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“Honest work.”

It’s been a week since my colleagues in Northfield organized the fall clean up and hazelnut tree planting on Main Street Project’s three incubator farm units. With the last free-range chicken flock gone to market and winter on the horizon, it was all hands on deck. Ten energetic community volunteers helped us plant nearly 400 trees over two long days. Come next spring, the hazelnuts will begin to do their thing, providing shade and protection for chickens, and spreading nitrogen-loving roots into the paddock soil.

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My job was to dress appropriately and show up every day until we were done. Working outside with people who share your values to accomplish tangible goals is about as good as it gets.

Armed with a pick ax on day one, and a gas-powered auger on day two, I helped prepare the sites and in the process, became intimately reacquainted with my triceps. The blisters on my hands are nearly gone, slowly receding and hardening into small callouses near the top of each palm.

Calluses are something I instinctively associate with what we called ‘honest work’ back in my hometown, referring primarily to blue-collar, middle-class occupations like farming and construction. I did a fair amount of both in my youth and I know well the feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing a building go up, or a crop harvested.

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These days my work – our work – is often focused on intangibles like ‘systems change’ and ‘movement building.’ We spend a lot of time thinking about how we bring balance to our economy and to our relationship to the natural world before it’s too late. How do we find our way back to a more sustainable way of producing food that serves people and communities here and the world over?

These are never-ending questions that can wear you down if you’re not careful. The work is never done and it can be hard to measure progress.

Working to secure a sustainable future is certainly ‘honest work.’ Planting trees with my colleagues and neighbors this week reminded me of that.

Niel Ritchie is Main Street Project’s Chief Executive Officer, and grew up in Nevada, Iowa.

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