Farm News

A Meditation on Repetition

photo of fennel flower, green background with yellow tips

There is just a dab of weeding now. The last seedlings have been tucked into the earth. Fall on the farm can feel like a quiet, restful time. But the truth is that the waning daylight hours keep us on our toes. Now is the second season of spring-cleaning. Now is the moment we are bursting at the seams for clean crates and extra onion bags. The seeding house benches are swept of onion, garlic, and wheat debris to make way for winter squash, and storage space for equipment and hand tools. The walk in coolers have been mopped clean so crates of potatoes, boxes of grapes, and cider apples can line the walls inside. We work also feverously to “spring clean” the fields and seed our winter cover crops. Soon bean trellis and pepper stakes will disappear and a lush green blanket will rise up to cover the land.

Aside from the bouts of spring-cleaning, fall work is predominately harvesting work. This is when we come full circle, completing another round of give and take each time we go to the fields to gather up the ripe greens and roots, peppers and herbs, fruit and seeds. Clipping and bagging, twisting and crating, washing and grading – at our farm, harvest work is entirely hand work. Exactly the sort of work most people imagine farming entails and almost universally stereotyped as repetitively boring.

Because harvest work seems so simple, it’s easy to disregard it as uninteresting, of little value. Without purposely doing so, we thus classify those who do such work as unmotivated, unskilled societal laggards. This is a gross underestimation. What is simple or easy about picking strawberries for eight straight hours? Anyone who has spent fifteen minutes attempting it would not help but come to a new appreciation of the stamina, physical strength, and mental tenacity such work requires.

Alternatively one might easily fall prey to the impression that hand harvesting—berry by berry, or beet by beet—is a waste of human time. Isn’t that what machines are for? But this too is a misconception. Even today, even with a plethora of marvelous machines, no food crop—from beet root to parsley stalk, from cucumber to pumpkin to lentil—is grown without human hands intervening at some point. Industrial farming businesses exploit such hand labor mercilessly to provide “cheap” food, a practice I adamantly deplore.

In stark contrast, on my farm, handwork has a valued place. Here, the truth of harvesting-by-hand requires one to make a clear distinction between busy work and brain/body work. Busy work is meaningless, serving no purpose. But the alchemy of repetitive brain/body work has multiple benefits. Such work naturally supports the evolution of both worker and the work itself.

Good intentions have driven humans to avoid doing anything manual, repetitive or ‘by hand’. In many cases, this is a positive thing. But efficiency is a dangerous endgame, and there is much to lose when we do not have to be physically connected to the details of our life. Washing radishes or dishes root by root or plate by plate reconnects us to the truth of individuality. No two plates, no two radishes are identical; repetition is not the same as uniformity.

In addition, every good teacher knows the value of experiential learning. When our hands are at work, our minds think in different ways. A simple structure of motion or task often allows a certain freedom to emerge inside ourselves. It’s like having a restful, informative conversation without talking. And in fact, those who stick with such work, become more centered and certain of themselves and more patient too.

We too often think of repetitive work pejoratively- something to be avoided at all costs. But in the right context, repeated motions still errant thoughts, improve our physical nature and create a rich environment for ingenuity and inspiration. There is a light I can recognize in the eyes of life-long farmers who have seen their work, their animals, their land through thick and thin, though hard exhaustion and heavy abundance for more than half a century. I’m convinced that light is the inquisitive steadiness that comes from repeatedly showing up, engaging hands and head so the heart can speak its truth. Farm hand work is a form of meditation; even though it has not been acknowledged, farmers could easily be considered one of the oldest practitioners of this craft. In essence, handwork removes humans from center stage and asks us to dance with the world on its own terms.

Ironically, without the steadying presence of handwork I would become mired in the overwhelming needs that press upon me. I would not be nearly as successful or happy. I also would not have near the fortitude or perseverance to overcome things I don’t like or find difficult. Hand work allows me to rise above this immature mindset, to move past it, to keep going. I acknowledge the whiny thought and then dispatch it. “That’s nice,” I tell myself, “but I’m going to keep washing these beautiful carrots, one at a time anyway.” In this manner, repetition has instilled discipline in my life, and that discipline has opened up a world of freedom, a world of uncluttered possibilities.

Finally, whether hand cleaning storage onions one loose skin at a time, or mucking out sleeping quarters of the barn one square foot at a time, it is good to remember there is a powerful prospect for change in these seemingly mundane moments. Our hands provide action and satisfying results while our minds are free to ask, what if? In this way, such rhythmic, repetitive motions are sometimes exactly the reason we are able to create more freely, innovate more successfully.

Repetitio est mater studiorum.
Repetition is the mother of learning.

Successful farmers are what I term Resourceful Innovators. You may not know, but the history of agriculture is overflowing with ingenious agrarians. It was not a trained scientist, engineer or climatologist who first discovered the symbiotic relationship between manure and plant growth, developed a process for cleaning fruit tree pollen to substantially increase orchard yields, or captured the very first images to prove that no two snowflakes are alike. Few will recognize the names of these independent thinkers, but such farmers have contributed significantly to the quality of our life and our understanding of the larger universe we live in. This is why I believe working by hand, coupled with curiosity and the freedom of long hours spent in the company of soil, plants and animals is the third foundational skill new farmers need to develop. In the right context, within the environment of a diversified farm ‘workshop’, repetitive work is truly a gift which enables farmers to radiate their own bright light and become their own Resourceful Innovator.

There is something beautiful about the balance between movement and intellect. There is also something powerful about experiencing a sense of accomplishment in very small steps, one after another. Such continued diligence instills confidence that we do not need to achieve or be everything all at once. Sometimes persistent, incremental work is the best way to step outside our assumptions, climb past adversity, shift hearts and nourish ourselves.

Hand by hand. This is how the world is changed. ~AJ

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