I Took a Side Job Selling Cherries at Pike Place—And Now Love the Farming World

There is a profound sense of community born from the gathering of people and the exchange of goods at a market.
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Photo by MarkHatfield/iStock.

When I first saw the “Help Wanted” sign posted at the stall of a farm at my local farmers market in Seattle, I hoped I’d get work picking cherries. When I called, it turned out the job was selling them, but that was almost as good.

I was looking to escape from the abstractions and theories that, until that point, made up most of my days as a doctoral student in the social sciences at the University of Washington. I was tired of rearranging text on a screen and longed for the type of work that involved my hands.

A day’s labor at Pike Place Market, the nation’s oldest public market, means selling over $1,000 worth of cherries, learning something new about a neighboring vendor, and speaking Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese with tourists. These are the specific and concrete ways I feel successful—a stark contrast to the ambiguous notions of success that characterize my graduate studies.

However, not everyone comes to this work in order to escape abstraction. Working at various markets throughout Seattle, I’ve met other gig workers who were in some sort of transition. Maimoona is a recent college graduate hoping to work full time in an arts-focused organization, but in the meantime she has an internship with an art school, while also working for a movie theater and the farm. Lucas is a licensed massage therapist who holds five jobs. Per has been meeting farmers’ daily deliveries and helping vendors set up and close down shop for the past couple of years. He told me that he purposefully wanted to “start at the very bottom” so that someday he might have his own stall at the market, selling his blown-glass creations. The flexible schedules help them make ends meet while continuing to take steps toward the careers they desire.

The farmers market community is both local and global. Talking to the Chinese-speaking tourists from China, Taiwan, Canada, and Australia reconnects me to the Chinese diaspora. Locally, the workers are bound together by the informal gift economy of market culture. On any given day, I can trade up to two pounds of cherries for coffee, cigarettes, and produce from other farms. Cherries serve as currency as well as social capital—by spreading general neighborly good will and cheer.

How should a community sustainably feed and nourish its people?

I moved to Seattle in order to study issues of equity and social justice in education. That work, which remains my life’s work, is just as important to me now as before. However, somewhere along the path of my graduate studies, the more I analyzed my object of study, the further away I felt from its urgency. My life was becoming one-dimensional, much like the texts I was manipulating on screen. During these times, I wanted a small part of my life to be separate from academia.

I didn’t expect to subject this new gig to any type of intellectual scrutiny. But, of course, even selling cherries is never just about selling cherries. I took this gig not only because it was convenient for my student schedule but because working at farmers markets makes us ask these inevitable questions: What does it mean to eat with the seasons? How should a community sustainably feed and nourish its people? Who does the work of farming and harvesting local produce? What percentage of profits is returned to the agricultural workers?

If there is any sense of community born from the gathering of people and the exchange of goods at a market, then it begins with the acknowledgment that everything we do is politically and ethically related to those essential questions.