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irregular times logoIs Back to Nature Farming Only for Men?
- the two faces of Polyface Farm -

Polyface Farm got an awful lot of positive press following the fawning description of life on the sustainable farm in the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan. One of the things that Pollan glossed over is the fact that the escape from farming has been historically associated with social liberation. Working the land was, for a long time, not an idyllic source of social harmony, but a trap.

This dark underside of the agricultural history of humanity is echoed, in a small way, on Polyface farm itself. The people at Polyface farm value giving animals the kind of life that they were "designed" to lead. On Polyface farm, cows do the work that cows are naturally suited to do. Pigs play the role that pigs are naturally suited to do. Chickens do take on the jobs that they seem meant to do.

This seems like an open and humane kind of approach, until one realizes that this same kind of approach is applied to gender roles on the farm as well.

Every year, Polyface farm accepts two interns. There is no specific set of qualifications for the 12-month internships, except that the prospective interns display the right kind of attitude... and that they be male.

Polyface farm specifically requests, for both its full apprenticeship and shorter summer season chicken slaughtering apprenticeship, that "young men" apply.

"Polyface offers two 12-month apprenticeships per year. An extremely intimate relationship, the apprenticeships offer young men the opportunity to live and work with the Salatin's."

"Starting in 2007, we are offering a short-term life experience from May 1-October 15, minimum 3 months, for six young men to process chickens 2 days per week, plus work one additional day, and have 4 days off per week."

Looking at a photograph of all the interns Polyface farm used over ten years, there isn't a single female face in the bunch. Why?

Is it because the internship involves an "intimate" relationship with Joel Salatin? Well, if that relationship remains non-sexual with male interns, surely Mr. Salatin would be capable of keeping it non-sexual with a female intern.

Is it because the work required is physically challenging? Well, I'm sure that there are many young women who would not be up to the task, but there would also be many young men who could not handle the work either. I've seen young women doing challenging farmwork before, and I'm sure that there are young women who could take on the work that Joel Salatin offers his interns.

I have a nagging suspicion that it isn't just the chickens, the pigs, and the cows that are kept in their place on Polyface Farm. Humans, it seems are subject to the same attitude, with men doing work that men are supposed to be naturally suited to do, and women doing what they're supposed to be naturally suited to do.

Why would Polyface Farm not give my daughter a chance, when she comes of age? What would the internship for young women at Polyface Farm involve, if such an internship existed? Baking pies? Taking care of the kids?

As much as the idea of getting back to the land is idealized, it's worth remembering how people's relationship with the land was, through much of the history of agriculture, a form of repression. Sure, there were some wealthy landowners, but to support them was a class of people who did not enjoy the good life at all, "tied to the land".

In the last century, the question was asked in song, "How you gonna keep them down on the farm?" Young people left farm life behind when they saw greater opportunity in the city. The joy of working the same fields day after day, year after year, was not so strong for those who had no other choice.

Cities have often been cast as places of great vice. The vice that exists in cities, however, comes as just one form of the new opportunities that cities have sponsored. Farms can be more liberal nowadays because city dwellers have earned that freedom.

Women's equality was not won on the farm. Civil rights and fair economic opportunity for African Americans was not obtained on the farm. Even today, farm workers are the most poorly paid workers in the country.

Certainly, there are traps to city life as well as to life on the farm. Personally, I don't want to live in a city, not when many of the benefits of city life have become available to people living in small villages and in the country.

There is a new opportunity for people to return to work the land. Returning to the land may be great, but if we return to the old limitations of life on the land, we'll get trapped in supposedly "natural" roles all over again.

The mere rejection of city life and the industrial approach to life isn't enough. Truly alternative agriculture ought to be able to integrate the personal freedom and enlightenment bought through industry and the opportunities of life in the city.

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