Sorry. I thought I published this two hours ago. Is my face red.
Two of the most charming letters I got as a newspaper columnist in Indiana were in response to something I wrote about my ignorance of agriculture in general, and the farm economy in particular. That was many years ago, and I’m not as green (ha) as I once was, but it always appalled me that most people can discuss crap like Hollywood box-office figures, but don’t know how their food is produced, or what a pork belly is.
The letters were about corn detasseling, and detailed the particular misery of this rural job, which is traditionally done by teenagers in that shadowland of the early teens, when they’re physically able to work but unable to get hired by most employers. And corn detasseling — the laborious removal of the pollinating part of the plant — is work in the truest sense of the word, a day spent reaching and snipping and sneezing and suffering for $8 an hour. It’s only exploitative if you consider any manual labor so, because the kids do it willingly and $8 an hour, while not a king’s ransom, is good money for a 14-year-old, working steadily. Kids can make a thousand bucks in a season.
One of the letters came with helpful diagrams and cartoon drawings of the writer, wearing wet blue jeans.
Anyway, I mention all this because of this story I saw in today’s Wall Street Journal, about the death of two girls on a detasseling crew, electrocuted when they touched irrigation equipment that had been electrified by a recent lightning strike. Very sad, but for those of you who know nothing about it, a useful reminder of what goes into the agri-economy:
Early-morning fields are typically covered with dew, and frequently muddy from rain, so workers are wet all morning. Then, as the July sun rises higher, the fields begin to steam and the workers are soaked with sweat all afternoon. The work—reaching up to stalks between five and eight feet high while walking through uneven dirt for ten miles—is exhausting.
…Although the childhood injury rate on farms fell 59% from 1998 to 2009, according to the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., agriculture still generates the second-highest fatality rate among youth workers, and a fatality rate that is nearly six times the average across all industries. Last summer, two teenage boys died in a grain-bin accident 50 miles north of Sterling in Mt. Carroll.
And that, friends, is how you make hybrid seeds. The hard way. (Oh, and while we city slickers may pronounce that particular part of the corn plant to rhyme with “hassle,” both my correspondents pointed out that the people who do it say “tossle.”)
Speaking of manual labor, I see in the comments from yesterday, Basset and Dexter are discussing Ben Hamper, whose column, “I, Rivethead,” briefly ran in Mother Jones magazine when Michael Moore was briefly editing it in the ’80s. Funny they should bring it up, as I kept one of those columns — the one about Bruce Springsteen, faux working-class hero — in my “Great Moments” file for years. Great Moments was the collection of good writing I kept to page through in moments of boredom or down time, or when I was truly strapped for inspiration. A lot of people have made a lot of accurate observations and charges about Michael Moore over the years, about his willingness to bend the truth or substitute his own bullshit for someone else’s, and about his own faux working-class hero act, but whatever help he gave Hamper, a true working-class voice, will absolutely go on the credit side of the karma ledger. I always thought it was amusing that Moore flamed out at that bastion of lefty preening, Ma Jones, so quickly. I’m sure he was a jerk to work with, and I’m sure they had good reasons to give him the hook. But I still recall Hamper’s withering takedown of Springsteen, how in about 800 words he brought me closer to factory life than any mournful tune about closin’ refineries by you-know-who.
And I especially remember his simple observation that if you stand at the entrance of any auto plant, anywhere, and look around, you will see a bar, maybe two. Ever since, whenever I pass a plant, I look for the bar, and he’s right — it’s never far away. Elmore Leonard had an amusing passage in one of his books about the stop-off, as essential to a line worker’s end-of-shift ritual as the shower. There was a story in one of the papers here a while back, where someone observed that GM actually tried to buy one of those bars to close it down, and the owner wouldn’t sell. Owning bars that cater to certain communities — gay men, blue-collar workers — is like owning a gold mine.
That used to be true of newspapers, too, but not so much anymore. As one of my editors mourned, upon coming home from a conference, “I used to play poker half the night at these things. Now everybody gets up early and goes jogging together.”
OK, the day — and FINANCIAL DISASTER FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTRY — awaits, and a big one it is. Lunch downtown, then yet another concert with Kate, this one with the meet-and-greet. Yes, I am insisting on a picture with the band. I paid my money, too.
Bloggage? Too tired to look at the moment. Post your own, if you’re so inclined. I’ll be back after the weekend, or maybe from Saturday at the market.