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6 Unexpected Lessons I Learned From Farming

6 Unexpected Lessons I Learned From Farming

I have been a farmer for almost a year now, although I’ve been gardening and working for farmers on the side for over two. I started out picking up hours from local farmers, then worked as an unpaid intern for an organic farm through the World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers (WWOOF). During the season I spent with Six Circles Farm in the Finger Lakes, I heard about Farm Sanctuary, an organization that cares for abused farm animals while also promoting veganism in secular structures. After participating in their intern program, I applied and got to work with their organization. Alongside learning how to best posture yourself to pick up a heavy pitchfork full of soiled straw, I picked up life lessons that I never planned to.

Self-Esteem

One of the first farmers I worked for was a curious fellow. He was known for the saying “I left society in 1968 and I haven’t gone back since” - usually following his rejection of something ‘modern’ or ‘socialized’ that you did. For example, I once offered him a high five at the end of a long work day, to which he shrugged and murmured “I don’t know what that is”. Through another more cynical lens, this man was a shut-in that would hire students from the nearby university to help him manage the land that he was otherwise gardening alone. Understandably, he often fell behind in weeding and harvesting.Hearing about him by word of mouth, I tentatively went to work for “Crazy Fred”

Usually it was just Fred and I. Antisocial as he was, he preferred that we didn’t work on the same project together. In translation, I was usually out in a random field alone with what seemed like an impossible task for one person to do: weeding a month-long overgrown  bed of berry bushes, pulling up a field of ragweed that was over my head, sinking my fingers into the rotten stalks of weeds buried under produce... The tasks always took time, but I was also always taken aback at the fact that I could even do something that challenging on my own. The more I learned about what I could accomplish, the more self-assured I was that I could tackle the next feat.

Character

Farmer Fred’s favorite punishment to give me, on the rare occasions that we’d had a long enough conversation to end in a disagreement, was pulling the wisteria out from under the holly tree. For those that aren’t aware, wisteria is a tough weed. It throws out thick, durable runners that sink their capillary minded needles deep into the soil; if you don’t retrieve the entire vine, wisteria just grows back wherever you left off. Crawling under a holly tree entails a lot of sharp things both above and below you, when the spangled leaves fall. Without much space to even crouch to get a better attack at the invasive vine, this task was always the most daunting and ALWAYS had me seething at the injustice.

Farmer Fred had a hard time admitting when he was wrong - all while flaunting his abilities of the opposite. He was a demon to work for. Even so, the summer I worked for him was my first time paying my own rent and I often relied on the cash I could earn picking up a few spare hours. There were plenty of times I just had to suck up my ego and do this unpleasant grovelling (literally). By dealing with Fred’s ego and inept social skills, I learned to pick my battles -- and hold my tongue after the chosen battles inevitably were lost.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

I have always had a competitive side and it comes out especially at work. When it’s harvest day and everyone has to get twelve bunches of kale each, it’s hard to not compare the pace that you’re picking at to those that you’re working among. This never phased me when I was working in coffee shops and behind various counters, because we were all dealing with the same coffee, the same sandwich, and the same variables. It wasn’t until I observed the dynamic between myself and a farmer that was just as competitive as I that a moment of clarity struck me.

I was in the field with another intern and we were both scuttling down a bed of strawberries, picking as quickly as we could. Looking ahead, I saw that my next scoot would place me at a patch where the berry plants clearly hadn’t taken. My co-worker was very focused on picking as quickly as he could and wasn’t looking up at all, so he didn’t see that I had less berries to pick than him. I observed how quickly his hands moved to catch up when I moved down the row seemingly much faster than he. I could also see how many good berries he was missing (that would be rotten before we harvested this bed again), because his motivations weren’t to harvest completely, but to catch up to me. I immediately realized that I would have done the same thing, had I thought that I was falling incredibly behind.

I learned that day to trust myself and my own abilities - I know what fruit is ready to be harvested and I know how fast my body can move. Sometimes in life, it feels like you’re falling behind everyone around you -- in academia, in character, in experience. It’s these moments that you have to remember, more than anything, that the people you feel inferior to are working with an entirely different row of strawberries than you are. Even if it’s just the other side of the same bed.

Self-Care

When your work week is 40 hours of hard physical labor, you figure out what absolutely needs to be done at the end of the day, so that you can get up at 6am and do it all over again the next. My employment history of kitchens and cafes usually left me tired after a shift, but never so tuckered that I couldn’t justify going to a party or the gym after work. Farm work, when the co-workers are right, is both a party, a workout, AND a job; It also makes you feel as though you’ve just jammed all three into an eight hour period. The added stress to my body and the early hours taught me the importance of stretching and getting enough sleep. After ignoring the protests of my muscles, I also learned the necessity of listening to my body when it tells me to take it easy or to lighten the load that I’m about to heave. When the winter weather hit and I was still out in the fields, I realized how restorative a hot shower and massaging my muscles with oil could be.

The veganism that I picked up at Farm Sanctuary led me to really looking into how I was nourishing myself with food, and forced me to make sure I was getting enough protein and fatty acids. The combo of working with a lot of vegetables (of which I could have as many as I wanted) and suddenly switching to veganism gave me the tools and motivation to incorporate a home cooked meal at least once a day. It can be hard to decide what to do with your free time after the work day is over. Pushing my physical capabilities on a daily basis helped me to hone my priorities.

Work & Values

Getting home from a long day of farm work felt different than getting home from a restaurant. It felt peaceful in an existential way. I can remember finishing up after a weekend of exhausting wage slavery and feeling totally despondent from not just fatigue, but from the feeling that I had just spent most of my weekend living for other people. Then, I thought this feeling meant that I needed more free time. Now, I get home after working much harder for many more hours and I still feel upbeat and able to engage in conversations, or even do chores around the house -- whatever I feel most drawn to do. I have the emotional energy because I feel so good about what I do. It used to bother me that I got paid a fraction of what the owner of whatever business I worked for got paid, and that this money went to essentially promoting capitalism and empty profits. Now, whether it’s veggies or abused animals, I know exactly what my labor has served in a day. Knowing that my labor supports my values and not the distanced bosses’ uplifts me. Where I’m lacking in physical energy, I overflow in spirit!

Systems

It wasn’t until I started working for Farm Sanctuary that this lesson hit me. I had worked for organizations before, but never for one as big as this one. Because I started as an intern, I got to sample both the barn cleaning side of things as well as the animal caregiving side. For the latter shift, called the “Projects” shift, I had to do a lot of time-sensitive tasks that would be picked up by one of three other shifts. For example, in the mornings I had to prepare the mashes for the goats and sheep, but I would leave them in buckets in one of the barns, for the Feed Moves shift to pick up later in the morning. Later in my internship, I got to shadow a Caregiver on her Feed Moves shift and got the opportunity to administer these feeds, leaving behind a stack of large rubber bowls that I was very familiar with cleaning on the Projects shift. It was interesting to get to understand the way an organization as big as Farm Sanctuary (approx. 300 acres & 730 animals) works.

We all had hand radios, as well, so that the various shifts could communicate with each other. For instance, it was commonplace to hear caregivers radio over to the animal hospital if an animal was limping, shivering, bleeding, or even if they were isolated from the herd, which is an indication that the animal is being bullied. This strong communication between facets of a team reminded me of the way that depression and anxiety disorders are linked to poor communication between brain cells. The more communication, the smoother the brain can carry out all of its functions and address less obvious problems. From this strong integration, each animal literally had an individualized healthcare plan that was carried out by no more than ten Caregivers - while the Facilities team and the Administration team dealt with maintaining the farm and performing the outreach and integrative services that Farm Sanctuary also stands for.

Whether I’m rending weeds from the earth or shovelling used straw, farming has been a holistic learning experience. I’ve been reconnected with my body, my values, and some of the deeper lessons in life. Just as I remember thinking to myself “everyone that’s ever eaten out should have to experience working in food service,” I similarly believe now that anyone that eats should learn about where their produce and animal products come from. Both the WWOOF program and various internships available at animal sanctuaries provide this information, along with countless personal insights that unravel themselves with time. I encourage any able-bodied person with the time to immerse themselves in these experiences!

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