Kelsey has been farming on farms not her own for 5 years. She is entering her fourth season at the same farm in the Appalachian foothills.
I work on an organic vegetable farm.
We have about 3 acres in production. We’re really a main season farm so we typically run from April through November with multiple market outlets. We have a big CSA and also sell at 3 farmers’ markets. My bosses take the winter off, but in an effort for employee retention, we decided to grow this winter.
I’ve been independently growing for them this winter for a 60 person CSA and selling to our local food banks. I’ve been staying pretty busy with that and also understanding a lot more of the back end of things.
In the main season we are a six person crew with our two owners who work full time.
In the winter time, one of my coworkers does cover cropping, bed turning, rebuilding, and fixing everything that we didn’t have time to fix during the summer, so she’s around. And I do the winter production and really that is all that I have time to do.
I initially lived on the farm for the first season, but then a coworker and I moved off the farm, and now I live with my girlfriend in town.
I’ve been farming for going on 5 years, that is way longer than I feel like I’ve been doing this.
You sort of feel so new because you’re learning so many things every day, but then you get to a point where you’ve been doing this for a while.
This is going on the 4th season at my current farm.
Prior to that, I did a season on a flower farm.
I worked part-time for my current farm while I was working at a local food non-profit, but quickly realized where my passions are and went back to full-time farming.
I grew up in a really industrial farming community, a lot of soy and corn and tobacco farms.
Once I got older, I was really compelled to leave that culture, it’s a really rural area.
I was a first generation college student, and I was really “on track” – how can I be the most successful?
that ultimately leads you to lose your mind at some point.
I was just looking for something different and I took a farm apprenticeship with a stipend – I really was just trying something different and did not expect it to stick.
Once I started doing it, I started remembering sort of where I came from and being in the garden with my Grandma.
I started thinking of it more structurally:
- We grew up in this place that has such fertile ground, but all of us are eating from the Dollar General.
- The nearest store to buy a vegetable is 30 or 40 miles away.
It made me sort of think of how
farming can help and also exploit
the people who live there.
I became impassioned about that. I left again and tried to get back on the track of what I thought was success, but I continually felt really hollow. Once I had done it, I knew I had to go back to farming.
It was a complete 180.
I think I thought success before farming was being the opposite of the people around me growing up.
So often we are being the people who brought us up
trying not to be the people that brought us up.
I was trying to prove something and sort of realized that I am this people and the way that they lived was a success.
I have chosen to farm for someone else to reconnect in some way and when you are farming for someone else you’re put in this group of people who are very like minded.
I really just fell into farming for someone else —
I fell into the lap of farming.
I’m always dreaming of what the right way to farm is and trying to see that in the techniques of the farmers that I work for.
I would love to have my own place eventually, I think, but I’m often constantly in a cycle of thinking about what the right way is or even if there is a right way as a white person.
It’s so cost prohibitive acquiring land, and all the other things that go along with farming, so maybe if I win the lottery, I would have my own farm.
- When I’m looking at a farm, I’m looking at if they have returning employees.
- I always look at who is driving the tractors and their photos – if it’s only men who are using equipment or using particular skills.
- I look at pay because that is such a weird thing that is particular to the farming community, the way that farm employees are compensated.
- I really look at a culture of learning and teaching.
I really work for sort of a dream farm.
When I look at farms in our surrounding area, it’s not a sustainable model for employee retention.
The farmers who I work for offer year round employment opportunities in whatever way that they can. We have a good pay rate and also when you’re taking on more roles, you’re making more money.
The biggest thing for me – the farmers that I currently work for really emphasize boundaries.
We work a 40 hour work week and we get paid for every minute that we work. If we work an extra 15 minutes one day, we either take it off the next day or we get paid for it.
A lot of my other friends are working 60 hours/week and their pay does not reflect that.
That is really a huge reason that I’ve stayed at the same farm for so long.
Usually every 4 to 5 months, we have a check in:
what’s not working?
what do you want to learn?
When I told them I would like to learn more about managing the CSA, they created a job and said, ‘In the winter, you will manage the CSA.’
They really trust their employees and really believe that we have the ability to run the farm.
Thinking about what makes a farmer – to me it’s really my farm owners believing that I’m a farmer.
It’s the check in and the trust and the boundaries that keeps me.
The main issues that I’ve either witnessed or experienced from farm employees are centered around the idea that as farm workers we are putting a lot into the operation and the farm is the farm owner’s baby. Often as farm workers, we can confuse where we are valued and our opinions are valued versus where our labor is valued. Sometimes it just is that – this just needs to be done and there isn’t time to tweak or change things right now, but we’ll revisit it later.
In the heat of the season, it’s hard to remember that.
When I look at my farm owners, I see people who are also screwed by the same systems.
The farm is their livelihood so they know what they are investing into it and they are going and going and going, so it’s hard for them to step back and see the way it’s affecting their employees.
Being on the same farm for multiple seasons and these people becoming close people in my life, I’m able to see the ways that their stress is manifesting or ways that they are lashing out where newer employees aren’t seeing that.
It really is a benefit of staying somewhere longer, you come to understand where people are coming from and not take things so personally and understand that they are people too, and they are being screwed, also.
For me personally, I have a hard time not getting really intertwined with my work.
In the main season, it’s who I am and it’s my entire life.
It’s easy for me to get way more intertwined with the mission than I need to be.
I struggle with that boundary, how much to give to the farm and how much energy to put elsewhere.
Something that we do that really builds community is we have a yearly Halloween party in our packing shed. We have this group of farms that are competitors in the market, but we have farm prom and fires together. We are carpooling two hours away to stay with them. Building that community between farms while you’re working in one place, you’re able to go and know these people who run their operation a bit differently.
Every Friday we have something we call “Beer:30” when we’re winding down and instead of adding a new project for the day, we stop.
Not everyone drinks beer, we just call it that.
We pull up chairs and talk.
Our partners come, friends from the community come.
Sometimes it’ll last til midnight and sometimes we leave at 5.
It’s totally optional, but it’s a time when you can look at the people you’re working with and decide that you want to be with them in a different way.
A lot of that community building is a dream farm quality.
When I’m farming, even when it’s just the crappiest day, you come home and you still feel full, like your day was full. Whereas in other professions even if it’s a philanthropic role and I feel like I’m contributing, I come home and I want to be outside or I want to work in my garden.
For me when I come home from work I feel like I’ve had a full day even when it’s sucked. With farming I’m able to take the good and the bad and it works together.
When the pandemic started, I stepped back and thought, how could I do anything else?
This is really the place to be right now.
I come back to farming for the community, also. You see the deepest depths of the people around you and I think it just brings people around you in such an incredible way.
I also love the ability to not have to be perceived by the general public. When I would go to work prior, you are making sure you look fine and thinking about how people are going to think about your body.
We just come to work comfortable and we are trying to stay healthy and direct our bodies in the way that feels the best.
That is also something that I love.
It’s a hard thing to decide when to call yourself a farmer.
The first time I ever even thought about it, I was at a conference with my boss. The person facilitating asked all the farmers in the room to raise our hands and I didn’t raise my hand. My boss looked at me like I was out of this world.
She said, ‘You’re absolutely a farmer, raise your hand!’
Since then I’ve always sort of questioned that definition – when is the time that you are a farmer.
A farmer is one who does the work of farming, who is cultivating land or raising animals, doing the work. It’s so much of the identity. When you can name yourself like that, you get fulfillment from that. You’re giving so much to the profession, that when you call yourself a farmer, you feel like what you’re doing makes sense. You’re able to name it and identify with it.
I do call myself a farmer and I do it for a lot of reasons:
- Sometimes I like to make people laugh because if an older man asks me what I do and I get to tell him I’m a farmer, it really brings me a lot of joy. Because it’s true.
- I also call myself a farmer for a visibility thing – like the founding tenets of Not Our Farm – who are the people who are growing food and who are the people who are feeding you and they look a lot different than you think.
My partner and I were talking about what it would be like to have an even more interactive way to build community among workers- like monthly roundtables about creating that community and letting out how you’re feeling.
Sometimes when talking to your peers on a farm (if you have them), you have to be careful about how you talk about where you’re working.
Once you start getting into that negative cyclical talk, it can really dampen where you’re working.
Sometimes you just want to let it out and tell someone who relates, but it doesn’t affect them. It could be a really cool way to connect with other people and think about where you’re working in different ways.
I think the thing that really keeps me up at night is the way that farm owners get away with really exploiting labor and still being viewed in their communities as sustainable and ethical…how prevalent underpaying workers is and how important I think it is for farm workers to be hourly.
I also lay in bed thinking about how if I ever owned my own place, how I would actually get food into people’s hands and ways to serve in the right ways as opposed to continuing on this trajectory of the inaccessibility of farmers’ markets and CSAs and selling your crappiest produce to food banks instead of what you put on your farmers’ markets stand.