Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Carry on and carry a big pitchfork

Today is one of those days in which putting one foot before the other feels like walking in boots made of lead. Everything is so much harder than it needs to be.

As if farming in-and-of itself weren’t hard enough, winter is refusing to release her icy death grip, (almost 8 inches of snow today on April 3rd and record low temps coming our way tonight!), I am facing health issues for which I’ve been avoiding treatment for, because my husband Josh and I are still struggling to pay off medical bills from the last two years, (thank you crappy health insurance!), and are becoming quite weary of always being broke. Our landlord decided recently to start giving us a hard time about our responsibilities as care-takers - which is part of our rental agreement - and when we expressed that we did not feel it was in our best interest to write a new contract at his request, (the one we have is still valid and binding and I spent a lot of time researching and formulating it), he sent us a 6-month notice to vacate the property. This, of course, would have us moving at the height of farm season, a time in which keeping up with fieldwork is a taxing task drawn out over very long and physically demanding days. The thought of trying to move – not just a home, but also a farm business - at that time of year, while still having to fulfill our markets came just shy of giving me a major panic attack. And of course… we would need a farm to move to. I have been searching feverishly for a suitable farm to buy for the last six months, but so far nothing has come along that we’ve felt strongly enough about to make an offer. Moving an entire farm operation to another rental property and then having to move it again once we buy land was something we set out to avoid from the start, with this place. It was supposed to grant us an opportunity to build up our business over 2-3 years until we could buy our own farm. (For which we are on track! We are beginning our 3rd season on this property and prepared to make an offer on a farm as soon as we can find something that suits us). Thankfully, I wrote us a solid contract that would make it illegal for us to be forced out mid-season, without seriously neglecting our end of the agreement, of course. Which we have not. Still, I spent a considerable amount of time these last two months wringing my hands and wasting oodles of invaluable hours reading up on Wisconsin laws regarding agricultural leases and seeking legal counsel, rather than finishing the overdue business plan for our lender, and accomplishing other time-sensitive promotional work. 

Everything about farming revolves around time. There is either far too much of it, or not nearly enough.

Life as a beginning farmer has certainly been exciting and often joyful, as well. Tucked between the exhaustion, fear and frustration are regular moments of wonder, gratitude and contentment. Winnowburrow Farm is finding it’s identity as Josh and I hash our way through the thick, testing out available markets, discovering our growing passions, assessing our resources verses our limitations, and integrating into a wonderful and supportive community. Starting any new business is bound to be wrought with adventure, coupled with stress. Farming is no different, and in many ways, presents a multitude of unique challenges that most business models would have great difficulty navigating. The simple immense feat of land ownership is the most prime example. There are far more beginning farmers in America today that do not come from farm families, than do. (Sadly, there are not very many beginning farmers at all compared to the population that is retiring. Yet another important and very overlooked topic in our great nation). With land prices driven up by Big Ag farms scooping every tillable acre they can get their hands on at a premium price, access to affordable, farm-able land is a beginning farmer’s single greatest barrier.

We have been fortunate to find opportunities which allow us cultivate soil. It has been the pure generosity of land-owners trusting stewardship to us that has laid the groundwork for our current success. Three years ago we were seeking a farm internship and today we are running a unique CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), growing rare and endangered Heirlooms and developing a successful cut flower business. We have many plans for our farm, most of which require ownership to execute and we are more than ready for our “forever farm” so that we can continue to grow a viable business. Just waiting for that small miracle to come along!

Everyone told me this would be hard and of course I knew that it would be. Is it harder than I anticipated? The answer is absolutely, unequivocally YES. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into, but the truth is, when you are actually presented with the daily challenges the life of farm start-up throws at you, you find that it requires far more energy and patience than a sane human can generally handle. Especially when the property you are starting on lacks basic resources… such as running water… (I’ve always said I enjoy a good challenge… Commence eye-rolling…)!  Ultimately though, being tired isn’t the worst thing ever. The rewards far outweigh the bummer moments. I imagine new parents feel the same. (To my beginning farmer friends who are also new parents... my sympathies)!

It is my sincere hope that more young folks choose this career path. And also that the strangling laws and regulations this country so unnecessarily impose on farmers and food systems loosen, so that folks like us have an easier time succeeding. If I have any advice to offer, based on my journey thus far, it is to stay positive, believe you deserve it, share your passion with everyone, dig for resources and do not be afraid to ask! The resources are there. Trust me. And if you’re motivated to do good work, people will not only support you… they will help!

Manifestation is a great spade to have in your tool shed. It goes beyond dreaming. It is also believing, planning and doing. People won’t believe you are successful unless you believe you are successful. And you won’t reach your farm goals unless you stay patient, stay motivated and follow all the steps. Self-education is key. A horticultural degree might be right for some, but there are plenty of other ways to learn how to grow, without going into massive debt. The Land Stewardship Project and MOSES offer many classes, workshops and farm field days. Local Farmers Unions chapters provide resources. Many farms offer internships. The WWOOF network makes it easy to travel and learn about organic farming.  Many states also have small non-profits which provide programs for learning opportunities, such as the WFAN, based in Iowa and Nebraska, which is how I managed to score a kick-ass mentorship with Denise O’Briene, who is still my mentor, today. Farm Service Agency (FSA) and National Resources Conservations Service (NRCS) offer financial resources. There is also the internet, of course, and it is an invaluable resource for farming as much as anything else.
For those who are not destined to become farmers, please, please, please, do what ever you can to support local farmers! Buy from them, volunteer to help them, share their stories, share their product, connect them with potential markets if you have resources to do so. Just give them money. (Kidding, not kidding). None of us are out here struggling and toiling and destroying our bodies to make it rich. Our richness is in a lifestyle of connectedness to nature. It sure is worth a lot to us, but it generally doesn’t do a great job paying the bills. It’s a trade-off. The cheap and fast food society that we've become is not working to anyone’s advantage. We all need to eat, and the folks providing the food are suffering the most, these days. An article was recently circulating about how farmer suicide rates in the United States are significantly higher than that of war Veterans. That’s a scary notion and being three-years-deep myself and already feeling on the verge of burnout, longevity in this field is a concern to me. How can we – as a society and individual communities - overcome this disparity together and realize that - in many cases - our relationship to nature is manifested most by what we put in our mouths every single day? And that the folks who work damn hard with endless obstacles are making sure we all still have something to put in our pie holes?

Just some thoughts from a rambling, unnecessarily stressed out farmer. Carry on, and carry a big pitchfork. (Whether literally or metaphorically).

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