Learning Lessons From our Farmers

It was 6 a.m. when I arrived at the farm. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. It was a perfect summer day. Beautiful though it was, the farmer with whom I was working was ready to work! There were sweet peas and scallions to harvest, newly hatched potato beetles to pick off the potato plants, flats of newly seeded carrots to water in the greenhouse, broccoli to transplant, radishes to pull and basil to prepare for the farmer's market the next day. It was late spring and the farmer had just delivered the second vegetable box of the season the night before, but this was no time to relax. No matter how beautiful the weather, no matter what was done yesterday, this farmer had work to do today.

If you think it is easy to be a farmer, think again. For Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers the summer is when, as one farmer put it, “We don’t have time to think, much less spend with our own families ... we are working in the fields so shareholders can spend time with their families.” It could have sounded like a complaint, but in his next breath that same farmer expressed a sense of privilege for the “opportunity” he had to grow nutritious food for his shareholders. That “opportunity,” he said, was what created his “quality of life.”

For CSA farmers this “opportunity” is an interesting mix of capitalistic enterprise with a hint of socialism. CSA shareholders pay in advance for the vegetables the farmer raises during the summer. The advance payment means the farmer shares the risk of a bad harvest with the shareholders for whom the vegetables are grown. In addition to sharing the risk, this prepayment supports and invests in a local farmer/small business. Supporting a local farmer was actually the most frequently given reason by the shareholders in my study for joining their CSA in the first place.

The people who eat the vegetables are supporting the farmers who grow the vegetables. This direct marketing relationship redefines what it means to eat fresh, locally grown vegetables because now there is a farmer attached to the food. At least for the farmers and shareholders in my study, this relationship between the “grower” and the “eater” was more important to the shareholders than the vegetables that made the relationship possible. As an outside observer I noticed one of the things making this relationship special was actually something unique about the farmers. The CSA farmers showed a commitment to doing a “good job” and a sense of satisfaction in their work that exceeded anything I experienced or observed as a small business owner for the past 20 years. The farmers worked very hard, but the work was done with no complaining, no irony, no sarcasm or self-pity. I knew there was something different, but it took some time to identify and find a name for the commitment and contentment displayed in the farmers’ day-to-day practices.

When a friend sent me a New York Times book review for the book The Craftsman by Richard Sennett (2008) I knew what was different about these farmers they were living examples of developing craftsmanship. Sennett described craftsmanship as an enduring, basic human desire to do a job well for the sake of the job itself. This desire to do a job well simply because one is able to do it well is frequently missing in today’s jobs/careers. These farmers loved what they were doing. They were engaged in creating something special for their shareholders as much as for themselves.

In many ways farming especially CSA farming is both an art and a science. CSA farming requires a fully outlined planting schedule approximating what will be harvested each week, when the next planting of greens needs to be ready to leave the greenhouse to ensure a steady supply of greens for the entire summer, when the spring crops will die back so the fall crops can be planted, when the cover crop can be seeded and ploughed and the land prepared for the fall. In addition there are the season-long responsibilities of planting, weeding, harvesting, washing, packing and delivering to shareholders and/or farmers markets, restaurants or grocery stores. Farming is a dance of balancing the physical labor with the long-term planning and constant juggling of day-to-day crises of rain, hail, drought, weeds and pests.

Every day the farmers are faced with decisions that build on their experience and craftsmanship. These farmers seed, transplant and rotate 50-70 crops each year, so every day is a series of new decisions. One farmer described it this way, “You should have an overriding plan from the beginning of the season, and then day to day you have to make a decision based on what’s actually there. Of course, the plan doesn’t always match the outcome.”

So what happened when the plan did not match the outcome? That was when I expected to hear some complaining. However, I did not hear any complaining. Instead, the farmers in my study talked about what they were going to change for next year, because of something they learned this year. No matter what they were doing, the farmers were thinking about how they would organize, plant, harvest, weed and prepare the farm for the next season. This continual questioning of everything the craftsman does is what provides the groundwork for becoming a better craftsman. The farmers were doing what they loved and continually perfecting what they were doing.

The farmers also constantly  were watching their fields. Was it time to turn on the irrigation? When was the last time the sprinklers were moved? What would they charge for the sweet peas at the farmer's market? Could they get up early enough in the morning to harvest, wash and bundle the basil for the farmer's market? Would the lettuce be ready for the first vegetable delivery of the season? (For one farmer the lettuce was ready before the first box of the season and nearly 800 heads of lettuce had to be harvested before the first CSA distribution and sold at the market. That experience, however, was simply described with a shrug of the shoulders, a shake of the head and a smile no complaints.)

No matter how much the farmers did there was still more to do. There was always one more task, job, errand, chore or duty that would make something better. The farmer was engaged, always aware of this opportunity and responsibility. There is a lot the rest of us could learn from this aspect of farming which Traugher Groh, one of the original CSA farmers in the U.S., called a “willingness to do what is necessary without complaint” (McFadden & Groh, 1997).

The following blog post from one of the farms illustrated this willingness to do what was necessary. “What has been happening on the farm this week? Transplanting, transplanting, transplanting. I calculated we transplanted 13,760 plants the last two and a half days ... The combined length of all the rows we planted was 12,400 feet. That’s equivalent to more than 41 football fields or 2.3 miles in length. All done on the ground, on our knees ... I think we all are thankful for today’s rain.”

Your heart has to be in your work to bear that kind of marathon effort. If your heart is in your work, according to Sennett (2008), you have a greater capacity to govern yourself and that makes better citizens because there is a delight and contentment that comes from being engaged with your work. For these farmers that engagement with farming led to a satisfaction and dignity that superseded profit and revenue.

That is not to say these farmers were not concerned with making a living. They were concerned, not only about making a living for themselves, but also about paying their employees. While none of the farmers in my study were in a financial position to pay their employees as much as they wanted to pay them, all talked about wanting to able to provide their employees a living wage. That was hard to do, however, when the farmers themselves were not always making a living wage. One of the farms in my study calculated the farmers’ hourly rate during the previous CSA season at $6.75 per hour.

These farmers were concerned about their financial return, but they were not willing to exploit their employees for their own profit. (They might, however, exploit themselves.) Nor were they willing to compromise the quality of the vegetables they raised or the soil in which the vegetables were grown.

The farmers in my study all talked about “giving back” to the soil. That did not mean just fertilizing, it meant actually taking the soil out of production and letting it rest. It meant spending money on seed for cover crops that would be ploughed back into the soil and never harvested for profit. It meant spending time and money and not getting anything directly in return. Most short-term-minded “business” people would not call that a good idea. But these farmers did it as a matter of course, without complaint.

I happened to be at a farm when the fall cover crop seed arrived. The farmer was so excited. “It’s so cool to me,” she said, “that you can plant something and it’s feeding the soil for your crops to eat later. I just love it.”

That brings me back to the something “special” I observed about these farmers. Their behavior, in many ways, was counterintuitive to today’s accepted business norms, including current practices in agriculture. These farmers wanted to pay their employees more. They spent time and money caring for the soil instead of just adding fertilizer and getting everything they could every year. These farmers did not gripe or complain; they just figured out what they could do better next year. The best part, however, was hearing from them how pleased they were to be a farmer, growing vegetables for their shareholders, caring for the soil and providing jobs. It was delightfully refreshing.

For most of us, our food is an anonymous commodity, processed, packaged and waiting for us in air-conditioned supermarkets. My work with both farmers and CSA shareholders left me with a very different idea about food and knowing (and appreciating) the farmer who grows my food. If you think you know a lot about farming, think again. And if you want to share in the pride and dignity of the CSA experience, join a CSA just make sure you take the time to know (and appreciate) your farmer.

Dr. Connie Everson received her Ed.D. in Leadership from UST in 2014. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.