Thursday, April 19, 2012

Will Work for Food

The rain began around 2 p.m. before we had the last of the black weed cloth and staples pulled up. It was a gentle, refreshing sprinkle. All of the pulling and scraping was getting me warm under my clothes, so I didn't mind. The rest of the crew didn't care much either, and someone challenged us to guess in what direction a rainbow might appear. Fingers pointed in various directions, but the sky failed us, and we turned our attention back to the task at hand.

"Wouldn't it be great if you were a farmer with super powers?" Olivia asked.

There are several ways to get free eats where we live; doing work trade on a farm is one of them. I found out about this option by word-of-mouth from a friend. So I called the farm she works for, talked to the field crew manager, Laura, and signed myself up for the Wednesday afternoon shift. You work four hours and then get to take home what's left over from the farmers market and whatever you want from the rows out in the fields marked with yellow flags. You only need to be able-bodied, cooperative, and willing to sign a liability waiver, and commit for the season.

It's a farm labor system that has been around for centuries, although in our grandparents' time the workers were often the itinerant variety. Today, in this farm's case, the crew is made up of educated people, young and old, who value local farms and the food they produce. One of them is a member of the local food co-op's board of directors.

Another thing that is different about today's work trader than one from the Depression Era, is that back then regulations were a lot looser. In other words, what we are doing is not all the way legal in the eyes of the Department of Labor and Industries. So, for that reason, I won't tell you the name or location of the farm. If you're interested in doing this kind of work, just start calling around local farms in your own area, and I'm sure some farmer will find a spot for you.

I suppose a case could be made that work trade labor takes away paying jobs from others, but I strongly suspect that, for the small organic farmer, this is one way they manage to make ends meet themselves. I haven't met too many rich organic farmers, have you? Besides, we are getting paid. It's just not the kind of payment the banking industry or government seems to understand.

I wanted to do this work for three reasons. There is, of course, the free food incentive. Secondly, I was pretty sure I could learn a few things to apply to my own backyard project. And, finally, I wanted to connect with growers in the thick of local organic food production.

It's satisfying work, if you like to be outside. The gym has never been my kind of scene; digging in the dirt is only way I've ever been able to motivate myself to exercise. Rain? I've lived in the Pacific Northwest my entire life. I'm used to it.

After we got the black row covers ripped off the ground and staples gathered, we started to throw out a couple hundred pounds of fertilizer -- organic, of course. When Laura asked for a volunteer to help Hanni put down Reemay, I raised my hand, even though I had no idea what Reemay was, to be perfectly honest.

Reemay is another type of row cover, Hanni explained. It's a tissue that lets in the light and warms the ground. We were to put it over a long bed of tiny green onion sprouts. It needed to be pleated so it didn't lay down too tight, and it had to be covered with dirt along its edges, one shovel full at a time, so the valley's wind wouldn't blow it away.

Into the dirt I dug, making sure to keep up with Hanni, a much younger woman than I, as we steadily moved down each side of the Reemay. It was the toughest thing I'd done that day. It was the toughest thing I'd done in a while, actually. Occasionally I heard Hanni humming softly to herself as we worked, but I said nothing.

The rain was coming down a little harder now, and just about the time we finished the bed, Laura came along with another bundle of Reemay and cheerfully instructed us to do the one beside it. We began again, still silent, getting wetter by each moment. Hanni zipped up her coat and pulled up her hood until only her eyes and nose were exposed. My rubber boots started to slip around in the mud as I moved along, but I hung on to my footing, not that it mattered. My jeans were already muddy and brown from my waist on down. 

About halfway through, two of the other crew members who had finished the fertilizer project came along to help, and this time, with four on the project, we made quick work of it. Then, right on cue, right about the time we came to the finish line, a fully arched rainbow like I have never seen before spanned the eastern horizon, end to end, eliciting smiles from all of us.

After cleaning the tools, we each gathered the day's pay. I took home parsnips, carrots, and two types of kale. Was it worth it? Did I want to come back and do it again, Laura asked.

Absolutely. When rainbows appear, you know you're doing something right.

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