Monday, January 4, 2010

4,000 lbs Hard Labor

I spent the day helping my boss move a dump truck full of corn into a forced-air silo.* A combine harvester (which picks and separates corn cobs from their kernels) couldn't be used to harvest his 2009 fields since it would inevitably cross-contaminant different genotypes from different plots. The fields were way too big to pick by hand but our farm crew luckily has an obsolete old one row-picker (which picks but doesn't thresh the corn, predictably, one row at a time).

Our silo is a short, squat cylinder about 1.5 stories tall. A diesel engine pumps hot, dry air up through the metal screen floor, drying the corn completely so it can be stored and processed properly. Since no one really does field agricultural research anymore, the farm runs on a sliver of a skeleton crew, but they did a good job getting the previous users out of the silo in time for our harvest.

In order to keep the genotypes separate in the silo, we had to put them in 100-lb burlap potato bags. With the truck bed elevated, John kicked and shoveled 4,000 pounds of corn cobs towards a small door in the tailgate. My boss swept the cobs into the burlap bags, which were held open by a homemade potato bag rack. My job was to sew each bag shut and throw it into the silo.

The handheld industrial sewing machine was an austere, metal creature about the size of a circular saw, connected to the workshop by daisy-chained extension cords. It stitched the coarse cotton string seen frequently on large paper bags of charcoal or flour - the kind that unravels when you pull the twisted, loose end.

I only spent half a day climbing in and out of that silo, but it was exhausting nonetheless. Towards the end, John joked, "Matt, you're becoming quite the seamstress!" My boss spit out a correction: "tailor." It was hard work, but I was thankful for the few tools we had access to, and for the weather - which was warm as it could be while keeping the snow frozen (and us dry).

For those of us who earn our livelihoods behind desks, the opportunity to get out into our gardens and stretch our muscles is a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, many romantic back-to-the-earth types extrapolate this to a disdain towards farmers who use labor-saving devices. I love to get my hands dirty just as much as the next gardener, but there was nothing satisfying about manually loading a silo with corn cobs.

I suspect that most of those who pine for pre-industrial agriculture have never actually done the tedious, physical labor that it requires.

*This story was drafted on 12/20/2009, but I was too busy to get it out before break.


  1. Lovely post! And no, I can't imagine doing that amount of work without using tools/machines to help. The world population has increased partially due to technology, and technology helps sustain it. Long live the hand held industrial sewing machine!!!!

    (In actual fact, I badly want one even though I have no justification for owning one...)

  2. haha, it WAS pretty cool, though what I really wanted was to play with the heavy duty ag machines scattered around the yard...

  3. Thanks for the great story!

    "no one really does field agricultural research anymore" Really? I would love to hear more about this. Thank you.



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