The Contrary Farmer

In a news story from a third world country recently, the reporter referred to farm chores, butchering and street cleaning as “dead end” work. The inference was that progress involved convincing young people to go to school and avoid low-paying manual labor. Never once did the report mention that a good way to turn dead end work into high end work is to raise the pay. 

Why is it that so often society puts down essential work like farming and food production as merely menial tasks that any dumb ass can do. If you teach young people that farming is dead end work, you are guaranteeing food shortages in the future. Or at least that would be the case except that enough people still know how to think for themselves and see opportunities in making successful careers out of seemingly menial work like farming, butchering and street cleaning.

There’s a guy in our town who shunned college, started out as a lowly paid street maintenance worker, and today runs a million dollar business in landscaping and related work. Among the people I know are farmers and butcher shop operators who make almost as much money as doctors do. If you want to talk more accurately about dead end work, how about spending fifty years in an office cubicle doing nothing more than channeling information streaming across your desk from one vice president to another.

I like to shock people by pointing out that I was once a homeless guy from Baltimore. ‘Once’ is the key word here. When I was working for a farm magazine in Philadelphia back about 1967, there was a big fuss over a government effort to train unemployed welfare recipients roaming the streets of Baltimore to pick apples in the commercial fruit orchards nearby.You would think that this would please both conservatives and liberals but when has that ever happened? Even the migrant laborers and the apple farmers themselves opposed the idea. The migrant workers didn’t want competition for their jobs and the farmers  were afraid these idlers scraped off the streets of Baltimore would make poor apple pickers and so cost them money. They were right. The underlying mistake the government was making was that anyone could do manual labor like picking apples.

To see just how this social experiment was working, I went undercover, signed on with a busload of homeless guys from Baltimore, and worked for a couple of days in the orchard. About the only thing I really learned was how to pick apples. Like any other manual labor, it takes skill to do it correctly. You have to learn how to handle a ladder without killing yourself. You have to learn how to tell a ripe apple from one not so ripe, so that when you pull on it gently, it comes loose easily and you don’t rip the whole twig end off including the buds that will make next year’s fruit. You have to learn how to handle the apples without bruising them. And you better learn how to do it fast enough to compete with the professional migrant pickers. As for the discomfort of hand harvesting, which many journalists tend to overstate because they themselves do not like physical work, it was not nearly as stressful as a high school football practice.

The homeless guys seemed so totally barbaric at first and I feared for my life at night. I witnessed some gross events at the labor camp including a drunken group taking bets on who was up to doing a little bestiality with a donkey in a nearby field. But after awhile, I began to understand that these guys were as pathetically human as the rest of us, just terribly unlucky in the circumstances of their births. Only a very few were inherently stupid, lazy, or lawless. Being in an orchard was for them the equivalent of being turned loose in a deep jungle. They had known only streets and slums. A rumor spread among them that the orchard was full of snakes, and they refused to go among the trees until finally assured that it was safe. My fear of them was soon replaced by pity.

But here’s the point. They could not pick apples just because they had hands and fingers. They were there because of the mistaken notion that manual labor is dead end work. The migrant laborers knew how to pick apples and they made fairly good money doing it. I became interested in migrant workers and later joined another bunch of them picking tomatoes here in Ohio. One I got to know was putting his son through Ohio State on his earnings.

I asked my doctor the other day if he didn’t get awfully bored and tired of his work— he had just given me a prostate examination. (Talk about dead end work.)  His eyes widened and he blurted: “That’s my job. Someone’s got to do it.”  That’s true of all kinds of dead end work. Pitch manure? Repair sewer lines? Cut pig throats? Turn garbage into fertilizer?  Someone’s got to do it. If you turn your nose up at dead end work, one of these days you just might have to do it yourself.