Sunday, September 28, 2008

The College Board Weighs In

An analogy:
waitresses: underpaid :: farmers:
a) overworked
b) underpaid
c) unappreciated
d) all of the above
e) rock stars

When I'm not on the farm, I moonlight as an SAT tutor in the big city. Among the countless reading comprehension sections about Frederick Douglass, time travel, and art appreciation, I occasionally get lucky and am able to use the SAT as a segue into farming. One short reading comprehension passage always makes me laugh, as it describes the rigors of farm life in language more suited to the soviet gulag:

The farm family does physically demanding work and highly stressful work at least 14 hours a day (often at least 18 hours a day during harvest season), 7 days a week, 365 days a year, without a scheduled vacation or weekend off"...Farmers lose perspective on the other things in life. The farm literally consumes them."
Don't get me wrong; farming is hard, sometimes disgusting, work. I've seen more sunrises this season than I did in the 23 years that came before it. I can speak eloquently about the various nauseating smells associated with rotting produce (potatoes are, unquestionably, the worst, though onions, tomatoes, and squash are each their own special kind of awful). I've trellised tomatoes until my hands bled, tromped through chicken excrement, battled the endless Bermuda grass rhizomes with everything short of a blowtorch.

Despite all of that, I can't think of a better job. Overworked? Even at the height of harvest season, I worked fewer hours than my best friend, an investment banker. I'm more than willing to put in long hours, but if Paige had called for repeated 18 hour days in July, I think any of us would have revolted. Underpaid? While I wouldn't want to try to raise a family on my apprentice's salary, I still feel like I've gotten a pretty sweet deal. My housing is provided; the farm's bounty is mine to feast on; and I still receive a monthly paycheck which, carefully managed, more than meets my expenses. In effect, I'm being paid to learn. Not bad, huh?

Perhaps you still doubt. What if I did have a family, if I needed more than an apprentice's wages? Can a farmer make a decent living simply by following her bliss and selling fruits and veggies? I believe that I can. I know that I will have to economize, delay gratification, or forgo some of the pleasures that contemporary culture has taught me to consider my due. I will have to balance my farm between the demands of the market and the conditions of my environment. I'll struggle to find affordable land near good markets. More than likely, credit will be limited, making capital investments (tractor, greenhouse, irrigation) catch as catch can. I'll need to be adaptive, committed, not to mention way more diligent about sunscreen application. I'll not be jetting off to Aruba in June, that's for sure. Nevertheless, I've met farmers who are making it work. Most of them are small farmers, as I hope to be. Slowly, steadily, they are challenging a paradigm, that farmers can only succeed by working more land and growing more crops. By some standards, I'm sure I will be underpaid. My standards, however, are not strictly economic.

But unappreciated? Far from it. I was fortunate to hear poet, essayist, and pioneering farmer Wendell Barry speak at Slow Food Nation. As he looked out over a rapt audience, he noted that he had sensed a change in attitudes in the past ten years.

I said, look, you’re gonna go on doing this [advocating for a "resettling" of America] and you’re gonna be virtually alone. And you’re gonna die and go under the surface and there will be a little bubble that will pop and that will be it. And it wasn’t very long after that this other thing started and it’s been remarkable. About 1994 or 95 I began to look at myself in the mirror and I said there are people out there doing what you wish they’d do! You got to go help ‘em.
The simple fact that you are reading my words is proof enough for me. Some folks at least think that farmers are interesting and that food is a subject worthy of contemplation. Either that, or you are all very hard up for recipes. More soon, I promise.

In the meantime, the takeaway from my little soapbox speech is clear: don't put too much stock in the old SAT.

Our new apprentice, Andrew, has just showed me how to embed video in my blog. Click below to see Wendell Berry's full address.

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