Each day, many of us dutifully show up at work. We put in our eight hours or whatever the shift calls for. We enjoy the consistency of air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter as we ply our respective trades. For the most part, our work is not as physically taxing as it is mentally taxing.
My vacation last week gave me a profound, new appreciation for those whose jobs require physical labor in whatever elements may exist at that time.
Instead of a true vacation, I took a workation. I traveled to Robersonville, where my dad was in the midst of harvesting his small crop of asparagus.
A couple years ago, Daddy planted two acres of the green vegetable. Our first harvest last year was short, lasting only two weeks. This year, we will harvest for four weeks before we reach a full six-week harvest next year. My brother, sisters and I each take a consecutive week off from our regular jobs to help Daddy get the crop in.
Before our assigned week arrives, we are filled with the notion that we are doing something noble to take off from work and help Daddy with his task. By the third day of harvesting, we are looking for any excuse never to promise such a thing again. The labor is demanding to say the least. We walk into the field with a 5-gallon bucket and a stick that is cut to the minimum length of the asparagus spears we are supposed to pick. If the spear is at least as long as the 8-inch stick, we snap it off near the ground and put it in our bucket. Often, by the time we’ve walked from the beginning of one row and back up the second row, our buckets are filled.
Daddy’s two-acre field has 44 rows. On most days, we had three people picking the field. On a good day, we might have had as many as five people. When the weather conditions were right, as they were most of last week, the asparagus grew so fast we picked the field twice in one day. Make that 88 rows.
As we picked the field, we would carry our filled buckets to a rinsing station, where the spears were washed and chilled in ice water before we loaded them into a refrigeration unit. Another group of workers took those spears and graded them, sorting them for length and diameter and pulling out the bad, malformed spears we might have plucked from the field. Often, there wasn’t enough time at the end of the day to grade the afternoon harvest that same day, so when we returned to work the next day, the grading crew finished up the work from the previous day while the rest of us reported to the field.
My father’s biggest concern heading into the season was finding a market for his product. He knew that the local restaurants and grocery stores couldn’t take all he could produce. A wholesaler in Greenville didn’t return his calls. So he jumped into my pickup truck with the bed loaded down with 25-pound boxes of asparagus and headed to the North Carolina Farmer’s Market in Raleigh. That proved to be a charm for him as wholesalers came and bought his entire truckload in a single sale and pre-ordered the same amount for the following week.
Marketing turned out not to be my father’s biggest problem. Instead, it was labor. Some of the workers were very dependable, on time each day and worked hard until the end of the day. Others showed up if they wanted to make a little money that day. Still others came, worked half a day until lunch, then left and never came back again. And then there was the group of folks who called my father in response to a help-wanted ad he placed and never showed up after my father told them to report to work the next morning.
I’ll be the first to admit that walking through that field twice a day doubled over at the waist isn’t my idea of an easy job, but I was astounded at the number of people who wanted to get paid, but didn’t want to do the work.
And, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m glad I survived my workation and don’t have to report to the asparagus field for another year.