It takes two to tango

pesto, around the farm 017

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.

20 thoughts on “It takes two to tango

  1. df says:

    I can absolutely relate to this post, although I don’t share your history in growing up farming, which must make your personal aspirations all that much stronger. My husband and I each struggle with expectations around what we can do on our patch of land as we also run our home-based business together. You would think we would have a pretty nicely balanced situation being home-based, but other circumstances have made this year in particular a very difficult one to advance our many projects, even in small ways. I’m trying hard to celebrate and acknowledge what we have done, but it’s a challenge!

    • I know about home based :), been there. My husband often works from home, and it’s a mixed blessing all round – it’s great to have him to hand, it’s nice for him to not have to drive all day. BUT – from my point of view, he’s taking up space – if he’s on the phone, I can’t yell at kids or the dog. He’s sitting right there at his laptop, and I’d love to ask him to come and help dig or pound or hammer or lift, but feel guilty that I’d be taking him away from his money earning activity. He conversely, feels guilty that I’m out there slogging away (doing what I enjoy, which is the part he forgets – I am often out there because I dont’ want to vacuum or scrub a toilet!), and drops his work to come and lift/pound/etc. We kind of limp along, doing better with the balance some days than others.

  2. Bill says:

    This is a wonderful post. I love the practical honesty of it. I feel like I could write pages of thoughts in response to every paragraph. But don’t worry, I won’t.

    As I bump up against the limits of what I can do on my own, while realizing that there is still more I want to do, I’m trying to make myself come to peace with the fact that there is just only so much I can do. My wife is very supportive, but she doesn’t enjoy working outside. She handles all the homemaking and bookkeeping (as well as some important animal husbandry) and that’s a great help, but that still leaves more on my plate than I can sometimes handle. We had a young family living here and I’d hoped they would help carry the load, but the husband didn’t enjoy farmwork, so they moved on. I used to grumble about our kids not helping as much as they should, but now that they’ve grown up and moved away I realize how much they did. Etc. But as I reflect on how much I have to do to keep things going here, it seems you’re doing even more. I admire you for carrying as much of the burden as you do. It must be truly a labor of love. Hang in there.

    There’s a lot more I could say about the things you’ve written, but I’ll close by adding my affirmation to your comment about customer appreciation. Nothing makes my work day feel worthwhile more than having a customer praise our food. Yesterday I ran into a CSA member in town and she told me “those peas were to die for.” I doubt I would have been any more pleased if she’d complimented by children.

    This is great and important work you’re doing. It may be among the most important work being done anywhere by anybody. May it be blessed…

  3. Thanks Bill. I feel like I just got a hug.
    I’ve seen pictures of your gardens, I think the amount of work you do might be understated here :).
    Your closing words touched me deeply. 150 chickens, 2 pigs. 3 dozen eggs/day is a mustard seed sized contribution to the national food supply, but I know that mighty oaks can grow from such tiny beginnings…and at the bottom of all of this is my conviction that I was planted here as a child, and brought back here as an adult by my Maker, for a reason. I do indeed feel blessed.

  4. Eumaeus says:

    Thanks. Reminded me of the time when, in the midst of trying to do too much with too little, I pushed a table against a wall and it slid right into the wall, created a giant hole and showed me that there was no substance to the wall, just abandoned termite housing and paint holding it together. That one knocked me down (male, middle aged) and gave the ducts a workout.

    I’m blessed with a wife who loves me and was raised in the country. I thank God for her now. And should do that all the time. Because you’re so right, no way I’d even try to do this alone. And those that help us need to be praised and loved and held tight.

    • LOL. That wall would most definitely have been a tear duct moment for me.
      As Bill said above, I have had my moments of griping about unhelpful children in the past. This summer, I finally realized how much my whole family really do to keep things going around here. You are absolutely right. Loving and praising them is so very important.

  5. crowdedacre says:

    I love your honesty about this reality. My husband works off farm and I stay home and try to run the farm while homeschooling our three young children. No tractors, no heavy machinery, no employees, just a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It makes the small victories seem that much sweeter. I applaud the spouses of farmers, especially those who are not necessarily ‘farmers’ themselves. It is a humbling, bumbling way of life that is tolerated by few….probably only by those madly in love with a farmer.

    • You are so right that farming is a way of life. Humbling, bumbling, dirty, hard, fun, glorious, beautiful, heart wrenching and rewarding. Those of us with supportive spouses are truly blessed.

  6. Great post.

    You were talking about lonely and short on equipment. If you haven’t yet, you should check out Ben K. Green’s books especially Wild Cow Tales. He spends weeks or months alone with his horses trying to catch cattle out on a range. Loneliness isn’t discussed but you know it is there.

    You finished the post on a strong note. You, my semi-anonymous friend, have to inspire loved-ones and engage the local community. Yes you do. And how much better is it to sell directly to consumers who at the very least say thanks? You could be selling on the commodity market…where nobody cares about quality or stewardship…just quantity. That would be awful.

    Things change. I took a crooked road on the way here. Your girls may too.

    • I wrote this post because of your post on the same topic-I tried to write a short (well, you know me – relatively short) comment about a dozen times, and realized there was more to it than that in my head. So this is my comment to your post :).
      The pigs are to blame for me beginning to shift to new ways of thinking about our/my farming goals and how they fit with family. I’ll explain more in another post, but suffice to say that in many ways, their time on the farm and their journey to the processor (where they are as we speak) has been life changing for me. And by default for my family.
      And you’re right about the crooked road – BA in Anthropology, 16 years with Her Majesty’s Canadian Navy, and finally back where I started. It may be that way for them too, who knows. Plant a seed, right?
      Thanks for your kind words. The comments that have flowed in with this post have been so supportive and uplifting.

  7. cecilia says:

    I farm alone. My husband works 6 days a week .. leaves at 4.30 in the morning and is home about 6. My farm is very little but i seriously and absolutely know what you mean about broken doors, (just discovered tonight that the pig has once again broken into the chicken coop, she likes to sleep in there) having to handle the laundry for everyone, cooking, preserving PLUS managing the milking, cheese making, dishes and floors.. being knocked down by the ram and knowing that there will be no-one else on the property for hours and hours so best to sort it out myself.. of yes, i do know what you mean. Lucky we are a pair of toughies!! Now, I had better get the torch and go out into the dark and check the chickens, the coyotes are out tonight and already the husband is asleep in bed. A good honest read, thank you for writing what i often think. But we love it don’t we and i quite like being the boss! c

  8. vpfarming says:

    Great post. My wife and I are generally on the same page on farming, but my outside workload can at times be intense, and the travel grating. We have a lot of kids – the older ones have their outside activities and the younger ones still need a lot of nurturing. We do our best to work together on projects, but oftentimes its me alone in the barn at midnight trimming hooves or fixing a stubborn door while my wife is inside alone comforting a toddler with the stomach flu.

    And I’m with your husband: I’m in it for the awesome food. No comparison!

  9. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog! I found it through a comment you made on one of I Also Live on a Farm’s posts. I sure wish we were neighbors – I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit.
    My husband and I are building a farm from scratch about 2 1/2 hrs from our current home and in our “spare” time. My husband works full-time plus spends 4-5 hrs a day commuting. I keep the current home going and organize/manage the projects for the farm making sure we have everything we need for each weekend project – plus I end up down there a lot by myself. As soon as our barn is up I’ll be moving down there full-time to get the actual farming part going and my husband will join me on the weekends until we can sell our home and make the break from his current income.
    We are both very much committed to farming and I am so grateful for that, but it is so hard at times handling the zillions of decisions to be made and when I’m down there on my own I sometimes freak out at the thought of running the farm by myself for a few years. It IS scary out there in the night…

    • I’m discovering through this blog that there are more kindred spirits than I thought…I’ve had a 5 minute whip through your blog and will settle down with a cup of tea on my break to peruse better, but oh my goodness, I think you are both doing amazing things! And I love the name…both for the French and for the allusion to Julia.

      • Thanks! I’ve been doing the same -several cups of tea later and still reading! Love your blog and my bumping into it has been timely. Sharing the “good, the bad and the ugly” (so to speak) is very helpful to us newbies.

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