Farming: An Inside Look

Cecilie currently works in customer service at the Swarthmore Co-op. But, little do some know, Cecilie has worked on a few farms in her day. Below she gives us an inside look to her experience of working on two farms in the area.

I spent most of my high school and college education learning the horrors of the industrial food system. First I was a vegetarian, then a pescetarian, and finally by the end of college I ate meat again but only if I bought it directly from the farmer. I was so curious about the facts and statistics and health effects of factory farmed vs local, small traditional farming practices. I became more and more curious about what it was like to work on one of these small farms, why had this way of farming become so rare. This past year I worked for two different farms, and really came away with a true understanding of what it takes to raise livestock and harvest vegetables for a living. The first was Sweet Stem Farm, where most of the pork in the meat department here at the Co-op comes from. After 6 months in Lancaster County, I finished off the harvest season at a 1 acre vegetable farm just north of Philadelphia. 


photo 1

At Sweet Stem there are at any given moment 1000 or so pigs, 200 sheep, and 30 or so Cattle. Tractors await nearly every job and there are plenty of farmhands to share the daily chores and maintenance of the farm. Even on a small scale livestock production requires a lot of equipment and human power to keep things running smoothly. The amount of information to learn about livestock production is endless from how long it takes to get an animal to market weight, how to treat a sick animal, all the ay to how much of each cut is expected off each animal. There is so much drama to livestock production; there are health issues, feed issues, worries about the weather and grain production, equipment maintenance, butcher schedules and on and on. Every single day brought a new crisis to deal with or get around. And yet, there was a also a very strict routine to follow: animals must be fed and watered at specific time. Sheep must be moved to new pasture, animals weighed and loaded, fences mended or broken down. Not matter the weather, no matter how tired you felt, you had to put on your wellies and do your chores. The physicality of this farmwork is not so much in the repetitiveness of your actions, but the totality of it.

photo 3When I left Sweet Stem I did not intend to jump right in to another farming job, but the opportunity arose and I was eager to learn about vegetable production. The first day I spent on the vegetable farm was the first time I understood the size of an acre of land. Its huge when there are only three people to sow, weed, water and harvest, with no tractors, just handtools and carts. I was the least experienced and so I was given the dirty work, picking tomatoes. I understand that for most people the epitome of a fresh seasonal vegetable is a tomato, but the first thing I see in a gleaming pile of ripe and juicy tomatoes is how they got there. I spent 3 months picking tomatoes. For 8 hours a day, 4 days a week, I would walk through 4 rows of burgeoning tomatoes plants, carefully twisting the blushed vegtables and putting them in a bushel. Tomato plants are sticky and they are a mass of twisted green that you must climb into to get to the actual tomato, and there is always one more ripe one. Always! Every night as I was climbing into the van to go home I would notice 4 or 5 ripe ones that I missed, and every morning there was a fresh wave of ripe fruit that had to picked. The best feeling was when I got to rip out all those tomato plants that I had toiled in for the last 3 months. 


photo 2

When I look back I definitely feel that I understand and appreciate the local food movement in a more precise way. I have a much more accurate idea of what it takes to get that food onto our tables, and when I look a farmer in the face at market I understand why their eyes look so tired and their clothes so worn. I now know that a small successful farm can be anywhere from 1 acre to 1000. Yet the biggest surprise of this past year, was the differences between the two types of farms where I worked. There is a sort of mindfullness that you must have when working with animals, being aware that you are a person in a sea of animals. With sheep you must take care to not frighten the herd, and with pigs you have to be forceful and strong in order to stay on your feet. In vegetable production, the day to day labor is more like meditation, remove all traces of your own self and focus on task that you must complete, whether that be harvesting or weeding or sowing seeds. You must train your body to bend over and stand up for 8 hours or more a day, repetition,repetition, repetition. The other day I looked at the meat case and saw a pile of pork belly’s and remembered how much I loved taking care of those animals at Sweet Stem and am so grateful that I had the opportunity to have that experience. Each time I weigh a customer’s tomatoes at the Co-op I admire the smooth skin and think about how dirty my hands been at the vegetable farm.”


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