Farm Journal Part 9: A Labor of Love

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal Part 9: A Labor of Love

As I tell my friends what it is like to work on a small organic farm, I have noticed a common theme in their questions, my answers, and the resulting astonishment.

Oftentimes, they can’t believe the amount of work we do on a daily basis (“Why, that’s slave labor!”) or they gasp when they see my arms and legs dotted with angry red mosquito and fly bites (which I accumulate despite donning pants and long-sleeved shirts for the workday). I knew that there existed a rather romantic idea of organic farming, but I had not realized that so many people subscribed to it.

While there are days that are quite simply perfect, there are even more that neatly dispel the notion that organic farming is nothing but bright sunshine, communing with nature, and baskets of beautiful produce sitting everywhere.

The weather can make or break a day, right off the bat. The hotter the weather (and the higher the humidity), the harder the work will be. There is nothing (and I mean NOTHING) worse than the combination of hoeing and 90 plus degree temperatures with high humidity. Hoeing is difficult, requires arm and upper back strength, and is repetitive to the point of mind-numbing redundancy. Imagine doing this with black flies and deer flies zooming around your head, mosquitoes biting you everywhere, and sweat stinging in your eyes. Now, do that for four hours. However, this exact same activity is a pleasant workout when the temperature is only 75 degrees and the day is dry and breezy. On beautiful days like that, your mind can wander from the task at hand and you are better able to appreciate those chirping birds or buzzing bees.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Speaking of insects: I have become a ninja in the art of deer fly squashing. My fellow intern Mary and I have come to a tacit agreement that it is okay if we smack each other, as long as the intent was to kill a fly. This has resulted in some rather painful (but successful) fly annihilations. We have long since given up spraying ourselves with bug spray; it just simply doesn’t work. Whether it is because we are sweating it off within minutes or it isn’t strong enough (and we even tried 40 percent DEET), bug spray is effective for all of 10 minutes before it stops working; after that, we’re pulling horseflies out of our ears the rest of the day.

It’s also somewhat difficult to work when you are literally breathing gnats and mosquitoes. Therefore, I invested in a head net — a mesh like bag that fits over my hat and cinches around my neck. The rest of my body is on its own, but at least my head stays bite free.

As far as communing with nature (and your fellow co-workers) is concerned, this doesn’t always go well either. Again, that pesky weather can really throw a wrench in the works. The last thing you feel like doing is communing with your zucchini plants when the rain is coming down so hard that it looks like sheets of glass. Not all nature is appreciated — thus twice-daily checks for ticks, at lunch time and right when I get home.

Relations with co-workers can be strained at times too. There are days when no one has gotten enough sleep, it’s hot, everyone is hungry, and we still have two hours of harvest left. These conditions make for a chilly work atmosphere, even if the day itself is steamy. While everyone is usually good at keeping their tempers in check, cheerful conversation is conspicuously absent and jokes are neither appreciated nor laughed at. Thankfully these days are few and far between, but like any workplace, they happen on an organic farm too.

Last (and in my opinion, most important) is the production and harvest of the vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, most of the produce is beautiful and it’s a joy to look at all that you’ve grown at the end of the day. However, there have been plenty of disheartening experiences. Spending three backbreaking hours bending over to pick peas and only ending up with two buckets is quite frustrating. Also exasperating is spending hours — no, days — on your hands and knees weeding around plants, only to have them get chomped down by deer or bitten to worthlessness by bugs. To see produce that you’ve invested so much energy into end up damaged or rotted can be devastating.

Organic farming isn’t always a blissful occupation. More often than not it is hard underpaid labor. However, there are just enough of those perfect days in a season to keep you coming back for more. On those beautiful days when breezes and laughter abound and all the plants are healthy and strong, I drive home with that glorious sensation of satisfaction and a job well done. I can understand, now, what I have been told by so many organic farmers: It is truly a labor of love.

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Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

One reply on “Farm Journal Part 9: A Labor of Love”

Wow, this is REALLY making me appreciate my farmer’s market veggies! I’m glad you quit using the DEET, it’s total poison for your nervous system. Thanks so much for doing this!

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