Summer is in full swing as I write this, and the break from school activities has loaded area households with teenagers. Additional human density at home eventually starts driving parents nuts, leading to the inevitable demand from the household heads: “Get out and do something!”
My phone usually starts ringing regularly by the first week of July, and the request, either verbal or in text message form, is always the same: “Do you need help on the farm?”
Truthfully, there are often days I would like to be able to duplicate myself so tasks take less time. It appears to be a homerun having a host of part-time help on speed dial.
Appearances can be deceiving. Let’s dissect the situation.
Every young man who has called asking to come to the farm has a pair of boots and blue jeans and a burning desire to tell a few girls that he spends his days cow wranglin’. So far, that’s great. That’s the glorious part of agriculture. What I’ve begun to notice as a secondary motivator is this: they perceive farming to be something that does not require any real skill. They’re trying to come here because they think they don’t have to learn anything. And the perception has been passed down from the parents. If Mom and Dad believe farming to be an uneducated everyman’s job, then it’s safe enough to send Timmy over to follow Farmer John around for a day; Timmy won’t need any training for that.
Sending a teenager to the farm has become more of an elaborate babysitting service than a proving ground to hone essential skills for the future. All the youngsters who have shown up on our doorstep in the summer months come with expectations of sipping tea on the porch and talking extensively about working hard. Reality, when it hits them, is a brutal teacher: we go flat out around here all day, every day. There is little time to talk about the four-wheeler you’re looking to buy.
One young man, after hovering around the property for an extended period of time, finally convinced our family to agree to let him help in exchange for a little cash. We set out to move the herd of cattle and I rattled off instructions, observations, theories and possible problem situations. When we were done I announced the next task we would tackle. He was dumbfounded that there would be something else to do after everything we had just done, and asked if there were any jobs he could complete from the seat of his dirt bike. I said no, he told me he had to run home and check on something, and he never came back. Another youngster discussed demolition derby cars while we worked until walking overpowered his lung capacity and wheezing was all he could accomplish. Yet another, in late October, assured us he did not need any kind of rain gear; he’s done chores before while it was raining, and it’s no big thing. When I finally returned him to his front porch the poor guy was soaked from head to toe and shivering so hard he could barely open the door of the pickup. Others, hauled in and encouraged by doting parents, are paralyzed with fear in the presence of a cow, or dirt, or both. Truly, nobody arrives here with the mindset that working on a farm will make them smarter.
So many discussions I have with peers revolve around the alarming lack of good help these days. It seems nobody will do the work, and there are a lot of older people fretting about the future as they wrestle with apathetic employees on a daily basis. What I’m beginning to realize is this: we will only attract what people perceive us to be. Stated another way: The people who show up looking for jobs will be a reflection of who everyone thinks we are. Birds of a feather flock together, after all. If all we can get is bad help, that’s likely because bad help believes they can guff it in our environment. Think about it: those same people are not walking into a lawyer’s office asking for work — they know ahead of time they’d be laughed out of the room! But a farm? Yeah, anyone can do that.
I’m alarmed by farmers’ inability to create an independent identity. We’ve become a conduit to transfer wealth from food processors to agribusiness; the hapless position tricks us into thinking we can’t think for ourselves. A culture that can’t think will only draw in employees that don’t think. We need to take a hard look in the mirror and try to see ourselves through a different lens. How do others perceive our demeanor? Dress? Hygiene?
If we want brilliant, vibrant, healthy employees carrying our work into the future, we have to create that culture on our farms and the supporting businesses. It’s vital to stop looking at other farmers as a comparison for ourselves. Like it or not, we need to start searching across alternative industries and businesses for inspiration that will change the way the public sees a farmer. Don’t be a downtrodden everyman, be a professional who happens to grow food. Good help is out there. We simply need to adjust our nets a little to catch them.
[John-Scott farms with his family just outside of Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]