By Claire Stalhuth
In these cold winter months where mornings beginning with scalding coffee and sweeping snowdrifts off cars, I found comfort in reviving this old essay from the Pastures of Plenty Newsletter on sunnier times.
When I tell customers, friends and acquaintances I work for my family’s local organic farm, they respond with hands over hearts, sighs, and “oh you’re so lucky!” It takes much restraint not to get on a soapbox and lecture them about how overly romanticized their thoughts on farming are.
But I can tell you. It requires waking up at ungodly hours, driving on wash-boarded dirt roads that spit up gravel to crack your windshield, and you don’t even have time to drink your coffee because you must plant before the sun comes out in all its hellish glory. I have spent every summer, five days a week, ten hour shifts, bent over flower and vegetable beds, or in sweltering greenhouses, collecting freckles and sunburns and backaches, planting, weeding, and harvesting.
And when I am not outside, toiling under the sun, I am sent into the old dairy barn to process flowers for making bouquets to sell at market. Where planting is sweat, strained muscles, and action, this activity is maddeningly quiet. I stand at a table in the back, stripping the leaves off scabiosa, larkspur, and peonies, organizing them into three piles. I either find myself singing Abba songs over and over and over in my head, or asking such false philosophic questions such as “what makes a plant a weed? Is it only that the weeds are easier to grow and the human condition finds more appeal in the challenging flowers? Is man so vain?” to no avail. Perhaps Ophelia didn’t go mad from love and grief, but from stripping her fennel, rue, and violets all goddamn day long.
Despite such complaints, the pay isn’t too bad. Every year, I have put my money towards a project: freshman year I upgraded from a dinky flip phone to an iPhone, sophomore year I bought my own computer, and junior year all my toil and bitching led to a new bow for my cello. I have worked for all I have, and better know the value of it. I play my new cello with so much more dedication knowing that sweat, dirt, and tedium driven madness led to the bow I draw across its strings.
During the school year I work weekends at the market. A Farmers Market is more than a cluster of tents on a sweltering Saturday morning, each vendor trying to outsell the next. It is an idealistic, near-utopian world, where we sell our produce with pride. I find myself wishing more of the world operated in such a manner. We all pull up in our trucks at around 6:30 a.m. and set up our stalls. Some tents are horrendously understaffed so whenever we see a fellow vendor in need, we rush to help. We are all in the same boat: sleepy, rushed, and awaiting the dreaded customer. It is an institution wholly backwards in a capitalist society. The highlight of the day is trading. All is forgotten when I walk by the bread stand and hear the call “the flower girl is here!” We often end up in a game of one-upmanship. Armando: Ah, I think I will take the purple bouquet today. Claire: Oooor, just take both! Armando: Fine! Then take more ciabatta, I insist.
Actually, farming isn’t such a horribly bleak picture as I have painted; it has its beautiful moments too. Moments like lunch breaks spent reading Steinbeck and laughing while eating a whole peach over the compost so it doesn’t drip everywhere, but not worrying too much because I can always strip off my shoes and wash off in the creek. Farming isn’t east of Eden, hell, we’re east of the foothills, which means we have horrid clay dirt. It is an occupation fueled by its hardships, hopes of a better crop, a better rain next season, that adrenaline rush that comes with extremes of suffering and loveliness.