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January 9, 2013

Manual labor in the seed fields brings unexpected rewards

UNION TOWNSHIP — Ernst Conservation Seeds is a locally owned business that is family owned and operated. The company started out small by only growing crown vetch. Crown vetch is vine plant that is used to stop soil erosion. It was used a lot in the construction of Interstate 79, but is now widely considered as an invasive weed.

Ernst now provides the East Coast and Midwest with hundreds of different native species. They are proud of saying they supply the highest quality seeds, mixes and bioengineering products for restoration, reclamation and conservation applications. Ernst Conservation Seeds provides summer jobs to anyone who needs one, especially college students. The work at Ernst is physically strenuous but there is little to no experience required to work on the summer crew, which makes it desirable for a lot of people, especially if you are suffering from vitamin D deficiency.

If you don’t like working outside in the sun all day, then a job on the summer crew is not for you. The typical day of a summer crew worker is spending eight hours in the heat and scorching sun. However, if you like to be outside and don’t want to sit in an office wearing a suit and tie all day, then Ernst is the place for you. Working on the summer crew, the men wear cut-offs and baseball caps, and the women have their hair tied back and wear tank tops. When working out in the unforgiving weather, the summer crew spares no expense on fashion. No one is embarrassed to slather on the sun screen and wear the ridiculous, old clothing.

The type of work that the summer crew does is manual labor. The crew is in charge of transplanting, harvesting and field management. The first task is taking care of transplanting. This takes place mostly at the beginning of summer during the second half of May and through June. Transplants are newly sprouted plants that are germinated in the Ernst green houses. These are then taken to the field in black plastic trays to be planted into the ground so they can grow to maturity.

The way the transplants are put into the ground is by using a piece of machinery called a transplanter, which is hooked to the back of a tractor. Eight workers sit on the transplanter and feed the plants through the machine. Workers love riding the transplanter because it is one of the few times they get a chance to rest their feet. Most of the work done at Ernst requires you to be on your feet. The machine then puts the plants into the ground. The other workers walk behind the tractor to make sure the plants’ roots are covered by soil. If the roots are not covered they will get dried out by the sun and die.

Harvest time

Harvesting by hand is the next task the summer crew is responsible for accomplishing. This is the part where the mature seeds are collected from the plants and taken to the “cleaner building” to be cleaned, sorted and sent to customers. Hand harvesting can be done with hedge trimmers (loppers), scissors or breaking off by hand. The types of plants that are harvested range from all sizes, heights and smells.

Harvesting can actually be the most strenuous part of the summer experience. It is also where most of the employees get their battle wounds. This is partly due to the faster pace and what Ernst employees like to call “ankle biters.” These little buggers are dangerous because they force workers to bend over to get their precious seeds. This obviously requires some strength and stamina. Ohio spiderwort and all species of sedges are what cause workers to get rashes and cuts. If you mention spiderwort to an Ernst employee they may run in fear or duck for cover. Spiderwort is a plant that oozes when harvested. This creates an itchy rash on some people and in some cases leads to swollen eyes.

Ernst is good at keeping employees out of the field who are susceptible to this rash. Sedges are the plants that have razor sharp edges. Ernst provides employees with gloves but it is hard to hide from the “sedges with edges,” as they like to say.

Another plant that is harvested is the flower penstemon. This plant is known for its awful smell. If you ask an Ernst worker, they will tell you that it has a distinct smell of dog poop. You can imagine how this creates some inappropriate, or very appropriate, jokes depending on how you look at the situation.

Rocks and weeds

The next task is field management. This task arguably builds the most character. It takes place throughout the whole summer when there is a momentary lull in transplanting or harvesting. Field management involves rock picking and hoeing. Rock picking is what builds the most muscle. This job requires workers to literally walk through a field and pick up any rocks they see. The only rule is that the rocks have to be bigger than our fist. The rocks are thrown into the back of a truck and taken to a huge rock pile.

The second part of field management is hoeing weeds. This is only done on fields that will be harvested by combine. Combines are huge machines that basically harvest the seeds. Most of Ernst’s fields are harvested using this technique. This job also builds some muscle, but for the most part it just creates nice calluses.

Field management is probably the most mindless job on the farm but it is also one of the most, if not the most, important job at Ernst. Rock picking is important because it protects the machinery from getting damaged when we go to transplant. Hoeing is important because it takes out ‘undesirable plants’ within a field before they can go to seed. This is really important because the quality of the seed will obviously be better if it does not have weeds. Some seed mixes can’t even be sold with seeds from weeds.

Being on the summer crew at Ernst Conservation seeds sounds like a job that is grueling and not enjoyable. However, there are enjoyable aspects to the job. First of all, if you are outside in nature all day it is likely that you will see some cool wildlife. It is not uncommon to see wild turkeys, bald eagles, rabbits, skunks, baby deer and so much more. Secondly, there is the “brotherhood” aspect of working on the summer crew. Carrying on conversation and getting to know each other is about the only thing one can do when one is outside all day in the heat. It may sound phony or corny, but making friends is a big part of being on the summer crew. It really does form everlasting bonds. One can imagine these friendships go a long way when you are with the same people all day every day.

Finally, it is one of the most rewarding jobs in terms of being proud of the hard work that is accomplished. Most people joke around about manual labor by saying “it builds character.” Well, working out in the fields all summer does build character — and good character, at that. This is a priceless life lesson, especially if you are a college student hoping to further your career. The biggest evidence of this character is found in courtesy and niceness in every Ernst employee, because they all know what it takes for the summer crew to get the job done right.

Bonner is a junior environmental science major at Allegheny College who worked in the fields at Ernst last summer.

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