Friday, July 3, 2015

Feels Like Work to Me

January 1997

Farmers work hard. Nobody believes this more than farmers. It is a facet of our self-image in which we take great pride, and with which we differentiate our virtue from the comparative sloth of other occupations. Unfortunately, the facts don’t always demonstrate this widely held sentiment.

This disparity between belief and reality pivots on the definition of work which is formed early as part of the moral training process for children by parents. Work is what our fathers and mothers said it was. Therein lies the difficulty for today’s agriculture.

Dad’s idea of work originated in a world much different than our own. The types of work necessary for agriculture were almost completely variations of hard physical labor. The outward and visible sign of industry, with all its cultural and moral implications was, therefore, the presence of perspiration. Moreover, since labor was the number one variable input in farming, hard physical labor and success were inextricably linked.

I carry that value judgment within me, since it was formed as a boy among men - admiring them and wanting to be like them. The qualities of manliness centered on hours, sweat, and dirt. However, the rest of the world has altered the value scale.

At every hand farm tasks are being lightened, even eliminated, by technology. This loss of familiar types of physical work is not easily tolerated. Historically, messing around with the tasks people do for a living has been troubling. This thread runs through many social and religious philosophies - from Luddites to Shakers to the Unabomber. People want their work to be meaningful and rewarding by their own standards. Farmers had a perfectly good scale to measure diligence, based on hours and intensity. Then the march of progress - first mechanization, and now computerization - shook up the system. What personal satisfaction could you take in being the best hand at shocking oats in an age of combines? Or how will observers know how diligently you walked your beans for hours on end in a hot sun when the identical result can be obtained with a well-chosen herbicide program?   

Now add the confusing idea of gender-specific work. “Men’s” work was brutally hard - the harder the work, the more masculine it was. Working at a desk was a clear indication of testosterone level. This prejudice too, haunts our subconscious. Similarly, working until we drop in the harness was admired with no consideration to purpose or the cost such behavior entails on families.

As bad as worrying about the opinions of others is, it is our own self-assessment that perhaps troubles us more. I frequently spend an entire day at my desk - even when it’s not raining! While I know it is something that needs to be done, I still value it (on some vague manliness scale) below say, replacing a bearing. When I am done at my desk I am neither a) sweaty nor b) dirty. (At least no more so than when I’ve started.)  Have I done any “work”?  Although I know the right answer, part of me doesn’t believe it. I’m even faintly embarrassed when a friend  discovers me in the house at the desk when the sun is shining.

I don’t think I’m alone. Any number of my compatriots are more comfortable when they wear the outward and visible signs of physical labor. Haven’t we all made fun of bankers, salesmen, etc. simply because their cleanliness implied their jobs were easy? This inability to respect other forms of work may be about to boomerang on our industry. 

At this point I think it is important to note that those mechanical pioneers that led the way into the age of internal-combustion farming were considered with the same suspicion and near-contempt as the geeks of today. Real farmers used horses, and their own muscles!   

We sometimes even cling stubbornly to familiar tasks because they fit our definition of right and proper activity for a man, even when those tasks are meaningless or even unprofitable. A herd of cows and calves may be more about satisfying a need to be doing “real work” than it is about making money. As long as no real financial harm is done, these self-deceptions could be considered a good thing. The problem happens when the type of work that we want to do for a living is not what the world will pay us to do.

Learning to adjust to new types of work is not fun. It could be easier, perhaps, if we could learn to appreciate what effort is required to manage people, ideas, words, technology, etc. and develop greater respect for those who labor without breaking sweat. Not having some physical proof of your labor seems to me to make work more difficult, in some ways. I struggle to derive satisfaction from activities that produce no tangible result, like a truckful of something. In fact, I print out (and then have to file, of course) more paperwork than necessary, just so I can hold something in my hand as proof of where my morning went. It is silly, but it helps.

Now that a lot more of what I do for a living as a farmer involves driving a desk, I have been forced to rethink my opinion of what honest labor really is.  Analyzing farm accounting data, writing a letter to get the right response from someone I don’t know, conveying my opinion or desires in a phone conversation, or just keeping up with the filing - all these tasks have led me to one question: If this isn’t really work, why do I hate it?

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