Community Work Ethic

Community Work Ethic

In his luminously beautiful book Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass, Gary Paulsen writes of hay season:

“Hay is the first time in the year when people come together to work, when one family is not enough and maybe two is not enough and so straws are drawn to see who goes first and everybody brings their horses and equipment to the first farm for haying.”

At Chewonki, this sense of all-hands-on is foundational to the way our food system functions: we have not left in the past the need for a community to come together to do what cannot be done fully and well with fewer hands.

This is true in times of celebration – as in the end-of-session Banquets for camp and Food Day every October 24, when participants and staff harvest and plan elaborate meals together.  And it is true in the daily work of the farm as well. 

Two full summer days after we cut down the waist high grass on our hay field for winter livestock feed, an announcement in the dining hall brings a plethora of people to load dry hay into the barn.  We put up hay the old way here, forking piles of it onto the back of trucks and trailers and tossing it into the barn loft, jumping lightly on the haystacks to condense them.   

On the second day of the fall semester, students gather in a circle at the farm to count off into small harvest crews.  In less than two hours, we harvest all of the storage potatoes, onions, and dry beans on the farm.  Similarly, the spring semester students gather on a February afternoon to pass – hand-over-hand – two cord of firewood from the shed outside the Wallace Center into the room that houses the wood-heated boiler that heats our dining hall. 

There are most certainly machines – potato harvesters, hay balers, and the like – that we could purchase and use to increase the efficiency of our farm work.  But efficiency in what terms?  It would take less time and people to bale our hay with a hay baler, but what richness would we lose in forsaking the power of focused, collective effort?  What lessons are learned on those days – the hottest and longest of the summer – about our own potential to do real and meaningful work?  And what is gained in doing that work with people and not fossil fuels?  What nutritional value do we maintain in our hay crop by handling it lightly? 

In many ways, our farm systems are designed to utilize many hands.  On other days, our need for many hands is unplanned.  We pull together a sixty person search party to roam the woods in search of a lost cow.  We hurry down to the hay field after dinner because the clouds rolling in speak to coming rain, though none was predicted when we cut yesterday; the crop will be ruined if it gets rained on tonight.  Too many days on end of rain prevent us from planting onions in a timely manner, so the whole school shows up on a Saturday afternoon to get the seedlings tucked into the ground in a matter of hours instead of days.  Farming is an unpredictable business, but a community – poised and ready to work, integrated into the day-to-day labor – is a reassuring known.

On the best days, there is a grand sense of coming together to do necessary work: it’s an almost palpable feeling on the hot hays days and crisp harvest days when people are moving purposefully in every direction.  In every day, though, whether pulling thistle in the pastures or doing a grand mucking of the sheep paddocks – those less-than-desirable tasks – people of all ages are showing up to make this farm work.