Farmers at sea
By Ken Root
This week, I’m leading a tour group to Alaska by way of Vancouver and the inside passage up to Skagway. Many people desire to travel but it comes down to those who have the time and the money. On this trip the youngest is 55 and the oldest was born in 1932. Most are connected to agriculture, with some retired from other occupations but living in small communities of the Plains and Midwest.
I don’t know when the first farmer stepped onto a cruise ship but I’d say it was right after the Russian grain deal of the early 1970s when profit was realized from farming. At that point, it was remarkable how much pent-up demand there was for leisure travel. My first boss in the farm broadcasting business exploited it by setting up “Seminars at Sea” so that farmers could travel and attempt to deduct a portion of the cost by attending sessions on taxes, inheritance and marketing. The university professors invited to go along to lecture, were eager to gain the perk of a free trip for themselves and their wives. The result was over 900 farmers signing up for a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. From that beginning, a large number of farm and agribusiness people traveled as the guests of large companies or at their own expense to experience a form of luxury that they had never seen.
A cruise ship is an amazing organism. From the early British liners to the present, they were huge, stately and elegant. The seaworthy steel superstructure contains a floating hotel, restaurants and entertainment venues. The guests number well over a thousand and the crew is almost as large with only a fraction actually interacting with the guests while others do their jobs well below decks to keep the engines running and the food coming to lavish dining areas and cabins far above the waterline. Service is the name of the game as every deck is a feast for the senses. In livestock terminology, you are on a “self-feeder” when it comes to food. The price of the trip includes meals that start early and last into the night, both on deck and in intimate restaurants. The British ships of the golden era of sailing were all about dining. Breakfast was two hours, lunch was three and dinner was four. How can you sit and eat for that long? You have to work your way up to it by letting go of the outside world and joining your mind with your new social circle. It may take days to truly get into this routine of being pampered but once you have come to equilibrium with the decadence of it can you can realize the lives that the rich must have lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Farm and rural people sometimes have a challenge in justifying their time on board. They can manufacture one emotion better than anyone I know—guilt—so they walk the decks and sit in the salt air, digesting the rich fare before they are called to the next meal. That is where the conflict of their frugality kicks in as they realize they have already paid for all amenities so they force themselves return to the dining room where they repeat the process.
As with everything else, the cruise ships of the new century cater to a more active clientele that includes a lot more children and grandchildren, who swim in multiple pools, climb the walls (literally) and play in areas that are off limits to adults.
The overall experience is very satisfying as the ship physically and emotionally removes one from their daily lives. Wondering about the price of grain or amount of rainfall still occurs, but it drifts into recesses of the mind and allows a traveler the peace of sitting and watching the world go by. The rocking of the sea allows some to sleep for extended hours; naps come easy and conversation is savored.
When boarding it is easy to spot the farmers. Many betray their occupation with seed caps and implement logo shirts. Their gait reflects a lifetime of labor, and arms and fingers reveal occupational injuries that point to a life in the formative era of agriculture. Wives, wearing conservative clothing, fit in with the men and are similarly impressed by the excesses of the brief excursion into a lifestyle they would never adopt at home.
I have some difficultly with those who imply that farmers and workmen don’t have the right to vacation in these heady surroundings. The lavish buffet of food wouldn’t be on the tables without their occupation, and the passage from country to country can only be credited to the service rendered and sacrifices made in military conflicts of the past century.
Most people who cruise stay a week or two as they either cross a body of water to a distant shore or make a circle with several ports of call.
In the mid 1990s, one of my retired friends who was a war veteran turned farm broadcaster was reported to have died on board a cruise ship off the cost of New Zealand. We were saddened by his passing but I reflected on his likely state of mind as he enjoyed the changing scenery from port to port and had brought his mind and body into equilibrium with the very comfortable surroundings. Not a bad way to go!
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.