We came from Texas, Maryland, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Indiana, and parts of Michigan. We came on three-month contracts and the promise of hundred-dollar weekly stipends; we came with the assurance that for forty-four hour workweeks, we would receive barn and board. The eight of us came to leave our lives behind and try something new: farming.
We brought our fears of GMOs, pesticides, big business, and taxes. We packed our straw hats and rubber boots in anticipation of dirt and wind and sun. We were tired of bagging groceries at Meijer, staring at computer screens, and planning canoe trips we’d never actually take. We stumbled into the beginning of a season hoping to leave it as farmers, not knowing what that really meant. None of us could have predicted the record-breaking heat we would encounter; no one could have foreseen the drought.
The eight of us arrived in May as green as the fields. By midsummer the heat had produced patchy germination and parched ground. Things were living, but barely, and there was little growth. After work, I would change out of my filthy clothes and lie exhausted on my cot, thumbing out some chords on the ukulele.
After brief instruction, Joseph, the head farmer, left me in the field behind the hoop house with a pitchfork. In a regular season garlic wouldn’t be harvestable until mid July, but this year we had to uproot it before the end of June lest the cloves rot, entombed in the ground. I heaved through the weak rubber soles of my shoes and pressed on the handle for leverage. Ten minutes later that first dirt clod loosened and I crouched down to remove the tight papery head from the earth’s grasp. Harvested prematurely, the cloves were tiny, and I had to be careful not to crack the heads off in the dirt.
The drought meant more than tiny garlic cloves. It meant dormant kale, stunted peppers, and bolted lettuce. The Brussels sprouts halted after only a few inches, the parsley withered, and the pond which usually supplied water to the squash and tomato fields was dry and cracked. The house well, on which the rest of the farm relied, could barely supply water for a couple of sprinklers and a showerhead. Temperatures rose above one hundred degrees and the crust of the earth browned like bread in a brick oven. The atmosphere slowed and the air grew heavy; the drought wore down on us as we inched along rows weeding miniscule carrot seedlings. Though we hadn’t been paid in three weeks, we claimed we weren’t in it for the money; we wanted to be a part of the natural world, to feel its weight, and for that we were indebted.
Most of us had never farmed before, so we had no standard of comparison. All we could say was that it was so fucking hot before piling into Rick’s van and flying down gravel roads toward Sky Lake, our favorite destination. There weren’t enough seats in the van to hold us all, so I rode in the trunk with the sliding doors open. All day long we thirsted after swimming holes, and once off the clock, we toasted to freedom with the contents of our bottles.
In the beginning, house meetings consisted of complaints about the mess in the barn, proposals that we buy organic legumes as opposed to the conventional store brand, and discussions about which sponge was to be used for dishes and not counters. One meeting during the drought, however, Joseph sat in unexpectedly. He had been working sixteen-hour days and his presence generated a sense of gravity. He thanked us for our work saying, It’s so fucking hot and it doesn’t look like we’re gonna get a break…. I want to cry every time I walk through these fields. Joseph rarely let us into his head, so we drank up the chance at inclusion. He explained that the financial situation was not good at all, so thank you for understanding, and that some tough decisions would have to be made.
The next day was the hottest since 1952, and made the drought the worst since the Dust Bowl. It was also my birthday. To celebrate, Lisa and Tony made me breakfast. Fahim wove me a keychain out of hemp, and Rick completely ignored me, as was his style. Amber and Drew, smiled their Texan smiles, No shit! they said, How old are you? Twenty? That’s awesome!
Thanks, I said, preferring the forced enthusiasm to Jacob and Tina’s response, which was in fact, to say nothing at all. I was here to learn how to farm, and not to gain their approval, but I wanted it anyway. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was an unspoken rule that farmers made no friends during the season. Perhaps trusting your hired hands was like having faith in the weather.
That night, on dinner duty, I went out to harvest greens for the salad. I looked up abruptly in surprise; Since you’re out here now, Tina said, mind if I talk to you for a sec? Sure, I said. Casually, she introduced a solution to the problem. In light of everyone’s financial situations, we thought we’d ask if you might be willing to continue working on a volunteer basis. I would be reducing my hours from 44 to 30 per week and continuing without pay. Well … I’ll have to talk to my parents, I said, to avoid agreeing with anything outright, but this statement only verified her assumptions about my immaturity. Thanks, Leah, for being understanding, Tina said. We truly appreciate it. I turned slowly, said Of course, and walked back to the house, avoiding all eye contact through dinner.
My friends from home had been planning to pick me up for my birthday. I held myself together until after I climbed into the car. Happy Birthday! they yelled. I burst into tears explaining how I felt misused and devalued, and was working my ass off to no effect. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried; tears only magnified my apparent helplessness. We ate ice cream and swam across Sky Lake. We lay under the stars in the cemetery. I hated that money was measuring my pride and I hated myself both for not protesting and for wanting to protest. That’s stupid, my friends comforted me. Fuck the man. No, fuck the sun.
Around midnight, my friends dropped me back off at the farm. The crew back in the barn had congregated on the couches in the common area under the draping tarps which shielded us from the bat shit; they beckoned me over. Placing a shot glass down in front of me, Noah said, First of all: Happy Birthday. Secondly: Lisa’s leaving. His words tasted like the tequila: bright and terrible at the same time.
The unrelenting sun had found a human victim. She had volunteered to leave rather than suffer a pay cut. Apparently, Tina had spoken to everyone separately about the possibility of stipend cuts, but the facts didn’t line up; was the stipend going to be cut entirely? In half? Would someone else be forced to leave? We left for a nighttime harvest in the garden, to gather goodies for Lisa’s departure, our parting attempt at solidarity. If you leave, I’m leaving, we said.
The next morning, I paused from uprooting turnips to watch Lisa’s red Toyota Matrix disappear from the farm for the last time. I tried to picture myself in her place, alone. Fahim was off harvesting Chinese cabbages, Noah was watering the tomatoes, Rick was sorting garlic, and Amber, Drew, and Tony were working the potatoes; I wasn’t ready to leave. I grasped a root bulb and carefully extracted another turnip. I despised the vulgar leaves and fragile stems.
Tony called a meeting. I wrote ‘89 turnips’ on the chalkboard, and waited to hear what Joseph and Tina had to say. We were bitter and confused, and we wanted answers. So they spit them out. It was what we had pieced together, though not what we wanted to hear. They clarified that the farm was not making enough to cover payroll; they had planned to let two of us go, but Lisa had volunteered herself, so that made things easier. Now they only needed one more.
Last night in the barn, we had agreed to stand up for each other. But, as Joseph and Tina outlined their solution—that I decrease my hours and continue with volunteer status—no one objected. Tony had called this meeting because we were no longer willing to be told our work was necessary and treated as if we were insignificant, but when Joseph asked if we had any questions, or anything to add, there was silence. I wanted to speak about human justice and equality, freedom and land, but did these ideals matter in the face of bankruptcy and drought? I managed to eke out something about feeling devalued before I felt tears come down my cheeks. Joseph and Tina stammered and apologized, promising that they had not meant to hurt me, and would look into other solutions. The others watched in silence.
I rinsed off the soil from the gnarly golden turnip balls, shelved them in the cooler, and made my way to the bed of lettuce. Senselessly, I aimed the hose at the sky, and then at my bare feet. It was so hot the water on the paper mulch evaporated in seconds. Later, everyone’s stipends would be reduced to $75 a week; in equal irritation, we’d find a resurgence of camaraderie. Later, I’d receive a hug from Fahim telling me he was happy I’d spoken up. Later, I’d snatch at a movement in the weeds, pleased to find a ribbon snake dangling from my fingers, whom I’d christen ‘Survivor.’ But all of that happened later, after I felt the drought’s first defeat: a single raindrop on my arm.
I brushed it off as a joke—a ‘cocktease,’ Amber and Drew would have called it. You’re not funny! I shouted at the sadistic sky. As the light sprinkle became a downpour, shouts and whistles escaped from across the field. My straw hat sagged, and my clothes stuck to my body. I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew I’d go right on working once it was over, with or without pay. So why quit now, I thought, continuing to soak the damned lettuce, my feet sinking into the muddy earth.
Leah Sienkowski is a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, studying Biology and Writing. Her poetry has received honorable mention for the Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize in 2011 and 2012. Her writing has also appeared in Dialogue.