Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
On Farmers Markets and Luck
As I drive up to the farmers market, I put my game face on. Here we go. This time I’m selling out. I’m gonna sweet talk some old ladies with some killer recipes, wink at middle-aged men when their wives aren’t watching, and tell the new mommies how good our food is for their special little angels who have just put half-eaten popsicles on my lettuce and spit out my broccoli at other customers. I will do it all with grace and poise and I will sell every single thing.
I’m doing well, the market is in full swing and I've got them eating out of my dirt-laden hands. I've avoided jaw drops at my prices with some sustainability education and I've navigated the neediness of a particularly grumpy woman hell-bent on spreading her condition. I've had my fair share of dedicated supporters, feeding my soul as I continue the march to noon and even a few people who throw in an extra dollar as a thank you.
Sweet victory is in sight and it happens: “Oh my gawwwd! I would LOVE to be a farmer. That must be the most peaceful, perfect life. You are so lucky!”
Lucky? I do my best to stop my involuntary twitching eye, crazy face and bite my tongue. “Oh yes, we are so lucky.”
It’s true enough, my husband and I have been pretty lucky. Starting a small business that has, for the most part, served as a sufficient cushion for our wellbeing during a time when our trade isn't seen as necessarily essential. Two landless, wannabe farmers finding a path, finding support, and tirelessly plugging away at managing farms, jumping the hoops to buy a piece of land, advertising our wares, and educating the population has definitely benefited from some serendipity and luck. Luck isn't what got us through excess rains that flooded our fields and washed away our nutrients. Luck didn't seed, transplant, trellis, and pick all of these tomatoes. Luck is certainly in the picture, but is not the picture itself.
A Day in the Life of a Young Farmer
I think about a typical day on the farm. Get up, do livestock chores. How many different kinds of poop will I get to wear today? We move our animals on pasture every single day, which means I wear a lot of poop. The fences are an electric netting material and are secretly treacherous. I have witnessed the netting claim the dignity of many an individual attempting to move it or climb over it. It seems like if you are sure to be careful, it is even more likely that you will land on your face.
Next we evaluate the moisture levels of each growing space on the farm. Monoculture has us viewing agriculture as this step-by-step process to be followed. This plus this equals yields. On a sustainable farm, we dream of things being that simple. Our land is diverse; its curves and micro-elevations have us constantly reworking our systems.
This field gets shade at this time, therefore these lettuces will be okay but these tomatoes need to go somewhere else. When the land is too wet—which it commonly is in our scenic valley tucked into the North Georgia Mountains—we cannot work the soil. If we are forced to, we will be planting into clodded soil that loses nutrition and structure, which makes for a bad seed bed and a potentially uneven crop.
The Farm To-Do List
Finding the areas in the garden that are sufficient to work in is next met with what is actually on the to-do list. Ah, the farm To-Do List. This anxiety-ridden piece of paper is a game of Tetris that you cannot win. Before you know it, you are writing more on the back, in the margins, desperately seeking more paper to hold all of the information your tired brain is refusing to contain.
It can never be completed in one day, the list never shrinks. No matter how many hours of labor you dedicate to trellising, weeding, planting, pulling, and/or entering your meager numbers into Quickbooks, the list slowly continues to grow. You have to make peace with the fact that you are always behind, even when Mother Nature is cooperating.
After harmonizing what needs to happen with what can happen, we are called to check in with the fertility of the farm. Do we need to make more compost? Is the pasture presenting weeds that are alerting us to potential compaction such as thistles and wild eggplant? Are the beds we are planting into holistic in their arrays of nutrients so that our crops can easily fight pests and disease without water soluble fertilizers and pesticides? The dynamics of a sustainably managed farm are an incredible balancing act.
Instead of treating the soil like a medium and pouring over the plants the nutrients necessary to make plants grow big and green, we have to manage the soil in such a way that the plant can fend for itself. As sustainable farmers, we have to start with health and diversity from the ground up. We aren’t really managing livestock; we are managing the health of the pasture to ensure healthy livestock. We aren’t growing crops; we are facilitating an ecology that will in turn produce healthy plants.
Beyond the stressors on the mind, there are those on the body. While we navigate these conditions, constantly tuning into the rhythm of our farm, we are also utilizing the strength of our own bodies as the mechanization for the whole system. If there is a hole, or a hundred holes that need to be dug, we are going to do it. Farming is the ultimate Cross-Fit. We avoid using our tractor for much more than preparing land and this means that our muscles themselves sculpt the landscape and build the infrastructure necessary for an abundant season.
Just when our minds and bodies feel like they’ve reached their limit, we add marketing, sales, and bookkeeping to the list. What needs to be sold at market this week before we miss our harvest window? How will we convince the customers at our market that kohlrabi is an exciting thing to try?
One rainy market can throw us off our mark and we spend weeks trying to sell extra to catch up for the loss. We don’t get a weekly paycheck, in fact we get paid far less by hour than we should. We rely on the support of our community through markets and CSA programs and it comes with some serious hardships and sacrifices.
Reflections on Sustainable Farming
After I get over the initial shock of someone telling me my handmade lifestyle was manifest in the womb of simple good fortune, I let it roll off my shoulders. In more ways than I can count I am indeed lucky.
To rise every morning as the sun slowly paints the valley in varying degrees of gold while the rooster sounds in the distance is nothing to take for granted. Hearing the spring peepers every April and seeing the magical displays of the pre-summer fireflies nourishes my spirit and makes me more whole as a human being.
While we may toil away at this hustle to make ends meet, we are lucky to be entangled in an ecosystem as stewards, enhancing the soil for the health of the whole system and holding hands with the forces of creation. We are dedicated to the instructions of Wendell Berry when he asked our generation to lead by example. It may not be the easiest way, or offer the most economic reward, but it is work of the greatest importance.
Protecting a piece of land by sharing and eating healthy food grown naturally and marked by the consciousness of two sentient beings is a pretty ideal way to live our lives. I guess I couldn’t get much luckier than that.
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