Up until recently, it honestly never occurred to me that our farm wouldn’t somehow make it. And no, this isn’t a ‘farewell’ post, I’ve just been in a deeply reflective state of mind lately, and I’ve observed that much of what has carried me forward in the past decade of Farm Adventure has been the unfailing belief that our farm, that we–Packy and I–were somehow going to make it it all work out. Even at our lowest points, there was always a kernel of something, deep down, that knew it was going to be alright. I often had no real sense of just how that was going to happen, and much of the time I was operating on a less than optimally worked out plan, but I had faith.
In the immortal words of George Michael, “You gotta have faith.”
We recently attended the OSU Small Farms Conference in Corvallis, something we’ve gone to for many years now. The workshops are sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but honestly what we go for is the shot of enthusiasm for farming that it gives us, coming at the low point of winter when it’s easy for spirits to flag. We see old friends, meet new ones, gain some inspiration and ideas. It’s always been good for that, and it did provide that this year. But it also provided a healthy reality check, and in some ways the day left me with way more questions than it did answers. The kind of questions that hit hard at one’s faith, and keep one awake in the deep hours of the morning.
For me, this year’s conference came after two days of attending an often intense convening of Oregon organizations working on Community Food System issues, brought together by the Meyer Memorial Trust who have been providing funding for this cohort of groups for the past three years. I was there representing North Coast Food Web, the group that I helped to found and for whom I now serve as part-time staff, my 20-hour a week off-farm job. There are some amazing individuals and organizations involved in this cohort, all doing phenomenal work: Gorge Grown Food Network, Willamette Farm & Food Coalition, Sprout Regional Food Hub,Rogue Farm Corps, Oregon Food Bank, and more.
There was a sense of quiet fatigue at both of these gatherings, the Meyer Convening and the Small Farms Conference. It wasn’t a ‘giving up in despair’ fatigue, it wasn’t angry or resentful, but more the kind of tiredness that comes when you have been working flat out for way too long, trying to build something that is slippery and elusive and proving to be way more of a challenge than originally thought. When you stop to take a breath because you realize you’re having some trouble breathing, and you look around and begin to asses how much the journey has cost you, and to realize how far you still have to go. It can be challenging to see how far you’ve come and celebrate your achievements when all you can see is the work still to be done, looming like an endless to-do list that stretches out far beyond the horizon of sight. You know. That kind of fatigue.
The keynote speaker at the Small Farms Conference was the author and farmer Michael Ableman. I wanted to attend this year largely because I wanted to hear him speak. His first book, On Good Land, was one of the books I was reading when I began to feel that shift in myself, when the answer to the question “What do I want to do with my life?” became, “I want to be a farmer.” Reading that book, reading about not just the challenges he faced on the farm in Southern California he was then working on, but the joys to be found in that way of life, the sense of community, the work of connecting people with the land and with the food it can produce was inspiring to me. It was clearly hard work, but the kind of hard work that appealed to me. I read those stories, I looked at those pictures and thought, “Yes. That’s what I want, that kind of life.”
His talk didn’t let me down- endless gorgeous, photographs of his current farm in British Columbia, inspiring talk about the urban farm project he is helping spearhead in Vancouver, B.C. called Sole Food Farms–a project I wish every urban area in the United States had the courage and foresight to make room for, work I wish all the Slow Money folks looking for ways to make a real difference in the world would invest in. He spoke thoughtfully about the work of farming, what it means, the challenges we are faced with, why we do it anyway, why it is important to our culture, to our humanity.
It was in a follow up question and answer session that I attended later where I felt one of the most profound questions of the day was asked. I don’t remember the exact wording, but a young woman raised her hand and asked Michael Ableman, “How do we do this farm work and yet balance the costs to our personal lives- our health, our relationships, our families?” And he really didn’t have an answer, except to say that yes it was hard, and to observe that his first marriage, the one he was in while living and working on Fairview Farms, during the time that On Good Land speaks of, had fallen apart. The implication was clear that the stress of farming had eventually taken it’s toll on his relationship, on his family. That shook me. That’s a big price to pay for the joy of farming. He was now remarried, had a second child some 19 years after his first, which he amusingly described as his efforts at long-term crop rotation. His life seemed more balanced, but I don’t know him personally so have no way of knowing the toll that his current farming practice takes on his current family life. I hope not as much, because I want to believe we can learn from facing these challenges.
It has been interesting to reflect that publicly, we usually tell the stories that show ourselves in a good light, but don’t want to share the sometimes dark moments that are happening alongside the good stuff. It’s difficult, speaking about personal stuff, and although our current culture of reality shows and too-much-information shared with the world 24/7 would indicate otherwise, most of us would rather not talk about the hard stuff we’re going through, the failures, the regrets, the stuff that doesn’t work. The times when Shit Gets Real.
(If I can just geek out on language usage again, and partly to apologize to our parents for swearing in public, I find this phrase to be oddly appealing in how specifically it addresses a moment that I think most people experience in their lives. That moment when things suddenly shift from “Okay” to “Oh, Shit.” Not the specifics of violence that are in the phrase’s origins, but in the mental shift and heightened awareness that happens when you realize the very real possibility of Bad Stuff Happening Soon. OK. Entomology Geek moment done. Back to the farm stuff.)
I think one of the worst things about the current Small Farm Movement, if I may call it that, is that so much focus is given to the success stories, to the people who seem to be making it. It’s good to be inspired by success, but we are not offering a clear-eyed look at our failures as well, both large and small, so that we can collectively learn from them. How successful is that success really, and how has it comes about? We don’t talk about the price some small farmers are paying for this way of life in loss of health, in loss of relationships, in too much stress. We mostly tell the happy stories so that no-one knows how tired we are, how challenged we are, so that no one knows about the things we don’t understand or know how to fix.
We acknowledge the deeper, cultural change that we are all trying to enact: creating a society where small scale, local agriculture is both financially and socially possible. But we don’t always acknowledge the enormity of that work, and the reality that change on that scale can take generations, and that many of us working on the issues now may not see meaningful change in our lifetimes. I hope we do, but we might not. We have all run at this challenge with huge amounts of faith, believing that somehow, some way it’s possible to make it work. And maybe it is. I truly hope it is. I’m not ready to give up the fight just yet. But I don’t want to lie to you, right now, I’m honestly not sure how it’s all going to work out.
This morning I walked out to our propagation house to check on our seedlings. Germination has been slow for us this year, and the organic-greens loving rat that feasted on our first round of kale, chard and lettuce seedlings while we were away at the Small Farms Conference has set us back a month or so. Plant starts are going to be a bit late this year, and we’re cutting back on one of our markets. We have less help this year, which is ok. I’m struggling with issues of legality versus just doing stuff anyway, and hope to find some answers this year that will work for us. I know that this year is going to be challenging, but I believe I’m up for it. Most days, I’m pretty sure.
However, I’m not willing to risk my health, my marriage, my family, my friendships, just so that I can have a farm. We’re going to take it slower this year, work on our foundations, take time to let injuries heal, fix some things that are broken and need fixing. I’m not going to tilt at windmills this year so much as quietly sneak up on them. This year I’m hoping to grow some balance as well as some delicious produce, beautiful flowers and healthy plant starts, and to re-connect with the joy of farming, with what brought me to this work in the first place.
Packy and I stopped to speak with Michael Ableman as we were all leaving the Small Farms Conference. Packy wanted to ask him about the construction of the wood fired oven on his farm, and I took a moment to thank him for the challenging insights he had shared that day, and to mention that his book, On Good Land, had been one of the inspirations for my seeking a career in farming. “Ah.” he said, somewhat ruefully, “I’m never quite sure if that’s a good thing or not.” I appreciated his honesty, because he’s right, and I don’t know that I was thanking him for that inspiration. I’m not sure, if I knew then all that this journey could cost me, if I would have had the courage to begin it. Maybe it’s better not to know, otherwise how would any of us have the courage to begin anything?
There is still that small kernel of faith inside me, the one that believes it will all work out somehow, even if I don’t quite know how. I’m going to take some time to nurture it, give it some extra care and attention this year, and see if I can get it to grow.