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0 Comments | Feb 11, 2010

An Early Harvest

corn-field-schuyler-nebraska-neb168Being the good industrious New England boy that I was, raised in the Puritan tradition of all-work-and-no-play-makes-one-a-Mainer, I began work—actual compensated work—at the age of eight. That would have made it 1965 or thereabouts, a couple of years after the tragic events of Dallas, and still in the early stages of what President Johnson was rapturously referring to as his New Society, a utopian age in which no one would want for anything nor be asked to do much to get it. There was only one problem with this incipient euphoria, at least as it related to my life. Johnson hadn’t spent much time in Maine, his only visit so far as I am aware, having taken him through the little borough of Topsham, which fact is marked to this very day by an exuberant sign in front of the Topsham Dairy Queen proudly proclaiming that “LBJ Ate Here.” Exactly what he ate is not revealed, nor is there any historical record of what interactions he may have had with the locals. Maine is an awkward place politically, hidebound and traditional on its most ebullient day (which is to say staunchly conservative[1]), yet prone to the occasional bout of wackiness, as evidenced by having been one of the few states to strongly support Ross Perot[2] in the 1992 Presidential election. That said, I think Johnson would have gotten a bit of an earful had he actually mingled with the locals and endeavored to describe to them the sort of society he was envisioning, which brief contextual digression brings us back to what I meant to talk about in the first place, viz, my youth and the agricultural underpinnings thereof.

Recall that Maine used to be regarded as the nexus of all things potato, that mantle in recent decades having sadly passed to Idaho. But back in the fifties and sixties, potatoes were a big deal, particularly in the northern part of the state, so much so that youngsters, from high school right on down to kindergarten, were summarily yanked out of school during the first two weeks of October each year to help with the potato harvest. I actually grew up downstate in Brunswick though, so while this annual potato craziness did not affect my life in any meaningful way, the general discipline of starting work at the earliest possible age most certainly did.

Though it might sound otherwise, there were child labor laws on the books at this time, the official minimum being sixteen, at which age you could become a bona fide employee, have taxes withheld, be covered by workman’s comp, all that sort of thing. Odd as it may seem now, in that place and time most kids actually looked forward to the first day they could obtain a legitimate job. As a teenager, I do not recall any of my peers, not one, who didn’t also have some sort of part-time job. It had nothing to do with your family’s means, though no one in Brunswick, Maine at that time could have honestly been labeled wealthy. Having a job as a teenager was simply something one did, even if only for a few hours each week. It built responsibility, taught one the value of money and hard work, etc, etc. Like I said, Puritan values. And so it is difficult not to notice, and at some level bemoan, the enormous degree of change in children’s attitudes toward work since then.

And this is not strictly a Maine or even a rural thing—I see it all over. In that time it was even uncommon for pre-teens not to earn a bit of extra cash with a paper route, raking leaves, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, whatever was available. Try finding a teenager now who will mow your lawn for money, and if you aren’t put up on child abuse charges, you will, at a minimum, get laughed out of your neighborhood. The days of children working for money appear to have almost completely vanished, vestige of a different, quainter age. Once I reached legal working age, the legitimate jobs I had included McDonald’s (cook, fries, counter) and Shaw’s Supermarket (bagging during the day, stocking shelves after hours)[3]. Try finding a teenager bagging groceries nowadays.

But that was all a decade on from the start of my actual working career. Despite the nominal existence of child labor laws, living in a rural area allowed for a good deal of flexibility in the interpretation of these laws, up to and including completely ignoring them through the simple expedient of paying cash to underage kids, and not a lot of it either, believe me. As it happened, my first two childhood jobs were both agricultural in nature. My very first job was working for a man named Hollis Driscoll[4], a brutally thin, curmudgeonly old fellow, who nonetheless cut an impressive, almost Steinbeckian figure riding high up on his blood-red Farmall tractor[5]. Driscoll owned fifty acres or so of rolling fields about a mile down the road from my house, which was within easy bicycle distance, an important consideration in those days, seeing as how my family did not have an automobile. Driscoll’s was not a farm in any meaningful sense of the word, i.e. he wasn’t filling up trucks, transporting his crops to a wholesaler or any of that feeding-the-nation stuff. He resided in a narrow niche someplace between commercial and subsistence farming, eating what he grew and selling directly to consumers the majority that remained. He sold his vegetables out of a ramshackle stand that stood out by the road in front of his house[6], and which bent sideways rather alarmingly on days when the wind got above ten miles per hour. The standard architectural arrangement was that the upper half of the building’s street-facing wall was a single large opening covered by an enormous plywood cover hinged at the top. When it came time to open for business, one simply swung the cover up from the bottom, propped it open with a long stick at each end and presto, instant vegetable stand. What had been a nighttime security and weather cover became, at a stroke, a daytime shade for customers. This structural arrangement has not, so far as I have observed driving around in that part of the country, been improved upon significantly since sometime around the First World War.

Driscoll’s was a cash business. He took only cash for his vegetables, paid only cash to his workers, and neither filed for nor paid one dime of federal or state income tax the entire time I knew the man. The way things worked at Driscoll’s, and at every other roadside vegetable stand since the dawn of time, is that you drove up, got out, walked up, knowingly scrutinized whatever was available that day[7], chatted with the person minding the place[8], weighed one’s purchases in a dented zinc-coated pail hanging beneath a squeaky spring scale of dubious accuracy, and finally, placed the purchased items (loose) into a brown paper bag which had almost certainly been used at least once before by the farmer’s wife and was thus wrinkled and disheveled[9].

Before getting into the mechanics of how best to make use of[10] young children on one’s farm, it is worth noting as well that under no circumstances were we allowed to work in the actual stand selling the vegetables. One sure-fire way of calling attention to the employment of under-age children in a business is to put them squarely out in front of the consuming public. It did not require a Harvard MBA to realize the folly of this business practice, even more so when one’s establishment not only hired children illegally but was also notably laissez faire in its interpretation of the tax code.

Which gets us, at last, to just what it was that comprised my job responsibilities at Driscoll’s. The short trite answer is whatever the hell it was he wanted me to do on any given day. The practical answer though is that nearly all of it was field work. Think of it as seasonal migrant farm work and you won’t be far from the truth save for my lack of a second language. Something in excess of ninety percent of my time with Driscoll was spent either weeding or picking vegetables, which varieties ran the standard northeastern gamut from peas and beans to corn and tomatoes. Interestingly, it being Maine and all, I spent surprisingly little time digging potatoes.

I should digress for one additional moment to point out that the primary annoyance attending this work was not its back-breaking physicality but rather the fact that a good deal of it took place extremely early in the morning—early as in starting at around 4:30 a.m., which is to say an hour and a half before sunrise. The first problem here, as I have amply documented in other writings, is that I am first and foremost not a morning person. And the second problem is that at that hour of the day, even in the dead of a Maine summer, it is still quite cold outside. As it happens, four to six a.m. is the time of day that dew creation really gets into full-swing, meaning that I routinely spent the first three or fours of each work day soaked through from walking amidst, digging beneath, or otherwise interacting closely with, a variety of food-bearing flora. It generally took until eight or so before there was enough meaningful sun out to dry my clothes, warm my fingertips, and get me awake enough to realize just what I was doing.

Between weeding and picking, I will take weeding any day, though certain of my peers and I at this time debated the matter fiercely. Picking is the cleaner job, as one isn’t jamming one’s fingers into black earth for hours on end[11]. But weeding, on the other hand, is a job done on one’s knees rather than bent at the waist. And weeding doesn’t require the lifting and carrying of fully-laden bushel baskets with punishing thin wire handles. Still, each task had its pros and cons, and so both are worth exploring in some detail.

The real trick with weeding occurs at the start of the growing season, when the plant you are endeavoring to cultivate is only just beginning to poke through and looks, in many cases, remarkably like the weed you are trying to discern and remove. And even after you’ve learned how to distinguish a weed from, say, a two-week-old wax bean sprout, it is still not a trivial thing to extract said weed from the loose soil without disturbing the immediately adjacent young sprout, what with the roots getting intertwined and all. But eventually you get the hang of it, and on a warm spring day there is nothing quite as satisfying as rooting in rich black soil with one’s hands. The only real downside to weeding is that you have to be comfortable having black fingernails for weeks on end, since no cleaner yet devised is getting that stuff out of there.

Harvesting of course comes late in the season[12] and is satisfying as well in its own ways. It is, after all, the fruition of the season’s efforts and is thus, rewarding in a metaphysical if not pecuniary way. And of course it was all done by hand, which is where I came in. Driscoll’s automation extended only to the limited capabilities of his mid-sized Farmall, which included basic trenching and planting[13]. Once the beans, peas, corn, etc. were ready, the only way they were getting to the stand out front was if I got them there. Which meant bushel baskets, at whose mention I shudder to this day and which cause me to digress yet again. Conceding that ergonomics as an intellectual discipline was scarcely even conceived of in the middle of the twentieth century, it is nonetheless striking how sadistic must have been the inventor of the original bushel basket[14]. It’s almost as if there was a contest back around the turn of the nineteenth century for who could make the device the most painful to utilize. And what they ended up with was a slightly tapered cylindrical container, woven of thin wood slats, approximately two feet in diameter and perhaps a foot and half deep, which is to say commodious in every respect. They then equipped this basket, easily capable of holding fifty or more pounds of vegetables, for lifting by the cruel expedient of a handle on each side made of wire perhaps half the thickness of a pencil lead.

In order to fully appreciate the implications of this arrangement, you should take a break from reading this and drive to your nearest Home Depot. First, go to the electrical department and cut a three-foot length of twenty-two gauge uninsulated wire. Then go to the outdoor section and find the concrete blocks. Tie the wire in a loop through one of the holes in the block. Lift the block using only the wire and carry it like this all the way back to the electrical section. By the time you get back, there will, at a minimum, be a bright, nearly glowing red line across the middle of all of your fingers, precisely where the wire has been endeavoring to slice them off. If you have particularly tender skin[15] there will likely be bleeding by the time you get to the electrical department. Hyperbole aside, the good news is that you rather quickly develop calluses on the insides of your fingers from carrying these baskets, the actual weight of which varies with the density of the vegetable being harvested. The optimal crop for harvesting is of course one which simultaneously fills the basket the fastest and is the least dense. As it happens, none actually satisfy this criteria completely,[16] whereas many satisfy precisely the opposite, i.e. the most painful, criteria, small and dense. In particular, anything grown underground has an obnoxious habit of being very dense, and nothing quite compares with lugging a bushel basket full of carrots or potatoes a couple hundred yards to the nearest trailer for loading. Oh and lest I leave anything out, the pain associated with this is not limited to the wire constantly trying to cut off your fingers.[17] You will have noticed in your earlier Home Depot experiment that carrying that block in front of you means a good deal of leaning backward to counteract the uneven weight distribution, which of course means astronomical back aches quickly become a normal part of your agricultural day[18].

I mentioned at the start of this treatise that one of the many benefits accruing to kids employed in this manner is learning responsibility, independence, etc., which while true, can occasionally lead to tragic outcomes. Frequently the way the day went for me was that I would arrive at some God-awful hour[19] and first consult with the old man about the day’s tasks. He would explain, in his laconic, curmudgeonly way, that the southeast field peas were ready for picking, or whatever, and I would in many cases not see him again for the entire day[20]. One day though there occurred a situation in which Driscoll’s hands-off management style, progressive though it may have been, came back to bite him in the proverbial ass. It involved sweet corn, which is one of my favorite vegetables to pick for several reasons. First, I love nothing better than the taste of raw sweet corn. There is a milkiness to it that is utterly absent once it’s been cooked. In addition, you get to pick corn standing up, which is of course far more pleasant than the bending-over variety. And finally, corn ears, being far larger than beans or peas, fill the bushel basket faster, which benefits have already been discussed. On this particular day, Driscoll’s early-morning instructions were simply to have a go at the corn that was ready in one of the fields out toward the back of the property.

There is yet another important agricultural skill about which I have not yet spoken, to wit, discerning when the crop in question is actually ripe and ready for picking. Now one of the irritating things about vegetables is that, even if all planted at the same time, they do not have the common decency to ripen at the exact same time, which is where the discernment comes into play. And I don’t mean simply different areas of a field being ready at different times. I refer rather to the fact that on the same plant the vegetable in question can spread its readiness over a period of days or even weeks. Stated a different way, you can pick ripe beans from the same bean plant for as long as ten or twelve days, depending on the variety. All of which means that when you lay hands on a particular plant, you’d better know which pieces to take and which to leave for further ripening. Sometimes that is obvious, as with tomatoes for example. Sometimes it is a good deal less than obvious, like with corn.

There are a couple of challenges in determining corn ripeness. First, the ear reaches more or less full size a good two weeks before it’s actually ready to harvest. And second, the part you actually eat is of covered by a sheath of dense leaves, capped on the female plants with a long hairy inflorescence, all of which look great on a Thanksgiving table, but which go some way to disguising the ripeness of the corn itself. And yes, you can discern the state of growth by simply prying back the leaves and having a look at the kernels, except that doing so requires some effort and pulling open every ear before breaking it off the stalk is not exactly a recipe for productively harvesting an acre or so of corn in a short period of time. All of which is a long-winded and self-serving explanation for why I spent that entire unsupervised day harvesting something like eighty-five bushels of sweet corn that was yet three weeks from being ready to eat[21].

Strangely I don’t much recall Driscoll’s reaction to my horticultural faux pas, except to say that he wasn’t one, curmudgeonliness notwithstanding, who was given to shouting or histrionics. Besides which, how seriously can you chastise an eight-year-old to whom you’re paying fifty cents an hour under the table? It’s easy to think back on times like these with a revisionist sense of nostalgia, kind of like how the Russians seem now to regard the old Soviet days. But it’s important to recall periods like this with at least some sense of balance and perspective. So while old man Driscoll was, on the one hand, exploiting the neighborhood kids for personal profit, he also taught me to drive a tractor, gave me a lifelong appreciation for raw vegetables, taught me to take responsibility for my actions, and showed me that there was no shame in getting your hands dirty, just so long as it was clean dirt.

[1] I vividly recollect a dear friend of mine, an elderly man raised in the northern county of Aroostook, telling me of the day, at age eighteen, when his father sat him down and TOLD him how he would vote (Republican) for the rest of his adult life if he expected to remain a member of that family.

[2] In Maine, Perot received 30.44% of the vote to Bush Sr.’s 30.39% (Clinton won Maine with 38.77%)

[3] Oddly enough, I managed to escape childhood without ever having had a paper route.

[4] My second job, which started perhaps five years later, was with a man named Paul Farley who was physically Driscoll’s opposite in nearly every respect, but whose farm and its operation were so nearly identical to Driscoll’s that expounding upon it herein would be redundant and add little to the discussion. Suffice it to say that every point in this treatise concerning Driscoll was equally true for Farley.

[5] Biographical note – Though I did not receive my first driver’s license until well after my eighteenth birthday, I was a practiced Farmall BN operator before age ten.

[6] There is actually a good deal of this sort of thing still going on in Maine to this day. It is where knowledgeable locals and well-informed tourists go to get the very best fruits and vegetables.

[7] Which depended not only on what was in season but also what had gotten picked that morning—more on this in a bit.

[8] If the customer was a local, this usually meant a discussion about the weather, either past or impending. If a tourist, the conversation would more frequently have to do with directions, and which might, if the tourist was singularly lucky, actually include the injection of one or more stereotypical downeast colloquialisms such as “you can’t get theyah from heeyah (there from here),” etc. It was also considered good form for tourists to offer a favorable comment on the Red Sox game that would invariably be playing on a small television behind the counter (and may God have mercy on the unthinking tourist who mistakenly walked up to the stand having forgotten to remove his Yankees cap).

[9] The bag, not the wife.

[10] I will forego throughout this discussion the use of potentially prejudicial words like “exploit” or “abuse.” Even though Driscoll and those of his ilk were bending and breaking all sorts of laws, still, no one was forcing the youngsters to take these jobs.

[11] Potatoes and other underground plants (onions, carrots, turnips, etc.) excepted.

[12] Which obvious point I mention only as counterpart for a sad tale to be imparted here shortly.

[13] He also had an attachment that would unearth potatoes, though we were not fond of it as it tended to abuse the skins of the little tubers.

[14] Which any migrant worker will assure you continues unchecked to the present day.

[15] Like, say, that of an eight-year-old.

[16] I imagine eggplant being good, only we didn’t grow them.

[17] Oh, and those of you coyly thinking me a fool for not simply getting a pair of gloves clearly haven’t done any manual crop harvesting. In my experience at least, you need the fingers for properly gauging ripeness, etc.

[18] The concrete block in my Home Depot thought experiment is actually a pretty good proxy for a filled bushel basket. Except for one more thing, i.e. the kid carrying it down the rows is eight and weighs probably half of what you weigh.

[19] By which time Driscoll would have already been up for two hours. It’s a farming thing.

[20] This manner of delegating responsibility during my formative years may go some way to accounting for my general lack of tolerance for supervision now.

[21] I should note here as well that unlike tomatoes, bananas, etc. which continue ripening for some time as they sit on your windowsill or wherever, once corn is picked that’s pretty much the end of the ripening.

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