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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Picking Rock

July 06, 2007 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Rock picking, the process by which rocks are removed from farm fields, is a necessary evil. Here's how it works. Moving systematically though a freshly-tilled field, locate and manually remove rocks to a transport medium then, after maximizing the collection capacity, convey rocks to a designated off-field depository.

In other words, spot a rock, walk over to it, pick it up, lug it back to the tractor, and throw it in the loader bucket. Repeat until the loader bucket is full. Dump rocks in a pile in the corner of the field. Repeat.

Rock picking, like chores, manure shoveling and bean walking, is an eternal farm task. It's seasonal, generally performed in the spring before seedlings sprout. It's necessary; an ingested softball-sized rock can destroy a half-million dollar combine.

We didn't pick up every rock. Some rocks are too small though size was a debatable point. I'd debate. Dad would decide.

"You missed one."

"It looks pretty small."

"Better get it anyway."

Recently, I started wondering, who picks rock now? With the depopulation of rural Minnesota, fewer families farm larger operations. Fewer farm families, though, means fewer farm kids and, by extension, fewer rock pickers. Rocks remain oblivious to demographic shift.

Ten or fifteen years ago, as the kid numbers thinned, migrant labor families picked up the slack. That was quite a change for Walnut Grove. Migrant laborers are common in the sugar beet and row crop industries but we grew corn and soybeans.

Migrant worker families from south Texas regularly traveled to Renville, Chippewa and Kandiyohi counties to plant, thin, weed and harvest sugar beets. Technological changes, particularly in sugar beets, reduced migrant farmworker demand, creating a mid-late spring need/opportunity. Picking rock in Redwood County, for some, filled the gap.

With a little time, though, this shift failed to become permanent. Migrant families stopped migrating. They increasingly found full-time work in the food processing and light manufacturing plants, earning better wages and benefits with year-round stability.

Farmers went back to picking their own rocks.

It's not quite that simple, though. Rock picking remains a summer job option and rural teenagers are still doing it. Some farmers tackle the problem on four-wheelers, zipping around the fields, scooping up rocks without dismounting.

Combine heads now come with rock guards, allowing less rock picking diligence. Rock picking machines keep getting better and more cost effective.

Rock remains, however. Clearing it from fields is a labor-intensive activity and without an adequate family labor pool, farmers have to look elsewhere.

This is not a new experience.

From roughly 1850-1950, rural labor shortages defined rural culture. Hired hands commanded reasonably high wages. Land was more available than workers. Agricultural industrialization changed that equation as machines multiplied human labor, reducing the need for seasonal farm workers. By my childhood, we picked rock by hand but we didn't plant, cultivate, weed or harvest that way.

The lesson is clear.

Farm technology continues reducing farmworker demand. As farms grow, fewer farmers mean fewer small towns. Fewer small towns mean a one-sided Minnesota. Agriculture plays a critically important role in Minnesota's economy but more large-scale commodity farming won't grow Minnesota's small towns.

That's a problem worth tackling. And like rock picking, it's steady, pressing work.

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