Division of labor

A friend asked me recently during lunch why I grow food when I live in the city and can buy it all. Don’t I believe in the division of labor? Why make life unnecessarily hard?

But lots of things are unnecessarily hard. Eating a sandwich, for instance. All that chewing is needless, really. You could outsource it to someone beforehand, or automate it with a blender. Then you could just swallow without having to chew. Of course we don’t think of chewing as work, though it is. It just happens to be work we enjoy.

Growing food doesn’t sound, to most, like enjoyable work. In school I was taught that growing food meant being tortured by nature. People laboring from sun-up till sun-down and starving half the time anyway. Now, thankfully, it was handled by a few individuals and even they left most of the work to machines.

Much later I found out that growing food doesn’t have to be so arduous. As it turns out, it can even be fun. Why? Because I don’t do it sixty hours a week. Some weeks it’s five hours. Sometimes two. Other weeks no time at all.

A lot of people must have had an education like mine, because when I suggest growing food people often tell me how large their families are and how they don’t have enough land but that one day they might buy a few acres in the country. They think I’m suggesting that they grow all their food.

When I suggest that people grow food I mean some, not all, of it. With the right techniques even a tiny plot can supplement your diet seriously. Even 8 sq. ft. can be so well tended that it yields a salad or cooking greens every day.

When I suggest that people grow food, I mean in addition to doing something else — a regular job, if you will. I’m not saying you should make a living growing food. Ten thousand lettuce plants harvested and sold probably wouldn’t net your current salary. But ten lettuces plants, harvested properly, could yield months of salads for your family.

Too much of anything is excess; too little of anything deprives. And while it’s unfortunate to have to grow food all day every day as a matter of life or death, so is never growing any food at all. Growing food, it turns out, is meaningful and enjoyable work; like eating, or talking, or making love.

It would be a shame to not get to chew our food; it would be a shame to have to chew eighteen hours a day. Similarly, I’m no longer satisfied with having all my food grown for me. Nor am I quitting my job to farm.

Does this mean I’m rejecting the division of labor? — that social innovation which has resulted in so much prosperity, of a kind?

Not entirely. But I am reining in the modern tenet that says we should increasingly specialize so we can have easier lives. I don’t want an easier life; I want the full human experience. When the division of labor helps that, I’m for it. But now I think we’re being spared from too much; we’ve divided too many times.

Ok, but doesn’t my argument go for just about anything? Sewing for example. Someone could argue that I’m really missing out on the enriching experience of making my own clothes.

They’d probably be right. My life would be richer if I could trade a hundred hours of television watched for that experience instead. But I still think growing food stands above the rest as something we should do. Because the way most food today is grown and processed is ruining the planet and our bodies. Growing food locally turns out to be one of the most potent ways to repair that damage. Which is all I knew when I got started. That it would be so satisfying was a surprise.