New Farm 101: Despair and its Friends

Caitlin told me that the saddest I ever look is right after I set up the farm stand.  When I should be at my most optimistic and hopeful, a small angry entrepreneurial voice in my head is screaming “not enough.” Imposter syndrome is a part of any small business venture, but I think farming is particularly haunted by demons of insufficiency. Farmers can have a perpetual frontier mentality–farming frontiers are geographic and temporal. Success lies just around the bend of that strawberry patch you didn’t plant. If you had planted pole beans a week earlier, you would have had them a week before everyone else at the market. Even plants that are thriving feature in daydreams where they thrive even more abundantly. Success itself is not enough; there are so many varieties and techniques of food growing that the grass is literally always greener on the other farm…and it was greener a week earlier than everyone else’s.

Farmer’s markets are frustrating sales arenas because of the constant specter of my own insufficiency. I specifically chose not to grow broccoli because of my land and growing season restraints, but when I see broccoli at the other booths I collapse into my easy fold out lawn chair and assume my sales are done. Which, in a way, they are. Selling is a performance: both of my food and my salesmanship. When I exit stage right out of depression or fear, I manifest that fear into a drop in sales.

So despair is not a new farmer’s friend. Constant companion, maybe, but not a friend. A farmer friend once told me to take advantage of this first year, because it would be the most hopeful and enthusiastic I would ever feel about farming. Today I drove home from the market crying because the despair I feel is supposed to by my emotional high. Which means…it gets much, much worse. Not having broccoli isn’t the Dust Bowl.

But, it’s also been my experience that farming has a lot of friends. Since I started this venture, help and support rain down on me and my quarter acre.  Only farmers I used to work for warned me against starting my own farm; everyone else offered me tools, advice, and enthusiasm. Starting a farm in a region famed for its doomsday preppers has some serious advantages: there is real curiosity, passion, and skill in North Idaho for living off a small patch of land with very few tools. People here want local farms to succeed: not just because it’s an environmental or moral right, but because its the way humans used to build communities in this area, and look forward to building community again.

Despair seems to travel with friends. At Priest Lake last Saturday, after setting up my stand and sucking up a tear about STILL only having salad mixes and radishes to sell, a stranger in an RV full of flowerbaskets and strawberries sold me her stock. And a local grower I barely knew showed up with a cooler full of bok choi and chocolate mint. And suddenly, I had the bigggest (*cough* and the only) farmstand in town. Famous!

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