The Farm: How I am Ill-prepared for manual labor


Jeff at the start of the day.

I am not a lazy person. I love work. I love being productive. I am energized by finishing a project. More than that, I seek out ways to improve companies I work for by taking on things outside of my job and in my spare time usually have at least one project on the go to keep me busy. It just so happens that those projects tend to be either events or based around the computer. So while I’m not lazy, I also tend to avoid doing actual hard work; shoveling the driveway, for example, is something I hate doing.

The first morning of our farming days was a classroom lesson on permaculture. The main principal of permaculture, as we were told to memorize, is “to create social and environmental designs that mimic Mother Nature.” Effectively, it’s doing things strategically so that the natural results of your plants together meet your long-term goals. This includes things like:

  • planting trees that act as a natural pesticide, cast shade, or replenish the soil with nutrients other plants are taking out
  • rather than planting one crop over and over and depleting the soil, varying your crop with annuals and perennials which has the added benefit that one bad drought or bug won’t kill everything
  • spacing your crops in rows and columns to take advantage of the natural flow of water

That’s definitely something I could get behind. Effectively, the idea is to work smart, creating systems that feed into each other, so you don’t have to do any extra in the long-run.

We were introduced to Edward, who manages the farm and is a favorite contact for our summer volunteers. He wore a ball cap, button-up long sleeve shirt, and jeans. He was soft spoken, but held up conversations on farming, Canada, winters, and crops.


Bethany digging holes

The first thing he got us to do was water some pre-dug holes to moisten the earth for planting we would be doing later. This involved holding a hose over the holes until there seemed like there was a bit too much water (it was never too much as the soil sucked up every last drop) and then moving to another hole. If anything it was a bit dull and made me have to pee.

How I would later long for that dullness! We took a long lunch after we were finished watering and met with Edward by Bibi Mimi’s (the girl’s home) in the afternoon. There’s a garden by the fence surrounding the home with eight rows of plants. Kale and some trees grew between every other row leaving lots of room for new plants. He handed both of us a hoe and demonstrated what we would be doing.

He lifted the hoe above a prospective hole and let gravity drop it into the hard dirt. He did this a few times, fluffing the soil and then used the front and back of the blade to create a hole around 2/3 of a foot in diameter. It looked easy enough. Bethany and I then proceeded to do this around 60 times each with Edward following behind us with a hose to moisten the dirt like we had done in the late morning.

The dirt was a bit heavy and a bit sandy, and the hoe’s blade wasn’t attached in any particular direction so would spin as you tried to thrust it into the dirt. It was also mid-afternoon with the sweltering African sun pelting down on us. I felt nauseous from the heat, work, and large lunch I instantly regretted. I kept going though, making the conscious decision that I would rather work so hard I threw up than have to quit because I couldn’t take it.


Bethany’s hands

Once we were finished the holes and they were all watered, we had to go around a second time to turn this now moist soil and make the holes bigger. I was in pretty desperate need of a shower and Bethany’s hands were turning into one big blister.

Luckily we didn’t have to dig these holes a third time. Instead, we headed back to the farm. There was a small plot with sticks weaved into a make-shift roof a foot above small seedlings. We were told to grab the larger seedlings from as close to the roots as possible and pull up 120 to plant in our holes. Back at the garden, we would stick a finger up to the knuckle into the wet soil, slip the roots of a seedling into the hole and then push it closed. When complete, we’d planted 120 small pepper plants!


Jeff at the end of the day

We washed out hands and then went home to fall asleep on our front porch.

The next day was all on the farm, but much easier. First we harvested around 15 plots of beans as their season had ended and we needed to make room for new plants. This was actually fun to do, finding the plants, and pulling them up a bunch at a time!

The dreaded hoes came out again, but this time the soil was much softer, the sun wasn’t yet at its brightest, and Edward helped dig. Before we knew it, we’d dug over 200 holes! We then had to water them, but someone else was using the holes, so we walked down to the lake with a bucket each, got water, and brought it up to the farm, pouring it over our holes. We did this over and over until each was wet.

It was certainly hard work, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it again soon. However, I’m also glad we got to do it. It gave us a new respect for all of the farm hands who – without even thinking much of it – go to work daily to grow most of the food we eat on campus.

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