Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Some Wear Hard Hats and Pour Concrete
by PJ Delhomme
Dad, Volunteer, Mentor, Hunter, Angler, Apprentice Instructor—Brian Farmer wears a lot of hats, but few are more important than the hard hat he puts on when he goes to work at the Joint Apprentice Training Committee for Local 633.
At 46 years old, Brian Farmer has been working concrete for more than half his life. “I fell in love with it from day one,” he says. The road to concrete, though, wasn’t always smooth. His dad and uncles worked in a factory, building heavy equipment for Caterpillar, with a solid union presence. It was expected that he would work in the factory, too. But then Farmer met a “crabby” guy named Jerry who lived up the block.
He started working with Jerry’s crew of young guys pouring concrete. He loved the work they were doing, and he took pride in it. “I would drive my dates by these houses to show off what we’d done, and they would look at me wondering what was wrong with me,” he says with a laugh. “I realized concrete was in my blood.” Then life went slightly south.
When he was in his mid-20s, Farmer lost his dad, and “took a bad path,” he says. He joined the Navy and was able to take a “hard look at my life of partying and chasing skirts.” When he got out, he got back into concrete, and he realized that it could be a viable career path that will always be in demand.
At first, he worked with one of the bigger non-union outfits. Over time, he met business agents from the unions, but Farmer wasn’t convinced he needed the union. “Then I started looking at the job site safety, the 70-80 hour weeks,” he says. “In the nonunion world, we were typically shorthanded, and the pour was erratic.”
Then he joined a different company that was union. The non-union job gave him the same wage, but the union gave him insurance and retirement. And now, 14 years after joining, Farmer channels his love of concrete into teaching the next generation of masons.
Passing It On
When Farmer puts on his hard hat these days, it comes with a mouthful of a title. He’s the Apprenticeship Coordinator for Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association (OPCMIA) Local 633. In other words, Farmer teaches instructors about concrete finishing at the Joint Apprentice Training Committee, Local 633. He lives for classroom time and teaching. “Everywhere I go, it seems that I want to teach,” he admits. In his role as coordinator and administrator, he goes to meetings at schools and the Department of Labor.
Eight years ago, the training center contacted him about training students on niche finishes. He took the job and completely changed the curriculum. “When I first came to the apprenticeship, I wanted to make sure that apprentices were prepared to be on the job from day one,” Farmer says. “I didn’t want the membership to come back asking us, ‘What the hell are they teaching you guys up here?’”
It’s a fair point. The program is free to students, and it’s funded through grants and an allocation from the union wage package, which comes out to around 62 cents per wage hour. Here’s how it works.
A prospective student requests to be a part of the program. Some experience is helpful but not necessary. Farmer and the team find a contractor in the union looking for a new hire. Over the course of three years, the student spends four sessions of 40-hour weeks(160 hours) at the training center in New Brighton, Minnesota—typically during the winter months when the pouring season is slow. The rest of the time, the apprentice works for the contractor in the field.
First-year apprentices make 70 percent of journey worker wage. After successful completion of the three-year apprentice program, graduates become journeymen. Farmer says he gets updates from third-year apprentices making six figures over eight months. Granted, they’re working their tails off, and it’s rewarding for him to see their attitudes and lives change.
One of the instructors who works with Farmer is Moke Eaglefeathers. Farmer is actually his supervisor. Eaglefeathers has been an instructor at the center for 12 years. “What you get with Brian, it’s not a show,” says Eaglefeathers. “A lot of people ask me if he’s really that nice, and I say, ‘Yes, he is.’ The only time that he gets mad is when we’re pouring concrete, but he gets mad at the concrete. But really, when he’s mad, he’s really not that mad.”
Both Eaglefeathers and Farmer live for the union and teaching. “I see these students green and shy in their first year,” says Eaglefeathers. “Then, by the third year, they’re talking trash and taking pride in their work. There’s no better training than union training. We take our craftsmanship to another level.”
For the Love of the Outdoors
Farmer is blessed with a blended family of five kids, all within a decade of each other. Today, his youngest is 17, but when they were younger, he did his best to keep them busy. That meant taking the kids right down the road from his home in central Minnesota to the Wild Marsh Sporting Clays to bust some clays. Luckily for Farmer, the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance has hosted the Get Youth Outdoors Day shooting event at Wild Marsh for a decade, and his kids have had a blast attending the event.
“It was such a cool thing to take my kids to,” Farmer says. “There were a ton of kids there. And it’s just a phenomenal event for everyone.” His daughter MacKenzie loves shooting, he says. She shot trap during her junior and senior year in high school. Today, when MacKenzie comes home from college, they shoot together at Wild Marsh. “She calls it black powder aroma therapy,” Farmer says, laughing.
When the lakes freeze over, the clays take a backseat to ice fishing, and Farmer doesn’t let the walleye and crappie off easy. In March, he volunteers with USA’s Take Kids Fishing Day on West Rush Lake. With hundreds of kids on the ice, Farmer and other volunteers race around the lake, helping some 100 participants with their catch.
The secret to keeping kids out on a Minnesota lake in March is keeping them comfortable, which could just be a heater and a hut. But most of all, “Make sure that you’re on the fish. Kids hate getting up early, but as soon as those lines go tight, they don’t know what the hell time it is anymore,” Farmer says.
When his kids were younger (his youngest, Mason, is 17 now), Farmer would take them up to the Boundary Waters for canoeing and fishing. “I’ve always just loved being in the woods. That’s my sanity,” he says. “My kids still talk about the storms we went through up in the Boundary waters.”
Family and the outdoors—that pretty much describes one of the smoothest guys in concrete.
In spring 2021, USA chose Farmer to participate in a black bear hunt in Saskatchewan as part of the Brotherhood Outdoors series. Having never hunted bears before, he brought his son Mason along for this bucket list hunt.