different ways of working the land

For my grandfather’s family, having a big backyard garden and traveling for seasonal farm work were ways to survive the lean first years of their immigration–and then the Great Depression. My grandfather was very young when they first set out along the central migrant corridor (they went from Houston up to Michigan and back, and elsewhere in central Texas), so his first memories of it are pretty happy: a city kid hanging out on a farm with his younger brother, playing a lot and earning an allowance that just covered a weekly walk to the movies by doing light work with dad in the fields. As he got older, the work got harder and he worried more, until he found himself “with no shoes on, up to the belly button in mud,” picking rice and plotting a way out.

He succeeded, and not surprisingly, my mother was a pure city girl. Or mostly–her parents did have a big front garden and often kept pigs, goats, or chickens at their house in Houston, and this was not unusual for their neighborhood. It took her some adapting when my dad, a mixed-up, rebellious city boy looking to fulfill his image of what a real Texan should be, moved us to the country and (again, not surprisingly) never really made a go of it on ten acres of hard red clay. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in their garden, picking wild berries, and walking through the countryside, trying–in retrospect–to find a way to belong to the situation I found myself in.

I gave it up and moved to the city. I taught dance classes and learned to hate food; after I quit that path, I found community gardening and a way to reconcile myself and food. I also found that I liked the physical work, at least as a respite from desk-bound life. I discovered that my reasons for being there weren’t necessarily everyone else’s reasons. I met activists who taught me about food deserts, Earth Mothers who planted by the moon, and antisocial ex-hippies who would have preferred their gardens without the community.

In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby describes two of her friends who live in Tokyo but have rented a buckwheat field outside the city. They visit it once a month, but it is mostly worked by the pensioner who owns it.

‘Have you ever seen a field of buckwheat in bloom?’ asked Adachi.

I hadn’t.

‘At night, under moonlight, the white flowers glisten like stars. It is a strangely beautiful sight.’

… In industrialized countries like Japan and the United States, … {g}rowing your own buckwheat, grinding it, and making it into noodles can be enjoyable precisely because it is no longer a necessity.

Community gardening took me on a tour of gardens in Havana, where people were working the urban landscape to cope with the collapse of their food distribution systems. Though that was their overarching reason–necessity–they also talked about all the other reasons I’d heard people give for wanting to grow something on a little patch of dirt.

Yesterday J-P and I took a class at TechShop in Menlo Park, which meant a long bike ride from the Caltrain station. It took us through a neighborhood that reminded me a little of where my grandparents lived in Houston. Chilco Street took us along the train tracks behind that neighborhood, and from there you could clearly see some lush backyard cornfields. Exactly the kind of mini-milpa that all of the rural Guatemalans who told me about their plans for el norte said they would grow, because who would they, as hombres de maíz, be without homegrown corn?


My Caltrain reading, Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico, gave me some more reasons people work the land, even though main subject is high school soccer in Woodburn, Oregon. Octavio clung to the turf nursery where his uncle and father worked as a way to feel comfortable in a new country. It was rural, which felt like home, and it had the rhythms of farm life that he was used to. It kept him from the need to interact with the rest of the town, where his inability to communicate was frustrating and where he feared detection and deportation. Cheo’s father worked the land to earn money for his family; he made Cheo do it so that Cheo would aspire to better work.

Some of these reasons are classic; some are surprising. Some are pure necessity; some pure pleasure. Most are a combination of the two, yet there is a remarkable disconnect in the US between people who care about food and the land for reasons of pleasure and those who grow food and work the land for reasons of necessity. Farm labor is an issue that hardly occurs to most people who claim to be interested in food issues; for me, they are inseparable.

2 Responses to “different ways of working the land”

  1. 1 Jon
    August 2, 2010 at 17:43

    Of all the things I don’t miss at all about my hometown, I miss the garden and random piecemeal acreage we had there with blackberry brambles (and mostly milkweed, grass, and poison ivy), and worry that if I ever reproduce, the kid’ll be stuck in some suburban mini-yard. Coming from a farming/ranching family leaves an impressive, multi-generational mark.

  2. August 4, 2010 at 06:23

    Very interested in your background; I think your grandfather was such a courageous man as this was such a hard life. I admire those you got out of it; here talking to a farmer who raised 6 children , none of whom want to live off the land (not enough money in it) is bitter and wished things did not force his children and others to immigrate to the city; he talks about all the hard realities of farming for a living in a country that does not help its farmers. I recognize full well the difference between people who love food as a concept and those who actually have to live by producing it. Huge difference, a world apart actually.

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