News From the Farm | November 28, 2016

In April of 2015, a professor asked me what I planned to do after college. I replied, “I’m going to do farm work.” She paused and then smiled, “So you’re going to give your brain a break for a little while?”

My professor meant no malice by her comment. Rather, her comment reflects a societal misunderstanding of farming. According to this misunderstanding, farm work is a purely physical occupation. It is not intellectually creative work. Innovation in farming comes from the outside, from geneticists and engineers, not from farmers. Therefore, one can contrast farm work with “brain” work, which occurs in white-collar offices and is reserved, predominantly, for people with a college education. The latter is considered intellectual; the former is not.

I graduated the following month. The timeworn ritual of college graduation, with speeches, awards, and obscure Latin calligraphy, gives students the impression that they know something. They certainly do—I deeply value my education—but it took me little time at Full Belly to realize precisely how little I know and how misled it is to apply the adjective “intellectual” exclusively to white-collar work. 

I arrived at Full Belly last January, after spending the previous summer and fall farming in southern Maine. The scale, scope, and complexity of Full Belly, with its 400-acres of row crops, orchards, pastures, and grain fields, contrasted with the 12-acre vegetable and flower farm at which I previously worked. Even in the quiet months of January, the farm appeared always to be in motion, with crew trucks arriving and departing from the packing shed, carrying boxes of unwashed beets, carrots, greens, to be unloaded, cleaned, packed, cooled, and palletized for delivery next morning. There was an engine-like quality to the farm that seemed, at first, to transcend the individual workers.

Week-by-week, this illusion faded. There was no meta-level engine powering the farm, or sustaining its momentum. Instead, the farm’s level and quality of production, connect quite simply, to the collective engagement, expertise, and creative will of its crew—to the shepherd who makes lassoing goats, sheep, and the occasional intern look like a simple pastime rather than a skill developed over years of cattle work in Mexico; to the mechanics who repair tractors, pick-up trucks, forklifts, box-trucks, and a plethora of implements with a base of knowledge I have only begun to develop; to the strategic planning, dedication, and coordinating efforts of the owners and managers; to the packing shed workers, who collaborate to fill intimidatingly tall orders and do so consistently without mishap; to the pick crews, who bring years of experience picking tomatoes in Mexico or melons in Arizona to these fields and whose easy speed and attention to detail I have tried to replicate.

At times, when I trip over unripe melons in the field, or get a forklift stuck in mud, I feel like a fumbling novice compared to these women and men. Yet, I am glad to feel that way. It reminds me how much I have yet to learn, which is humbling and exciting. It shows that education continues outside the classroom—and that this education in the field, in the packing shed, on tractors and at markets is equally valuable. Moreover, working with and learning from this crew has affirmed to me that intellectual work, at its core, demands one to listen and to see, to challenge presuppositions, to rethink existing systems, to solve problems. These traits are not reserved for white-collar professionals; rather, these traits define a good farmer.

I am ending this year as it started, with rain collecting in puddles and mud on my boots. By day, clouds hang low in the sky, merging with the valley hills. At night, they cover the stars that seemed so near in the summer; the sky is dark and still. As my departure date approaches, I have been thinking about the knowledge I have gained here, and the people who have contributed to this knowledge. I have a lot more to learn about farming before starting my own farm, but this year has been an educational one. But that’s no surprise to me; I have, after all, had such great teachers.

—Shelby O’Neill