Young workers spend summer in the fields

It's 7 a.m. on a dewy morning, and six young men are crowded around Brent Barbee at Barbee Farms' store as he outlines the schedule for the day.

The group split up, with five heading toward the cucumbers and squash and one to the corn with Barbee.

In the corn patch, Jeff Glass quickly examined each ear of corn, making sure the silk hanging from the top was brown before pulling it down and twisting it off the stalk.

"I like being able to come to work knowing I'm helping someone get fed somehow and that it's good for them," said Glass, a recent Northwest Cabarrus High School graduate.

With little remaining farmland around Cabarrus County and an aging farming community in which the average age of a farmer is 59, the young workers are a rare breed.

Barbee Farms, a sixth-generation farm just off Poplar Tent Road in Concord, employs a handful of local students and recent high school graduates as summer laborers - perhaps another generation of farmers to fill the gap.

Where crops were once planted, housing developments now stand, despite an increase in demand for local food. But for the young farmers, the work is about doing something rewarding with their hands.

The young crew started working at Barbee Farms in early June even before school was out, coming in the afternoons to pick vegetables.

While many of their friends are taking the summer off or working in retail stores or restaurants, the boys are out in the fields in dirty jeans and sweltering heat as they learn how to pick and determine ripeness of vegetables.

"We couldn't do it without them," said Barbee, who manages the farm.

Most of Barbee's six farmhands are between 16 and 21. His two younger employees are family members. The workers get paid between $8-$10 per hour, and most put in 30 to 60 hours a week. The younger employees are not allowed to work more than 40 hours a week.

They start at 7 a.m. and usually work 10-12 hours Monday-Friday. On Saturdays, they take the veggies to farmers markets and then come back to pick more.

They work them so hard, Barbee said, he's not sure why they keep coming back.

Glass worked on the farm in the summers during high school, and when he graduated early this year, he came to the farm to work full time.

His grandfather did some farming, he said, and he just can't picture himself being cooped up in an office.

"I don't want to do anything else," he said.

The cool morning was a relief from the 90-degree heat of previous days. There's no breeze in the corn patch, he said.

Barbee zoomed by Glass as he picked, soon disappearing down the row as he pulled corn and dropped it into a sack.

"He's been pulling corn since he could talk, I think," said Glass. "I just take a little more time."

Corn sacks hanging from each pocket of his jeans, Glass continued with his steady pattern: Down and twist. Down and twist.

Back in the cucumber patch, Glass' younger brother, Zac Glass, tossed cucumbers into a bucket.

"Tony, is this one too big?" he asked, holding up a cucumber to show Tony Everhart, another recent Northwest Cabarrus grad.

They loaded up the vegetables they had picked, ran them through a washer, packed them into boxes and stacked them into a trailer to carry them to a large refrigerator to be stored until market.

From picking to selling, Everhart said he's learned a lot about farming since he started working on the farm last year.

"I thought I knew something till I came out here," he said.

This will be the second summer that Zac has worked on the farm. The rising ninth-grader at Northwest Cabarrus said it's sometimes difficult for high school students to find a summer job. He plans to help out on the farm again next summer.

Tommy Barbee, owner of Barbee Farms, said he has been in the boys' shoes. He worked the farm when he was their age.

"When they start learning to spend money, that's when they need to learn how to make it," he said.

On break around 9:30 a.m., the boys gathered in the garage to have a pack of nabs and look over the to-do list for the day.

Justin Brown, a Northwest Cabarrus grad who will attend N.C. State University in the fall to begin a two-year agriculture program, said he hopes to farm someday on land owned by his family in Maxton, about 100 miles southeast of Charlotte.

"I have a lot of respect for the Barbees," he said. "I wish more people had the nerve or the time or whatever it takes to keep it going."

Staff Writer Lukas Johnson contributed.