The last thing I wanted to do was to marry a farmer. I was a farm girl. I knew better. Besides, I had a career. The farm was going back, giving up. And then...
When my husband first told me he wanted to farm, I was, and perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, devastated.
I’d grown up on the “family farm” – the idyllic kind, with two kids, a thousand acres and a little house with a shelter belt and a few rambunctious dogs. But inside the ideal “family farm” I’d watched the farm tear the family apart.
It’s not an unfamiliar story. Pressures of modern agriculture combined with overleveraging and crushing debt. Mix that with a little isolation and the never-ending schedule of an overworked farm family and, voila, you’ve got divorce and heartbreak and the land sold to the highest bidder.
I vowed never to fall into that trap. I wouldn’t farm and I wouldn’t marry a farmer.
After my parents’ divorce, I went about my early journalism career and lived the life of a 20-something professional. I even found the perfect guy: a super smart, artistic graduate student. We fell in love.
Then, he told me he wanted to farm.
Jacob promised our way would be different. The kind of farming he was inspired by would work – for the bottom line, for our community, for the land, and for us. We would not repeat my family’s story.
And although I, too, was beginning to be inspired at the time by the energy I saw building around food and farming, specifically within the local food movement and sustainable agriculture, I was skeptical.
But, I was already too in love to get out and find myself a nice stable business major, pre-med student or God forbid, a fellow journalist.
So after years of Jacob’s convincing and fueled by my own immersion into the food community building around us, I agreed, albeit reluctantly, to move home and start a farm about 15 miles from my family’s old farm. We’re now in our second year with Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm made up of locally marketed vegetables, ancient and heritage grains and pastured heritage turkeys.
My days revolve around turkeys and irrigation, grain cleanings and vegetable plucking.
I’ve joined the ranks of a new wave of young back-to-the-land farmers. But for me, “back” is the operative word.
Just like others in the movement, I jumped into farming for the simpler way of life, the meaningful work and the desire to help myself and my community through food and farming. The difference between many of the others and me, however, is that I should know better.
It’s taken me almost two years to fight that thought – that I should know better.
It’s been one of my biggest challenges in this transition: not allowing “back” to mean backward.
As a younger woman, I had what I thought were much loftier plans. My journalism career was taking off and urban life was agreeing with me – enough that I was ready to make the next leap to larger, more powerful cities, where I could move up and go to art openings and lounge with other 30-somethings at wine bars.
But slowly and surely, I was encouraged by the growing sustainable food and agriculture movement that farming could indeed work for families and communities alike.
Simultaneously, I was maturing and finding out that where I came from and what I came from were unique and powerful, not at all something to be ashamed of. I started to warm up to the idea of coming home, both to farming and to the prairie. As a journalist and a rural kid, I got more and more involved and interested in the story of rural depopulation and how food and agriculture could help revive rural America.
I realized that beyond activism and education, I held a very powerful tool at my disposal to help reinvigorate at least one rural community: I could buck the trend. I could move home.
Still, there was ample baggage from my parents’ divorce and the resulting sale of the farm. The fear that Jacob and I would relive that fate was at the forefront of my wrestling with the decision to move home. Or so I thought.
When the farm we’re on now opened up, we were both excited at the opportunity. The place was right, the lease was right and as we ran the numbers, it all made sense.
But there was something wrong, something I couldn’t quite explain. I spent days trying to figure out just what it was. Then, one night, I broke down and tearfully admitted to my husband and to myself that at the root of it was that doing this would mean I would be living on a farm near Conrad, and there was something about that that made me feel like I’d given up.
I realized that moving back home meant giving up on the dreams of a 16-year-old farm girl who promised she’d get out of this place, promised that she would “make something” of herself.
Like many rural kids, I got the message early on that the one thing you didn’t want to do was get “stuck” here. And, if you were a farm kid, getting stuck on the farm was an even worse fate. I don’t know where it came from. It could be mostly self-inflicted.
But, wherever it originated, I know that even though I’d grown out of that idea — I knew that farming was noble and good and exciting and intelligent — there was still a little voice in my head that told me I was going to get “stuck.”
In the first year of farming I still used my journalism career as a way to couch the “what do you do?” question. So when I ran into people from my past in the local grocery store, I answered their surprised, “What brings you home?” question with, “We’re farming, but…”
Even with our customers, I was quick to point out, “In my other life, I’m an editor…”
While most other young farmers in the local and sustainable food movement are having to defend calling themselves “farmers” and using the label as a badge of honor, I was trying to avoid it, as if there was something bad about being “just a farmer,” a phrase I heard a lot growing up, with an emphasis on “just.”
The food movement has made it lofty and noble to be a farmer again, but in these parts, that message hasn’t quite erased the one I grew up with. Even my mom admitted a few weeks ago that when she tells people what Jacob and I do, she always talks about our other jobs first and then mentions that, oh yes, and we have a farm, too.
Slowly though, I’ve stopped using the “farmer, but” crutch. Over time, I’ve started forgetting to tell people, unless they ask, that I had another persona off the farm.
As I’ve settled into farming and living in central Montana, I’ve been happier than I ever have been before. I’ve connected with customers, grown nutritious food, stopped time with a little dirt and reconnected with the idea of community. I’ve started to think of my life as a dream realized instead of a dream lost. The voice of the disgusted 16-year-old girl has quieted. What does she know, anyway?
The other day, I mentioned to someone I’ve known fairly well now over the last nine months, that I had just come off several stressful days at work. Surprised, she asked, “What work? You mean farming? I thought you were a farmer.”
I realized as I answered her that it was the first time in the nine months I’ve known her that I said, “I’m a farmer, but…”
Today, I’m equally proud to say I’m a farmer and a journalist, but more often than not, I don’t even think about what I do. Just this week, I spent the morning harvesting vegetables for our Community Supported Agriculture shareholders and then spent the afternoon on the phone with a Web developer hashing out search engine optimization, database management and new ideas in web design for optimizing news content.
The juxtaposition struck me and I realized that I’ve finally let go of an old notion that who I am is tied to what I do or where I live. And because of that, I’ve become more secure than ever in what I do, where I live and most importantly, who I am.
“Back” sometimes does mean forward after all.
Courtney Lowery Cowgill is the co-founder of NewWest.net and a farmer.