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My job ended during the pandemic, so I left New York and moved to a farm in Maine — and it's changed how I think about work and food

Submitted by Tech Insider on August 1, 2020 - 10:00am

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  • Michaela Schwartz is a writer/producer living in New York. Originally from Boston, she graduated from Barnard College with a bachelor's degree in Film and Gender Studies.
  • When her television job ended in April, she saw no return to normalcy in sight for entertainment — so she decided to pursue her fantasy of going to work on a farm.
  • In July she made this dream a reality: she left New York after getting tested for COVID, got tested again at home in Boston, and then set off for a farm in Maine.
  • She works 36 hours a week on farm tasks, and has learned the realities of the labor that go into the food supply chain — as well as the inequities within farming.
  • She's not sure what her next move is, but she will be thinking more intentionally about her labor as she considers working post-farm.
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All through this winter, pre-pandemic, I had been fantasizing about going to work on a farm or in a small cafe in New England. I could see it all: I would spend my days bottle feeding baby goats, sitting around campfires, and drinking homemade lemonade in a field of wildflowers. I was itching to do a different kind of work than I was used to and take a break from the desk jobs I had been working since college graduation. 

When my TV production/development job ended in April, there was no return to normalcy in sight for the entertainment industry. I sat in my NYC apartment from March through the end of June, reading and cooking and calling my representatives.

SEE ALSO: For 2 years I taught English in small, idyllic cities in southwest France — and it wasn't the vacation I thought it would be

Finally, on March 26, I signed up for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that facilitates homestays and work exchanges on farms across the globe.

I paid the $40/year membership fee to access their network, and contacted a few farms throughout the US. 

Eventually, I narrowed down my options to two potential hosts, one in Washington State and the other in mid-coast Maine. I decided it was not feasible for me (for many reasons, both COVID and non-COVID related) to plan a cross country flight right now, so I confirmed my stay at the farm in Maine. 

Also joining the adventure was my roommate, who deferred the start of nursing school for a year because of the pandemic. We found subletters for our rooms through connections and Facebook groups, and then began to pack and prepare to travel across state lines.

After two hours in line at CityMD, we both got free COVID tests before we left NYC, and then departed to spend some time with our families.

We both got tested again in our respective hometowns before traveling to Maine. My test in Boston was at an urgent care facility with a five hour wait and cost $160; they wouldn't accept insurance at all because I was asymptomatic. Of course I'm still waiting to hear if I'll get reimbursed from my insurance.

Once both of us got our negative test results, we loaded up my roommate's borrowed family car  (available because her brother's summer program got cancelled) and headed up the coast to Maine.

I had a few thousand dollars in savings at the beginning of the pandemic. I had been able to pay off some minor credit card debt in 2019, freeing up a small portion of my paychecks for savings. During May and June, I was able to save up around $5,000; this was only possible because my student loan payments had been frozen, my transit expenses had gone down, and, most crucially, I was making $928 a week (after taxes) in unemployment checks. 

While my expenses here are significantly lower than they were in NYC (both pre- and post-pandemic), there are some costs associated with my choice. I'm not paying rent, and I found a subletter for my NYC apartment so I'm not responsible for rent there either. An available car is key to our mobility up here, but since it's a family car there are no associated costs besides gas, which costs around $25/week split between my roommate and me. I had to buy a few new items of clothing — long pants for garden work to keep the bugs out — and plenty of bug spray and sunscreen. 

It is a cheaper alternative to living in New York, but that freedom is only possible because of many crucial conditions of privilege: access to a car, parent-sponsored health insurance (I'm under 26), the fact that I'm not financially responsible for anyone else, and a whole host of privileges that lead me to earning a livable wage in entertainment in NYC in the first place.

The farm is run by a couple in their 70s who have cultivated this property in Maine over the past two decades.

They have so much knowledge and keenly developed intuitions; each day I learn an overwhelming amount of new information about the many uses of weeds and which bugs are "good" vs "bad."

Besides the owners, my roommate, and myself, there are six others that live and work here.

Many are also on COVID-related life detours — from restaurant work, nursing school, traveling the world. Others might have been here regardless of the global pandemic — they have been farming for a good amount of time already or are spending a summer here in between college semesters. Our paths probably would not have crossed at any other time or place in life. We live, work, cook, and eat alongside each other; there's a first semester of college or summer camp vibe to spending so much time with complete strangers.

Each of us work 36 hours a week in exchange for housing and food.

We can stack our hours in whatever way we see fit; I have been working five 7-8 hour days and taking two days off a week. The day starts with a quick meeting over breakfast at 7:30am to discuss the day's tasks. We're truly at the whim of nature to schedule our day — if it's cloudy, it's a good day for transplanting. A rainy day means we're inside shelling peas and cooking up a storm. If it hasn't rained in a few days, the entire day could be dedicated to hand watering each garden.

On top of the mutable schedule, I find that this experience is more in line with my idea of labor than any previous job I have had. The bulk of my work is out in the farm: weeding, thinning, harvesting, turning compost, etc. 

But cooking lunch or dinner for the household also "counts" as hours, as does grocery shopping, cleaning, and planning. It's an exercise in understanding what it takes to house and feed a group of people as well as maintain my own health and energy levels.

It has been so important to learn and fully understand what goes into feeding people — a chain of labor that is consistently undervalued in this country.

The farm is not commercial, meaning the owners grow food for themselves and their close community, not for sale. This takes a huge pressure off of them and the workers here, there is no supply chain or corporate interest demanding a certain yield. 

It is an unmeasurable privilege to work in small-scale, not for profit agriculture during the coronavirus, as farm workers across the country, the vast majority of whom are Latinx and POCs, are denied hazard pay, fair wages, and safe working conditions in order to keep food on our tables. Undocumented workers cannot file for unemployment, sick pay is vastly limited, and childcare is often unaffordable when schools close. 

The history of farm work in this country is fraught with racism, injustice, and violence. So much of modern farmland is land that has been stolen from black and indigenous people, and those profiting from slave/migrant/low-wage labor are overwhelmingly white. While much of farming today is rooted in Afro-Indigenous tradition, Black farmers currently account for less than 2% of all farmers in the US. 

From picking vegetables to sauteeing greens to cleaning up after a large group dinner, the farm is a small-scale, humane, environmentally-conscious example of the labor that is involved at every point along our food chain. 

Unlike my initial dreams of farming, there are no baby goats to bottle feed, and there are way too many mosquitos to even think about frolicking through any sort of wildflowers. The work is hard. The days are long and tiring. Ultimately, I'm unpaid labor on a small, cute organic farm as a break from "real life" while so many agricultural workers on industrial farms are contracting COVID at high rates. I'm comfortable enough to take a working vacation like this and not know where my next source of income will be. 

I'm also learning to appreciate not only how much labor is involved in growing the food I eat everyday, but also what level of care must go into maintaining an ethical and successful environment. 

I'm not sure exactly what my next move is after I leave the farm. Wherever I end up, I plan on adding recurring donations to food justice initiatives to my routine, shopping more regularly at farmers' markets, and continuing to seek out local farm shares. This entire experience has taught me to be patient and listen to my gut more often than not. In picking my next career move, I know I'll take the time to think intentionally about the value of my labor and how to support the ecosystem of people around me.

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