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(Farm)work as/of Participant Observation

Published onJan 02, 2024
(Farm)work as/of Participant Observation

I worked many different jobs while in college. All of these supplemented the scholarships and loans that covered my tuition, fees, and some of my living expenses at the University of Georgia. Because I also moved away from university most summers, this meant I changed jobs frequently, so I pieced together work from what I could find. My two criteria for each job hunt were that I needed some form of paid work, and I would do my best to avoid any form of food service. I had worked at a restaurant from age 15, where I encountered some very nice customers but also some ridiculously cruel ones. Still cowered by one particularly mean customer experience the summer before I left for university, I was determined to work anywhere but in a restaurant.

The jobs I found that met these criteria were varied: I worked as an assistant with a home organizing company and as a book shelver at the University of Georgia main library. I spent a summer sorting mail for Los Alamos National Laboratory—part of a program to reduce the lab’s waste by removing lab staff from corporate mailing lists—and another summer raising money for the Georgia Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)—a job at which I was objectively terrible. When I left the University of Georgia in my junior year to spend a semester on exchange at the University of New Mexico and another at Humboldt State University, I needed to find a way to earn money. But with only four months at each location, finding work was trickier. In New Mexico, I sold blood plasma twice a week until I eventually found work as a receptionist at a local carpet company. In northern California, however, I could not find any paid work—though I tried. I applied at grocery stories, retail stores, and—breaking my vow to myself—at restaurants, but with no luck. Eventually I began to expand my search to work-for-trade, and in doing that, I applied for a job as an intern on a local farm called Redwood Roots. If I could not be paid in cash, I reasoned, at least I might reduce what I paid for groceries by eating off the farm.

The internship at Redwood Roots was my introduction to farm work. The farm itself covered six-acres of floodplain on the outskirts of Arcata, California. It was an organic farm that operated on the model of a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, wherein people commit to the farm at the start of each the season and pay a set price in advance for a box of food each week. Farm subscribers bring home their weekly boxes whether or not the food is plentiful or beautiful. At that point in time—2003—CSAs had become an increasingly popular model for building alternative agricultural economies based on local food and an ethos of shared work—and shared risk—with the farmer. Like many CSAs, Redwood Roots specialized in vegetables, flowers, and some small fruits, such as strawberries. Though interns did not receive the same weekly subscription boxes as paying customers, we were able to bring home whatever was plentiful that week—herbs, squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes, sometimes strawberries and tomatoes, and always kale…plentiful, leafy, fibrous kale.

My first day on the job, the head farmer—an amazing, hilarious, and loving woman named Janet—asked the interns to double dig an old roadbed. For those unfamiliar with the method, double digging, which is sometimes called the “French intensive” method in organic gardening circles, entails demarcating and digging a segment of a trench that is roughly twice as deep as the shovel blade, setting aside the topsoil but filling the hole with manure or compost. The manure and the subsoil are then loosened and mixed with a digging fork. The process is then repeated, but the topsoil from the next segment of trench is placed on the previously manured segment, and so on, until the entire garden bed is dug and the original topsoil from the first segment of trench is used to fill the last segment. But the soil of the road we were tasked to dig was so compacted that we were not just using shovels and diggings forks to prepare the bed. We had to first break the road with pickaxes to loosen the topsoil so that we could begin to dig. It was, until that point in my life, one of the most gruelling tasks I had ever been given. I was not only unaccustomed to the physical intensity of the work, but I was not yet familiar with the emotional calibration—arguably a type of labour in and of itself—that navigating such intensely physical work can require.

The next morning I was in so much pain I could barely get out bed. The palms of my hands were blistered and torn. My walk was a hobble. I knew that if Janet asked me to double dig another bed that day that I would be physically incapable of doing it. I considered quitting the internship entirely, but I opted against it for the sole reason that I really needed the food. When I showed up to the farm, Janet may have sensed as much, because she put me on seed duty. This meant that I was tasked with sowing the dozens of different vegetables and flowers that would be planted in the fields later that spring, after the winter vegetables had all been harvested.

Like double digging, this was also a new task for me. As I set about placing seeds into carefully blocked trays of soil, I was struck by the different needs and wants of each species. There were the more “standard fare” seeds, like tomatoes, eggplants, brassicas, parsleys, and basils that want to be buried so that they might germinate in darkness. Those I placed into the soil at varying depths. Then there were flowers like love-lies-bleeding and cleome that want light to germinate. Those I scattered neatly across the top of the potting mix we made on-farm. Other seeds, like kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, needed to be fetched from the freezer, which had provided something of a mock winter that helps wake the seeds from their slumber. Still other species wanted to be planted on top of the soil but needed to germinate in the dark. Those trays I placed under tables covered with shade cloth. I watched the seeds germinate over the next two weeks, and I became enamoured by their metamorphoses. For a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, sans garden, my closest point of reference for thinking about the transformations I was witnessing was a children’s toy—those little capsules that can be placed in water, only to dissolve and reveal some spongy object, most often shaped like an animal or plant—that would swell with water. Except, unlike those toys, the beings that emerged from the little seeds I planted kept growing. Their transformations were somehow magic and yet so mundane. So much of my life, I had been surrounded by germinating seeds, and I was slowly realizing how little I had paid attention.

Over the next four months, the seedlings I planted grew into food and flowers that would feed the bellies and fill the homes of the people attached to Redwood Roots Farm. It was thrilling—and somewhat shocking—to see how much produce could come from such a small plot of carefully tended polyculture. In my drive to northern California from New Mexico, I had passed through monocultures that ran to the horizon. Rows upon rows of iceberg lettuce as far as the eye could see. For my twenty-year-old self, such grand expanses of a single species were surreal but not entirely surprising. After all, most of the farms I had seen in my life had been planted according to a similar plan: one plant, over and over, in standardized rows amenable to seeders, tractors, and harvesters, to be worked by a few people doing the same tasks, day in and day out, no matter how blistered or torn their hands. However much monoculture was normalized by being ubiquitous on the landscape, it was also reinforced, even implicitly, in much of my schooling: monoculture would feed the world and thus monoculture was the humane option. My work at Redwood Roots was beginning to make all those fields and all those claims seem utterly strange and unsettling.

In a few short months that particular job so disrupted my ideas about labour and production that it set me on a different course in my studies. On return to the University of Georgia, I sought out every food and agriculture-related course I could find. At the urging of one of my professors, Virginia Nazarea, I went on to write an undergraduate anthropology thesis on the extension of intellectual property protection to plants­. I continued farming, too—first in Georgia, then back to California, then back to Georgia again—sometimes on species-rich farms but also once pruning the monocultures of California’s commercial vineyards. When I returned to university to pursue a PhD, I was still following a trail of curiosity forged by my unexpected foray into farming. In hindsight, I have come to think of my work at Redwood Roots as participant observation for anthropological research that I did not yet know existed. It retrained my perception and my understanding of things that had previously seemed beyond notice. In the process, it prompted me to ask questions about the food system, the recognition and the reckoning of human-plant relations, and the value ascribed to different types of labour that I am still thinking about twenty years later.

At the same time, I have also come to think of my work at Redwood Roots—and the other farming work that has followed—as a sort of basic training for the work of participant observation, and not just in the sense that I have some understanding of how to wield a hoe without throwing out my back. While anthropological fieldwork can be many things—visiting, learning how to be a good guest, “deep hanging out”1—it can also be seriously hard labour, depending on what we study and where we work. Indeed, where I work in The Gambia, much of what I do that would fall under the rubric of anthropological fieldwork is not considered work at all—it is only “work” if it leaves your hands with blisters. And yet, when we learn methods of doing fieldwork we rarely talk about the potential physicality of participant observation, the emotional labour such work might require, the modes of understanding it might activate, and the forms of tacit knowledge it might enable. As I have sought to navigate these experiences in my research and in my writing, I have returned, again and again, to my work as a farmer before I was an anthropologist.

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