I come from a family in the Netherlands whose business was growing vegetables. The farm was small, only 0.7 hectare. When I was born the farm was very diversified, but by the time I was in my twenties, it was totally specialised in tomatoes with substrate cultivation. I worked quite often on the farm during holidays (e.g. in spring there was work on the celery, in summer on tomatoes, and in winter on lettuce), but I generally had the power to say “no”. The opportunities that work provided to earn money, and the flexible time schedule, allowed me to say “yes” to many things (beer, travel, etc.).
There was a clear pattern in the family, with my older brother most intensively involved in the farm activities. I was a year and a half younger and somewhat less involved, while my younger brother (four years younger than me) seldom worked on the farm.
I had the option to work on other farms (my father once offered to arrange this if I wanted) but I preferred to work “at home”. Even when I studied at Wageningen University, I continued to work there for a month or so during the summer holidays.
One moment that I still remember as potentially harmful was a ride on the front bench of the trailer. The tractor’s wheels were not covered, and my foot touched one wheel as we rounded a corner. It was almost swallowed! This was a near miss: it could have been a very bad accident. The hazard arose because my father let me ride on the front bench of the trailer, my favourite place.
The farm machinery for planting, the polliniser, etc., were generally not well designed from an ergonomic perspective. But I did not experience its use as harmful.
Other risky situations that I still remember were related to construction work on the greenhouses. This allowed us to climb, walk (and play!) at high altitudes among glass windows. It was a lot of fun, and high risk, but luckily nothing happened.
Much of the work was repetitive and a bit dull, with the latest hit songs playing on the radio to guide us through the working day. But there was also ample room for a sort of meditation and reflection. And tomato plants are beautiful in all their repetitions.
Many other potentially harmful situations existed, such as the spraying of pesticides. I remember my father wearing very little protection while spraying. The insight that he needed protective equipment, and the imposition of a “no entry” period after the spraying, came only later in the late 1970s. My father died quite young, aged 64, likely due to pesticide-induced bladder cancer. I don’t know whether these same chemicals also have affected my development (how will one ever know?).
This mini-essay is part of the ‘childhood experiences of work’ series. As we prepared to launch ACHA we asked partners to reflect on their own childhood experiences of work. The prompt was simple and open: approach it in however you like; write as little or as much as you like, in whatever form you like; try to put yourself back into your frame of mind as a child; use 18 years old as a rough cut-off age, and think about harm.
Eighteen reflections were received from ten women and eight men aged from 29 to 70 years, who grew up in the UK (7), Ghana (3), Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1) and US (1).
If you would like to share your childhood experiences of work please send a short narrative (under 1,000 words) to ACHA (ACHA-Enquiries@ids.ac.uk). All narratives that are published on the ACHA website will be anonymised.
Stay informed with our regular email updates.Subscribe