This is a story for every customer service representative or data entry specialist who has ever romanticized the idea of throwing in the towel and working on a farm.
I know you’re out there.
You’ve had enough of your nagging, disrespectful boss. You’ve seen one too many sunny days through triple-paned glass. You want the good life. Flannel and fennel. Carharrts and Carrots. Produce and Pigs.
This is not to scare anyone away from the work that I can no longer do without. This is just an insider’s account of what happens to idealists when they spend too much time in the mud.
I went to an interview this afternoon following a full day teaching a class of less than honest 2nd graders. The interview was at a farm just a smooth sail down the bike path, within city limits. I met the young couple at the gate. Two beefy black dogs came to greet us and lead us on a walk around the farm’s frozen dirt road. We pass high tunnels and greenhouses, a herd of Belted Galloway, snow laced rows of iced crops, the sheep, the laying hens, the pigs, piles of rubbish and implements for the oxen.
Every time I go to a farm for the first time, my excitement for the growing life is reignited. My eyes get shiny. I can’t help but smile.
We return from our walk to a small cabin overlooking the river. The woodstove quickly burns off the negative wind chill. The two hairy black beasts curl up by the fire and we get down to business.
These folks seem great. Honest. Personable. They seem to like me, too. We’re having a great time. Sounds like I’m about to have a job lined up after the end of the school year. Then. I get nervous.
It’s not because we started talking about the rigors of the job. Nor is it the discussion we had about the small stipend that would be my wage. I’m worried that this might not be the dream it seems. I’m gun shy.
You see, I’m coming off not one, not two, but three farm experiences that were varying degrees of unpleasant. Each of these times, it was not the 50+ hour weeks, the heavy lifting, or the mephitic air around the livestock that wore me down. It was the human element.
I’ve had the great fortune of experiencing six absolutely amazing collections of farm crew. The people that I have worked alongside at every one of my farm jobs have been among the most amazing creatures I have encountered in this lifetime. I can not begin to garnish this page with enough positive words to be representative of how much they have given me.
That said, I must now toss the coin up, and watch it fall to the cement on its other side, leaving a tinny echo in a barren warehouse. For three years in a row, something has gone awry with my best laid plans. The vision of the big-hearted organic farmer is one that is now tucked away in a chest of disillusions I keep in the cellar. Without going into detail, because the experience is not the point I mean to make today, I will say that there is mistreatment in farming.
Not just big corporate farms that exploit labor from Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala and others, although this is often much worse than the abuses I have experienced. The little guys, too. Those who started just like me with big ideals and little money, turn bitter, miserly and downright mean. They have their reasons, and this is not an account meant to judge. This is just to say.
I love farming. I can’t imagine a July where I don’t spend my days covered in sweat and filthy. But. I also can not abide another disrespectful, abusive, soul-crushing environment. I’m not being dramatic, although I am known to be so. This is how it feels to work the hardest you have ever worked, in unsafe conditions, for wages that do not cover basic living expenses and be treated as though you are less worthy of respect and comfort than others around you.
This is how it is, and it has me scared. Scared to again trust, as I have for three years, that things will be better this time. People in the business say, Maybe it’s just farming, but I won’t listen. I can’t listen. Still, their words hover where my neck meets my skull. Maybe there is no hope, they might as well say. The poor will always be poor, and there will always be a schism between those who own the bakery and those who bake the bread but are not allowed to eat it.
I am weary, wary and out of woulds. I can no longer afford to say: If. Then. I would. I am forced into must. If I can muster the strength to keep insisting: we are all worthy of a better life. From where we stand. It is not a time to accept and count our blessings, although the latter we must do ardently.
I look at the flame through the glass of the woodstove and the two dogs lying beside it. Dream well boys. We have a lot of work to do.