Farming has, recently, become the recipient of a mystique.
I wish I could put my finger on just how a profession in which you work hard for long hours in a risky business that doesn’t pay very well came to acquire a mystique, because if I knew how that process worked, perhaps I could acquire a mystique for myself. After 54 mystique-free years, I’m good and ready.
For most of human history, farming was simply something you had to do in order to eat. The drudgery and sweat were part of the human condition. Now, though, not a day goes by when I don’t read about how important it is to protect farmers’ livelihoods. Granted, I spend a disproportional amount of my day reading about agriculture, but I’m betting that even normal people, who read about politics and literature and fashion and inter-species animal friendships, come across the importance of farmers’ livelihoods from time to time.
Because farmers are the salt of the earth. Farmers provide sustenance. Farmers engage in the noble profession of coaxing life from the earth, and they do it because they are driven to make this their life’s work. Not all farmers, mind you – the kind of farmers who drive big, expensive combines and grow a lot of corn and soy are excluded. Mystique is reserved for small farmers, with less – and less expensive – equipment, who grow crops that end up on your dinner table more or less intact, and never find their way into cars and pigs and Twinkies.
If you’re in doubt about the nobility of those farmers, just ask Wendell Berry: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”
This idea seems to be surprisingly popular, given that it is utter bullshit. My husband and I grow oysters, and we sure as hell don’t do it for love. We do it for money.
As for mystique? Getting up at 4:30 to catch an early tide and do four hours of bending, lifting, scooping, sorting, carrying, and distributing a crop that might as well be so many rocks certainly doesn’t feel mystique-y in the moment.
The last three days, Kevin and I had to take over 400 onion bags filled with oysters, open them, and distribute them evenly in 400 trays (for the larger oysters) and 250 stiff mesh bags (for the smaller ones). It’s manual labor, from start to finish.
If you’ve never done repetitive manual labor (and I never had, until Kevin decided he wanted to be an oyster farmer), it’s exertion interspersed with problem-solving of the most prosaic kind. How do you open an onion bag so that, when you pour the oysters out, they don’t get caught in the corners? (Cutting the bottom seam from edge to edge seems to work best.) Is it easier to scoop oysters when the big plastic box you’re scooping from is mostly full, or mostly empty? (Mostly empty, because if the tip of the scoop hits the plastic bottom, you can slide it under the pile more easily.) Is it easier to bring the job to the boat, or the boat to the job? What equipment do I need to make sure I’m working at counter height, and not bending over? Does it make sense for Kevin and me to each do one-half the tasks involved in the job, and work together, or each do the whole job, and work separately? And on and on and on.
Don’t get me wrong. I find this interesting and even satisfying. My journalist day job often requires me to think about food and agriculture in a big, broad way: how can we feed nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously? To switch focus to finding the exact right size bucket to hold 250 oysters is a refreshing change. There is pleasure in doing a job efficiently and well, even if that job is just dumping rocks into trays.
And there is, at least for me, truth in the idea that it is gratifying to grow food. Kevin and I are very proud of our crop, and it makes us happy to know how much people enjoy eating it. But the idea that we’d do it for love is laughable.
It’s worse than that. It’s dangerous. If nourishing is noble but earning is ignoble, we don’t stand a chance of getting food policy right. We run the risk of protecting subsistence-farming livelihoods even when those subsistence farmers would rather be doing something else. We run the risk of demonizing successful farmers. We run the risk of providing incentives for practices that increase food prices, like working at small scale with few machines.
Kevin and I work at small scale with few machines (and produce a commensurately expensive product), and I sure hope there’s a place for that kind of farm in the food system that feeds nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously. But there’s just nothing romantic about labor that’s heavy and dirty and repetitive and sometimes dangerous, done day in and day out because you have no other choice.
The best way to take the mystique out of farming is to farm. The second best way, I’m hoping, is to ask nicely.