Out on our main field, where we grow the majority of our production vegetables as well as graze some sheep and house some pigs, I saw an unfamiliar site. It was a grey tote. By itself, not so remarkable. We often leave empty crates and totes that we don’t fill with vegetables for a later harvest. It was the state of the tote that widened my eyes. As if Icarus had been harvesting the stars when he flew too close to the sun, the tote too seemed to have its wings melted off.
I puzzled for a while before returning to a long list of crops needed for Tuesday wholesale deliveries. A few days later I heard the story recounted. One of the farm’s owners called the tote his canary. He sets the grey plastic object on top of a tractor-driven implement called a flame weeder. The flame weeder is popular in the organic world, where we can’t use chemical based herbicides to keep wild plants at bay. Whether it be a backpack flame thrower with a wand, a walk-behind wagon of fire, or one attached to the three-point hitch of a tractor, the object is to burn any weeds to a crisp before your crop germinates.
But, sometimes the model is outdated. Sometimes putting safety first means putting a plastic tote on top of your chariot of fire. Then, when you smell burning plastic, you stop and let things cool off. You know, before the tractor catches fire.
These little innovations have been common on every organic farm I’ve been. In Massachusetts we used to joke that we didn’t have OSHA, we had, OH SHIT. Something about agriculture encourages rule breaking, especially concerning safety. I don’t know of any other field involving heavy machinery where workers are exempt from the federal overtime requirements. Some small farms are even exempt from minimum wage requirements. I’ll stay away from that bit today and stick to the safety.
What this has meant for me and others I’ve worked alongside is that we can work 40, 50, 60 or more hours in a week, and still be paid our regular wage for all of those hours. I’ve had the good fortune to work for some very reasonable employers who are concerned with their workers’ well-being, but I wonder if some are not so lucky? There is no incentive for an employer to hire more employees to cut down on excessive overtime labor. The more reasonable may realize that well-rested and happy employees are more productive per hour than a run-down down and despairing bunch, but those who may not consider the human aspect have good reason not to put more laborers on their payroll in favor of over-working those they’ve already found, hired and put their trust in.
It’s no secret that farming is long hours of less-than-glamorous downright dirty business. Those of us who do it for more that a season or two are not in it for the glory or the money. Perhaps there’s a world out there where we can do it without losing all of our energy to it. A world where we don’t fall asleep on the couch without finishing our mac and cheese. Until then, we’ll let the wax drip. Because there’s a reason we’re flying so close to the sun. This secret, though, can’t be told. It doesn’t have words. Just wings.