Making eye contact with me, he held out one of the peaches.
“Take a bite of this,” he said. That’s the sweetest peach you’ll get anywhere. Take a bite and pass it on to her.” He said it to me, then moved his eyes to my friend.
“Do you have a pocket knife? Is it already washed?” My friend asked him, revealing her insecurity with his proposition.
“Just taste it! It’s the peachiest! I grew that myself,” said the man.
It was an easy food dare. I took it from his hand and passed its downy fuzz in my palm. I drew it up to my nose, inhaled its bright smell. When my teeth broke through the skin the peachy aroma intensified. I passed the fruit to my friend, who took her bite despite her caution at the lack of cleanliness. She passed it on to yet another person who fearlessly took a bite. We all were wowed.
My formerly skittish friend now lunged to the basket table to buy a few pounds of these summer peaches. Meanwhile, I thanked the salesman.
“Did you really grow these?” I asked.
“That’s my name up there on the sign,” he said. He formed a fist with his now empty hand and stuck his thumb out and poked his chest. “Me. I’m Tony. I’ve been growing these peaches for 25 years in the South Valley.”
He had an enormous personality and I wanted to photograph him right away. I asked for permission to take his picture. Again, another lesson in patience [read my stranger no. 57 to see what I mean]. He asked me to walk with him along the side to the rear of his vendor stall, but no, he had not agreed yet.
“I’d much rather you come out to my farm and take a picture of me on a ladder, with my hand reaching for a peach. That’s how I want to be seen,” Tony said. “I want people to see me in my orchard; I am the orchard.”
I told him that I wanted to include him in my stranger project, but to do so, would have to work with him here and now. We would keep it simple with some peaches already at our disposal. Would he agree to holding up a basket of fruit? Would he agree to be photographed and included in my 100 Strangers project?
He asked about where the picture would show up and why would anyone want to see his face? And he kept on talking before I even had a chance to answer. As he sat down on a cooler at the back end of the tent he indeed picked up a basket of peaches and placed it on his lap.
“Are we going ahead here, Tony?” I asked, not sure if he’d given me his permission yet.
“Yes. OK,” He said. And he kept on talking. And I clicked.
This is the Tony of Montoya’s Farms, 58/100 of my strangers.
I spent 15 solid minutes with Tony from the peach tasting to the end of my photo taking. Which image came out the best? The first of my efforts.
The only direction I needed to give him was the minor tipping up of his hat approximately two inches, and asking him to lift up higher that basket of perfect succulent fruit. Hat and prop adjustments are among the things I’ve learned to do while on this project.
As for my composition, I moved myself to position the top of Tony’s head between the daughter-in-law and son who were selling the fruit at the main front table. There are no solid walls at these outdoor farmer market stalls.
I usually obtain the most candid and genuine expressions from my strangers when they have just crossed the threshold of agreement. I make sure the camera settings are ready along with my envisioned composition before I get that, “Yes.”
If I have the time, and the subject will allow, I’ll try to make more images as insurance. While it rarely turns out better material, it goes a long way to flatter and forge trust with the subject.
Tony enjoyed the attention. As such, he gave me his story. Highlights are shared below for those who enjoy reading the human feature portions of stranger packages.
For those who are reading this and wondering how I have kept so many details intact from the conversation, it comes from my discipline of typing up notes as soon as I return to my home computer, if I didn’t already jot my notes on a paper notebook or smartphone notepad.
Originally, Tony is from Northeast New Mexico, “from a little dried up place that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.
He is one of 13 brothers and sisters, but the only who would eventually follow in the footsteps of their parents and their previous generations of growers.
Tony didn’t start out in farming. Proudly he told me that he was the only one of his siblings to attend and graduate from college. He then completed graduate school so he could function as a social worker.
“I decided to retire from that and go back to the earth. I wanted to take back my family’s traditions. Growing food is honest hard outdoor work and it’s what makes me happiest.”
He pointed at the two little girls: his granddaughters, sitting on the laps of his daughter in-law and son at the selling table. “We are a doomed people if we can’t get the young ones to grow their own food.”
“All my children are involved with the farm, and their children, too. Take for instance my granddaughters here today. Last summer they decided to taste the little yellow heirloom cherry tomatoes I grew. They liked eating them. So I told them this year, ‘you will grow, care for and sell your own,’” he said.
Tony described how he had them plant two rows–each 250 feet long– of these yellow cherry tomato plants.
”These plants are short and bushy. They won’t grow much taller than the girls. In another week they’ll be ripe enough for the girls to pick and I will sell them here in clamshells [this is packaging design one sees in supermarkets where top and bottom of the package clamps together at the seam]. The money from those tomatoes will go straight into their college savings accounts,” he said. “I encourage all my children and grandchildren to go to college.”
Tony will grow fruit it until he can’t physically pull it off anymore. It’s an all-year proposition. Off growing season there is planning, farm building repairs, painting and organizing.
When he goes to pick, Tony leaves up to half of the fruits borne on each tree. Then he goes down the line and does the same thing to each subsequent tree. Several days later, he returns to pick again and follows the same routine. The trees continue faithfully to produce the fruit. Ultimately, he gets a solid 7 weeks of peaches from his orchard.
The only supermarket he sells to is the Whole Foods market on Academy and Wyoming.
“Ask the produce department if the peaches are Tony’s,” he said. “They know me by first name. If they say ‘yes’ Then then they’re mine. You’ll know they are the best.”
The schedule of the various green markets where Tony’s Montoya’s Farms sells produce and other products is found here.