Hired hands vanish from U.S. farms Few young workers lured to countryside

June 16, 1992|By Walter F. Naedele | Walter F. Naedele,Knight-Ridder News Service Staff writer Kerry O'Rourke also contributed to this article.

On the nation's farms, the hired hand is a vanishing breed.

On farms across the country, the lack of willing young workers has been a constant complaint, a familiar litany:

* Young men don't work hard.

* They earn as much money, for much less work, down at McDonald's.

* They avoid the isolation of farm work, and instead choose shops and offices.

In Maryland, farmers rely on seasonal workers from Mexico to help them harvest crops in the spring and summer, said David L. Greene, interim director for the Cooperative Extension Service in Carroll County.

Even in rural areas of Maryland, young unskilled laborers are more likely to opt for jobs at fast-food restaurants, where they can earn the minimum wage without milking cows at 4 a.m. or enduring sweltering heat on a tractor.

The lack of full-time farm workers -- not migrant labor -- is thought to be such a problem that the Pennsylvania State University Extension Service ran a program in Avondale, Pa., last summer to teach farmers how to get and keep them.

"There is a perception that farmers just employ dumb nitwits, someone with half a brain," said extension agent Alan Strock, who ran the program. But these days, he said, "farming is so complicated" that farmers need a better breed of hired hand.

Cameron Parke is one of that better breed.

"I've worked for farmers since I was 12," said Mr. Parke, a 1990 high school graduate who will turn 20 next month.

He is working full-time for the second year on a Montgomery County, Pa., dairy farm.

"It's all I've ever done," he said, with pride. Farm work. "It's all I want to do with my life."

On Tuesday night, Cameron Parke worked past midnight.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Parke worked past midnight, too.

Each day, he had begun his farm work about 8 a.m.

He walked the quarter-mile down the road from his parents' house, to the farm of Wayne Hallowell, west of Gilbertsville, Pa.

Each night, after more than 16 hours of work, he walked back home.

The work shaped his days, shaped his nights.

Hay had been cut.

The hay -- orchard grass and rye grass, alfalfa and clover -- lay in windrows across one of Mr. Hallowell's several fields.

It needed to be gathered into a huge machine and chopped and taken to a barn a couple of miles away and blown into a silo.

All that needed to be done, or the cut hay would dry hard under the strong spring sun and lose much of its nutrients.

The hired man had no qualms about hard work.

"It's a way of life," Mr. Parke said Wednesday afternoon, standing alongside a tractor. "Working is your only joy."

Sometimes it's more than enough.

"I tried college a little bit" during this past winter, he said. "Didn't fit in. . . .

"I couldn't stand sitting around. . . . Hard on your body, sitting around."

At Boyertown High School, Mr. Parke's alma mater just across the Montgomery County line in Berks County, he recalled, "even the kids who had parents in farming didn't want a thing to do with it."

But he always has, even though his parents aren't farmers.

"We have fields all around our house," he said. "Farm neighbors were giving me rides in their tractors since I was 4 or 5.

"I've always had it in my blood."

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

from "The Death of the Hired Man"

A home. A farm. A family.

That's what Cameron Parke is working 16 hours a day to earn.

Saving for the farm is first.

"I'd probably want $100,000 in the bank and borrow the rest," he said. "I'd want 250 acres, maybe 60 cows, that'd be a minimum.

"I figure eight or nine years" of saving, he said, eight or nine years of what he's doing now -- "doing without."

When he does get his own farm, Mr. Parke may find it harder than it is today to find a worker like himself.

Across the nation, farm workers -- farmers, paid laborers and unpaid laborers such as relatives -- are declining as family farms decline.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures paint this picture: 5,059,500 farm workers in July 1977 but only 3,318,000 last July; 1,872,600 paid workers in July 1977 but only 1,113,000 last July.

On the Hallowell farm the other afternoon, Mr. Parke had the look of an Amish or Mennonite farmer, his black beard trimmed as some of them do, with no mustache.

"Mennonite," Mr. Parke said, "I'm thinking of going that route."

Because of the rural background of the Mennonite faith?

"For a wife," he said. "They don't mind working."

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