Homegrown harvest

FRANKLIN LIVING 2018 —

When the cold gray days of winter melt into spring, with its balmy breezes and warm sunshine, Donald Ezzell gets the itch to get back in the garden. Ezzell joins other local growers each season at the Franklin County Farmers Market to share his fresh, homegrown produce with the community.

Ezzell has been a market vendor for the past 10 years – ever since his mother-in-law passed away, and he and his wife moved out to Frog Pond to live and work on the 22 acres she left behind.

“It’s really good land that grows good stuff,” said Ezzell, who went from planting just a small backyard veggie garden in Russellville to sowing a full acre his first spring in Frog Pond. When his hard work came to harvest, he had more produce than he knew what to do with.

Enter: the Franklin County Farmers Market. “I have been going every year since,” said Ezzell.

The Franklin County Farmers Market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to noon June through October, in the open pavilion adjacent to the A.W. Todd Centre in downtown Russellville. Corn, pumpkins, watermelon, okra, tomatoes and peas can all be found at the farmers market – in Ezzell’s stall alone.

Although he’s only been a market farmer for the past decade, Ezzell is far from green when it comes to agricultural endeavors. The Franklin County native was raised on Little Bear Creek and flourished in a farm upbringing.

“In FFA I planted my first corn when I was 15, in the ninth grade,” said Ezzell. “With the help of the ag teacher, I won the state FFA corn growing competition.” It was a formative success for the young Ezzell. He still remembers the award-winning variety of corn – a hybrid, Funks G 711.

When Ezzell graduated from Belgreen High School in 1958, he continued on to Auburn University to earn a degree in agricultural education. He taught agriculture in Limestone County for two years and Lawrence County for 10 years and returned to Belgreen as principal in the late 70s and early 80s.

He left education to work in banking for the next several years, first at Citizens Bank and then as president of First State Bank in Phil Campbell. He returned to education with a stint as director of community service at Northwest-Shoals Community College, from which he retired.

Getting into the garden, Ezzell said, was an exercise in pursuing good health. He wanted “to get out and work the soil and have a good time.” “When I was working in the school, I didn’t have any time to do anything, and a lot of it was sitting behind a desk,” Ezzell said. “If I hadn’t been doing something, I think I wouldn’t be in as good of shape as I am.” With a combination of hearty exercise and nourishing sunshine – not to mention the nutrient-rich fruits of his labor – the 78-year-old Ezzell has cultivated a hobby that is both enjoyable and good for his health.

Ezzell now plants seven or eight acres of his Frog Pond property, sowing six varieties of corn, an acre each of watermelons and pumpkins, 40-50 tomato plants, half a dozen rows of peas, a couple rows of okra – and the list goes on.

From an old torn down house he created a greenhouse, where he begins growing some of his plants – like tomatoes and cabbage – from seed and then transplants them in field.

He orders all the seed he wants and begins planting when the time is right; greenhouse work begins in January, and field planting picks up in March or April.

Ezzell will plant every two to three weeks to stagger his harvest. When it comes time for picking, he dedicates long hours to piling up quality produce to cart to market, with the time commitment varying depending on the crop.

Picking 30 dozen ears of corn for the market, for example, will take about two hours. “I do that the late afternoon before, and then I pull my truck in the garage. It’s connected to my house, and I have it cool in there where the corn will stay fresh,” Ezzell explained. Pumpkins, on the other hand, are the slowest to harvest. His truck will hold 100. “It will take close to half a day to pick that many pumpkins,” Ezzell said. “Not every pumpkin has a good shape. If you want to sell them, you have to get them looking good and in the proper shape.”

In a good year, Ezzell said he will grow 200 or so pumpkins and 350 melons. Those are his two most challenging crops.

“You have to have a good season to grow a good watermelon and good pumpkin,” he explained. “Too much rain, and your watermelons will look good but will have white streaks in them, and they won’t have a good taste. Pumpkins – there is a squash bug that gets on pumpkins, and you have to spray them once a week. That’s pretty time consuming.”

When it comes to his favorite crop, Ezzell said he is still partial to corn. He plants five acres of it, some field and some sweet. From sowing to reaping takes about 10 weeks. “To me, it’s rewarding to see it grow,” Ezzell said.

Once all the vegetables are grown and picked, it’s market time. At peak season, Ezzell will go to the market four days a week. If only a few crops are ready, he might go only two or three days.

“I love going to the farmers market. If I can sell enough at the farmers market – and I do –  to pay for my seed and fertilizer and fuel I use with the tractor, I’m happy,” Ezzell said. At the end of the day, Ezzell isn’t necessarily looking for a pretty profit. “Of course, I like to sell everything I carry, but I see a lot of people I was raised with, and I see a lot of younger people I’ve had in classes in my years of education. I spent 44 years working for the public – 30 in the high school and 14 in banking – and I know several people in Franklin County. A lot of them come by the farmers market to get fresh vegetables, and I get the chance to see them and talk to them.”

It’s a social event, as much as a business undertaking.

“It’s not a rush-rush thing, like when you go to the grocery store,” Ezzell said. “Customers will come over, and we’ll talk about the corn, the tomatoes, about old times – we’re in no big hurry at the farmers market, and the people who come are not in a hurry. Most of the time they like to chat, and we do too. We have a good time at the farmers market.”

The friendly interactions aren’t limited to customers. Ezzell said he and his fellow growers enjoy a positive camaraderie amongst themselves. “There is very little competition. We help each other out,” Ezzell said. They all work to preserve the friendly atmosphere, devoid of cutthroat selling tactics where it’s every grower for himself. Farmers don’t try to undercut each other on price.

At peak season, Ezzell will be among 10-15 growers at the market. “We have more room. There will be some tables open sometimes – the lower end hardly ever gets anybody, but the upper end will stay about full.”

Ezzell’s wife Ford takes over the harvested vegetables he doesn’t sell at market, freezing them to enjoy all winter. They have four grown children – Sherrie Kirby, Hope Adkins, Terry Ezzell and Eric Ezzell – eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Although growing can be hard work – and sometimes thankless, when a crop doesn’t produce well because of weather or pests – it’s a pastime that brings Ezzell joy.

“Taking a little seed that’s maybe not as big as a pinhead and watching it grow and produce something edible – that’s rewarding to me,” he said. “Seeing a field of – whatever, pumpkins watermelons or corn – when it’s about to mature, it’s pretty.”


Story by Alison James

Photos by Christopher Webb

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