The Planted Row: Keep your head down, but for how long?

Farm Forum

My first steady, paid job was for another farmer. Sure, I had done plenty of work for my father and grandfather on our own farm, but that didn’t feel like a job. It just felt like being part of my family.

For one miserable year (for me, anyway), my father was a county agent in the Mississippi Delta. I didn’t like it there much. The school I attended was terrible, and we were too far away from our own farm and family for my liking. Still, Dad met some very hospitable and generous people, and he made some close friends there.

One of those friends was a farmer, and after speaking with my Dad, he decided to try vegetable farming. He stuck his toe in the business by growing a large field of cabbage. To harvest that cabbage, he needed labor. So, of course, Dad volunteered me. I was 12 years old, and it was the first time I ever kept track of my hours for a job.

I joined a crew of other kids and teens, most of whom were older than me. We had to be at the farm and ready to work before sunrise because cabbages have to be harvested early in the morning while they are still tender from the dew.

It was a complex operation. Some kids with knives walked down the rows, cutting heads that were big enough and leaving heads that were too small in the field to be harvested later. Behind them walked more kids who picked up the cut heads and tossed them to kids riding on a wagon pulled by a tractor slowly through the field. The wagon had several large crates, and the kids on the wagon caught the cabbages and placed them gently in the crates without bruising them. The faster they could catch and place the cabbages, the faster the field could be picked. If they went too fast, however, they would start missing heads, which meant those cabbages would be ruined.

A ruined cabbage was more than just lost revenue; it was ammunition. If you said something one of the other workers didn’t like, someone would likely throw an already-bruised cabbage at your head when your back was turned. The same would happen to the tractor driver if he refused to slow down. I remember waking up on the floor of the wagon after having been knocked unconscious by one such reminder to keep my mouth shut. Working with vegetables over the years, I have been in all kinds of food fights, and a cabbage fight is the second worst. (The worst is a jalapeño pepper fight — the juice gets in your nose and eyes.)

As you might imagine, working with that unfamiliar crew didn’t feel the same as working on my own family’s farm. It was the first time farm work actually felt like work for me, and I didn’t like the feeling. In my early teenage years, I worked for a few more farmers before I took over the family’s vegetable operation during the summers. Those employers were good to me, but I never experienced the same level of satisfaction working for them that I did when I was farming for myself or my family.

I guess I was lucky to have a great-grandfather who purchased a farm when land was more affordable. I guess I was lucky a neighbor didn’t outbid him for the property. I guess I was lucky to have a family who would allow me the use of some land to farm when I was in high school and college, so I wouldn’t have to work for someone else until I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

What about the kids who aren’t as I lucky as I was?

A recent study ( says there will be no operators under the age of 35 by 2033. If we don’t do something, and fast, about the high costs of entry into a life of farming, the next generation will spend their young lives cutting cabbage and driving tractors for someone else.