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Rethinking Work: Farming as Labor

As food consciousness hits Americans—and wealthy Global Northerners everywhere—it’s not just cooking that has seen a resurgence. Farming is experiencing a new cachet that it hasn’t seen in ages. Dirt is cool, rather like those ill-fitting thrift-store clothes—it proves that you don’t care about social status or glossy magazines… right?

Raising some tomatoes in the backyard isn’t exactly new—my mother did so when I was younger, and though she hardly kept us afloat through the fruits of her labor, it was nice to have fresh veggies on the table.

Peggy Orenstein had a piece this weekend in the New York Times Magazine, titled “The Femivore’s Dilemma.” She starts her article by talking about all her hip friends—cracking wise about “the Vatican of locavorism” and laughs, “Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird.”

Her feminist friends are now not just staying home to raise the kids, but finding liberation in raising chickens, growing food, and making other necessities. But her casting of backyard hobby gardening as fulfilling the holes in the lives of feminists who wanted to work, as is usual for middle-class feminists, leaves out the fact that fighting to get jobs was a goal of the privileged. Other women were already working, not for fulfillment, but for survival.

In the same way, backyard gardening, in Orenstein’s view, is a new way for feminists to find fulfillment, a way to do more work than just the housework but less work than a full-time job. Meanwhile, Warwick Sabin points out:

“It used to be that keeping a few free-range chickens, tending some grain-fed hogs, and raising a small vegetable garden was how people simply survived. Now these are often vanity projects for young hipsters and retired hedge-fund executives who have discovered the forgotten pleasures of “heirloom” tomatoes and artisanal sausage. Incredibly, we’ve reached a point in our society where things that humans have done for thousands of years—grow a vegetable, smoke or cure a piece of meat—now provide the grounds for smug satisfaction.”

My mother gave up her garden when she had to go back to work to really put food on the table. The backyard tomatoes weren’t going to keep my sister and I going, and my father’s income suddenly wasn’t enough for us. And there lies the problem, the tension between the hipness of foodie-gardening and the real work of producing food: gardening in your backyard is a hobby, not work that can pay your bills.

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