Why Worksongs?

Clara Coleman asked me to write up a memorable farming moment... she might use it during her keynote speech at NOFA-VT in February 2013. Here was my response: I remember the first time I led a worksong workshop. It was at the Middlebury College Organic Farm in 2004, and we were spreading mulch hay in the garlic bed. I had just returned from a trip to South Africa researching the Zulu tradition of neighborhood musical crop mobs, and the final part of my project was to get people to do it themselves in America. Well it was tough teaching Zulu songs on top of mulching technique, but we soon had a dozen people belting it out into the cool air of spring at dusk in Vermont.

There was something about that moment that captured farming at its best, for me. It was community coming together to share time with each other. It was innovation, trying on a new approach to our work, on the chance it might make things quicker. And it was just plain fun joking around with each other, making light of what could be seen as mundane or backbreaking. We got something done with our hands and had a good time doing it, out in the open air.

This story, and all of the worksonging we've been doing ever since, speaks to what real farming is, or should be, to me. People in the fields. Neighbors working together. A link to the beauty of the land as the seasons change around us. And a reminder to us as farmers to sharpen one of the most powerful tools in the drawer: our remarkable human ability to put a touch of art into our work to make it more fun, more effective, more real.