Rance Robertson Produce
My first real job was when I worked for Rance Robertson Produce in Pollock, Louisiana.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets 14 years of age as the minimum age for employment and limits the number of hours worked by minors under the age of 16. However, for agricultural workers, that limit isn’t so strict. And that’s one reason why I started work on Rance Robertson’s farm in the summer of 1982—at the ripe young age of 12. I worked there on and off for the next five years.
Working on a farm is just as hard as you might imagine—if not harder. Rance farmed about 200 acres in Pollock, Louisiana and his crops included tomatoes, corn, mustard greens, watermelons, and butterbeans—but his main crop was sweet potatoes. In later years he also raised cattle and we bailed tons of hay every summer. Except for a few farm foremen and his son Jeff, most of Rance’s employees were kids who ranged in age from twelve to eighteen.
During the school year, foremen would drive around the rural neighborhood area and pick us up—often driving right behind the school bus to waste no time getting us to the fields.
During summer months, we’d work six days a week, all day long, sometimes from daylight to dark, for $20 a day.
Now you may be thinking that $20 a day isn’t much money. But to a kid with few job prospects, $120 a week was a lot of cash. Most of the money I earned went toward books—typically science fiction and fantasy. I bought hundreds of books—which in turn may have led me to pursue English degrees in college.
But working on a farm is a hard life. On many days, I’d move hundreds of 50-pound crates of sweet potatoes, throwing them around the potato harvester (aka “the digger”), loading them onto flatbeds, unloading them in the warehouse, and then finally dumping them into a huge vat at one end of an industrial washing machine.
But the hardest part of the day was the unenviable task of walking behind the digger. This job was typically left to junior employees. You were given a 5-gallon bucket and tasked with walking behind the digger for mile upon mile, picking up any “taters” that were missed and fell off a wide chain that brought the potatoes up from the earth and onto the trailer where farm hands removed them from the vine.
It was backbreaking work and hot as hell during Louisiana’s humid summer months. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that I walked hundreds of miles behind that digger. Most of the time I worked without a shirt; by the end of the summer, the lower half of my back was tanned almost black. You bend over most of the time when you’re walking behind a digger.
Rance wasn’t an easy man to work for during my formative years. He yelled and cursed at us on most days. To be frank, for those first few years, I was afraid of him. as years passed, I became used to his mannerisms and in the end, I was grateful for his harsh language and harsher words—especially when I joined the Marine Corps.
His management style made me a strong young man, able to easily withstand almost any verbal criticism without flinching. I learned quite a bit about life and working hard during those years on the farm—and in retrospect, I’m grateful.