When we all were farmers

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday, and he was reminiscing about his summers as a kid, visiting his relatives’ farm in Vandergrift Pennsylvania – only about a thirty minute drive from where I grew up. His stories about playing in the barn with bales of hay brought me back to the days when all of the neighborhood kids were farmers, or at least acted like it on occasion. This really started me wondering about how much our society has changed. Let me explain.

I grew up on a 1.5 arce parcel of country land, adjacent to farms. Powell farm across the street. Kiley farm down the road. Large fields behind our house which were leased out to various farms over the years. Schnur dairy farm just over the ridge of the railroad tracks. I used to trek over there with our gallon jugs to get that real cream, non-homogenized milk. I didn’t live on a farm, but in a sense, all us local kids were farmers. Here’s why.

Each summer, as hay baling time arrived, Mr. Powell would hire out the local baler who would scoop up the raked rows of dried alfalfa into the baler, which would press, bind, and plop onto the ground those wonderful rectangular bales. Then the tractor and wagon would chase behind and the neighborhood kids would either throw the bales on the wagon (if we were big and strong enough) or help arrange the bales on the hay if we weren’t. Or we’d just get in the way and annoy everyone, but we’d be there. All of us. My brother Greg. Billy. Teddy. Me. And others.

Wait. But why? Why were we there helping? We voluntarily gave up our summer for hard work? I started thinking about this yesterday as I was listening to my colleague. My brother, who was a true farmer at heart, would say, “Mark, we’re bringing in hay today.” And everyone would show up. Without question. Without fail.

I remember once in the early summer, as the baling team was fighting against approaching dusk, I saw Teddy walking up the field wearing his baseball uniform. He had just gotten home from his league game, and he approached me and said, “Mark, hit me in the nuts.” I was like, no I’m not going to do that. And he insisted. “Hit me.” And we went back and forth until it became obvious that he, the catcher, was wearing a cup, and he was just teasing me. Everyone laughed and then ran up to help finish bringing in the hay. Wait. So after getting home late from a game, he still ran over to the field to help as much as he could before dark?

The local adults didn’t help. It was just the kids, as I remember it. And it makes sense. The adults all had jobs. Us kids just bummed around all summer, so when Mr. Powell needed help, we were all there to eagerly pitch in. We never received a dime, nor would we ever have expected any. It was our job to help, and we did it with a smile, and enjoyed every minute of that dusty, sweaty work.

When I think about how society has changed since then, I’m not even sure I know how to process all of this.

Can you imagine a dotting parent of today sending their young kid off to rigorous work around dangerous machinery? Without supervision? Or a mask? Or a suit of armor?

Can you imagine a farmer who would expect kids to show up to work for free?

Can you imagine a farmer in 2023 who wouldn’t be worried about a lawsuit if a bale of hay fell off the wagon and hit little Johnny in the face?

Can you imagine kids of 2023 eagerly throwing down their devices to run into the field with gusto to help a neighbor with back-breaking work without any expectation of remuneration?

We had a sense of closeness. And no, we didn’t socialize with the neighbors often. But we were all in the community together, and it seemed to me that we each knew what our roles were. When someone needed help, those available would be there in a flash to do what could be done. Each of us were individualistic in our desires and hopes and work for the future. But there was a precious element of community which seems to be lacking four decades after the hay baling stopped.

No society is perfect. No time period is perfect. There’s plenty about our modern era to like. However, it is hard sometimes not to think nostalgically about the past and wonder if we have indeed lost something that was special.

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