Who am I…and what am I doing here?
It is astonishing to me that this whole ‘farming thing’ was planned. It certainly doesn’t feel that way sometimes. About 9 months ago now, I decided to quit my salaried job as the Executive Director of a non-profit to pursue my dream of starting (and hopefully maintaining) my own farm. While pursuing food justice at the non-profit level was an enormous opportunity and helped me to develop valuable horticulture skills and business skills, the position never felt quite right. You see, about five years previous, I was afflicted with an incurable desire to become a farmer.
Some of you may be familiar with this illness. It gets into your blood and into your soul. You try to satiate it with little projects here and there, but it doesn’t stop: “I’ll spend Monday mornings helping Brandon in the fields and will stay late at work to catch up in the afternoon” … “I can afford to take off a couple Thursdays a year to help Jo and Randy process chickens” … Soon enough you’ve got your own backyard chickens, some bees, and are gardening each morning before work.
But it doesn’t stop there. Maybe you start looking at property online in your spare (or work) time. You read You Can Farm by Joel Salatin and subscribe to Acres Magazine. You spend a few weekends each winter at the Southern SAWG Conference. Each little step only fuels what has become an addiction. Not even your parents’ friends saying “you must be so disappointed,” when they tell people you want to raise goats, can push you from the farming path (someone actually said that to my mom).
I remember the moment when I knew I was done for. In January 2014 I was talking to another Memphis area farmer at the Southern SAWG Conference in Mobile, AL. I mentioned to him that my wife (Claire) and I were planning to lease some acreage from my grandparents with a view to getting to know the property, restoring fence lines, getting to know neighbors, etc. Remembering being in my place just a few years earlier, he told me, “you know, you’ll be out there full time faster than you think.” Sure enough I quit my job not 3 months later.
So, happily ever after, right?
So, as I indicated, there was a plan behind this whole farming thing, but “best laid plans of Mice and Men” and all that. I am old enough to be well aware that plans rarely match reality, and my nonprofit food justice work exposed me to enough of the agriculture world for me to know that I would have a laughably large learning curve both in agriculture and in business. So far so true. The purpose of this blog isn’t just to detail the highs and lows of the new farmer (check out Chelsea Green Publishing or the Greenhorns for tons of stories), although there will be a lot of. I’d love for folks to read this blog to keep up with what we’ve got going on on the farm, but I also intend to use this venue to try to make sense out of what it means to be doing this. After all, I wasn’t born into this. I may have the distinct and undeserved benefit of being able to farm my family’s farm land, but I am not a farmer…not yet anyway. I am–if a Master’s degree can be inflated to imply such a thing–a philosopher. And, so far, not a day has gone by that I haven’t wondered whether I’ve romanticized my way into thinking this was a good idea.
So, what is a farmer? Am I one? I work part time on someone else’s farm. I muddle along, trying to do the requisite business planning, fence repairing, and soil building necessary to get my own up and in order. I own Carharrt work clothes (and they’ve got more mud on them than you’d see on a pair overalls in a Bass Pro Shop). I feel like I’m off to a good start, but when someone asks me what I do and I say, “I’m a farmer,” it sounds wrong, like I’m playing an elaborate prank on the AT&T guy who’s trying to help me get reception when I’m out in the fields. “I work on a farm,” sounds closer to the mark, but working one day a week for no pay certainly still makes that phrase an exaggeration. What is it about farming that does this? Will it be my first official sale that makes me a farmer? Will it be once I’ve put in my first 90+ hour work week? Once I’m profitable? Or is it something more? Is it ineffable or just elusive? Or, are there just so few farmers around these days that we’ve given this once derided vocation its rock star status?
I don’t have a good answer to this question just yet. I do know, however, that I’ve never wanted to do anything as much as I want to be a farmer. So, please join me as I try to become one. I’m told there’s a 9 out of 10 chance that I’ll fail. Either way, I’ll be writing about it each week.