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People, Not Tractors: Agricultural Volunteerism Around the Globe

By Rachel Firak

When you’ve got an unconventional idea about farming, rural people (born and raised) are guaranteed to put it through the wringer. These are the shrewdest judges you’ll ever meet, so before you start running your mouth in front of them, you’d best be prepared.

Sometimes volunteers and tractors can coexist peacefully, as shown in this picture, taken last November during the carrot harvest crop mob at Stick and Stone Farm in Ithaca, NY. Photo by Rachel Firak

It was only after six months of experience that I brought up Ithaca Crop Mob—the farm work-party group I co-organize—to a certain rural acquaintance, a young mechanic known for his love of trucks and fishing. I launched into my spiel: we volunteer on a different farm each month, educating ourselves, building community, and helping small farmers. Interested? “Huh,” he said. “What happened to tractors?”

I tried to appear unfazed, but the question left a mark. What had happened to tractors? Perhaps a better question is, what happened when tractors—those powerful, petroleum-fueled substitutes for human labor, and consequently, community—came along? Surely the iconic image of a lone farmer driving his tractor into the fields at dawn had emerged out of a much more complex and collaborative history. I knew crop mobs weren’t the first of their kind; I had heard tales of 19th century barn raisings, mythical demonstrations of fellowship and camaraderie, where an entire community would come together to aid one of their own. I wanted to know: How widespread are such customs around the globe? And why, in some cases, have they disappeared?

As it turns out, many, if not most, agrarian societies have a tradition of voluntary farm labor. In some cultures, it’s a daily reality. Powhatan women spent nearly every second in each other’s company, collectively harvesting, foraging, and gathering firewood. Kerry farmers in Ireland formed bands of workmen called meitheal that rotated work on one other’s farms during the peak of the season. The Indonesian principle of gotong royong (mutual assistance and cooperation) is actualized in a labor exchange system where hoeing, plowing, planting, and harvesting are all carried out by reciprocal effort.

Agriculture volunteer programs are cropping up all across the world. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and GrowFood send volunteers across the country and abroad to learn and work on farms in exchange for room and board; visit www.wwoof.org and www.growfood.org to get involved. The Peace Corps sponsors an Agriculture Volunteer program that promotes environmental conservation practices in farming overseas; peacecorps.org has more information. For a shorter term commitment close to home, join a crop mob! Go to cropmob.org and click “Get involved” for a map of crop mob groups around the country. Farms often welcome help from interested community members. Talk to your favorite farmer about getting your hands dirty as a volunteer.

In other places, volunteerism happens on rare, but necessary, occasion. Finnish farmers recruited help for large seasonal tasks by talkoot, providing food, drink, and celebration (music, singing, dancing, and sauna) in exchange for the unpaid work of their guests. For the Bissa people of Ghana, a tradition known as ia dale requires a young woman’s suitor to bring his friends to work on her parents’ peanut fields in exchange for her hand in marriage. In South African Mpondoland, isitshongo work parties are organized around hoeing, weeding, and cutting thatching grass. Hosts provide Sorghum beer and kola nuts in the fields.

All of these cooperative traditions have common motivational threads. One is the jovial atmosphere; volunteers enjoy the shared work experience and the celebration that often follows. Additionally, a degree of social pressure is present. While everyone works for free, boycotting the common project or underperforming as a worker/host can lead to censure within the community. These traditions also function as disaster insurance for those who have fallen on hard times. Members of the Cherokee gadugi (men of each household who assembled regularly to labor together on each other’s plots) were required to donate part of their harvest to a communal store to guard against famine. When Hurricane David destroyed Dominican farms in 1979, farmers formed the Convite Campesinos in a joint effort to clear the land and rebuild. Reciprocal altruism, rather than charity, is the key. “Unity—that’s all there is to it,” explains one Convite member. “When you’re not alone, you know that anything can happen, and it will be okay.”

The most important motivator of all is necessity. In many societies, working alone is not an option. On the 19th century American frontier, people lived on isolated farms very far from villages; thus, hiring wage workers to raise a barn was difficult, if not impossible. Tough climate conditions—long winters, short summers—further pressured farming communities to work together. Similarly, for farmers along the Volta river in western Africa, severe thunderstorms punctuate the June-September weeding period. Many hands and quick work are required to make the most of the short breaks in between.

This picture of collaborative farming began to change as the industrializing and specializing forces of modernization took hold. After WWII, Finnish talkoot consolidated into financial institutions that supported the mechanization of farms. Mass urbanization and industrialization followed; now talkoot is only a nostalgic pastime. Irish meitheal began to disappear in the 1970s as farms turned to specialized dairying, destroying old egalitarian social networks. All around the world, wage payment—a sign and symptom of hierarchy—replaced mutual relationships. Private insurance supplanted community interdependence. Tractors made shared human labor obsolete.

 

Now we find ourselves facing the monsters of modernization. Our dollar, and the entire wage-based economy, teeters on the brink of collapse. Climate change and rampant pollution betray the tough agro-ecological conditions ahead. Peak oil threatens to take away the machinery that has made this way of life possible. At the same time, there is hope. Small farms are on the rise, and interest in ecological agriculture is growing. Now may be the perfect time to resurrect these traditions of voluntary labor—to use community renewable energy to farm once more.

As members of an individualistic, competitive society, this may seem quite foreign to us. We have been raised with the tropes of the selfish gene and the tragedy of the commons; we may wonder why people cooperate. The reason? They have to—but they also enjoy it. By working together and relying on each other, we can revive agriculture, strengthen our communities, and have fun doing it. And perhaps someday, after a long day of work with our friends and neighbors, we’ll wonder as an afterthought: What happened to tractors?

Rachel Firak is a co-organizer of the Ithaca Crop Mob and also serves as Program Assistant for the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming in Ithaca, NY. She can be reached at rfirak@gmail.com.

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