News from the Tennessee Valley Business

Bill and Shirley Terry planted 3,000 watermelon plants by hand. It was almost a beautiful crop, but the angry heat left few survivors.
Daily photos by Eric Fleischauer
Bill and Shirley Terry planted 3,000 watermelon plants by hand. It was almost a beautiful crop, but the angry heat left few survivors.

Farmer resolute after rotten season
Despite late freeze, flooding, drought, Terry planning for next year’s crop

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

“I just like growin’ stuff.”

Bill Terry, 72, says it again, sitting with his wife, Shirley, on the back porch of their Chalybeate Springs home, 12 acres crammed with produce and flowers surrounding him, a glass of iced tea in his hand.

The repetition is an effort at explanation, a declaration of why he’s not crying. A pronouncement that notwithstanding a late freeze that erased his early labors, a drought that starved a second planting and heat that wiped out a third, he’s trying again next year.

It’s 97 degrees, but a cool breeze reaches the porch. It has a sweetness to it. Ice rattles in the glass, mingling with the sound of distant crows.

The sweetness of that breeze suggests peace, but its source — a nearby watermelon patch — is an image of violence.

Three weeks ago, the patch was a tangle of green. Weeds arched over 40-pound melons, protecting them from the sun. Rain nourished those weeds and gorged the melons. The freeze and drought had killed many of the Terrys’ crops, but the melons were going to make it.

Then came the heat wave and an end to the rain. First the weeds withered, exposing the not-quite-ripe fruit to the scorching sun. The melon leaves wilted; the vines shrunk to brittle twine. Then the melons began to cook, yellow on the outside and red mush on the inside. Splitting open, they sprawl like a gory battle scene.

Bill and Shirley planted 3,000 watermelon plants by hand. Bill stoops at one hill, showing how he hoed it, then scooped dirt into a hill around seeds and fertilizer. He walks six feet and does it again.

It was almost a beautiful crop, but the angry heat left few survivors.

Billy Terry’s watermelons suffered this summer. The heat split many of the melons open.
Billy Terry’s watermelons suffered this summer. The heat split many of the melons open.
“That one’s $5, that one probably would go for $6. Ruined now,” Bill said, walking across a patch cluttered with large melons. Not a single one is salvageable. His heavy drawl is not mournful or defeated, but rebellious.

“Now the heat didn’t get that one, didn’t have a chance. The deer and coyote love this patch. Oh, and see that one? A crow got it. Ruined. You’re fighting everything. If it ain’t the drought or the heat, it’s the critters.”

Then a broad smile.

“We’ll do better next year,” he said, kicking at a clod of earth baked so tight it refuses to budge.

The watermelon was a disaster, as were the first two plantings of corn. The frozen, then parched, day lilies struggled. Other crops survived the awful summer of 2007, though, and were bought by loyal customers, most at the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market.

The third planting of corn was a charm.

“The rain in early July hit it just right,” Bill said with satisfaction.

A late planting of melons still has a chance, although Bill frets over the leaves as they wilt in the morning heat.

The Terrys also grow okra, peas, beans, cucumber, squash, onions and tomatoes (which he jumpstarts with Epsom salt and powdered milk).

Bill’s brown, callused hand gestures in different directions as he names the fruits of his labor. Every direction he points looks brown and dry, but he’s confident.

Not much downtime

There’s not much downtime at the Terry farm. The hard labor begins in early April. The Terrys wake up at 4 every morning but Sundays, and on a good day they put their tools down when the sun sets.

When the growing season began, Bill weighed 220 pounds. Now he’s 185.

They’re not inclined to stay up late after such tortuous days, but they laugh together recalling a late-night celebration during the worst of the drought.

“We were like kids,” Bill chuckles. “It started to rain at 2 a.m., and we came out to watch. It was pennies from heaven.”

Shirley, 69, allows as how it would be nice “to just sit out here and watch the flowers,” but then she slaps her knee at the joke and grins at her husband.

“I’m right glad when the season’s over — when I can do my crossword puzzles and he can watch his Westerns — but we wouldn’t trade this for anything,” Shirley said. “We love doing this.”

Shirley’s survived bouts with cancer, but has not had a recurrence since she and her husband started farming, side-by-side. If the work doesn’t kill you, it keeps you alive.

Next generation

Both worry about younger folk who don’t see the joy that comes with watching stuff grow.

“Eventually there won’t be any farmers around here,” Bill said, this time not smiling. “The kids won’t do it. They want to work 8 to 5 and sit around on the weekend.”

There’s some hope, though. They see it in their 2-year-old granddaughter, the one who eats half an ear of corn before asking Grandma to boil the rest.

“She loves that melon patch,” Bill said, breaking into giggles. She demanded to help him load some of the few surviving melons, so he chose two small ones for her.

“She was huffing and puffing, but she got them in that trailer,” Bill said. “Then she turns around and looks at me and says, ‘I’m hot! That’s hard work!’ Yep, it sure is.”

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