This could be the year: Recollections of Great Recession trucking side gigs, successes and failures

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Updated Jul 11, 2022

Spring in Indiana is a great deceiver. At the first 75-degree day, a wave of pathological optimism overtakes me. Drunk with hope and warmth, I fancy myself, once again, a small farmer. I blame it all on Joel Salatin's "You Can Farm," an inspirational tome that tells anyone of any age and background, with any amount of acreage, that they too can supplement their living as a small farmer. This became a gateway book for me, followed by his "Pastured Poultry Profit$," then "Folks, This Ain't Normal."

To make my indoctrination complete, there were three viewings of Michael Pollan's " Food, Inc." documentary, in which Salatin himself appears as the main protagonist, the environmentally responsible farmer who was going against the corporate food production models that were killing us all.

We were in the midst of the Great Recession then, work was slow, and I was casting about for answers. 

Things reached a head in '08 when I made the leap of the true believer. I was deeply in debt with a slew of judgements against me due to a serious wreck I had been in on April 9, 2001, a story I told in part in Episode 7 of the Over the Road podcast. After liquidating my anemic 401k to avoid imminent bankruptcy, I wound up spending a portion of that illicit windfall on electric poultry fencing, tomato stakes, eighty laying hens, plastic mulch, eight hundred tomato plants, three kinds of fertilizer, waterers, feeders, irrigation tape and twine.

We would raise staked tomatoes, pastured eggs and bottle calves. We would create synergy and symbiosis, just like old Joel Salatin himself, using the manure from the chickens and cows to enrich the soil. The Youtube phenomenon was full-tilt, and I was becoming indoctrinated online in everything an aspiring tomato grower and free range egg rancher should know. The farm-to-table movement had found me. It reached out through the screen of my wife Denise's Dell desktop, and bade me to join.

weeds where a garden once stoodLittle remains of the Marhoefers' 2008-'09 venture other than this small garden, where last season's dried-up remnants are pictured headed into Spring.

I studied online and subsequently taught Denise a technique called the Florida weave, the means by which twine was wrapped around wooden stakes, then woven in a criss cross pattern through  the plants, sandwiching  the tomatoes in mid-air. This would assure they would never touch the ground, and would never be lost to rot. On planting day it was Denise, our grown daughters Anna and Audrey, and me. They were my willing conscripts, and the noble guardians of all my agrarian delusions.

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They had dubbed themselves "Dad's migrants." I plied them all with beer, pizza and words of good cheer. Soon, the farm became our collective vision. After all, you're only delusional if you build it and no one comes, right? 

When it was all said and done, 800 beautiful tomato plants were rooted in raised beds, poking through black plastic mulch with a drip irrigation system beneath them that simultaneously watered and fertilized. I promised it would be a turn-key operation for Denise. While I was gone, all she would have to do was turn a spigot, and the drip irrigation system would do the rest.

By day's end, we all were sore, sunburnt and half drunk. But deep within me, there was a sense of unalloyed joy. In our time of financial scarcity, we had stumbled upon something I'd never had before in my trucking career -- I'll call it time affluence. After Anna and Audrey returned to their place back in town, Denise went inside the house. Me? I stayed behind, sitting in a stadium chair, gazing upon the wonder we had wrought. It was a sanctum of order and beauty. Eight straight rows, 100 plants each.

Dusk would soon be upon us. A mourning dove cooed. Soon other birds joined in. They had been there for millennia. It was like I was hearing them for the first time. I was rooted in my own land, bathing in birdsong and feeling God's hearty approbation.

There were so few loads in that spring of '08 you'd get home and it might be a week before you left out again. I was with a small outfit that relied solely on brokered freight. As such, we were the first to feel the economy's contraction.

[Related: Chances of a freight recession 'considerable,' according to Cass Freight Index]

Those idle days from trucking were spent driving 400 stakes into the ground with the back of a splitting maul and beginning the first rungs of the Florida weave. The tomatoes were coming on fast now, gaining in height and blossoms.

My boss was a man they called "Big Daddy." He was both a trucker and a farmer. He came and planted soybeans in our back two acres. We were going to eke every dime we could from that piece of ground. Now we had tomatoes in rows and beans in rows. We were whippin' that old tumble-down farm-ette into shape. Big Daddy was indulging me with this micro-crop. I suppose, to him, I was the agricultural equivalent of the high school kid with dual-CB antennas on his rusty old F-150. A wannabe for sure, but faint heart never won fair lady.

Author and geographer Jared Diamond once observed that each Native American tribe had to settle on one of two life ways -- that of the hunter gatherer or that of the sedentary agrarian. The only ones who figured out how to do both well were the Navajo. They simply learned to stay put for one growing season, then would go back to hunting and gathering. Me, I was still thinking that, maybe in a slow year, I could pull off both.

Maybe I could haul produce while growing it at the same time. 

[Related: Trucking all in the family: Generations of owners leave lasting legacies in Overdrive]

A few days after planting his soybeans, Big Daddy called, "Got a hot one going to L.A. Can you be here in an hour?"  

Things really began to fall apart shortly after trucking got busy again. California was running hot, and we were taking all the loads in and out of there we could. The life of a produce hauler is one of constant self-renunciation. The key to playing the game well is to pretend you're a middle child from a large, dysfunctional Irish Catholic family. That, or simply be one. Seriously.

Then, you'll be prepared for the long waits with scant communication, the total lack of agency over your time. If you're accustomed to never having a voice, maybe running cross-country produce is the life for you.

Back home, we were heading for a bumper crop. I was in Tucumcari bound for California around the time I realized there's only so much farmwork you can delegate. Factor in 800 tomato plants, and it was more like trying to coach a little league team over the phone. You will never know work like raising staked tomatoes. You work on your hands and knees in the dirt, weaving the twine around the fruit. The plants were busting at the seams with tomatoes now, having quickly outgrown both their first and second weaves -- a third was in order. 

So, as they say on the banks of the Potomac, I decided to pivot.

The call home went something like this: "Say, dear, I noticed that some of the twine was drooping on that west row. If you get a spare moment, would you mind, say, snugging those up for me so they're, you know, not dragging the ground?" 

There was a pause, then a sigh. I could hear our one-year-old grandson in the background.

She cleared her throat. "I guess I can try. Or maybe we can just do the Florida weave together when you get back from California."

Then there were the four words I've come to dread the most in 41 years of holy matrimony.

"Was there anything else?"

I guess it was a pretty big ask. I was being dismissed. There was no recovering the conversation ever after a "Was there anything else?" from headquarters.

We said our goodbyes. 

Farming seemed so much easier in all those YouTube videos.

A few weeks later, the first of the tomatoes were ready for market, and I raced home to pick them. We were late getting to the Amish produce auction, and bidding was in full sway. By the time they got to our lot, many of the buyers were already tapped out and loading up. We only got 79 cents a case. The established growers were getting $7-$8 a case. I was nursing a repetitive motion injury in my left shoulder from all the stakes I'd driven. I was exhausted from the road and fieldwork. It was like being gut-punched by a huge Amish fist.

Big Daddy called. He'd just scored a load. "Got another Cali. Need you in Indy to load by five."

When I got cleaned up and made it to the yard, he was there. "How'd you do do at the auction?"

"Not good. We only got 79 cents a case."

"Welcome to farming."

Could this be the year? ...Could this be the year? ...

Fortunately, that first lot of tomatoes only represented a small percentage of the crop. Still, we had to figure something else out. There were so many more coming on.

We began harvesting all the bigger green tomatoes we could and selling them out of the back of our pickup truck. We also had a kindly farmer nearby who would let us pick his sweet corn and sell it on the halves, all on the honor system. Indiana, as singer-songwriter Jason Wilber so eloquently observed, is a state where the Midwest meets the South. Luckily, there was a market among the southern immigrants who lived in Muncie for green tomatoes. They liked them fried, just like in the movie.

It was a niche the chain stores had ignored. 

We became street vendors then. We cleared about a hundred bucks that first day after the farmer got his cut. We even splurged on BBQ. That may not seem like a lot in 2022, but in the summer of '08, a hundred bucks was a solid win.

We had a few of those hundred-dollar days that summer, and we figured out how to do better at the auction. In the end, though, our gains were measured in the twenties, fifties and hundreds, not thousands.

[Related: Used-truck prices at post-Recession high with appreciation climbing]

It was sometime during the second year of our tomato-growing days that the laying hens breached the electric fence and began ravaging the crop. We had managed again to get around eight hundred plants into the ground; but now the asylum was clearly in the hands of the inmates. That year, most of our tomatoes were too damaged to sell, except for a small patch the ravenous hens had yet to uncover. Big Daddy had called it quits in the winter of '09, and my new job was taking a lot more time.

Sadly, my visions of agrarian glory all boiled down to just another trucker's pipedream.

Meanwhile, Denise was quietly doing her part raising bottle calves. She would buy the three-day-old dairy bull calves from $35 to $100, then bottle feed them twice a day. Having read nary a book nor watched a single video on how to farm, she'd go down to the bread distributor and get the outdated bread, and fatten those calves up on raisin bread and English muffins.. She'd get them up to anywhere from 250-500 lbs. and sell them, sometimes to friends, sometimes on Craigslist. She just knew how to keep calves alive and thriving. Her gains were coming in by the thousands, retiring outstanding judgements. This literally brought in enough to retire the last of our debts from the accident. 

Last I checked, it was almost 80 outside. Maybe this year, I'll stay on top of the weeds in that garden. I think I'll go try to fire up the tiller.