The Physicality of FarmingApril 5th, 2012
By Jeff Fisher
“Your hands are going to bleed.”
Anne Cure, owner of Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado, said this softly while looking off into the distance as Jack, one of the other farmers, described the day’s task of transplanting thousands of seedlings from the greenhouse into the field. The “bleeding hands” comment was not ill-natured in any way; it was merely a statement of fact, one learned through many springs of transplanting thousands of seedlings into the field. This was the acknowledgment that today the fields were going to be especially tough to plant. It would be a painful process for a new farmer’s hands.
Cut, cracked, and bleeding fingers are just the start of the physical hardships of farming. Over the course of my first full season, I spent long days bending, squatting, grabbing, twisting, pulling, pushing, cutting, walking, running, jumping, dragging, digging, pounding, lifting, tossing, catching, and reaching. At the end of each day I was left with aches, pains, cuts, cracks, blisters, infections, stings, and sprains. Early in that season, I always seemed to have nicked fingertips, because of my inexperience at cutting greens with a steak knife. Cracked fingers were a mainstay during the cold days of spring and fall. Our honey harvest in August brought a very swollen right foot and ankle from a host of bee stings. A marvelously infected big toe in September grounded me for three days. In October came the grand finale of farm injuries: I badly sprained my ankle after leaping over a bed of arugula and landing awkwardly. This was followed by a month of physical therapy.
My first year of farming provides these examples of the very physical toll that farming takes on one’s body, but there are also the constant sore hands, feet, and back that come and go.
I definitely started thinking about it when I landed and felt my ankle twist inward under the weight of my body. I knew exactly what happened the second I landed; I knew this was going to be painful for days and maybe weeks. I also figured I still had a couple of hours before walking became really difficult.
Six hours later, after completing the day’s restaurant deliveries, I was barely walking. Besides the pain in my ankle, the reality of my injury began to set in. What if the ankle was broken? How long would I be unable to farm? Would I still get paid while I was injured? Had my first full season of farming just come to an inglorious end?
I didn’t have a lot of options for logical next steps, other than to allow myself time to heal. Later, taking a proactive approach and preparing my body for the season would help prevent farm mishaps. I could also avoid injuries by staying focused on the task at hand, wearing good shoes, and, of course, taking care when jumping over beds of greens.
The simplest preventive measures were to start stretching and to change positions frequently. I’m still amazed at the ways my body must contort in order to plant seedlings and harvest vegetables. One moment I’m in a deep squat, then I’m bending at the waist. Next I pull out the wide stance, followed by the one-knee-down position. Variety is the name of the game with many farm tasks. Even the most adept farm yogis (which I am not) can’t hold the same posture for more than ten minutes, so I found myself constantly changing it up.
I also quickly learned the importance of adequate sleep and eating well. A poor night’s sleep or a missed breakfast leaves me less alert and less effective during the day; this is when accidents occur and injuries happen. Although aches and pains throughout the season are often inevitable, it’s important to take care of your body, as you would any farm implement.
After spending a season harvesting tens of thousands of pounds of vegetables, I can attest to the physical investment in the food we eat.
I’d never thought about being injured, even as I was gracefully soaring over that bed of arugula.
To farm is to engage fully in a truly physical way of life. In the course of farming, we use plenty of trucks, tractors, and tools to accomplish our tasks. Where I farm, though, our scale of production is small enough that we will never acquire the equipment to automatically cut greens, dig carrots, or pick tomatoes. My body is the implement that’s going to plant, weed, harvest, wash, and pack every last pound of produce. At times my body seems to be rebelling, practically screaming at me to stop and leading me to question my pursuit of farming. Will my body be able to do this sort of work for 20 more years?
So far, any question about whether or not farming is my way forward has been answered with a resounding yes. I want to help change the practice of agriculture, feed my community, and grow beautiful, delicious food. The cost might be a few bumps and bruises, but for me, the physical investment is worth making.
Adapted from Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches From the New Farmers’ Movement (Storey Publishing)