by Gary Benson

Farming is the polar opposite of computer programming.

I saw that coming when I took my shiny new bachelor's degree in computer science and, rather than look for a programming job, found an unpaid internship at Three Roods Farm in Columbiaville, MI. Computer programming wasn't for me, and I was eager to do something completely different.

Some of the differences between coding and farming are obvious. Programmers spend all day indoors; farmers spend all day outdoors. Farmers do manual labor, programmers don't. The work of a farmer (growing food) is immediately relevant to human life. The work of a programmer (writing computer software) is not.

Others are less obvious. Programming is dependent on a huge infrastructure of power plants, mines, factories, motherboards, processors, other programmers, and so on. Farming, at its core, is dependent on sun, soil, and rain. The primary task of programming is taking a problem and dividing it up into smaller and smaller problems, until each solution is obvious. The primary task of farming is to observe how everything fits together and to work carefully within that order.

Those are the differences that led me to farming. It seemed so much more basic, more connected to real life, than my old path. But the biggest difference is the one I never expected.

Writing a computer program is probably the purest creative endeavor I know of — meaning it is, from start to finish, an act of creation. The programmer conceives of a piece of software entirely in his or her mind, then constructs it with the building blocks of mathematics and logic. Every aspect of the creation process is within the programmer's control at all times, and the existence of the finished program is entirely the work of the programmer. As such, it's very satisfying. Whenever I complete a program, I spend anywhere from several minutes to a few hours playing with it, admiring my own work from as many angles as possible. I feel overwhelmingly proud of this thing I pulled into the world through my own intellect and force of will.

I thought farming would offer me a similar creative satisfaction: that, biting into a fresh tomato grown by the sweat of my brow, I'd swell with pride in my work. I'd look at the bushels of fresh produce and think, "I grew those. I grew food."

Well, I was wrong. While satisfaction abounds here on the farm, pride does not because I am learning that I cannot grow food. It doesn't matter how much work I put into a given crop — when it comes out of the ground, I never feel like I did it, because I didn't. No matter how valiant an effort I may make, I will never be able to create a tomato. No human has ever created a tomato.

The more sweat I leave in the soil here at Three Roods Farm, the more I'm convinced that every green bean, every beet, every ear of corn, is a small miracle, an act of grace. Nothing is more humbling than that — that humans cannot create food (the most basic necessity) and must rely on miracles. I suspect all farmers know this secret.

Maybe much of the hubris of our society — leading to global warming and our other Tower of Babel-like catastrophes — exists because so many of us work indoors, in jobs whose parameters are set entirely in the human context. Maybe that hubris would erode away if we all grew food and learned the untameable secret I'm learning: that every hour we have on earth is a gift.

Though for now I've made an exodus from the software industry, I'm probably not done writing computer programs. I also plan to write poems and stories, and someday I hope to build a house. All these acts of creation (if well-done) will fill me with pride, and rightfully so. But every time I chew and swallow I will be humbled because I will never and can never create food.

© Garrison Benson, 2010