Farming As An Act of Letting Go
“Hi. Are you Dave?” I asked the only man already in the tiny airport waiting area when I got off the plane in Watertown. We were standing in the airport’s only gate, amidst a stream of young people in military uniforms heading to the nearby army house. The man gave me a quick nod.
“You must be Emily, right?”
I’ve spent the night alone on an airport bench in London, faced a bombardment of questions at security before a flight to Israel, and gone the wrong way in the customs line at Newark International. Yet, this was my weirdest airport experience. I think I remember my mom warning that I shouldn’t get into cars with strangers I met on the internet once or twice. She may not have specified, “strangers who were driving me into a rural area right next to an international border,” but she probably felt she didn’t have to. Now here I was doing just that: a twenty-year-old girl, 2400 miles from my home in Berkeley, California.
Dave the farmer didn’t seem to think twice, though, before he helped load my suitcase into the back of his van, on top of a jumbled collection of tools.
Just over six months before, in March, I was packing up that suitcase in a rush and leaving school. Admin announced that all 4,500 undergraduates would have to clear campus in the next week. COVID-19 was overtaking the U.S., and it was too dangerous for all of us potential virus-vectors to live in close proximity in the dorms.
Once home in Berkeley, my world closed into four walls. I shifted from bed to desk and back again in the converted garage-turned-cottage where I spent the next six months. My dad took over my childhood bedroom as an office for his remote work with the city, so I was staying in this in-law unit that we typically rented on Airbnb. I could stretch out my arms north and south at any point in the room and touch the furniture that lined either side. Online classes were a slog and a half. My brain was swimming with the pressure to succeed and a thick fog clouded behind my eyes. I snagged passing grades in all of my courses but felt a deep guilt for letting my work fall into mediocrity.
Come summer, I was supposed to be conducting research with my professors. The hours reading housing case studies on my computer turned to hours avoiding work, then hours berating myself for not being more productive than ever in quarantine. I would lie on the couch, enclosed in a bubble between a floor-to-ceiling cabinet and the end of the bed, scrolling endlessly on my phone.
The work did not happen. I did not do my work. As a college student, who was I if I was not working? I was letting down my team, my parents, my peers who said they’d never been more productive than in shelter-in-place. My only interaction with the research group was a once-a-week Zoom check-in. During those calls, I tried not to crumble under the weight of my inadequacy and half-full progress spreadsheets. Eventually, I quit. The burning hole of failure pulsed under my ribcage and the worries built a nest in my brain.
I quit the research. I got hired back at my childhood summer camp. I spent the next three weeks telling hormonal pre-teens to stay six feet apart from their peers and to pull up their masks. We sang. We ran. We hula hooped and went on scavenger hunts. Not one of my kids got COVID. After that release, those days spent outdoors, the scratching threat of failure in my lungs, I knew I couldn’t do another semester of online school.
Rose, a high school friend and classmate, texted me that she was spending the semester on a farm. At first, I brushed the idea off as ridiculous. Something she would do—a free-spirited poet in a continuous state of existential crisis—but not me. I didn’t like the feeling of dirt under my fingernails and went into a flurry of stain-removing and washing if I ever got so much as a speck of tomato sauce on a white shirt.
But the image of tending to goats in a meadow somewhere wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the complete opposite of everything I resented about university. The rat race. The endless workdays, when the to-do list always ended longer than it began by bedtime. The constant, unceasing pressure to do more, and be more, and make more money, and pad your resume, and sell out.
I sat my parents down to tell them that I was taking a leave of absence from school. With their half grudging, half optimistic support, I wrote to Dani and Dave of Cross Island Farms through the WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) website. They ran a 102-acre diverse organic farm on Wellesley Island in Upstate New York. I spoke to Dani on the phone and heard about four dozen different plants and projects waiting for me just a six-hour plane ride away. After being trapped inside by a shelter-in-place order and the ash-filled air of California fire season, it sounded like heaven.
Come the last week of September, I was discussing vegetarianism with Dave the farmer in his van while driving into the dark. He was against, as a practitioner of animal husbandry. I tried to explain that I wasn’t a vegetarian because I worried about the animal’s feelings. I was worried about climate change, and meat was expensive anyways. He warned me that more than once WWOOFer left his farm a former vegetarian after seeing how happy the animals were.
We arrived at Cross Island a half hour later, and the first thing I noticed was the quacking of ducks. About a dozen of them were chasing each other around their enclosure in the front yard, squawking like the world was ending. Maybe the world was ending. But hey, at least I’d be riding it out here on an island in the St. Lawrence River, just minutes from the Canadian border. I met Dave’s partner Dani, who fed me hearty white bean chili for dinner at the outside table.
In the dark, it was difficult to see much of anything besides the tall, white farmhouse, the plastic picnic table, and the birds. A light blue sign on the duck pen proclaimed their shelter “The Quack Shack” in sideways white brushstrokes. A chicken tractor sat to the side with an electric lamp casting a harsh light over two hens. We were far enough north, and the days were getting short enough that the birds needed artificial sunlight to keep laying eggs. Another volunteer named David came out to chat. He was short with a shaggy half-mullet—perhaps a casualty of pandemic haircut scarcity. After every sentence or so, he’d pause to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He was taking off a semester from school and informed me that Zoe, the third volunteer and another student, was already in bed.
After the meal, Dave strapped my small suitcase to the back of a golf cart which bumped and shook when he drove me into the woods. Along the way, we talked about artificial insemination. Of cows. As we talked, I thought: what would I think of a character in a TV show chatting about cow semen with a stranger in the woods? It sure was a far cry from dinner table talk back home, but you know what, if cow semen was an important topic on the farm, why not soak up the knowledge?
He dropped me off at a large tent, promising the half mile walk back would be clear enough in the morning. We confirmed that I would camp every night until I got a negative COVID test. I was just grateful to have somewhere to be beyond Zoom.
I woke up the first morning, felt a rock in the middle of my back, and remembered I was not in Kansas anymore. Well, farm life might be closer to Kansas than urban shelter-in-place. The sun was rising, pink and orange peeking out between the trees. The air was fresh, and the green leaves were all-encompassing. I walked across the pasture towards the farmhouse, pastel mist blanketing the grass. Cows and goats turned their heads as I passed. It looked like a movie scene. Dozens of acres of gentle slopes of grass spread out on either side of the path. Positively idyllic. Unreal.
At breakfast, back at the plastic table by the front door, Dani brought me oatmeal with raisins and black tea. After some quiet get-to-know-you chit chat, I asked what was on the agenda for today. “Well, you can feed the tomatoes on the ground to Snorty and harvest some squash. Then,” she added with a smile, “I think it’ll be time to dig some potatoes.”
The other volunteers burst into laughter. Zoe and David were both my age and seemed a little shy in the daylight until this moment. Apparently digging for tubers was what passed for an initiation ritual out there. While we finished the meal, I tried to shoo away my self-doubt. The farmers knew that I knew nothing about farming. They would teach me. It would be fine. The morning turned out to be small potatoes in terms of work though. I delivered tomatoes past their prime to the pig Snorty. I collected squash from underneath a long, white row cover using a pair of clippers to separate the gourds from the vine.
After lunch, the real work began: the big potatoes. Dani walked me over to Garden 3 with a pitchfork and a knowing smile. She showed me how to begin, stabbing the pitchfork into the ground, “vertically, not horizontal at all, so you don’t stab the potatoes. If you stab the potatoes, I can’t sell them, and we have to eat them before they rot.” No pressure. She shook the dry soil from her pitchfork and plucked several brown tubers from the loose ground. Just like that—and they looked just like the ones we cooked at home.
She passed me the tool and told me she’d watch for a little while to make sure I was doing it right. No pressure. I stabbed my pitchfork into the soil and wiggled it side to side. The dirt separated in clumps, but my hands felt awkward and no potatoes appeared. I puzzled over Dani’s instructions in my head, “Dig down vertically, not horizontally. That way you don’t stab the potatoes.” But how could I get out any dirt if I didn’t dig under it? I tried to scoop down below where I guessed the roots would be. Nothing. I pulled out the pitchfork with a heave and inched it forward an inch, holding my breath as the tines broke the ground. Nothing.
Dani grabbed the pitchfork from me and dug it in a half a foot farther down the row, pointing out the leaves of the potato plant above ground. I might as well have been digging a mile away. I grabbed my first potato from the new upturned soil and brushed it off with my brand-new work glove. I could do this.
“Be careful how you handle the potatoes. Even using your glove like that is taking the skin off. See?” Whoops. No pressure. “You’ll figure it out,” Dani said. Just like that, she left.
So, I dug. And I stabbed a few potatoes. And I tried not to freak out about the ones I might be leaving buried on the sides of the row. Dani had mentioned that any left behind would create potato weeds next spring. No pressure. My back ached from bending over. The sun left my cheeks feeling raw. Sweat collected behind my knees. When I looked behind me, though, the potatoes stretched back in little starchy piles, almost all intact. My potatoes. I dug those with my own hands and muscles and shallow breath.
When Dani came back to collect me, she praised my work and told me I was done for the day (early). “You’re not used to this kind of work yet.” While a part of me wanted to prove that this city kid could handle plenty more manual labor, I wasn’t used to it yet. My soft hands hadn’t been doing much more than typing on a keyboard and scribbling notes the last two years of college.
I left Garden 3 long before the agreed-upon end to my workday. As I shut the gate and walked back past the pig pen, it struck me that I wasn’t being graded here. There was no A+ for unearthing every single tuber. Sure, a weed might come up next year, but I wouldn’t be there to see the small failure. I wasn’t being paid either—the first time since middle school I wouldn’t have some kind of paying job. That took some pressure off, too. This was a simple exchange. I worked. The farmers fed me. I’d get to sleep in a bed in their house (post COVID test) and take the afternoons off for hiking, writing, canoeing, reading, whatever suited my fancy. They knew that I knew nothing about farming. They didn’t expect me to just know by osmosis. They’d teach me. No pressure. . . for real this time.