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!

 

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