Belonging: When New Farmers Feel Like Outsiders

| 10/6/2010 2:10:45 PM

 skunk drawingThe other day I was at Wayside — paying at the register for my morning coffee — and the two men ahead of me in line walked out the front door and scoffed at my truck's tailgate. "Cold Antler Farm!?" they said, with that tone reserved for every out-of-stater who buys land, gets some chickens and names their backyard. They meant nothing harmful, they were just bemused. I smiled with them. (Even I am still incredulous that I own a small farm.) If you're a fourth generation dairy man and grew up on the seat of your dad's John Deere, you might find a Ford Ranger with a magnetic sign on the back ... euphemistic. I smiled with them, but it took me a while to get to that point. For some new farmers though it can be downright unsettling  feeling like the butt of a cosmic joke or a worn stereotype.

It's this experienced-local versus new-beginner divide that seems to make many a new farmer or homesteader uncomfortable. After all, if you're fresh from an urban back-lot and are more familiar with hot dog vendor umbrellas than breeds of laying hens, you have good reason to feel a little separated from the locals. I have been doing this a few years and I can share this certainty:

Don't. Do not let who you are presently get in the way of who you want to be. Embrace it and let it become part of what's ahead. 

When I first moved from Knoxville to Sandpoint, Idaho, it bothered me a lot. I was thriving in a warm and social city in the Southeast. Moving to a frigid logging town of 5,000 was a culture shock, to say the least. Those first months going to the co-op to buy chicken feed and rabbit pellets felt like a girl acting in the role of "Hopeful Homesteader" on a movie set, and not my real life. It was all so foreign: the lingo, the clothing, the words printed on the feed bags like another language. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. 

I realized I had to decide to either be intimidated by the experienced farmers all around me or sidle up next to them and join in. I thought if I smiled, listened more than I spoke and was polite, I could at least learn something by osmosis. It turned out to be true, and slowly over the months I learned facts, stories, remedies, names and tips the way you slowly pick up the Indian names for yoga poses if you go to enough classes because you're too stubborn to give up. I made close friends with a local sustainable farmer and spent hours at her farm learning the difference between honey bees' careers and pellet versus crumbled layer rations. It all rises to the top if you soak in it long enough. 

Moving to the country is not an identity shift, it's a lifestyle change. You're still you regardless of what your zip code states. You can come here and worry that you don't fit in or that the people at Agway won't be friendly, but you're probably underestimating their empathy. You'll be "the new guy" for a while, sure, but that's not a bad thing. It's a clean slate, a chance to start every conversation with a smile. Unless your new neighbors were sorting seed potatoes on the Mayflower, they probably had someone in their lines start out as the new guy, too. It's not a bad place to be. 

11/10/2010 4:34:55 PM

Moving to Maine (Washington Co) I was told I was a person from away! My upbringing from down south still doesn't grasp the unfriedliness one can encounter..... Person from away will always be a person from away until no less than three generations settle in - or so I am told.

11/10/2010 10:15:08 AM

I can certainly understand the author's struggles regarding relocating from the city to rural living. I got a chuckle about naming a "farm". We see it all the time. :-) My hometown is in Washington County, Maine. Pop. 400 (if you count the chickens.) And I'm sorry but, I'm one of those folks who don't readily take to "out-of-staters". The cultural gap is just enormous! One of the most offensive faux pas's is the way city folk judge the people they meet. ie: "What do you do?" To paraphrase a well known quote - "'round these parts, we don't judge a person by their title/position but by the content of their character." It's not important if you're the new bank president or dig bait worms for a living. What IS important is - Are you honest? Do you provide for your family? Are you a faithful spouse? Are you a hard worker? Are you true to your word? Another thing that most "flatlanders" immediately do is to Post their land including putting a chain across their driveway with a "No Trespassing" sign. Well, pardon me!!! But we (and our great grandfathers) have been using that dirt road to access our favorite fishing/hunting spot since Hector was a pup! City folk want to "get back to rural living" and the first thing they try to do is to "bring the city" to us "poor, country hicks"! My closest friend/neighbor in town is actually a transplant but has more country in her soul than most. But - I'll tell ya... it took a while. :-)

Paula Spalding
10/11/2010 5:07:06 PM

I felt like that at the MEN Fair! There were so many obviously seasoned homesteaders there. I felt like a city-girl airdropped into Green Acres. The local farmer close to my house is extremely kind and knowledgeable and willing to share his knowledge with me, so he doesn't make me feel like an outsider. However, the rudeness of people who attended the Fair knew no bounds - ridiculing the speakers loudly during the presentations, talking on cell phones, interrupting sessions and literally "plopping" on the floor. So, I'll keep my citified manners and keep my pies for my family, if you don't mind!

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