Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Farm Intern Nace Cohen ‘14 on the costs—both explicit and hidden—of the modern food system:
There is an economics term, externality, which means that part of the cost of a product is not passed on directly to the consumer. This cost is still inherent to the product, and because the consumer doesn’t pay it in dollars it often ends up being paid out in other ways by society as a whole. An example of a product with an external cost is gasoline. In addition to the price paid at the pump, Americans pay for an oversized military with bases throughout the Middle East, oil spills in the gulf, pollution, and climate change.
One of the major problems with our food system is that there are too many externalities in the food that we buy. Americans spend less than the members of any other nation on their food— less than 6% of their income, according to the USDA. The next closest country, the UK, spends 9% of their income. This could be hailed as a great success of industrial food production, and an affordable food supply is not a bad thing— in fact quite the opposite. However, while we may directly spend less than other countries on food, if you factor in externalities this isn’t the case. By demanding that our food be cheap before anything else, we are getting food that is making us sick: more than one seventh of the US GDP is spent treating diet related diseases, according to the New York Times. By ignoring the harmful production of our food, our food system is destroying our environment: there was a 9,400-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 due to agricultural runoff, according to Science Daily.
These are costs that aren’t being paid in the grocery store, and certainly aren’t being footed by the corporations producing food for our industrial system, so who is picking up the bill? The answer, sadly, is us. The consumer is not simply paying the healthcare costs upfront, with his or her own body: the dramatic increase in diet-related diseases, many of them chronic, has lead to an increase in healthcare costs across the board. The costs to the environment are such that we haven’t yet started to pay for the damage that has been done, but oceanic dead zones, soil depletion, climate change, and other adverse effects of farming are real, and society will end up paying for them one way or another.
So how should these costs be assessed and covered? I believe that the people who should be responsible for paying for the externalities of the food system should be those who benefit from the system, the producers. Anybody who has taken basic economics will tell you that this will lead to an increase in the cost of the product. Increasing the cost of food is a complicated issue because everybody has a right to life, and therefore to affordable food. However, this right does not need to be ensured by ignoring the external costs of the food system. How do I believe this should be done? I believe that food producers should be ranked by an independent party on how their food production effects the environment, and that food processing companies should be ranked on how damaging their products are to consumers’ health. Based on the rank and the scale of operation these companies should be fined accordingly.
What does not matter is the solution that we agree upon, what matters is that we agree upon a solution. The food system that we live in is endangering our health and our environment, and the government has yet to admit that it is a problem. This is not a problem the market will fix, if we want to live in a safe healthy society it is something that we will have to change.
"It turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide.”
That phrase— not even a whole sentence— is slipped quietly into this little piece about new technology that will help weed and thin lettuce beds on massive conventional farms in California’s Central Valley. The machine in question has found a way to put fertilizer’s deadly strength to good use, its makers claim: by spreading it directly on unwanted plants, it first kills competition and then provides nutrients to the surrounding survivors.
It seems to me, though, that this idea raises a number of questions relevant to the state of agriculture as a whole; for starters, why are we putting poisonously strong chemicals onto our food and our land? Issues with fertilizer runoff are numerous and well-documented, including everything from tainting groundwater to creating massive dead zones along nearby coastlines; soils managed with chemical fertilizers have been proven to fare very poorly under conditions of drought and flood (the coming effects of climate change, which is caused at least in part by manufacturing chemical fertilizer and then using fossil-fueled machines to spread it). A system that insists on a fertility source that is in every way toxic can’t possible be in very good shape.
There is also a larger question, though, raised by the notion that we need technology to do this work in the first place. The current system is inefficient because “labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.” The modern tendency is to view jobs like this one as irredeemably menial, and so to compensate them minimally (if at all) and try to tech them out of existence. For a country in the middle of an employment crisis, this seems like a shortsighted way of thinking about things. What if we took manual labor seriously, protecting workers and paying them a fair wage, making it possible for them to take real pride in their jobs? Agriculture is tough work but it’s absolutely crucial, and there’s no reason to continue to treat it as if it were an expendable process.
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil, or that we shouldn’t be modernizing and mechanizing at all— it’s only to suggest a more comprehensive way of thinking about where technology and agriculture meet might benefit workers in the field as well as the land they tend. Especially given this report that increasing wages for food workers, which includes field hands, would only cost the rest of us a dime a day.
If you’re looking for some lunchtime reading, here are two stories that present a top-to-bottom approach to the issues facing farmers and the food community right now: Tom Philpott considers why organically managed soils stand up better to the extreme weather conditions produced by climate change than their conventional counterparts, and The New York Times gives us a look at who decides what gets labeled as Certified Organic. Both serve as a good reminder of all that goes into what ends up in supermarkets and on the table— and that the process is rarely a simple one.
Here are two podcasts, recorded last week, featuring YSFP Director Mark Bomford and the Rudd Center’s Kelly Brownell. There’s one on food and sustainability and another on local sustainability initiatives. Both are definitely worth a listen!