Good ol’ summertime — or was it?
Published 5:21 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2019
As the end of school approaches, the excitement grows as well. It has always been so. Those “lazy, hazy days of summer” so popular in song, meant long days with little to do — at least for some.
It must be said, though, that in the mid 20th-century, farm boys probably yearned for summer slightly less than did classmates whose family income didn’t depend on crops and livestock.
It was just about the time that school let out for those “lazy” days that the first peanut chopping came due. When peanuts were quite small, a close cultivation with a very slow moving tractor held back most of the inevitable crab and wire grasses. Peanut weeders, devices with thin, springy prongs pulled first by horses and later tractors, could also nudge emerging grass from the ground with doing significant harm to carefully avoided peanut rows.
But just as sure as May turned to June, the grass, briars and jimson weeds could not be held back by cultivation alone, and it was then that “choppers” entered the fields. Chopping peanuts was a group activity. Generally about a half dozen people took to the fields and slowly worked their way up and down rows, weeding out grass with well worn hoes that, if skillfully used, could remove grass from around small peanut plants. Inevitable, though, much of the grass had to be pulled out from among the peanuts by hand.
As daylight dawned during a peanut chopping cycle, somebody (my father at first, but as we grew, my brother and I) was designated to sharpen hoes and the team of “hands” who would be arriving shortly. While the hoes were being sharpened, there were hogs to feed and a cow to milk before we took to the peanut field.
Another early morning chore was to rinse out and fill with water the one-gallon White House vinegar jugs that were saved during the year for that purpose. Everybody used vinegar in large quantities for canning back then and everybody saved the jugs to be used as water jugs during peanut chopping and in the fall when peanuts were shocked by equally large teams of people.
Armed with fresh water and very sharp weeding hoes, choppers headed into the fields, usually at 7 a.m. During heat waves, we went into the field earlier and would take a long lunch break during the hottest hours.
Most temporary field workers summer and fall were black residents of the neighborhood. It provided a bit of summer income for teenagers and women who needed the income, meager as it was.
While it was hot, and I always thought, miserable, field work had its positive side. We lived in a segregated society back then, and there was nothing good about segregation. But field work at least offered an opportunity to get to know some of our black neighbors. I was fortunate to work alongside some truly great people and as an added benefit, got a chance to learn gospel music that choppers often sang to break the monotony of a long day. It became a lifelong appreciation.
Chopping peanuts ended with the introduction of herbicides. Not only did the chemicals save labor, but they saved peanuts from damage, increasing yield. Chopping around or pulling grass from a peanut plant, particularly later in the summer, would damage the “pegs” on which peanuts grew.
The early pesticides, it should be noted, also caused a great deal of environmental damage and the declining health and even deaths of some farmers, but they revolutionized agriculture and things have never been the same.
Short Rows milestones
I forgot to keep track, and allowed two tiny milestones to pass unnoticed. May 26 was the 20th anniversary of the first Short Rows column, and March 6 marked publication of the 1000th column. It’s just one more sign that I’m getting old.