Produce stand: 100-hour-a-week job


EASTON -- Beginning about mid-May, when strawberries and asparagus are in season, until deep into October, when pumpkins are ripe on the vine, Audrey Callahan spends nearly every day at westbound U.S. 50 and Plugge (pronounced "ploo-gy") Road in Talbot County.

One of dozens of produce sellers with roadside stands every summer along Eastern Shore highways, Mrs. Callahan suffers the hot sun, afternoon thunderstorms and humidity thick enough to slice. From sun-up until sundown, she lives outdoors, putting in nearly 110 hours a week running the family business.

Of course, Mrs. Callahan, 53, doesn't do all the work alone. The whole family -- husband, Alvin; son, Marvin, and his wife, Sue; and a another relative here and there -- pitches in to keep the wooden carts at Barnyard Produce stocked with vegetables and fruits grown on its nearby farm.

The Callahans opened their U.S. 50 stand, north of Easton, four years ago. They have another on Route 404 to serve local traffic and the vacationers taking the secondary route to Delaware beaches. When the produce season ends, Mrs. Callahan drives a school bus.

Q: A passing motorist who sees you standing by the side of the road might think you've got an easy job. What's your day like?

A: Most of the time we get up about 5 o'clock to start picking the produce to bring out here as soon as it gets light.

From 8 o'clock to 6:30 or 7 in the evening, we're basically waiting on customers and refilling the shelves. We usually start closing about 7 p.m. We have to take everything off the shelves here [on U.S. 50].

I don't have to do that on my stand on Route 404 because it's closer to the house. There, after 6, we leave a little box for self-serve. A lot of local people going home from work who want some peaches or tomatoes stick the money in my little mail box. [But] people will steal stuff here at night if we don't close it up.

It seems to be a different class of people.

Q: You mean people from the Western Shore?

A: I didn't want to say that. I tried to phrase it nicely.

Q: How important is the display?

A: You've got to have it displayed good. The more appealing it is to the eye, the more apt a customer is to buy it. You put the green cucumbers in, and the yellow squash next to them. You can't just throw it all on the shelf.

Most of the time, you want the fruits together. With the cantaloupes and watermelons, you want the bright side up.

Q: What kind of produce do you sell at this time of the year?

A: We've got cantaloupes, eggplants, green beans, squash, red potatoes, white potatoes, peaches, nectarines, plums, tomatoes and sweet corn. We've got three kinds of melons, three or four types of watermelons, peppers, cooking apples. We've also got honey and preserves. We sell a lot of honey.

Q: Is there one fruit or vegetable that people keep asking for that you don't carry?

A: Bananas. I have probably had 15 people in two weeks ask me for bananas. I just say we only sell local produce. We don't have banana trees here.

Q: Have you found that customers are more health conscious than when you started selling produce 10 years ago?

A: Oh, yeah. We sell a lot more fruit now than we used to. I see people buying fruit for kids. They're buying them plums and nectarines to eat instead of candy and junk.

Q: How do you tell when produce is ready to be eaten?

A: Most of the cantaloupes and honey melons are ready when they're good and orange and when they have an aroma in the stem end. Banging on them doesn't tell me anything.

You can tap on watermelons, though. If they've got a hollow sound, they're ripe. If they have a dead sound, they could be over-ripe or not ripe enough.

Q: You have several different kinds of watermelons. What are their names?

A: Sangria, Crimson Sweet, Seedless and Sugar Baby.

Q: What's the biggest seller?

A: Probably Crimson Sweet. It's one of the oldest types of watermelons, and people know it better. It's the round, striped one.

Q: Which one do you prefer to eat?

A: Sangria. It's redder inside and sweeter.

Q: You have a good tan. Is that from working at your stand or on your farm?

A: That's from here. It's hot.

I don't wear shorts because the flies and the bugs tend to bite a lot. Drives me crazy. There's not a whole lot you can do except get in the shade when you're not busy. For the last two weeks, it's just been terrible out here with the humidity. The humidity makes your produce go bad quicker.

Q: What kind of person does it take to work at a roadside stand?

A: You got to have a lot of patience with the customers.

Sometimes they have a tendency to want to tear your stuff up. You just can't pinch peaches and throw them all around. Some people want to take every peach out of every box and then buy two. In the meantime, they've pinched every one, and an hour later, they've all got five finger-marks in them, and nobody else wants that. You've got to bite your tongue because you can't get mad every time a customer does something like that.

Q: What keeps you going?

A: If you're going to do this, you've got to like it. It's a lot of work, and you can make it profitable. But, like I said, you've got to like it, because you put in 15 hours a day.

Except for a trip to Nashville three years ago, we haven't had a vacation in 10 years.

Q: When you finally get through with the pumpkin crop in mid-October, are you looking forward to closing the stand?

A: Yes. Yes. Yes.

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