Follow the Digger
We had a cold late spring that year in Cody and the potato crop was slow maturing. Being at a lower elevation nearby Powell is warmer and has a longer growing season. Many of the Powell potato farmers were already through harvesting. The Hernandez family from Texas had picked our crops for many years. We were expecting them again this year when Manual Hernandez called us with the bad news. The family had taken a vote and decided to go to Wisconsin for the apple harvest where they could earn more money. Only Manuel, his wife, and youngest son would stay to pick our crop. We needed to quickly find more help.
Most of the usual crews had already left the Big Horn Basin to pick cotton in Texas or apples in Wisconsin. After several phone calls Dad reached the Ramirez family, and they offered to work for us. The patriarch and his two oldest sons came to our farm to discuss terms. They sat at the picnic table in the front yard for about an hour, discussing the work and the rates. When they finished they wrote down the terms in a simple agreement.
Dad agreed to pay higher rates for pickers, buckers, and stackers (from customary 6 cents a sack to 7 cents for pickers; increase from $.75 per hour to $.80 for buckers and stackers). In return no one would be paid until the entire crop was harvested. Dad and Mr. Ramirez both signed the agreement. They were to start in two days when they finished up in Powell.
The next day when we kids went to school we picked up homework assignments for the following 15 days. We brought the assignments and our books home.
The following morning Dad woke me at 3:30 a.m. to start the workday. As I shivered in the dark we filled a five gallon cream can with water, and drove our pre-war Plymouth down the lane to the “lower place” where the potato fields were - about a mile from our home. The little orange Allis Chalmers tractor was waiting for us, its empty radiator drained every night to keep the block from freezing and cracking. I closed the petcock and Dad, using a funnel, poured the water from the five gallon can into the radiator. I took the grease gun out of the car and greased the digger conveyer belt bearings. Dad cranked the tractor until it started, coughing and sputtering, finally bursting into life. Dad climbed into the seat, pushed the throttle forward, put the tractor in gear, and eased out on the clutch. He drove on to the first row and lowered the digger blade. With a bellow the tractor lunged, its front wheels rising in the air momentarily until settling when the blade bit into the ground.
As we went down the row the conveyer belt carried the potatoes upward toward the rear of the digger, sifting the sandy soil through the links, finally depositing them on the row behind the digger. We could only dig one row at a time. About a quarter of the potatoes would roll into the furrow where the tractor would make its return trip, the wheels crushing them. My job was to follow behind the digger, putting the potatoes that rolled onto the furrows back on the freshly dug row, and out of the way of the returning tractor tires. Thus, I walked behind the digger in its cloud of dust. It was not dry dust, mostly sandy loam, having high moisture content, and smelled fresh and earthy. I was soon grimy, with dust getting into my hair, ears, and nose until I had to breathe through my mouth, catching it in my throat and teeth, as well as permeating my clothes.
We had laid open about a dozen rows when I first noticed the cloud of dust approaching our field at about 7 a.m. It was the Ramirez crew, led by my mother and sister Mary in the pickup, which was loaded with empty sacks. Their caravan consisted of a motley collection of vehicles, mostly of ancient vintage. Upon stopping the human cargo spilled forth, from grandmothers to babes in arms - entire families. Everyone worked, even the children as soon as they were able, maybe at four or five years old.
The farm workers were mostly Mexicans who wintered in Texas. They claimed no home, being followers of the sun as they migrated from one part of the country to the other, weeding the fields, picking the crops, and doing seasonal work as they went. They lived in labor camps or cheap motels. The children dodged truant officers, knowing only the school of life; the fields and orchards were their classrooms. Occasionally a family would drop out of the clan to take up a more stable existence in some community along the way. Most lived the gypsy lives of migrant farm workers.
Mary and Mother busied themselves issuing picking belts and sacks. They recorded the number of sacks issued to each person in a tally book as the pickers were paid by the number of sacks they filled. The sacks were dragged between their legs down the row as the pickers filled them to about 60 lbs. At the end of the day the unused sacks were returned and the tally reduced accordingly.
Some of the younger children were not given belts and sacks because they were not strong enough to drag them even though they protested that they were. They were all eager to make money. They helped their mothers and older siblings, or tended the babies if they couldn’t talk their way into a job.
The pickers quickly spread out across the dug rows and began filling their sacks. Dad and I dug steadily to maintain our lead on them. After Mary and Mother finished issuing the first round of sacks, Mary came over and relieved me so I could eat some breakfast. Mother would usually bring me a thermos of cooked oatmeal, milk, and some cherries she had canned last summer, or some other fruit. I would try to wipe as much dirt out of my nose and off my mouth and teeth as I could and eat the breakfast. When I was finished, I would go back to following the digger.
A little later after morning chores were done my brother Tom drove up in our truck with a load of empty sacks which he unloaded into the pickup, replenishing their supply. He then drove over to the first row of picked potatoes. Two stackers climbed on the truck bed. Four buckers walked alongside the truck, boosting the filled sacks to the stackers as Tom drove slowly down the row. They stacked the sacks on their sides on the truck bed, building tier after tier and row after row until the truck was full. Then they all hopped on board as Tom drove the truck to the potato cellar for unloading and storage. During the winter the potatoes would be sorted, graded, and sold to distributors.
Brother John was the cellar boss. He supervised the unloading where the sacks were emptied into a conveyer belt that filled the bins to twelve feet high by twenty four feet deep. He counted the empty sacks, tallied the totals, and stacked them for shipment back to the field. The cellar tally was compared to the issue tally at the end of the day to make sure all the sacks were accounted for.
Dad and I dug until early afternoon before quitting for the day. Dad stopped the tractor, got off, slapped the dust from his Stetson, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and shook out his coat. He took off his steel rimmed glasses and wiped the dust off the lenses with his blue bandana. He pulled his gold railroad pocket watch out and looked at the time.
He announced it was one o’clock and time to stop digging for the day. We could only dig what could be picked for the day as the potatoes would freeze if left exposed on the ground overnight.
(To be continued in the October issue)