Growing From Labor to Leisure
How mindfulness can help balance the toil of farm life.
I was trudging across the pasture, tripping over the miniature Appalachian hills that rolled under my feet: thick clods of turf and earth, uprooted by my pigs and stippled with their manure. I had yoked myself to a wood-and-wire structure large enough to shelter several mature pigs from wind or sleet or unrelenting sun. I was pulling with all my power to move it. My pigs were always on the go, rotating across pasture year-round, so their shelters traveled with them. After a few days—or one rainy, muddy hour—they would have chomped and churned all the forage in their paddock.
Nothin’ like pigs to ruin a good pasture, I heard a local old-timer intone in my head as I strained, thick ratchet straps wound around my waist like an ungainly yellow belt. My right foot slid on an overturned clump of pasture grass. I almost lost my balance, impossibly postured as I was: pulling the heft of the shelter ahead but also, somehow, lifting the leading edge into the air enough to surf the soil that rose and dipped like the mountains that surround my West Virginia farm. Almost there—just 20 feet to go, I thought as I bore down, using my body like the machine I knew it was. Only three more shelters to move after this one. And then I just need to carry the watering troughs, fix the fence, and clean the chicken trailer before dark.
I am not the first farmer to suffer a breaking back—or wrist, or hip, or spirit. Farmers have been rising at dawn on creaking knees, working through excruciating pain, and pressing on to dress in layers and slog through snow to check on lambs or calves or seedlings for generations.
On that muddy spring day in 2015, as I hauled that pig shelter across scarred pasture, I would have laughed at the idea that leisure has any place on a farm. I shunned the carbon footprint of mechanized equipment, instead relying on my body as my primary tool. I found pleasure in decimating my to-do list and falling into bed, dead-tired, when I could no longer drag myself through just one last job.
I could not yet see the ridiculous irrationality of denying my own needs while striving for ecological balance on what was supposed to be a sustainable farm. I carried my farm on my own breaking back, oblivious to consequence and fallibility, muffling my humanity by denying myself the pleasure of leisure. I saw my injuries and limitations as weakness, until my faltering body compelled me to get honest with myself. Later, as I began to share my story with other farmers, I realized that their experiences often matched mine.
In 2018, the first infestation of basal cell carcinoma bloomed along my nose—skin cancer born from years of incautious outdoor work. A year later, I underwent surgery on both wrists to remove painful ganglion cysts, inflamed by season after season of hauling thousands of 5-gallon water buckets to pigs. A decade of digging, lifting, and pulling resulted not only in well-defined muscles but in an agonizing labral tear that still hampers my right hip, and in damage to my lumbar spine, the searing ache of which prevents me from working as I would like.
Although I am strong and active and capable, farming has taught me that my body is a nonrenewable resource. As I have confronted the shocking and unanticipated decline of my own health and capacity, beginning in my early 30s, my body has forced me to recognize that my farm—no matter how groovy and “beyond organic”—was not, after all, sustainable.
Recovering Health—and Joy
“I started getting more pleasure from the work than from recreation,” says Jenna Brownell, who grows organic produce at Whippoorwill Farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia. “The usual ‘fun’ activities no longer mattered—I couldn’t enjoy those without thinking about work, so I just worked.” At 35, Brownell, too, feels the excruciation of heedless labor. She has been farming for much of three decades, beginning on her family’s dairy farm, where she internalized the “culture of daily work, every day, no matter what.” In years past, Brownell dedicated herself to work above all else, managing farms and gardens for others to the detriment of her own health. “Work comes first,” she deadpans.
In a world where only a few grow the food that everyone eats, romanticizing farm life is all too easy: We imagine cuddling barn kittens, clean overalls flying on the line, apron pockets piled with fresh eggs, sunsets on the front porch. Even for those who should know better—the farm-curious, or dedicated farmers market shoppers—the image of a smiling farmer bearing her basket of bounty through tidy rows of collards and peas as ducks graze nearby can be intoxicating enough to obscure the reality of hard, messy, dangerous work.
I’m starting at square one now, after making farming my priority. … Asking, what makes me feel good?—Jenna Brownell
Brownell was in her late 20s when the first “sign to slow down or change” arrived—an inguinal hernia, requiring surgical repair. The next year: wrist surgery for carpal tunnel and tendonitis. Then, a torn labrum and hip surgery. “Amid all the pain and turmoil, I was still worrying about work [with] no real comprehension about how I worked, how I take care of myself,” she says. “The idea of changing meant I would have to change my way of farming, my identity.”
“The pleasure I got out of attention and being super strong and capable—I’m that badass farmer chick—ended up shaping my own identity… around my job,” Brownell admits. Then, she herniated a disc shoveling manure out of a tractor. This final injury grasped her attention.
After enduring spinal surgery, Brownell is still healing, still dealing with daily pain. Yet, she knows that leisure is an essential part of her recovery, so she practices by walking with her dogs every day. “I don’t know what pleasure looks like anymore. … My pleasure came out of jobs I haven’t been able to do for years.”
“I’m starting at square one now, after making farming my priority. … Asking, what makes me feel good?”
Aaren Ross Riddle, of Well Fed Farm in Floyd County, Virginia, tells a similar story with different details. After the distressing premature birth of her second son, farming seemed like the healthiest solution. As she recalls: “The father of my boys and I began with the goal of raising the most nutrient-dense food possible for ourselves.”
At first, hard work was a balm: “Learning to stretch fence and hauling water, feed, and sour milk to hogs helped me feel strong and capable again. Hard work helped me get to sleep at night,” she says. But on a farm, the work never stops. “At one point I was milking three goats and a cow every morning, running on just a cup of coffee. … Eventually it all became too much, unsustainable.”
Ross Riddle’s first consequences, though, were personal. Her marriage ended, thanks in part to the stress of keeping pace with the demands of farming, forcing her to take a long look at her small farm and sell off some of the livestock: “a decision made after a few good, hard cries.” After a year, Ross Riddle says, “I felt I could breathe again. My body had gotten physically stronger. … I [realized I] just had to think smart and remain calm and positive.”
Despite the lighter load, Ross Riddle’s hands remained full with milking, cooking, and preserving—all jobs she loves. So, when an on-farm rotator cuff injury sidelined her dominant arm, coinciding with a torn ACL that required surgery, “it was a brutal wake-up call,” she says. It forced her to pare back, to slow down even more. Healing took two years and involved “therapy, a lot of working out to build the muscles of [my shoulder and] leg back,” and, she reports, “copious amounts of [homemade, pastured] bone broth.”
Recovery—from both heartbreak and physical injury—helped Ross Riddle to tune into gratitude for her daily routine of work and pleasure. Now, she finds satisfaction with her “hands in the soil, not just when all the potato tuber seed has been planted.” She notices the contentment she feels “while I am milking with my face pressed into the fuzzy warm flank of my cow, not just when I get back inside and strip off all my winter layers to process the milk. Enjoying the right now… the I am in it. The methodical plugging along.”
“I now find much more pleasure in the process of the task,” Ross Riddle says. “Sure, crossing something finished off the list will momentarily feel good. But, with farming, the lists literally never end.”
A New Focus: Mindfulness
In my first decade on the farm, I too prioritized work above all else. Like Ross Riddle and Brownell, I neglected the need to nurture myself. When I awoke to this reality, my health was so far gone that only drastic action would suffice: I sold my pigs. I stopped selling at markets. I also started telling on myself—talking and writing about overwork, forcing myself to become vulnerable. I instituted a practice of radical leisure: I decided to make time for leisure each day—whether I wanted to or not, whether I felt like I had time or not.
Observation has become essential to the way I farm: The more I rest, the more aware I become, the more I learn—from the land, from the livestock, from each season. The hens conserve energy by laying fewer eggs as daylight wanes. The trees drop their leaves and plants wither, storing reserves in their roots, resting as they wait to regrow. Even the ever-ready livestock guardian dogs spend hours sprawled in the sun each day. The farm continues to be my steadfast teacher.
Easing into a gentler way of farming introduced me to two distinct types of pleasure: mindful work and pure leisure. Neither felt natural at first. Pure leisure is just that—reading, lying in the grass with my dogs, taking a walk. Once I get past the discomfort of doing nothing, pleasure rushes in. Staying mindful while working, though, requires focus.
I was kneeling in my garden in June of 2020, weeding by the early-morning light, far before the sun had crested the treetops. The first root released easily. I shook off what little dirt came along and set the greenery aside. The next weed was not such an easy pull, yet the process still enchanted me: I tugged and felt the fibers of the plant begin to give, so I eased my grip, adjusting the placement and pressure of my fingers around the root, digging into the soil for a firmer grasp. Then, it came out! Other weeds did not, so I tried again, with a different tack—or a hand tool.
As I continue to practice this level of engagement, my work delights me; it becomes easier for me to maintain enthusiasm and wonder—whatever the job—when I work mindfully.
This spring, I moved the pig shelters. In the four years since the pigs left, the wire frames have sat in my pasture like shipwrecks—their abandonment another consequence of healing, the passing seasons softening their wood into soil. As rain, earthworms, and microbes ate away at the lumber, injury and intuition adjusted the way I performed my daily chores.
So, when I felt ready to move those shipwreck-shelters, I found help: I steered my old Ford up the pitted hill, looped those same yellow ratchet straps from shelter to trailer hitch, and let the truck do the pulling.
The job did not take all day. I resisted the urge to fill those extra hours with other work. Instead, I made myself a nice lunch and took a nap.
As a farmer, making time for leisure sometimes still feels radical to me: How can I justify pleasure when the work is never done? Yet, if I observe and listen, the farm always offers an answer. If plants and animals find ways to regenerate through rest, to permit themselves the pleasure of leisure, ought not a farmer allow herself the same?