These Boots Were Made for Unpaid Farm Labour

Physical labour is not something that intellectuals concern themselves with. I would know, as I have spent the majority of my adult life reading books by diverse authors, sitting in cafes with my Macbook Air, and alternating between a tight black turtleneck and a baggy black turtleneck. When proving myself aesthetically as an intellectual was not enough, I moved to Paris to focus on writing and lived out my finest struggling artist fantasy until the pandemic turned the city and my mental capacity to dust.

Going into France’s third confinement, non-ironically binge-watching The 100 had become the highlight of my life. I have never experienced such a strong subconscious cry for help before, but therapy was too expensive and moving back to Canada meant having to live with my brother. So, I did what any intellectual would do and quit my job, sold all my belongings, and became an unpaid farmhand in the south of France.

My interest in agriculture is the direct result of a white woman assuming that I, a young Asian living in the heart of old money Paris, was a maid. As everyone was forced indoors during the first confinement, a rich lady who lived in my building asked me to do her ironing because she couldn’t bear the thought of doing her own domestic labour. I said yes under the condition that she paid me per hour, which allowed me to triple the time it took to iron her bath towels.

As our one-sided friendship progressed, she began to order seasonal produce for me from an organic farmer, and the cottagecore spirit took hold of me from there. Expensive and high quality produce allowed me to escape the walls of quarantine to the countryside, a kinder place where you could live in freedom with the earth and all that you can produce by hand. I also got really into snakes, but that’s another story that I can’t explain for legal reasons.   

Fast forward several existential crises later, and I am now working as a farmhand on a biodynamic vineyard in the Bordeaux wine region. Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture and food production, which is overseen on the vineyard by Virginie, the momager of the Chateau.

Much like homeopathic medicine, biodynamic farming works best if you believe it does. Some biodynamic practices include burying manure-stuffed cow horns twice per year to enhance soil health, which I have not yet had the pleasure of partaking in. Others involve sprinkling a kombucha-like infusion out of a 20-pound metal backpack onto the soil, which I unfortunately have partaken in.

Working at the repetitive rhythm that is required of farming is not something that I’m used to. But after a year of agoraphobia in Europe’s COVID capital, it’s refreshing to move in a wide open space.

In the morning we wake up to mist and eat fresh bread before going outside to attach vines to their wires, encouraging them to grow in the proper direction. We move slowly down the line, removing dead branches from the past harvest and piling them in lines for the tractor to pick up later.

After a two-hour lunch when the sun rises high in the sky, we gather shiny blue-shelled bugs by hand to be burned in a funeral pyre at the end of the week. They are swept into a large white bucket that emits a sweet putridity when opened. Their ashes will be scattered around the vineyard to warn their brethren away from eating the vines.

I like to pretend that each bug emits a warning to its friends when I snatch one from its leaf, but then I feel too much like a colonist, and erase the thought from my head. At least we aren’t using pesticides.

Naturally, I now work much harder than I did in Paris. As an au pair, my job was gaslighting rich 7-year-olds into making new friends at the park so I could settle on a bench with my phone. On the vineyard, I labour in the fields for five hours per day in exchange for room, board, and the thrill of sharing a shower with thirteen people.

One of those people is Kateri, who is the Native American version of me. Both being retired au pairs, we have replaced childcare with looking over the newly hatched ducklings, who we take for a two-minute swim once per day. As a farm couple, we’re nestled somewhere between George and Lonny from Of Mice and Men and Oliver and Elio from Call Me By Your Name.

Together, we are learning how to take up space in a place that is not our own. Living in a house full of confident farm boys who mock you constantly for your accent and lack of practical skills requires us to unlearn making ourselves small. Thus, we spend the majority of our free time creating a secret sign language to tell each other when the coast is clear to binge eat chocolate chips in the kitchen.

There are days that I miss the freedom of having a space to call my own and wearing something other than the same pair of wind resistant khakis every day. But sometimes girls just wanna walk around in communally-shared rubber boots and further inflame their scoliosis with repetitive bending motions caused by pruning Cabernet Sauvignon. It matters not that I spend a majority of the day smelling like a four-week-old kombucha scoby, but rather that I know what a four-week-old kombucha scoby smells like. You just can’t get that salt of the earth experience by living in a cramped studio surrounded by layers of concrete.

The only downside of being a volunteer farmhand is that I live with no employment or financial security, but living the authentic experience of a John Steinbeck character is enough to keep me going. Nothing really scares me anymore, except for being asked to drive the tractor. I live in permanent fear of accidentally running over the vines and ruining the entire year’s harvest. I suppose that’s where I differ from an actual rancher; professional farm workers don’t have a dichotomy of work that interests them because they like vegetables versus work that they politely decline because they’ve deemed it too labour intensive.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m appropriating agricultural labour just for the fleeting sense of peace that accompanies the cottagecore aesthetic, given that I am a city girl with zero practical skills except the ability to “think critically”. I write about being a volunteer farmhand in the late afternoon while full-time agriculture workers give their whole bodies to this type of work. Behind the gold-filtered photos of wine tours that populate Instagram is permanent back pain that can’t bear taking a day off, nor enjoy the occasional yoga break that some of us might take. No matter how happy or convivial the atmosphere may be, everyone seems to be suffering some degree of fatigue.

Yet, I highly doubt that farmers spend time critically analyzing the class politics of labour idealization when they’ve got a farm to run. While Virginie and her family spend sunup to sundown working on either the physical or business side of the vineyard, I retreat to my laptop on a sunny table in the garden to do my “intellectual work”, as they’ve deemed it. Between tending to the vines, animals, garden, house, wine, and sales, there’s always work to be done, so it doesn’t really matter if a stranger helps you complete the task.

While I am content to spend the rest of my twenties floating between various gold-speckled properties in search of low-skilled farm work with absolute strangers off the internet, I’m sure I’ll go back to the city eventually. This is partially because I accidentally awakened the Antichrist by making Jesus jokes in a farmhouse that has a large crucifix in each room, which resulted in the lights angrily flickering on and off, and now I can’t be alone past 7pm. Alas, we repent and learn, but for now I’m thriving in the middle of nowhere.

With all the open space and repetitive motion that puts your body on autopilot, I’ve had plenty of time to think about writing my first movie script. The farm family has already green-lighted their vineyard as the shooting location, but I have yet to tell them that it is likely going to be a psychosexual thriller involving aliens. As it turns out, physical labour is not completely separate from intellect. Time and balance allow both to flourish, but no one is truly obliged to one or the other.

Since moving to the farm, I haven’t read any books, and I only wear turtlenecks to stay warm after dinner. Yet, I have begun playing piano again, and have revitalized this three-year neglected blog.

The vines are beginning to blossom, and their grapes will be harvested in the last days of summer. I’ve never missed anyone the way I miss my osteopath, but in a place where time is marked by seasonal vegetables and I am potentially the hottest girl for at least twenty-five hectares, I’m in no rush to move on.

the space? wide open. the harvest? abundant. the foot fungus? immaculate.