Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Physical Labor

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

The summer of 2009 was turning into one of the rainiest in generations in Brewster, New York.  It was taking its toll on the crops—our tomatoes were battling blight, our squash had powdery mildew, our fields were mud.  Betsey was in a rush to get her potatoes out of the ground so they weren’t also taken by the airborne blight that was devastating farms all over the area.  It was one of the few clear, sunny days in August that Travis, Omar, Chris, Ruth and I harvested four hundred pounds of potatoes in Betsey’s back field. Of all crops, harvesting potatoes might be the dirtiest and heaviest work.  So it was probably a good thing that potato harvesting day was the same day I realized I liked farm work.

Fork use

I had no idea how potatoes grew before I came to Ryder Farm.  Alright, I knew they grew underground.  But when I saw tufts of angular green leaves on tall green stalks sticking a foot out of the soil where we had planted our seed potatoes, I was amazed.  Then I thought about my amazement and was a little embarrassed—it was just another realization of how disconnected from my food I had been.  We had planted 5 varieties back in May, including two purple varieties that are all the rage now: Purple Viking and Purple Majesty.  In August we noticed that most of the leaves had turned brown and wilted, which meant the potatoes were ready to harvest.

With a garden cart, several black crates, and a couple potato forks, the crew at Ryder farm went down Betsey’s rows of potatoes, using forks to uproot the plant and expose the potatoes underneath. We’d get 8-12 potatoes per plant, plus the mother potato, now turned to mushy brown grossness.  Two hours later, the temperature had climbed to 90 degrees, we had harvested around 400 pounds of potatoes, and I was drenched in sweat. Travis was sweating so much the dirt on his arms was turning to mud.

Hand in Potato

Breathing heavy, we loaded our crates of potatoes on the garden carts and began pulling them to the wash stand.  I was dirty, sweaty, and sore.  And, I realized, I felt great.  I couldn’t put my finger on what I enjoyed so much.  Using cool tools; the freedom to get dirty–I mean, really dirty–at work; using my body instead of sitting at a computer all day; getting so close to my food.  All I knew was that the day had essentially just started, I was tired, and I was ready for more work.  I felt alive.  Surely that was a good sign of my future farming prospects.

I used to take breaks from studying in Boston by walking around Northeastern’s central courtyard.  I’d walk out the History Department’s door and have to wait for my eyes to adjust to natural light.  I’d look at the sky on clear days and feel like I was missing out.  I wasn’t sure on what, exactly.  I just wanted to be a part of the day, and I felt disconnected by the walls of my office.  At Ryder Farm, I found out hard, physical work creates that connection for me every day.


Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa

2 Responses to “Why We Farm: Physical Labor”

  1. I am 56 and love to grow potatoes and sweet potatoes but is getting harder and harder to do all that digging. I thought I’d never get my four rows dug last year in the heat. This year I am buying a potato plow for my small tractor and will increase my production twice fold. I love to eat them, store them, trade them and give them away.
    If you like growing potatoes you have to try sweet potatoes. You can even eat the greens.

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