Clothing is a tool that protects one of the most important pieces of equipment on your farm—your body. Our extremities connect us with the earth. Hands take action as extensions of our hearts, and they work best when they are nimble. Feet are the hands that touch the land all the time, grounding us, moving us and supporting us. No matter whether we put layers of rubber between our feet and the ground, or layers of leather between plants and our hands, our work as farmers is to interact with these elements.
There are good reasons to kick off the shoes and walk barefoot in the soil, sense the texture and moisture of the soil and learn its nuances. Toss aside the gloves and feel the fine hairs on herbs as your skin absorbs their aroma. I envy experienced organic farmers that I observe, those who seem to effortlessly slide in and out of their work in their most comfy clothes, with very little to stand between them and their plants.
About once a week, I go work on a farm here in the bluegrass region. Here’s the list of gear I try to make sure I have:
- Gloves: maybe two pair, in case we work on something heavy duty that would tear my gardening gloves or as a backup in case one pair gets wet or muddy
- Hat: wide-brimmed, straw, breathable
- Hair restraint system: a braid or ponytail with headband if I’m not wearing a hat
- Sunglasses: especially if I go without the hat
- Sunscreen: especially if I go without the hat
- Bandana: in case my allergies kick up and I need a hanky, or to dip in cold water and hang around my neck, or to wear like a bandit and protect my nose as I shovel mildewy leaf mulch into wheelbarrows
- Long pants: tucked into long socks to keep out the chiggers
- Hiking boots or tennis shoes: choose according to how my ankles feel that day
- Long-sleeved shirt over t-shirt or tank top: for climate control or sun protection options
- Pair of sandals: to relieve my feet of their confinement for the drive home
Does this list seem ridiculously long? Oh! Don’t forget snacks and water.
Along with the body, another fine tool that serves us dutifully is the brain. Think about choosing the clothing for a farm job by considering what the job requires, along with the environment. Working with horses will probably require protective boots and long pants. Squatting down repeatedly to harvest spring greens would be easier in flexible athletic shoes. Harvesting piñons in the high desert necessitates more sun protection than foraging for mushrooms in a dense woodland. Using your brain to discern what to wear and when could be called common sense, but it’s not as common as it used to be.
Machinery has replaced much of the human touch in growing food, medicine and fiber. But not so on homestead scale or small urban farms. Dr. Ann K. Ferrell, in her book Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, reveals a stigma around wearing gloves, citing tobacco as an example of the farm owner losing touch with the crop, literally.
“The loss of physical contact is representative of the changing relationship with the crop,” she writes. “The gloves are as important symbolically as they are tangibly. Gloves protect the wearer from the sticky residue of the cured tobacco and keep hands warm in cold stripping rooms. But tobacco men don’t need protection from the crop or the cold. Gloves also block the wearer from full access to the plant, inhibit natural movement, and lead to rougher treatment of the leaves; gloves lessen the ability to handle the crop gently (with respect). … [T]hey also symbolize the move to tobacco production as ‘business,’ as it is primarily hired hands that are protected by gloves.”
In comparison, there’s a trend in the fitness world to exercise barefoot, or as close to barefoot as possible. Barefoot runners become adept at landing gently, strengthen small muscles in their ankles and feet, and stay mindful of hazards, sharpening their minds as they tone their bodies. Barefoot dancers tune in to the sensations in their soles to tell them whether they can exert themselves more or should back off a little. As small-scale farmers and gardeners, we have the freedom to think for ourselves and choose the best clothing to suit the job. Look around at the people you respect, doing the work you want to do, and ask them about their clothing choices. Or maybe you can start your own farm fashion trend.