My Very Un-Instagrammable 9 Months on an Organic Farm
By Katie Hyson
There was a position open at a local organic family farm. In my cover letter, I emphasized what a great fit my skill set was, my passion for sustainable food solutions, my love of vegetables. I de-emphasized (read: omitted) my plant-growing record. Dead: 83 herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Still alive: 2 indefatigable house plants.
It was an administrative and sales position. They invited the top applicants to come to a farm luncheon event so they could “get to know us in a low-pressure environment”. This sounded very Hunger Games, but I wanted this job. This was the lone purpose-filled job in a compost heap of small-town Craigslist misery. So I took twenty minutes to pick out a locally baked all-natural sprouted loaf of bread to bring, and braved the Games.
The luncheon catered to all the hipster Instagram ideals of what a good sustainable farm should be: homemade jam samples, watermelon radishes, big checkered tablecloths, freshly brewed roselle tea, all laid out under a sprawling oak tree in the middle of the farm. I had ample time to mingle with (read: suss out) the other guests and applicants, and to self-identify as awkward, of course.
I raved too much about the salad. It was the best salad I’d ever had. I’d never tasted greens like that in my life. So I kept stopping conversation to loudly announce “This is the best salad I’ve ever had! I’ve never tasted greens like this in my life!”, and after the sixth time it started to make people uncomfortable.
They took us on a tour of the farm after lunch. We were walking through the rows of produce and it all looked like Narnia to me. I couldn’t bring myself to move past a particularly exotic plant, and was leaning in close to try to identify it. Finally I gave up and asked one of the farm employees.
“Oh! Ha, kidding. Course it’s broccoli.” (?)
I tried to hide my ignorance by looking as casual as possible the rest of the tour. But it was all so exciting! This is where food comes from! This is what food looks like! You’re making food grow right out of the ground!
I was called back for a second interview. May I tell you how confusing it is to decide what to wear to a job interview for an administrative position on a farm? I’m sure Gwyneth Paltro would’ve nailed it. She would’ve worn some sort of breathable linen jumpsuit paired with $3,000 hand-crafted vegan leather steel-toed work mules. I am not Gwyneth. I wore a business top with jeans, and boots that were neither farm appropriate nor office appropriate. I thought if I sent a mix of signals at least one of them would land on target.
I do not know why they hired me (spunk! conversational prowess! unnerving enthusiasm for excel spreadsheets!), but they hired me.
My first day of work I packed my lunch in a lunch box instead of my usual plastic grocery bag. I carefully peeled the sticker off my conventional orange. I removed leftovers from the plastic container they were already sitting in, and placed them in a glass pyrex container. I threw out the plastic container. I looked in the fridge for a vegetable, and found a bag of baby carrots. There was no hiding the processing of a baby carrot. I hesitated. I let the cold air flow freely out of my fridge and into my apartment while I debated whether or not the carrots would make me look like I didn’t care about sustainability. I said aloud, “This is ridiculous, Katie. No one cares what you pack in your lunch. No one’s even going to notice. Get. Over. Yourself.” I placed the carrots in my lunch box. I put on Colombia hiking boots that had been worn twice. I drove the thirty minutes to the farm in pre-dawn darkness.
The morning meeting was conducted in Spanish. I quickly registered that the entire crew spoke Spanish. I do not speak Spanish. (Enough of these morning meetings would eventually lead me to learn a very particular set of vocabulary that I will likely never use again. For example: Hay gorgojos en las batatas. But at the time, I had to pretend to be very focused on information I didn’t understand at all.)
The morning flew by with training, and furious Googling of things I didn’t know. Is there a type of spinach with leaves the size of your hand? What is the season for swiss chard? What are scuppernongs??
At lunch, I asked questions to get to know my new co-workers. I didn’t realize you weren’t really supposed to talk at lunch. Lunch on a farm is a brief break in the midst of hard labor, where you scarf down as much food as possible. It is not a social mixer.
My attempt at conversation was suddenly interrupted with, “Oh my god, is that a baby carrot? Look at what’s in Katie’s lunchbox! She’s eating baby carrots! Listen, someone go grab her a real carrot from the shed. No, really, go grab her one! Once you eat this, I promise you, you’ll never eat another baby carrot again.” I did eat baby carrots again, but I definitely never packed them in my farm lunch.
They were right about the carrot, though. It was incomparable to the nubs in my lunchbox. It was skinny and twisted, there was dirt still in its creases, and it was sweet. This carrot was sweet! It turns out produce untreated with pesticides is small, irregularly shaped, and so full of flavor it makes you question if you’ve ever tasted a potato/strawberry/fig/fill-in-the-blank in your entire life.
This was one of so many perspective-exploding lessons I learned over the next nine months.
Like how in order to get H-2A visas approved for migrant workers, you have to first prove that not a single American worker can do or wants to do the job. So that whole thing about “they’re not taking our jobs, they’re doing the jobs no one else wants to do” is not rhetoric, it’s fact.
Like how organic food isn’t over-priced, it’s just priced at the actual cost of growing food without government subsidies and harmful chemicals. How local organic and sustainable farmers take on large amounts of debt to provide the food they do to their communities, and often struggle to make ends meet. How the true cost of the way we grow conventional food, when you include the effects on the environment and health, is actually far greater than the cost of organic.
Like how what’s scarier than the impact pesticides may have on the eventual consumers is the impact pesticides are definitely having on the people who work in the fields.
One day a local farm worker came to the office to ask if we could offer any employment. She said she was desperate to work at a farm that didn’t use chemicals, because what they were spraying was making them all sick.
Another day I received this phone call from a local conventional farmer: “I can tell you this now that I’m retiring. That shit we’re spraying on all the crops? Gave me the cancer I have now. All the farmers in this county have the same kind of cancer. Our families have it too. I promise you it’s from what we spray on those crops that everyone’s eating.”
I know I should’ve Erin Brockoviched that but I did not have the time. I was working harder than I ever had in my life. And the crew was working 100 times harder than me. Turns out real farming is not like Instagram farming.
By the time summer came, I was waking up at 4:00AM to make it to the farm and organize the harvest before the morning meeting. To give you an idea of how early this is, one morning I ran into a literal flying flock of bats with my car, taking out at least 10 of them, and reflex-gagged the rest of the way to work. It’s the awkward hour when drunk people have just returned home and early risers have not yet woken up. In fact, I know indisputably that I was the only one up, because every morning I would clear a path through the spiderwebs between my house and my car, my car and the office. With my face.
I was also staying up until 10:00PM to make sure I was getting the orders from all the chefs whose days were just getting started.
I was waking up early on Saturday mornings to run calculations on the farmers’ markets to figure out how much the marketeer could keep and how much needed to be deposited. I learned that no one knows whether it’s farmer’s markets, farmers’ markets, or farmers markets.
Rustic conditions combined with an uncompromisingly hard communal work ethic inevitably lead to, um, interesting situations.
During my first month there I bent down to pick up a heavy box in the walk-in cooler, started to straighten up, and tore my pants right along the butt seam. I couldn’t go home to change. I know what you’re thinking. But the work ethic on the farm just didn’t leave room for wardrobe malfunctions, so I casually penguin-waddled for the next nine hours to hide the giant split in my pants.
I wish I could say that was the only time I should’ve changed my pants and didn’t, but it wasn’t. Our only bathroom was a Port-a-Potti, centrally located in the middle of the fields for easiest access and the least discretion. In the summer, sometimes this Port-a-Potti would surprise you with an overnight infestation of maggots, and the company couldn’t come to clean it out until the next day. I’ll spare you the intricacies of what happened, but one day this maggot/bathroom combo led to pee getting on my jeans. There I said it. And I know. I know what you’re thinking! But as I left the Port-a-Potti my boss said, “Katie, can you make these deliveries?” And I couldn’t not make those deliveries. Those were our customers! Those were our paychecks! So I loaded up my Toyota RAV and drove down the highway cackling with laughter because somehow my life had led me to a place where I was delivering cases of eggplant with pee in my pants. I didn’t say I was proud of it. It wasn’t that much pee.
I took a job in immigration nine months after I started working at the farm, and two months before the 2016 election (whoops). My time at the farm was brief, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I think about the friends I made, the food we grew, how seasons and weather became powerfully central to my life. I think mostly about how badly we need farmers who farm sustainably and honestly, and how hard it is for them to do it and still keep a roof over their heads.
Food is at the intersection of so many issues: health, income inequality, migrant rights, the environment. Name something you care about, and I bet you I can trace it back to food. When you grow it right, it can make all of these things better. When you grow it with disregard for the soil it comes from and the people who tend to it and eat it, it makes everything worse. But how can farmers grow it right if it means they can’t survive?
I’m not saying that everyone should eat entirely organic, and I’m not saying everyone should grow entirely organic. Under the present circumstances, it simply isn’t feasible. I do not fault the conventional farmers trying to pay their bills. I do not fault the single mothers trying to grocery shop on an impossible budget. There is a vast and complicated system in place that has brought us to where we are and needs undoing before we can move forward. I am saying we have to do something. For ourselves, for our children, for their children. We have to do better and we can do better.
Might I suggest starting by taking a minute to Google the sustainable farms in your area, and where they sell their food? And while you’re at it, Google “scuppernongs”.
Reprinted from Medium