Since 1962, this farm has been hiring people who are overqualified for the job, and underqualified for the work. Most of our workers are college educated, or perhaps on the way to college. They have loads of skills. They are generally academically successful. Usually those skills don’t translate perfectly to farm work, but everyone who comes to the farm is willing and ready to learn—even if they have no idea what they will really be learning.

In one of many bean patch conversations this summer, we were idly talking about what the requirements are for learning to be a good farm worker. We came up with common sense, a lot of practice—and mistakes that you can learn from.  

In fact, this list is the same for all new jobs, so it’s not quite specific enough. On a farm, it helps if a person is observant; for starters, if she can tell when she is walking on cultivated plants and not just on grass or weeds. As soon as a new worker arrives on the farm, she needs to navigate walking in the aisles and working on the beds. This is not immediately obvious to the uninitiated.

It also helps if a person can remember a list of instructions; they are usually simple, but they come in a rapid sequence, and you have to remember the whole thing. It’s good if the person has used his body before, maybe as an athlete or working in a restaurant, something requiring constant motion and efficiency in movement. Athletes have also learned the discipline that comes with practicing in all sorts of weather, no matter what.  They don’t tend to drag their feet when weather gets cold or hot or wet.

And, it really helps if a person can ask intelligent questions. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Not only does a farm worker need to be observant, have a good memory for details, and not mind working in all sorts of conditions, a good farm worker pays attention enough to ask about picking standards (they change constantly in the vegetable business) and the logic behind pricing decisions.

I have been watching workers pass through this farm for about 50 years now, and there is no clear formula for who is going to be a success and who is never going to be able to learn to move efficiently or tell the difference between a too-small squash and a ready-to-pick squash. It all depends on a person’s capacity to pay attention and learn, and to care about the quality of her work. It is hard to know what matters the most when you are new to farming, and you have to rely on the experience of those around you, and be a good mimic. We can’t always tell who will be a good listener and who will be oblivious to the details.

The farm workers who seem to adapt most quickly to this (tedious, repetitive, back-straining, uncomfortable) work are often athletes, artists, waiters, bakers, and people who have worked in their family business as kids. One of the most important qualities that ensures success is mental and emotional stamina. It is much easier to pick squash every morning if picking squash doesn’t actually affect your mood. It is so much easier to weed carrots for hours if you are able to keep your fingers moving fast without succumbing to boredom. Your mind can keep busy, both paying attention and thinking about a million other things.

And, just like any other job where there are bosses, it is so much better when the workers don’t take everything personally. Every single day there are inevitable interactions about the most trivial things—how to pick up a container correctly, how to put it down so that vegetables on the bottom won’t get smashed, how to drive appropriately so things don’t tip over—and it is so much better for everyone when feedback is received without drama (and obviously that works only when it is delivered without drama).

While farming is certainly not for everyone, I believe that almost anyone can do it.  We have had the most amazing people come through here, bringing their (usually brief) life experience and their spunk, and we have watched them learn so many skills in just a few months.

To be a useful farm worker takes common sense, a lot of practice, the capacity to learn from mistakes as well as successes, and the sort of personality that is nice to be around while we do all the tedious and repetitive work together, day after day. You can be 80 years old or 4’10” tall or a high school kid or a retired military person with time on your hands, and if you have those qualities, you are qualified to be a useful farm worker.

Hana Newcomb

Potomac Vegetable Farm

Hana Newcomb is an owner of Potomac Vegetable Farm in Vienna, Virginia.