I’ve been a tentless vagrant for about a week now, contributing to Ireland’s racked economy like a rogue lion, as I wander the countryside living off handfuls of wild blackberries and long slurps straight from the cow’s teet.
But of course this isn’t true – except for being on the road for about a week now. And the blackberries. And Ireland is in a downturn, it does ask a lot of its tourists, which is perhaps why a cup of chips costs four euro and Dublin is home to a leprechaun museum. However it doesn’t really explain why Lucky Charms have been discontinued here, as a young fellow named Pip informed me when I was in the Wicklow Mountains (“They’re named after us, we should at least get to eat the fuckin’ things.”) Word is that someone is smuggling the cereal into Dublin and selling it for 8 euro 45 cents per box. To the locals and tourists alike.
And Ireland gives a lot back too. Gracious Pip drove me through the Wicklow countryside in his battered Red Opel, which he acquired for 350 euro and plans to drive into the ground. I admired the land’s heather and shades of green and brown like swatches in a book of wallpaper samples. They’re minor, gradual, damp mountains with lots of gray rocks on the green. Boulders inscribed with the names of Irish revolutionaries like Michael Dwyer are scattered around. It showers during the sunlight, enough for twenty wipes of the windshield wipers.
On the cheese making front, it was a challenging but satisfying first month in Ireland. I worked at a dairy in County Cork where I butted heads with a persnickety milkmaid, and came to terms with udders. I smeared countless cheeses the size of small tires and scrubbed hundreds of wooden boards with handfuls of salt and boiling water. I was mortified by the screams of the (pre-War?) steam boiler. I was docked imaginary sums by the farmer for saying “like”. He enjoyed nothing more than taking the piss out of gobshites and railing against schoolteachers and civil servants. I admire him! He had a breathtaking vintage copper cheesemaking vat from Switzerland that we ceremoniously filled to the brim with 1300 liters of raw milk twice a week. He had a milking parlor with 14 places on each side, and a herd of American Holsteins that they are phasing out in favor of British Friesians, which are less prone to health problems. I think if the Holsteins didn’t go out to the pub every night they’d last longer.
The demanding schedule of 65 hrs a week took its toll. There were moments when I felt like uniting with the workers of the world. Some say that a new apprentice is a liability to a farmer. But if you come in with demonstrable goodwill and an appetite to learn and work, you are an asset. Don’t undervalue that. That’s why I was so unhappy to read that Arnold Schwarzenneger vetoed overtime pay for California’s many (mostly migrant) farm workers last month:
“The legislation, known as the Senate Bill 1121, reportedly would have required that agriculture employees in California who work over eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week receive overtime benefits, which would have made California the only state in this country mandating these overtime regulations for farm workers.” [Read more HERE]
There are reasonable economic arguments against overtime for farm workers that government and big farm groups site in the above article. There are no good moral or democratic ones. Civil rights call for better compensation for farm workers, period. If officials in government and big advocacy groups had a better grasp of what it is like to work long physical hours for indefinite days, we would see action on this. Even in a big wobbly country there are ways to pay people for their time.
I also did some thinking about the more general matter of workers’ rights. My premise is that the employer always has the upper hand in the relationship at the beginning, regardless of how nice he or she is, and that matters. The challenge for a worker and for society is not primarly defining what the worker’s rights are – we do that pretty well I think – but figuring out how to assert these rights in context.
I believe farm apprentices especially would benefit from a formalized support network that could be as simple as a dial-in hotline.
I’m in the Burren now, near the Cliffs of Moher, and next week I’ll begin a month of work at the farm at Ballymaloe Cookery School – if I can figure out how to get there. It’ll be grand, like.