When I decided to work and live on a communal farm that produces organic vegetables in the summer of 2016, I anticipated finding my vocation in a state of pastoral bliss. Instead, I found humility.
I will be honest, the decision to move to the farm was fueled by reading a lot of agrarian literature and idealism. At the time I was telling people that I was going to go be a farmer after graduation and that my degree didn’t matter. I looked down on my family and friends who used smartphones. I went to escape, to get a slice of the good life.
The past semester I had entrenched myself in Wendell Berry and Blake’s pastoral poetry. They promised freedom through hard work and a relationship with nature. They said everything I wanted to hear as I struggled against the distractions of having a phone, a laptop, a television.
I had decided to turn against the modern world and live my life out in the open, in freedom.
Then the grueling labor began. We worked from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. each Monday through Friday with an hour break for lunch. At first light, we harvested arugula, asparagus, lettuces, carrots, watermelons — all the good stuff. Later in the day, we hoed between tomato plants strung on trellises in blisteringly hot greenhouses. The tomato plants stained my forearms as dark as my sweat-soaked shirt.
But most of the afternoons were spent bent over weeding rows of vegetables. My hamstrings tightened into knots from all the stress. My back ached each morning. But then I got used to it. It was just the cost of a dream.
Wednesdays and Saturdays were market days. On those hallowed days of respite we worked from 3 a.m. loading the truck to 4 p.m. unloading. But in the middle was a foray into Ann Arbor where we ate gigantic sandwiches at Zingerman’s Deli for our weekly taste of meat.
The more I got to know my coworkers who were slightly strung out on all kinds of substances (LSD, Marijuana, Opium, Mushrooms were all players) at different times, I realized that they weren’t there for a quaint agricultural lifestyle. They went to find peace, maybe, but they mainly wanted a job and free lodging. Many had been incarcerated and more than a few had money troubles.
Don’t get me wrong. These are great people. They welcomed a poetry-loving idealist with open arms and let me listen to Snoop Dogg’s “doggystyle” on repeat as we washed lettuce and root vegetables.
But I realized that I had a different life path than them.
I had to confront my ideals of a peaceful, agricultural life. My coworkers were living on the farm because it was a decent job. The communal cooking offered the best food any of us had ever eaten, the work kept us in shape, and the nights felt truly restful. But bent over a bed of carrots, I realized that I had something other than food to give the world.
My room was actually a partially exposed porch with a stained mattress on the floor and a faux-velvet reading chair in the corner. As dusk fell, I retreated to my room to read and fill my soul. I constantly craved time to read and write but it always seemed that the setting sun was setting on me. I was fighting time. The work took too much time. Some nights I would stay up reading until 1 or 2 a.m. and I would regret it profoundly the next day.
Talent and circumstance often force you to change your ambitions. When I returned to campus after my summer of physical labor and regained the time to read and write and ponder, I felt fulfilled and appreciative of the gifts I have been given.
Working on the farm helped me to find a new vocation, but only by showing me that it was not agriculture.
I will never regret those hard days bent over vegetable beds and guzzling water from a hose in the sunshine. That summer was formative, part of my past that leads ever into the future.