Four of the workers on this farm, if not more, tend to write. We’ve each written blogs, essays, books, or articles, wanting to somehow document the stories we live and witness. None of us have been writing much in the past few months, and we talk in the field and round the table about how we wish we could have. Our boss wants to be writing in part because he’s driven mad, by all the people writing about farming who aren’t farmers, all the articles in the New York Times that are wrong, and all the Michael Pollan apostles who don’t even seek the truth. Our manager will tell you how it took an hour to upload his last video, and it was only thirty seconds long! Though he manages to bang out a blogpost and put up photos more regularly than the rest of us. In response to appeals for material for our pseudo website Farm Story, one fellow intern has taken to saying that he’s not sure we have a story at all. For god’s sake, we pick tomatoes all day. I have written more than I have published on this site, but only very specifically about my work and the people here, small notes and reminders for myself, more than paragraphs for others to read. Accustomed to writing essays based on topics I’ve read about in books, or issues I’ve talked about in class, or events too big to be personal, I’ve found it inevitable on the farm to dwell on my immediate community’s conversations and habits, the small-picture details that together, multiplied, form the larger image I’m used to focusing upon.
More than a shortage of time, and more than a tendency to fall asleep at the keys, the nature of the work here has affected my inclination to write like I have for the past few years. Agriculturalists, writers, poets, and philosophers have for centuries described work on farms as honest, simple, repetitive, peaceful. To live with the politics of food distribution, the intricacy of soil health and irrigation, the seasonal changes in produce and weather, and the pace governed by perishability and volume is enough to teach anyone the inaccuracy of these descriptors for work on a productive small farm. Yet a certain aspect of the past three months’ work on this farm reminds me of something that Jefferson and Berry might have appreciated.
For someone who aims to strengthen local food systems, and who has a choice in how to do so, the farmhand’s work is physical, tangible, and straightforward. We do not work on the farm towards media attention, product improvement, policy change, nor business growth. These goals may be the reason for initiating a particular farm model – one that preserves heirloom seeds, respects the regional ecology, contributes to social justice, or one that can be replicated to preserve more farmland. But the model is decided by the owner. As a worker, the main action taken is the choice to farm. The farmhand’s daily work is nuts and bolts, dawn till dusk: tend plants, harvest food, and get it to people. We can be thoughtful, but we do not debate the value of taking the fruit off the vine, or filling the pint boxes with cherry tomatoes, or packing the truck the night before market. We can be light-hearted and conversational, we can laugh or be silent, we keep our hands working and our bodies moving. By working here we are preserving farmland, and providing people with nutritious food, but that reality is the backdrop. We’ve chosen to farm, and our politics and principles are somewhat hidden in the unwritten contract.
If I were to return to the city this winter, to work for a non-profit or a small business, and to participate again in the projects and campaigns and email lists related to strengthening the regional food system, I know that my time on this farm would inform my perspective on what they are trying to achieve. I would find a way to pitch what I have learned about heirlooms and immigrants, farming and markets, and use it for some good cause. But for now, my work here has been cleanly straightforward and unassuming. The work feels healthy, I am proud of our produce, the camaraderie of working in the fields is priceless, and when I write about life here, I think about the details. I’ve found myself noticing more, analyzing less. I’ve written how the crew reminds me of a circus troupe, because of our various hats and heights and accents, and because of the bow-legged, lanky, determined, or jaunty ways in which we each walk out to the field. I’ve written how our exhaustion at the end of the day gives one guy the energy to bounce around boxing, another to lie on the grass and smoke, another to retreat to their room to stretch, another to sit by the tree with a beer. I’ve written about the way lunch-time hits our kitchen like a tornado every time, leaving the sink full of dishes, the table full of crumbs and used plastic bags, and the stove covered with two or three cast-iron pans greasy with fat and leftover onions. I think about the way we hang our fresh chevre from a hook in my old table-top that used to attach to the wall in my apartment in Brooklyn. The way the Mexican women and I have to hop up high to sit on the wagon as we ride out of the field, while the gringo boys slide on easy. The way the Mexican music in the packing shed pulses through my head in the afternoons, redeemed only by the subtle dancing of a fifty-year-old native of Michoacan, standing five foot tall, packing tomatoes. The way we all form a line when passing the boxes onto the truck, passing only as much as the weakest can hold. The way the conversations rotate predictably now between girls, an old VW bus, bands, the weather, weed, old stories, Philly, Brooklyn, and plans for the winter.
In the winter, inevitably, this work and this community will come into some sort of perspective. I will have opinions to voice and praises to sing and nostalgic stretches of research and recollection. Articles on 20-somethings and Farm Internships will continue to box my ideas into the emerging stereotype of a self-obsessed, wandering, college-educated, barefoot lover of kale. And I will have my defense. For now, while there are tomatoes to be picked, and boxes to be packed, a market to be manned, and a goat to be milked, the small picture is dominant. The hook and the hats and the full kitchen sink. For now, this life seems steady with the rhythm of physical, straightforward work.