Career lessons from the watermelon farm
I had a strange career before getting mixed up with credit unions, including a few years working at a mental hospital and 12 years in a busy rock band. But the one thing that makes people stop and ask questions is my time as a watermelon farmer in southern Indiana.
I spent every summer when I was a kid being bossed around by my uncles on Grandpa’s farm. As soon as I was old enough to poke a watermelon seed into the dirt, I was working in the hothouses for cash to spend at the dime store in town.
Later on, I was sent out to “turn vines”. Until the watermelon plants grew enough to cover the ground and choke out weeds, we used a stick to arrange the vines in rows so a cultivator could pass through. This task is even less exciting than it sounds.
From about 13 on up, I was strong enough to help with picking and loading, and a few seasons later I bossed a crew picking and loading the watermelons each day, then delivering the melons to grocery stores all over Indiana.
Along with the certain knowledge that I did not want a long-term career in farming, I learned a few valuable career lessons in those sandy, sunny fields:
You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.
Every day during harvest, we had to pick and load 3,000 to 4,000 watermelons. It was hard, dirty work for lousy pay, so I never really knew who would actually show up at 6:00 am each day, or whether they would actually be sober. A crew of eight or nine would have been ideal, but we sometimes only had four or five. It’s a waste of time to lament what you don’t have — get busy, get creative, and find ways to get things done anyway.
Everyone has something to teach you.
My most reliable field hand was a scrawny 15 year old kid. At the beginning of the summer, he was barely strong enough to even pick up a watermelon, he couldn’t throw one, and a melon tossed his way would knock him right over. But he showed up every single morning, never complained, and did his best. At first, he had to pick up each watermelon in the field, trudge to the wagon, then run back to get the next. But he did serve as a good example — no one else could complain when this weedy kid was working twice as hard. By the end of the summer, he had sprouted enough new muscle to casually and accurately toss and catch 25 pound watermelons 20 feet up into a truck like the rest of us.
Pick your battles.
If a couple of guys didn’t show up for work a few days, or got in a squabble out in the field, there was no HR department to call, and not much point in dragging things out with formal consequences or knocking heads. I learned to focus on the bigger picture, stay calm, and set an example. What’s going to actually matter the next day or a few minutes from now?
Take care of your people.
Long days working hard in the hot sun meant I had watch carefully for signs of heat stroke and make sure everyone was covered with hats, clothing, and sunscreen, was drinking plenty of water, and got enough rest and food. I learned to bring a few extra sandwiches in case the “less organized” guys forgot their lunch. And I found out that fresh watermelon is a great breakfast and a pretty decent cure for hangovers — electrolytes, vitamins, energy, fiber, and hydration all in one.
There are always ways to make things fun.
Sure, it was an exhausting, dirty, boring job, but we found ways to make the time pass. We had a big radio on the tractor blasting rock and roll (my only real executive action was a ban on country music), and if things got dull you could always toss a half-rotten watermelon to someone who wasn’t paying attention.
Your first job influences your career.
Even if they start with a more conventional job, I think everyone carries away several valuable lessons from their first real job. Sometimes you learn through positive examples, and sometimes you learn more about what not to do.
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