There are few things as difficult for a young kid as forced labour. Unforced labour is totally fine! When I was a kid growing up on the farm in Glenlea, if I was hanging out on the yard and saw Grandma in her garden I was more than happy to grab a hoe and spend some time with her. But ask me to weed the shelter belt and sounds akin to a dying moose who emit from deep within. (And don’t tell me it’s going to be better because my older brother, Sam, is going to be weeding as well, that only meant I would have to endure his disapproval on the job I was doing.) There were many things that I didn’t actually mind doing (if I thought of it myself), but there was one thing, that although it was a regular on the list of chores, and for which I was paid, no less, that was nothing short of torture. I speak of gathering eggs.
My dad went farming when he was 40 years old and managed to build a successful business before he retired a few years ago. Among the acquisitions he made in my lifetime was my grandpa’s quota of chickens which me grew to somewhere around 19,000 laying hens by the time I left home. (In Canada, you need to buy the “right” to own a chicken, that’s what quota is.) You measure how many eggs you get from a chicken using a production percentage. If each chicken lays one egg every day that is 100% production, which never happens, but I remember some years when we say at 94% for weeks on end, which translates into 17,860 eggs each day. Now had I been a bright and selfless young lad I would have understood that the more eggs the chickens lay, the better my parents were financially, which meant I was better off financially as well; both because money is important to do the things we loved to do as a family (like eat, pay our bills, and go on vacations), and also because I was paid to gather eggs!
I was paid to gather eggs. I was even paid well to gather eggs. But this financial incentive never seemed to remove the block in my mind that the only reason my parents made me gather eggs was because they must hate me deep down. One time when I was fighting my mom over gathering eggs after school I pulled out the heavy guns and yelled “YOU DON’T EVEN LOVE ME!” To which she replied “OF COURSE I DO! NOW GET OUT TO THE BARN!” (Imagine this as a “clenched-teeth” yell.)
Now before you write me off as a spoiled ingrate of a brat (which wouldn’t be entirely invalid) please understand what a chicken barn with thousands of chickens is like. In winter we didn’t heat our barns, you know why? Because chickens are little heat buckets and there were so many that they would keep the barns a balmy 18ish degrees with their body heat alone. Now imagine those heat factories on a summer day when the temperature outside is a scathing 30+ degrees. Guaranteed it was 5 or more degrees hotter in the barn. And I wasn’t one of those confident boys like my brothers who would gather eggs sans vetements (ok not quite but sans t-shirts at least) so I, like my sister, was condemned to hard labour fully clothed. Quite frankly it wouldn’t have mattered if I had gathered eggs in the nude it was so blazing hot that you would enter a state of instant profuse sweat and as the chickens went nuts over you stealing their baby-eggs the dust they disturbed would somehow find its way to every one of your oozing pores. Basically the most clean-shaven young many looked like a burly grandfather leaving the barn.
There were some city-slickers who would be tempted to think that it was the smell that was the worse part of gathering eggs, but that never really bothered me. Besides the smell of manure was nothing, nothing, compared to the smell of a dead chicken. I’m sorry if this is getting a little to vulgar for your sensitivities, but I just thought that we should get to know each other today. Occasionally I was required to not only gather eggs but to do barn chores in the morning before breakfast. There were various duties and our barns were mostly automated so it was slim on the manual labour. But one thing the farm-nerds never figured out how to automate was the removal of dead livestock. In a barn of 19,000 chickens you can imagine that it wouldn’t be uncommon to have a dead bird or two every day, and that was good because it meant we didn’t have to buy cat food. The real problem wasn’t that a chicken or two died each day, I could have handled removing a fresh corpse, rather the issue I faced was that if my sister did chores for a couple of days before me, she would somehow “miss” all the dead birds leaving them to rot for a day or two in the 30+5 degree summer heat for me to pick up when it was my turn!
Let me tell you, if you think chicken manure is smelly, can you imagine noting a smell above the manure smell that told you that a dead chicken (a very, very dead chicken) was a few rows over from where you were gathering eggs. I tell you there is nothing like that smell in the entire world.
Why do I tell you all this. As idyllic a place Glenlea is, there is a sort of seedy underbelly where children are paid very well to do very reasonable but rather smelly work for their parents. This is a part of who I am and it is for this reason I sit behind a computer writing, or across a table pastoring, and not behind an egg-cart picking eggs. Well, that and the fact that God graciously had mercy on me and rescued me from the dank sweet ammoniac aisles of the chicken barn with a call to ministry. I am grateful.
And now we know each other a little bit better.