Saltspring Island - The second I saw the Jerseys coming down for their afternoon milking, I knew what breed inspired the ancient nursery rhyme about "the cow jumped over the moon," and why the cheese-makers near the organic farm we were working on this summer called their company Moonstruck.
Actually, I feel a little moonstruck myself. For the first time in my life, I did some version of jumping out of bed every morning, rarin' to let out the chickens and give the cows fresh hay and water.
I'm fascinated by the love and passion I see for farming - and here on the eve of Labour Day, I'm beginning to understand why the unmediated nature of this occupation is so close to the work of artists, writers and musicians. It's not just that the joy of creation creates a labour of love. It's that the labour of love garners no decent income for the labourers, only for those who live off them - the critics and curators and grant officers and distributors and retailers.
Farmyard enchantment has been exploited for 60 years by governments and monopoly retailers bent on driving down food prices. Still, it persists both among older rural folk and urban sophisticate newcomers.
My co-workers here are all in their late 20s and early 30s, and as one of them, a former teacher, puts it, "It's likely we're more inspired by Noam Chomsky than The Whole Earth Catalogue.' Welcome to the new countryside, some elements of which are magnified here in Saltspring, the Florence of an emerging farm renaissance, a lovely spot that folksinger Valdi has described as "a difference of opinion surrounded by water."
But the demographics are universal. In the global wireless village, farm and rural life is no longer secluded. World-class entertainment is available down the road, and our common room has more bells and whistles on TVs and stereos than anything we could afford on our own. Plus, we're an hour from an airport that goes anywhere in the world, with cut-rate fares.
With less and less punitive isolation, the psychic rewards of farm labour get more attractive. E. F. Schumacher, best known for his Small Is Beautiful manifesto, lays out three principles of what makes for satisfying work.
First, it produces necessary goods and services. Though I'm gung-ho for my city job, most of us in occupations that are a long way from directly providing anyone with a necessity have to wonder "what's the use" at least once a day. Farmers don't suffer that disconnect from the purposes of their labour, and it feels good, especially when someone comes to the farm stand we set up twice a week and looks really thankful for our offering.
Second, says Schumacher, good work allows us to perfect our gifts and skills. I'm a person lucky enough to have always had fulfilling city jobs, but in the countryside I can really feel my skills gap. As I watch my daughter learn how to milk a cow, dry tomato seeds, cut cucumbers, weed an herb garden, I'm reminded of my father, who built our family home himself, brick by brick, and handled most car repairs. I think of how city life has removed us from our competency skills and the pride, control and independence that go with them. Perfecting a memo satisfies, but not in the wholehearted way that tending strawberries does.
Thirdly, Schumacher talks about the need to serve and collaborate with others and thereby domesticate our egocentricity. On this farm there is no machinery to pace our work or drown our workplace in noise. So picking blueberries with Michael is a chance to get to know him; talking doesn't slow the pace of picking.
As well, we commonly work as a team, "blitzing" a quarter-acre field of weeds, pulling carrots, beets and beans for the opening of the farm stand. We have the same surge of energy, greater than the sum of our parts, that people have on hockey or basketball teams or at aerobics workouts - the endorphin-releasing exhilaration of a team straining for its max that you never seem to feel when you've answered that series of e-mails.
From my brief experience, I'd argue that the future of farming should be based on teams, not isolated nuclear familes desperate for every opportunity to reduce labour time through machines or pesticide sprays and short on the social pleasures that take the drudgery out of hard work.
Then there are the possibilities of helping neighbours, the mutual aid impulse that many cityfolk have but can't always actualize.
Our farm boards Moonstruck cows that are too young to milk. Doing that means we have more animals to feed weeds and fallen pears and apples to, and thus can score more manure for fertilizer.
David Wood, formerly a purveyor of high-end gourmet foods in Toronto and now a maker of goat cheese just down the road from us, sends his road stand customers along to us and helps other artisans ride the coattails of his fame, and we watch for a chance to do the same for him. A farm-based economy is an easy place to keep the gift economy alive and well.
Not that there's much choice.
To return to the common bond of farmers and all creative artists, entire economic sectors are based on the forward and backward linkages that hinge on the willingness of the linchpins of these sectors to work without a living wage. This, it seems to me, is not the way to run a food system, to manage an economy or to organize the work world.