From time to time I go to work on the neighbouring conventional seed potato farms. At this time of year, the growers are starting to dig into their piles of spuds and fill truckloads for delivery to potato farms all over the western states and provinces. It begins in January with the California trucks and as spring progresses deliveries continue to Oregon, Washington, Alberta and BC growers.
What this means is that there is work to be had in the seed potato roothouses. I’ve done it enough times to know that it’s an educational and entertaining experience as well as being a very good conditioning stint before our farm gets into a higher gear. On one farm I learned to remove a cracked bearing with a cutting torch, a big hammer and lots of gusto. On another I learned how to reverse a trailer around a tricky farmyard. I still feel obliged to that guy for that lesson from 15 years ago – I guess I shouldn’t have made him pay for his carrots last week.
This year I am working for a farmer in return for the professional services of both her and her Black Angus bull. The ensuing calf arrived and just about everything that could go wrong did. We relied very heavily on her almost constant assistance and there was no hesitation when she said she needed help in the roothouse.
I am assigned to holding open the bag that will be filled with 2,150lb of potatoes. This is slightly less than a ton because the trucks heading to California are subject to strict emission standards and therefore the load must be a little lighter. Everywhere else gets 2,000lb sacks. There are 20 sacks to a truck load.
The sack is almost as tall as me, and about 4’ square, made of a stiff polypropylene material. As the potatoes stream into it from the conveyor belt, I have to make sure it fills evenly. When it’s as close to the desired weight as can be, I holler and the whole 90 foot sorting line, with 5 other people working on it, comes to a halt while the forklift takes away the full bag to be weighed and I arrange the next one under the conveyor and start the process again. I very quickly come to accept that I am not going to make this look very easy.
Soon I was drenched in sweat from not only the exertion but also quite frankly the pressure of trying to do it right, aware that the regular crew was vaguely interested to see how I would fare, although expectations were probably not too high. Eventually it occurred to me that this was one of the roothouse jobs no one really wants which then led to the happy understanding that it might be difficult to get fired.
By lunch time I on the first day I was completely exhausted and the last few bags were leaners and short weight. I was unable to remove wrinkles as the bag filled and the result was a tilted bag that can’t fit the full amount, which makes more work for other people. Just writing about it makes me tired. It was a futile and desperate situation as the bag grew lopsided and there was no strength left to take corrective measures. The farmer very politely didn’t take notice of my difficulties but quietly sent someone back to the house a touch early to warm up the lunch stew.
Lunch, glorious lunch. The proverbial hearty stew and accompanying biscuits, cheese, hot honey tea, and the company of the rest of the crew completely revived me. No one cared that I had to strip down to my long johns until a dirt-free layer allowed entrance to the house. I’d listened to them laughing all morning at the sorting table, where they were removing stones (hardly any of those in Pemberton fields), over-sized (these probably off to the food bank), and other culls. Now they regaled me with the stories I missed. The warm feeling growing inside me was only partly due to the food.
Having gotten most of the sacks filled in the morning, the afternoon shift was curtailed and we were out of the dim and dusty roothouse by 3. My hands were sore from tugging stubbornly on the bag against the growing weight of potatoes, and my body heat plummeted as I stood squinting into the glaring daylight.
I warmed up on a bit of satisfaction: the farmer who helped us so much got good work out of me, and relief: I still know how to put my head down and do hard work. Sometimes I think it’s all I have to offer. Please God that it’s enough.
Anna Helmer has more than 3 skills, it’s just that she really uses these ones.