#7 - Volunteering on a potato farm

A party. Bright pink and blue lights flashed on and off on the standing crowd filling the room. It was the attic of my childhood home. Wait, that’s not right. My parents would never allow such a thing.

I felt a finger on my forehead. OK they are waking me up like I asked them to. I sleepily opened my eyes to see … a goat! How did it get up here? I shot up straight to knock my head on the low ceiling with a thud. I was definitely awake now and the “goat” turned out to be a cute baby kitten. He had seen my messy hair and decided to investigate. My sleepy brain had seen a goat instead which was actually possible given where I was.

I had been thinking of volunteering for some time. It sounded like an interesting way to spend a weekend, to away from work and out of the city. But I did not have a sleeping bag and all the events around winter required one. A few weeks before, when I saw that an event organized by Tamjdem didn’t need one, I was intrigued. After some to and fro, I decided to give it a try.

Among our group, I was the only one who didn’t understand Czech. This was what I feared but having a lot of Czech colleagues at work, I was used to this. After travelling together by bus from Prague, it was dark when we finally got to the farmhouse. When I saw the rooms where we were going to be staying in for the weekend, I was charmed. On the top floor of the house, the rooms were short with even smaller doorways leading in to them. It was one of the very few times in my life where I felt like giant. Suddenly I was a kid again, climbing up into a small, cozy blanket fort.

Day one was set to start early and the kitty woke me up on time. Heading downstairs, the owners presented an intro about their organization in Czech which I missed entirely. Unsurprisingly, I was the first Sri Lankan they had which made them curious about me. Then it was breakfast time and after serving all of us, they asked all of us to hold hands as they sang grace. Now I have seen a lot of things in Czech Republic but nothing quite like this. It was a glimpse into what life can be like in the remote parts of the country. It was some real culture unlike all the touristy stuff you see in the capitals. These are the things I wish I can see more of, the different ways in which real people live around the world.

I became a part of the group tasked with cleaning out the pen that was home to a family of goats. At the start, it looked like a hurricane had passed through with tree branches scattered all across the pen. The farmer had told them that he had to feed them tree branches since grass was hard to come by. We set about our task, first throwing the branches into a pile over the fence and then raking up layers and layers of straw into wheelbarrows and wheeling them over to a compost pile at the edge of the yard. It was hard work, a different kind of hard work than the purely mental work I did every day at work. It took the group of five of us half a day to finish our task and while we were not the most skilled at it, I started to imagine how hard it must be if one person was to do all of it.

My next task was to clean out the potato shed which was rather dark. I was with Dani and since she was afraid of spiders, I took up the task of taking the bad potatoes and slugs outside where she would empty the bucket into the chicken coop further away. For the umpteenth time that day, I was thankful for the gloves that were given to us.

After lunch, I opted to take the late departure option so that I could take a quick nap. Refreshed, I met the others outside. The field was a few kilometers away and we piled into the back of this car/van thingy. Sitting on the floor, alongside the rakes and barrels in the windowless interior was yet another time where I felt like a smuggled immigrant.

They had told me that were going to be picking potatoes in the evening with the help of the machine. I couldn’t picture what this machine looked like based on their description of it and indeed it was a unique beast. The machine which was towed behind a tractor, scoped up several inches of ground and brought it on to a conveyor where you sat and picked the potatoes out of the rocks, mud and plants that were dug up. It was simple, completely analog and you could see exactly how it worked unlike the digital machines of today.

Potato harvester

First I belonged to the small team that trailed behind the tractor, looking for potatoes that the machine had missed. It was like looking for treasure, digging away at the ground and occasionally finding nuggets of golden potatoes. I then took my turn on the machine and that was like a video game of selecting potatoes from the junk that passed on the conveyor. You had to stay focused as the conveyor occasionally sped up, giving you only a fraction of a second to scope up the potatoes. I seriously pondered whether someone had already built a video game for this.

Later I did the math and I was startled to realize that I would have to pick up around 50KG of potatoes to match my hourly rate. It made me think about specialization. The reason why one was paid so low to do this is because it was relatively simple. Anyone could be taught within a few minutes, albeit without perfect technique. The reason I earned more was because I did something that only a smaller subset of people could do. This made me conscious about how I was spending my time, I had so many ideas in my mind that I could work on and yet here I was. I cringed/chuckled to think of my parents imagining me making millions in Europe where in reality, I’m just picking potatoes.

Despite the hard work, the day had sped by. All this work, especially manning the machine, get you absorbed into it and I didn’t feel the time pass by. Riding back to the farmhouse, I was bumped up to first class and got to ride in the open trailer behind the car instead. As we bounced along the dirt roads, waving to the animals we passed, I smiled. It was a long day but definitely one I will remember.