Hard work

I actually worked today.

Yes, I actually work every day that I’m at the farm. But a lot of it’s the same kind of work, almost all day every day these days: Squat, kneel, or bend at the hip to scan and choose bright fruits and vegetables to harvest; chop, pull up, or twist off said produce and bunch, rip off leaves, feel for soft spots, or fill hands with as many little prizes as possible; fill crate or tote or bucket with the bounty, hoist it against my hips, and carry it to the cart or truck; set up tables or wash tubs to sort, bunch, bathe, or spray; carry full totes to the coolers. Apart from the glory of the still-alive produce I get to admire, taste, and smell all day, my physical work is essentially squatting a lot, lifting and moving around heavy oversized boxes, and levering my torso up and down, up and down all day.

It’s tiring, but it’s nothing compared to field work done quickly and strongly.

Today a couple groups from the University of Oregon came to volunteer as part of the Holden Center’s Week of Welcome service day. They drove over in two big vans (piling out “like a clown car” according to the youth farmers who saw them arrive), strode up with smiles on their faces and giggles in the air around them, and stayed for three hours. Gerome gave them a tour, surprising everyone that he would step up and speak publicly about this place and his role here.

After introducing myself and thanking them for being there, I left him to talk about the farm to twenty-four people, many just a year or two older than him. As I walked away, I could hear him saying that it’s his fourth year on the farm. I wonder what all he told them in their walk around the farm. They came back smiling, asking questions.

We gave them time to find gloves, set their things down. The group voluntarily divided pretty evenly into two teams: a weeding crew to go with Gerome, and a strawberry-pulling crew with me. As I introduced the projects, I had to stop after mentioning strawberries because everyone either swooned or got bouncy for a second. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” I warned them. I didn’t want anyone to be sorely disappointed when we arrived at the “strawberry patch.”

It’d been a wasteland for at least a couple months. Three-year-old strawberry plants crispy brown from lack of water, pigweed flower stalks carpeting the landscape fabric, clumps of grass gnawing on the edges the of plastic… But who knows, maybe they just saw golden flower spires, ripe tomatoes hanging on the vines nearby, and puffy clouds in deep blue skies above us.

At any rate, none of them missed a beat. Andrea and Christopher had started a few minutes before I arrived with the group, and they were on their knees, tugging at shriveled berry crowns and wiry weeds. I showed them the holes we needed to free up to remove the plastic, explained how we’d haul everything to the farm truck to bring to the compost, and let them loose. After everyone was busy tugging and ripping, I pulled the two youth farmers over to the edge with me. It was stapled near the rows, then covered with a thick layer of soil, matted with weeds and grasses, so Christopher started extracting staples while Andrea and I excavated the edge.

And it was during that side project, half way down the bed, that I realized how easy my normal harvest work can be compared to field work. I was basically lifting armfuls of dense, clay-heavy earth a foot above the ground until the fabric caught on the next clump, I sloughed off the raised soil, and we scooched down a couple feet to the next swath of trapped edge. Compared to the visually dazzling tasks of harvest, nursery thinning, and transplanting, this was just plain rough. Compared to the dead-lifting of totes to full height and kneeling to cut salad mix, this was going to wear me out fast.

So when the group neared the end of the patch and started slowing down, people started taking breaks, no one asked me energetically what the next project was when they were finished, I wasn’t anxious like I normally would be. I got a taste of what coming here to volunteer out of the blue must feel like, to arms and backs and legs that aren’t used to farm work: it’s tiring.

After the fabric was pulled and the plant debris hauled off to the compost, we all ended up in a weedy beet bed for the last twenty minutes of their time. This felt easier to me, more familiar, just plain nicer to work with living plants again. I struck up short conversations with the people around me, learned where they’re from and what they’re majoring in, and finally threw out a thought to them:

“Doesn’t this make you appreciate all the farm workers that do this stuff for twelve or more hours every day? Can you believe how much people work to get us our food?”

No one quite jumped on the opportunity to talk more about it— they were getting to know one another, having fun in a sunny field, studying the plants to make sure they were pulling weeds instead of beets— but they let it sink for a moment. Silent nods. And me just hoping that some part of the idea clicked for someone today: that it’s a miracle seeds and water rights and insect ecology and reliable weather patterns, and a lot of hard labor by a lot of people, that we end up with any food at all. That there are so many things to be grateful for, and so many things that are going right for us to eat.