Farming involves a lot of solitary, physical work, making it perfect for plenty of thinking and reflection. In addition, my particular situation here in Central Chile has been nothing short of peculiar, from the owners and workers of the farm to the fruits we are growing to the animals we encounter on a daily basis. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this work translates to my own personal development, my role in today’s globalized society, and the value of work as a whole. While not easy, I feel like this experience has been and will continue to be very worthwhile for all involved. In addition, some might say I learned something from eating a seafood empanada during a street festival in Valparaíso, but I am still undecided, because it was the best thing I’ve eaten in Chile so far. But I’ll get to that later on.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a fruit farm in Olmué, Chile, a small town of about 1,000 two hours west of the capital, Santiago. The farm is situated in a large agriculturally-centered valley, with an aptly named bell-shaped mountain named La Campana overlooking all. The clouds never cease to amaze.
In addition to serving as a perfect frame for the landscape during work, the mountain sits in the middle of a national park. It provided a legitimate challenge to climb on a Saturday off from work, even to three outdoorsy Coloradans. It was certainly worth the effort, however, because the top afforded views of the entire width of the country, with Valparaíso and the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes and Aconcagua, a 22,000 foot beast and the third-highest mountain in the world to the east, sitting on the Argentine border. Aconcagua (seen in the center of the picture below) is an amazing mountain: a huge bulge rising above the clouds easily resembling the sea monster it is named after. I can see why mountains like it are seen as all-powerful and sacred; they really are amazing iterations of the natural world. Charles Darwin climbed La Campana in the 1820s, and it was a good opportunity to escape from the confines of our compound where we engage in artificial natural selection of horned fruits on a daily basis.
The surrounding landscape, a lush cloud forest teeming with productive soil, is without a doubt the best part about working here. The days are pretty much sunrise to sunset and filled with boring, monotonous, extremely strenuous work. I have built up my back and my knees with the hope that they will be destroyed throughout a life of hiking, biking, and skiing, rather than hours on end of bending over and lifting awkward, heavy objects in the hot sun. Alas, these have been the realities of working on a farm for me, and it’s always good to be humbled.
The farm produces kiwanos, aka horned fruit, aka fruits of paradise, which are a mutant version of Incan cucumbers, or pepinos. They look like golden grenades with spikes protruding from all ends, are green on the inside, and taste like cucumbers that are underripe.
In addition, the farm grows Dukon melons, or alcayotas, which resemble watermelons but produce stringy white noodle-like flesh eaten in salads. The alcayotas are exported primarily to China and Japan, where they apparently have a huge demand.
As it is the beginning of spring here in Chile, we’ve been involved in every stage of the planting process for the kiwanos, which being at an industrial scale rather than simple home gardening has multiple steps. First, all buckets and trays used to house seeds are disinfected in a “swimming pool” (piscina) of water mixed with chlorine (definitely not a job for anyone who doesn’t love massive earwigs, spider eggs, and brown recluses). Trays are then filled with soil and laid in long rows in a greenhouse. Seeds are planted by hand in the greenhouse, which can reach temperatures of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit and hold over 15,000 seeds at one time (we’ve done it all in a couple days multiple times). They are left to grow for about two weeks, and during this break the field (about a five-ten minute drive away) is prepared to be planted. One hectare (2.5 acres) is first plowed by a tractor. Rows a quarter-mile long each are then dug to create tabletops (mesas) of dirt on which to plant. Along the top of the tabletops rubber drip lines are laid down and covered by sheets of black plastic, which are tamped down with dirt. The plastic allows moisture to be retained after planting, aiding for quicker growth in this hot, dry country. Back at the greenhouse, when the kiwanos are about three inches tall, they are taken to the field and planted, done by poking a circular hole in the plastic with a hard rubber tube and then dropping the plants in while seated on the back of the moving tractor. Breathable sheets of cloth then cover the rows to prevent them from being eaten by birds in the early stages of growth. After an additional two weeks, the bird cloths are removed and a round of weeding and replacing dead kiwanos with new sprouts from the greenhouse is done by hand (easily the hardest job I’ve done here – combine back spasms with sticking your fingers into dark spaces filled with more recluses and you get transplanting). The kiwanos are then covered again for a few more weeks until they are large enough to hold their own against animals and the elements. As far as I can tell no pesticides or herbicides are used, and they are watered and left to grow until ready to be harvested 4-5 months down the road.
Other than planting, my compadre Jackson and I been given random odd jobs to fill time most days (most volunteer jobs on the farm have been divided up by gender, and machismo is not shied away from whatsoever, with guys literally called machos), which have included moving one of the workers out of his house, sorting and moving an entire warehouse full of melons, and building fences, of which I’m now up to three. As far as superlatives go, my favorite job has been fence-building: it’s fun to be working in a way that’s invigorating rather than painful, it’s outside, and it’s a two-man job, which leads to good conversation. The most difficult job has been planting, both kiwanos and oregano up in the mountains, where you can either hinge at the hips or squat in a catcher’s stance to get down to the ground. The most disgusting job was sorting the alcayotas, with rotten little guys always hiding a layer of bins below and then releasing either a waft of rotten odor, a cloud of bugs, or both when uncovered. I’m also becoming accustomed to poop, bugs, and dirt everywhere, a situation exacerbated living with 30 dogs but also coming from random bug bites that keep popping up and seem to be in our clothes and sleeping bags as well as slugs and mosquitoes and venomous recluses that live everywhere. If one thing is certain it’s that every day brings a new adventure. Also noted by Tom Zeiler, both Jackson’s dad and my former history professor, is the fact that we can now list on our resumes as having experience as “Jeffersonian Tillers of the Soil”, which is nice.
I’ve also gained experience working for difficult bosses. The owner of the farm is a native Chilean, his partner is from Texas, and they both hold dual citizenship after decades of operating their Inca Gold brand both here in Olmué and in Lynden, Washington. Upon arrival I took them to be “eccentric, unusual gringos displaying odd quirks that come from living on a farm with 30 dogs” but after a couple months working here now see them as “unstable, manipulative, fairly racist conspiracy theorists with serious issues of trust and commitment” (quotations my own). I don’t mean to speak ill, simply to be honest, given that the farm has hosted volunteers in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Especially after my cousin, the main owner, left for Washington a few weeks ago, meals have become mostly silent occasions to speak only when spoken to and avoid igniting rants on topics ranging from a Third World War to the Illuminati. I’m sure not all farmers are deluded to this extent, but there is a certain amount of isolation from the outside world that comes with living here, both physically but also ideologically. The power of the internet is a very strange thing as well, being the only source of information we get here for news happening in the U.S. and around the world, and these guys read sites promoting ideas so backwards and fantastical I am amazed they even exist. This has certainly been a lesson on retaining your own perspective on life, rather than being fed nonsense, because the most important power one has is the ability to think for yourself.
Not is all bad, however, because we work in a beautiful place and take comfort in being in strange places with great friends. We’ve also gotten to spend lots of time with the full-time workers on the farm, who are really a cast of characters. I’ve had the chance to spend good chunks of time with most of them, which was a major motivator for coming to work here. Since they’ve been a major part of my life for this fall, here’s a quick snapshot of each:
Larry – 34 years old and the primary guy we are stuck with each day. He is a former drummer in a ska band and after dropping out of school and pursuing a life of partying is now sober and a vegetarian. He’s worked at the farm for 15 years, with a three-year stint at a copper mine in the north coming in the middle of time here (his detailed descriptions of mining sounded brutal: a week on followed by a week off of work, always in a dark, enclosed space filled with chemicals). Larry has taught us most of the Chilean slang and cuss words that we know, and has recently taken to referring to Jackson and I as more than friends. He lives in the same building as us, just down the hall. What a guy.
Roberto is somewhere in his mid 50s (we think) and lives across the yard in a separate building. He has two kids and lives with a woman, Edith, who also works on the farm and we think is his wife. He wakes up before everyone to milk the cow every morning, and is really a cheerful, nice guy with a shock of silvery white hair and a high voice that rises hilariously to punctuate any small twist in a sentence or a story. He seems to be given more responsibility than the other workers and is really always working, even on weekends. When we first met him he wore a Cal Bears hat, which we thought hilarious (there are tons of clothes everywhere here that are knockoff versions of English words and phrases – my favorite so far being a Chicago Deers hat, which might be a minor league team with Jay Cutler at quarterback). After Zoe explained all the teams in the PAC-12 to him and added the fact she went to Oregon, he apologized for wearing the Cal hat, swapped it for a new one the next day, and asks her all the time how the patos (Ducks) are doing (he also thought Zoe was “Jovi” and has called her that from day one). He also let slip to Jackson and I while driving the older and more rickety of the two trucks on a back road to the field that he’s had his driver’s license rescinded twice, which was then followed by the huge bang of the exhaust pipe hitting the ground. Always a good time with Roberto.
Luisa is in charge of housekeeping: cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. She has a sharp wit, a demonic laugh, and takes no crap from anyone. She goes about her daily routine in a series of grunts and pained gasps, and complains constantly about how dirty the dogs are, how inconsiderate the bosses seem to be, and how badly she’d like to find a different job and never come back. She’s been here 12 years and has told me many stories about former volunteers and about the realities of this farm. She’s never one to shy away from gossip, and always manages to stir the pot. She has home remedies for every ailment possible, claims to never have had a cold or bad luck, and attends Zumba three days a week in hot pink Nikes. I will miss Luisa fondly.
Finally, because the 30 dogs that live here are a huge part of this place and certainly have their own personalities, I thought I’d share a few of the more notable ones:
Ratita – definitely going to survive the apocalypse. We’ve seen her eat other dogs’ poop, decomposed rats, drink straight chlorine, etc. I thought saving her from drowning in the swimming pool would be a turning point in our relationship, until she responded by coming right next to me and relieving herself on the patio.
Camilla – White and albino, named after the leader of the Chilean Communist Party and the biggest bully of them all. Frequently engages in aggressive, full-body tail wagging.
Moshe – named after Moses because of such complete blindness upon arrival Ami said he’d need a miracle to survive. He’s now good to go and has taken to exploring his manhood lately.
Danny – the oldest dog of the bunch, and also the one with the fewest teeth, specifically zero. His tongue literally flops sideways out of his mouth because there are no teeth to hold it in, a fact that makes his daily grooming extremely difficult, something we find out at the dinner table every night.
Buba aka Cecil – the guardian of the farm and by far my favorite. Speaks with the voice of an old school gangster.
Foxy – alpha female of the house. Always perched and barking.
Sophie – Always pleading for food.
Bobby Jo and Taco Bell Dog
Now that it’s become clear I’m becoming stir crazy living here, I’d like to revert back to big picture observations about farm work. So far, the following are the primary lessons I have gleaned working on my cousin’s farm in Chile:
The Value of a Meritocracy
Even more than other jobs and internships I’ve had, farming is a pure meritocracy. If the fields aren’t prepared properly, they can’t be planted. If they aren’t planted correctly and on time, plants won’t grow. End of story. There is something so very different and sobering about seeing the work you need to accomplish sitting physically in front of you. Much more so than sitting in front of a blank computer with a ten page essay to write, standing in front of an overgrown acre of quarter-mile long planting rows needing to be completely stripped clean under a hot sun or an entire warehouse full of melons needing to be carried and sorted activates new senses of dread and fatigue but also a notion of resigned doggedness to get to work, because no matter how tired you are or hard it is the work must be done before the day is over. The mental engagement involved isn’t so much an intellectual challenge, although there is a large amount of practicality involved, but more so motivational. At the end of the day, you can usually see the results of your work, which can be a very satisfying feeling.
The Importance of Weather and Physical Care
This is a fairly straightforward section, but critical nonetheless. First off, weather completely derails farming in a way that virtual commerce does not typically have to deal with. We have had multiple days in Chile where rain has kept us inside all day. Thunderous rain turns the farm into a soupy mush where it’s impossible to discern the mud from the poop and combine with the smells coming from the dogs to form a truly hazardous environment. In addition, staying in good physical condition, eating well, drinking enough water, sleeping as much as possible, and taking care of your feet, back, knees, and hands go a long way towards making one both a more successful farmer but also a happier one. The kinds of fitness involved are much different from what I, someone who considers being active an essential part of my life, am used to. There isn’t much explosive, short-term movement – repetitive, monotonous movements are instead the norm. The work also is not so much muscle and strength building as it is endurance, with activities like digging, raking, lifting, and planting not feeling invigorating, but rather simply tiring. I’m growing accustomed to this work, but I can’t imagine doing it for the rest of my life. It’s hard and difficult to the core, and provides a humbling perspective to the fact that the majority of people on Earth perform significant manual labor on a daily basis.
Patience, Perseverance, Quality of Work, and Seeing Projects Through
Work on the farm for me has not been any different in the above regards from work I’ve had at the university level or in jobs and internships. You can do your job with whatever quality you like, and there are many rewards to be gained through solid, satisfactory work. It’s hard but very worth it. Working with your hands, working with the earth, and working outside are exhausting but lend a lot of time to introspection as well as conversation during long hours alongside other people.
Doing Something Right the First Time
This is not Steve Jobs culture, where failure is celebrated as pushing new boundaries and exposing room for growth. It’s imperative to do something correctly and completely the first go around, because if not it just has to be done again. There are right and wrong ways to do things and failure is seen as such, rather than a success. The end result is that the crops don’t grow as well or at all, and that hurts the bottom line from a business as well as a morale standpoint.
Chile or Texas?
I came to Chile knowing all about how similar it was to California in terms of climate, agricultural production, and geography. There are so many similarities between the two it is uncanny – they have similar shapes almost the same distance from the Equator as the other, are located on fault lines that result in frequent earthquakes, have a wide variety of topography, from ocean to green valleys to high mountains, and are the agricultural breadbaskets of their respective regions. However, I’ve found many more similarities to Texas since coming here about a month ago. To start, here is a picture of the Chilean flag, the exact same as its Texan counterpart, taken during an Independence Day parade in Santiago.
Much of the Chile I have known involves ranches and farms, cowboys and rodeos (called huasos), and barbeques serving choripan (chorizo + pan, or bread). During a weekend trip to La Serena, an especially serene coastal city to the north, there were people riding horses up and down the beach. Driving to the fields most days we swerve across the middle of the road to pass huascos on horseback in what would be the bike lane in the U.S. In addition, one of the co-owners of the farm I work at is from Texas, which makes him seem even more at home, albeit a bit out of place as a 6′ 3″ gringo who sticks out like a sore thumb. However, that’s about where the similarities end – Chileans drink lots of wine, it’s very green and lush almost everywhere except the northern Atacama Desert, and there are many massive mountains and ski resorts, things that Texans need to come to Colorado in eight-person SUVs during the winter to experience. Nonetheless, it’s been fun to live amidst cowboy culture here on the farm.
Ok, back to the ‘nada. To make a long story short, I spent a week in my bed while my friends worked, unable to keep a meal down and riding a roller coaster of emotions and digestive cycles. During the diagnosis process, everyone involved had contrasting opinions as to the cause of my malaise and their recommended cures, most of which involved homemade remedies of plants and herbs and not one that included medicine. After a few days of this, and a few surprisingly condescending lectures from my hosts, I finally managed to go to a clinic, where I saw a real doctor with an MD. She proceeded to see me in five minutes, with a poke of the stomach confirming her suspicions of an “infection.” I was sent out the door with a handful of herbs with which to make tea, a prescription for antibiotics, and the phone numbers of her two children to hit the bars with. After this I was in high spirits and started on the pills. This was just when the fun started, however, because the next day, following a pretty bad combination of dehydration and whatever was living in my stomach, which hit during an earthquake, I ended up in an ER in rural Chile, with my trusty pal and super MVP of the day Zoe by my side. This was after Ami, my host, asked Zoe if she could take me, almost completely unconscious at this point, to the hospital so he could receive the cable guy who was over four hours late for his appointment. When I woke up in the ER the first thing I saw were soldiers standing next to a man in a jumpsuit and chains wrapped around his hands and feet; he was one of a few convicts receiving medical treatment next to me in the small ER (Jackson later told me one had a hole in his thigh). Not to worry, however, because the hospital visit was completely free and I was back on my feet after a hellish week. In my mind the cause is still undetermined, lying somewhere between the Valpo empanada, well water that I drink every day, and the raw milk products from the farm. In addition, two of my fellow volunteers fell ill right after I did, so I’m not sure the ‘nada was to blame. The stomach bug ended up paying a return visit when I was working in the field an especially memorable Monday about a month later, leaving me much more cautious. In the hospital I was assured I didn’t have cholera and was diagnosed with an “infection” along with “infectious diarrhea” (not kidding), and was sent on my way. Like my sister said a couple days after, it’s not an adventure without episodes like these. I’m certainly looking forward to an upcoming two months filled with outdoor adventures in the Atacama Desert and then Patagonia.
To end, here are a few quotes from my cousin and host Ami:
“This is an animal house first, before humans.”
“Don’t worry, diarrhea is good for you: it cleans out the soul.”
“And that’s when I left my underwears in that city.”
“I am softer than silk (soy mas suavecito que la seda)”
“If you can load it, it’s legal.”
Stay tuned, with love and go Broncos,