Thursday, September 20, 2012

Life on the Farm : A Suburbanite Tale

I'm a suburbanite.

I think I always have been.

I don't care much for the hustle and bustle of the city, though sometimes the thought of living in an unfinished loft has its appeal. The idea of being able to walk from said loft to an eatrery or a park or to work has its benefits. The city affords me the ability to earn a living that allows me and mine to eat, drink, and make merry all the while with a roof over our heads. The closer you live to the city, the better your opportunities.

After that, I'm stuck. I truly enjoy the beach. I could imagine falling asleep to the lapping waves. Yet, there is something to be said for the mountains and their beauty. A fresh snowfall is incredible at elevation. The fact that there aren't really any snowy mountain vistas near the lapping waves of the ocean means someday I will be forced to choose.

Though I can appreciate the honesty and good nature of the country or rural setting, I can't imagine living there. I'm sure there are many merits and I don't disrespect those that live and work there, but... a farmer's life is not for me. Let me tell you why.

I was eighteen years old and I was a student of life. Having only graduated high school based on two summer classes at the local community college, I was not a hard working student. I had a job as a cook and cashier at the local Roy Rogers restaurant in my hometown of Bowie, MD. Back then, minimum wage was $3.35 per hour, but for exceptional employees (read: those who were willing to open or close) the wage was closer to $5 per hour. I was certainly hot stuff making more than the minimum.

Opportunity was about to call.

My best friend through high school had landed a job running a vegetable stand a couple 10 miles down the road and made a fairly good wage doing it. One day he says to me, "we could use some help on the farm." Now, I'm thinking to myself, "farming may be nice, but they let me run the slicer here." I had some hefty responsibilities (read: Hefty trash bags to tote to the dumpster) and wasn't sure I was ready to give it up.

"Pay is $10 per hour for the next couple of weeks."

Ummm, yeah... "Where do I sign?"

With that, the proper arrangements were made such as turning in my apron and name tag and telling the boss to have a nice life. I was eighteen, fairly rude, and largely disrespectful. I was now a farmer. (the latter having nothing to do with the former)

I was picked up at around 5:30 AM if my recollection serves me. We were on the farm at 6:15 and in the field picking corn shortly thereafter. Bushels of corn, I want to say we picked 80 bushels of corn that morning. I ate uncooked Silver Queen corn for breakfast. It was fairly glorious. I had a good sweat going before most other people had poured coffee.

We raced back to the farmhouse and met up with the farmer and the rest of the crew. Our topic and my life was going to be Tobacco. Now, I had missed all the fun of field preparation and planting. These were things that could be done with various machinery. I had also missed inspecting the fields and topping the plants which loosely involves removing the flowers that would produce seed. Those were manual tasks of some intensity.

What I was not about to miss was the harvest. Visions of Steinbeck raced through my head. I romanticized the harvest for the next 10 minutes or so and will never do so again.

Because Tobacco leaves were only valuable whole and dried, the time did not call for a mechanized harvest, but rather one performed by men and perhaps some really steely eyed women. Three basic tasks had to be performed on each plant, in each row, in each field and none of them were spectacularly easy.

Cutting - Tobacco plants are fairly tough and at their base average about 1-2 inches in diameter. Armed with what amounts to a long handled hatchet or sometimes a machete, did I mention deadly sharp from the grinding done the night before, the idea was to fell one in a single blow. Now, because Tobacco plants are leafy all the way to the base, the cutter had to make sure that the leaves were out of the way before loosing the mighty felling blow. I should also mention that the ground is somewhat far away from the swing of a standing man. Two options were available: kneel and creep forward on your knees, or bend/squat down. As you want to work your way through a row as quickly as possible, the bent or squating technique is preferred. Heck, I was eighteen and strong in back and mind both. Cut plants were stacked in piles along each row. The perils of the job were only to mind your neighbor, his cutting circle and yours, and your feet.

Spearing - Tobacco, like most plants, when cut from its root, will begin to wither. So once the tow was finished, the spearing process began. Many of you have staked tomato plants, so a tomato stake of roughly six feet is not an unknown to you, but for the uninitiated, the stake is a one inch by one inch by six foot pole. Some poles are shorter than others. As the spearer moves along the row from pile to pile, he is affixing a metal tip to the wooden spear. Once the tip in on the stake, he will bend and pick up the cut plants. Typically, 6-8 plants are speared on a single stake and then the tip is removed, the loaded stake is laid carefully on the ground and the process continues with a new stake and/or a new pile. Sounds simple and it truly is, save for the bending over to pick up plants and lay down full stakes. The perils of the pointy tup only needed to be learned 20-30 times before proper diligence was taken to avoid a bloody stake.

I may have forgotten to mention that the sun was late Maryland! With the humidity, it was most days close to 100 degrees and felt hotter. I probably should mention that I am almost Larry Bird white and I don't tan.

At one point during the day, my friend was driving a load of fruit down to the stand and a giant watermelon fell from the truck.  Such a frenzy you've never seen of grown men, running for the broken fruit, waiting to taste its goodness and feel the quenching liquid of the meat in our mouths.  Sorry, I had a moment there...

Hanging - In order for the Tobacco to be auctioned, it had to be first dried. Drying Tobacco requires hanging it in a drying barn. Our barns were 40 to 50 feet high at the crown. At each increment of ten feet, there were beams running from roughly end to end. In older barns, these beams were often made from saplings, this meant round boards, not nice square ones like the picture to the left.  Typically, a two by four was laid across the beams to give the hangman (probably not the correct term, but that one seems way more badass) a solid place to stand.  By solid, I probably don't mean rock solid, more like standing in the sand as the tide comes in...
Let me do a little math for you for no other reason than to show off my math skills.  Hangman is roughly 6 feet tall and with reach probably eight.  Stakes are 6 feet long, with full extension of said reach and stake, something akin to 14 feet is the total.  Subtract the 10 feet of space between each section of the barn and you get a rough total of 4 feet to spare.  What does all this mean?  It means a procedure that goes something like this:
1. Reach down to about shin level and grab the stake of the person below you.
2. Pull with one arm until you can grasp the stake at about the halfway mark.
3. Pivot the stake as you straighten your body.
4. Thrust the stake up with both arms high over your head to the hangman above you.

Bending, Pulling, Pivoting, Straightening, Thrusting.... it sounds fun.
Lather in sweat, Rinse in same sweat, Repeat over and over and over, oh and over.  This is roughly 200 stakes on a truck.  Trucks constantly pull in.

Though the barn is out of the direct sunlight, the perils of this task are that the barn is still sweltering hot, the barn smells awful, and the barn introduces man to its mortal enemy, the a confined space and on a very rickety platform.

Falling - Since you've been attentive, I figure I will throw you a bonus activity. In case you decided not to pay attention until now, 40 feet is pretty high to be on rickety boards in a barn.

The first thing the farmer tells us as we climb to our particular perches (mine was 20 feet) is the following:

"If you fall....don't flail. You'll just take everyone else down with you..."

Wait... WHAT?  It sounds like you've done this a few times.  Clearly, you've survived, but your sanity is in question right about now.

Guess who fell?  AND flailed...

Yeah, the farmer. 

He was right.

Fortunately, my fall was broken by an almost full load of tobacco on the truck. 

I never missed that job.

Dude Write

I'm hooking up with the Dudes over at DudeWrite this week, some of whom may even get the laboriousness of my task. If you haven't clicked over there, you should do so soon. How about now? Click on the link or the picture and check out some really fantastic writers. On Sunday, you can even come back and vote for your favorite. I suspect it will be mine, but give the other writers a chance and a vote. You'll have four more after voting for mine.


  1. Negative. I do enjoy a cigar every now and again, but for the most part I don't.

  2. This was certainly enough to convince me to not smoke. Too much hard work for me. I worked in a vineyard during college and I quickly decided manual labor wasn't for me.

  3. Leave it to the farmer to break his own rules and take you down with him!

    Now I need a cigarette!

  4. Yikes! That sounds like a terrible job. Even more reason not to smoke. I've done the occasional farm job in my day, but nothing like this. The closest was when I was in jr. high and my cousin volunteered me to help him and his dad clear a field. We loaded rocks, boulders, and tree trunks in a front loader.... in the humid-hot Tenn summer until we ran into a hornet's nest. That ended our day, lol.

    Enjoyed it Scott!

    Michael A. Walker
    Defying Procrastination

  5. Growing up in Western Massachusetts, the main things to grow out there were potatoes and tobacco. I harvested neither, I had my farming roots doing the most vile, messiest and painful job...harvesting raspberries. I got paid $2 per gallon bucket for those suckers...needless to say I quit about a week into sucked!

  6. City life is looking pretty good now, isn't it?

  7. I live in a suburb and that is close enough to the city for me I couldn't stand living somewhere like crowded for my liking...........

  8. Phew, just reading this post made me sweat. I'm off for a quick nap now.

  9. Definitely not my career choice.


  10. Yeah, we had a younger guy on the crew mainly for hanging. He was a real monkey in the barn.

  11. Yeah cities would be great if all the people would move out.


  12. Sounds sticky. I might be able to eat a bucket of blackberries, but not raspberries.

  13. I think we've all done these laborious jobs in our youth.


  14. That hurts, Dan...


  15. Not quite City, but close.


  16. A vineyard might be fun, for a day... At least the squashing grapes part. Lucille Ball made that look fun.

  17. Damn...and there's me trying to quit smoking...great post though Dude xD

  18. I just have to point out that it is very possible to live in the country and have nothing to do with farms

    On the other hand, I have done those sweltering jobs and there is no amount of money that would make it worth it to me.

  19. Yeah, I just know that with a rural area, even my lawn would become like farming. But I see your point.

  20. Man that sounds awful.

    I think Ken will have a special love for this post :)




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