Looking Forward, Looking Back

train-smallI’m not in the field today. I’m on a train to New York City. In fact, I’m on the same train that delivered me to my last photo job before Farm School began, two years ago. The job was an annual black hole on the calendar – an international economic symposium to whip up trade between US and Russian businesses. Zzzzz. It was boring, creatively soul-crushing work complete with a difficult client but it paid well. Eventually, though, the gig became emblematic of all that frustrated me about my photography career and with the modern, consumptive world in general. Each year I swore would be my last. And with Farm School on the horizon and a farmer’s path in front of me, I thought I’d make good on that promise. But here I am again, scrubbed free of dirt and headed to the same ridiculous event. This time around, though, this journey back to the big city is needed – welcomed, even.

In the Venn diagram of farming, three big circles comprise of the bulk of field work: Planting, Weeding, and Harvesting. They all overlap from June through August in an unrelenting stretch that often feels downright desperate, especially when combined with sleep deprivation we new parents face.

“What would happen if we just quit?” Dina and I would ask each other regularly as we’d collapse into bed, grasping at the possibility of an escape hatch.

penultimate-harvest_18_smallIt’s not the nature of the work that has nearly killed us. We’re quite in love with farming. It’s just that since May, the rest of our lives has been flagged as “non-essential” and pushed completely off until the winter. One particular counter in our house overflows with piles of bills, unread papers and moldy oranges. We call it the “Chaos Counter” and it’s emblematic of all that’s left undone. I hate it. But this chaos manifests everywhere. I overdrew my bank account three times this month. I have four sets of spare keys for my truck now because in one week I lost the other three – inside the truck. I sat down to write this blog post once before but lost it amidst an explosion of disorganized files on my computer desktop. All of this has left my reserves so thin that a cascade of Tupperware falling from an overloaded shelf turns me from “managing” to “Oh my God this has to stop. We are never farming again.

Dina and I thrive on hard work. But since launching into this dream, there have been many points when we seriously questioned whether we’d make it through another week. At each breaking point though, something – and usually someone – has restored our shaken morale enough to keep us going.

harvest_smOne hot summer morning, I coaxed my loyal yet overburdened Toyota down the dusty road to our farm. Nine thirty – late by a farmer’s watch – barely enough time to scratch the surface of the to-do list before relieving the babysitter by 3:00.

As I pulled up, I could see David, a CSA member, resting in the shade of his car, sweat trickling down his cheek and his hands already stained yellow from a Colorado potato beetle-crushing crusade. “Just taking a quick break,” he said, snapping to attention. Way off by the shed, I could make out the white cap of another member, Patrick, attending to our beehives. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “Maybe we can do this.”

And out of the dirt and chaos of this adventure, some amazing beauty has emerged.

fall_market_smEach week, orderly piles of squash, bright baskets of peppers and zucchini, magnificent fountains of chard, kale, and leeks spill out over three huge tables during our CSA pickups. It is enough to make any farmer a bit breathless. Neighbors buzz about, sharing news of an engagement, swapping recipes, playing ball and ogling over a newborn. “We’ve all lived next to each other for years and never said bubkiss to each other,” I overheard a member saying a few weeks back. “Now look at us.”

Soup_smThen there are our own dinners, savored on the porch in the waning hours of each day. As we eat, Wendell busies himself with his own work, digging his hands into planters and showing us over and over again what he’s found. “Dirrt!” he says proudly – the first word that ever crossed his lips. We savor each bite knowing firsthand all that went into it. And in dozens of houses all around us, neighbors are themselves sitting down to their own meals and holding us, their farmers, in their thoughts. I don’t know what prayer is these days, but that strikes me as pretty close.

Just inside the kitchen door still lurks the chaos counter. But during those dinners, and if only for a moment, all is well.

With one week to go before the end of our season, we haven’t made any money. As in, zero dollars after expenses. And for all our creative budgeting and business-model Jiu-Jitsu, next year looks to be about the same. But in every other respect, our first season has been more successful than we ever dreamed.

Now we’re looking toward next season with a heavy puzzle: How can we afford to farm? We love this work, but we can’t keep going at this pace. And we surely can’t continue to do it for free.

So for now, I’m on a train headed to New York City to patch the hole in bank account that selling radishes can’t, hoping that answers will come with the frost.

Erik_field_small

 

10 comments

  • October 22, 2014 at 3:33 pm // Reply

    You do not have zero “in the bank” – you have success, friends, accomplishments, knowledge, and living the Farm-2-Fork life most of us just dream of.

    Blessings to you all

  • October 22, 2014 at 4:31 pm // Reply

    I agree, this experience is not nothing. There is wonder, joy, and beauty in finding sustenance from the earth. I too am trying to figure out how to make a living from organic farming. It breaks my heart, but it seems that unless you have another revenue stream, or inherited the land, it is damn near impossible to eek out a living this way. I have followed your blog, seriously routing for you to make it, and I hope you can solve the puzzle. I’ll stay tuned.

  • October 22, 2014 at 6:44 pm // Reply

    Kudos to you both on your resilience and determination….it is most infectious!
    It sounds like you both have side jobs to keep the flow of money in, until you rack it up financially. You will make it happen, I can feel it happening!

    Would you consider more high-end products to sell to high-end grocery stores?
    I just read about a southern CA farmer, who created Halloween-focused products (squash and pumpkins molded into designs – the latest a Frankenstein head). I don’t advocate this!…but he was looking for the high-end markets for unusual product. I would think a variety of unique heirloom product could be your specialty on the side.

    Just giving you some ideas!

    our best – Kim’s mom and Dad, Polly and Rob

    PS – give Wendell a hug for us, too.

  • October 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm // Reply

    You guys rock. Anytime a family member (biggest critics imho) chips in with some kind words, your doing lots right. And Deborah is right, although those items won’t pay the power bill, and I get that. You two have run successful companies long enough to be able to ‘fix it’ as Seth Godin would say. Or break it, and then fix it.

  • October 22, 2014 at 9:21 pm // Reply

    I don’t know what to say, except I’m just deeply grateful for you guys, for what you’re doing, and for the ways that you’re sharing it.

    Your post inspired me to go and re-read Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Such a great piece. One of my favorite lines, which you guys seem to embody:

    “Be joyful
    though you have considered all the facts.”

  • October 23, 2014 at 1:36 am // Reply

    I too know that feeling of “we can’t do it like that again”. We are fortunate in having more behind us to start off with, but those funds are dwindling badly. It seems to take far to long to get into gear, to get something running successfully. Thank goodness that you have the opportunity to keep your heads above water and my prayer would be for revelations to use the down time in winter for projects that both inspire you and rest you, but also put money in the bank.

  • October 23, 2014 at 1:21 pm // Reply

    Congratulations, you have weathered thru your first growing season of farming. Most businesses of any kind consider themselves a success if they don’t lose money in the first year. Go back and read what you wrote in the beginning and acknowledge what a miracle it is that it happened at all. If you just broke even, it seems miraculous to me. The wonderful pictures of what you grew this year are miraculous to me. It sound as if you could have sold more shares and taken in more to support your efforts. I would join the ranks of your customers next year. What would you have to do to increase your revenue stream? Now that you’ve seen what you can do with a not remarkable growing season, how would you change how you did things this year? It would seem that having a farm is like raising children – you have no guarantees of what will happen in the near or distant future, and whatever you plan seldom happens as you anticipate. But if you love what you are doing, you adapt, adjust and hopefully make a success of what you love doing. Good luck as you move forward and may God bless you!

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