The life of an organic farmer, or “Oh, ow, my ass”

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I’m still sore.

Last week I volunteered at an organic farm just across the river in Illinois, and spent my day packing CSA boxes, weeding beets, planting lettuce and watermelons, learning to trellis tomatoes, fertilizing eggplants, harvesting scallions, and digging up turnips. I spent my day leaning over, bending down, kneeling in the dirt, and sitting on my ass when my knees couldn’t take kneeling anymore.

It was agony. I loved it.

Why did I do it? As I may have mentioned, I’m working on my thesis this summer for my MFA in creative writing. It’s a novel set in the not-too-distant future, and my protagonist, Rebecca, is a Midwestern farmer. She’s facing a lot of problems: climate change, lack of rain, an unstable social landscape, and aging parents being just a few of them. There’s also the matter of her brother wanting her to join him: he’s leaving the planet. Rebecca’s pragmatic, but she’s also stubborn, and—

Well, maybe I shouldn’t say too much right now, since it’s all in rough draft mode. Also, to quote River Song (as I’m wont to do), “Spoilers.”

Thing is, there are many things I know absolutely nothing about. Climate change is one of them. So is farming. I’ve been reading up a lot on both these topics, I’ve interviewed a climate scientist, and I’ve toured an organic education farm and an agronomics facility at the local evil corporate agricultural empire. (You know the one.) I’ve also been reading a lot about the Kepler telescope, extrasolar planets, and faster-than-light travel. The phrase Alcubierre warp drive has come up several times. Gathering all this information has been kind of fun—a little depressing as well, especially where climate change is concerned. The more I read, the more I think we’ve really screwed the pooch on this one and that Dr. Hawking is right: if we’re going to avoid wiping ourselves out, we need to leave the planet.

I’m a big proponent of learning by doing. Since I can’t go into space at the present time (though if it becomes a reality during my lifetime, see ya!), I decided to do what experiential learning I could, namely do a little bit of what an organic farmer does on an average day in June in the Midwest.

The owners of the farm were incredibly gracious. I told them that honestly I know so little about farming that I wasn’t even sure of the right questions to ask, so I got them talking about how they came to start their current farm and they asked me questions about my story. That got things rolling; they told me how much of their time they spend doing certain things around the farm, and I suggested ways that these might be automated by the twenty-second century to increase productivity.

The one thing none of us could see a way around though was weeding. If you’re going to be an organic farmer, you’re going to be pulling weeds by hand at some point.

By the end of the day, I was limping. My ass was killing me, my knees were aching, and I was starting to get shin splints in my left leg. My hands also smelled faintly of fish emulsion, the organic fertilizer they use around the farm. It works great, but yowie does it stink.

Of course, by the end of the day for me and the interns, they owners were still going to be working for another three hours, at least. That’s the other thing about organic farming: long, long days while the growing season’s in full swing.

As I was limping out, though, my friend Stacey, who hooked me up with this opportunity, noticed that some of the raspberry bushes were sporting some ripe fruit. After a day of manual labor, picking ripe berries straight from the bush? More than makes up for it.

One thought on “The life of an organic farmer, or “Oh, ow, my ass”

  1. It sounds like a good day. Hard work on the earth and fresh air! Especially rewarding when it’s done in the name of research. I look forward to reading the novel…

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