JOHNSTON, Iowa — It’s been a while since we caught up with ol’ Donnie Francois — the Sultan of Squash, the Duke of the Cuke.
“I just picked these yesterday,” he says, reaching into his garden. “How did I miss those?”
We’re happy to report his world is still growing.
In the seven years since we last met, he’s somehow found a way to pack more into his two acres in suburban Johnston.
“I planted these on April 5th,” says Francois, holding some large, yellow onions.
He starts earlier, plants more, and employs new tricks.
“I can just go up this old step ladder and pick my beans!” he says of his improvised pole bean tower that lets the plants reach far over his head. “You get smarter as you get older.”
He’s still the baron of beans, the czar of zucchini, and he’s got a fancy new fence around the south garden. It’s buried five inches deep to keep out digging rabbits, and stands 10 feet high to deter jumping deer.
“One foot down is the hotwire, electric fence, and that’s for the raccoons,” he says.
You don’t mess with the king of corn, the prince of peas, the count of carrots — or you pay a price.
“That bug right here?” he says holding a bright red insect with black legs and antennae, “is the bug that lays the egg that causes the squash vine borer. So he is GONE.”
Francois squishes the bug between his calloused fingers.
There are those who are welcome here — provided they pull their weight. The new honey bees boost the harvest, and the new chickens clean it up.
It’s all part of the plan.
“I love to know where my food’s coming from,” Francois says. “We know it’s fresh, it’s not been sitting in a warehouse for two weeks — I think we have to move toward that. Society in general.”
He’s still the master of melons, the God of the gourd tunnel…yeah, he’s got a gourd tunnel!
But he’s also got a new perspective.
First, the 500 to 600 blue ribbons he’s won for his produce at the Iowa State Fair? Most are now tucked away in a shoebox. It’s no longer about winning.
“It’s more now about the challenge and the camaraderie at the fair,” he claims.
And Francois has retired — sort of — trading one business for another.
He’s opened his own stand at the Johnston Farmer’s Market. He’s a natural.
“Thanks for coming out in the heat!” he says to a customer, clearly impressed with Francois’ goods and presentation.
This outgoing former agricultural engineer has found the one job in the entire world that fits him better than his old one.
“A dollar for four cucumbers, I’m not gonna get rich doing it!” he laughs. “But it’s great. I get to know people in the community and I get returning customers and know them by first name now.”
Just what he needs, right? Another reason for more gardening? But isn’t staying busy the key to a healthy retirement?
“I tell myself I’m young yet, so just keep going.”
We’re glad to hear it. Donny Francois — still going.
And still the titan of tomatoes, the sovereign of Swiss chard, the pasha of the pumpkin patch, the earl of eggplant, the lord of leeks, the artist of artichoke, the ruler of red cabbage…and so on.
(The State Fair starts two weeks from today, and you’d better believe that Francois will be there. He’ll enter 150 different vegetables. And…you’ll find him at the Johnston Farmer’s Market…under the Iowa State Cyclones tent…every Tuesday.)