Draft remains afloat in family farm labor pool

Back in March I held a couples Euchre night at my house. We ate, drank and made merry, as some of those on the guest list were farmers and knew the occasion was their last hurrah in terms of eating, drinking and making merry. For once spring hits, there’s no time for catching up with the work, let alone one another.

Staying up late served as spring training: To gear up for working ‘round the clock to outwit the upcoming months of heat and rain. My father used to put in hellacious hours during the warm months of the year. The only “break” he got from crop farming during wraparound workdays was to milk his cows morning and night. Some vacation!

Long after I had gone to bed, I could hear the rhythm of the milking machines juxtaposed against lively country tunes from his radio in the milkhouse. Dad would grab a few hours of sleep and be back up and at ‘em again the next morning while we still slumbered.

Now, I know I’m making this sound glamorous, because I need to in order to preserve the romantic notion some people (mostly those who work set hours indoors) have about farmers, i.e. “It must be nice to get to establish your own work hours.” Stop reading here if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant of real farm life.

In my experience, farmers who succeed have learned not only to grow vegetables, but to metaphorically eat them: Do what has to be done, however daunting, when it needs to be done, longer and more expensively than you hoped necessary, whether you feel like it, because it needs to happen for survival. Not a philosophy many are willing to sign up for, save members of the military.

One thing repeatedly enforced for those serving in the navy or doing time on Leon Smith’s farm is the “all hands on deck” principle: To assemble automatically and work seamlessly when duty calls. I’m not talking anything as orchestrated as the Amish barn-raising scene from the movie, “Witness,” but more ordinary circumstances, like hay baling, cattle chasing, and most recently, pepper planting on my sister’s farm.

RIDING THE RIG

While our family doesn’t commercially grow fruit, word traveled at light speed through the family grapevine planting help was needed for more than 50 acres of hot cherry, banana and jalapeno peppers. I was a hot tamale in the last-minute labor market. Not because I have any special knowledge of specialty crops, but because I possess a strong back and an in-depth awareness of the shallowness of my bank account, and am therefore willing to do anything for a buck. More importantly, I was available.

Availability being to grunt work what location is to real estate, my butt was unceremoniously drafted and grafted onto the seat of the tractor-drawn pepper planter. Onto which seat is key: The linings of seats one and two had taken on water, giving the added pleasure of riding around the field with a wet butt. Seats three and four lacked leg room, requiring a crippling sidesaddle stance. Seats five and six were fought over. Cramped quarters necessitated stuffing my water bottle down my sweatpants. Very classy!

A two-sided console in front of me held two flats containing 288 pepper plants per side. My job was to pull them out at one-second intervals and plunk them into a revolving, six-chambered mechanism that dropped them into the ground.

How hard could that be? Any fool could do it, right? But you needed to be both a quick, coordinated fool. Some fools failed. A slight hesitation resulted in a missed plant. Trying to correct screw-ups resulted in multiple missed plantings. You had to learn to let go of past mistakes to do justice to the future. Not a bad lesson to have reinforced 13,500 plants per acre. 

If the uncomfortable seats, heat and dirt weren’t enough, some disagreeable Chinese food had me one morning becoming intimately acquainted with the field Porta-Potty. Even harder to digest was taking orders from my nephews and their farming partner. But somehow, I made it. True to the farming code, financial survival instinct ultimately triumphed over adversity.

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