A newly-married couple from Los Angeles quit their jobs to work on farms and wineries across Europe. Read it from the beginning...

It’s called “back-breaking” work for a reason

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Schedule, Wales | 9 Comments »

When Devon and I decided to learn about farming we knew it would be hard work. In fact, we were counting on it. And we got what we expected. Farming is, as the saying goes, “back-breaking” work.

Even though we try and avoid bending over too much, it inevitably happens. When we’re weeding we’re bent over, when we’re planting we’re bent over, when we’re shoveling, and hoeing…well, you get the idea. So, we unsurprisingly have sore backs and muscles, almost all the time. Since starting our journey we’ve done a lot of work in gardens and vegetable fields, which is where most of our back-breaking work takes place. Right now, we’re at a vegetable and fruit farm which does everything by hand instead of using chemicals, as it’s an organic farm. They use rather primitive machinery for some things, but all of their farm equipment was probably top of the line in 1950.

The difficult to move irrigation rig

Today is a good example of a typical day on the veg farm. First, we moved their irrigation system (read, very large sprinkler) from one veg bed to a neighboring veg bed. The irrigation system is comprised of 12 hollow metal poles, each about 13 feet long lined with little holes for the water to come spurting out. We walk 4 poles at a time with 2 people coordinating our steps so that we are moving at the same pace. This sounds like an easy task, and it is logistically. But, manually, carrying these poles 3 times across a football sized field can be tiring.

After we moved the irrigation system we went into one of their polytunnels (2,000 square feet of protected soil) and hand-weeded zucchinis. To do this, we’re squatting or on our knees picking out the weeds and placing them in a bucket. Then, after we were done with that (which took us about 40 minutes) we had to weed the walking paths between the zucchini. It sounds silly, but they also need to be free of weeds because eventually the zucchini grows so large it’s hard to get in there and weed. We get it all out while we still can. The walking path is much more packed earth, as we walk on it, and therefore harder to pull the weeds out. So, we use a hand fork or trowel — crouching, bending and kneeling all the while.

When we were done with that, it was tea time so we went inside for some toast and tea. A 20 minute break is welcome at this point as we’re tired of being on our hands and knees. But, we’re right back on them when tea is over because then we planted about 600 brussel sprout plants. The way we did this today was one person takes the plant out of the tray and tosses it onto the earth where the sprout will be planted. Then, following that person is a “planter” on each side of the bed (there are two rows) planting them as they’re tossed down. I’m still fairly slow at planting as my knees get bruised being dragged over the rocks sliding from hole to hole. I’m getting better, but to give you perspective, the paid farm worker here planted two sprouts for my every one.

After planting the sprouts, we headed over the to the lettuce beds where we hoed weeds. Then, we walked over to the broccoli beds where we hoed some more. Although we use an oscillating hoe (i.e. it sits on a hinge and moves back and forth with our forward motion) it’s still hard on the back.

So, basically, farming is a lot of bending over and crouching, especially if a lot of the work is done by hand (which is it here). It’s work like this that makes us see why farmers use pesticides and herbacides. If they didn’t, they’d never be able to create as much crop as they do and a lot of it would be eaten by critters like slugs, birds and flies.

How does one advocate for organic when it’s so much work, more expensive, and at times seems unrealistic? I don’t have an answer, and I’m hoping by the end of our 5-month trip I’ll be a little closer. I see why farmers would choose not to be organic. Where do we meet in the middle? Do we decrease farms in size? They used to be smaller. Do we have people grow their own veg? I really don’t have an answer. Instead, I have more questions. But, if anything, our adventure is bringing the issues to life for me which is a good place to start.

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9 Comments on “It’s called “back-breaking” work for a reason”

  1. 1 Adrienne said at 4:00 pm on May 20th, 2010:

    LOVE reading about your adventures!!

  2. 2 Sarah said at 4:51 pm on May 20th, 2010:

    Love this post halbes! Really good questions- definitely good to think about. I am not sure what the answer is, but after reading this, I’m going to eat my organic lettuce tonight with alot more gratitude for the person/people who planted, tended, grew, picked and got it to me! I can’t wait to hear more.

    Love to you both!

  3. 3 Rose said at 7:41 pm on May 20th, 2010:

    Haha, I think you are bending in almost all the pictures I’ve seen of your trip!!!

    Is it over-simplifying to say:
    Support locally grown produce! Don’t be cheap when you go to the store for sustenance! Why do we put so much money into prescriptions and health-care, instead of into healthy food that lessens the demand for prescriptions and health-care?

    I’m so impressed with what you’re doing, Halbe!

  4. 4 DonnaAnn said at 6:06 am on May 21st, 2010:

    God, I had to lie down just looking at the pictures.

    Yes, I think the prevailing theory is small and local. My friends, Homer and Dru are organic farmers in PA and they go through the same thing. You are super duper heroes to do all this for free!

    Do you want me to send you one of those foam kneeler pads or do you already have them there? You, know, the fat, cushy rectangle garden pad you buy at Home Depot.

  5. 5 Jeanne said at 8:28 am on May 21st, 2010:

    Oy! Too much bending over for me. Have you thought about knee pads? I still have your old ones from high school volleyball.

  6. 6 Mindy/Mom said at 9:36 am on May 21st, 2010:

    All farmers need knee pads (Dean has several pairs) and gloves–both of those should help. Farming has really changed in the last generation. When Dean was a kid, there were many small farms around where we live. Now there’s only a handful. Big agribusiness and managed markets have crushed the small family farm, it’s almost a thing of the past. How do large organic operations manage–like Earthbound Farms in California? There must be a way to do organic profitably. Hang in you two!

  7. 7 Cathy said at 10:20 am on May 21st, 2010:

    Oh, now I see why my back hurts. Definitely get one of those kneeling pads. I’m glad our lavender has gotten tall enough that we don’t bend over so much!

    Great photos!

  8. 8 kerry said at 10:41 am on May 21st, 2010:

    way to go!!! i love hearing about your trip. i soooo want to do it too..maybe after nursing school!!! 🙂

    do good stretching exercises in am/pm! have fun!!

  9. 9 Vegetable Gardening – Some Tips For Growing Them Yourself | Small Garden Ideas said at 7:21 pm on May 29th, 2010:

    […] It's called “back-breaking” work f&#959r a reason […]

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