Skip to main content

Farmwork Thoughts: Reprise

This post first appeared in April, 2009, a little more than a month after we arrived in Japan and I started at the farm. While showing a friend around Tokyo's Earth Day Market recently, our conversation turned on the relevance of such markets (it's all organic and fair trade as well as predominantly local) and farmers and why I believe in them so much. And then I remembered this post where I first started tracing some of the thoughts and resulting steps that brought me to where I am now. It's a bit long and a bit rough (early writing, you know), but it still conveys what I feel nearly three years later.

Photo Note: Taken at the farm last year during a workday project sorting togarashi (Japanese hot peppers) for distribution to area restaurants and shops. 

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 once said keeps coming back to 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 strong enough to be revived.

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 year. A job was in the works, and we felt it was more than a safe bet that it would be offered. Two, some good friends with an organic farm about two miles away from our home generously offered to make me part of their crew for the summer. Another dream job was about to unfold.

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.

Now in Tokyo 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 the seedling planted deep 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. 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?  


Anjuli said…
I'm so glad you reposted this- I had never seen it the first time around and it gives so much background that I didn't know. What a beautifully written post.

Sorry I've been MIA- been so busy- am hoping to catch up on blog posts in the days ahead. Hope you have a great New Year!!
Tom said…
Woh, Joan, so there's the backstory! Interesting indeed, not to mention courageous. Empathise with the love of *real* "fieldwork" and hope you're still good with the parents!

All the best to your good self, and wishing you all the very best (and forgotton aching backs) through the next year.


No worries, Anjuli! Goodness knows life is full of great things to do. I'm just glad to see you when you have a moment to pop around. Hope the holidays are treating you well!

Thanks, too, Tom, for the good wishes. A back story indeed - past as well as 'koshi' - that still inspires. Stop out again when you get a chance. Or we can meet up in January! I'd love to see the article, too, when you get a chance. I think the farmers would love it.
Tom! Wrong Tom! Drat. Well, I do think the farmers would love your blog. Everything else holds true still, though. Need to check back about your orchard!! Still quite excited about that.

Popular posts from this blog

Finding Heirloom Seeds in Japan

Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans. Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties. Heirloom and F1 Varieties In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1. In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time unti

Satoimo: One of Japan's Favorite Slimy Things

Satoimo in all their hairy glory. This post first appeared in slightly different form on Garden to Table as part of the 2012  Blogathon . The website has since moved on to the ether, but the post is still a good one. After all, people here are still eating satoimo on a daily basis, and many others are just seeing these little potato-like objects for the first time. Enjoy! Satoimo is one of Japan's odder vegetables. Under it's rough, slightly furry skin is white flesh that is a little bit slimy even raw, and with a gentle nutty flavor.* Baked, grilled, steamed with dashi, or deep-fried satoimo stands well on its own or paired up with other vegetables and meats in a wide variety of soups and stews . (The leaves are also edible.) Satoimo stores well, and like any root crop worth the effort, stocks are just running low on this household favorite as the farmers in my area of Tokyo get ready to put a new crop in the ground in May. I cannot say I was a fan of this l

Goma Ai Shingiku - Sesame and Chrysanthemum Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of helping some friends work in their parents garden not too far away. Tucked behind the house, the garden sits on a former house lot. When it came up for sale about five years ago, my friend's father jumped at the chance. Open land in Tokyo can be hard to find and expensive, but for a retired professional looking for a little spot to till in the city it was an opportunity to good to pass up. Now, it is a garden to envy. As we came through the gate rose, lily, and peony blooms greeted us with great shouts of color while rows of vegetables stood tidily at attention on the sunny center stage. Small fruit trees along with one of the biggest sansho trees I've seen yet stood quietly here and there. Near waist-high sweet corn, bushy young potato plants, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and beans were preparing their summer fruits, while a handful of still quite luscious looking winter vegetables like komatsuna, mizuna, and kabu held one last ro