May hits us like an ice water dousing on a drowsy morning. It is simultaneously shocking and deeply refreshing. Winter’s leisurely breakfasts are suddenly a thing of the past: Bob and I scarcely have time to join each other for a cup of coffee before we find ourselves on our hands and knees weeding asparagus, donning nets to check on the beehives, pounding posts to trellis new grape vines, digging holes for new fruit trees, or heading down to the farm to make sausage before the farmer’s market starts. I help my dad vaccinate the sheep and bag fleeces for the mill; he examines the flock for parasites, moves the broilers out to pasture, checks the fences, hauls hay bales to the cattle to tide them over until the pastures are amply lush, and monitors the grasses and our very pregnant ewes. My mom faces an endless barrage of dishes to wash following our luncheon feasts (made larger to accommodate our springtime appetites), handles the incoming meat orders, and helps us care for the girls. But despite all our activity, we still feel as though we are in the calm before the storm that will hit when lambing season officially begins. All other away-from-home plans are subject to the whims of nature as our family readies to welcome the spring crop of newborns.
Thankfully, the commencement of lambing season also rings in the official start of our summer internships, with one or two students interested in a future in small farming joining us to share the labor and learn how the farm operates. Our relationships with these students often grow very close; over the years they’ve become a colorful web of extended family, delighting us with their ongoing adventures. This year, we have been particularly excited to welcome back a returning, much-adored second-year intern, as well as a new student from one of the state agricultural colleges. Our newest recruit comes from a small family farm that she has chosen to revive, and she is faced with the challenge of proving to her father that it can provide a livelihood before he’ll turn over the reins. Her internship with us is the final requirement for completing a four-year degree in agricultural business, and a springboard for initiating her own family farm renaissance.
Thus, we were surprised when, a few weeks ago, she visited my parents with an awkward message from her college adviser. Blushing and avoiding eye contact, she reported, “My adviser says I’m supposed to explain to you that I’m a good student.” When asked to explain the meaning behind her message, she reported (to paraphrase), “He says I’m supposed to be learning how to run a farm, not to do grunt work.”
That was a hard message for us to take. My mother pointed out that absolutely everyone on the farm does physical work. “No one carries a clipboard in this business,” she said. It is the physical work that puts us in tune with the rhythms of nature and sharpens our powers of observation to detect problems. When we have handled 100 robust chickens, our hands can swiftly detect that number 101 is in poor health. When we’ve battled thistles in the pastures, we become sensitive to the dangers of over-grazing. When we feel the meat in our own hands and observe the marbling and fat cover, we connect the quality of the food with the quality of the farming. When we prepare our food and wash our dishes, we become attuned to our own physical needs for rest and nourishment.
It is surprising that the person to raise an objection to this way of life would be a professor of agricultural business. Surely he, of all people, would comprehend that the success of a family farm is drawn from everyone’s involvement in the labor. This is how family farms have managed to survive: We are all both labor and management.
In fact, though, that’s not the model for modern, industrial agriculture. In our conventional food system, labor is reserved for people from the most humble backgrounds—those who are paid the least, receive the least amount of education, and who are presumed to be the least intelligent. Management is for the privileged, the educated. Interestingly, our modern homes are run the same way. Many able-bodied, educated Americans leave the home for the workforce, relegating the labor required for the production of their basic necessities—food, childcare, and sometimes even their household upkeep—to those who don’t share their social standing. Physical work, in the case of industrial farming as well as what you might call “industrial housekeeping,” is often viewed as lowly, dirty, or unacceptable. From this view, it is understandable how a professor of agricultural business, skeptical of the small farm and local food movements, would despair at seeing a promising student take an interest in family farming and spurn the chance to have smooth, clean, un-calloused hands.
Happily, though, more and more people are seeing his ideas regarding the separation of work and management as embarrassingly outdated. As we discover the important role of local food in healing our ecosystems, nourishing our health, and building life-serving economies, small farmers are once again becoming valued members of our evolving Earth community. Likewise, we’re building esteem for others whose physical work helps heal our families, communities, and planet: the homemaker who makes prudent use of local bounty or tends his or her own garden or livestock; the commuter who pedals a bicycle; the entrepreneur who repairs material goods so that they needn’t be discarded.
But while no longer disdained, physical work still meets resistance. In recent interviews about my book Radical Homemakers and my life on a family farm, the response from several reporters has been: “Wow. You must work so hard. I could never do that.” I’ve heard from other radical homemakers and farmers who’ve heard similar remarks from the people they meet. In reality, we’re just ordinary people engaging in some healthy labor. By elevating physical labor to the level of superhuman achievement, these apparent admirers are making the same mistake as the professor who thinks it’s only worthy of “grunts.” They’re avoiding work.
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Avoiding physical work, ironically, has taken its toll in America. We face an obesity epidemic—in part because we are physically inactive and in part because we no longer engage in the labor required to prepare foods from authentic ingredients. Our food is transported thousands of miles at a huge environmental cost because too many of us have been discouraged from the labor required to grow it. Toxic chemicals are dumped into our Earth’s soil and water as a result of the industrial, labor-saving technologies now used to produce it. (Meanwhile, many of us buy exercise machines to counteract the effects of our poor diets and stationary lifestyles, using still more of the Earth’s resources.) If we want life-serving, locally based economies, social justice, ecological sustainability, and shortened production chains, then more of us must get our hands dirty.
I believe that we are faced with the exciting challenge of stewarding our human race through a great evolution whereby we will become a beneficent species on the planet rather than a destructive one. I do not believe this transformation can happen if our bodies, minds, and spirits are divorced from one another. They must perform in a balanced union that enables us to live in ways that are both more joyous and more healthy. Physical work—be it farm labor, cooking, mending, repairing, gardening, or creating—is required by all of us, as we are able. It is neither beneath us nor above us.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.