Laura Tait of Heart Acres Farm - The Emotional Labour of Farming
Written by Claire Heidenreich
Chew on This! is a bi-weekly mini speaker series hosted at the South Osborne Farmers’ Market that aims to bring market-goers and local food champions together with the idea that a market should be a meeting place and a place of critical ideas as well as commerce.
Last week, we were joined by Laura Tait, a farmer and co-owner of Heart Acres Farm, a ~2 acre spray-free farm near St. Adolphe, MB where she and business partner Chad Wiens grow vegetables for markets and their CSA. She spoke about the challenges of running a small farm business, reflecting on gender roles in the business she is a part of, the transformative social role small farms can play, and the visibility of different kinds of labour in farming. Laura began by pointing out the visibility of different kinds of labour on the farm. Anyone who’s not a farmer will know that running a farm business takes a lot of labour, but when we picture farmwork, we are more likely to picture the exhausting physical tasks of planting, tending and harvesting crops during long, hot summer days and wet spring mornings. But while these are crucial, they are not the only ones required to make a farm run: farmers must also make business plans, budgets, and crop plans-- and, in the case of small farms, the farmers themselves tend to act as their own sales and public relations departments, administrating the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), building vendor connections and maintaining contact with their customers via social media. These highly communicative tasks require an input of time and skill equal to the more physical tasks, but are often less visible to outsiders -- and even to the farmworkers themselves-- as ‘farmwork’. These tasks, often described by the umbrella term of ‘emotional labour’, tend to be invisible-- and therefore unrewarded. Over the past two seasons of running Heart Acres Farm, Laura has found herself gravitating towards the invisible emotional labour jobs, while her business partner Chad gravitated toward crop planning and working in the fields. Laura is the first to say that she enjoys a lot of the organizing and emotional labour; she has high-level skills around communication, graphic design, and event managing. But as time went on, she started feeling like she needed to work extra hard in the fields to make up for “lost time” spent communicating with CSA members, dealing with staff issues, organizing markets, or building comfortable common spaces on the farm. Because her tasks didn’t directly contribute to profits, she noticed they were getting undervalued and overlooked, even though they were vital to sustaining a healthy and happy workplace. She felt like she was always working, and began to get exhausted both physically and emotionally-- and realized this was because she was trying to work double-time: behind the scenes, and on centre stage. There had to be a solution to this, and for Laura, it came with acknowledging the structural reasons she was feeling this way and bringing them up with her business partner. Emotional labour, because of socialization around gender, all too often falls on women and femme people to deal with -- whether they like it or not-- and Laura noticed that most of these issues she would deal with weren’t an issue for Chad. For example, as an employer, Laura noticed that the farm employees would come to her for help when they made mistakes or were having personal issues, while they would be more likely to listen to instructions given by Chad. Acknowledging the gendered reasons for this, Laura and Chad came to an agreement that Chad would begin to take on talking with employees, especially about the more emotional issues. This provided Laura with a much-needed break from emotional labour, and gave Chad the opportunity to better appreciate it by experiencing it firsthand. It makes the invisible visible-- and therefore valued.
Laura and Chad have challenged themselves with the task of creating a work dynamic that tries to account for all the kinds of labour being done-- to value them equally, and to make sure that each partner’s role supports the other’s. Over some time of this, Laura has noticed that the labour on the farm has shifted naturally to a division where the physical farming labour is being shared roughly equally, and Chad takes on most of the planning of crops, while Laura does most of the organization, finances, and coordination required to run and grow the business. She uses her organizational skills to hold events at the farm, such as: weekly farm trips for volunteers from the Good Food Club (a subsidized healthy food program in West Broadway), raising awareness and CSA shares for the Mosaic Resource Center (a newcomer resource centre), hosting gardening-dating events for queer people interested in farming, and holding gatherings for farmers and people from marginalized communities who are interested in farming to meet each other, network, and discuss food and farming issues and strategies. The goal of Heart Acres Farm is to be more than just a business, and Laura is interested in finding a way to make small, sustainable farming feasible and to shift the food system towards increased diversity in small-scale and local production. But to do this requires more than just planting and harvesting crops-- it requires relationship building, communication and ongoing work for social justice. In other words, it requires a transformation of what we envision as farmwork: the future of farming is going to take a lot of emotional labour-- and the recognition of its value-- and Laura is just one of many people striving to bring that to the fore.