In June 2013, the date of my last blog post, Allison and I were trying desperately to balance our new and demanding professions with our shared love: Blogging about farming, gardening, cooking and challenges in the food system.
Allison was lobbying for funds for a campus farm, seeking local and seasonable produce for an institution serving more than 30,000 students, and never taking a break from inspiring young students to get their hands dirty growing their own. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed waking up for 10+ hour days trying to grow vegetables, raise chickens and graze goats on a then-small farm within a 4,000 acre housing development damn committed to raising agricultural awareness and culinary confidence.
Neither of our careers has changed, but with every passing day, season, solstice and calendar year our responsibilities grew. Our commitment to “doing something about it” outgrew the number of hours in our days. Emails went out to one another late at night, from Virginia to Maryland and back, apologizing for not posting. The blog, and time with one another, became to something we wish we made more time for. For me, a lot of things did.
Farming took precedent. I started working through meals, choosing sleep over showers, and learned what it meant to sacrifice. Months passed between visits with my family, relationships fell apart, the only time I saw friends was when they stopped into the farm with sympathy in their smiles, offering to help wherever they could, asking if I was okay. I wasn’t. Self care was last on my list. I shifted towards a not-great diet – ironically, the trap I work to free others from: convenience over nutrition. I sacrificed every ounce of my strength, energy, sanity, time and heart for this cause and opportunity I believe to be so important: building a farm that feeds the people building a community around it.
But working on a farm is the dream, right? So peaceful!
Yes and no, simultaneously. It. Is. So. Hard. When we interview applicants, we often say: Tell us about your hardest day farming or working outdoors. I think what I want to hear in the answer is that they’ve had not one but many; that they understand the organism of the farm is the real boss, they’ve raced the sunset or a storm, worked with one hand out of commission, set alarms to care for livestock all through the night, won, lost, hurt and laughed all in one day. And then gotten up the next morning to do it again every day since.
As the 2017 season beings, I get up every day to do it again thanks to inspiration from the farmers I work alongside, encouragement from great people, email inquiries about renting the goats, the Cecropia moth cocoons I’ve kept safe all winter, the tiny seeds that hold so much DNA and are beginning to express it in the greenhouse, the tiny victories against early weeds.
But I’ve lost some gumption and cheer – traits that I’d like to think defined me. So it’s time to take it back! Back to the start, with a blog post:
Advice to a New Farmer (or perhaps to the version of myself that last posted here). Inspired by farming, farmers and also by Tony Robbins, Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Bill W., good friends, good goats…
- Identify your principles, goals and profit centers and be loyal to them. There are a lot of different ways and things to farm, methods of sale and plenty of buzz around what’s going to be the new kale. No one is doing them all at once, but everyone likes to talk about them. Find the things your market demands and then set short, medium and long-term goals for how to grow and market those products with practices you believe in. Sure, experiment with an idea or crop that excites you and reminds you why you started, but don’t let visions of homesteader-level diversity convince you to bite off more than you can chew. Budget time to observe, be proactive and analyze successes and failures.
- 100% Customer Satisfaction is not achievable. Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “If you’re pleasing everyone, you aren’t making progress.” When our farm was only growing vegetables and serving 40 CSA members, the people-pleaser in me was very satisfied. But then we added chickens, and goats, and more chickens, and more members, and more staff, and more pick-up days at more locations, and more hours of operation at the store, and more volunteer hours, and more educational programming, more varieties and successions, and you get the drift. There aren’t enough hours in the week to live in a constant state of accommodating others, be them human, animal or plant. Help the ones that can’t help themselves, first, but beyond that, grow the best products you can, sell them proudly at the place and time you said you would, then close the gate and go home (especially if someone is waiting for you). Your time is no less valuable than anyone elses.
- Livestock farming is not for the faint of heart. Even if you do everything right for and by the animals you raise, nature happens and it’s hard to watch. The herd mentality. The pecking order. The predator doing what predators do, merciless and inhumane. And then there’s processing – a time at which you must remember: Nature made humans omnivores and humans defined the term “humane.” Every animal you raise the right way, the best way you can, is an animal spared from the conventional, industrial system.
- Learn from it. Forgive yourself. The first big failure hits hard. You see almost instantly what you missed, forgot, opted to skip because some other aspect of the farm called and you feel GUILT. You’re disappointed in yourself. Even when it wasn’t your fault, you know that you decided to engage in agriculture, you’re domesticating animals, putting plants where they wouldn’t just pop up on their own, so nothing on your land is ever just the circle of life, right? In some ways, sure, but this is the nature of farming. You’re a farmer trying to choreograph nature like a god, but you’re not a god. In these moments of defeat, I fall on the ol’ standby: Accept the things you cannot change, have courage to change the things that you can, and wisdom to know the difference.
- There’s pain you need to push through and there’s pain you need to pay attention to. Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is Farming 101. You will ache, itch, burn, bleed and crack. If you’ve got the innate grit that most people called to farming have, you will amaze yourself with your ability to endure, but you also need to recognize your breaking point. There are a lot of ways to get injured or killed on a farm. If you are hungry, tired, itchy and in a rush: step away from the role of machine operator. If your spirit is suffering, see number 8.
- Done is better than perfect. As you learn to delegate, you will learn that no one else sees, thinks or works the exact same way you do and that’s just that. Hire hard-working people who are eager to learn, teach them, then trust them. If you can’t let go of a little control, you will fatigue fast, your colleagues will grow frustrated, and you’ll end up pretty powerless.
- But… you will never be done. You know that feeling when your house, vehicle and hair are all clean at the same time? Me neither. Okay, I’ve felt it a handful of times in my life, but my point is: I don’t think you ever feel that way farming. There will always be beds that need something, projects that need to be finished, emails that need responses… At some point you have to accept that you will never FEEL done and have to CHOOSE what can wait until tomorrow, what can’t and when to cut it off.
- Befriend fellow farmers. Not just working, neighborly relations. Friendship. Whether they are many years ahead of you, a few behind you or side-by-side in the journey of farming, you will help each other. Open up to them, break down with them, seek advice, collaborate, vent, eat, rest, love and trust them.
- Accept that you will spend more time doing what you HAVE to do than doing what you WANT to do. This is true in all professions, right? It’s just that when you’re trying to simultaneously tame nature and run a business, there are a whole lot of “have to’s” at once. Animals need care every day, multiple times a day, regardless of the weather. Mother Nature will boss you around and test your limits, but you still need to show up at market at the same time, with the same smile. Wind will sweep your row cover off after the rest of the staff has left for the day. Things will break. People will quit. You will do every single job on the farm and it will frustrate you, but sometimes that’s just what you have to do and that’s that.
- Cherish the moments that you feel gratitude, grace and purpose. Even on the hardest days, there is beauty. Beauty in a completed task, an oddly-shaped vegetable, an insect, a breeze, a critter, watching the chickens lining up at sunset. Don’t lose track of them. In fact, look for three a day and talk about them at dinner. There’s a Cherokee legend about the two wolves that battle inside each of us, one good (humility, empathy, truth, peace, joy) and one evil (anger, resentment, inferiority, ego). Who wins? The one you feed.
- Eat what you grow. With people you love.
Note: This reflective/inspirational tone is not the norm on here. I promise we will return to useful gardening tips, practical tools, recipes, labor debates, insect identifications and hard-hitting journalism soon.