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Ellyn Gaydos tracks her life in 'Pig Years'


More than 3 million people in the U.S. work as farmhands - many of them seasonal, others full time. On small family farms, they work side by side with the farm's owners planting seed, tending livestock and bringing in the crops. Ellyn Gaydos began working as a farmhand when she was 18. She's now written a memoir of jobbing, as it's called, in upstate New York and Vermont. The book is called "Pig Years," and she joins us now. Ellyn, welcome to the show.

ELLYN GAYDOS: Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, I was excited to read this book in part because I grew up on a farm in Iowa...

GAYDOS: Oh, cool.

KURTZLEBEN: ...So a long way away from Vermont. And we had pigs, also. And they're nicer animals than people give them credit for, aren't they?

GAYDOS: Yeah. And I was the real deal of pig farm place.

KURTZLEBEN: You write so beautifully about them. You - really lyrically about pigs, which might strike people as a bit of a paradox. I wonder if you can read us a paragraph from the book about pigs. It's at the top of Page 143.


(Reading) Soon Teresa (ph) takes on the exaggerated shape of a pig. Already, she and Ursula (ph) have lost their fey piglet natures and become feed conversion animals - 50-pound tanks that traverse the pen sucking up food. Goodrin (ph) chases the squash that roll through the dusty pen, light and jumpy. She is an inverse cartoon of her sister's piggishness. They bark when approached, owning their little plot of fenced-in land and holding their noses up for the scent of compost.

KURTZLEBEN: I should also note we have some lovely birdsong in the background with you. Are you reading - are you on the farm right now? Are you outside?

GAYDOS: I am outside on my porch.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, to get back to that passage you were reading, all of those names you were listing are, of course, the names of the pigs. And I know that I never named any of the pigs that I helped raise growing up because we would only be sad when they got butchered. But in your book, they have names. You bake kind of elaborate-sounding cakes for them sometimes. I'm curious, what's it like for you to be so personally invested in these pigs and then send them to get slaughtered or slaughter them yourself?

GAYDOS: Yeah. I mean, it's always mixed emotions. I guess I kind of get into keeping them as pets for a short time. As you can probably tell from the book, I very much admire pigs. I love feeding them trash, basically, and watching them grow and stuff. And I think, too, it's sort of doubled by like being exhausted by them. They almost always escape, and sometimes I'm a bit relieved when it's time for them to go.

KURTZLEBEN: Mmm hmm. As I understand it, you didn't grow up farming. So I'm curious, what was your upbringing like, and how did you get into farmhand work?

GAYDOS: Yeah. Neither of my parents are farmers, but, yeah, I grew up in, like, a residential neighborhood next to a funeral home in Vermont. And my first real job when I was 17 was working at a state park in Vermont. And we had a big garden. And obviously I spent a lot of time outside, and I just kind of was looking for more outside work. And that's how I got my first farm job.

KURTZLEBEN: And you just fell in love with it. You've stuck with it ever since then?

GAYDOS: Yeah. I really just love being outside and growing things and also just the intimacy of working with people on farms. It feels really different than - I've had, like, one office job. The personal connections were very different than on a farm.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to ask more about the farms where you've worked because they are pretty small, I think, and there are so many different types of farms in the country. A lot of people might think of combines and big fields of grain or large feeding operations. Tell us what the farms are like where you have been working.

GAYDOS: Yeah. I was thinking about that with this book, that it's not very representative of agriculture in America as a whole. And so many of farm workers are migrant workers, and that is a completely different experience than the one that I had as well. Most of the farms I'm working - have been working on have been vegetable farms predominantly in a much smaller scale. But it's my limited understanding that even large vegetable farms, it's still people doing a lot of work by hand, whether conventional or organic.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, at one point in the book, you write about bringing the harvest down from the farms to a farmer's market in New York City. And you talk about the clientele and describe them as being far wealthier than you and your coworkers. And you say in the author's note that you probably spent most of the time below the poverty line. I'm wondering, how do you make sense of those contrasts of you and your fellow farm workers making a subsistence living out in the country, whereas your customers are often wealthy and urban? What is that - is there a disconnect there, or not necessarily?

GAYDOS: Yeah. I mean, I've thought about this a lot, as I'm sure many people have. And especially since more and more people are leaving rural areas and moving to cities, I think this - the scales are becoming more and more unbalanced. So I think, yeah, rural communities have less economic opportunity now, and there's just less of a mix of people here than I think maybe there once were. But it does feel really bizarre to have such fractured experiences, even with places that aren't that far apart.

KURTZLEBEN: One final question for you - I'm curious, have you shared your writing with the farmers that you have worked for and with? And if so, how have they responded to it?

GAYDOS: I have shared it with some, but not all of them.

KURTZLEBEN: The ones you shown, have they thought you've captured the life of a farmer pretty accurately?

GAYDOS: Yeah, I think so. And I think it felt cool to them to see in print, you know, the name of our little town that doesn't really get much coverage and just things that feel really special and personal to us.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Ellyn Gaydos. She's author of the memoir "Pig Years." Ellyn, thank you so much for joining us.

GAYDOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.

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