Andrea Macko, Dishing It Out
I was listening to a CBC report recently — around the last day of school, actually — that told of the difficulties many high school students were having in finding summer jobs. The competition they faced for these coveted casual positions came not from their own ranks. University and college students were giving them a run for their money, but it was adults that were the big competition — and the big winners — in the summer job hunt.
While employment rates have generally risen in the past few months, there’s still a lot of people out of work who need to put a roof over their family’s heads and food on the table. Employers would be silly not to hire adults, the report explained, as they have workplace experience and are likely to be better employees than students looking to make some fun money for a few months.
While listening to the story, I reminisced on my own summer job career. I also thought back to Stew Slater’s excellent editorial after the Hampstead accident in February, which saw 10 migrant chicken farm workers killed in a horrific collision.
Stew wrote that, as recently as 20 years ago, it could have been 10 Canadian teens that were doing this work — specialized, but also so dirty and physically demanding that few adults would have considered it.
Any kid who grew up in the country — including this one — can sympathize with tough agricultural work. Few kids had the luxury of a summer job with air conditioning, unless they happened to hold it year-round. Farm kids’ first employers were often their parents; I spent many steamy summer mornings hoeing weeds from my Dad’s soybean fields, along with a variety of other tasks.
But the real dirty work started at age 13 — the minimum age kids could be hired to corn detassel. What’s that, you ask? Our bosses at the time (university students) cheekily described the job as “corn sex:” you removed the tassel from one varietal of corn so it could cross-pollinate with another varietal, planted side-by-side in a fertile organization of rows. (If this still sounds odd, you must have grown up north of London; extreme southwestern Ontario seems to be the only part of Canada where detasseling occurs).
Physically demanding? You bet: we’d have to be at the bus stop by 7 a.m., and look forward to at least a four-hour day of walking through corn fields, pulling tassels out of plants that were taller than us. Dirty? Sure was: between mud, smut fungus, spider webs, sweat and horseplay, it was the kind of job where you showered at day’s end, not beginning. When I got home after my first day of work, I burst into tears when asked how my day was!
But I hung in there that first season… and six more, surely not for lack of applying for other summer jobs and a stellar resumé of volunteer work and extra-curricular activities. But once you got into the corn ghetto, it seemed, it was impossible to climb out. The job attracted the strata of high school society: cool kids, nerds, smokers and stoners who wouldn’t be seen near each other come September would spend a month or so together in the great outdoors and the school buses that drove us around, commiserating about our sorry state of employment.
And yes, even back in the go-go mid-1990s, there were a few adult detasselers. They never quite fit in to the filthy, raucous environment; they moved more slowly down their rows, actually focused on doing a good job instead of goofing off. And yes, us teens — in our youthful ignorance — made fun of them. We wondered why these losers didn’t have a “real job”… perhaps while secretly worrying that we’d become them some day.
The detasseling crews still exist, but I wonder if the employee demographic has changed, much like other seasonal agricultural work like chicken-catching or tomato picking. How many adults have made the decision to accept a job that’s beneath their skills and standing, to make ends meet for a few months? That is, if the positions still exist: the factory farms that are infiltrating our region’s fields may find it more cost effective to import hardworking folks to do the work rather than pay wages to those accustomed to higher standards. While the smell of a corn field still fills me with nausea, I’m also nostalgic — and concerned — for our disappearing agricultural heritage.
Manual labour of any kind sure works up the appetite and few foods say summer quite like potato salad. Here’s a tasty version I invented on Canada Day.
Andrea’s Roasted Potato Salad
2 lbs. baby potatoes
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 garlic gloves, minced
1 tbsp. herbs of your choice
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash potatoes (do not peel), coat in about a tablespoon of olive oil, and roast at 400 degrees for half an hour. When cool, dice into bite-size chunks and place in serving bowl. Mix remaining ingredients, adding olive oil as needed to make dressing runny, then add to potatoes. Tastes great at any temperature.