Belonging: When New Farmers Feel Like Outsiders

Reader Contribution by Staff
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The 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. 

If you want to be a local, then here’s how: Move to a new place. Walk outside. Inhale. Exhale. Congratulations, as far as the IRS and post office are concerned, you’re a citizen of your new town. It’s that easy. If people give you a hard time and purposefully exclude, mock or ignore a new person based entirely on their virginal status, then so be it. It’s more a reflection of their own unhappiness or self-doubt than your character. Bake them a pie. All they can do is push it into your face, which is comic genius. 

Belonging is a state of mind. Being part of something outside yourself can only start if you’ve already made it a part of what’s inside you. It doesn’t matter if it’s your Bible Study class or your first day at a horse auction: Communities are communities. When you, just little old you, accept the fact that you’re a part of it, your entire self relaxes into your new role and everyone else believes it too. Trust me on this one. 

As for me, I do yoga among chickens. You haven’t even begun to understand balance till a pullet launches and roosts on your Vrksasana. And I say that as a goddamned local of Washington County, New York. If that made you cringe, come over and have some pie. We’ll deal together.

Photo and content from Cold Antler Farm, the blog Jenna keeps when she isn’t baking pies or holding yoga poses among her livestock. 

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