Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sustainable Farming

I’ve got something important to tell you. I’ve known it for some time and feel bad that we’ve been spending all this time together and I haven’t told you yet. I’m taking a break from farming. Although selling the farm was put on the table, it was hardly considered, and we are going to stay in this place that we’ve called home for 8 years now.

My husband is a farmer at heart. I also learned when I lived in the city that I required regular access to green space. It was imperative yet not always possible. In my experience you can live in the country and create genuine urban experiences but you can’t live in the city and find this kind of steady quiet and natural space that we have living here full time.

I suppose I had this idea in my head of what a farmer’s wife ought to be. I based it on nineteenth century stereotypes. And the standards I had set for myself to be everything to everyone always. Mighty sustainable goal, wasn’t it? (Insert chuckle here).

What taking my leave from farming means is that in the coming growing season (the seed catalogues have arrived!) I will scale back on what I feel responsible for. Likely my jobs won’t look that different. I want to have the gift of focusing my primary attention on raising my children, keeping the house in order and staying healthy and happy. The amount of disorder that we have endured in our living and working spaces in the past 8 years seems far beyond what two people should have to wade through. Someone needs to call things to order!

I want to ease back the pressure valve and try to practise some form of coasting for a while. Smell the roses so to speak. At least when it comes to the growth and development of our spaces. Instead I want to keep the operations humming as they were, fix what needs fixing and stop building new arenas. I want to pay more attention to the growth and development of the human beings rather than spaces.

What I have committed to is closing loops, tying up loose ends, cleaning up project piles, continuing to take care of the health of our family, and giving my children my undivided attention at least some of the time. Up until now I have too often been the ‘I’ll be with you in a minute Mom’. I will be spending the next year (and perhaps a lifetime?) creating an environment cultivating sanity and not chaos. You’d think everyone would naturally pursue this but this goal has eluded us to date. I don’t blame us. The excitement of learning new things, building new avenues, setting new goals has overtaken us for many years now.

Now it is time to breathe it all in.

Perhaps we completely underestimated what building our home without a steady stream of contractors would entail. We definitely had no idea how two little bundles of human could flip our worlds over. We dabbled in all manner of farming, many things new to us, without much support from beyond our two pairs of hands. This was in itself I think our biggest mistake.

Organic vegetable farms of our size (small to mid-sized) often have a crew of people helping with labour, packing, markets, childcare, barn chores, building repair, field jobs and so on. We always leaned on trying to make it happen ourselves. We had inconsistent help and never a full time crew to rely on. Everything fell to us. And in my opinion this is more than a family can hold. More than it should have to hold.

In the olden days of farming, there were communities and families close by surrounding the workload. Jobs were shared and shifted to make lighter work for the group. And even when the work was relentless, there was someone to lean on, and company to keep. More often than not, my husband and I have only had each other for back up when things got out of hand. This was scary to say the least.

We are looking into taking on interns or full time employees next season. We have come to a point in the business where it is too large to be run by one young family alone. And we must decide that if the business is going to grow, we need to seek appropriate support. Despite our stubborn natures, we cannot do it all alone.

What we have found in our business is the market demand is far greater than what we have been able to grow. We are not competing with WalMart, not yet anyway. We have always sold everything that came from our fields. And we asked a fair price for it, never dumping produce cheaply, always maintaining a volume-dependant price comparable to that of our fellow farmers. To date we have been increasingly successful every year as far as sales of vegetables goes. What I don’t see as sustainable is keeping up this pace of work as a family without external support.

As you know, I have been looking around for a new purpose to my life, after realizing that returning to a job in the city may not be possible in the coming years while my children are still young. For the past two years, all of my ‘extra’ time was spent pursuing projects on the farm. I needed to answer one simple question. Was I a farmer? I wrote and wrote and wrote about it. I talked to anyone who would listen. How do they do what they do? And more importantly, what drives them every morning when they wake up?

To me, there was no way I could continue living on this farm and not know where I fit in. The only way to see this through was to immerse myself wholeheartedly into it. I had something to prove, if only to myself. I even made sure that there were portions of the operation that I was entirely in charge of. This kept any feelings at bay of being solely motivated as my husband’s little helper. In addition to these projects, I continued with the upkeep and repair of the home, processing a winter’s worth of food and the majority of the childcare functions. I also gave 2 or 3 days every week to the packing, delivering and farmers’ marketing of our vegetables.

It wasn’t any different than working in the city as far as the amount expected of me went. The only difference was that I had more control about some of the wheres and whens of it all. And I had earned the title of stay-at-home Mom. Which was awesome, albeit slightly inaccurate. I mostly appreciated not being an hour away from my children when I worked.

Once the words ‘I quit’ left my lips, however, I felt like a failure with respect to farming. Like I had not lived up to my own expectations. That there was something more I was supposed to be trying. That someone else could have done better. It was only recently that a friend of mine took me off my own hook. She observed that I had explored certain aspects of farming because it was something I needed to find out more about and get out of my system. And then came the day that I had learned all that I wanted from it. Not that I would stop the farm operations altogether. But I would integrate what I now knew into a life of my choosing. Then the farming would become sustainable - not just for the environment, but for the family that operated it.

After this conversation, my report card stopped reading ‘failure’. Instead it read: ‘kicked butt, moved on’. Not moved on from farming, but moved on from worrying that I wasn't cut out for it. I had permission to stop asking questions. I was also free from the assumptions I had attached to my involvement with farming. In my mind I had thought that if I didn’t farm, I was a bad wife to my farmer husband. Quitting meant we needed to move to the suburbs. My farming relatives and neighbours would shake their heads and say ‘I knew she couldn’t do it’. I would deprive my children of the work ethic that a farming family can teach.

I want to remember what drew me here in the first place. Farming a land includes peace and rhythm, excellent food security and endless opportunities for growth and challenges. One who bores easily will do well on a farm. And it works on natural principals. All of these things are still what force me out of bed in the morning. Nothing has changed.

Now I have new assumptions. Its really just a different perspective because lets be honest. In reality, not a whole lot is going to change with my day. I will still be going to the farmers' market, helping pack up the orders and getting them to their destinations, processing our food, milking the cow and collecting the eggs, organizing the butcher and most of the jobs I did before. What is new is that I will no longer feel that I am doing far less than I should. I’m chucking out the assumptions. I am answering the question once and for all about whether I’m capable of farming.

Kicked butt. Moved on.

1 comment:

  1. For 2 people to go alone at farming and making a pretty good success of it would be a TON of work in my mind. I like how you are going to go back to the rhythm of your farm, not the imposed rhythm in your head :)


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