Originally published in Edible Toronto Magazine.
There’s a glorious blue sky outside on this sunny summer day as an enthusiastic breeze wafts in and coaxes you to come out and play in the natural world. But you are fastened to your desk at work, surrounded by four office walls instead of the four elements.
Maybe the nine-to-five wheel has been making less sense lately, or you’ve become preoccupied with the science of compost. Maybe you find yourself wishing you were one of the vendors offering quaint country wares at the farmers’ market you visit each week. Perhaps you’ve always had a green thumb, a way with animals, or a love of dirt. Maybe you really just want to be a farmer?
If you long for more earth, air, fire and water, it is true that the farming life will provide exposure to all—though not necessarily an easy abundance of any. It may instead give lessons on poor soil, crop-damaging winds, barn fires instead of bonfires, and what to do when the well runs dry.
The romance versus the reality of farming is as stark a contrast as the black-and-white Holstein cow you may one day be milking. There is much to learn, and even more to fail at when sheer exuberance isn’t quite enough.
Yet more people are opting out of their city selves in pursuit of a little place in the country, their dream farm. According to the Foundation on Future Farming, approximately 40 percent of the world’s population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Of the 525 million farms worldwide, 85 percent are smallholders who cultivate plots of land no bigger than 2 hectares. Maybe you could, too? By Statistics Canada’s last count in 2011, the Census of Agriculture tallied 51,950 farms in Ontario, and 27,201 of those are under 53 hectares, or less than 130 acres.
If you’re chomping at the bit to share that bucolic dream, first take a closer look at the stuff you’re made of. It’s a ponderous undertaking that requires a certain mindset to fill some pretty big Wellington boots.
The face of farming might seem like a mostly physical endeavour, but it’s so much more than that. If you lust for land and a bit of dirt under your fingernails, you could actually be feeling the pull of a primordial truth buried deep in your ancestral cells. It may be that you just want to live, and live well.
There are eight dimensions of wellness contributing to quality of life, and one job that involves all of them is sustainable farming. Farmers constantly address physical, emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, financial, environmental and spiritual wellness in a multitude of ways. Spending your days as a steward of the soil and raising animals nourishes each of these aspects. Embarking on a drastic lifestyle change is a huge challenge, though, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find instant peace or pastoral scenes. Wellness takes a lot of work.
The Great Outdoors
Being surrounded by the elements is certainly life-affirming, even more so during extreme challenges. Like drought: The most unbearably hot day will be the one on which you have to deal with your broken water pump and haul buckets of pond water to the garden to quench your thirsty seedlings. Or like black flies and mosquitoes: They’re not choosey—they’re happy to have you morning or evening when you’re harvesting for market or weeding to avoid the blistering noonday sun. Will you be able to handle too much rain? A week’s constant downpour will drown out your best-laid plans without any consideration for your planting or fencing schedule or your waiting CSA members. But you are free of those four walls, and each fresh day is guaranteed to be anything but dull.
This might be the number one reason new farmers envision… freedom to make your own hours! Sure you can, though you will soon find that every minute belongs to the farm. From dawn to dusk, you will fall in and out of bed in a blur. But it’s your blur, not your boss’s, and hopefully you will learn to find your own moments of abandon in between.
Good Hard Work
There is something about well-earned sweat… nothing like being physically tired after useful, productive and involved work. If you don’t already, learn to love labour—it stretches our bodies and our minds, and you won’t need that gym membership anymore.
The upside: Look out your window and see no neighbours.
The downside: Look out your window and see no neighbours.
A sense of isolation is one aspect that many newbie farmers don’t count on prior to their transition to country life. Once you’ve worked through the long list of other trials, you might return to this observation and appreciate how fortunate you are to have a quiet little place on the earth. Not just to hear birds, but your own thoughts. Amidst the endless hours of nurturing other living things, make time to reflect on how your personal wellness is coming along. There will always be cities, and plenty of people out there to visit, so just be grateful. Your sanctuary really is a treasure.
In a world where society seems to be heading down more questionable paths, having a sense of noble purpose is a wonderful thing. It’s an exceptional feeling to grow really good food and raise healthy animals with care, and rewarding to know you are helping to feed so many appreciative people.
I Can Do it All
Your initial euphoria will have you believing you CAN do it all. But don’t try. Go slow. Pick one main thing and once you get pretty good at it you can gradually add to your ranching repertoire. Nothing spells burnout better than a first-year farmer juggling the work of ten into a 24-hour day. You need to sleep for some of that. Get help. Hire workers, interns, apprentices, family and friends, because farming rarely works well as a solo affair. Plus, you’ll have company to celebrate or commiserate with, depending on the day.
Do what you love—whatever it is, so it will be mostly fun and rewarding despite the onerous learning curve. Things will go wrong. You will suffer heartaches and sometimes feel overwhelmed. Farming is no different, and if you take on too much you risk doing it poorly and ending up dissatisfied or disappointed. Research beforehand, read, apprentice with experts; many have gone before you and done it the wrong way. Learn from their experience so you don’t repeat their mistakes. Being overwhelmed isn’t fun, so try to go Zen Farmer when it gets tough, and remember those four walls. Breathe. That’s why you chose this.
There is flow in a farm, I promise. It’s a sweet spot you will find more of in time, but there will be moments when it just feels like a gushing rush of chaos. A flexible demeanour helps when your chores go from what-has-to-be-done-today and what-should-be-done-this-week to make room for urgent-drop-everything-the-goats-got-into-the-garden.
Accept that some days you might be swearing or in tears. You’ll lose hens to a weasel, arugula to flea beetles, zucchini to powdery mildew, and one morning might find a beautiful stillborn lamb or calf. Strong is the urge to abandon the whole notion before something else falls ill or wilts or dies. A world of guilt and blame will ride your stalwart steward shoulders as you imagine all the ways you could have prevented it. Some you could have, so get better at it. Some you simply couldn’t have. Life is cruel. In fact, it can be terribly painful. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore and want to call it quits, beauty will reappear. Because life is also beautiful.
Why farm? An unfolding farm is a spectacular thing to be a part of. In the end, after all the work and wonder, effort and excitement, trials and triumphs, it’s all for the beauty… to be with the rhythms of joy, frustration, surrender and appreciation…to love.
Overcoming pain is an intrinsic part of this beauty we call life, and we might never be closer to understanding the hows and whys of it than when we’re surrounded in the grow of a farm.
Connecting to such elemental reality is reason enough. To farm the earth and all its living beings is to work on harvesting the best elements of your own nature. And that will only help you grow, in every sense.