Sophia’s dream of being a farmer, if she goes through with it, will likely take her far away from me. All the farmland within a few hours travel of our home is prohibitively expensive so I expect that she will have to live elsewhere. And it will be hard. My grandmother would be scandalized. Making a farm profitable and sustainable is not a job for the faint-hearted. But Sophia’s heart is anything but faint.
By Rebeca Dunn-Krahn
When my 14-year-old started researching organic farming I was impressed. “She’s interested in the most esoteric topics!” I thought. At her age, I was obsessed with boys – those confident, aloof ones, with good hair – and climbing the social ladder at school. I would not have spent hours reading articles about agricultural practices around the world, or indeed done anything that wasn’t going to help me get a boyfriend or make me more popular. So I wanted to support her in her new passion, especially since it was aligned with my own values around the importance of knowing where our food comes from, and learning how to produce it sustainably.
But when she started to say things like “I want to be a farmer when I grow up,” I was more skeptical. “She has no idea what she’s talking about,” I thought. The long hours for little money. The backbreaking labour and heartbreaking disappointments when crops fails or weather ruins a season. My relatives haven’t been farmers for three generations but I’ve heard plenty of stories from the old days. I imagined what my grandparents would say about my daughter, a city girl with the ability and resources to get a post-secondary education and do just about any job she wanted, choosing instead to go back to the farm. They would have scratched their heads a bit, laughed, and then eventually said, “No. You don’t want that.”
But then Sophia has never been conventional. At eight, she announced to the world that she was no longer a “she”, but a “he-she” and asked me to take her shopping for boy clothes. I worried that she would be ostracized for this, but let her do what she wanted. Her loyal friends didn’t bat an eye, and they are still her friends today, despite the fact that she doesn’t like the music they like, preferring the Pixies to One Direction, and would rather go for tea and chat about feminism and progressive movements than shop at the mall.
In preparation for the first day of high school, Sophia shaved nearly her whole head, leaving a frontal fringe, in an homage to the English mods of the 1960s and the punks of the 1980s that frankly leaves her classmates perplexed. She accompanies this hairstyle with a wardrobe of woolly tights and brogues, calf-length kilts and polo shirts, chosen to please no one but herself.
Even though Sophia enjoys the tolerance of her friends, she doesn’t always reciprocate, holding everyone around her to high standards. She will let her friends know if she thinks their favourite TV show is stupid, and calls me a hypocrite if she sees me being friendly with someone that she knows I don’t really like.
For months, Sophia’s interest in farming remained theoretical. We had a few false starts in trying to arrange opportunities for her to visit and volunteer on farms, but nothing concrete happened. Our family of four was taking a sabbatical year in Europe – a long-awaited trip – and Sophia advocated for us to spend the three months of spring in rural Ireland.
We settled in a stone cottage in County Galway and I found a farm nearby that welcomed WWOOFers, international volunteers who exchange labour on organic farms for room and board in faraway places. WWOOFers are typically in their twenties and are valued for their physical strength and stamina. But this farmer, Dermot, was willing to take a chance on a 110-pound, 14-year-old girl with a passion for growing food.
When we dropped her off on her first work day, I wavered. What did we really know of Dermot, aside from the fact that he was friendly and easy-going? Sophia had no mobile phone, no way of contacting us if anything went wrong. On our initial visit, I took solace in the presence of his children, three girls who were playing happily with their pets when we saw them. But they were at school now, and the WWOOFers weren’t apparent, working in a distant field.
I said a quick prayer and hugged Sophia goodbye. She was nervous but happy to be finally trying her hand at real farming. Her first day was wonderful, and Dermot brought her back home in time for supper.
She went to the farm every Tuesday and worked hard all day. She came home dirty, tired, content, and always toting a huge box of produce that was Dermot’s token of appreciation.
I expected her to find the work overwhelming, to realize quickly that a career as a farmer, while admirable, was too hard to be a good life choice. But that didn’t happen. Despite her age, Sophia was a better worker than many of the twenty-somethings who came from all over the world to learn about organic farming and get a free place to stay in Ireland. While Sophia had experience growing fruits and vegetables, was no stranger to yard work and kept her own backyard chickens, many of the volunteers had been raised in hyper-urban environments and didn’t even understand the basics of plants and animals. One charming but confused 19-year-old worker from Singapore boldly asserted that “If you neuter a male cat, it becomes a female”, and tried to put protective covering over the farm cats on hot days so they wouldn’t get sunburnt. A pair of well-meaning but inexperienced Italians planted parsnip seeds so slowly that Sophia was able to plant twice as many as the pair of them did in the same amount of time.
Even though they were all at least five years older than she was, Sophia sometimes seemed like the more mature worker. Many times Dermot would catch her eye when another worker was struggling to do something that he considered basic common sense and say to her, “Sophia, some people just aren’t ready to go out in the world!”
At lunchtime the farm workers all gathered together and ate a simple but delicious meal: a vegetable soup, and wholemeal pita pockets that they filled from a selection of items that always included the farm’s salad greens, a favourite chutney from the local farmer’s market, and an award-winning cheese from the goat farm down the road. On non-farm-days, Sophia would replicate these lunches at home, saying, “Yup, this is just the way Dermot eats”.
As she sauntered, beaming with pride, up the driveway of our stone cottage around 6pm each Tuesday, I would rush out to meet her and take the heavy box from her arms. “Good day today, Baby?”
“Yup,” she’d say, grinning.
“What’d ya do?”
I’d look with suspicion at the brown smears on her jeans and wonder if I should wash them separately from our other clothes. She would hug her little brother, who had also run out to greet her, and be unusually kind to him for the rest of the evening.
Despite her fatigue, she always wanted to help make dinner on her work days, reveling in the quality of the ingredients that her labour had provided for our family. Our leek and potato soup never tasted better than when we made it with the onions, leeks and potatoes from Dermot’s farm.
I’ve always wanted to provide opportunities for my children to have adult mentors other than their parents, and have kept a lookout for good female mentors for Sophia as she gets older. I assumed she would choose someone like my sister, a favourite teacher, or one of the female black belts in our martial arts club. I did not expect her to revere and learn from a kind and principled, but sometimes grumpy, fifty-something Irish farmer.
In Dermot, Sophia’s hard-to-meet requirements for a decent person were satisfied. Here was someone genuine, who lived his values, and didn’t change his demeanour depending on whom he was talking to. He lectured his group of workers about the dangers of RoundUp, the hypocrisy of politicians, and the usefulness of ladybugs. Despite raising beef cows, he himself was vegetarian. He called Galway City, population 85,000, “The Big Smoke”. He thought dentistry was a racket. He owned the most beautiful dog I have ever seen, a retriever called Scooby who went everywhere with him. Sophia said “If you want to find Dermot, look for Scooby.”
One memorable morning, my husband and son took Sophia to the farm and when they arrived, Dermot rushed up to the car and said, “Come quick!” They followed him to a corner of the cow pasture where a heifer was in the final stage of labour. They watched for thirty minutes as the cow walked around grunting and sweating. Finally, Dermot, concerned that the labour had gone on too long, reached into the cow and pulled the calf out feet first. Having watched many episodes of All Creatures Great and Small as a child, I thought this was common procedure, but Dermot said it was the first time he’d ever intervened like that. After watching the wobbly, wet, black calf’s first moments of life, the lads got back in the car and headed home to tell me all about it, and Dermot and Sophia started the day’s work.
Master and disciple didn’t always see eye-to-eye. One subject they disagreed on was slugs. Once, when Sophia was working in a greenhouse, Dermot stalked in, fury in his eyes. “There’s one of them little slug bastards in here, I know it!” he seethed. He stomped around the greenhouse, inspecting the ground, and indeed, he did find a slug. “Die, ya bastard!” he shouted as he stomped over and over with his boot. Later, when he caught Sophia trying to humanely move a slug rather than kill it, he lost his temper. “Ya’ve got to kill ‘em!” he said. “Not just move ‘em! Or they’ll eat every last bit of food on this farm!”
Near the end of our time in Ireland, Sophia increased to twice-weekly work days. On her first Friday at the farm, the internet wasn’t working, and instead of instructing her to dig potatoes or collect eggs, Dermot asked Sophia to see what she could do about getting the farm back online. Later, when she told me how helpless and frustrated she felt being given this task, I realized how much Dermot’s good opinion meant to her. She got on the phone with Eircom, the internet provider, but didn’t know the answers to their questions, so Dermot had to take over the job.
“Well, I’m sure he didn’t really expect you to be able to handle the whole thing,” I said.
“But I think he’s mad at me.”
“He’s probably just frustrated because he hasn’t been sleeping with all the calving, and there’s so much to do, and it’s bad timing for the internet to go down.”
“But I couldn’t fix it. Also, I didn’t volunteer on the farm so I could spend the day indoors, listening to on-hold music!”
Even though she couldn’t reasonably have been expected to fix the internet without help, she was disappointed that she’d let down her favourite person and frustrated that he’d asked her to do work that didn’t involve the things she loves: growing plants and taking care of animals. She was nervous to go to the farm the next Tuesday, both because she felt she’d let him down and because she didn’t want to be given anymore “inside jobs”. But the following week everything was back to normal, and Sophia spent the day hoeing and harvesting potatoes and came home with her usual box of fruits and veggies and a big smile.
On her last day at the farm, Dermot gave her a t-shirt and an extra big box of produce. We thanked him for everything he had taught her, and everything he had given our family. They hugged, but not for long. Neither of them is a big hugger.
Sophia’s dream of being a farmer, if she goes through with it, will likely take her far away from me. All the farmland within a few hours travel of our home is prohibitively expensive so I expect that she will have to live elsewhere. And it will be hard. My grandmother would be scandalized. Making a farm profitable and sustainable is not a job for the faint-hearted. But Sophia’s heart is anything but faint. I’ve never seen her happier than after a day on Dermot’s farm, carrying her box of rutabagas, garlic tinged with purple, and bunches of spinach with leaves the size of her head. I’ve told her I’ll come help on her farm, do whatever work needs doing.
So maybe one morning years from now I will wake up in a WWOOFer’s hut on my daughter’s farmland, and learn from her how to make food. And as I’m shovelling manure and bent double sowing seeds, I will remember her mentor Dermot, and how he taught her how to work, and inspired her to follow her dream.
Rebeca Dunn-Krahn writes about family, food and travel. To see more, visit rebecadk.com