My mind lurches around uncomfortably whenever I consider the subject of farm work. I worry that, as a writer, I gloss over the reality of it and overly glorify the ideal of it. I personally prefer a life that means many hot summer days bucking hay bales into the barn over one that requires many hot summer days commuting into a Philadelphia magazine office in a train that is not air-conditioned and then trying to figure out what to write that will not upset the boss. I have done my share of both. Office work stresses me mentally and physically. Farm work only stresses me physically and getting tired that way is sort of soothing if you don’t overdo it.
But my view of the matter is obviously not the case for the majority of people. Most humans dread hard physical labor. History shows that they will flee farm work even for life in a city ghetto and this trend continues all over the world, especially evident right now in China.
“Labor-saving” technology is our salvation, according to our culture, when in reality it only means we can do more in the same amount of time with the side effect of creating millions of unemployed people. One man can farm a thousand acres now and with a couple of employees five thousand at least, whereas in the dim, grueling past, he could only farm eighty with family help. But my experience is that the intelligent and skilled 80-acre farmer of yesteryear did not work as hard or as long as the ten thousand acre farmer of today. Few believe me because the latter does most of his or her work sitting down. Sitting down work is what we prefer even when it is worse than standing up work. You go to college to make sure you can earn a living sitting down.
But my love or at least embrace of hard physical work requires more definition. I do not like to do hard farm work without adequate rest periods. Nor do I enjoy doing it for someone else unless that someone else intends to return the favor. Milking someone else’s cows is not any more savory for me than commuting to the big city to edit someone else’s magazine. I am inclined to think that the massive migration of farm kids to the city over the last century or so was not just about being forced off the land by economic reality but because Dad did not usually know how to treat his children properly on the farm or provide the right incentives. Smaller farms have always been profitable as the Amish prove. Young people left the farm because Dads worked them too hard and too long, believing he had to use them to compete with machines he could not afford to buy. FFA in our area does not mean Future Farmers of American, but Farmers Farming Alone.
My father made games out of hard dull work. Picking up ears of corn knocked off the stalks by the binder in those olden times, he taught us to keep an eye out for flint arrowheads and stone axe heads. He showed us how to fold back the husk on an ear and throw it high into the air to make it parachute back to earth, ear tip first. Then it became a game to try to parachute the ears into the wagon from a hundred feet away. We didn’t get the job done as efficiently as Saint Efficient Farmer, (many ears had to be picked up twice) but it was more fun.
Dad might have been ahead of his time. Making sport of work has now become making work of sport. High school kids now work as hard at basketball and football as we did doing chores before and after school. My grandson when in high school was rising at six to “work out” in the gym before classes, then attended grueling practices in the afternoon after classes. Kids are burning out of sports these days about as frequently as kids 60 years ago burned out of farm work.
Of course that’s not the whole story. There are other episodes— like people who have lucrative sitting jobs but are opting out today to go broke doing backbreaking farm work. More on this next week.