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.

New Farm 101: Living the Dream

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”

-Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

One attitude society seems to have about farmers is that we’re “living the dream.” Something about bucolic pictures, working outside, getting our hands dirty; whatever the metaphor, it seems to be a life that both rural and urban cultures idealize. I can’t blame them: there seems to be a complete dearth of negative farm pictures. I joined Instagram as free marketing for my business…for the life of me I can’t find anything sad or ugly posted about a small farm. Just shot after shot of beautiful cherry tomatoes. My bank teller told me today that she wishes her job was “watering plants.” Most people used to understand the effort it takes to grow food to eat–not only the technical skills but also the lifestyle that farming demands. With increased industrialization, its easy to forget carrots come from the ground. Even easier to forget the enormous scale required to grow carrots to sell at $2/lb.
googlesearch “huge carrot field”

Small scale farmers I’ve met are full of terrible stories about nature ruining their plans, farmer’s markets ruining their plans, employees ruining their plans, plants ruining their plans, etc. Not only is this field (pun intended) full of disaster, society seems fairly determined to turn the farming experience into a cutesy farmer’s market booth. It’s very hard to explain my work. There’s a real temptation to rant desperately at anyone who asks me how the farm is going; I apologize if I’ve been treating this website as a way to vent.

Back to the dream! I am living the dream, absolutely in every way. My dream is what Barbara Kingsolver wrote about elementary kindness. Enough to eat. Enough to go around. For me and the community I live in. I don’t have a lot of disposable cash, but I’m paying rent and so is my employee. We have a lot of salad greens wilting in the fridge. I can’t explain the feeling of waking up and choosing when and how to go to work. I’ve been very busy all summer, but I haven’t yet felt like I’ve gone to work. Working hard, but never for anyone for anything I don’t agree with. Living so deep inside the dream that I’m “running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”

I am so privileged to have the opportunity to start this farm. Enough complaining, on with the work.


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!

New Farm 101: I’m Disgusted By Lettuce

Don’t get me wrong, I care a lot about greens. I spend a lot of my work day thinking about mustard greens. How much I can harvest this week–how to keep them ideal baby salad size forever–how to keep the flea beetles away from them–but usually I cook them with bacon. At best, salad is a side dish for this young greens grower.

Supposedly a new farmer’s most profitable crop is salad greens, because they’re easy to grow, quick to harvest, and the most justifiable thing for the common man to buy locally. Baby greens are among the most fragile of food crops and can be grown almost anywhere; it just makes sense to skip the shipping costs and buy a bag of greens that were cut that morning by your neighbor. And yet…I can’t get the common man to care about them. Week after week I watch people swarm the booth for bread samples, and when the bread is gone I find myself foisting salad upon reluctant passerby. My customers are more enthusiastic about radishes than lettuce. Radishes!

I believe partly this is because farmers markets have become (or perhaps always were) places to buy quaint oddities rather than dietary staples. I think most localvores buy their lettuce at Safeway and their lavender lattes at the Farmer’s market. I don’t blame them; the only way I can afford mostly local vegetables is because I spend my summer growing them. Unlike produce markets in poorer parts of the world, American farmer’s markets are tourist attractions more than groceries.

So then how do farmers make themselves more appetizing? Should we fight for rock-bottom prices like grocery stores, competing over who can sell the most cheap and despondent lettuce? I don’t think anyone can beat Walmart at that game.

I’m dreaming up a new strategy, one I announce with a little shame as it acknowledges my flagging lettuce enthusiasm. One of the best and most frustrating parts of this season is realizing how little I can do to change my trajectory with vegetables. Farming is a long-term game; my quickest product takes a month to be ready to harvest. When it comes to increasing profits my hands are tied to the seeds I’ve already planted. But baking bread takes a few hours. And people seem to like it a lot more than lettuce. I see no reason to be aesthetically pure about selling vegetables. Bread and salad belong on the same table, and I believe they encourage the sale of each other. Instead of constantly brow-beating myself for failing to sell my precious mustard greens, what if I started selling cookies, and cheering whenever someone buys some greens with their cookies? Frankly, I believe in eating both greens and cookies, heartily and with great abandon. Where is the line between full-time farmer/hobby baker and hobby farmer/full time baker? The startup business books say don’t get distracted from your goal; build it and the customers will come. But until the carrots and other colorful vegetary oddities are ready to harvest, I’ve got to DO SOMETHING and SAVE THE FARM.

I read somewhere that farmers are frequently jack of all trades. We have to be master gardeners, diesel mechanics, unflappable marketers, fieldwork yoga practitioners, amateur welders, casual inventors, and full-time philosophers. I need to take a crash course on baking. Any masters of the craft willing to be paid in lettuce?

New Farm 101: Radical Acceptance

I think I like farming because I love catastrophes. I’m not speaking for all farmers, and I don’t even consider myself a farmer yet, but the farmers that I’ve met remind me a lot of EMTs. There’s a lot of dark humor there. A lot of gossiping about horrific accidents. A fair measure of superstitious protections.  And if you’re lucky, there’s also a healthy dollop of tranquil acceptance.

got to find this album

In our first month of farm independence, my co-conspirator Caitlin has been teaching me about Radical Acceptance, which according to Psychology Today means,  “completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart and your mind. You stop fighting reality. When you stop fighting you suffer less.”  It also says “Radical acceptance is easier to understand than it is to practice.”

Here are my attempts at practicing radical acceptance.

In my first month of growing food, I built a hoophouse that was supposed to help me sell food a month early; it turned into a mysterious deathbox…everything that I planted in it turned yellow and grew a hunchback. I put some more topsoil in, prayed to the all-seeing all-knowing farm books, and put the tomatoes in it. They’re my most valuable crop, and I know they might die, and I probably don’t know enough to save them. But they might not! Radical Acceptance.

Root maggots got the first batch of radishes. Usually you can beat them if you cover your crops with Row Cover.  But since 90% of my most frustrating farmhand moments have been wrestling row cover, I hoped root maggots hadn’t moved to Oldtown yet and left the radishes uncovered. Now I know better; row cover is an incredible waste of time and energy…but it’s the only thing that can defeat the maggots. Radical Acceptance.

This winter I was riding a wave of big dream realization, and planned after Curtis Stone’s audaciously optimistic farm profit models. Now I have $600 worth of produce, most of which is beautiful, all ready to sell! But as a first year farmer, I’m that weird new kid on the block who nobody wants to be friends with yet. It takes time to build a customer base, so I’m dumping most of those tasty little plants into the compost pile. Everybody says start small and build up! Now I believe them. Radical Acceptance.

This feels a lot like skiing….I planned the perfect route, launched myself over the edge, and am now tomahawking down the hill. But I can’t say I’m not having a good time? It’s gonna be a great story someday. And I know for a fact that this is just the beginning. The seasoned farmers I’ve worked for are kind of like pro skiers…they get good at one cliff, then find a harder one to jump off. I respect that bravery.

The radishes are covered, the tomatoes are surviving so far, and I had two big restaurant orders come in last weekend. Now I might not have enough greens for the next order? Radical Acceptance.