Work Life

Working to Live

LAKE MACBRIDE— Let’s face it, we’re not like the Kennedys. We have no progenitor who leveraged a rising mass society in a way that both produced wealth and enabled new generations to focus on life free from financial concerns. That such a family existed, was well known, and equally well documented, influenced my generation in ways that continue to be revealed. There may have been others like them, but the Kennedys were it when it comes to a lifestyle free from financial worry, an algorithm built into the software of the lives of sixty-somethings.

It is not that there haven’t been brief periods of financial independence. While serving in the U.S. Army, there was no time to spend money, and I had almost an entire year’s salary in my savings account upon discharge. This created the financial freedom to attend graduate school full time and receive my masters in 17 months without worry. There have been a few other times like that, and I felt free to enter and exit the work force as it met my short term needs. I still feel that way, but as I aged, options changed.

It is one thing to talk about creating a sustainable life on the prairie, and another to actually do it. The comfort of regular pay, on a predictable schedule, can be addictive, even when it is not sustainable. Sometimes we become crack-heads of routine inside a career, with all the problems addiction brings.

When one breaks from the cocoon of a long career, it is a world of light and uncertainty— part was expected, but everything is brand new in its unique iteration. The hounds are let loose from their leashes.

Part of the breakup with a career is living and working with much younger people than relationships built over decades. It is refreshing. It is scary. There is risk. There are sore feet and chapped hands from doing new things.

We can find income to live. It is not even a question. When a friend first suggested temp jobs as an option for extra cash, it took me a month to decide to pursue the idea. Once I did, it took exactly six days from decision to working the new job.

Making money is not the problem. The challenge is creating a process for living focused on something other than our job. We are not the thirty second elevator story about who we are and what we hope to be. When we recognize all work has merit, we have a chance of breaking from the enslavement of careers.

We may work to pay for food, shelter, clothing, communications technology, transportation, insurance, interest and taxes, but until we experience the epiphany that working is living, and such living is fine compensation, a happy life may elude us. We could go on hoping to build a nest egg for retirement, get money ahead so we can take a break, win the lottery— such notions a malware embedded in the stories of Camelot and of summers in Hyannis Port playing touch football.

What else can we do but go on working?

Kitchen Garden

Cotton, Capital and Sustainability

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, lodging books up well in advance. The annual March event started as a way of controlling the snake population and has evolved into a festival that attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually. I haven’t tried rattlesnake meat, which is popular at the festival, but it reportedly tastes like chicken.

During a business trip the weekend of the event, I stayed at the home of an area cotton farmer because there were no motel rooms available. The octogenarian owner provided a pickup truck tour of the local cotton operation before dinner one night, driving most sections of his 5,000 acres. There were other large cotton growers in the area, and our conversation covered a range of topics from government subsidies, soil quality, tumbleweed, boll weevil control, growing conditions and harvest. We drove by the large cotton gin built by a cooperative of growers. Cotton hulls were stacked in gigantic piles near the equipment. There was a use for cotton hulls, but not enough of one. He was cottoning up to me because of the financial investment our company made in his sons’ troubled trucking operation.

We wouldn’t call  his cotton growing practices sustainable, quite the opposite. It was as good an example of industrial agriculture as there is. If there was a boll weevil outbreak, the crop dusters came out in force to spray the section and eradicate the pest. He did what he needed to manage the risk of growing cotton, and cooperate with his neighbors to get the annual crop planted, grown and harvested.

I met his two sons, and they leveraged the farm to try to make ends meet in their trucking company. The reason I was in Texas was the troubled trucking operation. The experience helped shape my view of the importance of capital in a farming.

It is one thing to locate a plot of ground and grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market. It is another thing to sustain operations over decades. The lack of adequate capitalization seems to be a primary tension point for beginning, local producers, with start-up, scalability and processing mentioned frequently as challenges. Like any farmer, local food producers make deals with people who have capital in the form of land, equipment and money: banks, government, parents and neighboring farmers.

For a local food grower to sustain operations, managing capital is equally important with managing growing practices. In my experience, not enough attention is paid to capital management by sustainable agriculture practitioners. Financial sustainability goes with everything else in sustainable agriculture, and can take decades to achieve in the best of conditions.

My experience in West Texas was a bit disturbing. The way the land was treated, the use of chemicals, the attitudes of the farmers, all of it had a sense of desperation about it. It was especially evident in the way the sons used the farm as leverage for their failing trucking business.

If sustainable agriculture has a chance in the 21st century, practitioners must learn more about the relationship of capital to farming. As a successful practitioner of sustainable agriculture recently told me, “the ‘kids’ who were not depression era people never got the hang of the financial end of things and overspent even though much was handed to them on a silver platter.” Last time I checked, very few people continue to hand out silver platters.

Work Life

Workingman’s Life

Hand Soap
Hand Soap

LAKE MACBRIDE— Sunlight fell into the bedroom, crashing around the blinds to wake me about eight o’clock— the latest I slept in years.  I’ll get through the physical adjustment to my new job— getting off work late and falling asleep later— but sleeping until eight is concerning. Half the day is gone.

Last night I soaked my feet in an Epsom salt bath after work— a workingman’s remedy for sore dogs. Wearing steel toed shoes for a nine hour shift has been like lifting a three-pound weight with each step. A friend posted on Facebook, “who needs a gym? You are multitasking weight training at work.” I don’t know about that, but my feet were less sore after the soaking.

Snow remains on the ground this morning, holding off spring yard and garden work for another day. It’s 16 degrees and a slight breeze is blowing, bringing with it remembrance of my non-office work life.

Working class artifacts surround me today: a beater of a car, steel toed shoes, special work clothes, a brown paper lunch bag, Epsom salt, pumice-based hand soap, bandages for cuts and scrapes, and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (in the event I need one). These are things my dad had when he worked in the meat packing plant— like father, like son… sort of.

A workingman’s standard issue belies inner tensions. One strives to make it through each day without injury. There is risk in production settings, and a dynamic of managing that risk while striving for productivity. If we are paying attention, our humanity is evident to us in each moment as we navigate through a shift’s existential reality.

When work is repetitive, like operating a work station, or loading a truck, the mind tends to wander— to home, to family, to a host of worries of living in modern society. Distractions can be dangerous. To survive, a worker must focus on the task at hand, blocking everything else out. Doing so is a key to achieving productivity targets, and to making sense of why we work as an employee of someone else.

As the sun’s rude awakening recedes, consider its warming influence on the seed trays in the dining room. They are beginning to sprout. My day worker experience confirms long held beliefs. That every kind of work has value, whether it is paid or not.

What I hadn’t considered enough was how performing work requires our attention and an investment of our humanity. Work can inspire us, but mostly, it can be a furtherance of the pursuit of happiness— ours and those around us. That often gets lost while doing the work.

Work Life

Walking the Walk — Wait and See

Sumitomo Quadrant
Sumitomo Quadrant

LAKE MACBRIDE— It was in Oklahoma where I learned about Sumitomo Corporation. Maybe it was in Arkansas, I’m not sure ten years later. We were making a sales call on the U.S. headquarters of one of the hundreds of companies Sumitomo owns. We did not get the business. However, I learned a lot from the company about how to manage my post-transportation career. To be successful, we must live as a scaled down version of the largest of corporations.

Sumitomo Corporation began in the 17th Century with a book and medicine shop in Kyoto, Japan. The history is on the company web site and worth reading. Their corporate mission is to “achieve prosperity and realize dreams through sound business activities.” While corporations are not people, who doesn’t want to achieve prosperity and realize dreams? The notion is at the core of my quest for a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie. How to do it? Follow the chart.

The key element of Sumitomo’s management approach was to assign every business they owned into one of four quadrants on a chart, using the representation on the chart to guide management of their entire business enterprise. To read more, click on the link. However, there are four ideas worth mentioning, one per quadrant, that could be applied to any business or life: reinforce, cash cow, wait and see, and prepare for withdrawal.

We all have things we work on. Family, health, economic activities, avocations, risk management and necessities. I think of each area of work as Sumitomo thinks of each company— having risk, return on investment (tangible and intangible), resources, intellectual capital, and financial investment. The idea for my post-career life is to assemble a portfolio of activities that will facilitate prosperity and realization of dreams. When I consider each of my activities, some are doing better than others, and that is okay.

For example, my work as a proof reader for the weekly newspapers takes 4-6 hours per week, and the financial return is steady and predictable. It goes in the wait and see quadrant. Is there more work available at the paper? What is the risk of holding this job, in lieu of using the time to search for a better one? Can I find additional, similar work with other area employers that would increase my compensation and standing as a proof reader? Should I cut bait and find another, better paying position? From time to time, the newspaper work, and each endeavor in which I participate requires some reflection, analysis and attention. The Sumitomo approach provides the paradigm.

One of the precepts of sustainability is diversity of effort. With a one-paycheck career, the risks were too many. My transportation career was a cash cow, in which I prospered while advancing into middle age. I left a low risk situation, producing substantial results for the company, in order to realize the maximum value of more than 25 years of work.

What is next is uncertain, or in Sumitomo’s lingo, we’ll wait and see. I am prepared for the challenges— but more— prepared to realize my dreams.

Kitchen Garden

Leaving Food Miles Behind

Food Miles
Food Miles

LAKE MACBRIDE— If U.S. fuel prices were the equivalent of gasoline in France at $8.52 per gallon this week, perhaps the discussion about food miles would be more meaningful. Food miles are the distance over which a food item is transported from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement. In theory, it is better to grow food locally, and use less fuel.

Food distribution and related costs are a social construct that makes transportation seem inexpensive, or irrelevant to what we find in grocery store aisles. Our food distribution system considers an economic model, with many actual costs— such as global warming pollution and federal subsidies of all kinds— remaining unrecognized.  Unrecognized costs drive the current producer to consumer model and most people won’t get beyond the basic fact that transportation costs don’t matter much when picking an item from the bin or shelf. It isn’t clear they should.

Where advocates of local food may have gone wrong is using the idea of food miles as a place holder for complex, flawed arguments. Costs are costs, and a producer has to recover his or her financial production costs when the consumer buys an item. Using any complex argument, including food miles, as a place holder seems a diversion. Such talk belongs more appropriately in a sales and marketing context as a form of puffery.

What would be better is to create a local food system that competes on price and value, using existing financial structures. I’m not sure that is possible given the current, labor-intensive state of sustainable agriculture. To say consumers should be willing to pay more for organic lettuce because it was locally grown at a higher net cost is a non-starter. Society teaches us that organic lettuce is a fungible commodity, and if everything is the same, and one head costs $1 and the other costs $1.75, what reason is there to spend more?

Local food producers would do better to leave food miles out of their arguments, and create real value in the form of tasty food that people want to buy. They should recognize such value is subjective, the playing field is not level and therefore, growing a local food system will not be entirely rational, or scalable the way well capitalized operations are. Recommendation? Leave food miles in the rear view mirror.

Work Life

Drama in Society

Parking Space
Parking Space

LAKE MACBRIDE— The conventional wisdom is that people leave a job because of the relationship with their manager. At my temporary job across the lake, people almost never talk about their manager. They talk about drama.

“I don’t need the drama,” said a colleague who started the same day I did. He was frustrated by someone with whom he shared a work station. Wage earners come to work, perform their job, and seek to leave workplace worries when they punch out. Unless conflict is directly related to the work, who needs it? We all have our reasons for taking a job, and workplace drama is not usually one of them. It is also a sorry substitute for the real thing.

My trainer said, “I work on first shift, so I don’t know the drama on second.” It is a focus on colleagues, their attitudes and personality projections. The usage is a derivative of reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother. As if the whole world was watching as petty problems, ambitions and peccadilloes play out in real time. Society mimicking the media.

We are forced to deal with popular culture as it influences our interaction with others. Should we participate in the drama, or observe? The media reinforces our role as an observer.

If life in society is a construct, then we hold the power to make it how we would. Emphasis on “we.” Going forward, I’ll take my drama from actors treading the boards, and not based on a perspective influenced by answering the question, “who will be the biggest loser?” Society may be better off if I do.

Kitchen Garden Writing

Knowing our Farmers

Germinated Seeds
Germinated Seeds

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— The seeds I planted last week had sprouted when I returned to the farm for shift number two. The work was easier this time and I finished quickly. I used a water bottle to stay hydrated, and it helped a lot. The greenhouse is starting to fill with the flats of seedlings for three growers who use the space.

Even though it was only my second day of making soil blocks, the skill had been learned, and I trained another worker.

The CSA where I work is not organic. “We can’t afford that,” said the producer. This attitude is common among vegetable growers, and while some equivocate, saying they use “organic practices,” the truth is the discussion about organic is based on penetrating markets. While it is not mentioned much anymore, the purpose of Community Supported Agriculture is to know your grower, and how they raise vegetables. It requires the buyer to have a depth of knowledge beyond fungible commodities. Being part of a CSA is about more than just the weekly share of vegetables, even if our consumer culture focuses on that aspect of the arrangement.
Most consumers don’t have time to know the farmer, and buy food at the grocery store. Maybe there is an alternative, and while labor intensive, it starts on farms like this one.


Talk of the County

LAKE MACBRIDE— People were talking about the planned re-zoning of a farm near here, to subdivide it into the first-ever cluster of homes after the 2010 policy that created the rural cluster designation. On Tuesday, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved the first and second reading of a resolution supporting the plan.

I wrote to a friend on Monday, the cat is out of the bag— urban has already sprawled from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids. What difference does one more subdivision make in the Corridor? Those protected by stopping the development would be affluent landowners, living on expansive properties in expensive homes. I can see why they wouldn’t want a rural cluster invading their relatively secluded reserves. The problems of the affluent bourgeois are not mine.

The property owner was quoted in the Iowa City Press Citizen, “everyone here had an opportunity to purchase 40 acres of prime farm land, as they put it. The opposition claims how important it is to preserve farmland and this area, yet no one would make that commitment,” she said. “They have been relentless in this obsession and seem to think that they and only they know what’s best and feel absolute in their self-appointed role as guardians… The bottom line is that I own this property and as owner I have property rights.”

To the extent we accept the premise of land rights— that Black Hawk and Poweshiek intended to cede their rights after the Black Hawk War— it is hard to take issue with the property owner. What is bothersome is there is a real climate crisis ongoing, and this local talk is a diversion from something much more important than whether another subdivision of McMansions is built.

Work Life

Getting Wheels

MOUNT VERNON— While test driving a 1997 Subaru Legacy Outback along the Cedar River Road, the river looked ready to jump its banks and flood the pavement. With the ground still frozen from winter, the recent rain had nowhere to go, and a river that was near empty a few weeks ago was now flowing strong with the runoff. The soil needs moisture, but so do the arterial waterways of North America. With a sense of new hope, I bought the car.

One never knows about a used car. Will it last? Will it break down? Will parts be available? How much more should be invested in repairs when needed? My decision to buy a used car was based less on these questions— given my budget, a new car was not an option. The local car dealer web sites had little in the price range I wanted to spend, so for convenience sake, I upped the budget rather than spending time to find a cheaper alternative. The trade-in Outback was well used, but everything appeared to work, and the wagon space will prove to be useful.  The dealership delivered it to our home last night around 5 p.m.

This car is a beater. It is not intended for long trips, but for getting around the community to run errands. A reliable vehicle is essential to finding and getting to work, and easing some of the challenges of being a one-car family when both of us are still active. To the extent a car represents one’s personality, it will take me some time to getting used to a red vehicle. But I can already imagine myself as an Outback kind of guy.

Work Life

Day Laborer

CEDAR RAPIDS— The temp agency takes applications from 8 until 11 a.m., Tuesday through Thursday, so today was the day to show up. From the calls the person at the counter took while doing my paperwork, they seem to have work. It’s a reason for being there. I brought my citizenship papers and spent the hour filling out forms. For the effort, I received a new hire booklet.

I had no idea what to expect. My last job search was in 1984. Based on the questions asked during the application process, the fact that I have good work habits, don’t do drugs, don’t want to get into a fight over my manhood, haven’t been injured on the job and generally follow the rules in someone else’s world, will give me an edge. She said three times or more they opened at 6 a.m. and it was important to sign in in person until they got to know me. I’ll be there tomorrow at 5:55 a.m. to see what happens.

There are a lot of questions that could be asked, but when a person needs paying work, those get pushed into the background. I agreed to a background check, to release my medical records, to arbitration in some disputes, but not all, in lieu of litigation. I completed forms on a Palm device, on paper, and into a computer. I signed my name more than a dozen times. When we are not doing paid work and need it, there is a lot to which we might agree.

What is a person worth? I decided at least $9 per hour. Partly because while my mother believes me to be special, most other people don’t put extra value on another day laborer. Also because that’s what they pay for the job I saw on the Workforce Development web site. I may be worth more, but I have no bargaining position yet.

Over the coming days and weeks, I should have fresh insight into the phrase “all in a day’s work.” I am looking forward to this experience.