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Why Farmers Can’t Eat Their Own Kale

In November, I wrote a piece about modern farmers’ struggle to keep business afloat. Now, Modern Farmer continues the saga on agrarian woes with a January 2 piece titled “Why Many Farmers Eat Crap,” explaining why farmers end up eating junk food. “The primary source of the tension between what farmers grow and what they end up eating is time,” writes author Leah Koenig. “During the planting and harvest seasons the days can get extreme, stretching as long as 12 to 16 hours.” Rachel Kaplan, a Massachusetts farmer, told Koenig, “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food.”

It’s a frustration similar to those expressed on SadDeskLunch.com—but significantly more ironic, considering the work these farmers are doing. Most don’t even have the time to eat their own produce. Why? How has farming become so arduous, it eliminates the time to eat well? This particular frustration seems to go back to family structure and the economy’s effect on vocational roles:

Historically, the social ecology of a family farm included systems to accommodate the harvest season time-crunch. Some members of the family, traditionally the father and brothers, worked in the fields while others, typically the women, were tasked with preparing and, when necessary, packing up, breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also spent hours canning, pickling, preserving and otherwise stretching the life of the season’s crop. … Brad Wilson, 60, of Fireweed Farm in Iowa, says falling crop prices over the last half-century have eroded the traditional family structure on many farms: “The wives had to get jobs in town, which takes away the home garden and vegetables at dinner. After my mom died, with my wife working in town, I asked my dad to bring out food for the workers. Instead of sandwiches, he went to town and bought high sugar, artificially flavored junk food in packages.” Meanwhile, today’s growing crop of young farmers – the ones who left urban life in order to farm – often find themselves lacking that critical support network. “My friends sometimes joke that they wish they had a ‘farm wife’ or ‘farm husband,’” says Kaplan.

Koenig’s sources experience a twofold frustration. All workers want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but modern farmers finds themselves bound by time restrictions, a lack of help, and steep economic difficulty. Historical American farms were family-run. The entire family chipped in to make everything work, and they were pretty successful (read Farmer Boy, and your idea of an “average dinner” will never be the same). But most modern American families are two-career homes—either by choice or desire. Of course every family should have that choice. But in the midst of those 12 to 16 hour days, who has time to prepare a dinner from scratch, to can peaches or freeze corn?

Many of Koenig’s farmers are finding creative ways to make do: Greg and Cari Horning, 3rd generation potato and onion farmers in Washington, have started their tractor as an oven: “I wrap a spud in foil, or just put it fresh from the ground onto the exhaust manifold,” says Greg. “The manifold can be extremely hot, so it doesn’t take long to cook.” Sometimes he even packs “a little butter or bacon to eat with it.”

In a less literal sense, many of us experience difficulty enjoying the “fruit of our labor.” One commenter on Koenig’s article noted: “After a 10-12 hour work day, with a 2 hour commute on either end, you just don’t have several hours to shop for produce, cook, sit down to eat, and still have time to catch the evening news and unwind for an hour or so before you have to go to bed only to do the same thing all over again in the morning.”

How do we combat the insanity of modern work hours in order to preserve health and flourishing? Maybe Horning’s tractor-oven will inspire us to be inventive, as well.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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