I woke up this morning to find out that one of our farmers, John Powers, had passed away from injuries sustained in a cycling accident on Monday afternoon. The news was a dreadful conclusion to a week of wondering if John was going to be able to make it through one more terrible trial. John and I had a complicated working relationship. When I was hired at the end of last year, John made it clear to me that he knew a lot more about growing tomatoes than I did. John did know things about tomatoes — things that only a man who spent every day swallowed up by the suckers, leaves, and fruit of tomato plants could know. In my first month, he very helpfully printed out (what seemed like) every piece of information he could find on the internet about growing greenhouse tomatoes. John gave them to me to take home and study; he didn’t need them anymore because he had read it all.

John and I had some tremendous debates about the best approach to growing tomatoes. He always said I had an unhealthy bias towards coir (coco-fiber) as a growing medium for tomatoes, and that I used peat-based mixes on our annuals and perennials, because at my core, I “like flowers better than tomatoes.”  I tried to assure him over and over that I was not “one of those flakes,” addicted to flowers. There was always that mistrust. I was always working uphill to prove I was a tomato guy. Mid-week, while we were still waiting on word of John’s condition, another staff member approached me and uncomfortably asked, “John’s probably not going to be back this year is he?” At that moment I noticed that a group of employees with traumatic brain injuries had just arrived to put in their Wednesday shift. I turned to the staff member and replied, “Maybe he comes back in a wheelchair. He could work the tomatoes in a wheelchair — that’s what we do here.”

John was the backbone of the farm. When I would come in at odd hours to check on the farm after a winter storm or on a Sunday to water, John was usually there. Farming doesn’t know weekends or holidays or vacation time, and John knew that better than anyone. The work was always paramount to John. He always said that I was giving too many tours and talking to too many volunteers and never finishing my row of tomatoes like I said I would. The last time this priceless pep-talk came my way I asked him if he would like to be the farm manager, so that I could work in the greenhouse all day with the nice tomato plants. John replied, “I don’t have my hearing aid on. I didn’t hear anything you just said.”

At the end of John’s shift on Monday, I was at the entrance to the farm planting the flower box underneath the Cape Abilities Farm sign, of course, where John found me. He peddled up on his road bike and yelled, “you were right about the tomatoes” and then he took off down Route 6A, like he had done so many times before. I’m not really sure what he thought I was right about. Today after hearing of John’s passing, I spent the day in tomato house #4. I ignored the customers, the flowers, and all the rest, and I finished my row of tomatoes. Tomorrow I’ll get started on the next row, just the way John had done for years.

John Powers in tomato house #4. Photo by Roger Gandini