DOTT, PA. -- On a slow day this spring, the touring manager of a Soviet state farm dropped in for a visit and the farmer was smitten by the instant rapport he found with his guest.
Over coffee and cake, the young Russian detailed his problems, which seemed endless and overwhelming in comparison with those on this little American truckpatch, but the stories had a familiar ring.
Yes, he had 200 employees but few of them showed initiative. Yes, he had machinery but the workers abused it because they didn't own it. And when it broke, the machinery was left to rust in the fields for lack of parts or lack of mechanical talent. When quitting time came, the workers simply vanished whether or not the work was done.
"Our agriculture will never prosper until we have private ownership and more competition," the visitor said. "On our farm, we say the problem is that it is ours, but it is not mine ... The workers do not have a vested interest, so they do not care."
What he was saying, in so many capitalist words, was that good help is hard to find these days -- a cliche', no doubt, but one that the farmer grasped with ease.
Some of his city customers have the impression that the solitary farmer works his fields, harvests his crops and takes it all to market as part of some virtuoso act of labor and ingenuity. Nothing could be further from reality.
In the beginning, when the truckpatch wasn't much more than an oversized garden, life was simple. The farmer and his trusty accomplice, Peterson, divided the labors according to interest and ability, and worked until the chores were done.
But in time, it became too much. Too many weeds to pull, too many beans to pick, too many lettuce seedlings to transplant, and it was clear that help was needed. Thus came their introduction to the mystical world of personnel management.
Peterson and the farmer agreed on some basic points. The pay would be competitive or better; no worker would be asked to do a task that the farmers themselves would not do; ample breaks and rests would be insisted on; the most onerous jobs would be reserved for the farmers; assignments would be varied constantly to avert boredom.
However reasonable that might appear on paper, the reality turned out to be different. A parade of workers -- some excellent, some not -- has come and gone through the truckpatch and the thought of a farm suddenly without a work force nags the farmer constantly.
A well-recommended young housewife in need of money came to work one day and performed capably and with promise. Then she vanished, sending word through a third party that since she lived four miles away, she could not afford the gas to continue here.
A strapping young man knocked on the door another day, begging for a job and bragging about his industriousness. He missed his first day of work because he "misunderstood" the starting time. On the second day, despite rigorous instruction in hoeing, he whacked off scores of valuable lettuces painstakingly transplanted by hand.
He missed his third day because of a pimple behind his ear that he feared to be cancerous. He missed his fifth day because his car had to be inspected. He missed his seventh day because he had to pick up his prom tuxedo. He couldn't work Fridays because they were reserved for his girlfriend. For one reason or another he missed a string of Saturdays and the farmer finally let him go.
A teenage girl worked all one summer and looked eagerly to weekend duty in the fall, a time when more hands are vital in the truckpatch. Her fall work plans were squelched by an unanticipated pregnancy.
Another longtime helper, an industrious and uncomplaining sort, had trouble with judgments, amounts, plant names and details. When asked how many beans she picked, the answer was usually "a goodly amount." When told to pick spinach, she ravaged the Chinese cabbage. Plant names could not be remembered and thus came to be known as the "brainy" flower or "that purple flower" or some such.
Nearing terminal frustration, the farmer and his partner decided there had to be a better way. Like many of their truckpatching brethren, they would recruit outsiders -- students, city people, ecology buffs -- who surely were lusting for a bucolic summer on an organic farm and the redemption of good, hard work. Sure.
A nice bunkhouse was constructed over the winter to accommodate the workers who were certain to leap at the opportunities. An application form and a brochure were prepared and recruitment posters were sent to job-placement offices at 15 colleges and universities.
The response was not thunderous -- only one applicant, an appealing candidate who ended up taking summer work with a seed company. Panic set in. Ads were placed in half a dozen university newspapers and many potential workers called back. Applications were sent to each caller. Women were interested, but not a single male caller applied for work after seeing the brochure.
The first hire, a budding sculptress, wrote rhapsodically about her concern for the environment and her desire to spend time in the country. She was coddled and looked after, to make her feel welcome, but she quit after a week, complaining that the life was too lonely.
Finally three other young women, two of whom had previous farm experience, were selected and they have helped the truckpatch muddle through another season. Or through part of another season. They have announced they'll be leaving sooner than anticipated.
With that, and fearing a new labor crisis, the farmer decided to employ another job-seeking young acquaintance who had built his own greenhouse, planted his own garden and had years of experience on his uncle's farm, operating sophisticated equipment.
He worked well on his first day, driving a tractor, hand-loading manure and spreading it on the vegetable beds. He hauled mulch and he plunged a lawn mower without complaint into a weed-infested strawberry patch. He helped build a new trailer. Here, obviously, was a gem of a worker.
That night, working alone in a cilantro bed, the farmer was cornered and upbraided by one of the female workers. "I'm very offended by the male chauvinistic attitudes around here," she began. "You hire this guy and he gets to do all these 'male' jobs -- driving the tractor, building the trailer ... "
"Wait a minute," said the farmer. "He's here because we're not getting all the work done. He has experience and he has skills. Is it that you wanted to shovel chicken manure and spread it on the fields?"
"No, I didn't," she said. "I just don't like this chauvinism."
There was much palaver and explication after this and the farmer, although reeling from the jolt of the harangue, felt that a truce and an understanding had been reached.
After his auspicious start, the new young male employee never came back. He didn't call, didn't write, didn't even send an emissary to collect his pay. And the offended woman employee has never inquired about his disappearance.
The farmer sometimes feels like his Soviet counterpart. He tries, but he has much to learn.
Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch