King of Cantaloupe
King of Cantaloupe
Eighty-one years ago, Bud Smith was asleep in a bushel basket at the Indianapolis Farmers’ Market. When he woke up, his father, who was there selling the family’s cantaloupes, gave him a dollar that a customer had left for him.
“I guess I was a cute little fellow,” Bud says remembering that summer day. This is his first memory of melons from a life filled with them. Growing cantaloupe is in Bud’s blood. The tradition spans back to his grandfather, who was a cantaloupe farmer in Indiana in the 1880s.
Coming up, Bud says he always knew he wanted to be a farmer. Aside from time spent in the military and three years working at Yellowwood State Forrest, he has been involved in farming and produce his entire life. It started as just helping his dad. Bud can recall down to the finest details the way he and his father grew and sold cantaloupe nearly 80 years ago. He remembers being in the fields building boxes and filling them with sand and compost before planting seeds by the thousands. He remembers selling cantaloupe for 65¢ apiece, and he recalls early days when he and his father would go to market.
“We would pick melons all day or be in the field. We would go to the market at 5:00 [a.m.], lights go out at 10:00 [p.m.].” And after this, everything would start over again the next morning. “We got up at 2 [a.m.] and started loading trucks,” Bud remembers. It was hard work, but he says this was always what he wanted to do.
“I loved it,” he says. “I enjoyed farming and seeing how things came up and grew.” He added that he had many opportunities to take other work but always turned them down, saying he just wanted to help his dad farm.
After time spent in both the Marines and the Army, Bud came home ready to work. He recalls the first time he had to borrow money to start his own piece of the family business. When he left the service in 1954 he needed to borrow $2,000 and was resoundingly told that no one wanted to loan money for farming in Brown County. After the second teller told him they could not loan him anything, he got discouraged.
“I thought, ‘Boy I’m going to get a runaround,’ because the Nashville bank had already turned me down,” Bud remembers. However, Moon Mullins from the First National Bank in Bloomington came through. So long as he paid the 6% interest twice a year, Mullins said he would gladly loan Bud the money, and that if he needed more to come back and see him. This got Bud started. He worked the next 16 years with his father raising dozens of acres of melons. However, Bud did not have his own farm until 1970 when, after both parents passed away, he took lead of the family farm.
“I had to get 16 signatures [to buy] it because I had seven sisters and brothers,” Bud recalls. “They all wanted me to have the place.”
In his life Bud has been the father of 3 children and grandfather to 10. He has seen droughts and floods, economies boom and bust, farms come and go, demand for big cantaloupe shift to small cantaloupe, and personally he has seen his own life slow considerably in the last 20 years.
“Truthfully, I didn’t think I’d live this long,” Bud admits. “I started drawing social security at 62. I didn’t think I would make it to 65.” After lung surgery, a leg bypass and seven heart bypasses at once, he says he is not able to do the kind of hard labor he once could, but that has not stopped him.
“I can’t do much other than talk or drive tractors,” Bud says, but he does a lot of both. “I can’t lift, there’s a lot of things I just can’t do, and I have to rest often…I can walk a little and then rest. I can adjust one plow point or something, and I have to sit down and take a break.” With the help of family and neighbors he still plants close to 8,000 cantaloupe plants each year on top of hundreds of watermelon, tomato, zucchini, and cucumber plants.
Slow-moving or not, Bud starts the season the same way he has for years. For cantaloupe, the process starts in early May. He and as many volunteers as he can muster crowd around a table in his greenhouse and push seeds one at a time into aged Styrofoam planters. Local gossip and time-tested stories are passed around the table as some place the seeds and others top each cup with dirt.
Bud is connected to the land around him. The ground he and his family farm is the same land he grew up on, helping his father tend. The house he lives in belonged to his parents, which Bud and his son remodeled when he took over the property.
“I remodeled it before I ever moved in, and I did all this remodeling myself, me and my son. I cut every piece of stone in this house when I was in high school,” Bud recalls. Memories surround him both on the farm and in town. Walking into church at Shepherd of the Hills Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bean Blossom, Bud recalls farming the land around the sanctuary years before the church moved there from its original Nashville location. Inside, Bud chats, as he does most weeks before service, with friendly neighbors and fellow parishioners. With a quiet reserve Bud admits that he is the last living charter member of Shepherd Hills. When asked about watching friends pass on and the landscape he grew up with evolve, he admits it gets lonely, but Bud does not seem to let that get him down.
Bud concedes that he was never a good student in school, but the farm has been an excellent teacher and watching food grow for 85 years has informed much of what Bud believes in this world. He said as he has gotten older, one lesson stands out.
“I don’t care what you pay for something, if you take it home and you can eat it, you haven’t lost nothing if it’s good for you,” Bud explains. “If you go to price a pill, they have gone out of sight. If I had the money I am paying for pills, I sure wouldn’t have to worry about money raising cantaloupe.” He went on to add that he believes if people today, particularly children, focused more on eating well, common health issues and a dependency on medication and vitamins would fall by the wayside.
“I think if people eat the right food, they can eliminate a lot of pills,” Bud says.
Even as life slows down, little has changed for Bud at 85. He still eats cantaloupe at three meals a day when they are in season and admits that after nearly 90 years of raising and eating them, he has not tired of them yet. Even the simple things still bring Bud joy. He still walks through his fields with amazement.
“I still love it,” Bud says. “It’s like my grandkids. I watch them grow. It’s amazing.” Bud attributes all of his success to his faith in God: “The Lord does all this. I know it. We just plant the seed and then you turn it all over to the Lord. I do,” he explains. “I say, ‘God, there they are.’”
After all the years of hard work, Bud says there is nothing else he would rather be doing and that he will continue to work until he absolutely has to stop. Bud says he reflects when out in his fields and is filled with a quiet satisfaction and fulfillment.
“If I was to die I [would be] enjoying myself,” Bud says with a smile.
Story and photos by Isaac Smith