John Finley slowly pushed a small pitchfork into the soil, like gently dipping a spoon into chocolate pudding.

He turned the tool over, churning up the dirt and with it a plump, tan sweet potato. He reached down and brushed away the dirt, placing the root — the size of a soda can — into a bucket.

“If the whole row went like this, I’d be happy,” he said in a quiet voice to two of his employees.

Finley and his wife, Chris, own Finley’s Fresh Produce, based in Hermiston, one of many small businesses that sustain farmers’ markets in Eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.

These are not large-scale farms with machine-harvested fruit and vegetables. They grow dozens of varieties on small acreages and store their harvest only a few days. They know their customers personally.

Chris Finley one recent evening prepared eggplant parmesan, using eggplant from the Finley farm and a recipe passed on from a Finley customer.

“We talk food all the time. I never used to cook and now I talk recipes 20 weeks a year,”?Chris said with a laugh. “We give them recipes, but lots of times they give me a recipe, I cook it and share it with the others.”

Clear across Umatilla County, in Milton-Freewater, farmer Ron Courson said he enjoys seeing his market regulars but also finds the tourists — often from the Seattle area — entertaining.

“They’re city folk and they’ve never been that close to a real farm;?I’ll explain things a little bit,” he said.

For example, some consumers don’t understand how fruit changes with the season. The year’s first peaches don’t easily yield their pits. Later will come freestone peaches, and the pits fall right out.

Morning light

For farmers like the Finleys and the Coursons, the summer is measured not in days or weeks, but in crops.

Courson sees greens in the spring: lettuce, romaine, radish and asparagus. Cherries kick in around June, and apricots soon after. With July come blueberries and raspberries. Peaches begin ripening in high summer.

Courson does all this on 3.65 acres. He and his family do most of the work, but he hires a few high school and college students who need work in the summer.

All that picking is a bit of an art. Each individual peach tree, for example, has to be picked at the right time, and sometimes over and over.

“You’ve got to watch them as they come on,” Courson said. “The way we pick is the way the sun hits the trees.”

His workers pick first from the top of the tree, where the sweetest fruit is found, Courson said. Then they pick the eastern side, where the morning sunlight first hits the tree. Finally, they take from the western side and the bottom of the tree.

“That way you keep the freshness and maturity of the fruit,” Courson said. “You don’t have to pick something too green. You have to read your trees as to what is ripe and what is not.”

 Finley leases about 10 acres throughout the Hermiston area -- an acre here and an acre there. He dug up the sweet potatoes from an acre near the center of Hermiston where corn and potatoes also grow.

“A lot of it is just experience,” he said. “You learn things are ripe or not. Most everything we do, we’ll go through it several times picking stuff as it gets to maturity.”

In the spring Finley harvests lettuce, spinach and broccoli. July through August is time for beans, corn, melons and tomatoes.

“Once beans start we stay planting so we have fresh beans from the time they start way into September, into the frost,” he said.

He estimated his crew picks 250-300 pounds of beans a week.

Roadside stand

Just like the busy summer of crops, the farmers have a busy summer selling their wares.

The Finleys also participate in community-supported agriculture, commonly called CSA. A CSA member pays for a share of the crop: a head of lettuce or four ears of corn. Each week the Finley’s deliver produce in bulk to drop-off points in Hermiston, Pendleton and Richland, Wash., and customers come to get their share of the food.

They also attend markets in Pendleton and Hermiston and sell to Good Shepherd Medical Center and a few restaurants.

Courson attends markets in Walla Walla, Wash., and Pendleton and also sells produce to local restaurants. It’s a welcome change from the way he used to do business, from a roadside fruit stand.

“It got pretty frustrating,” Courson said. “You’d put a lot of hours in and nobody would show up. You’d lose a lot of produce. We had to figure out some other way.”

Farmers markets were the other way.

“We evolved,” Courson put it simply.

He added more variety to his crops to satisfy the varying needs of farmers’ market customers.

Finley, too, likes to keep evolving. He sought from the outset to farm pesticide-free. He does that by improving the health of his plants and crops, but said he always looks for a better, natural way to farm.

And farming is what he loves to do.

“I just like growing things,” he said. “To me it’s like watching a miracle happen every spring.”

    

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