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Lessons from the Farm, by Mary O’Connell

A lovely post submitted by Mary, who owns Paradise Farm in West Bend, WI:

My nineteen-year-old son joined me in the garden after spending a few hours helping his dad clear brush at the farm a few weekends ago. Since I had a group of people there for a Family Garden Work Morning, I promptly assigned him a task and he went to work sowing tiny little lettuce seeds in rows.  After 15-minutes or so, he said, “There must be an easier way to do this.” I agreed that there was probably a reason why modern farm machinery was invented, and suggested that bending his knees would make the process more ergonomically efficient.  I think I saw him roll his eyes.

Continuing to sow his tiny seeds for a few more minutes, he said, “Boy, you and Dad really like to work.”  The inflection in his voice did not exude positive admiration, I can assure you.  I answered, admittedly in a bit of a preachy tone, “Yes, I guess we do like to work. I hope someday you’ll like to work, too, or it might be a long life.”  He responded, “I don’t mind working, but I like to work to figure out how to do things differently, come up with new ideas, you know? I don’t like doing repetitive things that people have been doing for hundreds of years. I want to make things better.”

It’s the age-old generation gap, right? The young folks look at their old, pathetic parents and think, “There has GOT to be a better way of life than this.” We can thank the younger generation for every innovation that has made our lives easier, from modern computers and current technology all the way back to the invention of the wheel. (We probably have some cave boy to thank for that, after his caveman father made him drag stones around all morning.) Thank God for the younger generation…the true innovators.

And yet, there is part of me that is attracted to the work that people have been doing for hundreds of years.  It is quite healing to spend the morning digging in the dirt to plant seeds that will miraculously sprout and grow into beautiful, bountiful produce that brightens our landscape and sustains our health. The other day I had the pleasure of spreading the compost created by a rotten old willow tree we cut down last year after we had enjoyed its shade in our yard for the previous twenty years. I was filled with gratitude for this tree that was still enriching our lives even now as a pile of rich, brownish-black soil. What a joy it is to connect with the very forces of creation. Work – real honest-to-goodness-get-down-and-dirty-with-the-stuff-of-life work – is a real pleasure for me, and I believe is something more people could use in their modern lives of convenience. I have noticed that a morning in the garden feeds my body and soul, while a morning in front of the computer often leaves me drained and bleary-eyed.

Years ago, when I facilitated a parent-child playgroup at LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee, I made it clear to parents that when they came to playgroup with their little ones, the adults were encouraged to find some work to do. Handwork projects were provided for them, or they could help by sweeping the floor, mixing and baking the snack, washing the dishes, or anything else that made life run smoothly for our group. Sometimes parents were surprised at this request; they were used to programs where the teacher entertained their children for them while they watched from the sidelines. I suggested that they observe how their children behaved when Moms or Dads were engaged in meaningful work compared to how they reacted when the adults sat or stood around chatting. Without fail, we would observe that the children who were fussing and whining at their parents while they tried to “coffee clutch” were the same ones who were eagerly helping or cheerfully running off to play imaginatively when the adults were working on a task. The work inspired the children’s play, and it became a rich tapestry of art imitating life.

I began to realize in those early days of the playgroup that even though our modern society encourages us to strive to make life easier for ourselves and to “think” more so we can ultimately “do” less, good work engages our human capacities in a full and beautiful way that no industrial processes can begin to imitate. People who fix things understand this, as do doctors who help heal patients, farmers, gardeners, firefighters, carpenters and builders.

When the Biodynamic Agriculture Conference offered a Farm Education Intensive at Angelic Organics Farm in Illinois this past November, I learned that every visitor to the farm is assigned some work to do while they are there. I have begun to ask the same from visitors to our little farm, in the hopes of connecting people with good work, the pride of a job well done, and to help them form a new relationship with their food and “the stuff of life.”

I hope that my son, his siblings, and the rest of the younger generation never lose their enthusiasm to make life better. And I hope that each and every one of them is able to experience the joy and satisfaction of working with their hands.

Mary is the director of the LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee, WI, the director of the LifeWays training in Wisconsin, and a member of the Board of LifeWays North America.

We thank you for stopping by to enjoy this article. If you would like to share your experiences working with children in a LifeWays home or center, please feel free to contact Mara Spiropoulos at She would be thrilled to work with you to share your wisdom and experiences on the LifeWays blog.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Farm, by Mary O’Connell”

  1. Great post. I love hearing
    Great post. I love hearing the stories and seeing the pictures about your new adventures in farming. Your insights in parenting always inspire me too. Thanks!

  2. Cynthia Aldinger

    Lessons from the Farm
    Mary, I am always so inspired by your writings, and perhaps even more by your “doings”! It is clear to me that Paradise Farm is going to gift many individuals and families with the types of experiences you describe. From the number of young people I saw in the photographs at the last biodynamic conference, I am hopeful that more and more youth are experiencing the yearning to “do”. Many are finding that, while they love to Google Earth, they also like to toil with the soil!

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