David Oberstein (he/him)

David has been farming on farms not his own since he was a teenager. Currently he is a farmers’ market manager in the Portland area, and also works on a CSA farm. 

My first farm job was at the age of 13. I worked weekends helping out on an organic vegetable farm.

I had a family member who was also working on the farm at the time. I was drawn in to work alongside them. Like most farming, it seems to be a family connection that either brings people in or helps to retain labor even when it’s not necessary someone’s first choice because of the physical demands. Because of the limited amount of farm labor out there, family operations and working together as families are some of the few ways farms are able to make do.

I have done that sort of work on and off since then, with plenty of breaks in between. Collectively I’ve done 5 full seasons on farms since my late teens. I have always had at least a part time position working as a farm crew member or higher at a farm. 

I think my initial draw to farming was a love for plants and food. I’ve always felt a deep connection to where food comes from going back as far as foraging wild onions and spring mustard in my backyard in New Jersey. Moving into farming was a way to deepen that connection to where food came from.

I continue to choose to work for other people because I have not gained enough knowledge as a farm crew member or even as a farm manager to understand how to operate a farm business effectively.

So much of the work that I’ve participated in feels tangential to the actual success of the farm – having your hands in the soil, harvesting, processing, distributing food doesn’t necessarily give you the skillset for how to start your own farming business.

Every time I go back to farming and commit myself to a full season on another person’s farm, I am hoping and dreaming that I will one day acquire skills and strength to start my own operation. I do feel like there has been a lack of dedicated training and imparting of that knowledge to give me the skillset to start my own business. 

Ultimately I do have dreams of starting my own farm, but the usual limitations that many new and beginning farmers experience have consistently held me back. 
Lack of access to land and the inability to save enough money to purchase land, equipment and infrastructure based on farm income has never really made that dream a possibility. 

There is generally a sense of urgency and a drive toward efficiency that exists in all farm operations partially led by farm owners, but also just inherent in farm work as a whole.

It forces people to work grueling hours under difficult weather conditions with high physical demands that are nearly unattainable and in many ways unsustainable for farm laborers.

In terms of specific demands, I just think that the long hours and heavy lifting and the general toll that farming takes on your body has somehow become inherent in farming: it’s an expected characteristic of working on a farm to have those intense demands. I generally think that is why you see so few people drawn to farming, why you see such high burnout rates on farms. 

I don’t place the blame entirely on farm owners for the physical demands or the financial limitations that are put on farm owners and therefore farm laborers.

I have not had an employer that I felt exploited me with the intention of exploiting me. I really think just the nature of a capitalistic system with poor government support for small agriculture just creates an environment that makes it really hard to provide effectively for farm workers. 

Despite all of the challenges and the demands of farming, I can’t think of any other place in the world that makes me happier. Working on farms, having my hands in the soil, spending time connecting with plants and living by the cycles of nature brings me a deeper satisfaction than anything else in my life. 

It almost brought me to tears the moment when I was frustrated by slug damage on a crop of turnip greens and then I slowed down to watch a slug eat. I could hear it taking bites out of the individual greens.
It made me acknowledge that there are other beings that we are working with who are trying to live their lives, too.
I bet that slug was enjoying that crop as much as I would have been in my kitchen.
I don’t get that same sensation, have those same feelings, feel as connected to something when I do other work. 

I jokingly say that I am addicted to farming. I actually feel that there is some kind of sickness inside of me that brings me back to a career that ultimately will be more challenging than so many other ways that I could make a living.

I spent 15 years working in the restaurant business. Those jobs fed me well and took care of me financially, but they did not feed my soul.

I’ll admit, I feel really lucky to be working in food systems and be working as a farmers’ market manager right now, but I just did that stupid thing where I quit my job, and I’m taking another full-time job working on another person’s farm.

I’m going to be doing 3 things:

I’m partnering with the farm owner to grow out dry beans on her property to start a dry bean CSA.

( I can’t wait until September or October to dance on beans! )

And because you always have to have some sort of alternative income when you’re working on a farm, I’m going to keep working one day a week at the farmers’ market, and then work on a friends farm full -time. 

I have always struggled with identity in my life in general, and knowing exactly what the appropriate classification, the appropriate identifier, that I fell into was.

With all of the experience that I’ve had on farms, I have been very hesitant to call myself a farmer. I have regularly called myself a farm laborer, a farm crew member, a farm worker. And I think part of it is not being an owner/operator makes me feel like I am less of a farmer when I don’t have lead of an operation, when I don’t make ultimate decisions.

It doesn’t make me feel lesser, but I don’t think I qualify as being called a farmer…until I know what it is like to experience the losses, understand the risks, and celebrate the successes of operating my own farm. 

When I was a farm manager, I was the closest I’ve ever felt to identifying as a farmer. Ultimately in that position, I felt like I was still as important in that operation as every seed that went into the ground, as every tool that operated on that farm. 

Because this is a similar struggle that I’ve had throughout most of my life, how I perceive my presentation to the world doesn’t matter as much as what my actual contribution is or how I’m perceived by others.

I hesitate (to call myself a farmer) because I feel like I have more to learn and more to experience. But for all intents and purposes, the amount of time I’ve spent on farms and the passion I have for farming probably qualifies me as a farmer.