So You (Don’t Particularly) Want to be a Farmer: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bothered, Bewildered and Outright Resentful Folks Hitched to a Wanna-Be Farmer
Sharon June 4th, 2009
This post is not for my readers who have enthusiastically embraced the agrarian lifestyle, whether city farmers and suburban permaculturists or outright farmers or wanna-be farmers. This post is for your loved ones – your husband, wife, girlfriend, lover, parents, children and siblings…whoever you are hitched to, the people who have tied their lives to yours, and who are now wondering what on earth happened to their yoked partner? In some cases, they may be whether to unhitch and run in the opposite direction, since their beloved child/partner/sibling/best friend/whatever has gone completely ’round the bend and is talking about farms.
Now I realize that some of you will look at any advice of mine on this subject with skepticism – after all, you may even blame me (quite correctly, perhaps), for your loved one’s going bonkers and talking about sheep and nut trees all the time. And yet, I do feel your pain. Or rather, my husband does, and he’s happy to tell me all about what it is like to look over at the person you love and wonder why on earth she’s babbling about soil.
Eric got rather a shock around the time of our wedding – you see, he’d met this woman (me) who seemed to be a good match for his goals – both of us working towards academic careers, both of us happily living in the city, both of us planning an intellectual, urban life, complete with cats, futon and travel. And somewhere between the wedding and the honeymoon, his wife went a little insane.
From my perspective, I can’t really remember what caused it. I’d had a garden everywhere I lived all through college – it was hugely important to me, and on balconies and in backyards, I always planted some things. We were living in Somerville Massachusetts, across the street from a major subway/commuter rail station. You could hear the trains rumbling under the building from our third floor apartment. And the balcony was covered with food and flowers – alpine strawberries in window boxes, herbs, letuce, peppers, even a few tomatoes, morning glories and moonflowers twining up the balcony. Every bit of dirt had been hauled up three flights of stairs, but it was beautiful. I occasionally mentioned how nice it would be to have some dirt on the ground somewhere, but that was really all. I liked my balcony. And yes, I liked animals, but hey, I had pet cats.
The first thing I remember was a book – Paul Heiney’s beautiful British coffee table farm book _Country Life: A Handbook for Realists and Dreamers_ – I have no idea what led me to buy it, or even where I found it, but there I was in my apartment, staring at this book and thinking about chickens, to my new husband’s complete and utter disbelief.
And unfortunately, I’m not the only one. Consider this excerpt from the very funny book _Hit by a Farm_ by Catherine Friend – she writes about her partner Melissa’s sudden shift into “wanna farm” mode:
“I should have realzied what the future held the day I looked up and caught her giving me a dreamy look from across the kitchen table. Touched, I reached over and took her hand in mine. She squeezed it gently, and said, ‘God, I love chickens.’
But I still didn’t see it coming.”
And just as I’m still a little mystified by my own sudden urge to farm, other wanna-bes can’t really explain it all very well themselves. Christopher Losee, coauthor with his wife Kimberly Schaye of _Stronger than Dirt_ writes,
“It wasn’t that I’d ever fantasized about being a farmer. That thought was about as, say, becoming proficient in Chinese and leading tour groups to see the Great Wall. But between July and October 1994, I somehow became convinced that this was what I wanted to do and this was what I would do.”
The farm dream hits someone, and in many cases, becomes intractable – and bloody annoying for the person not suffering from this weird disease. And it is a dis-ease – that is, all of a sudden you are dissatisfied with the life you’ve built. I think of it rather like (benign) malarial parasites – the infection could have come from anywhere, and once they build in your bloodstream, well, there’s not much you can do about it. They are always with you.
In our case, my husband thought it would go away. I thought it would too – we talked about it, and agreed that eventually, someday, maybe we’d get some land. So a few months before Eli was born, early in our second year of marriage, we bought an apartment in a very, very urban place – Lowell Massachusetts, a wonderful city of immigrants, with an amazingly diverse culture, a long history and everything we thought we wanted. We had originally been shopping with a friend for a duplex, but he backed out, and then we purchased an apartment in an old mill building. It was a great apartment, a wonderful building, filled with wonderful people, a great neighborhood, we could walk to synagogue, it had everything we wanted, except one thing – no outdoor space. And about two months after we’d moved in, I realize that we’d made a terrible, terrible mistake – much as I loved everything else about the place, the lack of dirt was almost physically painful. The brain-altering parasites had reached critical mass, and now, nothing looked the same – it was all seen through the lens of the farm I didn’t have.
Now Eric doesn’t like to move. In fact, he doesn’t like change at all. We joke that now (we’ve been together almost 13 years), if we left it to him, we might (might, I’m not sure I believe it) be engaged by now. I, on the other hand, like change – I get bored easily, and like a constant diet of new things. Eric’s job in our marriage is to try and get me to slow down. Mine is to drag him kicking and screaming on to the next things . It was painful for him to give up the apartment he’d been living in for almost 7 years and move to Lowell. Having done it, he planned to spend at least a decade there. And here was his crazy wife again, talking farms.
He tried to pacify me – we looked into community garden plots – there was a two year waiting list. We looked into taking over some small part of the Mill building’s public space – management was not thrilled by the idea of eggplant instead of impatiens. If I knew then what I know now about urban farming and agriculture, I might have pushed harder or found other solutions. At the time, all I could think of was getting out to someplace where I could have poultry and a garden.
My husband thought this was nuts. We didn’t know anything about chickens. How would we grow our own food – strawberries and basil were a lot different than a huge garden, wheren’t they? Wouldn’t it be too much work? What if he didn’t want to do any of it? Would it be weird? Would it be different? What if we screwed up? No, asking for a farm was too much, pushing him too far.
And quite honestly, he was right. We would screw up. It would be weird. It would be more work than we understood. He would end up doing things he’d rather have skipped, frankly.
Catherine Friend observes about the way the farm pushed her limits,
“It turns out that, at age thirty-eight, I knew myself about as well as I knew the breeding habits of the Pygmy Butterfly, which is to say, not at all. So when I answered Melissa’s request to help her start the farm with a hearty yes, I might as well have stood on the center line of a four-lane highway and opened my arms. I would witness chicken sex. I would witness duck sex. I would even get frightfully involved in sex between two goats, something no feminist should ever have to face….Boundaries are good things; they’re the signposts we use during our lives to measure just how far we’ll go. My boundaries have always served me well. No touching worms or spiders or anything gross. No touching wild animals because they could be dangerous. No touching feces, urine, blood or any other bodily fluid. Definitely no stocking my hand up inside an animal’s body, or touching it anywhere I wouldn’t want to be touched myself.”
Eric is no where near as squeamish as Friend, but he didn’t feel any particular need to ever, say shine a flashlight on a goat’s genitals to detect whether she’s in heat. Nor have any of his prior job choices involved nearly as much shit shoveling as agriculture (in teaching astronomy, the manure is mostly metaphorical ). And I think it is safe to say that most Americans would regard this lack of interest in these subjects as completely normal, perhaps even a sign of good mental health.
But the thing about the farm-obsessed is that they manage, if they are even remotely persuasive, to make it seem completely normal that one would want to take on a life that involves early morning wakeups, picking vegetables on 100 degree days, more than ample manure, flies and blood, and examing goat pussy. Indeed, perhaps the most bizarre element of this is that the farm obsessed begin to try and make you feel weird for not wanting to live the agrarian life. This is a neurological symptom of the farm-thing.
And, of course, they emphasize the benefits. “Think about all the delicious vegetables.” “The country life is so great for kids.” “It will be beautiful.” “The farm will pay for itself.” “You’ll hardly have to do anything.” Even I have to admit that the latter two of these points (which I used on my husband) are outright lies. The middle one is probably true, for a particular variation on “beautiful” – that is, real working homesteads and farms don’t usually make it house and garden unless there’s money enough to hire a lot of labor. It is beautiful – but you have to be the sort of person who can look past the clutter, the unmowed grass, the weeds, the manure and see the inner farm. The first two points are true, but it is worth noting that even the delicious vegetables don’t come without effort, and older kids, attached to their lives, may be less than enthusiastic when presented with “Here’s a creek, now you can play in it every day – no more wii, isn’t that great!” It is quite possible that some of you are the teenaged children of parents who have gone mad, and wondering what can be done about it.
And that brings us to the central point. What can be done about it? Well, if your loved one has a mild case of the farm dream, there’s hope. One possibility is to simply draw the line “Me or the farm.” In some cases, you may actually stay together. The difficulty with this is twofold. First, it is easy to understate how compelling the farm dream actually is – you can’t make brain-parasites go away easily. Once the farm dream penetrates into someone’s inner life, it truly becomes their *dream* – and one stands in the way of a loved one’s dream at their peril. Maybe you have a dream or two also, and you know how fundamentally losing a dream can alter your life – there’s the horrible chance that they might decide that they pick the farm. And if you do win, your partner may end up behaving like someone who has seen his dream killed – and if you have a good marriage, you may find that’s not so desirable either.
The next possibility is compromise – this will require you to actually get involved to some degree with the farm dream, because you are going to reshape it. Mom is dreaming of 50 acres and cows? Your job is to research urban farming, and bring her back to earth, convincing her that you could have a garden and chickens here, or that perhaps a 3 acre lot and 1 cow is sufficient. Here’s where the magic of the internet and the library come to your aid – “Honey, that’s a great idea, I’d love a farm (yes, it is permissable to lie through your teeth here)…but my dream is not to actually ever help birth a cow, plus to keep my job here – how can we both make it work? Have you seen this cool stuff on urban permaculture?”
You might even find that there’s an element of this project that can hook into your dreams. Ok, you really don’t want a llama, not even a llama that your daughter thinks is super-cute. But you’ve always wanted a big workshop, with all the tools, or some justification for buying more quilt fabric - so perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a portion of this “let’s go live the self-sufficient life like freakin’ Thoreau” that might be turned to your own purposes. Think self-interest here.
The next possibility for dealing with the farm dream is to accomodate, but draw firm lines about what belongs to whom. “Yes, honey, we can have a farm. It will be all yours. I’m going to keep on commuting, doing my stuff, etc… the farm is yours, and this is mine.” Inwardly, you think ”He can have pig shit on him, but that’s not going to happen to me.” This is an excellent plan, one that balances your needs against your crazy loved-one’s. I commend you for your being accomodating, and your loved one for his/her willingness to divide the labor. All I can say to this, however, is that you are kidding yourself if you think that’s actually going to happen. Ok, I know a couple of couples where the farm is mostly one person’s job – but even when they manage to keep those boundaries, the farm tends to leak into daily life.
You see, farms suck up your life, whether little or big. There are a lot of jobs that can’t really be done easily by one person, particularly, most importantly, by one totally inexperienced person. So unless your loved one grew up on a farm and already knows how to castrate pigs, you will be drafted into helping. Welcome to pig shit central.
You know those “honey-do” lists? Well, new and strange things are going to start appearing on them. It is only a matter of time until you are off to the Ag-way with a list of soil amendments to purchase, as you try to pretend that you have the faintest idea what greensand is, or why you would care about the color of your sand. The money you’d definitely planned to spend on a weekend meditation retreat is mysteriously gone – replaced by a big pile of stock fencing and orders to go pick up the gas powered augur, whatever that is. One day, Sweetie-pie comes wandering in, not with a small bag of peaches, but with three bushels, and expects you to help her do something with them. You can say “wait, this wasn’t in the deal” – good luck with that.
Eric’s advice to all of you, if you have a spouse with a serious case of the farm dream, is simply “let go, complain a lot (so that he/she appreciates properly how much you are suffering, and feels guilty enough to be accomodating of *your* dreams and pleasures), but go with it – it really isn’t that bad.” Now this is perhaps a little self-serving of me (me, self-serving? ) to quote, but that’s his genuine take on it – that if the farm dream has penetrated too deep to be removed, you are about to begin a long, strange trip. And it is a lot more fun if you just try and enjoy it.
And the funny thing is, it can be fun, and not just for the one with the dream. There’s something about learning new stuff, about building, making, growing and tending your own that is…well…neat. And neat not just to the person deeply infected by the crazy-agrarian-brain-parasite, but often, to the least likely people. Here’s Catherine Friend again,
“One evening I watched one of my favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October. The submarine commander, played by Sean Connery, used a fascinating battle tactic: he turned his submarine toward the torpedo racing at him through the water. The sub and the torpedo met before the torpedo had armed itself, so it bounced harmlessly off the sub’s hull.
Hey, what an idea. Why not move out to meet the farm, embracing it? I gave it a great deal of thought, then announced to Melissa I would do chorse two days a week. She was skeptical….Weekend after weekend, I trudged outseide. I think Melissa expected me to tire and give up after just a week or two….We argued over method, but I insisted that if the end result was teh same, why did I have to do things just like she did?…At one pointe, she literally stamped her foot, shouting ‘You can’t do chores anymore then!’
That would have been the perfect opportunity to utter one simple word. ‘Okay.’ But my response surprised us both. ‘This is my farm too, and I’m going to do chores.’”
Kimberly Schaye, initially the reluctant partner to her husband’s flower farm dream eventually begins giving other people lessons in the dream and its realities – and of course, what’s funny about all of them is that most of them applied to her just a few years before:
“I had developed a handy quiz to identify people who should think twice before they start looking for lad. Tehse are the people who would say any of the following:
‘I like money and feel that I need a lot of it.’ – This disqualifies you instantly
‘I hate bugs and when one lands on me, I tend to scream like I’m being brutally murdered until someone flicks it off. I’m not much fonder of dirt.” – Get used to both. As a farmer you will be covered with them most of the time. But you will get to learn which bugs are truly your friends and which you should kill with wild abandon.
‘I feel I might want to work for someone other than myself again someday.’ – Forget it. You will be completely ruined for this. And should you ever find yourself back in a corporate workplace environment, you will immediately wonder why everyone is dressed so uncomfortably and how they can take themselves so seriously
…’How do I tell my friends about my workday and make it sound like I did something?’ – What you mean you don’t think ‘I kneeled in the dirt for eight hours and pulled tiny weeds out of a hole in the ground sounds like anything?’
Not everyone learns to, as Friend puts it, “stop worrying and love the barn” but it seems surprisingly common. Every time I go out among agrarians, I find that most couples or families are made up of people who are truly dedicated to farming, and their other relatives, lovers, partners, etc… who, well, weren’t. Maybe your spouse was raised on a farm, and the parasites lay dormant for a while. Maybe you just married a farmgirl or farmboy, and knew going into this meant “love me, love my muck-covered bottomland.” Maybe the parasites somehow infected your otherwise perfectly normal spouse or partner, Mom or roommate, and you keep thinking “I didn’t sign up for this.”
My Mom is the perfect example of someone who got caught in someone else’s farm dream. First there was mine, but hey, she could be supportive, since she no longer had to live with me. What she didn’t realize was that the parasites were indeed contagious, and would infect her partner of nearly 30 years. Soon, there was the garden plot, the chickens, and the talk, after they retire, of “the baby farm.” My mother didn’t like bugs or worms. She liked her food properly encased in plastic. She thought chickens were weird, and didn’t really want to get to know her neighbors better, particularly around the subject of poultry. Fast forward a couple of years – my Mom has a community garden plot, three hens in the backyard, two chicks living in her kitchen and worms in the basement. She helps run open houses for future chicken owners. So far, she’s holding the line against goats on their 1/8 acre city lot, but even she admits that she no longer says “never” about much of anything. The funny thing is, she likes most of it, and everyone is happier now.
So can’t blame you for trying to get out of it, or complaining, but it is important to know that real people do adapt all the time. Moreover, the brain parasites are contagious – it is surprisingly common for reluctant farmers to wake up one morning, go out into the dirt and think “Wait, I this doesn’t seem quite so insane.” The good food, the fresh air, the physical activity, the sense accomplishment – whether you’ve made your farm on your old lot or moved – these things suck people in, and soon, you can’t understand why your Mom thinks goat manure is so gross, and you are laughing at your Brother in Law, who swears he’d never actually eat eggs that came straight from a chicken’s butt.
The thing is, farming, on any scale, really isn’t just a job – it is a way of life. Even if you keep your job as a mechanic, waiter, college professor or lawyer, there’s something oddly real about the time you spend in the woods securing your winter’s heat, or about the brush of feathers, or the taste of warm tomato – more real, many times, than the other work you do. And the realness is addictive – even to people who thought it couldn’t possibly be.
If you can’t find a compromise position, if the tractor is coming straight at you, the best way is to climb on up and enjoy the ride. Here are some suggestions for doing so, while also maintaining what’s left of your sanity:
1. Do not believe anything your agriculturally besotted partner claims will “pay for itself” until you see actual numbers, and have actually done it. Assume upfront that everything will cost more than you think. Also, when your partner makes to-do lists, cut them in half, then in half again. Halve one more time if you have young children or a full time job. Then, you have a real shot at getting the stuff on your list accomplished…mostly.
2. Your definition of “gross” will change pretty rapidly. If it started out as “poop of any kind” it will now be “five acre chem-lawn lots that grow only grass that nothing eats.” If it started out as “Getting filthy and sweaty anywhere but the gym” it will now be “wearing your barn clothes more than two consecutive weeks or after they get sheep placenta on them.” If it started out as “the idea of eating some animal you once met” it will now be “the idea of eating factory farmed meat delivered on a styrofoam tray.”
3. You will do things you would have been willing to swear not that long ago, that you would never do. Absolutely, positive sure you’d never kill an animal? Wait until you have either a sick one that desperately needs to be put down, or some animal so obnoxious and unpleasant that the thought of eating them is actually kind of appealing (my three year old still announces, with some satisfaction “We ate Corey” – the mean rooster who kept attacking him.) Absolutely, positively sure you’ll never get a cow/pig/horse/tractor/business plan/worm bin/bees/truckload of manure/post hole digger/adze/quilting frame/orchard/llama/butter churn/chicken plucker/milking machine? Don’t speak quite so soon. The amazing thing is that you’ll end up feeling pretty good about it in a lot of ways – the funny thing is that when you finally fix that tractor, or when you actually do barn the hay or raise the turkeys – not only do you get the sense of accomplishment, but there’s an underlying “hey, I’m pretty cool to be able to do this.”
That said, however, expect a steep learning curve, and plenty of screw ups. Try very hard to be good at laughing at yourself. Try very hard to remember that it is not always wise to laugh at your spouse, no matter how funny he looks with the raw egg dripping out of his pants pocket or covered in mud and G-d knows what else.
4. You may both find (assuming your relationship is a romantic one) agriculture strangely sexy. You wouldn’t think your partner would look especially handsome covered with little bits of hay, or holding a scythe, death style, but oddly, he seems to. Your wife, it turns out, looks really, really good with a sledgehammer, or perhaps less strangely, while holding a basket of ripe eggplants or a baby lamb. Country folk are, well, earthy, and there’s a good bit of sex in that. Admittedly, chicken sex is repulsive. But all those bees and flowers and rich fertility have their influence too – make sure you make time for love.
5. Your job is to say no. Even if you’ve been infected by the parasites, yours is probably still the voice of reason (scary thought, eh?). So no matter how much it makes perfect sense, you couldn’t have planned it better, and is such a great deal, it may not be the time to add 40 more sheep to your flock, to expand the CSA to 70 members (up from 12), to begin breeding Great Pyrenees dogs or to take down that old barn and rebuild it. Someone has to have a sense of perspective, and you are designated. At the very least, you should offer some resistance, a downpayment on the next crazy idea.
6. One of you should keep your job. I’m all for farming, however, if you are a beginner, the odds are very good that you are not going to fully support your family in the first year. Some of you will simply be looking to grow a little food and have a garden, some to make a little money on the side – to get the chickens to pay for their feed, make enough money from the produce sales to take a vacation, or offset the vet bills with your handspun yarn. But some of you will be looking to be FARMERS – the serious version of this. This is great. Farming is great. But it doesn’t come with health insurance, and it is not a reliable income stream at first for most people. Yeah, have a business plan and get started. But one of you keep the day job – you can always quit later when you are making money hand over fist. Ha!
7. The first step is probably not the last one. That is, just because you’ve let go and said “ok, we can have vegetables in the back yard, where none of the neighbors can see them, and maybe two chickens” do not think you are done. At a minimum, your pride and joy front yard perennial plantings are probably going to be replaced by hazelnuts and blueberries, and I’ll lay you good odds that there are a few more chickens, and maybe some bunnies in your future.
8. Once you eat the food, you are stuck for life. We all rhapsodize about the food – I mean, this is food money literally cannot buy. Unless you are rich enough to have your own private gardener rushing the asparagus from the ground, and bringing the heirloom tomatoes in warm from the garden, you will never quite get the perfection of taste. You can get close at the farmer’s market, but the best stuff comes straight off the plant, and is eaten within seconds of harvest. But now you are spoiled for life – your kids will never eat store jam again, after they’ve eaten Dad’s raspberry-blackberry. You will never be able to eat a grocery store tomato, or a salad of iceberg lettuce again. Even the lowly potato will be dead to you, if it comes from far away.
9. Your crazy loved-one will start out wanting to do everything – but will probably begin eventually to specialize. This is a process – expect it to take a while to shake out what your things are. That is, most of us come to this wanting to do it all – we’re going to have the chickens for eggs, the cows for milk, the huge garden, the… you get it.
After a while, we find that there are some projects we do better than others and some we like better than others. I know some people who do it all – who produce nearly everything they eat or use. But most of us eventually settle down a little, and find that we’re happiest focusing on the things we like – the issue, of course, is that we don’t always know what we like until we try it, how much it costs, how much time it takes. That is, they find out whether they are a sheep person or a goat person by having sheep and goats. They find out whether they really want to cut hay or log with horses by working with horses. They find out if you like to sew their own clothing or build their own barn by trying these things out.
Sometimes, they (or you) find out they are losing money, failing miserably or that they really don’t like coppicing trees nearly as much as you thought - they forgot they are afraid of heights. Ok, that’s fine, no need to make yourself crazy - they do like growing watermelons and making pickles. So just remember, if it sounds like you are being dragged every which way, you are, but it probably won’t last forever – sooner or later, you’ll only be dragged six or seven ways, and you’ll have time to get good at most of them.
10. There are a couple of ways you can come to share a dream. First, you can find a part of the farm that you love, too. Maybe you’ll never really be crazy about all those plants, but the chickens, now, those you do like. Or maybe you’ve always loved building and fixing things, or cooking and preserving – and that part is enough to make up for the parts you don’t always love.
Or maybe you can find a way to integrate your dreams with one another, or simply to be happy that she’s happy, or he’s happy. That is, you love your daughter, and even if, left to yourself, you’d prefer to winter in Florida, not Ohio, and spend your retirement playing golf, rather than growing pecans, well, maybe it doesn’t matter – assuming that she too wants you to be happy, and is willing to give way on the things that really do matter most to you – say, making sure you have your shed to putter in or your books to read.
Or maybe, just maybe, the little brain parasites will work their way up your bloodstream, until you no longer remember what it was like to live without a farm. Gradually the process of forgetting becomes so acute that you think a life without manure on your boots and the crow of a rooster, or the swoop of the barn swallows wouldn’t be worth living. You start looking forward to haying, or to going out the barn in winter to check on the rabbits. You start dreaming of the day you’ll retire, and can spend all day farming, or the day you can pick up your first beehives. I know that sounds crazy now, but sometimes you look up, and your dreams have changed, and that’s ok, even good. Sometimes there’s nothing more to dream of than being yoked together in the same harness, on the same land and doing the same good work for all the days of your life.