For the past two years I’ve been working on a farm in Tallahassee. It’s a non-certified organic, but organic practicing vegetable farm.
I think my technical job title is Harvest Manager/Assistant Farmer, although it’s a fairly small crew, nothing too crazy.
We are growing on just over 5 acres.
It’s a crew of 2 people who run the farm, they are managers, not technically owners, but one of their parents own the farm, and then me and two other people who are, depending on the time of year, either part to full time.
I am year-round on the farm.
We go way down in the summer because that is what the seasonality looks like here in a subtropical climate.
The shoulder seasons are the peak seasons.
We can grow all winter, we just use a little bit of frost cloth and some high tunnels, so it’s the third busiest, and the summer is so darn hot. You can grow okra, eggplant, and sweet potatoes in the ground, but it’s very limited growing.
Most of my farming experience is in the Northeast and I spent a year in the Midwest.
Here in Florida, everything went into a blender and I got to figure out what came out in what piece.
I’ve been farming since 2013. I think it’s been 8 or 9 seasons consecutively.
- I did two years of apprenticeship.
The first was in upstate New York, the Hudson Valley.
The second year was in Vermont.
- Then I got a job managing a farm back in upstate New York and I stayed there for 4 years.
- Then I moved to Illinois and I was an assistant farm manager.
- Then I moved to Tallahassee and I’ve been here for two years working at the same farm.
I plan to continue on at this farm next year. I’ve been dabbling with some potential other farm work to come into the mix, but I expect that I’ll still be working at the current farm that I work at, too.
That’s always my favorite question – what got me into farming…
I think there are a lot of things. I think that I had been looking for a job that I felt would provide a positive difference in the world and a very tangible positive difference. I was really excited to spend time outdoors and to just work and live outdoors. Oh and I had been looking for a job where I would be able to engage my brain and use it creatively and use that in support of some kind of mission in the world.
Those initially brought me to it.
I learned within the first couple years, the reasons that I really stayed with it were all those initial reasons and I also found it to be a really healthy mind-body connection for me. That aspect really changed my life. I loved the other people I was able to meet and the lifestyle of the work I was doing and many other good reasons.
The first two years that I was apprenticing, I assumed that I would want my own farm someday – I had vague plans.
My first job out of apprenticeship was to start and manage a farm for a wealthy landowner. That first year that I was working there, I had kind of an epiphany because you know, our relationship got better in future years, but my first years I would kind of fume a bit –
‘She tells me to do this or that, this is bogus, why do I have to do it her way? I’ve got to get my own farm.’
But then I had a revelation:
You find her telling you what to do obnoxious, but you want to get your own farm so you can then tell other people what to do?
And I decided maybe I don’t want my own farm after all.
I participated in Soul Fire Farm’s antiracism workshop for farmers in the Hudson Valley.
That made another impression on me.
After that happened, and it didn’t happen all at once, I eventually came to the realization that I didn’t feel called to own land, I didn’t feel called to own a farm.
I do enjoy it. I love farming and I’m definitely going to continue doing land work and farm work in general, but my ideal calling is participating in a project where I’m not the single leader or figurehead, definitely not that, and ideally I would love to be in a position where I can help someone else or help a team create or fulfill a mission rather than see myself as the sole leader or the person directing the show.
I think something that I’ve kind of come to see is that work culture, with some beautiful exceptions, in general in the U.S. has some unhealthy ideas of hierarchy and those play out on farms just like they play out in other professions.
The more specific stuff I’ve noticed is one of the communities that I’ve been most involved with as a farmer was when I was in the Hudson Valley talking with other young farmers who in almost all the cases had a relationship with a wealthy landowner.
That was a relationship that I paid particular attention to – I’ve seen a lot of versions of that going well and poorly.
I saw two extremes.
Kind of the best situation to be in was either doing a straight up rental agreement or you were an employee of the person who owned the land, but there was a lot of grey area in the middle…like neo-feudalism, sharecropping, a lot of exploitation and difficult situations people can get into when there is such a power imbalance.
That being said, most of my experiences in farming have been in social groups and farms where there is a high degree of privilege and even the lowliest workers do have a lot of social or human capital resources to draw on, that is what I have personal experience with.
The relationship that I had with the landowner was that technically she owned the farm business and the farm land, but I did the farming. She was really amazing in general and was mostly a pretty hands off person. She gave me the kind of space to be able to run the business…yes, I would check in with her, but she was taking all the financial risk of running that business.
I was, very cut and dry, her employee.
I had a salary regardless of the income of the farm.
I would say that was a very positive situation for me. I have seen other people in similar situations – you could have the normal workplace personality conflicts, but it wasn’t a situation of extreme power imbalance and economic hardship.
I would really like to work for a farm that is mission driven and making a positive difference in the world.
I’d like to work on a farm that has thought deeply about the relative merits of hierarchical and cooperative and collaborative relationships between people who work there.
I’d like to work on a farm that is really doing as much as possible to be in right relationship with the natural world and the human world.
I just love the work. I love being able to be outside and really like intimately working with the more-than-human world all the time. I really love working with the other people who are excited about farming and other plants. I love the fact that I get automatic exercise.
Farming and working with land and plants is one hundred percent a calling.
I’m definitely open to work that takes me out of strict commercial farming. I would be happy if one day I ended up doing other work with land and plants and people, so I’m not sure I’ll stay with commercial farming.
I am certainly no policy expert, but things like the Fair Labor Standards Act that don’t apply to ag workers – that is number
of issues workers face.
People more knowledgeable than me can talk about the exact legal framework to treat ag workers differently. We need to treat ag workers the same as other workers….and acknowledge the racist history of that distinction.
Something that has changed for me is realizing from working with a lot of other young people who are also trying to get small farms off the ground and dealing with the business side of farming:
Why is it so hard to make money at farming?
Is it really that hard?
Do people not know what they are doing?
I’ve seen people make money at farming, but there are so many barriers to doing it sustainably.
The obvious and fundamental barrier to why farming is different from other businesses is that it is treated differently from other businesses, and our legal system allows people producing most of what Americans eat to be underpaying and exploiting workers and exploiting the land.
There is no way that you can think you can make a living on a small farm if food is being subsidized by exploitation on big farms.
Even if I’m talking about people who are similar to myself, people with socioeconomic privilege, farming with many other options, the average quality of available job opportunities would go up if people were forced to pay minimum wage and overtime.
It would be a real game changer.
We have some huge systemic problems in farming in general.
I think that we really need to confront as a country the way we deal with land ownership and land tenure.
One thing that I see is that there are so many opportunities for job training, opportunities that have been present for me and people I know, but extremely minimal opportunities to truly make it a sustainable career. I think that has to do with some broader problems in American farming making it such that it’s harder to farm in an ecological and socially sustainable manner and also be financially sustainable.
The other problem is land tenure.
If you start farming as someone who is not already a millionaire or whose family doesn’t have land or capital, access to secure land tenure is a huge barrier.
There would be a lot more people interested in entering farm work if there were actually viable career paths to be found.