Monday, April 20, 2009

Farmwork Thoughts

As I work along at a local organic farm planting epic numbers of vegetables - 5,000 cabbage one week and 1,000 broccoli the next - or spreading what feels like endless amounts of manure on fields for eggplant and zucchini, something my friend Amber said to me stays with me.

It was last summer and we were camping in Canada. We were building a fire and setting up camp while the lads muled the rest of our stuff to the site from the car. She was cutting kindling and firewood, and while she sawed she held one end of the branch firmly with one foot while standing on the other. I'm sure I made some attempt at humour, and then we fell into discussion about how we wanted to live our lives. She said, “Doing this, I'm using my whole self - body and mind - together.”

This” referred both to the branch she was cutting and to her work at Ambry Farms. Farming is no easy task in general, but at Ambry they combine horses and tractors to get the job done. One challenge is to find which tasks are better done with what, and then figure out how to do them best. The other challenges (farming has a long list) include fixing whatever is broken, damaged, or so neglected that it takes your whole soul to recognize the flicker of life still lurking in the horse-drawn planter or hay rake. And it can take your whole soul to have faith that that flicker of life is still there.

It was also last summer when I decided to leave my position at a small non-profit. In many ways it had been a dream job for me -  working with volunteers on assorted gardening projects around the properties with a little bit of writing thrown in and all in the name of being helpful to my community - but I could feel hints of burnout. 

So I left. I cried, packed up my desk, cried some more, hugged everyone in the building (no small feat considering the staff numbers about twenty), dropped off my keys, cried some more, and headed out the door. It felt like jumping off a cliff. What was I doing? Was I crazy? What about that degree I'd gotten so I could do this kind of work? We'd just bought a house. My parents would disown me.

But then, I thought about it. I was tired of the commute (45 minutes one way,door to door), and I was becoming tired of the work. The thought of organizing one more event, large or small, made me feel sick to my stomach. It didn't feel right any more. Yes, it was helpful, and yes, it made a difference in the lives of individuals and for the community at large, and yes, I worked with fantastic people not only in my office but all across the city and county. But I was drained. 

Luckily, two things were in place. One, we pretty much knew we were moving to Japan the following March. A job was in the works, and we felt it was more than a safe bet that it would work out. Two, some good friends with an organic farm about two miles away from our home generously offered to make part of their crew for the summer. Another dream job was about to unfold.

I worked at the farm, and loved it. OK, I didn't always love the weeding and there was a day when mosquitoes literally chased us from the back field, but it was the second best summer I've ever had. (The first was the summer I worked at the farm early in our Michigan days, and I was between jobs.) Weeding, harvesting, talking, working quietly, washing vegetables for market, going to market and rumbling home again in the truck was glorious.

While slinging assorted manures and planting seedling after seedling, Amber's words run through my mind again and again. My arms turn to jelly and my back is sore. I'm sweating like mad while I make sure I've evenly spread the manure or gotten down to where there is some moisture in the soil. I imagine the eggplants settling into their new home and feasting on what they find to create glossy fruits. I tally the components and wonder what other farmers use, and how their plants will compare. The steps seem so simple – set out the seedlings, crouch to plant, gently press, or spread this then that amount evenly over the field – but behind me and with me is all of the planning and experimentation of multiple generations. New items and strategies and some that are age old. I am lost in the meditation of it all, but simultaneously present for each seedling and toss of manure. My whole body and mind are engaged in this effort from the tips of my gloved fingers to my toes where soil, as usual, has snuck into my shoe.

I come home at the end of the day bone tired, sore, and dirty, but so incredibly happy. It is the joy of a job well done and the good companionship of the farmers I work with and learn from. It is the excitement of learning, laughing and working together, and seeing all those plants happily waving back at me from their new home in the field. And I think of the broccoli and cabbage that will come, and how that will feed so many so well, and my joy is nearly inexpressible. Birds hop about, a cat trots across the field, and bugs hum in the trees nearby. What aching back?  


muzzyblue said...

Thank you for the thought-provoking post. You voiced my feelings over my current job, and I'll bet you will hear that echoed from many others. My job is satisfying, my skills are valuable to others, but sometimes it just stops working. I'm ready for a change, and you've given me so many things to think through in order to make that change. Thanks!

kim said...

Joan - what a beautiful post. I know I had a very similar job-leaving experience (probably a lot of people do). You know when it's time to go, but not everyone does it. It's scary and takes courage. But it sounds like you've found the thing that you're meant to be doing right now. I love your description of being able to use your whole self and how happy that makes you.


Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Jane, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and found food for thought. It's a scary proposition, especially these days. Yet, I don't regret it even though there are times when we end up counting pennies (or yen, as the case may be). I wish you all the best as you chart your course.

Kim, Thanks for the kind words. It does feel good to be doing what I am right now, and I'm having a moment where at every turn it seems that more pieces of the puzzle just fit together. I'm grateful to be able to do it.