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Farm Hands

In the Madison area, many people and organizations are working to provide access to a short food supply chain. We’ve got over a dozen farmers’ markets. Here at Willy Street Co-op, we focus on stocking locally grown and produced groceries. Community supported agriculture farms (CSAs) abound, where individuals can purchase a seasonal share of whatever output a farm produces in a given year. But formany of us, myself included, there’s a mystery going on behind the scenes regarding what it takes to get that food to markets, into baskets, and into stores.

As of 2012, there were 749,400 agricultural workers in the United States (Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/farming-fishing-and-forestry/agricultural-workers.htm). Working on a farm means rigorous physical labor, as you might imagine. The work is best suited to those who love the outdoors, can adjust to variable weather conditions, and enjoy working with their hands. Pay for farm hands is generally modest. For people who want to travel and can foot the bill for their plane ticket, there are opportunities for volunteer farm work around the world through organizations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), where volunteers are given a place to sleep in exchange for around 4-6 hours of work per day. Some local farms also accept volunteers or offer CSA worker shares. For those who want to make farm work their career, starting out either as an intern or a farm hand can be a stepping stone to owning a farm.

I didn’t have to look very far to find some of the folks who are working tirelessly in the field to bring bountiful food to our plates. When I began work on this article, I quickly discovered just how many Co-op employees have farming experience, both close to home and far away, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview a handful of them and learn how their farming experience has enriched their lives and shaped their careers, including how it has informed their work at our retail sites, production kitchen, and office.

Something to note: All of the stories below, while illustrating valuable experiences that I hope will offer insight into the inner workings of farm work, are the experiences of a limited set of people who are not necessarily a representative sample of farm workers nationally or globally. There are many socioeconomic issues applicable to farm work in general, particularly around topics such as gender, immigration, and race. All of these deserve due consideration whenever ethics in farm work are being discussed.

Why Farm?
Across the board, the number one thing I heard from people with farming experience is that it’s the hardest work you’ll do in your life. Of course, it’s good that someone is up for the challenge, because we all need to eat. But what is it that brings people to this line of work?

  • Wayde Lawler, Produce Buyer at Willy East, was drawn to farming after being exposed to food security issues and the effects of deforestation and desertification while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras.
  • Micky Ellenbecker, Produce Assistant Manager at Willy West, is generally interested in learning skills of self-subsistence, for which farming was a great opportunity.
  • Heather Rivérrun, Baker at the Production Kitchen, said, “I think it just solidified that passion that I had for local and organic, and working with the earth. So I recommend it. Even though it’shard, it’s worth it.”

Heather’s summary reminds me of how I felt after starting to bake for a living: leaving a desk job, I was warned that I would be in for long hours on my feet. But I soon learned that the challenges of this kind of work were rewarding for me, particularly because baking is something I am passionate about. I’ve gathered the same is true of farm work for those who are driven to bring good food to their community from—literally—the ground up.

What’s it like?
I started in our Kitchen to interview baker Heather Rivérrun. Heather got her internship at Gaia Rising Farm in Anacortes, Washington by searching online. She described their operation as involving a CSA and a focus on storage crops such as potatoes, dried beans, and grains. The farm’s owners aimed to provide an alternative to the high carbon footprint of supermarket vegetables and grains, concentrating on minimizing their use of fossil fuels, and keeping tractor use to the bare minimum. Most of Heather’s work there was along the lines of hand-weeding, watering, construction of drying racks, and using a screen to separate grain from chaff.

Production Kitchen cook Lacey Smith worked at Tipi Produce in Evansville, Wisconsin, for seven seasons, which she indicates has definitely influenced her work in kitchens, noting, “It’s really cool to be able to see seedlings that you planted eventually become a pepper or some greens that you then get to use in your cooking. I think it made me appreciate the food I was working with at the Co-op more because I knew how much work and passion went into producing it.” And, the farm work ethic spilled over into her work outside the farm: “I was better prepared to bounce back from tough days and to make sure that I help everyone get the job done.”

David Williams, in the Maintenance department, offered a window into a different sort of farming experience: he worked on a family dairy farm a few decades ago, as a child, when he rode on trucks with hay bales that weighed as much as he did. The dairy farm life is non-stop in a unique way: cows wait for nobody. David recalls waking up at 3:30 in the morning; the first milking took the longest, since the cows had waited overnight. Milking several times a day, rain, snow, or shine, is all part of the package when you’re working with animals.

Dan Marten in the Finance department also told a story along those lines about his time on a dairy farm: there was a day when it was -9 degrees in the barn and the milk froze in the pipes. The work must go on—he took the apparatus apart, thawed the pipes, returned them to their place, and resumed milking.

Dan also has lots of experience working on vegetable farms, eventually leading him and his wife to start Butterbean Community Farm in 2013. They don’t have any other employees; he notes that payroll is a large expense for a small business, particularly when your product is a commodity like food where it’s difficult to get people to pay much money for it. When you factor in sensitivity to paying a fair wage, you can start to see how hiring employees for a small farm is a challenging venture to undertake. Dan notes that his work in the Finance department at the Co-op has been very helpful in his farming venture, informing his budgeting and bookkeeping practices.

Next, I moved on to talking with folks at the retail sites and the Central Office. Wayde Lawler has worked on a number of farms, and he also has an academic background in horticulture and permaculture. Wayde spoke very highly of his internship experience at Troy Community Farm, describing it as an opportunity that included a lot of specifically educational time in addition to hands-on work, including a weekly class and each intern being assigned a topic to focus on during the season. His was irrigation during the drought of 2012! He said of his overall experience, “I came out if it so much more confident about my understanding of farming and my abilityto potentially go on and do things on my own, and really that is at the crux of farming, the confidence and the ability to try things and make mistakes and learn from them. Even experienced folks will tell you that they’re constantly adapting to new variables and weather scenarios and seed failures, all these things that force you to just keep learning.”

Wayde emphasized the human element of the field. While in school, he made valuable contacts with others in the farming world. This, plus his work on various farms, has brought him to a place where his job at the Co-op involves working with farmers he already knows. And not only does he know the people who are delivering the produce, if they’re from a farm he’s worked on, he also knows members of their crew. He notes that even though there are many farmers in the area, it’s a fairly small community, and it’s helpful to be able to connect and relate with people.

Wayde’s farming experience also gives him a helpful perspective on the produce itself: if something comes in looking unusual, he is able to identify that, but also figure out why. For example, if there was a recent hail storm, he will know that the hail-affected produce will be similar from all farms.

Marnie McMullin also works in the Produce department, which she came to from an academic background in sustainable agriculture as well as experience on farms. She does farm research, including working with farmers to experiment with things like pest management and soil testing; most recently, she worked with Fairshare CSA coalition on a cover crop research project on organic vegetable farms. Marnie’s deep knowledge of vegetables means she can give customers informed answers to their questions related to produce; for example, she can give customers a ballpark estimate of when a particular vegetable might be coming back into stock.

Sadie Sturgeon (like Wayde) interned at Troy Community Farm, which she found out about by word-of-mouth. She had the opportunity in her internship to learn about every step of the growing process, at a farm where everything is done with a large crew by hand, excepting prepping the beds with a tractor. From this experience, she said, “I gained a strong understanding of produce quality and handling, and an appreciation for preserving local foods and using ugly produce.”

Micky Ellenbecker found her work at JenEhr Family Farm very rewarding. She started there as an intern and soon transitioned to full-time work. Each day, the crew would start out by talking about what needed to happen for the day. Throughout the season, the daily work varied, from seeding in trays in March and April, to harvest for the CSA beginning in mid-June. She describes the experience as giving her an appreciation for local and organic food, which she’s been able to carry forward into her work at the Co-op. Though she no longer works on a farm, she’s also found that her farm experience influenced her life as a whole, and kickstarted a love of vegetable gardening.

How to Find Farm Work
Many of the people I interviewed found their jobs by word-of-mouth. If you meet someone who has worked on a farm, see if they have leads. Additionally, here are some online resources:

The FairShare CSA coalition has a list online of farms that offer worker shares, as well as a general farm job and volunteer opportunity list (www.csacoalition.org/get-involved/work-a-farm/). The worker share model is an option to consider if you’re looking to dip your toes in the water in a relatively low-key way. This involves doing a few hours of work per week in exchange for your CSA share basket, instead of paying for the produce.

If you’re interested specifically in sustainable or organic farms, Good Food Jobs (www.goodfoodjobs.com) is a great resource. This site is for food-related jobs in general, not just farm work. It includes full- and part-time jobs, internships, and seasonal opportunities.

There are job postings at A National Sustainable Agriculture Assistance Program (ATTRA), online at attra.ncat.org/.

If you want to travel and volunteer, check out WWOOF (www.wwoof.net/) and consider getting a membership with the WWOOF branch for the country you’re interested in.

I also turned up a lot of farm-related jobs by searching the Craigslist general labor category (in Madison, madison.craigslist.org/search/lab) for the word “farm.” Specifically, as of the time of writing, there were 27 ads posted in the last month. Most of them were horse-related or dairy farm work; since I’m writing this in December, as opposed to produce planting or harvest season, that stands to reason.

I asked for advice from some of the folks I interviewed, regarding what questions job-seekers should ask when considering a farm job. Paraphrased:

  • Ask about the size of the farm and whether it’s high or low mechanized, what the workload expectation is, what the payis, and what perks are offered (such as free produce). (Marnie)
  • Ask what opportunities there are for professional development, for taking on increasing responsibility from season to season, and to learn about things like operating machinery, marketing, and planning. You can also ask if people who have worked there have gone on to start their own farms. If you’re interested in off-season employment, you can ask if a farm offers any—it’s a nice perk, but not common to find. (Wayde)
  • Think about your personal goals —whether that means eventually starting your own farm, or simply trying something new—and making sure your goals align with the farm in question. You may find it helpful to ask what a typical day or week looks like. (Micky)
  • Ask questions about scheduling: what flexibility will you have? Is pay hourly or weekly? (Weekly pay might mean you end up working particularly long hours.) Also, talk to other people who have worked on the farm and get their opinions about working there. (Dan)

The industry does need new recruits: according to US News, the median age for farmers and ranchers is currently 56. A huge number of farmers are expected to retire in the next decade. The business is not easy—a New York Times op-ed piece from 2014 discusses the financial straits that many farmers are in (www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/dont-let-your-children-grow-up-to-be-farmers.html)—but for many people, farming is a passion that’s worth the struggle. A Huffington Post article in response to the New York Times piece promotes that perspective: “Let your children grow up to become farmers. There is a surplus of mediocrity in this nation and a deficit of bravery. Let your children grow up to be farmers. Let them be brave.” (www.huffingtonpost.com/jenna-woginrich/let-your-children-be-farmers_b_5674640.html). If I saw a common thread running through the people I interviewed about farming, it was that they were unafraid to dig in—to the earth itself, and to their commitment to put in a hard day’s work for not much financial gain, if any. But for many people, this work feeds both the body and the soul; and for them, that is exactly what makes it worthwhile.

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