I graduated high school on one day and the next I drove four hundred miles west to my first full-time job. I was a hired man on a farm. It was an eight hour trip. I lived with the farmer, receiving room and board as a part of my salary. And the wages were minimal. I arrived with nothing and I left with nothing; I went there that summer wearing a pair of canvas tennis shoes, and went through one extra pair of the same, dropping them in the garbage the day I left there four months later. I could not afford to buy myself a pair of work boots. But I had found myself.
The farm was traditional. There were pigs and milk cows and horses, row crops and hay, fruit trees and a large kitchen garden, a dog, and cats. Animal feed was formulated and mixed on the farm. The equipment was small. All labour was accomplished by hand. I learned to operate all of the equipment. I poured cement for new buildings…by hand. I milked cows morning and night…by hand. And I fed a hundred gilts and sows, both in open lots and confinement, hauling buckets upon buckets of grain…by hand. I built a mile of page-wire fence and maintained much more from the depredation of hogs that were living in the field. I learned to deliver piglets with my arm elbow deep into the reproductive tract of pigs. I was taught how to weld. And I dug enough holes in the ground for various reasons to excavate the equivalent of a foundation for a building. I slopped out barns and farm yards and spread manure on the fields, coming in covered in cow ****. I walked a hundred miles of soybeans with a hoe, chopping out weeds by hand both for this farmer and for hire (it was the age before chemicals). I baled thousands upon thousands of bales of hay standing on a hay rack, sometimes until two in the morning when severe weather threatened, only to be rewarded by sitting down to a hearty meal in the kitchens of neighbouring farmers before falling into bed stuffed and exhausted (we were still up by six and doing chores the next morning). I ate the freshest food straight from the earth. And I went to church and worshipped God. It was clearly the best summer of my life.
At the end of the summer this farmer and his family went on a week’s holiday and left me alone on the farm. There was no television; I had not needed or missed it in the least. During that time a cow gave birth along with several sows who delivered early. When the family returned everything was in great order. Well, he said, congratulations, I think that you would make a fine farmer. And in the fall I left for home with a couple hundred dollars in my pocket, skilled and knowledgeable and humble and tanned and tougher than I had ever been. I had been there four months. I would enter a BS in agriculture in a week.
One evening sitting at dinner at the end of the summer this farmer asked me what I thought I wanted to do with my life? I quickly responded. Well, I said, I would like nothing better than to live in a small house, perhaps a cabin, be married, have a small farm, farm with horses, and raise food for free to give away to people who are disadvantaged. Everybody froze. And then they broke out in uproarious laughter.
But I was not joking.
This morning I coincidentally worked at shovelling manure, my annual spring cleanup day. It frosted heavily two mornings ago, and there are still thick layers of ice under the manure piles I cleared. Just a reminder that we are in the north and to not become too anxious about planting our garden quite yet. Our apple trees are barely leafing out.