Sunday, June 25, 2017

Labor of Love

This past week was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and truly it is the peak of the vegetable farmer’s work load.  We are still seeding fall crops in the greenhouse, watering trays of transplants through hot days, planting dozens of trays of transplants into the ground every week, direct seeding, hoeing, weeding, cultivating, mulching, irrigating when it doesn’t rain (not a problem this spring!), and mowing laneways and fencelines.  Now add to this schedule 2-3 days a week of harvesting, washing, and distributing produce to 150 CSA members weekly.

The to-do list is long, and continual.  Every time something gets crossed off the list, five more things get added.  My job as a farm manager is to make constant decisions--  What do we prioritize this afternoon: harvesting crops or seeding crops?  Saving this crop from weeds that took over, or weeding this other crop when it’s just the right timing?  What needs to happen before the storm makes it too muddy to get a tractor in the field?  How can we do this job more efficiently so we can get more done? What are the things that we can afford to have fall off the end of the list?  And the hardest question: what are the limits of our human bodies to perform all this work?  

We’ve been working hard, trying to “get it all done”... and this means regular 10-12 hour days.  One hot and humid day before a huge rainstorm, we all decided to work right through lunch, getting caught up on the spring planting that we were behind on from all the cold weather in May.  We worked 6am-6pm straight through, in 90 degree heat, guzzling gallons of water with salt in it, and sweating it right out-- we weren’t even hungry.  At 6pm, the sky opened up and heavily watered the plants, as well as us.  It’s satisfying work, and it takes almost olympian endurance.  One day we worked a 15-hour day, until 10:30pm, finishing up the tomato planting by the headlights of the tractor.  Then we got up and started harvesting at 6am the next day.

I learned this crazy work ethic early on in my farming career (my first apprenticeship in California).  I learned that when a job needs to get done, and it’s the right time to do it (everything depends on the fickle weather), you just put your head down and do it.  It doesn’t matter if you want to do it, or if it’s cold or hot or you had something else on your calendar.  You get in the trenches, and summon the strength.  You reach what you think is your physical limit, and then you push through, to find that you can actually do more.

This is an empowering thing to learn, and I’ve enjoyed sharing this stretching of self accomplishment with the dozens of young farm apprentices I’ve had work for me through the years.  Beginning farmers might start out thinking-- this job (whatever it is: weeding, irrigating, planting) is so huge, how can we get this all done today?  And by the end of the season it’s nothing, we just do it.  I think that over the nine or ten years that I’ve been practicing the farmer’s work ethic, I’ve developed a kind of attitude that there is nothing I can’t accomplish!  Which is not true.  

Now, as a soon-to-be-37-year old, not-so-young-anymore-farmer, I’m starting to feel the real limits of my body, and my new practice will be: how do I balance the needs of the farm with my own self’s needs?  How do I prioritize my health and happiness, getting enough sleep, eating right, spending time with loved ones, having a little time to relax and have fun, when the farm has so many demands?  Someone told me once a long time ago:  Run your farm, don’t let your farm run you.  It’s harder than it sounds.

The obvious answer that many people suggest when I express my frustration with the situation is: hire another person to help with the farm work.  But even at minimum wage, when you factor in workers comp, taxes, payroll, training, etc., sometimes this breaks the bank for a farmer.  I start the season out with a simple financial spreadsheet-- the amount of CSA share income I expect, minus the cost of supplies, equipment and repairs, fuel, land rent, organic seeds and fertilizer, and labor.  The first few years of building up a business, one doesn’t expect to many any money.  But farmers have really really tight margins.  

And it’s not like we can raise prices -- people will only pay so much for food.  I think part of the reason food is so cheap is that it’s based on low wage workers.  Did you know that 70% of farm workers in the US are undocumented immigrants?  Also, the use of “labor-saving” technologies (read: chemicals that poison our drinking water) has made food cheaper too.  Why would a farmer pay expensive labor costs to weed, when we can pay a tenth of the cost to spray the problem away with chemicals?

A CSA member once told me what she tells herself when buying expensive organic food in the grocery store: “Pay now, or pay later!”  Most Americans have decided to pay later, and that money won’t go to farmers for using responsible practices, it will go to pharmaceutical companies when we all get sick.

1900 1950 2003.png

Now, back to Wild Hill Farm, Monday morning, 6am:

In the dew of the early morning, we squat in muddy paths along rows of arugula, lettuce, and kale, delicately wielding our sharpened harvest knives.  The field sparkles green with health.  The sun is rising over the treeline.  The bluebirds and sparrows serenade us. We pick and count four-hundred-and-fifty heads of lettuce, haul bins of greens out of the field, and then spend an hour dunking them in very cold tubs of water to wash the dirt off.  Later on we will spend an hour or two with rubber bands on our wrists, bunching turnips, beets, or radishes, and spraying the dirt off the roots.  Our fingers are encrusted with mud.  Then before the heat gets too intense, we hustle out to the fields to pick broccoli.  We bend over to pick food off the ground dozens of times an hour.

After most of the share gets safely stowed away in our 38-degree walk-in cooler, hundreds of pounds of salad material for hundreds of people, we take lunch.  Lunch for farm workers at Wild Hill is usually something simple, like rice and beans, rice and sardines, or hard-boiled eggs.  Food that is quick and cheap and nourishing.  I rarely eat salads, they take too long!  I get my greens while I harvest, wiping the mud off on my shirt.  I’ve probably eaten pounds of dirt.

Then there is zucchini picking-- the most backbreaking job on the farm!  There is really no easy ergonomic position for summer squash harvesting.  Right now we have 300 feet of squash plants, and each squash plant in the row (18” apart) bears 1 or 2 squash a week.  Zucchini is a delicate vegetable, and requires skill with a small sharp knife.  The process of removing the squash without scraping it or your hands and arms on the giant spiky stems of the squash leaves always reminds me of the game Operation we used to play as kids.  But now do this technique while bending down to touch your toes.  Now do it 200 times, dragging 30lb bins of squash down a 200 foot row.  If anyone has a better suggestion for how to harvest summer squash at this scale, please let me know!  We are continually trying to find ways to make our backs hurt less!

At the end of the day, after harvesting and washing all the food, we proudly set it out on tables for CSA members, who fill their bags and bring it home.  Kids wander around CSA distribution with big eyes, grandmothers smile.  The produce looks beautiful-- these vegetables are completely different creatures than grocery-store vegetables!  They are still so very much full of life, being less than 24 hours and 1,000 feet from their roots in the muddy field.  They have never seen a warehouse, a truck, a sprayer, or a supermarket shelf.  This is the revolution of CSA.  Food, full of life force, grown by neighbors for neighbors.

Closing up the farm for the night after distribution, we are exhausted.  We’ve often worked a 13-hour day at this point.  I am ready to go home and lie on my back.  Sometimes I eat ice cream for dinner.

How do we make small organic farms sustainable in the long run for the farmers?  In my ten years of farming, I’ve seen many burn outs.  I’ve seen farmers around me leave farming for better paying jobs when they have kids to support.  I’ve seen multiple divorces due to the stresses of running a farm.  The first young female farmer I ever knew, my first true role model for this career, back in the Bay Area, committed suicide at 30 years old, two weeks after I visited her farm and met her.  It’s a lot to handle. It's not exactly the romantic farm life that people might imagine.

If people paid more for their food, farmers could hire the help they needed, right?  But this isn’t the easy fix that it seems like.  The help farmers need is often seasonal, and not something you can offer someone as a straightforward full-time year-round position. Hence the convenience of migrant labor.

In the past, small farms thrived in strongly connected communities, which included large extended families, churches, and grange organizations.  Farms were the backbones of healthy villages, and the villages supported the farms with the community they fostered.  As farms got bigger in the '70s and '80s, less people remained in these small towns, and the real service of community, “neighbors helping neighbors”, dwindled. Kids move to the cities for jobs. The interwoven fabric of supportive rural communities unravelled.  These days people hardly know their neighbors.  They commute to jobs far away, and shop in large supermarkets, coming back home to little islands of refuge in segmented family pieces, relying on social media to connect them to a sense of community which they dearly miss in real physical life.

It is my belief that Community Supported Agriculture is a piece of the puzzle which can bring us all back together to create more of a sense of cooperation, support, and interconnectedness.  It goes against the overwhelming current of consumer capitalism, designed to give the individual everything you could ever want at your finger tips, delivered in 2 days.  But I think that deep down, we all remember what it was like to have real community, to have a “tribe”, to have a “people”, to have a land that you belong to.  Even to have difficult responsibilities that trump our constant daily need for a comfortable lifestyle.

This is not about going back to the past.  In the past, women would never have had the chance to be farmers because they’d be busy bearing and caring for children!  This is about forging a new way of being a community -- a way that makes sense for everyone.  

With climate change shaking things up for us out there in the fields where our food is grown, it is my (biased) argument that farmers need more support than ever.  When CSA was first started, it included very active individuals in the community who formed a “core group” to help the farmer get everything done.  Now, this was not necessarily even involving farm-work, but running distributions, newsletter editing, coordinating events, coordinating volunteers, membership management and outreach.

I have resisted having a core group as part of my CSA because I thought I could “get everything done myself.”  Now I am humbly asking for help.  I can’t do it all.  Because I love farming so much, I have sacrificed my own needs for the farm’s needs for so many years, neglecting my body, my mind, and my loved ones.  I am now looking for more balance in my life.  Friends have suggested that I might instead get a job teaching, consulting, working for Cooperative Extension or a non-profit, etc., and be able to make more money and have things like a family life.

I don’t want to stop farming.  My goal for the farm all along was to provide an example and be a role model for young people who want to pursue careers in farming. How can I model sustainability when I'm working such long hours and not taking care of myself?  Something needs to change.

This is reality. Farmers need help. It is hard to be humble when you are as proud and stubborn a breed as us crazies. But the system that used to support us is broken. Let's rebuild it together.

I definitely don't have all the answers, but this is my best attempt at reaching out for help: In this week's CSA newsletter, I'm suggesting ways that our CSA members could be more involved in supporting their farm. We're looking for "special volunteers" for the following roles right now:

1. Bin washers (during distributions Monday/Thursday evenings or Tues/Fri/Sat)
2. U-Pick Flower Garden Steward (dead-head & weed flower garden)
3. Barn Dance Helper (set-up, clean-up, greeter/parking help)
4. "Snack Fairy" -- farmworkers need food-based encouragement! (cookies?)
5. Handyman/Fixer (changing the blades on our mower, etc.)
6. Regular fence-line mower
7. Veggie washing help (8am-4pm Mon/Thurs)

Maybe you have some other ideas about how we can make the food system truly sustainable for our future? I'd love to continue this conversation (for the rest of our lives).

1 comment:

Craig Hepworth said...

Beautifully written post, Erin - you really are an excellent writer. I wish I didn't live so far away, I'd love to help the farm run more smoothly.
Actually, I've been trying to brainstorm some ideas for making ag more sustainable - we should talk some time and see if any of it seems workable.