Art Cravens, Great Bend, started gardening and selling vegetables from his roadside stand 10 years ago. At age 86, he credits it with keeping him healthy and active.
“Think about it – I’ve got something I can do all day everyday if I want, but I don’t have to,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy, and I don’t know how much more I’m going to do, but I think it’s what’s helped keep me going.”
In 1997, he and wife Larea turned what used to be an old meat locker and the surrounding ground into their market garden and a place for their family and other groups to meet throughout the year. At first, Cravens grew vegetables to give away. Later, the couple decided selling vegetables might be a way to fund travel in their RV.
“These days we have to sell a lot of vegetables to get very far,” he said.
During the summer, visitors to the stand find Cravens sitting in the shade of his canopy if its not too hot, along with varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh okra, sweet onions, melons and peppers in season.
Despite the ongoing drought, his garden has fared better this year than last, he said. They had a well with an electric pump installed, but despite consistent watering last year, Cravens said he didn’t get much besides cucumbers.
“We had so many cucumbers we didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. What kept them growing when everything else failed from heat exhaustion was ideal placement.
“They lay on the ground, down under all the leaves of the plant, where the water was,” he said.
This year, he’s been picking his favorite “Dasher” cucumbers, the traditional green slicing cukes, and Armenian cucumbers. He harvested a 9.5 lb. Armenian earlier this season. This unusual looking curcurbit is pale green in color, and much larger than the traditional cucumber shoppers typically see in their supermarket produce aisle. According to Burpee Seed Company, it’s really a melon that tastes like a cucumber. It also goes by the names “snake melon” and “yard-long melon”. Cravens says the slices have soft seeds and a taste just as sweet as any dark-green variety.
The Cravens harvested 235 pounds of sweet “Candy” onions from the ground. Mr. Cravens braids them and hangs them to dry before he removes the leaves. “You need to make sure they dry before you store them, or they’ll bleed,” he said. The okra stays tender because he keeps a damp cloth over them at the stand, The tomatoes -- “Juliette”, a small oblong cherry type, and the traditional slicers “Celebrity” and “Jetstar”, have soft, warm skin and that smell that no supermarket tomato can match. When he plants each plant, he adds three things to the hole — epsom salt, sugar and tea. The epsom salt adds magnesium, the sugar kills nematodes, and the tea increases acidity, he said.
“I don’t know if it really works or not,” he said. “Its just the way I’ve always done it and people tell me my tomatoes are sweeter than others they’ve tried.”
One melon, called “Ambrosia”, sports a sweet, rich cantaloupe smell. Cravens says the melons are a soft variety, not suited to shipping. He takes pride in these melons, calling the customers he knows will appreciate them when they are ready. But the watermelons are his.
“Oh, I might sell one or two if someone really wants one,” he said.
Customers who have frequented Cravens’ stand over the years have become old friends to him. Many of them look forward to saying hello to Aussie, the Cravens’ Austrian shepherd. On Monday morning, Aussie was chowing down on a large okra as she lay on the grass by Cravens’ stand. “She eats about anything I do, except she really doesn’t care for oranges or grapes.”
She came from a puppy mill, he said. While a puppy, she suffered a minor injury which left her with only three toes on her left hind foot. A local veterinarian took her in, and called up the Cravens who adopted her. She’s been known to escort customers to Cravens when he’s working in the garden during the day.
It’s not just the fresh produce that draws customers back to his stand year after year. Customers come for fellowship, to be greeted with a warm welcome and a chance to chat about their kids and their health, to comment on the weather, or simply to talk about the vegetables and how they plan to prepare them.
No one is in a hurry, unlike the quick stop at the grocery store to pick up one or two items. Neighborliness and a unique place in time is part of the attraction.
As a customer prepared to leave, Cravens calls her back. “I forgot something,” he calls to her. She smiles, and returns to the stand. He opens her bag and tosses in a few handfuls of the Juliet tomatoes.
“A few years back, I sat back in my old easy chair back home, I said to Larea, ‘honey if we didn’t have that mess out there, we could sure take it easy’, and she looked back at me and said ‘and then what would you do?’” he laughs.
He admits, it’s fun, but at 86, he gets tired sooner. His wife says having him out there gardening is probably about the most important thing.
“My doctor said, ‘So many people your age come in a wheelchair or pushing a walker, but you walk in here like you meant to,’” he said. “He’s right – I’m doing exactly what I mean to.”