If you want to live in the country, you’ll probably have to find a rural job that can support you and your family,” says Gene Bayless. “That’s exactly what I’ve done and if I can do it, you can too!
It’s surprising how much can happen to you in a few years … if you stick your neck out far enough. Take me, for instance.
How to Find Work in the Country
At the start of the 70’s I was an industrial salesman, wrapped up in the verbal garbage of trying to persuade people buy my wares. I was used to the urban life, creature comforts, a paycheck, and a regular job with normal hours. I had what I was supposed to want and I already knew I didn’t want it. For a long time I’d thought that the dudes in education and upper management must know what they were talking about when they fed me the crap I had swallowed so willingly. Later, as I progressed up the ladder through seven years of sales experience, I realized that “they” knew no more than anyone else and were simply operating on guts. That’s when I started looking for a way out of the “system”.
In 1971 I met MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and her articles impressed me with their sensible, feet-on-the-ground approach to the simpler life. What struck me most, though, was Contact (it wasn’t called Positions & Situations yet in those days). Wow! Were there really people out there doing, trying, failing, trying again? Maybe my own dreams to find work in the country could actually come true!
At the same time, Contact was frustrating reading. All those doers who sent in their ads were calling for other doers: folks oho could build, grow, raise, fix, or buy into various deals. And there I was with lots of ideas, but no money or skills.
Well, I thought a long time, and then made my move … to pump repair and water systems installation. It was a good way to go, just for the training in basic electricity, hydraulics, gas welding and cutting, and repair of motors, compressors, and pumps. I even made more money at my new trade than I had as a salesman and, since most of the work I did was in the mountains of Colorado, I was able to look over some mighty pretty land and get paid at the same time.
So I kept my eyes open when I was out doing jobs, and I noticed an interesting fact: Whenever I worked at a small farm suburban home — with a large garden space, barn, and modest house — the guy who lived there almost always turned out to be a longhair. I couldn’t figure this out, and began asking all those freaks how they’d found such good deals. The answer was simple … they’d lust driven up and down roads and streets, inquiring about what properties were available, who owned them, what the rents were, etc. In other words, they went out and looked for what they wanted until they got it.
I tucked the tip away in my mind, but didn’t put it to work at once because Colorado’s inadequate rainfall, very short growing season, and out-of-sight land prices had made my wife and me decide to return to Indiana, our former home. Once back in Hoosierland, I took a job in the northern part of the state (again as an industrial salesman because that was the only employment I was sure of).
As soon as we arrived in our new location, we hit the roads like our freak friends in Colorado. We asked gas station attendants, policemen, waiters in restaurants — anyone we met — for leads on rental houses in small towns or in the country, and most of the folks we talked to told us there was no way we’d get what we wanted because everyone else wanted the same thing.
Eight hours later, after a whole day of fruitless driving and asking, we started home discouraged, and on the way back made one final stop at a Catholic church, where we put our usual questions to the priest. No, he had no suggestions, but invited us in anyway. Then he learned that we were just back from Colorado, which started him talking about his home in the Canadian Rockies. And as he talked, the priest remembered a woman who knew everyone and everything in the parish. He phoned her, and — sure enough — she knew of a farmhouse down the road that was being cleaned up but which wasn’t quite ready to rent. She even knew the owner’s telephone number. One more call, and we had our place at a very reasonable rate.
Looking back, I think the frustrations we ran into that day came from trying too hard with most of the people we talked to. Our opportunity to sit down and chat with the priest which gave him time to think about our problem was what did the trick. You’ll find the same idea in an article called “Hunkering” in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 22: Go easy, be cool, know in your heart that people will help you no matter how they impress you at first.
Well, we had some really good experiences there in northern Indiana but my job wasn’t one of them. Maybe the trouble was that the economy had already started its downward slide, or maybe I was just a crummy salesman. Anyway, my sales were low and I got canned. What a blow! There I was, far from home, stuck with a stupid car that wouldn’t run, with no job and no way to get to work if I found one.
Man, the knocks are hard when you start following your own notions and they don’t jibe with the way the system is organized. I mean it, you can really get in trouble if you don’t handle yourself right. I didn’t have enough skills to get work locally, or enough bread to tide us over the hump. We could have been evicted for non-payment of rent, and found ourselves with nowhere to live, nothing to eat, and no way of getting a job to fill our basic needs.
The fact is, you must either be able to cut it on your own in a crisis or have a good community of family or friends to assist you when you fall flat on your face. I got out of that situation with luck or God’s help and the help of a friend who both lent me moving money and gave me a hand loading the truck.
Well, we made it to Indianapolis, and discovered that no one wanted us as tenants in “the big city” because of our three kids. We read the papers, had friends help us search, used all the conventional means to find a place to live with no luck. Finally I remembered the freak system and roamed up and down the streets myself until I found lodgings we could afford: half a double in the inner city. (The trick never fails just go out and look for what you want.)
By that time my wife, Sandra, and I were physically and mentally drained, and the new neighborhood was a nightmare: people uptight about their flowers, duals roaring up and down the streets, music blaring all night, gangs fighting, all the urban goodies. Still, I got a job as a carpenter’s helper, and we began to pull ourselves together.
Once again, luck or God turned things around for us when a guy I knew told me he’d like to buy a farm but knew nothing about running one. Would I be willing to live on the place and feed the stock for him?
Sure I would! We moved out to the farmhouse in the dead of winter, and had a calf dying of pneumonia in the kitchen on the very first day. There was no adequate feeding or watering equipment and no suitable quarters for the stock. None of the trucks or tractors would start, and we worked outside in the weather with ice on our faces. Color that winter grayish black mud, snow, rain, dead animals, labor day and night.
I’d kept my “Indianapolis” job, but it didn’t pay much and our heating bill was $60.00 a month. We shut off all bedrooms and the entire upper story, and moved into the living room. That, with the kitchen and bath, made a rather crowded home for five of us. Between the cramped housing and the children’s problems getting to know new friends school, family life was hard and put a lot of pressure on me. What could I say? I was putting my own selfish plans ahead of everything else, when I could have quit being a carpenter helper at any time, got a better-paying 9-to-5 or sales job, and moved to a more comfortable situation in town.
I’ll admit that I was really scared. My options were running out, I had to make enough money to keep the bills paid, my search for part-time jobs hadn’t borne fruit. Then I remembered hearing that agribusiness farmers often hit homes to rent on spreads they’ve bought. Well, I reasoned, big boys with all that land on their hands should also have a lot of work to be done, and off I went to find some of it.
I followed my old reliable system, of course, just drove the roads, looked for the biggest farms around, and asked for a job. At first it seemed that everyone had plenty of help. By that time, though, I knew better than to talk fast so the farmer and I would just hunker awhile. It worked! Sooner or later, every one of the owners I approach thought of a fellow down the road who might need another hand. After only three tries I got a good lead and started as a part-time tractor driver.
The job consisted of pulling a disc with a big John Deere. The boss told me what he wanted, and I did exactly what said. Sounds simple, but just attending to orders seemed to give me an edge over some of the other help (who didn’t follow instructions or who were reckless with the equipment.) True, the money wasn’t stupendous, but I could work the hours I wanted and I made $50.00 some weekends.
As the summer went on, l drove the tractor less and worked mostly on “our” place and as a carpenter. Life was hard, but we managed. Then, in the fall of 1974, the owner of the farm we lived on decided to move out onto the land himself. We had to find another place to live and that’s when my agribiz contact came in handy. I talked to my boss, and he agreed to take me on full-time and let me live rent-free in a house on one of his properties.
Agricultural work, I’ve found, can be a pretty good deal. starting wage around here is $2.40 an hour, but if you can weld and repair equipment, have a bit of experience, and give some indication that you won’t tear up everything you touch, you can boost that figure to $3.00 or $3.50. And if the pay doesn’t sound like much, consider that the average week is 60 hours (with overtime starting after 50). Some weeks we put in 100 to 120 hours … and that can run to a lot of money.
I’m now in an especially good position because none of the fellows I work with know electricity, plumbing, or carpentry. So I get to do all the maintenance for my employer, which means I work inside on bad days when some of the others are out in the weather. In addition, I drive grain trucks, a Bulldozer and a backhoe … I’m learning how to drain water from fields, plow, disc, cultivate, fertilize, and I now know good soil when I see and feel it. I even have a chance at a three-part course from John Deere on the repair of hydraulics, over trains, and electrical systems in their equipment.
Experiences such as those I’ve just named are as important me as the money I make. Yes, I know, “agribiz” is a dirty word, and it’s true that the big operators do a lot of things I wouldn’t do myself, but who am I to stop them? They need me and I need them, so we forget our disagreements and operate where we can.
Many of the skills you pick up on a job like mine can be used to make extra cash. Some young men work for others only during planting and harvest. The rest of the time they do painting carpentry, welding, mechanical repair jobs, or the custom hauling of stock or grain. There are plenty of possibilities and if you get out in the community, you’ll hear people complain about services they can’t find. Listen carefully, and go for the paying jobs nobody else is doing. I can’t handle all the requests I get to put locks on doors, rebuild haymows, nail siding on outbuildings, fix barn door tracks, etc.
Farm work has its fringe benefits, too. An article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 29 pointed out the possibility of getting unwanted animals — runt pigs, abandoned calves and lambs, and suchlike — from neighboring farmers. Well, you really can. So I’ve butchered two hogs and one lamb which came to me that way. Right now there’s a guy who wants to trade me a gilt doesn’t like for two used hog feeders I can get hold of, and someone else just gave me a calf I saved after its mother disowned it.
It’s the same with garden supplies. I get my plot free, and last year I was offered more pepper, cabbage, tomato, and squash plants than I could use. There are windfalls in produce too … like the three bushels of blemished tomatoes the farmer down the road gave us because he couldn’t sell them at market.
All sorts of other deals turn up, A local fellow asked me to he brakes on his Ferguson tractor, and I’m going to trade from the work plus $5.00 cash for 100 pounds of chicken feed and an incubator I want so I can raise my own chicks.
Things are going better now on the whole, but I can’t deny that this life has been hard on us. Half the time my wife is in a fog (she likes Banquet frozen chicken, automatic washers, and indoor plumbing). The kids have to readjust every time we moved, and of course my relatives think I should be committed.
All the same, I think MOTHER EARTH NEWS was right back in 1971 when she served as catalyst to my dreams because now that I’ve made my commitment, I’m relieved to have the means of my survival in my own hands and head, earned by my own efforts. I hear the crap about unemployment coming out of Washington, and it’s very sad to know that many people are trapped in the system of credit, working for cash with no other means to sustain themselves.
As I write, I think of the folks I saw the other day standing in line out in the cold, waiting for unemployment checks. I also remember last week, when I was hauling stone and I noticed all kinds of city trucks at the gravel pit with two bored looking men sitting in each cab. Those were the guys on public works jobs. Then too, I frequently think of the plastic being sold at exorbitant prices in the supermarket and I wonder when we’ll get to the point where we can’t afford to go on with all this.
The conditions I’ve just described are those I’ve seen myself. Things may be worse where you are. If so, you’ll understand me when I say that — although getting started in homesteading or farming is rough — the alternatives can be worse.
It’s hard to identify with me, I know, if you’re stuck in Cleveland, Detroit, or L.A ., but you can get out if it’s bad enough where you are.
One great way to escape is by buying yourself out. So if you feel you can hang on in the rat race long enough and make enough sacrifices to save plenty of money, that’s fine. If not, then learn some skills, marketable services you can exchange for items of value. Just get out and look for part-time work in masonry, electricity, machine repair, food wholesaling, welding … any farm related field you can think of. Then, when you make the break, you’ll be able to support yourself.
As I see it, you need only three basic ingredients to get along in the country: skills, money, and determination. That’s all it takes … except for one overriding factor for which there is no substitute: You must make a start.