At least she knows she doesn't want to be a farmer...
July 15, 2012 9:43 PM   Subscribe

How does someone used to constant mental work adjust to the drudgery of manual labor?

My girlfriend is working on an organic farm for the next 3.5 months. Nice! Or so she thought.*

She recently moved to this farm from a highly interactive environment, where she was working with people, engaging with compelling ideas, writing reports, and using many parts of her brain all day (otherwise known as university). Going from the former to the latter is driving her batty: her brain is going to wonky places, and fixating on issues that she can't do anything about (notably, worrying about finding a job after the farm, the future of our relationship, and missing me). Thinking about these issues in a controlled environment is beneficial, but being consumed by them for hours on end in not productive.

She was looking forward to this summer, and the challenges it presented, but she's getting burned out rather quickly. It turns out that weeding for 7 hours a day gets old.

What can she do to help/ease/change this situation? Any advice welcome.

Details of note:
-LONG DAYS: She gets up at 5am, starts work at 5:30, and ends work around 7- 8pm. At the end of the day, she has about an 1-1.5 hours to herself, in which she prepares a meal for herself the next day, and reads, so she can do something with her mind.
-NOT A LOT OF FREE TIME: see above.
-NOT ABLE TO USE INTERNET/PHONE DURING WEEK - this place is in the boonies.
-ABLE TO USE IPOD - She can listen to music, meditations, and audio books on her iPod while she works. She's a little reluctant to do this, as it kind of defeats the purpose of connecting to nature.
- SAT, SUN, MON TO HERSELF: She spends weekends in her hometown, or visiting me, (or I'm visiting her). We are able to see each other about once every other week. However, most of her friends have left the town, leaving her feeling unfulfilled during most weekends.
-ISOLATED: There are the two older, 'all business' farmers, and a 17 year old intern on the farm. Not a lot of people to relate to. This, and the above issue, are problematic for her: she is someone who knows that having a supportive community is necessary for her.
-UNABLE TO LEAVE: the farmers there need her help this summer, and there are no alternates for replacing her. She will be there until the end of October.

Thanks! She's having a difficult summer. Again, any advice welcome.

*I mean, there are good portions and bad portions of the job. It's more complex, and she has difficulty describing how she feels about the situation. She's got this problem, and it's distracting her from enjoying her summer.
posted by justalisteningman to Human Relations (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh man, load up that ipod with a mixture of audio books, lectures, and really motivational, but long-running tracks (like dance music).

Honestly, as someone who grew up picking fruit etc in farms, fuck that "communing with nature" shit.

a) Farm does not equal "nature" - the environment is just as created as a metropolitan one in many ways.

b) There's a reason so many people move to the city, cause the country sucks and the work is hard hard hard. Don't beat yourself for not liking slaving in a field all day; most people hate it.

c) If she just uses buds, she can both hear the music, and the nature. Additionally, hearing is but one sense. Sight, smell, touch etc are all not being distracted by Ipod, no need to go 100% emmersion.

In her case, I really strongly recommend upbeat music (keeps you working!) and some kind of educational lecture series (keeps her feeling she's learning, growing, they go for ages, and it's kinda serialised. Check out the teaching company's mp3's. Good audio quality, great lectures. There's also lotsa recommendations on the green of this nature).

Nobody should fill guilty about hating manual labour out of doors. It's frigging hard and usually unpleasant. Use any tools you can to make it less so.
posted by smoke at 9:48 PM on July 15, 2012 [21 favorites]

*Long Days*

Is this work taking place in the United States? If so, is she getting paid overtime for every hour beyond the 40th she works in a week? For this type of job, which is clearly FLSA non-exempt, overtime means she must be paid 1.5 times her normal wage for every hour worked beyond the 40th in a week. If this is not happening, her employers are breaking the law.

*Unable to Leave*

I don't think this really the correct way to look at it. Almost all labor in the United States [in the absence of a *valid* contract stating otherwise, which is almost vanishingly rare] is on an at-will basis. This means that if a person wants to leave or quit a job, it is his or her utter and inalienable right to do so at any time. It doesn't matter whether the employer "needs" one's help or what an employer's options are for replacing the worker who quits; it is the absolute right of any person to quit a job, much in the same way as it is [almost] the right of any employer to fire or dismiss a person from a job.

I'm not saying that she *should* quit, but it is almost certainly her legal right to do so if she chooses to.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 9:52 PM on July 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding the ipod. She can commune with nature for controlled periods of time - say, ten minutes to start off with. Any sort of meditation (and what she's talking about is totally meditation) is hard, and requires practice and a gradual ramp-up. If she can stay totally focused on her surroundings for ten solid minutes the first week, that'd be pretty fantastic.

The other fourteen hours or so, she can listen to music or audiobooks or podcasts, and that's totally fine and doesn't take away from the ten minutes of nature-focused meditation at all.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:00 PM on July 15, 2012

the farmers there need her help this summer, and there are no alternates for replacing her.

That's not her problem.

Many people think of themselves as irreplaceable when in reality, the business will move on without them. The farmers were able to hire her, weren't they? If she's that irreplaceable for an entry-level, manual-labor job, it may be because she's underpaid.
posted by homodachi at 10:03 PM on July 15, 2012 [16 favorites]

-ABLE TO USE IPOD - She can listen to music, meditations, and audio books on her iPod while she works. She's a little reluctant to do this, as it kind of defeats the purpose of connecting to nature.

I agree with smoke; upbeat music, lecture series, audio books.

I'd also suggest she work in some guilty pleasures: pick some audio books and radio plays which are fun. Douglas Adams, Star Wars, etc.

This might be a good time for her to try fiction writing as a bit of a hobby; she can mentally sketch out stuff, or speak it into a recorder as she weeds. But maybe not. Because writing is also work.

One of the issues here is moderation and wisdom; she can't be "On" all the time, she needs mental downtime and pacing of work and play. And she's already working with her body, so trying to work her brain at the same time is ... well, more work. And she just left university with no vacation.

If she weren't working with her hands all the time I'd recommend knitting, drawing, carving welsh spoons, etc.

Oh, and she should block out 15 minutes a day to study her own breathing and meditate and so on.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:05 PM on July 15, 2012

A few questions. Is she working for pay or as a volunteer? Is it for her family or for some sort of scheme like WWOOF? And is she truly unable to leave, or is it just that she would feel guilty if she left? I think that it would be worth reconsidering leaving, because "the farmers need her" isn't really enough of a reason to give up her sanity and her summer. Alternatively, she could try telling the farmers she's considering leaving and ask them to try to see if there's anything they can do to compromise, such as giving her an additional day off and cutting down her hours so she finishes sooner. If they're not willing to compromise, then would she still be willing to give up so much for them?

I think there are a lot of lessons your girlfriend could take away from this experience if she leaves. For example, if she's someone who regularly puts her own needs beneath those of others, this experience could help her learn to stand up for herself. She doesn't need to be a martyr about it. This farm isn't her responsibility, and if she finds it isn't for her then two weeks notice is all she really needs to give.

If she truly wants to stay, well, reduced hours plus audio books with an hour or two set aside without the ipod each day to experience the farm (not nature as smoke points out!).
posted by hazyjane at 10:08 PM on July 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Does she do anything creative? I find manual labor is useful meditative time for turning over things I want to write or things I want to work on, since the body is engaged but the brain is free. I get most of my writing done when I'm running or lifting heavy things.

"Communing with nature" is what city folk talk about when they've never worked a farming job (I wasted a lot of summers doing farm work and it's not exactly something I enjoyed). Farming and manual labor is hard and sucks, especially if you weren't used to it before. Anything to get through the day is fine and doesn't make you less...spiritual or whatever.

Honestly, she needs to decide what she wants to get out of this. If it's lots of hard work outside that beefs up the body with plenty of time to listen to podcasts and learn new things and commune with nature or whatever, then she needs to focus on what she's doing at the farm and set some goals. If she wants it to be some kind of faux-monastic personal retreat, it sounds perfect for that, she just needs to figure out what she's going to think about and work on, spiritually speaking. I do think there's a value in doing hard manual labor with plenty of time to think things over...but I don't know if it's over a university summer.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:11 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

She's working over a 12 hour day. Doing heavy manual labour. That's not connecting to nature. It's connecting to intensive manual labour and not a lot else.

Suggestions: she might try listening for bird song (I spent a summer weeding when I was 19 and one of my all time great memories is hearing a nightingale in the middle of weeding a row.) Can she get an app (transferred from your computer maybe) or a CD or something that goes through bird songs or sounds of that area she could listen to? But birds generally don't go that crazy except in the evening or morning, so that's a bit limited. Maybe plot out the perfect opening to a novel? Maybe just five lines a day, but she can't move on until they're perfect in her mind. And then write them down each evening. Or she could learn the openings to epic poems. (This I did once on a dig. It was sort of fun in an odd way.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:15 PM on July 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Could you clarify if this is paid or something more along the lines of WWOOFing?
posted by DeltaForce at 10:52 PM on July 15, 2012

Farming is not the same as communing with nature. It is really hard work. If it were me, I would listen to books on my iPod all the time. I do some labor-intensive work and I always put a book on and listen to it.
posted by fifilaru at 11:21 PM on July 15, 2012

Learning to veg out and just be is a good thing to do, takes a while though. I like to meditate, one good exercise I've come up with is to try and pretend you are a person who never learned to read or write and see things the way they would. So many of (my thoughts anyway) come pre-formed in written words in my head or are obviously filtered through something I read or are being thought in a way that would make them read well on paper that it's almost like I'm a different person if I try to think or imagine without visualizing written words. It's kind of a neat-o way to spend a few weeks, and works best if you don't have to write or read at all which it sounds like she might be able to pull off. Just try to look at an object without your brain skipping to showing you something you once saw written about it (try your computer!) and you'll immediately grasp how hard this is and what a fundamentally weird thing writing does to our brains! I've spent days of boring fieldwork doing this.

In the larger picture: this is what you call a character building exercise. Being a total fish out of water like this changes people a lot, this summer will be a vivid memory for your girlfriend when she's 45 and many other summers are dimly recalled. Whether it was the summer that she realized she will never live more than 3 miles from a nightclub and a Starbucks ever again or it's the summer she decided to buy a rustic cabin in Maine and live off the land is kind of irrelevant. She's chosen to do something different and it sounds like she's committed to it even though she knows it's hard and so the best she can do is be physically and mentally present and be honest with what it teaches her about herself. If she learns that she thought she wanted to commune with nature but holy cow, she hates silence! or it teaches her that she'd rather eat ramen forever than see a spinach plant growing again or it teaches her that she needs to quit her old life and start over in a rural area as long as she listens to that it's totally worth it.

I speak from experience, I was always doing this crap in my 20s. I learned what makes me happy and what makes me insane and I am a better, happier person for it.
posted by fshgrl at 1:18 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

to head off an unproductive line of thought, workers engaged in agriculture are generally exempt from overtime. Juffo-wup, I'm not sure how you think farm labor gets done in the U.S. but it sure isn't paid overtime and there's a reason so much of it is done by illegal immigrants and migrant workers.

I'm also in favor of the iPod. The only thing you can do is power through until you're exhausted and try to keep tour brain entertained. She can always listen to podcasts only part of the day. Would her days be more manageable if she worked 5 days instead of 4?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:26 AM on July 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I know an incredibly intelligent and social professor who was forced out of university and onto a farm for several years during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. My first assumption was that this must have been a terrible experience but he told me that after the initial shock wore off he found it spiritually enlightening to disconnect from academia and just perform manual labor. The work was demanding and tedious but it was just those qualities that helped him essentially meditate through his time on the farm. For your friend I guess my advice would be to not think so much about what she misses, what the situation lacks, how it differs from her preconceived notion, differs from what she wants, but rather to concentrate on just living in the moment, doing the work, finding some small things each day to appreciate. Think Zen.

Perhaps to keep the mind active keeping a journal or other writing at the end of each day. One thing is certain, that if she fixates on what is wrong it will only become self fulfilling and feel even more wrong, making the experience less fun. Accept and go with the flow. It will be done shortly, but I don't advocate thinking about the end point either, because that is just another form of fixating on what is wrong.
posted by caddis at 3:22 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

the drudgery of manual labor

That seems like an elitist approach to the work right off the bat. The way the OP phrased the question, it is almost like this girl thinks she is too good for farm work.

Manual labor can be good for the soul. She should listen to Mike Rowe for a minute.

Farm work is not immediate gratification - like so many Americans demand these days. Farm work is hard, but it builds towards a concrete achievement.

If she goes into this job thinking - drudgery, unfair, i hate this - then she will fail.
She needs to adjust her attitude. Hard work for a couple months won't kill her. She signed on to it - follow through and complete it.
posted by Flood at 4:57 AM on July 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

That seems like an elitist approach to the work right off the bat. The way the OP phrased the question, it is almost like this girl thinks she is too good for farm work.

Not elitist to 'complain' of 14 hour manual labor workdays.... jesus, she should quit
posted by MangyCarface at 6:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what she was hoping to get out of this experience. It sounds like she thought she *should* like disconnecting from the life of the mind and getting her hands dirty, but in fact she has found that she *doesn't* like it. And I think a lot of people here are feeling a little snarky because, you know, there's a little bit of, "Well, duh! Of course farm work is hard and unpleasant."

So, does she want to learn to like it, or does she just want to accept that she's made a mistake and power through it? If she's really committed to learning to like it, then yeah, the Zen and/or Mike Rowe approaches are the way to go. But if she can accept that she hates it and just wants to get it over with, audiobooks and podcasts FTW! I recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. 32 hours! That's almost three days of work!

Actually, I don't know, maybe you could even combine the approaches; fifteen minutes of mindful weeding, a couple of hours of audiobooks, another fifteen minutes of mindfulness?
posted by mskyle at 6:40 AM on July 16, 2012

Sing. Get music that is melodic - show tunes, Springsteen, Beatles, Woody Guthrie, traditional gospel, classic folk, etc., and sing along. Learn to harmonize. There's a reason there's a whole category of folk music called work songs or field songs.

Treat it as a workout; appreciate how much better her muscles are, how much stronger she is.

Apply science; which plants did best and why? How could the farm be more productive?

Meditate. Drudgerous (sorry for the neologism) work is great for chanting, aloud or silently, repeating a mantra, or praying. I am not a religious believer, but praying is good for you, and praying for world peace, and end to war, or that your car will start, it will rain, etc., is unlikely to cause harm, and just might help.

Work on mental problems, like memorizing poetry, doing math, etc., is a good way to pass time.

Radio. Get a small radio; listen to news, lectures, etc. I can listen to a lot of NPR or other stations with good music, news, weather and interesting programming.
posted by theora55 at 7:32 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

She should quit. If the people running the farm didn't like the work she was doing, they'd fire her in a second. She should view her own labor as similarly disposable.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:25 AM on July 16, 2012

The crux of this question seems to be: How can the lady give her brain something else to do?
To that effect, I would suggest finding podcasts to put on the iPod that require, or at least encourage, active listening - like Radiolab, This American Life, The Moth, Stuff You Missed in History Class, New Yorker Fiction, Studio 360... and I'm sure other folks can recommend many more, especially if you give us some info about her interests and / or what her formerly busy brain enjoyed thinking about.
posted by D.Billy at 8:31 AM on July 16, 2012

I have picked weeds for a local farmer before; I feel for your girlfriend.

In my case, I was 13, doing my first summer job picking strawberries at the local strawberry patch in June. Those who were the fastest workers got on the raspberry picking team in July. The fastest workers then got put on the blueberry picking team in August. By late August, I was still looking to make a paycheque, and so the farmer had my sister and I pick weeds into apple bushel baskets.

It was...not a job I would voluntarily do again. But when you're 13 and have no other options, it worked OK.

This whole issue of the farmers "needing" her - holy hell, is there just her, the two farmers and the "intern"? No damn wonder they "need" her - it sounds like she's doing the lion's share of the weed picking all by herself! This is not normal. I would be concerned that she is becoming the Australian in the Mine.
posted by LN at 9:06 AM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: Several people have asked about the nature of the compensation.

This is a paid internship. However, the money she earns is not based on the hours she works. It is more or less a stipend.

There is a large emotive aspect to her wanting to stay on. The farmers are family friends, and she has developed a relationship with the farmers. I believe she would feel guilty about leaving the farmers without a replacement. She has articulated to me that she doesn't want to disappoint them. I am unsure (as, I think, is she) how easy/hard it would be to find a replacement for her.
posted by justalisteningman at 10:12 AM on July 16, 2012

There is a large emotive aspect to her wanting to stay on. The farmers are family friends, and she has developed a relationship with the farmers. I believe she would feel guilty about leaving the farmers without a replacement. She has articulated to me that she doesn't want to disappoint them.

Well, that's the reason you're asking for an outside perspective-- none of us have any emotional investment in the farmers' situation. The farmers don't seem that concerned about disappointing your girlfriend. Why is your girlfriend so concerned about disappointing them? And if they do end up disappointed, perhaps that is a consequence of organizing an inadequate opportunity for their staff. The only point to staying on that I can imagine is if this experience serves some sort of larger goal she can leverage into future opportunities.
posted by deanc at 10:36 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've worked outdoors with plants for the majority of my working life. (It's been gardening, nursery work, and landscaping though, not farming.) I agree with smoke and everyone else that farming is not the "natural world" and she should use her iPod to make the repetitive tasks more tolerable to her. She could try listening to Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter for inspiration and commiseration on the needs, joys, and hardships of farming. Working by yourself is very hard, and she should not feel guilty about listening to her iPod. She doesn't have to use it all the time either- it will make the quiet times first thing in the morning or as the sun goes down possibly more enjoyable when iPod-less. It's certainly not an all-or-nothing device, and she can curate her day to some degree.

How does someone used to constant mental work adjust to the drudgery of manual labor?
I've always enjoyed , smelling soil, watching shadows change, seeing plants grow, and having the satisfaction of something I planted as a tiny seedling grow into a beautiful and productive plant. I can enjoy being out in all weathers and getting up before dawn and getting off work at dusk. But I don't just sit there and have an empty brain while doing it- I imagine how the things I'm doing will look, I think about my homework, write my papers for classes in my head, imagine my landscape design projects, think of questions I want to look up about soil, plants, water, &c. when I got home, imagine different design schemes, anything and everything. I dislike the notion that somehow people doing manual labor don't think. Yes it, is hard to entertain yourself while alone all day. I totally sympathize. But people who do repetitive tasks with their hands and bodies are perfectly capable of complex thought at the same time. It's actually quite liberating to have time to focus and develop plans and ideas.

However, I agree that working all day, every day, by yourself, without any ownership or true responsibility is extremely tough for anyone. I work by myself now, in a beautiful garden where I have nearly complete autonomy. Even though I have plenty of things to occupy myself with, it is still lonely and boring sometimes without a partner. She needs to cut herself a break and lose the lofty ideals about not listening to an iPod or whatever. Nearly every work site I have been on has had a radio (it's safer than headphones), and that includes when I lived in a rural area and you could hear far-away Spanish stations drifting across the fields. People who do this kind of work for a living don't deprive themselves willingly of small perks.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:08 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think she should stay with the job, wear her ipod, and listen to music/books/podcasts/whatever all day. We belong to a CSA farm-share where we pick the veggies up on the actual farm every week, and although the majority of the work is finished before the CSA opens for customers, there are still scattered workers there when we show up. Every single one of them has earbuds in. That's how the pros do it.
posted by KathrynT at 12:08 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

(no idea where all those misplaced commas are coming from. Sorry.)
posted by oneirodynia at 12:10 PM on July 16, 2012

I had a summer job that was isolated and way out in the boonies and, though not manual labor, not really requiring much thought - mostly data entry - it was incredibly boring and really started to get to me after a while. Try listening to talk radio. I'm sure streaming is impractical, so get an old school antenna radio/Walkman. I liked the local NPR affiliate for this. Because it's interesting (usually) but calming and, most important, it makes you feel connected to the larger world because you get the news, people call in, and it all goes in hour increments on the same schedule over the course of the day, every day, so if you're tired you just need to get to the end of "Fresh Air" and you can take a break, or around 5 you hit "Talk of the Nation" and the day's nearly over. Somehow the time passes more quickly that way, I found. It's the way it keeps a schedule for you - it has a very helpful way of imposing predictable hourly increments of time on your day, even though the actual work is one big block of time and mindless, repetitive tasks. If you're just playing your own music and podcasts the effect isn't the same since you probably don't stick to a routine with them and are constantly changing what's playing.
posted by citron at 6:23 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

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