Anonymous has been farming on farms not his own for 13 years.
I don’t call myself a farmer, just because it’s not a very specific term.
It has a lot of trendy connotations and gets used too casually.
I don’t call myself a farmer because I have relatives in the old country that were born into it and are still there.
My uncle lives 40 minutes from an international tourist beach destination and the has never been to a beach or gone swimming in his entire life.
When I asked him why not, he just said:
“Why, so I could see how much I was missing this whole time?”
He lives in an area with old mines that poison the water supply and everyone gets cancer.
I think having the label “Farmer” means you don’t have a choice.
No matter how successful they are, a farmer is stuck with their farm.
I met one farmer who made over a million dollars from his farm and also told me:
“My life basically sucks when I’m not on vacation.”
People who are stuck to a farm are always jealous of people who are not, and I think that explains a lot of dynamics between farmers and farm workers.
I’m not stuck so I don’t give myself that title. If you do that, the people who are really stuck will hate you extra hard.
I have worked on a lot of different farms in many different places. Different states, different countries, different US states that might as well be different countries.
I got into it during my early twenties when I became aware of how industrial civilization is collapsing, and I wanted to find some way to create a decent environment to live in.
- Not being poisoned by agricultural chemicals and pollution is one goal.
- Being in a tolerant and positive social environment is another one.
Wanting to learn about smaller scale, more ecologically responsible farming methods led me mostly in the direction of small business owners that were doing their own thing.
In theory bucking the system and going against the grain is something admirable that you want to support, but in any kind of idealistic enterprise there will always be some people who get into it for self serving reasons.
That’s what this cautionary anecdote is about...
I’m not going to mention names or specific places but you will get the idea – the setting is a tri-state area in the upper midwest. Actually the farm in question spanned all three states.
The owners had two pieces of land in the clean water state (not really) and one almost 2 hours away in the cheese making state.
They would also drive another 2 hours to markets in a third state with people known for being rich, reckless drivers who like to dump their trash on the other two states.
The man who ran the business used to be the marketing CEO of an online car retailer and spent most of his career driving around the country.
That was the best explanation of the bizarre scenario in which once a week we would drive two hours to the next state, arriving around midnight and getting up at 5 AM to harvest crops that were planted by a local tractor operator the owner hired.
I guess he never quite got out of the habit of driving around all the time.
After spending all day harvesting, we drove back to the house with the produce to put it in the walk in cooler.
The next day the owner drove it another two hours to market with his right hand man who lived in a small apartment addition attached to his house.
This guy was a 4th year employee from a stereotypical Italian American community in an east coast state I also happened to grow up in, so we had that in common.
He had lived his whole life in a completely urbanized environment and had arrive at this farm somehow with no car, no money, and never having been anywhere except the place he grew up. In the years he worked there he learned everything about running the farm and was basically part of the family.
I’ll call him Vinny.
The owner’s wife was a young woman about 30 years old whose late father had been an organic farming consultant and somewhat of a local legend.
She had been raised by her parents on their farm and had basically zero experience or contact with the mainstream world outside of selling vegetables at farmers’ markets, contra dancing, and other farmy social events.
She told me the first time she ever left her parents farm was at the age of 19, and that was a trip to France for a contra dancing meetup.
She took the lead on a lot of the planting and farm management while her ex-CEO husband, a man in his 50s, handled the business and marketing side.
When I went there they had on two year old kid and the husband was at the edge of losing his shit trying to deal with everything.
While I worked there I stayed in a dilapidated shack on their second property which was 15 minutes down the road from their house.
There was electricity and running water but no bathroom, I used a pallet latrine out back and showered at their house.
I drove 15 minutes to work, 15 minutes back and forth for lunch, and 15 minutes back to the shack at the end of the day.
Vinny used to live in the shack before they sectioned off his apartment from the house. He said it was miserably cold during the winter, I can only imagine.
I only worked there for a little over 2 weeks.
In spite of my having prior farming experience, the owner had a lot to tell me regarding what the farming lifestyle is all about. Most especially the sacrifices involved, long hours, demanding work standards and low compensation.
He had a strong sense of being part of a movement and fighting against the system.
I’ll call the owner Brad.
Vinny and Brad both had a very macho kind of hustle culture going on the farm.
Brad’s wife, who I will call Dana, was in the glow of new motherhood and knew her way around the lifestyle enough that she seemed to be dealing with her responsibilities gracefully.
Brad, who had invested his life savings in the project, was clearly having a hard time with the farm plus the 2 year old kid.
Vinny mentioned to me once that the previous year he was going to leave if Dana hadn’t pleaded with him to stay on.
Brad referred to non-farming people as “civilians” and I think this says it all – the guy was in a war with his bottom line.
The stipend pay for a starting intern was:
170 dollars a week, plus food and a shack to live in.
We worked at least 10 hours every day, some days 12 hours and often longer than that.
There was no boundary between work and personal life.
One time in my 2 weeks there I was using the wifi outside the house and Brad got indignantly pissed when I didn’t hop up to help them unload the van, even though it was my day off.
Demands like this fell under the umbrella of “that’s what the farming lifestyle is like.”
In spite of the excessive demands I was able to keep up with the pace and they even gave me props for it.
After a couple of weeks of seeing how the farm was run, I decided that it wasn’t worth spending a season there.
Brad had a successful business going, serving a farmers’ market where he assured me that most of his customers were actual millionaires, but his crops were struggling.
It is a standard practice in agricultural businesses to extract too much from the soil without regenerating it – from a strictly business perspective it is more sensible to buy new land than it is to invest time and money building soil.
In his mind Brad was walking the walk of organic farming but realistically his farm compost was a nasty smelling heap of rotting organic matter and actual trash – plastic bags, rubber bands, and other miscellaneous farm items.
He had this idea that the land he bought 2 hours away in the next state over had special and better soil than what he had at his house, but really he was just not letting his land rest enough.
After a few years that land would also end up struggling like his other two properties.
At this point in my life I had seen plenty of other small farms and I recognized that this guy was not someone to imitate, in spite of his successes, and the pay was a wild rip off for the work I was doing.
So I let him know that I was going to move on.
When I told him that I was looking for something more ecologically oriented he got defensive and asked why, so I pointed out the trash in the compost pile and the excessive driving as something I wasn’t okay with.
He protested and started to talk about how important it is to make money and have a successful business, but I just said I wasn’t trying to argue.
I told him I would leave the next day went back to the shack to pack my things.
Later that evening Brad showed up with both Dana and Vinny: he was extremely angry and demanded that I leave his property immediately.
He launched into a tirade about how great his farm was and how ungrateful I was to take the internship position and then leave.
I had inconvenienced him and thrown off his entire season.
He told me that I wasn’t a “real farmer” and didn’t know what I was talking about.
When I told him that his labor practices were not normal, he told me that he was going easy on me and that he usually had his interns work 7 days a week without days off.
He told me that he talked to his lawyer and that because he had millions of dollars invested in his farm, his lawyer told him to remove me from the property immediately so I couldn’t sabotage his business.
It was evening and I was packing my things.
I had a long drive to the next place I was going so I told him to get control of himself and calm down, and that I would leave first thing the next day when I was packed.
He then threatened to fight me if I didn’t leave immediately, and I in turn threatened to call the police and tell them that he had been paying me off the books.
That got him to back off a bit but he continued to rant in an abusive manner and have a total meltdown.
As he was doing this his wife was thanking me for all my hard work while I was there and Vinny was saying how he was really sorry things turned out this way.
Eventually his wife apologized several times and gave me 100 dollars to go get a hotel room.
I got the impression that this was not the first time something like this happened.
The purpose of this story is to caution anyone taking a live-in internship position on a farm.
- An internship or apprenticeship can be a wonderful and rewarding experience, but it is important to keep in mind the implication that the farm you are working on is something worth imitating.
- If you are new to the experience it is easy to be dazzled by all the equipment, tools, jargon, nice property and locations.
- Some farms will teach you a lot in a seasonal internship but there are just as many that are simply trying to get some cheap labor.
If you step outside of your box to do something like this, be sure to do your research ahead of time and know what you are getting into.
- If you can, try to talk to some people who worked there before.
- Choose a farm that seems like an excellent, inspiring example to follow.
The term “apprenticeship” refers to a relationship with a master who spent their entire life learning a trade and will teach you something valuable that you can’t learn anywhere else.
It’s true that farming is a lifestyle which demands extra hard work and sacrifices. You probably won’t get a lot of money, but you can get the best food, valuable knowledge and skills, meaningful relationships, and a fulfilling life experience.