The mystique of farming

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.

12 people are having a conversation about “The mystique of farming

  1. Strange, but I’ve never read an argument like “Why do lawyers persist, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to being a lawyer? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”

    I have read it applied to teachers. As a teacher, my response is the same as yours: “No, I do it for money. I take pride in trying to do it well, and the job is often satisfying, but that’s not the reason I do it.”

    In fact I imagine lots of people would say that kind of thing about all sorts of occupations, which most of us never sat down and made informed, deliberate decisions to take up. Work is what happens when you’re making other plans … something like that.

    • My husband & I farm on a small scale – for love.
      He works for the government for money, nothing loving there.
      But what we do here? That is clearly love.
      Love of clean air, love of the countryside, love of solitude, love of sunshine, love of independence, love of co-operation & partnership between us, love of stewardship, love of peace & quiet, love of raising happy animals & seeing their lives through to their easy endings, into the freezer, & onto our table.
      We do ALL of this for love.
      It would be much easier to live comfortably in town with no work to do save the basics……… but we wouldn’t love it.

  2. Have you considered submitting this to the marketing folks at Ram Trucks for use in an oysterwoman remake of their “So God made a farmer” super bowl ad?

    You obviously love describing and trying to solve challenging problems without falling into the trap of romanticizing them which is kind of noble in a way the author of these lines probably would have admired:

    We had fed the heart on fantasies,
    The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
    More substance in our enmities
    Than in our love; O honey-bees,
    Come build in the empty house of the stare.

    and “as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer.”

    Love your blog.

    • Thank you for leaving me not just Yeats (I had to look it up), but a constructive suggestion. I will admit to actually liking those Ram commercials — proving, I’m afraid, that I’m as susceptible to the romanticizing of farming as the next guy.

      More substance in our enmities than in our love, I guess.

      • Here’s one more for the road 🙂


        By Seamus Heaney

        Between my finger and my thumb
        The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

        Under my window, a clean rasping sound
        When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
        My father, digging. I look down

        Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
        Bends low, comes up twenty years away
        Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
        Where he was digging.

        The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
        Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
        He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
        To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
        Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

        By God, the old man could handle a spade.
        Just like his old man.

        My grandfather cut more turf in a day
        Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
        Once I carried him milk in a bottle
        Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
        To drink it, then fell to right away
        Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
        Over his shoulder, going down and down
        For the good turf. Digging.

        The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
        Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
        Through living roots awaken in my head.
        But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

        Between my finger and my thumb
        The squat pen rests.
        I’ll dig with it.

  3. I always enjoy your pragmatic perspective on how we feed ourselves. There’s plenty of romanticizing in the lefty publications that I tend to read, and the counter-balance is much needed.

  4. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar,
    i mentioned before that my daughter and her partner (Hugh) where looking to start a small-holding. They have, after much searching, found the right place. My daughter has always been very wary of birds but, after much discussion they decided to start with a few chickens. My daughter fell in love with them. We had chickens when I was a child so I knew about some of the problems.

    The next was bees. Now Hugh is very detail orientated and joined a local society. I thought “Bees are a good next step”. All you need is to buy, or make, a hive, get some bees (somehow) and, every so often, collect honey. I had no idea how much knowledge you had to acquire to make the project viable.

    They also took on 3 generations of feral cats (5). After 6 months of care, some of them will allow themselves to be stroked (by Tamsin or Hugh but nobody else).

    The next step is to be pigs. To buy weaners and bring the up to slaughter weight. (The spell checker didn’t like “weaners” so perhaps you don’t have that term in the USA. In the UK we use it to mean piglets that have been weaned from their sows.)

    One does these things because one wants to and one gets fulfillment out of them not “for love”.

    • Mick, having gone through most of those steps (with the exception of the feral cats), I will vouch for how interesting and satisfying they can be (and we do use the term ‘weaners,’ but I more often see ‘feeders’). I will also vouch for the difference between the things we do to raise our own food, and a commercial farm. The work and risk are different both in both type and scale.

      I hope Tamsin and Hugh enjoy the enterprise (and its fruits) as much as Kevin and I do.

  5. “For most of human history, farming was simply something you had to do in order to eat.”

    For most of human history, farming did not yet exist.

    Of course, what you mean is that for most of our *farming history* the mystique was absent.

    Here too, though, the evidence counters your argument that farming has only recently, with reality TV, Foodies … acquired a mystique.

    The farming mystique has waxed and waned from The Beginning, from Adam and Eve, and even before Adam and Eve.

    I only mention our Grand Parentage because they were by legend and myth, well… not quite farmers, but, as Yorick explains to Hamlet, gardeners, that, like a grave digger, worked the land, and God was pleased and saw that it was Good.

    And, as there son Cain, the first murderer, was also a toiler and tiller of soils, so that in Biblical heritage, toiling and tilling is what God commands before and after the Fall, farming has been in the mystique business for a very long time, though not from the true beginning of human history.

    Of course, I’m sure you are aware that one can easily find the mystique of agriculture in cultures that precede Adam and Eve’s Beginning or Genesis.

    But maybe we are witnessing a mystique Lost and a mystique Regained. Though there are rooftop farmers in our cities, with urbanization, something was lost. As Frost says, nothing gold can stay, and the golden age of rural and rustic life was smudged and soiled by industrial urbanization.

    Yet even T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, that figure of modern impotence and the modern Wasteland, where the Fisher King casts his line into the dead river, is nostalgic for the mystique of Hesiod’s Works and Hands.

    To everything Turn.

    Anything we do for money is a recipient of the Midas touch.

    Maybe Love is worth working for. Worth Digging for?
    Love that poem by SH.

  6. There may be too many romantic ideas about farming (many agrarian) and too many “farmers” like Berry, who had a good off-farm job, that like to idealize farming, but even with the danger, the hard work, the problems, I think there is still a mystique to the human-natural interaction in agriculture, to harvesting real food, to working with the soil. Given the poor returns usually found in agriculture, there has to be something more than money.

  7. Reading Yuval Noah Harai’s _Sapiens_, in which he demystifies agriculture, and claims it is “history’s biggest fraud.”

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