Commentary

Snow: How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm?

July 6, 2013 

I read that in California great quantities of strawberries rotted in the fields this year because of the scarcity of farm labor.

We shouldn’t be surprised. I speak from experience. Living on a farm is one thing. Earning a living on a farm is quite another.

Even with modern conveniences such as air-conditioned tractors and other machinery of every kind imaginable, some manual labor is necessary, especially at harvest time.

As a kid growing up on the farm, I dreamed of ways to escape the dawn-to-dusk drudgery.

A past mention of this subject drew rapid response from guys who also have tasted farm work and found it wanting.

Raleigh friend Bob Auman and I differ over which of us drew the toughest farm assignment in our teen years. For Bob, it was peaches and watermelons. For me, it was tobacco and corn.

Growing tobacco was not only hard work, it was also dirty work.

One of the most distasteful jobs was pulling off by hand the big fat green worms that dined on tobacco leaves and then, hurling them to the ground and stomping them.

I remember when a young buck, sweet on my sister, from a neighboring farm was helping us de-worm tobacco. As a prank, he dropped one of the big, ugly worms down the back of her dress. She ran to the house screaming, “Oh, Lordy, Mama! Get it off! Get it off!” Whatever attraction she felt for the fellow died that day.

“There’s no comparison,” I told Bob, envisioning his easy task of climbing a ladder and plucking luscious peaches from the trees. But let’s let Bob have his say.

“Far and away, lifting watermelons was the task I hated most,” he said. “I went for years without eating watermelons or even allowing them in my home. The sight of them made me ill. The repetitive stress of lifting thousands upon thousands of 18- to 30-pound watermelons has caused periodic back pain for almost 60 years.

“Also high up on the list was chasing pigs that rummaged their way underneath fencing. And I still remember bloody fingers and knuckles from picking cotton. Working in tobacco was a breeze compared with watermelons, pigs and cotton.”

Several former farm boys have e-mailed me that growing up on a tobacco farm prevented them from falling victim to the lack of initiative among many of today’s teens.

Wilton Strickland of Goldsboro recalls that a friend once said that he had made his son spend a week on a tobacco farm as a cure for the boy’s lack of incentive.

“You need to put ’em in a ’40’s or ’50’s tobacco field and make ’em think they’re going to have to do that tobacco raising stuff manually for the rest of their lives,” Strickland had said. “They’ll develop plenty of incentive right quick.”

I once asked a highway trooper what inspired him to choose such a risky job. It wasn’t the appeal of the uniform or the sense of authority and wearing a gun.

“It was farm work,” he said. “One day a patrolman came to the field to consult my dad about something, and I then promised myself if I could just get away from the farm I’d go for that. I would have opted for almost anything, short of robbing banks, to get out of that tobacco field.”

Even today, there are berries to be picked, watermelons to be lugged to the trucks and potatoes to be gathered, all by hand. Were it not for immigrant labor, such popular additions to our menus would be missing.

That’s why politicians who once frowned on foreign labor in our fields are coming around to compromising on immigration issues.

A popular World War I song asks, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”

How you gonna keep workers in the tobacco field under a broiling sun, after they’ve discovered in-door computer jobs in air-conditioned offices?.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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