It’s 8:30 a.m. on an August Monday. The sun has begun to melt expectations; there is no breeze. Mosquitoes dive bomb any human venturing out of doors, a testament to the amount of rain South Louisiana has been enduring recently. Behind a local furniture store is an example of farm-to-table at its simplest. A 15-acre tract of land, currently yielding fresh okra, is owned and tended by master gardener Willis Jacob. He’s 81 years old, and he loves what he does. “I’m up every morning at 5 a.m., and if I’m not working, I’m not happy. And the older I get, the more I like it,” Mr. Okra says, his smile blinding in the August glare.
Helping him this blistering morning, his daughter, Tammy Jacob, Archie Taylor and Charleen Markle. They’ve been in the field since sun up, picking the day’s okra. Their work day is almost over. “We work three or four hours every morning,” said Willis. “After that, it’s either too hot or too rainy to do anything.”
“The mud is making everything a mess,” said Tammy. Charleen chimes in, showing her ankles. “We can’t wear boots, they’re too heavy, they’d just get stuck in the mire. So Tammy came up with a brilliant idea: beach shoes. She lifts her muddy pants leg to show their innovation; they’ve lashed their beach shoes to their legs with rawhide. “ Without something to keep them on, we’d be barefoot,” says Tammy. “The men can pick in bare feet, but not me.”
Charleen and Tammy walk down to the washing station they’ve set up to wash, cull and bag the verdant pods they’ve collected earlier in the morning. The tractor lumbers to the station, straining in the well-worn tracks covered in mud. “We can’t take the truck back there, it’s too muddy with all the rain,” Tammy said. “The tractor just barely makes it as it is.”
Soon, the burlap field bags are emptied, a mound of light green piles onto the wooden table. First, Tammy and Archie sort through the vegetables, their experienced hands finding an errant pod that is too ripe, (“We don’t like them too hard” says Tammy as she works) or one that has curled into itself. “We don’t sell any curly okra,” says Archie. Tammy cuts the stems that have been left too long when picked.
Then the washing begins. Willis sprays the hose over the pile, gathering them into mesh crawfish sacks through a hole at one end of the table. “We call that a bushel,” he said. The yield is about 15-20 bushel bags a day, and they are mostly spoken for before the bagging is completed.
“We have a base of hundreds of customers, some as far away as Beaumont, or Baton Rouge. They call me and reserve their okra,” said Tammy. “They know we have quality produce, it sells itself.” Most of their crop gets sold to individual customers, some left over will get sold to local grocers like Fremin’s Food and Furniture.
Willis Jacob has been farming for over 25 years. He was the head gardener at the Iberia Parish jail for eight years. “I worked under three sheriffs, Romero, Sid Hebert and Ackal,” he said. “The prisoners would come help me as a work detail. I’d tell them, ‘don’t come back here’. We grew mustard greens, turnips, cabbage, cauliflower and of course, okra.” His experience with growing vegetables goes back much further than that. Willis’ father was a small farmer, and his family grew peppers and okra to survive. That was when Willis learned to love being connected to the earth. He taught his daughter to cherish that connection as well. “It’s really simple and how it should be,” said Tammy. “I enjoy working the land, seeing the plants sustain us.”
“Two years ago, when I was living in Lake Charles, I wanted to find a farm where I could work with a master gardener and have a hot tub,” said Tammy. “I started looking around, in California, not much luck. Little did I know that I’d find my destiny right here, working with my father. I remodeled our bathroom for that hot tub,” she added, a gleam in her eye.
Currently, the summer okra crop is starting to slow down in the heat. Willis plans to cut the plants down to about two feet off the ground, and keep them producing a fall crop until first frost. He also plans a winter garden, with crops including cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, broccoli and cauliflower.
Asked how they like their okra, the Jacobs shrugged. “Any way, smothered, gumbo, fried,” said Tammy. She then picked up a raw pod and took a big bite. “I even like it raw.”
If you’re looking for some delicious, just-picked okra raised and picked with care, you might try Mr. Willis Jacob’s okra. Call Tammy at 337-529-7105. If you’re early enough and if you’re lucky, you might get a bushel bag.