Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Home Again: To Farm Is to Let Go

12/13/2010

Prairie Heritage Farm Me, Willa and the turkeys. Willa helps "herd" turkeys and learns farming's greatest lesson: A lot of things are out of your control.

One Friday in early September, I dragged myself out to the field to harvest for the next day's market, ready to spend hours picking, weighing and sorting the overwhelming bounty a September harvest day brings.

Instead, when I arrived, Jacob shouted from across the field four little, but fearful words: "We got a frost."

The forecast had called for 38 degrees, but just in our little spot, that 38 degrees meant freezing.

We'd just harvested the first of the tomatoes the week before and the peppers were just starting to put on fruit. It was a cool, wet summer and most of our hot or long-season crops had been seriously hampered. We'd been waiting, hoping, for an Indian Summer. Some of the winter squash – what would feed our customers and us all winter – had just started to flower. We still had five weeks of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) deliveries for our customers and four weeks of farmers' market tables to fill.  

As we walked through the beds, inspecting blackened tomato leaves and wilting summer squash plants, Jacob said, "I'm trying really hard not to feel bad about this."

I felt it, too. Overwhelming defeat and, moreover, a sneaking feeling of guilt. 

It’s beyond me how something completely beyond your control can make you feel like a failure.

But, welcome to the life of a farmer.

The cliché about the complaining farmer is an easy, but accurate one. Find a farmer who doesn't complain about the weather or wheat prices or sawfly or federal farm policies and you've found a rare species. 

But listen closely and I think you'll hear that the complaining isn't just complaining to complain. These farmers are not looking for sympathy. The griping is really an acknowledgement — a plea for some recognition of sorts — that all of this is out of their hands.

As a farm kid, I'm no stranger to that out-of-control feeling. 

I grew up on a farm that tried to play the commodity game. Wheat, barley, wheat, barley and all of it sold for whatever the market told us to sell for. Being at the mercy of the weather and the pests and the soil was one thing. Adding in being at the mercy of the market and the elevator just added insult to injury. 

So, when my husband and I started thinking about farming, we set out to do so by asserting more control. After watching my family go through what we did in the 80s and 90s as grain farmers, I would only dive into farming if it meant more stability on the farm and thus, in the family, than what I had known as kid. 

Prairie Heritage Farm Farmers aren't looking for sympathy when they gripe. They would just appreciate it if others would acknowledge that so many things are simply out of their hands. That's how the sustainable ag/local food movement won me. Direct, local markets meant predictable markets. No commodity markets meant we got to name the price and call the shots. Less dependency on government help meant less intrusion, direct or implied.

The first thing we did was set up a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, for the farm. In a CSA, customers, or shareholders, as they're called, buy in up front for products, giving the farmer the capital needed to grow or raise the food and establish a ready market. It creates a wonderful relationship between farmer and consumer. We share in the risk and we share in the bounty.  

Our first CSA was a one-time arrangement for Thanksgiving. Early in the season, shareholders paid up front for their heritage turkey, winter squash, potatoes and onions, all before the turkeys wee hatched and the seeds were in the ground. 

Our next CSA was a traditional vegetable deal. Members paid in the winter for a weekly delivery of vegetables during the growing season. This year, we added a grain and seed CSA in which members get one big delivery in the fall of heritage and ancient grains, specialty barley and lentils.

This is nothing like the farming I grew up doing and that first year. With every CSA check that arrived, I relished what I thought was control. We'd figured it out, I thought.

Oh, how wrong I was. 

No matter how much control our business model gives us, we are still farmers and farming is, after all, mostly an exercise in managing chaos — an attempt to control the uncontrollable. No method, or scale or marketing strategy can change that.

That spring, I heard reality loud and clear.

In my early planting schedule, I'd put in flats and flats of basil seedlings. I couldn't wait to see the little sprouts. I watered and rotated the lights and waited. As all our other seedlings sprouted and moved on to the greenhouse, the little basil flats stayed brown. 

I turned up the heat. I watered more. I watered less. I sprayed instead of sprinkled. I replanted. And still, weeks after they were supposed to germinate, nothing.

We were trying to get pregnant at the time and fertility, or lack of it, surrounded me. 

Ironically, when we first moved on to the farm, I dubbed the potting shed — where we germinate our plants — "the womb."

That first spring, I spent a lot of time in the womb and every week, no germination in the greenhouse. Every month, no germination in the bedroom either.  With every passing day, I was more and more defeated.

I must be doing something wrong.

I'd gotten used to a modern life that taught me that if I wanted to succeed, if I wanted something, I needed to be more, say more, do more, pray more, move more. 

So naturally, if I wasn't getting what I wanted, there must be something more I could do to make it happen. 

Especially in my career in online media, I'd gotten used to making things happen instantaneously. In this modern life, I think we've all gotten used to making things happen instantaneously.

But, out on the farm, and in the bedroom, the more I tried to do — lights, water, fertility charting, worrying — the less happened. 

Prairie Heritage Farm The garden plot this fall. Those are out-of-control weeds on the left in beds we had to just let go this year. One of the biggest challenges of running a small operation is picking your battles. Those beds were battles we very obviously lost.

Finally, frustrated, I decided to give it over — not give it up, but give it over. I came to terms with the fact that all of this was out of my hands. I'd done everything I could and it was time to surrender — to God, to mother nature, to fertility, to the basil gods — to whatever. I wasn't in control and I had to be able to be OK with that. 

That surrender wasn't easy, but once I got there, it was a powerful, freeing feeling. 

In the solitary days on the farm it's easy to find metaphors for life among racing winds and sprouting plants. Some of the metaphors don't make it beyond that particular day, but this one, the one of surrender, is the one I've carried with me throughout the first two grueling years on the farm. 

I'm not saying I don't still complain. I do, but I realize now why I do it.

And now when I hear other farmers complain, I recognize the subtle bit of wonderment in their voices. It's less of an "oh-poor-me" tone and more of a "can-you-believe?" one. 

The truth is, most of us know that despite our attempts, at marketing, at pest or weed management, at crop rotations and fertilizer, a majority of what happens on our little patches of land is beyond our control. And, that's just as it should be. 

After all, being out of control means we're connected to the nature, to our crops, to God — to something bigger and mightier than us and for many of us, that's one of the main reasons we do what we do in the first place.

That first spring, eventually some of the basil germinated and what did grew up tall and luscious and kept our customers and us in pesto for the winter. 

About a year later, when we'd stopped "trying" for a baby, I got two wondrous pink lines on little stick. 

This fall, we added a new little farmhand.  

We're just buttoning up the farm now for winter and in November I took 5-week-old Willa into the greenhouse to harvest what's left of this year's basil. After we lost all of the outside basil to that September frost, fittingly, aphids got most of what we'd planted in the greenhouse and I thought I'd had my last piece of fresh basil. But cooler days have killed off the aphids, and I was shocked to find a few resilient plants still putting up shoots.

I made pesto out of what was left and sometime in January, when I can't even imagine something green and sprouting, I'll spread it on crackers and start teaching Willa about what power you can have when you let go.