A GARDEN FOR MYRA: Farmer Turns To Produce To Aid Wife’s Recovery
The trading is heavy on Wall Street as buyers crowd around with a fistful of dollar bills in their hands, looking for good deals on the commodity market.But this market isn’t in New York City — it’s at the Wall Street Community Center in Tallassee. And the “trading floor” is the back of Al Hooks’ pickup truck. Here, there’s no speculating because buyers can count on sweet potatoes, collard greens and some of the most succulent strawberries you’ll ever put in your mouth — all grown on his Macon County farm, not far from the E.V. Smith Extension Center in the Milstead community.These — and assorted other fruits and vegetables not grown on his farm but purchased for resale — are delivered each Tuesday morning to seniors at the Tallassee center as part of the Farmers Market Authority’s Senior Nutrition Program, an effort to provide fresh, nutritious, unprepared, locally grown produce from farmers markets and roadside stands to low-income seniors.According to FMA Director Don Wambles, low-income seniors receive a book of five coupons, each valued at $6, with which they can purchase fresh produce from about 1,000 qualified vendors across the state. The coupons can be used for locally grown produce only.”It’s one of the best — if not the best program — that has ever come out of Washington,” says Wambles, adding that the state received a federal grant of $1.7 million for the current year. “It provides benefits in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables to seniors who are nutritionally at risk and then those same dollars end up in the hands of small farmers who grow their own produce. So we’re taking $1 and directly benefiting seniors and farmers.”Like the FMA’s wildly popular “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” farmers market program, the federal Senior Nutrition Program strives to connect consumers (in this case, low-income seniors) with farmers offering fresh, locally grown produce.It is, however, only a one-time benefit with the coupons distributed each May and June. So, in April, when Hooks made his 80-mile roundtrip run to Tallassee’s Wall Street Community Center, followed by another stop to the volunteer fire station at Union, the buyers were using cash, not coupons.
“Sometimes, they don’t have the money, and they’ll pay me the next time around,” Hooks says with a grin. “Sometimes, they forget, but that’s OK — it’s not always about money.”
No, sometimes, it’s about doing the right thing.That’s how Hooks got into this business in the first place. A third-generation farmer who was running three logging trucks and a crew of seven loggers, Hooks was forced to give it all up in 2001 following a series of setbacks.The first setback came in 1996 when a tree fell on him and so shattered his right leg that Hooks was unable to work for three years. Less than three weeks after his return, a skidder accident fractured his other leg and put him out of work for another two years.”I had to sell my property, all my cattle, what was left of my logging equipment except for one piece which I had to let go back, and (the bank) sold it for a third of what it was worth,” said Hooks. “So I had to pay a big ol’ bill on top of that.”But the biggest blow came in 2000 when his beloved wife Myra suffered a massive stroke.”She couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, didn’t know anybody,” Hooks said. “The doctor told me she wouldn’t live through the night. They put something in her IV to dissolve the clot — told me there was less than 1 percent chance of it working — but it did work. She stayed in that coma for a week and a half. The stroke doctor said to put her in a nursing home, that she’d never be able to care for herself, but I wasn’t going to do that.”Instead, he brought Myra home to care for her. “I used to get her up in the morning and put her feet on top of mine and walk her to the bathroom because she couldn’t move her legs,” he said. “I’d give her a shower every morning, fix her breakfast. But when I was logging, if I wasn’t there by 4:30 in the afternoon, she’d be at that kitchen window waiting for that truck to come into the driveway. If I was late, she’d stand there at that window until 9 o’clock. The first thing she would say when I’d get home is, ‘Oh, I thought a tree was on you!’ She could still remember my accident.”It kept eating away at me. It got on my nerves so bad,” he said. “When you’re chasing two log trucks, a lot of times you don’t even know what time it is. It got to where I couldn’t handle that. I had to give it up.”So, in 2001, Hooks decided to become a full-time fruit and vegetable farmer. “I thought, ‘If I do the produce, her mind will be at rest and she wouldn’t be worrying about me. She can look outside and see me in the bottom field. Then, if I’m working on the other side in the other field, she can look out the kitchen window.’ As long as she knew where I was, she was content.”Hooks plowed into his new venture at full-speed, planting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that allows him the luxury of farming year round. “There are backyard gardeners, there are truck farmers and then there are producers,” he said. “The backyard gardener is not going to grow enough to last long enough. The truck farmers may just grow peas and nothing else; they don’t grow a variety. But I’m in the produce business and so I grow a little of everything, and I try to grow enough of it that it will keep me going all year long.”Depending on the time of year, his fields — all planted and harvested by hand and maintained without use of pesticides or herbicides — may include strawberries, onions, watermelon, turnips and turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, lettuce, rutabagas, broccoli, cabbage, kale, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, English peas, corn, peas, butterbeans, okra and cantaloupe.The size of his garden will vary from as few as eight acres in April when strawberries reign to as much as 30 acres by July when the rattlesnake pole beans are ready. “You can’t grow enough of those,” he says of the beans. “People love those bad enough to start a fight!”He takes his produce wherever the customers are, places like the senior centers in Tallassee and Union and to markets at Ag Heritage Park at Auburn and the new Taylor Road market in Montgomery.Wherever he goes, the customers are glad to see him coming. “Some of them you get attached to,” he said. “If I run a little late, they want to know what’s wrong. I get a lot of joy out of seeing people, especially seniors … Say, an elderly lady comes up and buys something; the next day she’ll come back and tell me how good it was. She’s right back in line wanting more. It feels good to know you’re able to grow a product that’s good for the body. It’s not all about money.”In the meantime, he’s able to be close at hand whenever Myra needs him. With that peace of mind, she’s been able to make noticeable progress.”She’s got to where she can walk a little,” Hooks said. “She still can’t use her right arm, and sometimes, she can’t say things she wants to say — the words just won’t come out. But she’s a miracle. We’ve been through it, but by faith, we’re still here. We’re holding on.”