While most of my early work was performed on our family farm, I did take on occasional other jobs for other employers in the years before I moved away to begin my full-time job as an editor in Iola, Wisconsin.
The earliest such employment I had was typical for many farm kids—though, truth to tell, it, too, was on the family farm. Each fall Dad would pay me to pick up from the field the ears of corn that hadn’t made it into the wagon as we harvested. The wages? A penny per ear of corn—and little, short ears didn’t count.
When I was old enough and strong enough to help unload wagons of hay, that penny-per-piece wage scale continued. Eventually, I negotiated a wage increase per load, rather than keeping a count of each bale handled. Even so, at one dollar per load—with an average load holding 100 or more bales—Dad got the better end of that deal, I think.
For several summers, between crops of hay, I would spend a week or more in Monona, Iowa, with my maternal grandfather and help my great-uncle Raymond and him in their shop. Sometimes, I worked with other relatives in the area: building fences, finishing their hay crops, or handling other jobs. (I don’t remember getting paid for any of that work, but I usually came back with at least one new John Deere toy from the implement dealer in Clermont.)
When I was able to drive, my opportunities expanded, and I sought work off the farm. The nice thing about such quests was that I knew there was always work at the family farm, if they didn’t pan out. (In fact, my first such attempt, working as a tour guide at a local cave, didn’t go well, so it was back to the farm that summer. By then, though, Dad was paying minimum wage, so it wasn’t a hardship.)
When I worked for him, one of Dad’s rules was that our work came first. But, if we did have downtime, I could check with neighbors to see if they needed a hand for a day or more. My godfather, Jack Northouse, always seemed in need of an extra hand, since his sons had their own careers by then. He often hired me to rake hay for our custom round-baling operation, as he knew that I would make the windrows the way Dad liked them for baling. (That was the farm where I lost the round bale that rolled through a cornfield and hopped a pasture fence. See my column on farm accidents.)
Jack’s barn had a bale-conveyance system that brought the bales from the front of the barn to the farthest haymow, about 100 feet away. You had to pay attention when you were handling bales so that you didn’t take one on the head. (While I never had that happen there, I did take a hit to the head at another farm where I worked when I was in college. That college job was also the only one where I had difficulty collecting my wages.)
For a few years Jack’s son John hired me to help unload hay or fill his silos. John also hired teens from town to help, and I had to adjust the speed and rhythm of my bale unloading for them. (John’s farm was easy to get to from our farm, since our gates sat almost directly across the road from each other.)
When Dad was too busy with other jobs to handle a custom round-baling job, he would send me out, since I knew how to run the equipment. Most of the jobs I did were easy and went well, although there were a couple of pretty late nights when I had to drive home in the dark. The 4240 tractor had plenty of lights, but the round baler didn’t, so I was more than a little nervous, as I traversed the back roads going home.
The worst custom round-baling job I had was at a farm where the farmer had raked the hay to the edge of a drop-off. To form a round bale properly, I had to weave back and forth across the windrow, filling both sides and the middle of the bale chamber, and that drop-off made it challenging. When I dropped a wheel off the eight- or 10-inch high ledge, the hay pickup mechanism would jam, and I’d have to get out a large wrench, turn the mechanism backward to loosen it, and pull the excess hay out of the pickup to resume operations. To top things off, the hay in that part of the field was full of thistles, which meant that I got several sharp thorns in my hands. When I got home, I told Dad I deserved a larger percentage of the custom fees for that particular job. He didn’t argue with me after I told him what had happened.
When I started working for a local radio station as both on-air talent and a sales representative, Dad would ask where I was going on a given day on my sales calls. If he needed feed or a part from that community, it was easy for me to pick it up and bring it home in the afternoon. It also allowed Dad to have some part-time help a bit longer before I moved away.
As you can see, my job history off the farm wasn’t overly varied, but I did learn a lot about different working styles with different bosses: experience that’s stood me in good stead all these years.
What were your earliest farm (or off-farm) employment memories? Tell us in the comments below.