Somewhere around 12,000 years ago, human beings began to farm. We stopped praying to Mother Nature, asking that a pig wander into our path or a tree bear fruit when our children were hungry. We took the growth of food into our own hands and told the seeds where and when to sprout. We penned in the sheep and the goats and taught them to rely on us for grain and grass.
We no longer had to wander: in fact, we needed to settle next to the fields we laboriously tilled in order to take their harvest. With our bellies more consistently full, we made homes and towns and war. We invented poverty and wealth.
And we made art. We had made art for thousands of years, beautiful things which served no purpose, but now we exploded with creative energy. Our technology advanced rapidly and our communities became larger and more complex with every growing season.
Somewhere around 10 years ago, I became fascinated by this enormous change in the direction of human history. Without establishing stable methods of food production, how could we have reached our current state of development?
Agriculture struck me as the foundation upon which all social organization rested — but I knew almost nothing about how food ended up on my plate. I could write a paper on the theme of vengeance in The Odyssey but I didn’t know how to grow carrots or raise chickens. The former required that someone do the latter, but which task was more important? Which set of skills was really more important?
Those weren’t questions I asked when I first went off to college. I had a vague idea I’d end up teaching English, but eventually decided to major in Sociology. My interest in agriculture grew outside the classroom, through regular visits to the farmers’ market, friends who drew me into environmental activism, and Barbara Kingsolver’s writing on local food and the problems of modern agriculture. I didn’t know that agriculture was something I could study as a social phenomenon until I’d already graduated and began applying to graduate schools.
Everything I was interested in came together when I discovered sociology of agriculture. Here was a whole discipline of people who were also interested in the way human institutions grew, literally, from the way we raised our food. In 2010, I joined North Carolina State University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and began my research on the agricultural methods women use when they farm, a topic that would eventually become my thesis.
Two years later, my too-young marriage crumbled and I realized a couple things: I despised the politics and competition of academia and I’d learned hardly anything about farming. Sure, I could recite statistics — even generate new ones! — but my knowledge of how farms actually functioned to produce food was still embarrassingly limited.
When I began the NC State Sociology department, I’d been assigned a student mentor: Patricia Parker, who ran a small vegetable farm with her partner Ben Shields. I’d visited their farm several times and even “farm-sat” for them when they traveled. Patricia left NC State when she learned she was pregnant with her first child, and guessing that Ben would need extra help on the farm, I gambled an offer: When I finished my masters’ in December of 2012, I’d move in with them and work with Ben, learning the ropes so I could eventually establish my own farm.
The year I spent living and farming full-time turned out to be full of the most amazing and difficult experiences I’ve ever had, shattering all my expectations and changing me, pardon the pun, from the ground up.
I’ve bounced around different farms and jobs since then, struggling to find where and how I fit into the world of agriculture. Running my own farm is no longer my primary goal; while the work satisfies my body and feeds my mind, I still need more layers of engagement. Teaching people about farming and how all of our lives depend, desperately, on the methods we use to raise our food is one thing I’ve come to love through my time in agriculture; Writing essays both informative and whimsical also helps satisfy my need to share these necessary connections to our food and farming.
Two truths motivate my writing and my life in agriculture: That there is endless poetry in this work, coming into close and constant contact with the soil and animals, and that we are all far too divorced from that poetry and the simple knowledge it can offer us about how to live through struggle and find peace.
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Anneliese Marvel lives at Celebrity Dairy in Siler City, NC, with two wonderful cats and her partner, Neil Shock. She spends her days stalking birds when she should be planting cabbage and her sleepless nights watching fox kits play among the pines. She is, without a doubt, the most blessed person in the world.
I work six days a week between a wonderful community-owned grocery store and In Good Heart Farm. Despite having health insurance, paying for my medical expenses (mental health care, a lot of dental work, and ophthalmological care for a genetic eye condition) leaves me without anything extra at the end of the month. If you enjoy my writing and photography and can spare a few dollars, I would be endlessly grateful for your support. Thank you.