Back to School

Even here in rural Virginia, school has been in session over a month. The kids return now in early August.

When I was growing up here we started school the day after Labor Day. And because children were needed to help on the farms, if the tobacco crop was delayed, the start of school would be delayed.

But those days are over. These days it’s rare to see families working their farms together. In fact, it’s been over 30 years since I’ve seen any field laborers who weren’t seasonal workers from Mexico. Children just don’t work on farms the way they used to. That traditional summertime job is almost entirely a thing of the past.

Few probably remember that the school year was designed around the agricultural season. Children weren’t excused from school in the summer so they could have a “summer vacation.” They were excused because they were needed to do farm work in the summer.

Of course I’d prefer that our agriculture here focus on something other than tobacco, which, although it is our heritage, fortunately has no future. But I’ll always treasure my memories of summers working in tobacco on my grandparents’ farm, with the rest of my large extended family.

These days the tobacco farmers grow a variety of tobacco that doesn’t have to be harvested by September. Most of my neighbors’ crops are still in the fields.

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And kids grow up never doing farm labor and never learning about farm life. We’ve outsourced those jobs.

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28 comments on “Back to School

  1. Aggie says:

    I didn’t know that farming was the reason for summer vacation. Learned something new again! The tobacco looks pretty, like a green you could eat.

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    • Bill says:

      Tobacco is a pretty plant, but you certainly wouldn’t want to eat it. Aside from having being sprayed with a chemical stew, tobacco plants have a coating of a tar-like substance we used to call “tobacco gum.” So when you harvest it, you have to wear a hat and long sleeves. If the gum gets in your hair, it won’t come out. After a little while your hands are coated and stained black. We used to wash with Lava soap to try to get it off. Nasty stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. shoreacres says:

    That’s exactly right. The crops were different (corn and some soybeans) but the principle was the same. School ended at Memorial Day, and didn’t begin again until after Labor Day. In between, there was a whole lot of corn detassling going on, not to mention other ag chores. The old saying was “knee high by the 4th of July,” so detassling came later, but there was a lot of fruit tree culling and such to do. And then, the apple picking.

    It’s funny how the rhythms of a certain place get embedded. When I moved to Texas and saw corn nearly ready for harvest by July 4, I didn’t know what to think. It was as though the entire world was off-kilter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • shoreacres says:

      I guess I should mention this was Iowa, in the 1950s and 1960s.

      Liked by 1 person

    • avwalters says:

      I had that same off-kilter feeling when I moved to California–and now again (35 years later) that I’ve moved back to Michigan.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Tobacco was (still is actually) a very labor intensive crop. It required work nearly every day. And because farms were diversified then, we still had to tend to the gardens, the livestock, haymaking, etc. Summers were very busy, and you’re right about there being a rhythm to it. A natural, and beautiful, rhythm.

      One of the things I enjoy about the blogosphere is learning about the rhythms and seasons in different parts of the country and world.

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  3. That’s kinda sad Bill. ❤
    Diana xo

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  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, farming techniques have indeed changed in the heartland. Land used to be plowed but now it’s tilled with a big monster disk. Land was planted with a two row planter and if one was really on top of technology a four row planter. Now twelve row planters or more are common place. Technology has replaced the kid work force in the Midwest. Tractors and combines that drive themselves and are guided by GPS crawl across the fields, planting and depositing chemicals at the same time. Machinery still has to turned around at the end of the mile long rows but soon I suspect they won’t even have to do that. Tractors and other machinery will be totally robotic and leased for a short time to prepare and plant the fields while the farmer sits at home behind a computer desk monitoring the progress of the operation. One hundred years ago farms were rarely bigger than 40 or 80 acres and tilled with physical labor, human or animal. Today massive farms cover square miles. Monitors are buried in the soil to monitor moisture so that the irrigation can put just the right amount of water on the growing plants at the right time. Communication between the buried monitors and the irrigation system give instructions as to whether to put down more water or less water. Fields are soil mapped and analyzed to obtain information for planting. The information is loaded into the planter computer so that in poor soil the seeds are planted farther apart and in the good soil the seeds are planted closer together. The on board computer also instructs the machinery to add a little more fertilizer or a little less depending on the soil condition.

    During my education years I was privileged to attend a one room house on the prairie school house for third and fourth grade. It was common practice for the older boys (7th and 8th grade) to be missing at times during the spring field preparation time. April and May were the busy farm prep months in Nebraska. I am so grateful that I’ve experienced a part of Midwest history that doesn’t exist today. Country life and city life has given me a well rounded life experience.

    Have a great early life memory day.

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    • Bill says:

      In those days a family could make a decent living on a couple hundred acres. Now it takes thousands of acres and millions of dollars of capital costs (almost always debt). It’s a shame, in my humble opinion.

      Tobacco isn’t as mechanized. More so than when I was a kid of course, but it still requires manual labor from field workers. These days they’re all Mexican men who leave their own farms, homes and families to spend their summers here. Meanwhile there are thousands of unemployed people–we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

      I worked hard on the farm when I was a kid and I wouldn’t trade those memories and experiences for anything.

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      • BeeHappee says:

        What is the minimum ag wage in VA? What I do not get is the minimum AG wage being lower than the state’s minimum wage. Why is that? ‘Helping’ the farmer like this to get an employee is not helping the whole situation overall. I believe it is $7 in IL and maybe $8 in CA? I am assuming the Mexican migrant workers work for less. I had been browsing through ATTRA website and seeing tons of internships. Here locally, I do see many more local young people helping at local farms, so that is a bit of a shift in recent years. At our u-pick farm we go to, it is all college kids working during summer on the farm. First there has to be a shift in mentality and values, then the $$ will follow. If we teach our kids it is more important to play football and baseball five times a week to get a scholarship rather than learn how to grow food, well, then growing food will be undervalued.

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      • Bill says:

        I’m not aware of an ag minimum wage. They’re the same here to the best of my knowledge. The Mexican workers doing the tobacco work here are paid considerably more than minimum wage. Minimum wage here is 7.25 and my neighbor pays his labor over $11/hr plus he supplies them with housing.

        Glad to know kids are still doing farm work there. Here even the farmers’ children generally don’t do it–and I don’t know any farmers who hire local kids in the summer. When I was a boy 100% of the farm labor was local and school age kids provided most of that.

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      • BeeHappee says:

        Interesting. My CSA folks told me about the Ag minimum wage being supposedly lower than standard minimum wage, which makes no sense to me but they claimed it is so, to help the farmer supposedly. They both worked on a number of farms, so I assumed they knew the laws. I am reading from some code, but this may old info:
        “The current minimum wage is XXX per hour. However, under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, certain agricultural employers are generally exempt from any requirement to pay the minimum wage. As a practical matter, Illinois farmers employing less than about five employees in any given calendar quarter and those that employ hand harvest laborers for less than thirteen weeks during a year are usually exempt from the requirement to pay federal minimum wage.” This would only apply to very small operations.

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  5. avwalters says:

    We de-tassled corn in the summer. It was a miserable job–but by teenage standards the pay was great (and the season, thankfully, short.) The rest of the summer was picking berries–strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries and blueberries, and finally raspberries again.
    School started after labor day, but farm kids often didn’t show up until the tomato crop was in (and then the girls disappeared for a week or two to work the canneries.) That truancy was nothing, though, compared to what happened in hunting season. ALL males from farms or rural areas disappeared. Only the suburban boys remained.

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    • Bill says:

      Similar to here. But here if the tobacco crop was coming in late, the start of school would be delayed. That’s how dependent farmers were on the labor of school children (usually their own). We didn’t have that issue with hunting season. In those days we hunted rabbits and squirrels mostly–there were very few deer around. These days I’m sure there are plenty of kids skipping school for the woods during the opening week of deer season. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. BeeHappee says:

    One word: homeschooling.

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    • Bill says:

      Absolutely. We’re big fans of homeschooling. We homeschooled our daughter all the way through high school. Our son elected to go to “regular” school for high school (I joke that he was expelled from homeschool and that’s basically true). We started our homeschool after Labor Day. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ain't for city gals says:

    and now kids start to school like at two years old….ridiculous!

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    • Bill says:

      I know. When I went to school we didn’t have kindergarden (I started first grade in 1966), but now they have both kindergarden and pre-K. What?? I wonder if it isn’t really just a form a child care.

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      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        You’ve got that right! About the child care thing… ):
        Lol, I’ve got a couple of years on you, but, in spite of that (and the distances in between) everything you – and everyone else – have mentioned here is just bang on for this area as well…
        It breaks my heart to see the hedgerows being pulled out so that all of their natural occupants are displaced [and therefore their future generations are also being condemned ]: because these abominations that pass for farm machinery these days need five miles just to turn around… God forbid you meet one oncoming on a blind corner and that’s just the tip of the iceberg… {Low till, no till; ground-compacting, roundup ready, scorched-earth GMO’s with neonics onboard}:
        Sorry, I’ve gone off on a tangent again. *sigh*

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  8. Joanna says:

    It’s a hard one really. Some jobs were/are little more than slave labour and if possible rightly consigned to history, but there is also the point that beginning to earn some money by the sweat of the brow has a way of helping kids to grow in character. Hopefully when they realise how inefficient all that huge scale robotic stuff is they will return to a kinder sort of agriculture that doesn’t rob the soil of its very life. Then maybe the jobs will come back

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    • Bill says:

      My starting pay was 35 cents per hour. That wasn’t much, but I was only 7 years old. In a couple of years when I was promoted to field work, I was paid $1/hour. Eventually I was making $2/hour. Then, when I was 15, I was able to get a driver’s license, enabling to me to get a job in town at a fast food restaurant where I could make the astronomical sum of $3.65/hr (then the minimum wage). The entire time I was in school all the kids in my family paid for our books and school clothes with the money we earned in the summer. When we got cars (to go work our town jobs) we paid for them and our insurance (I was spared that when I inherited my Grandma’s 1972 Ford Maverick, but I was saving for college at the time). We learned a lot and a strong work ethic was second nature to us. We still had plenty of time for lots of fun. It was a good life and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.

      Tobacco production here isn’t highly mechanized. It still requires lots of manual labor from real live human workers. But almost 100% of it is now done by temporary workers from Mexico. Meanwhile we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

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  9. I was 14 when I started working on pear ranches. Before then it was odd jobs, like working as the church’s janitor. At first I picked pears, using a 14 foot ladder and carrying a canvas bag around my neck for the fruit. When full, it could weigh close to 50 pounds. It was hard work and usually at a temperature that often shot up to over a hundred. We worked for nine hours a day carrying out what was a fully adult job. Like you, Bill, I paid for clothes, books and entertainment (including dates:)). Later I ran crews and drove a fruit truck. I’ve never regretted those years, in fact I learned to enjoy working hard. And still do to this day. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      Same here. Heisting tobacco meant straddling poles that were about five feet apart, while as much as 20 feet above ground, bending over to be handed a stick of strung tobacco then hanging it on the poles (likely that doesn’t make sense–you’d have to see it). They’d probably arrest someone who gave that job to a child these days. 🙂 And even when I was a boy, the bales of hay I picked up weighed the same as those the grown men were picking up. No one thought it strange that we worked like that. Like you I don’t regret a minute of it.

      Liked by 1 person

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