It's not easy catching up with Robert Sickles Sr. Up at dawn, keeping farmer’s hours, he's on the move all day. You may find him either in his Raspberry field across from the parking lot at Sickles market, or on his tractor surveying the farm that has been in his family for over 300+ years. If he's not on premise in the summer, he's most likely at one of his tracts of land in Middletown plowing and planting the land that provides the farm with fresh eggplant, zucchini, peppers, beets and a host of other veggies that go from field directly to the bins in the produce section of the market.
When taking a break on a hot summer's day, I often cross paths with him in the backyard of the produce market. Quiet and unassuming, the 82 year-old is a wealth of knowledge and experience-- and one of the few full time farmers in Monmouth County.
He's an icon to me and many others-- but, to himself, he's just doing the job he has been doing for over 60 years- and doing what he loves. He’s still enthusiastic, still amazed at the weather, and always ready with a greeting. When I see him in the market in the early morning buying his bread and eggs for breakfast, he waits in line just like everyone else. He likes to watch what wonders have become of the small garden stand his father started back in 1908 and which he continued with his wife Adelaide until handing the reins over to his son Bob Jr. Quietly, he sees all with that twinkle in his eye. But never underestimate-- he knows everyone's name from the cashiers in the front, to the produce preparers in the back room. A watchful, yet gentle eye takes it all in.
We talk about many things. The subject of those pesky deer comes up often. He says that deer have multiplied tremendously since colonial times-- and are incredibly destructive to farmer’s crops. But, on the other hand, he's soft-hearted-- once bringing a box of farm kittens out of the barn and into our protective hands for care one summer morning. He knows the name of every bird and critter on the farm, and told me he once saw a 6-pointed buck deer on the property. As for the Groundhogs-- well-- there's a little trap that he uses to humanely lure them and take them to the pastures of some one else's plenty. Practical in many ways, he tells me the world’s food supply would be totally non-existent if we all went organic in the fight against crop-eating insects. I like these stories. It brings me into another world where storytelling and wise ways meant something.
One of the most anticipated crops of the summer season are Mr. Sickles’ raspberries. Grown on 3 acres of land, they are hand-picked, plump and juicy. Every pint of fruit is a labor of love coming from stained hands and good cultivation. A traditional crop from Sickles Farm, the sweet berries have been grown on site since the 1930’s. The cultivars, which include Canby, Reveille, and Willamette, are full of white blossoms which will quickly change to red, fleshy fruit.
Raspberry plants, like the ones Mr. Sickles plants in our raspberry fields are lush and full of fruit in 3 gallon containers out in the perennial yard. Although we love when you buy our hand-packaged raspberries in the little green cartons, we have no problem sharing our knowledge of raspberries and offering you success of your own with potted plants. Robust, and long-lived, the Canby raspberries provide pints of fruit every summer, and need only a cutting out of the old wood in the spring. If you’re not into eating them, leave them for the birds. You’ll get mockingbirds, catbirds, orioles and many other berry -eating visitors. Sharing with the critters is a whole new take on things. Think of it this way: they’re not stealing your fruit, you’re just sharing it. It’s complicated, yet quite simple. We have supermarkets, they don’t.
When I see my co- workers Ysidro and Francisco carefully pruning the raspberry bushes for this year’s crop, I am in awe that a farm is so close to where I live. The fruit from field to hand and then to your shopping cart is just moments away. I only play farmer at my job on the farm, but, the surrounding smell of new mown hay and Mr. Sickles Sr. waving from his tractor, sure make me feel like one.
There’s a saying that goes “Don’t complain about farmers while eating at the dinner table.” With that in mind, I say, “Thanks, Mr. Sickles!”