Undoing the Farmer Fantasy

Every time I go to a farmer’s market, I’ve felt really good about myself. Like, oh look at me, supporting local farms, I’m such a good person.

But there’s so much more to farming than you might expect when you’re searching for the most perfect carrots. Good farming requires years of knowledge, hard work, serious dedication and grit. I learned this when I volunteered on a farm in Oregon City, the summer of 2017.

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I volunteered because I wanted to learn where my food comes from. How it gets from the ground to my plate. I wanted to resist corporate, toxic food companies.  I wanted to know the physical work that goes into growing food. Most Americans don’t know what that means. Running groceries is a chore. We don’t know or, many times, don’t question where our food comes from, and we can cook everything in a microwave now.

My first few day of volunteering, I quickly realized that small scale organic farming was not what I thought. The farmer was a total control freak. Everything down to the centimeter mattered and had to be done just right, his way. During our interview, he framed the experience as an “apprenticeship,” but what it really was was a way for him to get cheap labor. He just wanted me to do what I was told, as fast as I could. I understand why he was so anal, I mean, this was his livelihood that he was putting into inexperienced hands. But if wants experienced workers, he shouldn’t be hiring me. And it’s rare he’ll find experienced people willing to work for little pay.

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Local organic farmers have stereotypes. At the farmer’s market, customers said to us, “Living the life, right?” or, “What a life you got, huh? Must be nice.” As if we were a bunch of barefoot hippies frolicking in lettuce fields all day.

That could not be more wrong. The farm was pretty poor, and we worked long hours every day, rain or shine. Farming is hard work and mathematical. It’s constantly anticipating things that could go wrong and reacting accordingly. “Farmer” should not suggest a life of pleasant solitude, rather, a life fighting alone against a world of things trying to destroy your livelihood. Wind, weather, drought, disease, bugs, critters, flooding, to name a few.

There is no consistency. What worked one year might not the next. And yet, farming is tedious. Weeding is a never ending task, and it’s terrible. I understand now why machines and pesticides are so important. The world needs to eat. GMOs are necessary to feed the population. It’s great to support your local farmer, but if all we had were small organic farms, we would all starve.

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Turns out farming wasn’t my thing. It was too hard to make the commute out of Portland even twice a week, while keeping my job and paying rent and all that.

When it came down to it, I might have hurt more than I helped. It’s kind of like when white people go to third world countries and think they are helping, when really they’re not. They can take their pictures and leave. 

I can do my part by going to farmer’s markets. Leave farming to the farmers. And I still think it’s important that we know where our food is coming from, that we make conscious, sustainable choices. But we don’t all need to grow our own food. It’s important to understand the ways we can be helpful to the world, and the ways we might be hurtful. I’m glad I learned that!

 

Crowded Hikes: The Death of Solitude in the Outdoors. And Are They Beyond Leave No Trace?

It’s finally sunny in Portland again and that means everyone wants to hike in our nearby parks and forests.

Let me emphasize, everyone.

It’s like the city evacuates and piles into Willamette National Forest. My first few hikes of the season had me thinking about Leave No Trace, as I witnessed people who don’t know what’s up.

With the outdoors so accessible from Portland, combined with the drastic increase over the past decade of recreation in national parks and forests, thousands of people traipse into the woods seemingly without a clue about Leave No Trace.

Take the Columbia River Gorge, for example, splitting Oregon and Washington State. The Gorge hikes are abundant with water falls, streams, wildflower meadows, and rocky viewpoints that make them a top destination on TripAdvisor lists. Most within in hour of Portland off interstate 84, the trails face a beating from foot traffic alone, never-mind trash, dog poop, and mistreatment of campsites and water sources.

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Horsetail Falls in Columbia River Gorge

 

The crowds cause Taylor and me to seek less traveled hikes, often hiking deeper, sometimes on poorly marked or unkempt trails. I like to feel secluded in my hikes; the best ones are when in the middle I get that rush of nerves like, whoa, we are way out here. I look at my phone, no service. That’s when I know. So far from civilization, a difficult achievement in the Gorge where you almost always hear the hum of the highway.

The point of Leave No Trace is not only to protect our environment, but to preserve a sense of solitude, of wilderness, that no other human has been there before. This is why people crave nature, because its solitude brings a quietness to the mind that we rarely get in day to day life. Wilderness brings excitement and adventure, which we all need more of. With cities getting tighter and louder, and technology at the center of our world, we need that space even more. We need to not look at a screen for one day. And how backwards is it that because we need it more, people seek it more, and therefore it’s being destroyed. Either that, or we have to develop the area to accommodate the crowds, thus taking away that essential wildness.

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Escaping the crowds via Rock of Ages Loop

I wonder, then, if Leave No Trace is even applicable to areas as busy as the Columbia River Gorge. Some of the most popular destinations – Horsetail Falls, for example – is literally a place where you park and take pictures of a waterfall. In photos it appears like you are in the middle of nowhere, but turn around and there’s a full parking lot. Is this really what we’re after when we speak of solitude? Or for that matter, nature?

The thing is, for many it is. For those who rarely hike, this is the most outdoorsy they’ll ever get, and it’s plenty. I think in a way it comforts them, knowing others have been there before. They know it’s safe. I don’t think they care that the summits have apple cores and granola bar wrappers. I’ve actually had friends ask me, who cares? As in, who cares about apple cores? They’ll decompose eventually. And before I go into the problem of habituated animals or the fact that it’s not so much an environmental reason as an aesthetic one, (We’re trying to enjoy nature here, not stare at your waste) arguing doesn’t seem to have a point when they genuinely don’t mind. It begins to feel like my problem, which it shouldn’t.

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A rare viewpoint of the Gorge during Rock of Ages loop

 If I don’t mind going the extra mile to ditch crowds, and the average Joe hiker doesn’t mind the busy trails and apple cores, what’s the problem?

The problem for me is that as the accessible trails become too crowded, more average Joe hikers will attempt to go deeper into the woods without a clue about Leave No Trace. Enjoyment for the experienced will be increasingly harder to find.

We’ll need trash cans, public toilets, and other things that strip away the illusion of solitude and wilderness. This is already common, and it’s a healthy attempt to minimize impact – obviously we don’t want trash and poop on the ground. But I worry entire forests will turn into rustic civilizations.

True untouched nature will disappear because people want the refreshment of the outdoors without strain or discomfort. They want easy roads and hikes, water fountains, bathrooms, and cafes. That’s why our forests are full of people in flip flops taking pictures with their iPhones to post to Instagram, only to complain about the poor connection. I swear, if there comes a day when our national forests have WiFi, I’m out.

My Gut Says Logic is Overrated

I was recently given the opportunity to work on a farm for the summer, and I was stoked. I couldn’t wait to work outside in the beautiful Oregon sunshine, get my hands back in the earth. I was tired of working as a waitress, hating that I was spending so much time doing a job I didn’t like for the money. Sure, the farming job wouldn’t pay much, but at least I’d be doing something I was passionate about.

Later, I found myself on my laptop, staring at my student debt. Suddenly the idea of working on a farm for little pay seemed absurd. What I should do is pick up more hours at the restaurant or get a second job. I didn’t have time for fun, not yet. I had school debt, car payments, rent to pay. Focusing on making money seemed the more logical thing to do. Continue reading

Post Election: Finding Clarity in Books

I’m reading Freedom by Jonathon Franzen, and from the perspective of forty- year-old Patty, he wrote:

“There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning, it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute, does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.”

Reading can be that way. The first page feels daunting as you’re afraid you’ll lose focus and stop. But once other pages have joined the first page, you feel more comfortable in the rhythm of reading. Pages cease to be individuals and the story forms in your mind in a continues string. It feels complete and relaxing as it guides you through the author’s world. That’s a satisfaction I can only get from reading books. Social media, the other place where I “read,” makes me feel lost in a thick forest, blinded by sticks poking me in the eye and scratching my skin. Continue reading

From Stumbling to Stepping: Making Our Way in Portland

Before we knew our way around Portland, before the rain stuttered and summer passed and the rain returned in tsunamic downpours; before we had jobs and a mattress and a toilet of our own, Taylor and I sat on a bench in the Vancouver, Washington public library, a phone pressed to my ear as a reluctant voice told me we didn’t get the jobs we’d driven across the country for.

Three thousand miles from home in the middle of January, neither of us knew what to do. We didn’t want to drive back and we didn’t know where to go. We’d been living in a car. I was tired of driving and tired of fighting my tiredness. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to forget the whole trip happened, curl up in my warm, childhood bed and abandon adulthood.
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