New Farm 101: Confronting Loneliness

Farming is a lonely job.  Lonely because I spend a lot of time alone; lonely because very few people are interested in doing it. Saying this out loud probably makes me a whiner, because the number of young people farming is rising for the first time in a century.

Even though the numbers are rising, there still aren’t very many of us–farmers and ranchers comprise only 2% of the U.S. population, and organic farmers are only a small percentage of those. Even within organic farming, there is an incredible diversity of business models and crops/animals/services to cultivate and sell, it’s amazing that farmers have much to compare when they do manage to see each other. Compounding that, the people that I have the most in common with are my direct competition–sadly I’ve heard from other young farmers that farmer’s markets become places to hide all faults and put on a brave face about their stumbling blocks. Other young farmers I talk to are most likely to hide growing pains from the only people who have good advice about relieving them. Or experienced growers are reluctant to share because they’re afraid of the growing numbers of organic small-scale growers selling at market.

Moments that make me lonely:

Looking at my farm, noticing how small it is. And dry. And weedy. Looking around for someone to save me from my dry small weedy farm.

Walking produce deliveries into restaurants and feeling embarrassed about my torn pants and dirty hands.

Getting a beer with my friends, trying to explain my job, noticing they’re bored talking about radishes, secretly wishing I had someone to talk about radishes with.

Trying to come up with relevant questions to ask my friends about their summer hobbies.

Trying to remember a time I had summer hobbies.

The first farmer I worked for had a set response to complaints from his crew. He’d say “Welcome to farming, you’re overworked and underpaid, get used to it.” Working for him painted a nightmarish picture of organic agriculture as a lifestyle of suffering; as a young punk I imagined myself finding some sort of loophole to escape his pitfalls. Now that I’m in my 2nd year of running my own farm, I’ve realized that his pitfalls were all symptoms of success and someday I hope I can be good enough to fall into them! And I miss suffering with others.  Its a small thing to look into someone else’s eyes and see the singular wild look that 8 hours of thinning carrots can bring; the only thing better than seeing a mirror of your own eyes is coming up with daydreams to escape the carrots together.

I have a hard time finding friends within the local food movement–let alone people who have never seen how a carrot grows.  Organic farmers are up against century-long cultural movement to reduce the number of people working land–As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her section of “Letters to a Young Farmer,”

“…however calloused your hands, however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellec­tually demanding. Unfortunately, you’ll run into a lot of people who won’t see you that way. You’re the offspring of a generation—mine—that largely turned its back on the land and its benefaction. We, in our turn, were raised by a gen­eration that set itself hard to the project of escaping from agriculture. For the latter half of the 20th century, the official story was that modern ingenu­ity could mechanize farming so efficiently, a handful of folks could oversee the process while everyone else fled the tyrannies of farm life and rural stulti­fication. Legions believed that story, trained their sights on the city lights, and never looked back. Or they were heartbroken at the prospect of forsaking their family livelihood, but still were forced by poverty to leave the farm for the fac­tory. In any case, they counseled us, their children, to stay in school and study hard so we could score a respectable life sitting at a desk indoors and never get dirt under our fingernails at all.”

Ironically, she ends her letter with a plea for us to wash our hands.  I’m tired of arguing with myself about whether or not starting a farm is a good financial choice. I’m tired of explaining to customers why they should pay $3 for a bunch of carrots.  I’m tired of walking around the farm and feeling like I don’t understand what the plants are doing.  But I need to prepare myself for doing all of those things for the next 20 years. And the only people who can teach me how to do that are other farmers.

Sandpoint is technically a town of 8,000 people. There are close to 40 farms that sell at our farmer’s market. That’s a lot of people that I could ask about how to keep carrots weed free, or how to choose the appropriate greenhouse, or how to keep root maggot out of the turnips. It’s hard to overcome my pride in admitting that this is my 5th year working in farming and I still don’t know how to get carrots to germinate well; but my relief from loneliness hinges on it.

What’s really incredible to me is that I can spend the whole day stewing in loneliness, and it only takes a small moment to dispel it. I love the look on Jess Vouk’s face when I show her something I grew that she couldn’t order anywhere else. I love watching my CSA members leave my pickup with arms loaded down with food that was made within 50 miles of where they live. I love watching Alani bring lunches to work made out of food we grew. I love watching other farmers discover a companion in me–realize that I could be the person they could talk about nematodes with. Even me.

We’re all we’ve got. My community of people who understand my work are making the past two growing seasons worthwhile. In October, I’m going to get a beer and laugh about all this pain and overwork. My table is open if you want to join me–whether or not you know about nematodes.