On being a software engineer / farmer

I recently started at a new job.  The existential crisis I experienced upon accepting this new position, although brief, was a bit enlightening for me regarding how I see myself and how societal stereotypes about career and class influence us all.

Going back in time a bit, I had a quite reasonable phase of career-change related insecurity at the start of my first apprenticeship on Bainbridge.  I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted into that farming community, coming to it as I did as a complete outsider from the completely different world of software development.  I worried that my car was too nice, I didn’t know the farming terminology, I wouldn’t know how to relate to the types of people I might meet.

It turned out that yes, my car was too nice.  🙂  But the other worries were groundless — the types of people I met at the farms on Bainbridge were without exception wonderful, caring, and completely accepting of who I was at that moment.  Who I was was a young person in transition into finding myself.  I wasn’t a farmer and I didn’t have to pretend to be one.  I was interested in learning about farming and that was perfectly fine.  This contrasted with how I had often felt about myself while working software – that I wasn’t truly an engineer at heart and I was kind of pretending to be one.

The next thing that happened was I got more comfortable being a farm worker, but I didn’t know if this was a real transition or just a temporary thing.  I remember going to the dentist sometime in the middle of the Bainbridge experience and having to fill out that sheet that asks you your occupation.  I didn’t know what to put.  And then I started thinking about how they might judge me depending on what I wrote.  If I put “computer programmer” versus “farm apprentice,” would they treat me a certain way?

All of a sudden I was noticing a class divide that I had never really given much thought to before.  A person’s occupation, and the various things that come along with that, are a huge influence in the person’s own life but also in how that person is viewed by strangers.  Insurance or lack thereof, personal appearance, and regularity/dependability of cashflow are some of the pieces that can become apparent to outsiders and can lead them to judge your intellegence, ability, importance, etc. without really knowing anything about you.

Take personal appearance.   I grew up in a quite middle of the road, middle-class family in the midwest, and I have never been a super sleek, manicured and groomed, professional type.  But I got pretty used to being able to blend right in at a nice restaurant, for instance.  As a farmer, (or carpenter, or auto mechanic), your work clothes can tell an outsider exactly what kind of labor you do for a living.  In one example, I go pick up my prescription at Costco in my grubby farm clothes after work.  I don’t have insurance to pay for the medicine, and as I get my cash out I imagine I feel the cashier perceiving me as poor – which I am, I guess.  I want to tell her, “you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m actually capable of being way above you, you’re cashiering at Costco for crying out loud.”  But there I go, doing exactly what I don’t want her to do.  In my prior life, when software developer Becky went to pick up her prescription for a $10 copay with her insurance card, she didn’t think about these things because there was an intrinsic assumption that I was well off and the lady behind the pharmacy counter was some nameless person with no college education who ate McDonalds for every meal.  Obviously I didn’t think or care about the unconscious classism I was guilty of, until I felt myself on the other side of the equation.

A couple weeks ago my housemates and I had a breakfast table discussion about these exact issues.  Why is it that a certain type of knowledege is being valued so highly above so many other types in our world?   Roomie Lauren’s dad has a PhD in some kind of sciencey thing but has worked his whole life as a contractor builder and a fishing boat captain.  People who meet him based on his line of work are surprised at his level of intelligence and scholarship.   We all do it — make assumptions about peoples’ IQ or level of education based on their job.  An electrician, builder, or plumber is assumed to be less smart than an engineering type.   But would those of us who make these judgements know how to construct, wire, or plumb a house or public building?  These “skilled trades,” like farming, are critical elements of our world, but they are no longer being valued or emphasized in schools or by society.  We view a college degree as being hugely important, and of course I am glad I have one, but maybe you don’t need one if one of these trades is your passion.  These jobs take physical ability and real-world understanding rather than (or in addition to) book-learning.  They are the kinds of things you have to learn at least partially by apprenticeship, watching a mentor, and by doing.

I now feel certain that what I want is to make my living by growing vegetables.  But since I’m not there yet, I have to do other work in the meantime.  I tried to fit software back in as a part-time money-earner, but it’s not feeling right.  I have to give too much of myself to that type of work, and at this point I’m far too rusty at it to be asking a company to give me a special custom-made part-time position.  So instead I started looking to find jobs within the food system, the area that I’m now much more comfortable working in.  I got an interview and immediately got hired at Trader Joe’s.  I should have been thrilled, and I kind of was, but I was also kind of appalled at the hourly rate that was offered – about 1/3 or 1/4 of what I could make at a software contract.  I realized I have this sense of entitlement regarding what I “deserve” to be making.  Another thing I felt was worry about telling my engineer type friends about the new work and having them look down on me.   What kind of stigma would come along with working retail?  This is the kind of job I used to get when I was home from college over summer break.  I have a college degree now; I could be doing way better for myself.  I’m over these feelings now, but they were real and intense when I got the phone call with the job offer.

When I started farming I was afraid that I would seem too white-collar.  Now I have the opposite concern.   As I meet all the new colleagues at Trader Joe’s and they ask me what I did before, I hear myself making sure to mention the software work in addition to the farming.  My ego clings to wanting to project that I am smart enough to do something else but that I am blue-collar “by choice” right now.  It’s silly.  And as it turns out, many of these folks at TJ’s are in the same boat.  Todd is a former psychiatrist.  Robert has a degree in biochemistry.  Many of them have been at Trader Joe’s for 3 or 5 or 7 years because it’s flexible, fun, has great healthcare benefits, and doesn’t consume your life outside of work.

Then there is the related issue of actually living and managing my money in all of these various job personas.  I think my years in the ultra high paying software industry had warped my view of how much money one needs to earn to make one’s way in the world.  I couldn’t have imagined living on a low hourly wage based on my living expenses back then.  I couldn’t have imagined giving up some of the nice things and expensive hobbies that were then easy to pay for.  Then my two years of farm apprenticeship swung me in the opposite direction: my lower-than-minimum wage stipend made every $5 purchase worthy of deep consideration and honed my bargain-hunting and freebie-nabbing skills.  It was really good for me to learn how to live frugally.  Now it’s time to find the balance between those two extremes.  I don’t want to have to postpone going to the dentist until I have more money because it costs $150. But I also don’t want to be unaware of how  much going to the dentist costs because I’ve never had to actually pay for it before.

It is a really good thing for me if I don’t/can’t solve every problem by just throwing money at it.   It makes me engage with life more and live more deliberately.  (Biggest example here is riding my bike to get places in the city instead of driving everywhere.  I LOVE it.  But the price of gas is a big factor in reminding me to ride even when the weather’s not perfect or there is a hill involved.)  Having less money may be the only way to force myself to live more frugally and thoughtfully and creatively.  But on the other side of the coin, it’s nice having some cushion — you’ve gotta have enough money to solve major problems when needed.  I was definitely walking the fine line here when my car got broken into this fall; I was feeling pretty tight at the end of my intern season and to have to unexpectedly replace several even moderately costly items hit hard just then.  It made me realize that so many people in the world live right on this brink all the time.  All those folks working minimum wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, maybe with credit card debt, maybe with kids to take care of — one or two little things go wrong and their whole life can fall apart very quickly.  Meanwhile there are software engineers and investment bankers, some fresh out of college, making six figures and spending it on giant big screen TV’s.  And I mean, they earn their money.  They can spend it how they want.  I’m not sure what my point is here.  It’s just things I’ve been noticing as I straddle these different career/job worlds.

Why organic?

I’ve been learning Organic growing practices on my farms these last two seasons.  I thought I should go into Organic a little bit and explain why I think  it’s important.  Many people I talk to seem to have a poor opinion of organic or don’t understand why one would want to use organic practices.  I want to explain why I value organic and would prefer to see organic practices, both at a home gardening level and at a commercial farming level.

First of all, what does organic really mean?  Organic food is that which has been grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.  It is also not genetically modified – more about that later.  Fertilizers can be used on organic farms (in fact they are a highly critical ingredient), but they are made of things like ground up mineral rocks, composted animal manure, bone meal, kelp, and etc.  They cannot be petroleum-based or man-made compounds.  There are some organic pesticide sprays as well, made from things like dried flowers or elemental Sulfur.  However, even though these are technically classified as organic, many (most?) organic growers choose not to employ them and instead rely on techniques like crop rotation, trap crops, cover cropping, and fostering beneficial insects as predators, as ways to reduce pest outbreaks.

Organic practices, when used correctly, make the soil richer and a more hospitable place for growth.  The soils are more likely to be balanced, contain micronutrients, trace elements, and healthy bacteria and fungi.  Non-organic chemical pest control tends to kill off all the healthy soil life in addition to the targeted pests.  Therefore land that has been hit with chemical pesticides repeatedly tends to develop *more* harmful outbreaks because there are no beneficials there to protect against them.   Non-organic chemical fertilizers tend to be a heavy-handed dose of Nitrogen to give plants a short-lived growth spurt but they *imbalance* the soil and over time make it a less hospitable and diverse environment.  This is basically what people mean when they use the word “sustainable.”  A blanket statment with lots of room for qualifications is that good organic practices are more likely to be sustainable indefinitely, whereas conventional practices get you good crop once or twice and then require more and more inputs as the soil gets worse and worse.  Think about the meaning of the word sustainable.  Why would we want to do something unsustainable if a sustainable option is there?  Well, because the sustainable option requires more work and the unsustainable option is easy.  Easy, though, for now.  Eventually, following unsustainable practices is going to make for an awful lot of work.  Can we not think ahead and realize that unsustainable literally means it’s not going to work forever.  Can we not buckle down and do the work required to do it right the first time?

Back to organics, though.  The place where fertilizers and pesticides and other growing practices are classified as organic is within the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Organic Standards.  Farms that wish to call themselves Certified Organic must be certified annually by one of several approved certification groups.  They must show various forms of documentation and pay a fee for this certification.

As I mentioned before, many organic farmers choose to follow their own sense of best practices instead of doing everything allowable by the organic standards.  Similarly, many (most?) of the farms that I know of that are following organic practices are not Certified Organic.  These farmers are not willing to pay the money and jump through the hoops required to gain the USDA certification.  They prefer to make their good farming practices transparent to their consumers in the hope that those consumers will buy from them without the official stamp of approval.

On the other side of the coin, much of the organic produce you can buy in the grocery store comes from “Big Organic” suppliers.  These are huge farms, mainly in California, who, in my opinion at least, follow the letter of the Organic law instead of the spirit.  Although I haven’t worked on a farm like this, it is my understanding that the produce may not be all that different from conventional.  It is still industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture.  Grocery store organic, therefore, is good in a pinch but is not the produce I would generally choose to buy.  “Real organic” (again, my opinion), comes from the farmers market *or* your local food co-op type store.  In Seattle, PCC and Madison Market are the go-to places.  Any store that indicates the name of the farm where items were grown, rather than just the region, is going to be your supplier of the real goods.  I would recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for a more eloquent description of Big Organic.

Let me take a little tangent now and relate something interesting I noticed when I was home in Michigan last August.  Of course the agriculture there is all corn and soy just like the rest of the midwest.  These are the two giants of the industrial crops – produced for animal feed as well as to be broken down into their biological components and made into food additives like lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, and xanthan gum.  Yes, these are all corn or soy — I looked them up.   Anyway, I was intimately familiar with Michigan’s corn/soy landscape from my childhood, and I remember being aware that the fields surrounding our neighborhood were sometimes corn and sometimes soybeans.  Crop rotation was being practiced, at least on a very minimal level.  But this time, I noticed something funny – all the soybean fields had scattered cornstalks poking out of them.

Why is this funny?  It’s just last year’s corn coming back as a weed in this year’s soybean field.  Well, the funny – or scary – part is that there were no other weeds there.  The soybeans were growing out of bare ground except for the cornstalks popping up here and there.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I am now familiar with how the fields look on the organic vegetable farms I’ve been working at.  There are weeds everywhere.  Nature abhors a blank space, and everywhere vegetables are not, there are “natural” plants (i.e. weeds) coming in to compete.  As farmers it is our job to keep the weeds to a minimum at critical times for the vegetable to germinate and grow.  We do this using hoes, our hands, and sometimes the tractor.  Other times it is our job to make peace with the fact that the weeds are there — as long as they are not outcompeting our vegetables, the presence of these plants shows that our soil is fertile.

In conventional Ag, however, weeding is done with herbicides.  These chemicals kill off the weed plants so the farmer doesn’t have to do it by hand.  How come the chemicals kill only the weeds and not the vegetables?  You might well ask.  They’re both plants, aren’t they?  Well in some cases, the chemicals can be targeted to kill only seeds that have emerged and not unsprouted ones, so these could be applied when the vegetable seeds are first planted and before they have emerged.  In other cases, as with the soybean fields I noticed, the vegetable plants are made to be resistant to the chemicals so the chemicals can be applied while the vegetables are fully grown and will kill only the weeds.   The way they are made resistant is by genetic modification — insertion or deletion of genes from their DNA.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a term that I’d like you to learn if you haven’t already.

Monsanto produces “Roundup-Ready” GMO corn and soybeans.  This means that the DNA of these plants has been genetically modified — in this particular case it has had a gene from a bacterium inserted — in such a way that it becomes resistant to Roundup (Monsanto’s trademarked name for its potent herbicide composed mainly of the chemical glyphosate).  Are you tracking with me here?  You can now spray your soybean field with this toxic chemical that will kill every type of plant growing there except for the soybeans.   You can buy the chemical, and the seed that resists it, only from Monsanto which has patented both.

Seeing the stray corn plants in the otherwise weed-free soybean fields all across Michigan freaked me out because I was unmistakeably seeing Monsanto’s takeover with my own eyes.  These farmers had grown Roundup-Ready corn the year before in the fields that they were now using for Roundup-Ready soybeans.  When they doused their fields with Roundup this spring, it killed all the weeds and made the soil an inhospitable place for more weeds to grow.  There’s nothing there except soybeans — except for those corn plants that sprouted from last year’s fallen seed and are now growing there as weeds.  They’re GMO’s with the Roundup Ready gene too.

Doesn’t this just seem wrong at a very basic level?  I’m sure there are scientific studies on both sides (and how many of the studies showing Roundup does no harm are funded by Monsanto?) But isn’t it just common sense to think that 1) spraying large quantities of a chemical that kills things onto farmland is probably not good for the land or the people spraying it, and 2) vegetables that have been made able to withstand the spraying of this killer chemical and then doused with it multiple times might be a strange and unnatural thing to eat?

GMO food crops were first planted in the United States in 1996. In 2010 in the US, 93% of the planted area of soybeans, 93% of cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified varieties. (Wikipedia).

Zero in 1995.  Ninety percent in  2010.  Isn’t this unrestrained skyrocket to complete dominance of a never-before-seen organism a little scary, too?  I feel pretty sure that we were growing a hell of a lot of corn pretty darn well before 1996.  The rest of the world is taking a more measured approach to GMO’s.  Other countries, most notably the European Union,  whose governments are not controlled by Monsanto (sorry, perhaps this is the leftist propaganda getting to me), have banned various types of GMO seeds or have banned importation of GMO crops or require labelling, etc.

Not so the US.  If you’re in America eating a non-organic product containing corn or soy, or restaurant food that was cooked in corn or soybean or canola oil, you’re almost assuredly eating genetically modified food.  However, something important that I learned recently is, Organic (basically) Equals GMO-free.  I’m sure there are trace amounts or exceptions or whatever, but the organic standards say that organics can’t contain GMO’s.  These days I really do only buy organic corn chips and tofu because I really have decided that GMO crops is a practice I don’t want to support.

Everything about it just seems wrong — what about the patenting of seeds?  What about the fact that repeated applications of Roundup has now been shown to be creating weeds that have evolved resistance to this killer chemical?  These are whole big issues in themselves.  You can find plenty of information on GMO’s that will make it much clearer than anything I can explain here.   This statement from The Non-GMO Project is a good one to start with.  I like this bullet point from that document:

The scientifically demonstrated risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see GM as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven,
energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.

I believe that we as a society know what good farming and good food looks like.   We just choose to try to find ways to get around the fact that farming is hard and requires knowledge and skill.  We choose instead to attempt to outsmart nature by using heavy handed agricultural practices like thousand-acre monocultures, government subsidized commodity crops, GMOs and chemical controls.  These practices are not sustainable; they are a shameful mismanagement and misuse of our land and our farmers’ hard work;  and they result in a strange and off-balance food system that has totally perverted what we recognize as food and is making us fat and unhealthy.

Non-organic agriculture has only been widely practiced from the 20th century on.  It’s pure propaganda that calls non-organic “conventional” as it has only been conventionally done that way in the last 100 years.   My grandmother remembers the milkman and butcher coming around with deliveries, for goodness sake.  There’s local, small-scale, organic for you- but it didn’t have to call itself that.  It was just food.  Imagine how different that milk and meat was from what passes for the same items today.  I believe that we need to rescue our food system, not by bringing it back exactly to the way it used to be, but by bringing back a lot of the old time-tested elements and doing our best to ensure that we use our great amount of knowledge and technology wisely.

I believe that changes can happen as more and more people are currently recognizing the problems and making themselves knowledgeable about how to fix them.  I also believe that individual consumers who don’t care to get involved in food politics can still make small changes to their food-buying habits that will begin to have a big influence on restoring sanity to America’s food problem.  See if you can make some small steps; you don’t have to go “whole hog” (as it were) right off the bat.  Here’s what I would say about what to eat, starting with the best options:

1. Food you grow and raise (organically) yourself

2. Food you buy from producers you know and whose farms you have seen

3. Food you buy from any vendor at your farmers market (I believe it’s safe to assume the market management has some knowledge about the producers’ practices, and I support small and local over and above Certified Organic,  so I buy from market vendors even if they’re not Certified Organic)

4. Food you buy from a local co-op type grocery store (These tend to carry a lot of “real” organics and thoughtfully-chosen non-organics, plus are fun to shop at once you get used to them)

5. Food you buy from a restaurant that cooks from scratch and lists local/organic sources of meat and produce

6. Organic food you buy from a supermarket or food you buy from a restaurant that’s listed on the menu as organic (unusual)

7. (If you care about GMO’s): Non-organic food from a supermarket that doesn’t contain any corn, soy, or sugarbeet-derived ingredients.  Food you buy in a restaurant that hasn’t been cooked in corn, soybean, or canola oil.

Whew.  Okay.  Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts, and happy eating.