My grandmother hates it that I work on a farm. From her house in Scottsdale, Arizona, she sits watching the Dow Jones ticker tape scroll across the television and sighs over the phone.
“Are you still working at that farm?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “And I love it.”
“Stoop labor,” she grumbles. “When do you start grad school?”
It’s spring. I’m in the middle of planting season, and knee-high in seed packets and tomato starts. From where I stand talking on the phone, the field is visible. Lettuce leaves are shooting through the soil. The raspberry vines have set blossoms.
I leave for graduate school in the fall, sensibly putting an end to a five-year career detour as a farmworker. My grandmother tells me she can’t wait: she’s always supported a life in academia. For me, though, it will be a difficult transition. Over the years I’ve fallen deeply in love with this 20-acre spread of wine grapes, flowers, and vegetables. I’ve learned the rhythms of the land, and am savvy with farm equipment: I can fix the irrigation pump with a wrench, and know how to sharpen the tiller tines. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never done anything more useful in my life.
The truth of it, I want to explain to my grandmother, is that I could go on forever planting rows, picking bush beans, and rolling watermelons out of the field. Throughout my childhood, I only knew fast food and frozen dinners. My family rarely ate together and often mom would just hand us money to forage on our own. At the neighborhood drugstore we’d procure candy bars and powdered doughnuts. Learning to grow fresh vegetables has been a revelation. My cooking, my relationships, my whole life has become more real. Frankly, I am afraid of what will happen to me in grad school—bent over computer keyboards instead of fragrant tufts of basil. I want to confess to my grandmother that I am afraid of what I’ll become, and that I would rather go on forever this way.
We both know I can’t. The farm does not make money. I’ve gathered from my boss that my labor not so much turns a profit as minimizes debt. For the past five years, I’ve gone about my tasks for nine dollars an hour—not bad for an organic farmer—without trying to make sense of it all. Never mind that it will cost the farm $20 for me to harvest five pounds of the beans I just planted. Never mind that they’ll only sell only for $10.
It seems ironic that you now have to be able to afford to do what has traditionally been considered “peasant labor.” When I walk through farmers’ markets, I always wonder how the vendors cover the costs of repairing tractors, of hired labor and property taxes. It is no wonder the era of the small farmer is slipping away. Unless we assume the trappings of agribusiness—the pesticides, the mass production, the impersonality—it seems we must turn from the soil and to an office cubicle or, in my case, graduate school.
Afterwards, if there’s time, we might plant a small garden, and make a fuss over the precious few tomatoes we grow, the itty-bitty peppers. More likely, we’ll find ourselves pushing shopping carts down the produce aisle, selecting celery stalks grown by faraway strangers and stocking up on bags of machine-cut carrots. Perfect little orange sticks—the same kind my grandmother buys.
I say goodbye to her and hang up the phone. I walk back to the field with a handful of squash seeds. As I push them into the cool spring dirt, each one feels like a small timepiece. I am too aware that, by the time they set fruit next fall, I will be long gone—faded into another life. I survey the field, see sunlight spark off dewdrops, and feel the soil moist and pliable under my boots. Seeds are just beginning to sprout. But I can imagine it already: before long, the entire field will pulse with the green blood of summer and I’ll wear a tank top and a mild sunburn. Then, come fall, with the abruptness of a cold snap, it will be over.
I want to preserve it all in my memory: the mid-July days when I ate warm melon slices while cucumbers dripped from the drainboard and now, this time, when life feels simple.
Christina Ammon is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Oregon.