Poor Farm Road

The other night, I dreamt I was seated in a fancy restaurant surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and busy white-gloved waiters.  Without even looking at the menu, a crushing fear came over me: I was a farmer and I couldn’t afford a thing. To make matters worse, I was seated with another farmer in the same pickle, except he was clearly insane. When he spoke I was panicked and wanted to get as far away as possible.

In reality, half of the dream is bogus.  In my awake life, I’d jump at the chance to share a meal with most every farmer I’ve met, even the ones who are a little off balance.  But the financial anxiety underscoring my dream hits on one of my real fears – the difficult economics of farming.  As I travel between my two worlds, from the farm to Boston, I’m soberly reminded of the financial risk each time I pass ‘Poor Farm Road’ in Harvard, Mass. and wonder what unfortunate soul that was named after.

Now, I’m often the first to look quickly past the math and focus on the intangible benefits of agrarian life that don’t show up on any balance sheet. I think this tendency is what concerned Wendell Berry when we spoke briefly this summer. But I’m also keenly aware that stories of financial sacrifices abound: one of the smartest vegetable farmers I know has never cracked $30,000 a year and would be without health insurance if he didn’t live in Universal-Health-Care-Massachusetts. He pulls in this very modest income while working 3,500 hours a year – an average of 67 hours a week.

Sometimes this does seem like a kind of insanity to me (albeit an admirable kind). Now that I have a month of experience under my belt and I know better what a full day of bending over weedy rows of carrots feels like, I have a hard time seeing that amount of work accompanied by such financial struggle as sustainable. Instead, it seems like a short road to burnout. And sadly, a broken body is poorly soothed by philosophical jujitsu and righteous thinking when there is no money for a trip to the doctor.

So as Dina and I get closer to living this reality for ourselves, I am constantly in search of strategies to break the linear march of hard work → burn out → financial ruin. And slowly, a beautiful idea is coming into focus: seasonal diversity.

My classmates and I have spent the last few weeks in the winter woods doing work that seems unique to small four-season farms in New England. Now that the days are shorter and the temperature of the soil is below the level acceptable to happy vegetables, we are looking at our wood lot the same way we do with our crops. Can we steward our forest sustainably in a way that respects the ecosystem yet provides resources for us and produces income for the farm?

The answer is different for different farms.  It depends on the goals of the farm as well as the quality and quantity of woodland.  Some simply use their forest for firewood to heat homes and greenhouses. I’ve heard of others who sell their wood through a firewood CSA. Others tap sugar maple trees and make syrup. But since I have spent a good portion of my early professional life building houses, I am most excited about the work we’ve been doing turning: 50-year-old trees into timber frame structures.

This doesn’t feel like as much of a leap for me skills-wise as growing vegetables does. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot of learning involved.  Having spent my career in the construction business with a screw gun in one hand and a power saw in the other, I couldn’t get my head around how one would construct a building without nails or electricity. Turns out that a little technique, some simple joint design and some really sharp chisels you get you pretty much there.

For three days this week we laid out posts and top plates and cut them to size with handsaws. We sat on a 150-year-old drill to bore holes that would later become our mortises. We used chisels and wooden mallets to take out incrementally smaller and smaller slivers of wood to create tenons. And with a few more weeks of work, all of our whittling will theoretically come together in a timber frame structure that will house a wood-fired water boiler and ten cords of wood. Well, a few weeks plus a few days perhaps.  We may be a tad behind thanks to a particularly complicated joint called a scarf joint that I was left in charge of cutting.

Our mill can’t cut lengths of timber longer than 16 feet, but our intended structure is 21 feet long. This meant we need to join two pieces of 8×8 timber together. Here’s where the scarf joint comes in, which involves a lightning bolt-shaped cut and two wedges that when hammered from opposing sides, force the two beams tightly together. After three days of elbow busting chisel work, we sistered our opposing scarf joints and stood back to admire our craftsmanship. Without having to study the finished product for long, I realized with a blush that once we placed our wedges, instead of drawing the beams together, they would instead push them apart. Oops. Nice insight on my part, but it came too late. That, I believe, is what is they call a ‘teachable moment.’

Design errors aside, I remain encouraged. Counting forest land as an integral part of our someday farm gives us another layer of diversity – and therefore security.  If we have a bad year with the vegetables, with forest ‘crops’ we could make some of it up over winter by milling lumber and building custom timber frame structures. If we get particularly burnt out on harvesting mesclun greens (easy to picture), we can look forward to the end of the growing season, which will mark a transition to a different rhythm of work and life.

But beyond the economics and the issues of my sanity as a grower, the woods – with all its beauty and value – is yet another sanctuary from which to learn, borrow sustainably and to seek peace. It’s the wild and untamed yin to the row-cropping yang, and poses another way to invite our community to tap into that force that sustains us all. This interest in the health of the whole and the systems within is what drives me, from Boston to Athol and back again, each time passing Poor Farmer Road.  I still see the risk, and it’s real, but so far it still feels like a risk worth taking.  And hopefully if we’re lucky enough to find some land with a wood lot of our own, we may avoid having a sad country road name after us too.

As always, more photos from the week can be found HERE.

6 comments

  • November 11, 2012 at 9:42 pm // Reply

    Hey Erik!

    Next time you’re in Boston why don’t I introduce you to my friend Mark who works at Natick Organic Community Farm? He does timber frame, and recently came back from WOOFing in Poland. He reconstructed a timber frame synogog in Krakaw.

  • November 11, 2012 at 11:00 pm // Reply

    Dearest Eric:

    No one makes a living – to the marketing driven, magazine aggrandized version of “a living” through a small farm any more.

    What one gains is the joy of living gently on this earth, the innate knowledge that no matter what you and your could survive based on your own skills, AND the sheer enjoyment of reaping the direct fruits of your personal labor.

    Financially it is, in my uneducated opinion, not realistic to expect a small farm to cover all of the bases of modern financial life. Health insurance, new car tires, dental work, new roofs, and so on cost money – yep money. On the best of days a large portion of your day to day expenses could be potentially covered directly through your own labor or via bartering… but in all actuality there are expenses that require money. Money that needs to come from a source potentially outside of your farm profits.

    Going back to what I said in an earlier post – if you focus on money flow only NO ONE would ever go into or remain in agriculture as a small farmer. May I suggest you strengthen your position by assuming and planning for an independent cash flow (out side job) and diversify your agricultural profit opportunities.

    With a combination of the above and a realistic scaling back of your life-style expectations – I cannot imagine a more rewarding life than being a small farmer. Both yourself and Dina are so multi-talented you will both find the appropriate balance of cash flow and life style expectations.

    In close – Exactly how many white-gloved dinners did you really enjoy in your life?

    Love and respect always,

    Aunt Deborah

  • November 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm // Reply

    Dear Erik: I read week #5 and I return to the first comment I made: We are stardust, we are golden and we have to get ourselves back to the garden… But it becomes more complicated. Is the garden physical or spiritual? Do we feed our body or our soul or both? And if we feed our body and our soul what is then our work so we can add light into the world. Although it is so important to live sensitively and simply the ideal of only following a certain prescribed lifestyle can be limiting. Sometimes we cannot see we are standing on hallowed ground and if we live right our whole life is the garden and all we do can be bountiful and fruitful. Of course it doesn’t hurt to plant a few vegetables while we are at it….
    Love, Cindi xoxo

  • November 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm // Reply

    Hello, farmsters. Since yesterday afternoon, I’ve mentioned this week’s blog to three people only to hear, “Yes, I read it already.” Having a following must be both exhilarating and scary.

    Erik, your construction and design skills dovetail (pun intended) perfectly with sustainable off-season work in forestry and building. Good thinking.

    (I have nothing profound to say beyond. . . . goDina, goErik.)

  • November 17, 2012 at 9:45 am // Reply

    As the garden falls asleep to us, the forest awakens.

  • January 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm // Reply

    Greetings from Sophie’s mother!

    I was reading your blog because Sophie CC:d me when sending it along to my sister who lives out in Chesterfield. I think I read it when it first appeared and it’s a pleasure to see how it has developed. I really enjoyed reading your posts not only because they are well written but also because it’s so much more fun to read about farming then do it (in my book at least). Just wanted to say one thing about Poor Farms: they were actually the country version of the Dickensian Poor House. Almost every town had one and that’s where the town fathers stuck transients and local indigents with the idea that they would work on the land in exchange for their keep. In fact my sister lived in the town of Milton’s Poor Farm before buying her farm out in the hills. It was next door to The Pest House (same clientele but sick to boot). Most of them have been torn down butoften a place name or road name

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