What I Learned From Summers Working on a Tobacco Farm

Discover why hard labor pays off.

When I was young, my parents had a unique rule about summer work, one my brother and I knew about from a young age. The rule was that our first job had to be at least one summer of physical labor. My parents believed that experiencing that work would give us a greater appreciation for our education and opportunity. We were going to learn to value our immense privilege.

At age 15, I got my first job at a tobacco farm. The area in Connecticut where I grew up was well known for shade tobacco, the type of tobacco that ultimately becomes the outer wrapping of cigars. To an outsider, this was a strange place for a teenager. But locally, it was where many of my friends and neighbors spent their summers.

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I ended up spending four summers on the farm. I had other side jobs — a cashier at Walgreens and ice cream scooper at a mini-golf course — but the hard, long hours at the farm were always my focus. Here’s what I learned.

There’s Reward to Hard Labor …

Waking up at 5:30 in the morning, five to seven days a week, to make it to the farm by 6:00 a.m., was no easy feat, but that was by far the least challenging part of my day. Working in the humid heat under the tobacco shades (netting that goes over the fields) while wearing heavy work boots and jeans was exhausting. Tying 600 plants to support lines in a day meant pinky fingers split open from ripping twine with them over and over. Standing in one place for hours to sew the tobacco leaves onto strands to hang in the barn meant sore backs and disgusting, tar-covered hands.

But, every night I stepped into the shower feeling accomplished. The dirt washed off (sorry, Mom, for the mess we must have left in the bathrooms), I fell into bed, and I knew I had done something. A thing you could point to and say, “That barn was empty, but now it’s not. And I had a hand in it.”

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After eight years in finance, it’s a feeling I’ve never been able to find at a desk job. Yes, I’ve accomplished a great many things, but that is a different kind of work, with a different kind of reward.

… But to Do It as a Choice Is a Privilege

There are times my brother and I reminisce about our summers on the farm. There are parts of it we miss, the memories bathed in the rose-colored glow of time passed. However, the ability to move on from the tiring labor is an enormous privilege.

Every summer, a team of eight to ten seasonal workers from Jamaica would arrive on the farm. These men left their families to work in the U.S. through the tobacco season. Then, come fall, they would head to an apple orchard for a few months of work before heading home.

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The income they could earn from six months in the States was more than they could make in a year at home. Many of these men had kids they loved and had to be away from for half the year. The sacrifice was worth it to give their children a better life.

When my brother and I reflect on our time there, we are acutely aware of the choices we have. For us, the tobacco farm was a stopping point — a step on the road to college, a career and financial security. We don’t have to strain our bodies or make great personal sacrifices to put food on the table. Our experience made our privilege clearer to us than any number of lectures could have.

Money Earned Is Different Than Money Given

Payday at the farm was on Fridays. I don’t think I’ll ever forget standing with my friends, our hands caked with dirt and tar, and being handed my first check. I had worked small jobs before, but this was more money than I’d ever earned babysitting or tutoring. And what I did with it was entirely up to me. The feeling of independence that came with that check couldn’t be replicated with an allowance.

I feel strongly now that financial literacy can’t be taught in a vacuum. Learning to save money, spend responsibly and navigate bank accounts and taxes take practice. It is far better for kids to find their way when the stakes are low.

Today, I’m a huge proponent of the summer of hard labor my parents required or at least requiring kids to work part-time. The experience, life lessons and cash are valuable. However, the opportunity to test your abilities with money is even more significant.

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