- pumpkins. That's when the Loyd Brothers' farm mixes work and play with its annual fun-filled pumpkin patch, drawing about 9,000 schoolkids, churches and other visitors from throughout the area.

The last week in October -- when the squash usually bows to the first frost -- the pumpkin patch offers its haunted hayride, complete with chainsaw-wielding psychos and fire-breathing dragons.

"It's a lot of work then too," says Jackie, "but that's when we have fun."



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