Finding Purpose in Life on the Farm

Lessons from a week of physical labor on a dairy farm in Okinawa

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After six days of physical labor on the Kiyuna Dairy Farm in Okinawa, my wife and I have earned a day off. Then it will be back to work for another six days as we complete our two week commitment of working on an organic dairy farm in exchange for two weeks of room and board. As nice as it is to have some time to not think about which animals need feeding next, we both felt a small sense of lost purpose as we left the farm this morning for Nago, the nearest city, for our day off.

Work on the farm has been quite physical, in the form of preparing the food and then feeding the farm’s 20 cows, two goats, two roosters, dozen chickens, about 15 rabbits (their numbers change regularly), and a solitary, rather sad looking, 17 year-old boar. We work a minimum of six hours a day, and our first shift starts promptly at 6 am. After feeding, cleaning up the waste which each of the beasts generate is the next obvious chore. And then there’s plenty of other clean-up and repair work to be done in the interim.

Our accommodation is pretty basic – a bit like summer camp. Hot water for a shower comes from a wood-burning furnace, and it’s our job to find scrap wood and cut it up for fuel. All workers (maximum 5 at any given time) share one bathroom/laundry room.

The day we arrived the weather was lovely, and we did in fact have a few days of sunshine, prior to a typhoon hitting the island bringing a few days in a row of horizontal rain and a lot of wind. This made staying dry during the day a challenge, both in terms of getting rained on during the day and in terms of keeping our clothes dry (there is a washing machine but no dryer). That said, practicing gratitude in the midst of working the rain wasn’t too difficult because the temperature was very pleasant. Being wet and cold would have made finding something to be grateful for less obvious.

This kind of “back to basics” living has been great in terms of Galina and I having a shared set of responsibilities each day, and every day having a clear sense of tangible purpose (i.e., keep the animals alive). Until recently, our shared purposes, for over 20 years, was raising our children and that job is now complete. One reason for this Journey, in fact, is to define what our new shared purpose will be. I doubt it will be working on a dairy farm six days a week for the next 50 years but I’m keeping an open mind.

The Kiyuna Farm is owned and operated by a husband-wife combo of Okinawan ancestry. I don’t actually even know their names – they go by “Otosan” and “Okasan”, meaning simply Father and Mother. They are each in their mid-60s, and similar to the Okinawa resident we met last week, they were not particularly aware of Okinawa’s fame regarding centenarians. They seemed indifferent to whether or not they would live to 100, but from what I can see, they will continue to live out their life purpose, taking care of their animals, producing milk, hosting people on their farm, until both are either dead or simply unable to keep going (which will almost certainly mean death is near due to a lack of purpose).

In Japanese, there is special name for one’s life purpose – “ikigai”. Okasan acknowledged her ikigai over dinner one evening when I asked about it. As a couple I sense that they are very clear and content with their roles and purpose in life.

The hard work of Otosan and Okasan, even if supplemented by guest workers like us, has given me a deep respect for farming, especially animal farming. Even though I’m enjoying a day off today, the animals still need to be fed. Okasan leaves the house every morning at 5 am to buy large buckets of tofu, one of the natural supplements to grass which we feed the cows after mixing it with a yuca powder and another soy-based product (aimed at optimizing milk production). Our work-day ends at 5 pm, but Otosan keeps working, usually until dinner (prepared daily by Okasan), which starts around 7:30 as the sun is setting. We eat together, seated on the floor around the family dining table.

A typical meal at the Farm

Over dinner one evening I asked Okasan about another aspect of Okinawan culture that I had read about – the moai, a kind of community support group, or mini social network, unique to Okinawa. I wondered how real, or at least how common, such groups really are. Turns out that both Okasan and Otosan are part of moais. Okasan’s group was formed by 8 ladies 40 years ago, and the same group continues to get together monthly. When their children were small they would get together in homes so the children could be watched, and the topic of discussions tended to revolve around kids and motherhood. 40 years later, the same moai meets at a restaurant (so that no one has to cook) and there is more talk about who is in the hospital versus the children! Interestingly, the moai also provides a financial support system. Members pay monthly “dues” which get distributed each monthly to the member who is deemed to need it the most. Quite a support system. 

So as we return to our jobs tomorrow and our last week of work on the farm we are looking forward to living out at least our temporary “ikigai” and we’ve most definitely been inspired to further work out our real ikigai and take action to put it into place. I’m convinced that a clear sense of purpose, one that can be put into practice up until, or at least close to, the day I die, is something I want to be clear about.

Beyond business, beyond achievements or ambition, what sense of purpose can you articulate as your own ikigai?

P.S. We found this opportunity to work on the farm via an organization called WWOOF (“Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms”), which specialize in work on farms. We’ve since learned of two other sites, Workaway and Helpex, which match “volunteer” workers for hosts in need to a variety of help from office work to physical labor. Great resources to find potentially unusual and fulfilling short-term experiences.

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