Farming Therapy at Many Hands

Yes, it is therapeutic for at least certain people to farm. It has become crystal clear to me, as one of those “earth types” (according to five element acupuncture system), that farming is how I regain balance, feed my soul and my psyche, get my exercise, my vitamin D, build and enhance my human, plant and animal relationships, and get that bonus of feeding the bodies of me, my family, our staff, and all of our customers. I knew at a very young age that being in the soil was what “fed” me like nothing else. My fondest and most centered memories go back to spending long summer days with my brother Tom and my sister Sue at our creek on our farm in Illinois, playing in the mud. It is interesting that today the three of us are still avid farmers or gardeners, and still get this immense pleasure from working in the soil.

The multi-talented labor force at Many Hands Organic Farm. This time preparing to use their poultry-slaughtering skills!

The multi-talented labor force at Many Hands Organic Farm. This time preparing to use
their poultry-slaughtering skills!

Over the past 32 years on Many Hands Organic Farm hundreds have passed through to work, talk, laugh, cry, argue, and eat. I am an unapologetic Tom Sawyer with many a fence to paint, and a certain knack to get folks to not only find something that they can accomplish and feel good about, but be of use to our farming system, that, not unlike most farms, can suck up tremendous human resources in the name of growing food.

We have gone through many labor pool periods over the past 3+ decades, but in 2007 we entered our ex-con period. All of a sudden there were about 10 recovering addicts showing up on a Friday and working all morning on whatever task was the most important that day. Having just been in a particularly dry period for masculine labor, we regaled in the machinery repairs, heavy lifting, roto-tiller and mower operating, and carpentry skills that came our way. Soon we were hiring recovering addicts who had successfully completed various jail initiated recovery programs, supported by Dismas House in Worcester, MA.

Relapse! Nothing is more traumatic for the new employer of recovering addicts than the inevitable relapses that will happen, in a high percentage of cases. The first time it happened, Jack and I were distraught. When one gets involved in the lives of one’s employees, sees the world through their eyes, hears their heart rending stories of abuse and neglect that plagued their lives as children, and comes to empathize with the tenuousness of their hold on reality, stability, employment, and a viable future, watching all the gains dissolve with the return of heroin or crack into their lives can be heart rending. And from a business standpoint it is highly risky if this person has become one of the most high performing and reliable members of the farm staff.

But then life is a high risk/high gain proposition. What does a responsible citizen or parent or employer do with a person on their watch when self-destructive behavior rears its ugly head? We had some practice this very week when we took action with an employee who we suspected had returned to heroin. When you are around recovering addicts for long enough, the signs (just like the impending downturn in animal or plant health to the observant grower) are there to be read. Slight changes in behavior like anxiety over small mishaps that might not generally cause upset, changes in demeanor, a diminution of carefulness, distress at the end of the day, oversleeping and being late for work, borrowing money, weight loss, and loss of appetite are all potential signs of a relapse in progress. All of our recovering addict employees have always told us that once a guy is in the throes of the addiction, he will lie, try to cover, and eventually steal when available cash runs out, in order to feed the beast of addictive substance.

Twice in the past two weeks I asked our employee in question whether something was wrong, was there anything I could do to help. All was okay, just a little tired. Jack and I agreed to buy a drug store urine test and surprise him with a request to take it. He capitulated and told Jack not to waste his money, as it would show positive for heroin. And then he left. And we didn’t hear from him for two very long days. The good news for him is that he did get in touch, tonight. One of the ways that we have toughened up is that we will no longer allow a relapsed addict to return to our employ until he is back in a recovery program, has met the requirements there for attendance at meetings, is taking regular urines, and can demonstrate a willingness and diligence to “right his ship” once again. In this case his farm hours have been passed out and the employment window is closed. Tough love for us also includes regular visits to jail for three of our former employees who let the relapse turn into a return to crime to support the habit. And forgiveness includes rehiring after the jail sentence is completed and they seem to be on solid footing again.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a teacher of a local school/institution for boys who have been involved in juvenile sex or violence crimes. All of a sudden we have entered our “bad boy” period. They came for morning stints of working on the farm to help them get ready for re-entry into society and de-institutionalization. That is still the case, and this spring we hired our first teen from the program. We are now about to hire our 4th. Each boy comes with his own set of “issues” but also his own set of amazing talents, perspective on life, and contributions to our farm community.

Over the past 8 years we have figured out a balance of ‘regular’ employees who are generally stable, plus working shareholders who offer a ½ day per week for food, plus some recovering addicts, and then these wonderful male teens who bring that young competitive energy in the summertime when the work swells out of normal proportions.

Jack and I have learned to live for the moment –like the 14 hour chicken slaughter where we all bonded in an unforgettable way as we slogged through into darkness to finish the day, or watching one of our high performing teens gently and patiently guide the work of one less functional. It can be as mundane as watching our 35-years-an-addict artistically prepare a growing bed with the tractor and tiller, or helping one of our staff members execute a hog slaughter workshop and build an on-farm smoker. The beautiful life is all about the little connections between people, the building of trust, and compassion, the completion of a day’s or morning’s work by all the collaborative hands, the celebratory farm lunch at the picnic table, and the peals of laughter as we filthy ourselves up picking vegetables in the rain or chasing pigs in the woods.