by Aileah Kvashay
Some of the deepest joy and satisfaction I’ve experienced in my 34 years has come from work parties. One work party in particular stands out as one of my truly happiest memories. Fresh from a weekend of dancing at the Grassroots Festival, some friends and I visited Six Circles Farm on the day of their big garlic harvest. A day of unforeseen magic ensued as 15 to 20 people from far and wide converged for a day of collective work. There was singing and dancing, new friendships were made, and a LOT of garlic got harvested! As we all held hands around the dinner table singing Amazing Grace, I cried from sheer happiness-overload.
Work parties have the potential to awaken some deep primal instincts, as together we meet our shared needs of food, shelter, and connection. As long as humans have been living on Earth, we’ve depended on each other for survival. In more directly land-based cultures, work parties are simply a way of life. Together we hunt, pick the berries, harvest the corn and potatoes, thresh the wheat, build the structures, and weave the blankets. Doing these things alone is illogical, lonely, and often impossible. Together is better!
Throughout the world there have been countless manifestations of the work party. Quilting bees and barn-raisings are both classic examples from North American culture. A community work party in Finland is called a “talkoot”, in Ireland a “metheal”, in Cherokee a “gadugi”, in parts of South America a “minga”, and in Norway a “dugnad,” to name a few others.
|Garlic planting party at Clove Valley Farm.|
I once spent a month in Norway living in a community of around 50 people and was lucky enough to experience a dugnad. Most days everyone in the community worked in smaller groups at their specialized tasks such as baking, gardening, cooking or woodworking. But one day the currants ripened and every member of the village gathered to harvest the berries. What could have taken a few people all week was accomplished by all of us in one fun day. Everyone was obviously happy to spend time with people they don’t usually get to see, and it truly felt like a party.
Over a cup of iced chocolate from his farm in Ecuador, local permaculturist Gregory Landua described the minga he formed with 15 to 20 other cacao farmers in the same region. Without fail they have a work party every 15 days, rotating among the properties of the members of the group. It is the “sacred responsibility of the host,” Gregory explained, to provide a meal for everyone who helps. As with most work parties, the focus of the minga is to accomplish tasks that would be particularly difficult or time-intensive alone.
Sustainable agriculture often requires more human energy than systems dependent on modern machinery. As Gregory pointed out, fossil fuels and chemicals are essentially “concentrated energy,” and a transition back to regenerative systems requires additional human-power. It’s been thrilling and heart-warming to experience the power of many people focused on an otherwise overwhelming task. As a single farmer who has chosen no-till and hand-scale systems, I have often needed to call upon my community to accomplish jobs that I couldn’t do myself.
I have also often erred on the side of doing too much alone, until early this spring when my hands and wrists started hurting. What finally drove me to tendonitis was months of solitarily carrying enough wood to heat both my home and my greenhouse. I will never forget the terrifying experience of aching hands before the farm season really even started—I felt like I was about to run a marathon with a sprained ankle! I recognized the divine intervention and knew I had no choice: I needed to start growing food in community and not in isolation.
At around this time I was invited to a work party hosted by the Long Spoon Collective at the homestead of some dear friends. The Long Spoon Collective is a working group of the Saugerties Transition Movement that collaborates to steward 11 or so plots of land, pooling their efforts to produce and preserve food, build sustainable housing, and educate the community. They meet every Friday to both connect on a personal level and to plan. Throughout the week they live intertwined lives as they help each other with building and gardening projects. Every few months the collective hosts a community work party called a “blitz.”
The blitz I was attending was largely focused on clearing a pine grove in order to plant fruit and nut trees. Without heavy machinery, many hands were needed to move the fallen pines. I was hesitant to go since the last thing my hands needed was to carry more wood, but I knew there was nothing more important to do. We moved one giant log after another, sometimes with up to 14 people carrying one tree. There was music, food, people of all ages, and lots of beautiful connection. Another happy day, another big project accomplished.
And then a miracle happened. For months I had been plagued by two mountains of wood my hands just couldn’t stack, one of which was practically blocking the entrance to my home. One day a man named Nitsan, who had been at the pine tree blitz, appeared unexpectedly at my door and asked if I needed any help. He devoted much of the day to moving one mountain and returned the next day to move the second! Later that day a spontaneous work party of 10 people helped disassemble and move a tomato hoop house, another task I thought might never happen. From then on the farm has been blessed with more community support than ever, and my hands have almost completely recovered.
I recently reconnected with Nitsan at another Long Spoon event, and we sat peeling garlic and envisioning the formation of a group similar to the Long Spoon Collective here in the Rosendale/High Falls/Accord area. I believe we will do it, but it will require a paradigm shift for us all. It’s so easy to get swept up in our own lives and projects and not have time for helping others. But together is better, and I’m reminded of this every year at our Garlic Planting Party. I could spend an entire day or two breaking apart cloves, preparing beds, planting, and mulching. But instead I spend the day cooking, and together we do all the work in just a few hours. And then with big open hearts we share soup and sing around the fire!
Aileah Kvashay is the farmer for Clove Valley CSA in High Falls, NY. For info about the farm and the CSA visit clovevalleycsa.org.