Radishes and life lessons harvested down on the farm

WE NEEDED to pick radishes.

I cried.

Back up: I was midway through my half-month stint working at a farm in New Jersey. The farmer distributed freshly harvested fruits, veggies and flowers to his subscribers in New York City on Saturdays. So it made sense for me to head back to the city and spend a few hours with my husband. A little visit would sustain us for the next several days — it'd have to. So my weekly day off would be Saturday.

Friday night, I ended my work day, ate dinner and took a tromp through some beautiful meadows, glad that I could relax without thinking about work. My colleagues would finish the harvest and load the truck Saturday morning, I imagined, and I'd just get in the truck's cab when we left.

But then, in the morning, the farmer ran through his checklist aloud and mentioned that someone needed to go get several bunches of radishes. We needed them to make a full complement for the subscribers and couldn't leave for New York till it

was done.

You don't have to do it, he noted, but the sooner we get done with all the harvesting and pack the truck, the sooner we can leave.

I went back to my room to get my wide-brimmed straw hat and put on sunblock and insect repellent. UV light and gnats and flies didn't care whether I wanted to be in the fields or not. I ate a few pieces of vegan jerky so I could work without having to take time with a big breakfast.

"I don't want to do the radishes," I thought fervently. Some farm tasks, like planting, felt pleasant, but these radishes were tiny and it took forever to gather a bunch. I'd done it for hours Friday afternoon, and the remaining radish row offered up blah-looking greens with tiny bulbs hiding among scores of weeds.

It was my day off. I had a choice in the matter. I didn't have to work. But the farm needed it to get done. Someone needed to do it, and other workers would have to work longer and harder if I didn't do it.

I cried for a few minutes, then stopped and went to the radish field and pulled radishes into bunches and tied them together with rubber bands.

The job needed doing, so I inconvenienced myself and stepped up. And it's not that I wanted to do that; I did it despite a strong urge to avoid work altogether, especially frustrating, bent-over work in the soil.

For a long time, I thought I didn't really have a work ethic. I could explain away any hard work I did. My parents were pushing me, I felt guilty, I wasn't working nearly as hard as some people. But while on the farm, I did drudgery for hours on end. And when extra work showed up and needed doing, I did that too, without complaint or slacking. What did this say about me?

I found out I can work well and like it under certain conditions. I have to be competent at the job, or have a boss or colleague who cares enough to take a few minutes training me. I have to know the work isn't stupidly inefficient; if another person or a machine could do the task in a minute, I'll feel frustrated that I'm spending an hour on it.

But the subtlest point is I have to feel like my work's appreciated, and that I'm working toward an important goal. And I find that feeling harder to find in desk jobs than in blue-collar jobs. Whether on the farm or at the late and great Cody's Books, I saw immediate impact from my work. Sure, shelving and weeding just beat back the tide for another day, but a clear row or an alphabetized bookshelf gives me physical satisfaction.

My colleagues at Cody's and on the farm appreciated what I did — we all knew each other's jobs pretty well, and understood how the greater organism of the business needed our work to live. And we got quick, relevant praise from our supervisors — and criticism, information I could use to shape up right away.

This makes me think: all those years of malaise in desk chairs, maybe the problem wasn't with me. Maybe I'm naturally an eager beaver, but I have to believe I'm working toward something more than a paycheck.

Pack the radish lesson away, update the resume.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.

I found out I can work well and like it under certain conditions. I have to be competent at the job, or have a boss or colleague who cares enough to train me. I have to know the work isn't stupidly inefficient. And I have to feel like my work's appreciated and

I'm working toward an important goal.