I started working on my grandfather’s tobacco farm as soon as I was old enough to carry a leaf. My first paid job was unloading slides for 35 cents per hour.  That was when I was 6 or 7 years old.  Within a year or two I was promoted to the field, along with my brother, sister and several first cousins (all of whom were younger than me). I have great memories of those days and that life developed a powerful work ethic in all of us.  At age 16 I got my driver’s license and could get a job in town.  I still worked on the farm, but could also hold down a fast-food job making the incredible sum of $3.65 per hour (minimum wage at the time).  That was a fat raise over the $2/hour I made working in tobacco.  I left for college in 1978 and my days working in tobacco were over.

There’s still a lot of tobacco grown around here.  But the farms are far larger now.  Back when I was growing up it was possible for a family to make a living growing 10 acres or so of tobacco. Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop and that’s about all a family could handle–even a large family like ours.  But these days the farmers grow hundreds of acres.  And the days of farm families tending their crops are long gone.  I haven’t seen farm children working in the fields since I left for college.  In fact, I haven’t even seen an adult farm owner in the field since then.  Now all the labor is done by crews from Mexico, who stay the summer then return home.

In some ways tobacco farming is more mechanized now than it was back then.  The leaves are cured in giant bales now for example and it’s no longer important to make sure they remain pretty and untorn.  The cares we took to assure quality don’t seem to matter anymore.

When I was a kid the goal was to have the crop completely in by Labor Day.  If the crop was delayed for some reason, the start of school would be delayed too.  But now, since farm families don’t do the labor any more, that doesn’t matter.  These days it’s common for harvesting to continue into October.

But even with all the changes, one thing about growing tobacco hasn’t changed.  It’s a labor intensive process and there are no machines that can do the jobs of topping, suckering and pulling (harvesting) the tobacco.  That must all be done by human hands.

Cotton isn’t grown around here and I have no personal knowledge or experience with it.  I know from history however that growing cotton was also once a labor-intensive process, requiring lots of hard manual hand labor.  Evidently that is no longer true.  These days cotton-picking is done by machines like the John Deere 7760, which picks the cotton and packages it into large round plastic-wrapped bales.  According to an article I just read, cotton growers usually own several of these machines, to enable them to harvest the thousands of acres of cotton grown on modern farms.  The machines cost $640,000 each.

I’m thankful for the life-lessons I learned growing up as a farm kid who actually did farm labor. I suppose kids benefit in some ways from not working on farms.  But as we now enter a time in which very few children will ever know that life, I do wonder if we aren’t losing something important.


14 comments on “Changes

  1. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, my tasks were a bit different during my young growing years but the lessons learned were the same. Work hard and go to bed tired were among those lessons. I actually kind of thrived on that mentality and still do today. I suspect making children work in the fields today would get frowns from many thinking it was child slavery. Well, maybe not quite that harsh but people that are disconnected from the actual dirt digging growing side of production have no idea what it takes to bring a item that must be grown to their local store. Some times I think people intentionally ignore the facts and live in denial to ease their conscience.

    I saw an interesting poll on a homestead website a couple days ago. The question was, “which would you choose. Would it be GMO produce without pesticides or heirloom with pesticides.” Of course, I would choose neither but that wasn’t a choice. I seriously had to think about that.

    I’m totally glad that I had my up bring experiences on the farm and that I had exposure to the city life as well. It gave me a good start for the journey through life.

    Have a great life changing day.


    • Bill says:

      It doesn’t seem to me that children aren’t working on farms because folks perceive there to be something wrong with children working on farms. Rather there seems to be a perception that farm work is so undesirable that it is unsuited for anyone, adult or child. That speaks volumes I think about what our cultural message is to those who do perform the farm work.

      I’m glad to have had the experience of growing up doing farm work alongside my family on a family farm. It’s a shame, I think, that so few children have that experience these days in our culture.


      • nebraskadave says:

        The kids living on the farms here in Nebraska still are brought up the way we were bill. I remember back in 2011 that there was a big outcry from the public about using children to do farm work. The new Federal child labor laws would restrict what kids could do on the farms here in Nebraska.

        Here’s a quote from this article

        Stetson works at the pig farm his dad runs. Under proposed laws by the US Department of Labor, Stetson wouldn’t be able to work at Linden Acres, just outside of Beatrice, NE, because his dad doesn’t own it. But the Nebraska Farm Bureau says that’s just the beginning.

        “Jordan Dux is the National Affairs Coordinator for the Nebraska Farm Bureau. He says, ‘Kids under 16 can no longer work with livestock, kids under 16 can no longer go on a ladder, kids under 16 can no longer work with irrigation. They wouldn’t be able to ride on a hay wagon anymore to stack straw bails or hay bails.'”

        This is what I was talking about. The kids themselves growing up on the farms have no problem working there. It’s just the normal life they grew up with.


  2. shoreacres says:

    Yes, we are losing something important. Even if it isn’t farm work, kids need to know that they aren’t “entitled” to everything in life. In fact, we’re not “entitled” to much. One of the best graduation speeches given last spring was at the University of Texas, where Admiral McRaven advised the graduates, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

    The whole speech, which I just enjoyed again, is here.


    • Bill says:

      I don’t see my experience growing up on a farm as proof that I’m not entitled to anything. In fact I believe that all the best things in life are things to which we are entitled. I didn’t feel that when I was working on the farm I was being disciplined, or that it made me morally superior to kids who didn’t do farm work. It was just our way of life and, to my way of thinking, it was good. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but I’m sorry to see that way of life ending.


      • shoreacres says:

        When you get right down to it, are we even entitled to life? I don’t think so. On the other hand, life is filled with gifts, with grace. Learning how to receive is the task — or so it seems to me.


  3. Leslie says:

    I found this book an interesting history of the process of making a tshirt and then selling and reselling it. The book talks about the growing of cotton now and I found it fascinating, although somewhat disturbing (chemical process- wise).


    • Bill says:

      It does sound interesting. I spent some time in Haiti and was struck by the fact that nearly everyone there was wearing some cast-off American t-shirt with some sort of slogan, ad or sports team logo on it.


  4. Joanna says:

    I can see why the rules and regulations were put in place to reduce child labour, but it does go too far the other way. Labour that interferes with getting an education is plain wrong, but labour as an education and coupled with more regular learning is good. We started our granddaughter off this week with the potato harvest, not quite sure she got the full hang of it, but she enjoyed helping her Mummy. Still have a way to go though, she is only 17 months old 😀


    • Bill says:

      Right. I’m talking about helping out on the family farm, not working a shift in a cotton mill or coal mine. These days it seems our culture has decided that Americans won’t do farm labor.

      My children worked here (although granted it wasn’t the kind of work we did growing up on a tobacco farm). Our granddaughter has helped too. She first helped me when she was 7–making her at least the 7th generation of our family to work on this farm.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. EllaDee says:

    It depends on what you value, and what you derive benefit from. Both of which are difficult to honestly quantify if you haven’t experienced the what. We value the opportunity for work and appreciate the tangible and intangible rewards of it. Work gives us certain bearings, a history and provides a necessary framework. It balances leisure time. People who don’t have-take the opportunity experience work earlier in life, miss something, I believe. I work with many law grads. The ones who are best to work with are those who have a work history, in any area, prior. But others, who don’t, who know the ropes [and people], often are more successful at climbing the ladder.


    • Bill says:

      My experience was that usually the law students who had work experience from a young age turned out to be the hardest working lawyers. I can recall some of our hires–very bright students–had never had a job in their lives before starting their practice. Those from such privileged backgrounds often couldn’t cut it in the high-stress long-hours world. But some of them actually did very well and were hard workers notwithstanding never having had to do it before.


  6. avwalters says:

    My first “real job” was de-tasseling corn for a hybrid operation. It was brutal work–a short run of it in season, but long hours. We had to remove all the tassles from one kind of corn, so it could be pollinated by the other–to make the hybrid. If the corn was tall, they’d assign us in pairs–big hulking guys with smaller guys and gals on their shoulders. We worked ten to twelve hour shifts, rain or shine, to make sure that the fields would be ready in time for the hybridizing.
    By the time I hit law school, I’d done about everything–agricultural work, everything in the restaurant field, housekeeping in hotels, factory materials handling, duty-free cashier, running a summer arts program for kids, being a park ranger, department store clerk–you name it. I was an odd duck in law school–I didn’t fit in so well with the trust-fund-baby crowd. Despite their financial advantages, I had the edge in many ways, because I knew more how the world worked. I think youngsters who spend the summers in leisure miss out on a lot.


    • Bill says:

      That was my experience too. I had lots of jobs. Farm work, construction work, fast food, dishwasher, gravel shoveler, etc. Quite a different experience from the students who, if they’d worked at all, had been caddies at the country club.

      De-tasseling corn sounds like quite a job. That’s a new one on me.


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