What I Learned From Working on a Farm


Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

The other day, I spent a few hours working in the yard.

I had procrastinated the task because I knew it would be a lot of work. But the day was marked on the calendar, I towed a huge machine into the backyard, and I sent four piles of tree limbs and branches through a woodchipper.

Hours under the hot sun, getting sweaty and dirty to rearrange one small portion of the natural world—as much as there can be in the suburbs—reminded me of the summer I worked on a cattle and hay farm in the Midwest.

Southern Minnesota is a verdant, fertile stretch of country. The rolling hills buffered by rivers, cliffs, and wide plains create rich environments for plants and animals. When a family friend offered the chance to help out for a summer, I eagerly donned my old jeans and sleeveless T-shirts, ready to learn and take part in the distinct heritage of America’s Heartland.

Farm Lessons

“I learned how to drive a tractor on that farmland, moving massive round hay bales into straight rows and raking lines into the brush and soil. My stick shift tractor driving was barely passable, and the rows were more like zigzags. If the work proves the craftsman, as the old German proverb goes, I was far from skilled—but at least I was learning to try.

I learned how to work hard that summer, getting my hands dirty with earth and hay under the sun. I didn’t easily abandon tasks; I learned how to finish them before the day was over. It felt better to finish something before driving home to wash up and eat dinner. Perhaps that’s where my father got his strong Midwestern work ethic, and his father before him. Generations of men and women learned to put in a hard and honest day’s labor under the hot Heartland sun. I imagined what it must have been like to live on the unsettled Minnesota prairies, before hoards of other pioneer families descended on the fertile soil with their covered wagons and bonnets and rifles.

My mind became the fertile soil in which ideas were planted and cultivated, and I quickly learned that hard work manifests in different forms, too.” (read more from The Variable Life)

More Than a Paycheck

Author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell observed in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success:

  • “It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.”

Fulfillment is an important part of the effort and reward of work, but there’s even more to it.

Author and theologian Tim Keller defines work like this:

  • Work is “rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.”

We all work hard at something, and through that work we affect the world in some way.

What will the people who come after us think about how we rearranged our small portion of life?

Does your job contribute to the flourishing of humanity? Does it help people or harm them, or a mixture of both?

Will we leave the world better, worse, or the same as we found it?

How do your choices about what you eat, wear, buy, and support affect the land, the people who work it, and society at large?

What legacy do we leave with the work we do and how we do it?

It’s amazing how many connections you notice when you know where food comes from, when you see what it takes to do it well, and when you get to know the people behind the products.

What have you learned from a job you had? Share in the comments so we can learn from you.


Get fresh perspective and inspiration for your work, relationships, and faith. Click here to get 25% off John’s book, The Variable Life, and start reading instantly.

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