I have a quote taped to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards: “You cannot walk in your own strength”.
Joel Salatin has commented more than once, including in his book “You Can Farm“, that one of the most common reasons that beginner farmers fail is because their spouse and/or family is not on the same page with them about farming. Farming is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood, and it is really not for everyone, blood related or not.
My family does not share my deep desire to farm. They are supportive: they all do chores when I am at work, they cook meals, undertake maintenance projects etc. My husband in particular has developed his interest in farming over the years, partly through an appreciation of just how much better our eggs and chicken taste compared to what we had been eating, partly because he’s in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of situation with me.
As parents and spouses we have always had to deal with some tension due to our differing levels of passion for farming, careers, children’s activities, etc. and have had to do some give and take about family goals, plans, direction, etc. One result of that is that the girls have developed non-farming interests. They are great kids, turning out to be fabulous adults, but not farmers. And I’m fine with that: our goals as parents were to raise kids that would be good members of their community, contributing to the welfare of where they live and who they live with, living their values with integrity. They are capable, responsible, smart, have wide interests and know how to laugh. What more could we ask for?
I need to be respectful of my family’s different interests, desires, goals. While they support my desire to farm, I need to support their love of adventure, travel, their goals for financial security etc. We have to find a balance that allows each of us our thing, while still supporting all the others. It’s not the way I hoped farming was going to shake out for our family – I had pictured us working together on a common passion. But it is what it is, for whatever reasons, and so our common passion is being family, supporting each other. While I still have goals in farming to develop production and diversity, and things I want to do with the land, my family will always come first. In return, they will support me when and how they are able (as long as it doesn’t involve manure, apparently!)
With regard to the physical side of farming support – yeah. That’s an issue too. Building projects are difficult by yourself. So much stuff needs to be lifted and/or carried. Catching loose chickens is faster with an extra person. Working off farm really requires assistance from someone to be around during the day. It’s lonely and sometimes scary in the dark, it’s great when someone is out there with you. We don’t have a lot of equipment, no truck or tractor, nor very many useful skills (like carpentry), and we have relied heavily on neighbours over the years for tractor work, construction work, transporting things/critters and advice. I’m not good at asking for help, and my husband was raised to value independence. So we’ve had to develop some humility in this regard.
The emotional side? I’m female, I’m middle aged, my tear ducts get a work out. I can be knocked down pretty easily by small challenges, like weather or broken doors or sick animals…it may be why I was put in this place, to develop some resilience and strength to cope with the curves life throws. I have a stubborn streak that gets me back on my feet most of the time, but I could not do it without my husband there to pick up the pieces of me at the end of a bad day, dust me off and come help me build an emergency fence in the dark and the rain.
Something not often mentioned when successful farmers speak about their success is that someone is “keeping the home fries burning”. The vast majority of them have someone cooking the meals, keeping the bathroom clean, making sure the mud that gets tracked in also gets swept out. I’m not saying that has to be gender specific, but it frankly often is. Especially when there are small children in the picture, there are routines to the day that are kind of relentless: meals have to happen, and someone has to cook them, baths, story time, bedtime routines. It is very difficult to make headway on a project when you are only able to give it an hour before naptime ends or you have to pick up kids from school or take them to swimming or… There is nothing more depressing than coming in tired and dirty on a wet, cold night to the prospect of a cluttered kitchen and no dinner till you figure out what it’s going to be.
I read a lot of farming blogs. If there is one single thing that successful farmers have in common, I think it would be that none of them are farming alone. First of all, farmers, especially beginner farmers cannot afford to be independent. They have to rely on the farming community around them for knowledge, skills, help. They need customers (what Joel Salatin calls his cheerleaders) – I know from experience that a bad day can be made wonderful when a customer phones to say “I just wanted to tell you that was the BEST chicken we’ve ever had!”. They might be a couple of partners, they might be spouses, or siblings or a family or a single person with apprentices or employees, but NONE of them do this alone.
My parents farmed with a network of support around them, from the hippies next door, to the dairy farmer down the road, to my grandmother coming every Monday to vacuum and dust so my Mum could get stuff done outside. In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to the farm where I grew up, it’s probably taken me a decade to realize that this farming thing of mine – it cannot be mine alone. If I’m going to make it work, I’m going to have to get better at engaging in the network of support that is all around me. Change that me to we. Somehow.