Interesting Work: Farming

Dirt is everywhere.  On my hands, my legs, in my shoes.  I can feel the dust in my nose.  My hands are red and sore and my back aches.  The bright sun beats down on my neck.  Sharp nettles are digging into my fingers…ahhh…the joys of farming.

My coworkers are tan, fit and in excellent farming shape.  They reminisce about the prior night’s hard drinking and dancing.  I, on the other hand, feel increasingly faint each time I stand, and amuse myself by imagining their reactions when the old guy suddenly does a header into the mustard greens.  But I find myself enjoying the hard labor and the feel of the dirt and the sun on my arms.  I sample the plants as I work and find them surprisingly delicious.

Summer is the time for farmers markets, corn on the cob and fresh pie.  For many of us that is as close as we get to a farm.  But many people still feel the pull of the land.  Some garden, others tell themselves they will buy a hobby farm when they retire. I have always loved the idea of farming – which is how I find myself working part-time on an organic CSA farm.  So how do you try this for yourself and how do our dreams of pastoral farm life compare to the real thing?

What Is the Work Like?

Farming is hard, dirty, repetitive work.  If you have spent a lifetime staring at a computer screen it is going to be a shock.  Also, at least for me, it is great for you.  There is something very natural about being in a field, working with your hands, breathing in dirt. I have found that just being exposed to the dirt, wind, weeds and pollen seems to have improved my allergies and made my body feel healthier.  I also eat a lot more vegetables, as my respect for what they are and the work that went into them has increased.

Field work includes planting, weeding and harvesting.  For me a day looked like this:

Bike to the farm.  Wear the same old jeans, old sneakers and old long sleeve shirt I wear each time (this looks surprisingly like how I dress every day).  Pick up a hand weeding tool (this looks like a miniature hoe) at the barn and join several other folks in the field.  The vegetable may be a type of salad green or radishes or turnips or anything else you might see at the farmers market.  Then you start to remove all the weeds that surround the plant.  Often this is a jungle of weeds that nearly obscures the vegetable.  These weeds include:

  • Thistles: dig your hands down into the soil and pull them out by the roots to avoid the barbs
  • Purslane: a pretty plant with tiny yellow flowers…also very tasty
  • Field Vineweed: everywhere and looking to cause trouble, will make you look twice at the pretty vine plants that are used to decorate offices…

Lots and lots of others…

At first the progress seems super slow and you wonder how you will ever get to the end of the 50 yard row. But you start chatting about something interesting with the person across from you and the time starts to fly and soon it is lunch time.  The farmers and your co-workers are knowledgeable about what is growing in the fields and the barns but also about the weeds, weather and wildlife around you.  Learn everything you can.  You are being paid to learn all kinds of cool stuff!

Some pointers from a very much non pro:

  • Don’t ever step in a row: Even if it seems that the space between rows was designed for Antman do not step in the row!
  • Weed by hand, use the weeding tool when everything is cleared out to disrupt any seeds that may be germinating in the soil. This will be hard at first, as your first instinct will be to hack away at everything with the weeding tool…
  • If multiple people are working in a row:  Once you catch up to where the person in front of you already worked, you jump to the other side of the row about 15 feet up from where the person on that side is currently working.

Sorry…that’s all I’ve got.

So now it is lunchtime.  Sit under a tree, relax, eat, talk to folks.  Restart for the remainder of the afternoon.  Leave, feel very content that you are done!

How Do I Get a Farming Job?

Getting a farming job is not particularly difficult.  Most smaller vegetable farms are constantly looking for field help.  This means weeding, weeding, harvesting, planting and weeding.  There are other cool things you can do, animal care and harvesting*, delivery and market sales and even farm management.  But the easiest place to start is fieldwork.

Craigslist jobs or gigs sections are a good resource.  If you can’t find anything there look up CSAs or farms that sell at your local farmers market.  Most of them have a good web presence since this is how they market and interact with their customers.  Most often you can email the farmer directly and ask about work.  In their busy season farms are running at full steam 6 to 7 days a week.  But you can also do as I have done and only work a couple of days a week (if you are not as young and spry as you used to be, see the first few paragraphs and think about how many days your body can handle, at least at first).

Pay is generally in the $10-$12 per hour range often with some nice benefits like a share of fruits or vegetables.

Should I Try This?

Before you retire to your dream farm or buy a homestead get a job on a farm.  You will learn the business from someone who is truly an expert.  At the very least you may save yourself from a big financial mistake when you realize how all consuming the work can be.  One of the great things about the CSA/organic farm world is that it often includes housing.  So if you have the time and the energy you can spend a whole season working and living on a farm.  Personally, I don’t see why you would buy a farm until you work on one.  Generally new farmers are coming out of years of working on someone else’s farm.   You can get paid to have all those same experiences, learn all kinds of new skills…and still be able to take a summer vacation. Good luck and good weeding!

Job: Organic Farm Fieldwork

Fun: Hard, repetitive work, fun people

Learning: Where food comes from, how it grows, how to care for it

Pay: $11/hr ish

Side benefits:  Possible free housing for the season, free veggies

Worth doing:  Absolutely

Resources:  Craigslist, Organic Farm and CSA Webpages, WWOOF

 *(You can read a little bit about the animal harvesting side of things if that interests you)


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