Lately, I've been thinking a lot of big-picture thoughts about the farm. The kind of things that are important, but often get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day duties. But it's important to stand back and take a look at the overall picture some days and not just get lost in the details. What do I want to accomplish with this farm? What will it take to be a success? In 10 years, what would you like to see change? What should remain the same?
These kinds of thoughts have been swirling about in my head for a month or so, for a variety of reasons. My birthday is in June, and I do tend to get a little reflective as another year is marked. The transition from June to July marked my one-year anniversary of being home on the farm, not working 25 miles away. Our wedding anniversary is this week, and marrying Dan was a beautiful ceremony here at the farm. In retrospect, it showed a commitment to this place I didn't even realize I was making at the time. Also during this time, I had to decide whether or not to continue a business relationship which sold our meats for us to the customers of a small CSA. All of this added up to some thoughts about where I am and where I want to be.
Dan's biggest fear when I lost my job was that I would be unfulfilled here. I have a master's degree, I was teaching classes, helping people, part of civic organizations committed to changing the county I was working in for the better. Important stuff, events that made the local paper, sometimes even the front page. But, unsurprisingly for social work, I was getting burned out. I was in a rather dead-end job with no hope of further advancement, and I was ready for new challenges. I hated leaving every day because I just wanted to be here. On the farm, hands in the dirt. Or here on this blog, helping to educate others about what it's really like to grow your food. Why what you eat matters. In that way, I very much feel like I'm still teaching.
What I love most about the farm is that we make an honest living producing healthy food for our neighbors. It's not fancy or glamorous, but it's real. And important. I like being a direct link between food and consumer. I love talking to our customers and friends about how things are growing, about why our food is different from what's in the store. One of the greatest concerns with the CSA was not knowing how we were being represented, and having no direct link to the consumers. All questions and problems were filtered through a third-party middleman. The more I thought about this, the more deeply I was uncomfortable with it. There were other issues too, and in the end, I felt it best to decline their business. It felt like the right thing to do. So I know I want to stay in touch with our customers- I like answering questions, both in person and online via email. And I'm committed to staying hands-on. It's hard to answer how things are really growing if your fields are full of employees while you're inside. It can be overwhelming to be the veggie picker, the chicken plucker, sausage seasoner, website editor/blogger/email contact, in charge of advertising, labeling, ordering, record keeping, tester of new recipes, food processor. Maybe it just means I'm a control freak. But I think of it differently- many years ago, when small farms were the norm instead of the anomaly, the family did everything, or nearly so, without hiring a specialist for each task- each family member was expected to wear many hats. I'm fine with that.
One of the main things I want to do is preserve what is here. While that sounds straightforward, it's really pretty complex. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am passionate about preserving heirloom plants and heritage livestock. Keeping the old bloodlines, designed for family farms instead of mass production, alive for this generation and for the future. We make more steps toward that each year. But there is more than just the gardens and the livestock. Our barn was built in 1894. The house (the “new house” to the elderly gentleman who used to live here years ago) was built in 1929. The workshop is older yet then either of those. I want to preserve these too. There are plenty of barns in the area, built around the same time, that are falling down. I want to preserve these treasured old buildings, but at the same time I want them to be functional. I'm not trying to live in Colonial Williamsburg or anything. I want to respect the history, but I don't think we need to forsake metal roofing in favor of the wooden shake shingles that would have originally been used, for instance, as long as the overall character of the place remains intact. I'll keep the wood burning stove in the house for heat, but replacing the original windows with energy efficient ones does not greatly change the character of our home, but does add greatly to my comfort in the winter, plus it keeps out the ladybugs. I'm OK with modern materials with trade-offs like that. I also want to make it pretty here. I know that the farms with show-stopping landscapes generally have, well, hired landscapers, but there is already much I've done in a few short years. Perennial flowers, a little at a time. Painting the porch posts to bring out the carved beauty. Peacocks strutting in plain view. Keeping up on some of the pruning. Little things that make it our own.
But possibly the most important thing I want to preserve is the idea of the hands-on, horse powered, family farm. The kind without employees, that relies instead on the family members, and sometimes the extended family, to get things done. One that has an intimate knowledge of the land, because they have cared for it personally for generations, walking behind the plow and weeding by hand- the kind of knowledge of a place that does not have its roots in diesel engines and herbicides. Like the seed banks that preserve various strains of plants against future calamity, we need small family farms to safeguard the knowledge of how to do things without gasoline and chemicals. To produce for our neighborhoods instead of the commodity markets. I didn't realize how important these kind of things were until I started reading Wendell Berry's essays. But in doing so, I feel like we're part of a solution to some of the problems of industrial agriculture.
So in the end, if I can be a part of keeping these ideas and buildings and animals alive, I will be a success. There are other, more tangible things I want too, of course. Number one to stay here on the farm. We'd love to get to the point where Dan can be here full time, too. I had such a great experience at the Farm to Table conference, I hope to be able to do more speaking out to the public about farms and real food. I think that too, will come with time. And I want to continue to grow, leaning new skills. I don't for a second feel I'm in a dead end job anymore. Each day is what I make of it, and I can choose to expand what I do and what I know at any time, or to step back and take a break if I need one. I can choose to focus on learning to operate more of the machines, to make more and different processed goods, more about herbs, more about our farm's history, more about new crops or new animals. In that way, the future is nearly limitless.