One of my favorite markers of the toll of farming is the state of my right index finger. Within days of the start of my first farm season, the digit had turned a lovely shade of brown that it refused to relinquish no matter how hard I scrubbed and moisturized. In the off season, it would gradually return to normal, only to reclaim its dark tint again with the first wisp of spring. I mentioned it every time I wrote something about farming or caught up with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while. I loved it.
When people think of the pain of farming — assuming they think about it at all — it’s often the pain of the bend. And indeed, the lower back generally takes the brunt of it. At one farm I worked at, thousands of rows of carrots had to be crawled – yes, the method is precisely as it sounds – our fingers working like mini cultivators to kill the weeds, aggravate the soil and thin the plants to about one per inch. Days were spent inching along on hands and knees. Add in the constant lifting, bending and stretching to reach the middle of the bed and it’s not hard to see why a good day’s work was not infrequently measured by the depth of the pain I felt afterwards.
The state of the hands is something else — not painful generally, but weathered, working man’s hands. I wore mine as a badge of honor, a tangible and visible symbol of the distance I had traveled from the effete, desk-bound life I once lived. Farming is vigorous and manly work, and I had the scars to prove it.
This year has been a particularly harsh one on my paws. It began early, filling trays of frozen potting soil in the frigid March air. The warmer weather brought no reprieve. Hundreds of times a day I plunged my fingers into the soil, each push drawing out a little more moisture and engraving the soil profile a little deeper on the lines in my palm. Some days on the drive home, I would stare in awe at my fingers on the steering wheel, amazed at how old and wrinkled they appeared. It was hard to believe they were actually mine, as if Yoda was my chauffeur. By morning, they’d have recovered somewhat, only to get slammed again.
Lately, we’ve been in the midst of an intense spring plant out. All the stuff that gets planted once a year has had to get into the field at once: Hundreds of pounds of potato seed, thousands of transplants, tomatoes, cabbage, squash and multiple varieties of cut flowers — snapdragons, zinnias, sunflowers, celosia, and more. At some point, the pride of pulverization turned to agony as my fingers began to crack at the joints and bleed from the abuse. Lying in bed at night, the soreness in my back paled beside the anguish in my hands.
I imagine if I keep at this for a few years, my hands will permanently callous and I’ll look back in a haze of nostalgia at how I’ve toughened up since that inaugural season. But this is an eventuality about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. I’m proud of the changes in my body since I’ve been doing this work, but I’m still (relatively) young. I know the look of men who have spent their lives toiling on the land, with their stoops and limps and leathernecks, and often it isn’t pretty.
I’ve come to enjoy the physical exertions of farming and their redemptive effect on a body that has spent much of its life in a chair. But sometimes I fear the state of my hands portends where the rest of my body will follow, and I wonder if I really want to go there.
Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.
From the annals of Jewish farming: Jewish farm worker activist Aaron Sapiro, a plaintiff in a million-dollar lawsuit against Henry Ford, testified in 1927 that the collapse of the Maine Potato Growers’ Exchange could be attributed to Ford’s anti-Jewish articles in the Dearborn Independent.