REFLECTIONS FROM A CITY GIRL

I’ve spent 21 years in Illinois. I’ve never left for more than two weeks at a time, and let’s be honest, that Chicagoan dialect that spews out of my mouth doesn’t exactly allow me to assimilate into just any geographic region. Illinois is my home. Specifically, I was raised in Itasca, which is about a 40 minute train ride from Chicago.

Being a Chicagoan (or even a suburbanite) is a lifestyle. The pace at which I walk to work is probably better described as “jogging.” I know what a REAL hot dog looks like, I can direct you to the city’s best Italian beef and don’t even get me started on thin crust pizza. When my boss told me that we were going to volunteer our time to corn picking in Manhattan, I thought he was joking.

The thought of Nicky Hunter picking corn is akin to the thought of a cat swimming laps in a pool. Outrageous. I love sports but hate playing them because I hate to sweat. I’ve never tended to a garden because I don’t like dirt, and I don’t even know what I would do if I found a worm. I’d probably scream and jump up and down, hands waving in acute panic. The great outdoors and I never really got along.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I replied because I talk a big game. I knew it was for the City Produce Project, which was a good cause. Monsanto, which is a huge company, got behind the project and Illinois Corn Marketing Board also participated in the program, so if such big forces can help out, what was stopping me? Some dirt and sweat? Pathetic, city girl, pathetic.

It would be easy, I thought, because it’s a farm. I thought I knew farms. After all, I’d seen one obnoxious farm comedy after another, I knew the routine. You get up early when the rooster crows and then you do various farm duties until someone rings that little triangle to announce that a large, bountiful dinner was ready. That dinner, of course, was provided by the farmer’s hard work and that was how they survived. That’s all I was exposed to.

Stupid.

What never really occurred to me was that the work that gets done on a farm is a business. The crops that grow on a family’s farm aren’t just exclusively for family meals that would make a Norman Rockwell painting look like child’s play. Once I arrived on the farm, I expected to see machinery going to town on those crops, with volunteers just packing away the corn that the machines left behind. After all, farms are so expansive, there is no way that we would actually be doing the harvesting. There are machines for that…right?

Not in this case. It was all hard work and human labor. It finally occurred to me that the vegetables I eat actually originate somewhere. It was humbling to realize that sometimes I’m just too lazy to get in my car and drive three minutes to the supermarket and pick fresh produce, then come home and prepare it. Instead, I shuffle through my kitchen, mumbling “There’s no food in this house” and chomping on a bag of chips and maybe a cookie, if I’m lucky. I realized that farmers have to plant, nurture and send off all their crops in order to get to the supermarket produce section that I rarely visit because I just don’t have “THE WILLPOWER” to eat correctly.

Spending a few hours on a farm went beyond just opening my eyes to the process. Being involved with the City Produce Project even at the most minimal level has made me aware of the daily challenges farmers face. If the weather is nice on Sunday, farmers are working. Weekend or not, there’s something to do on the farm. If the weather doesn’t cooperate at the right time; game over. The whole field could be washed out and there could be nothing to show for days or even weeks of work. No produce, no profit. No profit, no nothing. Farming isn’t a joke.

I was lucky enough to get to volunteer when the weather, though hot as the Sahara, was relatively good. I was informed that the week beforehand, volunteers trudged through mud in order to get the work done, and not many extra people showed up because they didn’t want to get dirty. The work had to get done, so the farmers spent the entire day in wet mud. They have no choice. That corn had places to be, City Produce Project participants to please, delicious flavors to unleash upon unsuspecting omnivores.

As a suburbanite who spends more than 40 hours in metro Chicago per week, I can say with confidence that I was completely unattached to my food. I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t know how it was grown, and I know even less about who is responsible for its production. If it reached my mouth, I was happy. After spending literally no more than two hours on a farm, I can say that now I appreciate fresh vegetables. They take work. I don’t know if larger areas are handled with machinery or not, because I’m only familiar with the sweet corn used in the City Produce Project. But I do know that regardless of machinery’s role, humans operate them. Humans purchase the seed, humans tend to the crops and humans wouldn’t exist without this kind of selfless dedication.

I feel less like a Chicagoan/Suburbanite and more of an Illinoisan. I am aware of the goings-on in other parts of this vast state, not just the deep-dish pizza feuds and seemingly endless roadwork of Cook County. There are things beyond my hamburger, beyond my debilitating fear of being touched by an earthworm, and beyond my selfish need for food to just appear.

I appreciate corn farmers now, because after two hours I was ready to throw in my sweaty towel and call it a day. That’s not an option for them, and I commend them for dedicating their lives to such an uncontrollable gamble. Without such skilled and charitable farmers, programs like the City Produce Project wouldn’t be possible, and some communities would be left without any resources to combat diabetes because they would have zero access to anything as nutritious as the corn grown in Manhattan.

I think every Chicagoan should experience just a few hours on a farm. It does bring perspective and opens up those smog-weary eyes to a different kind of existence that is only a few hours removed from Chicago.

And would you believe it, this city chick actually had fun on a farm. I touched some bugs, got sweaty and got a paper-cut on my hand (the horror!), but at the end of the day, I did something new for a good cause.

Nicky Hunter

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