During another day of sultry 90-degree weather, Karla and I looked across the field and shared a single thought: man, we wish we had some helpers.
We do get volunteers occasionally, and on some good weeks, we might have two or three on one day. But these moments have been few and far between, and now with the heat and summer vacations in full swing, August is looking a bit bleak for additional assistance.
Not that I blame our friends and CSA members — for the past month, it’s just been relentlessly and ridiculously humid. And, because we do farmers markets on both Saturday and Sunday, our volunteer hours are during weekdays. Who would take time off from their air-conditioned office job to come toil in the hot sun, no matter how cheery and encouraging the farmers might be?
Also, it’s just plain hard work sometimes. One of our friends came out and planned to spend five hours helping us weed, but a few hours into the task, she stopped and apologized and said she had to go. “I just can’t do it,” she said. “I thought I could, but it’s just much tougher than I thought, so I’ll have to build up to it. You guys are like superheroes to do this every day.”
In terms of bringing on an employee or two, that strategy is complicated by a couple of major factors. First, since it’s our first year of operation and we’re living on a very razor-thin profit margin (well, breaking even so far, but we consider that profit in a way), we generally lack the funds to hire anyone.
If we did manage to scrape some pennies together, we couldn’t guarantee that we’d have enough next month to keep them employed, and I’m reluctant to offer that kind of job to someone. I remember my own work experience when I was younger, first as a “landscape assistant” — mowing lawns and doing yard cleanup — and then as an overnight bar cleaner (yes, that job exists, and it’s exactly as awful as you might think). In both instances, I never knew on Friday if I’d still have a job by Monday, or if the company owner would be out of money by then. That lack of stability played havoc with my rent payments and other expenses, and I vowed never to become one of those bosses who cause anxiety and dread in the hearts of my employees.
Second, we just don’t have the time to find people, even if the interview process was done by phone or some other quick method. At this point in the season, we often feel like we’re trying to run underwater, and the heat certainly doesn’t help. By mid-afternoon, we’re wilting but reluctant to stop, given the amount that needs to get done. Since we’re renting farm land that’s 40 minutes from our house, we can’t take a few hours of break time and then get back to the fields when it’s cooler. That’s another tricky complication with potential employees: our schedule is different every day, depending on heat and storms, so that just increases the instability. With all that, who wouldn’t want to work for us, right?
Despite these challenges, though, we do soak up the occasional volunteer help that we get and express our gratitude both verbally and in vegetables. It’s amazing to us how much of a difference it makes to have an extra set of hands for only a few hours, or even just one hour. This week, one of our CSA members came out for 90 minutes while she was between appointments, and for that little stretch, it felt like we hit turbo boost. Then there’s the lovely feeling of community as we all chat while weeding or harvesting; conversations have flowed across every kind of topic, and thanks to the large number of talented food enthusiasts in our social circle, I always end up with some recipe ideas by the time I go home.
At this point, I’m guessing that regular volunteers get established over time, and this is just one more of those beginning farm hurdles that will get more manageable in the years ahead. We plan to include work shares to our CSA next year, and do more formal outreach in the early part of the season — right now, our outreach is just breathless pleas for volunteers on our Facebook page — not to mention figuring out how an employee or two might be worked into the mix. For the rest of the season, we’ll just treasure the volunteers we do get, and tap into whatever farmer superhero power we might have in reserve.