Farming in 140 Characters (or More)

Don't assume the art of hashtagging is of no concern to today's farmers

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It’s amazing what the iPhone 4S can still do, although it took a trip to an upstate farm in Canaan, NY, to recognize its potential; just two deft smacks from Jillian Jason, a 25-year-old farmer, flattened a mosquito with its stainless steel frame. The insect had spun frantically around her cabin looking much like a pterodactyl to me, and while she normally wouldn’t hurt a fly (I’d seen her shepherd a moth or two out of the cabin just hours before), Jillian protected her fearful guest with precision.

I experienced this brief preview of Jurassic World after spending a weekend with Jillian learning the basics of sustainable agriculture. Jillian, a farm manager at the proprietary fields of Foragers Market (an NYC-based operation with two locations), represents a new crop of young farmers who’ve committed themselves to growing ethically-inclined food. I, on the other end of NYC’s food chain, represent the many metropolitan shoppers who receive the fruits of her labor with the swipe of a credit card.

There’s a glamorized misconception that non-farmers conjure when Jillian tells them what she does for a living: “Most people are inclined to think of my job the way they might see it in a movie, or even on Instagram,” Jillian lamented. “Rather than spending large amounts of unstructured time outside, or with animals, we hold ourselves to a tight schedule on the farm. It’s like any other type of job, where you might have meetings and be responsible for communication via email and phone. I have schedules for everything, from when we send out a projected harvest list to our restaurant staff, to when we clean out the nesting boxes for the hens.”

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It’s easy to forgive such a disconnected commoner who has forgotten his agrarian roots, unaware of the full scope of production. In a way, Jillian’s bucolic life is, in fact, framed in slight romance; farm fresh vegetables, emerald fields and crisp air are all components to an ideal country retreat.

The reality comes with a bit of grit, however, and not just the dirty kind.

Throughout the day, I watched Jillian perform tasks that a sterilized Hollywood version of farming could have predicted, mud and all. She threw on boots, wore plaid, gathered eggs, fed chickens, planted herbs, watered herbs, harvested herbs and so on.

She’d managed to harvest bundles upon bundles of thyme, kale florets, chives and sage in addition to foraging other wild plants like stinging nettles, garlic mustard and sweet cicely before trellising 280 fledgeling tomato plants, in a single day. All of her tasks were performed without cutting corners in her effort to maintain sustainable practices.

But while this is the type of farm work we know (though for the most, have little knowledge of how to do it), it’s easy to overlook the fact that the iPhone 4S is still in her back pocket. Jillian’s phone serves a greater purpose than a gloried fly swatter, and one that might be as crucial to her work as her harvest knife. On a Monday morning alone, I watched her typical day unfold along with a series of rather modern tasks:

  • 6:00 a.m. Woke up and immediately checked and responded to emails for last-minute requests from Foragers’ restaurant and two market locations.
  • 7:30 a.m. Checked Instagram to see what farm produce is being used in marketing imagery, and decided which seasonal ingredients might need to be photographed soon.
  • 8:00 a.m. Browsed online to identify an insect that she worried might be a pest, since she hadn’t encountered a variety before that had started popping up.
  • 12:00 p.m. Updated the harvest lists (the provender she’d picked that day) and submitted final versions to the store managers throughout the city.
  • 2:00 p.m. Took several photos of lettuce and herbs for a visual guide she’s developing as a reference for next season.
  • 2:10 p.m. Sent one of the lovelier lettuce images to her mom (because moms like to hear from us once in a while).
  • 6:00 p.m. After remembering that she didn’t get a chance to harvest watercress, but that she’d substituted Angelica flowers which weren’t originally on the harvest list, she emailed her entire team with revisions.
  • 10:00 p.m. Checked email one final time to confirm whether store managers had received the final updated harvest list.

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In a different context, Jillian would be performing all of these actions in a cubicle at a typical communications post, but while agriculture is her chosen medium, walled in by nature instead of artificial walls, she’s still responsible for staying connected within the parameters of a fully modern farm industry.

It was even a moment for myself, a city slicker who’d subconsciously assumed the art of hashtagging was no concern to the farmer: technology is no foreign terrain to Jillian, or to other youthful growers in her coterie. An anecdote of Jillian at age five tells of a request she made to her parents that an “eating garden” be constructed in their backyard, but her whole past was not so narrowly rapt in vegetables. While not imposing, her background is as robust as her agricultural gumption. After completing a degree in English from University of New Hampshire, she spent several years apprenticing on an organic farm in Maine.

Her rather pedestrian credentials led her to NYC, errantly, as an artist’s model for the city’s eccentric creatives, a personal assistant to an overworked entrepreneur, a numbers cruncher at a vegan chocolate company and even a post on trading floors instructing well-financed staff as they attempted, and blundered, their own phone systems. At one point, all of these positions overlapped, and she didn’t even require Siri’s guidance to see her through the scheduling. To see this connectivity and generalist knowhow practiced in one of our most essential jobs was a testament to how savvy one must be in order to operate in the modern farm industry.

Sure, Jillian’s finesse was nothing less than humbling. But if this is what she can do with an iPhone 4S, can you imagine what she’ll do with the iPhone 6?

Keith Flanagan’s main priorities include eating, writing, and eating. It’s no surprise that he loves sandwiches. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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