Toward a Progressive Family Farm

I have been out of the ranty blog business for several months mainly because life and restarting a farm and taking care of myself all take time… and I’d rather get a good snuggle in or play Legos for real (not half pretending) in the precious hours when I’m not working… but I’m back again. Recently I posted on almighty Facebook a link of a farmer talking mainly about creating a farm for his family not in spite of it. I find myself agreeing with him at many levels as I have learned how to calm down, to love my life in the now, and work on patience (of which I generally have none). I wrote at the end of my Facebook post that dedicating oneself to the family farm on an ideological level is not the same as dedicating oneself to it on a practical level. This is what I want to talk about here.

I am interested in the progressive manifestation of the family farm – not some overly romantic Christian version (Wendell Berry I love you but Christian virtue does not in itself prevent abuse and capitalist expansion) complete with baked pies and a happy and dominating husband. I’m also not interested in the family farm, which we seem to worship fully in sustainable agriculture circles, that is succeeding despite consolidation, draining resources in rural communities and a broken commodity system. Many of us have been eager to prove the alternative is a real alternative, so much so that we have sacrificed ourselves to it. 

I do want pie, I want a beautiful loving family, I want hard work, I want care for my land, I want fishing and midday kisses. I do dream about the beautiful parts of the farm - but the large social structures are so powerful that we should reckon with those too. 

I have to say I am interested in my specific family and our specific farm. I am interested in deep loving relationships with my children, mother and a partner. I am interested in mutual support and celebration of food and community but in the genuine version – not the cleaned-up version where I look great and smiley in pictures but the kids didn’t get dinner until 9pm because we were working and I am soaked in guilt and too exhausted to sleep. I am interested in the less accomplished and more fun version – and I say this while restarting a business, going to endless meetings and networking opportunities and feeling a little run down. I am interested in the some what poorer (literally) but happier version. I am also looking forward to making a reasonable income and spending money on things that are not the farm like normal people get to – because being a family farm does not mean sinking it all into the farm, it also means having resources to enjoy being a family. We, and I mean I, should not lose sight of that.

What is a progressive family farm? First and foremost we should know what it is not. I have alluded to this before but I literally made life decisions to fall in line with my ex-husbands personal dedication to a definition of the family farm. I was bought in because after all you can’t be a hypocrite when you critique factory farming or certain labor regimes - I was both a farmer and an ideological warrior. I so deeply wanted a perfect family farm too - but the starting structure made this impossible.

Do you have any idea how insane it was in my life to be dedicated to the definition of a family farm in which we literally provided the majority of the labor on our farm while at the same time creating continuous growth. And as it turns out, when I left the farm, the man I was married to who wanted to be a family farm and to make speeches about it  at farmers union conventions (sorry I’m being mean) finally realized that this definition was impossible with out me. Not just because of the way that I worked on the farm but the endless labor I provided at home. I am not proud to say, based on the number of people who are currently “replacing my work”, that  I did the work of 3-4 people. I suspect that this same labor arrangement is true on many farms. And because we continually sink financial resources into the farm we feel like the endless work is needed just to stay afloat.  

Here are the parts of the family farm we should connect to from the ground up for a progressive vision.

Equality and a fair wage – not just for employees, not just for ‘farm work’ but also all for of “women’s work” too. I am a big fan of paying people to do house work. I am scheming ways to exchange my talents for everything I need in the domestic realm. I love cooking but I would rather pay someone (in barter or money) to clean my floors while I play with my kids. I would rather pay someone to watch my kids while I work rather than neglect them or expect them to work like adults. I would rather plan time to have my kids engaged in the farm (and understand that it wont be very productive) than alienate them through toil, stress, and work for works sake. I have wild children of the woods but that should be a choice rather than a requirement of farming. Be clear about what is work and be clear that parenting and housework and emotional labor are work and either self compensate for them, find help with them, or sure as heck make sure they are really evenly divided. Note: If you are fighting about them, a whole bunch of longstanding feminist scholarship on domestic work will tell you, it is probably not equal.   

Love, respect and support – for all living things from soil microbes to children and grandparents. These are ideals that are often used to force people into or to keep people in tragically unequal and painful situations. I mean the real deal. If you are kicking, yelling at hitting or destroying anything or anyone on your farm there is an issue. I was struck in a conversation with a fellow farmer last year when she mentioned that when her partner gets really upset he will throw his hat. Let me suggest that this is likely a good standard for anger and stress response. Kicking pigs, hitting cows with rebar, yelling at your partner or score keeping on all their faults, and ignoring the basic needs of children are forms of abuse – they are not just responses farmers have when they are stressed by the weather. Go to therapy, hold people responsible for abusive and mean behavior, and set up farms with clear legal divisions of wealth and compensation in the case of breakouts (so people who are in damaging situations can leave without putting themselves into poverty)

Celebration of feeding people and cultural work of farming but… the recognition that being the salt of the earth isn’t the goal for everyone. I absolutely hate the ‘thank a farmer’ things because they assume that somehow all agricultural is good. Even all family farms are not good.  Let’s be more critical in our worship of our farming history – and if we interrogate it seriously we will see that gender dynamics, racism, and social class exploitation have always been there too! Great meals, delicious food, community parties and potucks YES! Blind worship of exploitation on the land and people NO!

Hard work – and when I say this I mean it. I love hard work. I think it is good that my children understand the actual work that goes into producing food but (here is another but…)… hard work for specific reasons at specific times is valuable. But not the celebration of empty toil and not the celebration of ability to work over all other personal characteristics. Being able to work or having a long history of working hard does not excuse meanness, abuse, stress, lack of relationships, or even lack of self care. We often act like family farmers get a pass because of hard work. That is insane and I want children who like themselves even if they don’t work as hard or in the ways that I do. Maybe the concept I actual like is “family work” because this is one that is a bit less grounded in being super productive. I love making bouquets with my kids for them to sell. I love when my kids help unload straw bales because I actually need help and we eat an ice pop after. I don’t really want my kids to have memories of passing out in a hay mow from dehydration at age 11… but family farms allow us to romanticize those things in an uncritical way. Imagine if you friend told you that she had her son or daughter walk the dog for 6 hours and it took the kid days to recover. What? Why on earth is farm work any different. My neighbor delivered bales to my farm several years ago and I looked at them and said “why are they so little”. I had been on a farm that made giant bales and baled way too wet on occasion which meant that I was used to picking up 70-80 lbs  or being hit in the face by the bales when unloading at top speed. I thought it was normal… and then my neighbor turned to me and said “it uses more baling twine but I started doing it when the kids were little so they enjoyed helping and could pick up a bale… and then I realized they were easier for me too”.  That was one of the first times I saw that family work was different that just supporting a “family farm”. That is the type of consideration I think we need.

Distribution of wealth- This is the best reason to worship the family farm. Our source of wealth in the US is land. It is right and just to expect people to have access to land (not just housing) and to try to free our land resources from speculation and outside investment which drains resources from our community. In this case I think broad land access, broadening programs for acquisition, and tools to control land speculation are the best things we have right now – because progressive taxation isn’t coming anytime soon – I want immigrant land access and "regifting" to the people whose land we robbed. But let’s be clear that the land wealth distributed from family farms is also rooted in theft from Native people, more recently from Black farmers, and from the poor. This is the legacy we come from. We should not be shocked that the system is continuing to consolidate with wealth and power – specifically in the hands of white men.

Last but not least – If the family farm is something to struggle for we need to make it something kids, women, LGBTQ folks, people of color and immigrants are welcomed into. That is a big task for a system that is steeped in the legacy of patriarchal white supremacy. In future months and years I hope to work out some of the legal resources, community events, educational structures that can help us get there but let’s be honest about what we have and what we worship…. Being critical of something you want to save doesn’t ruin it, it will potentially be the only way to preserve it.

Reconsidering the family farm as a feminist farmer

I have spent a decade celebrating and defending the family farm – usually in the service on anti farm consolidation or systemic inequalities (economic in nature) in our agricultural system. At a base level I am still in love with most of those ideals and believe strongly in justice that they should bring. However in the wake of crisis I am questioning the assumptions of equality on a personal level. The political is personal and the personal is political and patriarchy and systemic family exploitation (in a negative way) are also embedded in family farm culture.

The beliefs - I do believe we should have system of distributed wealth on the land and everywhere in our society. I believe safe and just food is more likely to occur from a broad network of farms not single entities and I believe this throughout the food system from input suppliers to meat processors.  I believe intergenerational support and work can be wonderful and is sometimes necessary (although passing on “womens work” to grandma might be a bit insulting to expect). I should say that I would like to live in a world where a family can provide the majority of all labor on the farm – including emotional, parenting, household, physical, and distribution and marketing work. I want prices paid to farmers to be good enough that we can have lazy days and choose to let 300 kohlrabi die when the irrigation stops working because we want to stay at a lake with our kids. The problem with this ideal is that it currently requires too much of women who want to farm.

The assumption that family farming is both internally and externally just in its basic form is problematic at best. While many family farms means broadly distributed wealth the family farm also is a formulation that brings with it the baggage of individual families and often in farm patriarchal systems of abuse of people and animals. Even in everyone’s favorite  Laura Engle Wilder book “Farmer Boy” there is a level of abuse and violence as part of daily life that lives on in family farms today partially because they are independent of normal work HR departments or bureaucratic worker protections. Family farms can be beautiful for children and do teach the value of hard work but often the focus on work within the real consolidating capitalist agricultural system replaces childhood learning and exploration and can be stifling making children’s needs come last. I realize now that talking about the problems of the family farm cannot and should not undermine questions of justice but is essential toward actually realizing justice (ignorance is not bliss).

Like the well trained sociological Marxist that I am I continue today to believe that economic inequality is the root of many of society’s ills but I also as a feminist and anti racist and now a rural dweller understand how many systems of inequality intersect to create forms of power that are more than just economic. Like many of my ah-ha moments over the past year I have realized that gasp .. these aren’t just academic understandings… they are personal. Sexism and misogyny are embedded in the family farm  – in some strange ways I was personally fighting fights of the 1950s at home while also touting an ivy league education, a graduate degree and honestly running the emotional and physical wheels of the farm. Lots of articles have concluded that it is impossible to “have it all” without losing your shit as a woman in modern society. I would posit that trying to do it on a farm is even crazier. I have not one friend who tried to hold down a 50-80 hour a week job with three kids with her with no childcare, and to clean to house during breaks. There is something specific about how the farm demands certain sacrifices historically that also allows people to sacrifice far more than they should – especially women. Life is crazy with kids but it is even crazier when you are trying to do intense physical labor while managing the emotional needs of a family and farm crew with a three yearold on your back and a baby nursing you… and unfortunately that is so not an exaggeration. In fact I have strangely fond memories of riding on a waterwheel transplanter with a tractor with no creeper gear (meaning I had to work insanely fast) pregnant and nursing a 2 year old. I liked feeling like superwoman but also maybe this situation shouldn’t be structurally required by the family farm.

The family farm in all its historical glory is unfortunately embedded in systemic patriarchy more so than other forms of work because the lines between spousal and intergenerational relationships, work and household are so tightly bound. In many ways this produces the possibility for something beautiful and supportive… BUT it also reproduces and powerfully pushes people into roles and behaviors that can be damaging because of the power of the beautiful images. Fighting for equality in basic ways, farm work not being one of them, was part and parcel to my life on a family farm. My house was never clean enough, I was never the mother I wanted to be, I sure as hell wasn’t the wife others wanted me to be, my cooking was rushed, bed times and meals chaos, and downtime was not a reality. I worked to avoid accusations of not working and worked to avoid the other responsibilities I didn’t want (like mopping the floor or feeding 12 people lunch). The issue with the family farm’s work cycles (no seperation between home and office and field) is also complicated by the fact that I love farm work. I love weeding. I love being outside, I love farm crew folks, I love team work and beautiful vegetables. So we have a system where escape into work is the only justifiable escape.

 

So how do we think about justice with or without the symbol of the family farm. As an ideal type or model for work the family farm has some important features – the biggest one being that many small businesses on farms create a diversity of land management and care that lessens negative environmental impacts on the land. You have more kids in schools, a group of farmers to cooperate and care of each other and to support local businesses. These are all great things. You have people who take care of the land because its productive capacity not just speculation on value underpins their livelihood… I also tend to think smaller scale agriculture is a kinder form of agricultural on people and the land. Small scale, many farms, reasonable prices and living these are ideals.

How does this intersect with family – I have to say there is so much to write here If we are heterosexual we need spouses who are entirely comfortable with us not being the symbols of the family farm but being farmers ourselves. We need the notion of the family in family farm to include LGBTQ families and permutations of family that are entirely intergenerational, do not include children, or include chosen not just biologically created family. We need women to understand and provide less emotional responsibility and a system that supports us leaving it to adults to take care of themselves in all ways from wearing sunscreen to handling frustrations in the field. We need psychological care. We need honest mansplaining-free training. Stacey my neighbor and I have been talking about putting together a series of workshops for new and continuing farmers focused on power tools, guns and butchering, tractors operation and repair, “hard farming skills” because may of us learn from horrible teachers with family baggage on unsafe and semi functional machines – and when men see women flounder they often push to take over rather than encourage them as they would another man.

In short - Equality means lobbying for reasonable policies and supports for childcare (rural pre-school not just semisketchy in home daycare), subsidized after school activities and rural transportation for kids under 16, universal healthcare so we can farm without another job, educational support focused on hard skills for and by women, free and farm calendar possible self-care activities from yoga to therapy and meditation, well trained farm sitters, great housekeepers.

And on a personal level, I still fantasize about farming with a partner in life and love, which in my case means a certain reincarnation of the family farm but perhaps a more conscious enlightened one. I want to date (maybe even marry) and farm with someone who is a feminist in their daily actions. I want a farm partner – life partner because I want to share that most beautiful portion of life with. I also need a “farm wife” and by that I mean a personally and state sponsored team of people to support me.  

 

Farm fashion – A critique and a request from a farm-her

Maybe my blog should be called.. “I knew the personal was political in a theoretical way but failed to take this seriously” OR “gosh the patriarchy is everywhere even in my pants”.

My sister will gladly tell you that I am not fashion conscious in anyway – I have been sporting a black tank top and jeans of some sorts for twenty years. The politics of clothing is something I am aware of. I know gender queer women and those who prefer masculine clothing struggle to find clothing that fit and are fashionable and comfortable to their liking. My body fits well in women’s clothing so this has not been something I have to deal with on a personal level… but then again the idea that clothing should fit when you bend down, kneel, run, and be comfortable and not expose unwanted skin randomly is something I struggle with… like all the time. Women's clothing fitting doesnt mean they are functional. 

After 10 years of farming I decided to find seasonally and farm appropriate clothing in its own right in place of just wearing cheap or worn out clothing because ‘why invest in something you are going to ruin’. Wait let’s review my amazing logic – I wear work clothing 90% of the time so I should wear whatever I can find cheap and invest my money in clothing I can wear in public 10% of the time and eventually wear on the farm when it is worn out. A little flawed I guess.

So over the past 24 months (inspired by all of my work jeans falling apart and me not having anything to replace them with because I farm and don’t have an off farm job anymore) I have been buying appropriate farm clothing including (gasp) socks and even crazier kind of not the cheapest underwear. Maybe it’s because I am approaching middle age or maybe it’s because I am turning into a radical feminist but I just want pants that don’t show my butt, fit, don’t fall apart, are easy to wash and have reasonable pocket etc for farm tasks including a hammer loop positioned so tools to bang me directly in the knee cap. I want kind of attractive tank tops that look reasonable with my arms and shoulders (based on genetics I had a future in body building) and are long and things that can be washed and worn reasonably in public. So here is my list including critiques of my favorite items.

Farm clothing – the basics

My disclaimer here is that I have a very specific body type – It is neither than of a young or grown man nor that of a “curvy” woman. I am definitively not “apple” or “pear shaped” but I have a butt and enough difference between my waist and hips that I need a belt… need a belt all the time.

Pants- Okay here’s the deal there are now farm women pants that fit me including the longer size 4 Duluth Trading Post pants and Carhartt’s 1889 double kneed canvas pants. I own both and wear them a lot. Both however are “skinny jeans” cut. While this works for pants inside of boots I don’t really understand why these companies make boot cut (over the boots types of pants) in larger sizes but not for people who are thin and smaller. What about being tall and thinner implies that I do not want pants that go over boots? The good things about both of these types of pants, despite the ridiculous leg shape, are that they are high waisted. Sexy? Probably not. But you avoid the famed “bacon strip” aka “the reverse thong” aka lower back/butt burn. If I get skin cancer it will be on my lower back from years of jeans, butt crack showing.

Buy a belt. Again my commitment to fashion is low so my high waisted belted pants keep my butt in. Both actually look reasonable.  

Carhartt MENS unlined duck overalls. Apparently Carhartt’s new women’s overalls are designed for shorter folks – since they don’t have lengths included if your inseam is 32 just don’t go there? I wear a 28 – 32 in men’s which is not something you can buy in stores here but they fit, as do Dickies extra small denim overalls.

Flannel shirts- just give in farm women especially if you live in the Upper Midwest. They are the best thing. Duluth trading post is the best hands down. I basically don’t have breasts but they appear to fit women with long arms and with breasts so bravo. The back gussets mean you can move. I have yet to blow a button or rip armpits or the back. I also have a decent old style Carhartt hand me down from my mom and a bunch of thirft store mens smalls which one by one rip because they are thin.

Period underwear. Seriously not a required farm item but just do it. I feel like I am a sales person for Thinx. They are my nicest underwear confirmed by myself and the person who wants to see me in my underwear, and comfortable, not hot and not gross.

Tank tops. It is just my thing. I don’t understand the tshirt. It is too hot or too cold in all weather. I understand there are people that like these I have no ideas for you. Underarmor fitted tank tops are long enough so are some cheaper target ones (although I blow through the material on these) as are Duluth trading post tank tops (which you can get for $5 at the outlets) and I am sure there are more out there. I also wear underarmor sports bras because they fit and are not soo constrictive that I cant breath. I am sure some people need real bras or have larger breasts. I cannot give any advice.

Boots/shoes- I have a lot of basic request for farm boots and have some good recent suggestion from men. Good thing I can wear a size 7 or 8 mens because otherwise I would be out of luck. I honestly like the Northerner made in the USA cheap boots a lot better than muck or bogs types which I destroy and get sloppy and give me blisters after a season. I buy the $22 made in the USA boots and stick nice $20 insoles in them or steal insoles from running shoes. I do like my Kamik men’s lined boots and Sorrel boots for winter (both men’s and both bulky but warm). I just acquired Jolly garden clogs after admiring those of my friends and neighbors which are great and somehow keep my feet dry. I like chacos sandals in summer (like July-August).

I buy all Carhartt stuff online and all most Duluth stuff at the outlet or online when it is on sale. Both have limited numbers of long small sizes FYI.

My critiques….

What the heck dosmall people do? I know from experience in the real world that there are women smaller than me. I am 5’8 and 135lbs but “smaller than I look” – Duluth trading post only makes their “cute” and “stretch” narrow legged pants in size 2 and 4 because apparently small women are cute not actual people who accomplish work. Also in what alternative universe am I size extra small. It doesn’t even make sense but both Carharrt and Duluth imply that I am the smallest a woman gets.. It just isn’t true.

What the heck Fleet Farm – why cant you recognize that a) women do farm work b) just like for men there are a range of sizes of women c) women don’t want Carhartts scrubs (because apparently nurses go to fleet farm to shop?) I want farm clothing. PLEASE… reasonably sized - many women are under a size 10 who farm, just saying. Also, I know I can order them online but I occasionally like to try on shoes and pants and coats instead of reading 150 Amazon reviews to understand if something might fit me.  

So yes I know there are several types of 140-210 dollar women’s work pants on the market. I am planning on getting some red ants pants when someone who loves me gives them to me as a gift but I would also love to go to a store and find something that in some gosh darn way represents the spectrum of farming reality.  In some future blog I plan to list companies that “treat women as equal people” and also those with the best trustworthy input.

The Cost of Farm Divorce – Community, Mourning and Holding it Together

Almost 10 years ago my father died suddenly and unexpectedly as I held my two week old newborn son in my arms. A few people locally reached out and sent cards and kind words. I sat for months in a combination of post birth depression and sadness working a full time job, nursing and farming. I also kept the shine on telling people I was doing better, managing my grieving alone, working to make the farm work. My closest friends from high school and college were the ones to hold me together on the phone – my mother and sister both ghosts of themselves. After death people want you to move on and they register the loss as your own and one that will fade. It’s just a human experience and your life will be okay.  


Why does this matter to farm divorce? Well, in the wake of my separation and coming divorce many people come up to me and then they cry. They CRY! and then I say please don’t cry and then I cry. It is strange to experience this community mourning of my marriage with is so starkly different than the death of my father. It is stark because in essence everyone involved will be fine. No one is dead. I believe I am really making the best decision for myself and my children and even my ex-spouse. Our farm is in such good economic shape unlike most farm divorces. So why the crying? People I believe sometimes cry out of empathy, but mostly they cry because I am literally breaking their dream of a perfect equitable, beautiful, just and American family farm. I think this because none of my closest life friends have cried, not even those whose economic future is literally bound to my infrastructure. My mother and sister and closest local friends have done nothing but comfort me. This reaction of crying in the face of my divorce feels at once heavy, real and sad – a community grieving is needed. At the same time it is misaligned with the full story of this change because the grief is tied to an idea not to us as people.


The process of divorcing myself from my spouse and farm continues to be heart breaking to me, even as I am making the choice to leave. While the 6 months of constant sobbing have subsided, while the years of denial and anxiety are over and I can breathe, I find myself in the almost constant struggle to defend my decision – because the alternative narrative is one where I am making a sudden, uninformed, petty, hysterical, crazy, weak choice. My therapist, and most everyone I am close with has told me to just let it go… some people will not understand. But yet I think what people should understand are not the details of my heartbreak, decisions, pain and timeline but that holding it together, smiling, celebrating the little things and making a new life plan is a necessity for women in farm divorce because of the structure of family farming. I want to cry, yell, kick and scream about what I have endured like my three year old does when I say no more juice (and I have done a lot of it in private) but I have to contain my complaints, my grief and my explanations to a select few because I am literally economically bound to the farm I am leaving and to the man who will run it.


The economic cost of a farm divorce is huge. Anyone stuck in an abusive or even just unhappy and unfixable marriage in a farm setting understands this. Farms often carry huge amounts of debt, complex land arrangements, and most fundamentally home, family and business are so deeply connected that it is nearly impossible to think about one without the other. Also women on farms, even if they hold leadership roles in reality are often not seen as the farmer legally, economically (by the federal government ag offices or IRS), and for my ego in terms of their work (physical, care based, emotional…). We are the farmers wife even if we are the only one who plants in the rain, or can endure cold vegetable wash water, or in spreadsheets fined tuned to our ecosystem that at least 5 other successful new farmers have used to launch their businesses (can you tell I am proud?).


Even deep into marital crisis conflict I could take perfect portraits, manage facebook and keep the shine on. How is that possible? Who broke the dream? Who is to blame? because it felt and looked so real? This is what I imagine my grieving CSA and larger farm supporting community is asking. My farm, my family, my life have always looked exactly as they should.  We are beautiful, muscle bound, sunny tan or wintery bundled. Our kids glow and are social, smart and independent and a slice of Americana. It is easy to sell and personally believe in and I know better than anyone to be dedicated to our family farm. I never lied but boy did I edit! My line to many people has been “I can’t live for the 10% of the time that was happy and calm” but I can certainly focus on and celebrate that 10% publicly.  I built 8000 facebook followers over the past three years, we have been on TV, radio national newspapers - a vibrant CSA with one of the best retention rates in the state and maybe nation, and a real sense of community. The community has been real, the support and love for us have been real, the produce and farm events real, the ways we have helped grow the local food movement have been real, my celebrations of beautiful produce and children real, my love and dedication to my husband was real – but the other 90% was also real. I still believe that what we created from the farm, to pizza night, to the best barn dance around, to our beautiful children and diverse eating and farming career should be celebrated. I wish I had a space to grieve this publicly but my seeming silence is a sign that even in these progressive times, I just can't. I have been endlessly proud of what I have helped build with my family – but it doesn’t mean the process or the life was beautiful or perfect most of the life. I am too am  grieving what the farm SHOULD have been but I am honestly happy that I will get to be perfectly honest about who and what I am – all of the time.  


Most importantly unlike my soon to be ex, my economic future is tied to his – meaning there is almost no way I can have a public honest conversation, even with friends, about the depth and history of our problems. His farm future is my future and my children’s future. Despite the fact that we are on his family farm I have always been the vegetable farmer. That is why I continue to farm at a place that isn’t super emotionally safe, why I am living right down the road (also for kids sake), and why the unraveling looks and feels so weird. Beyond this, and despite the fact that I had an additional off farm job for 7 years, I have not paid into formal retirement systems because of the way patriarchy and legal and economic structures fit with family farming. To take best advantage of tax rules it was always better to have me as “spouse” which discounted and devalued my labor and leaves me in a place where I do not have the luxury of public grieving… I sit on a life decision where I give away my home, my life’s work and parts of my support community lost in a partial story inspired judgement. and so in patriarchy as a larger economic system and a culture I, the loud NYC lady, am silenced.


 

Farm Life Balance - a Feminist Rant for Stacey

In the mantra of many mental health professionals, religious leaders, and philosophers (pop and professional) we need to take care of ourselves to take care of others but guess what?  you can also take care of others (running partially or full empty) for years and have it go pretty well. It doesn’t make it fun or easy but it is possible and for many of us, farmers, working women, this is how we function… until we don’t. My best farm friend in the whole world asked me where is the balance between being driven (and let me add loving and valuing that about yourself) and being a good mother/wife/friend and having time for yourself. Well I have no idea. All I am trying to settle on right now is how to be “good enough” and how to be present in the things I am doing and then be done with those things ( stop the endless mental multitasking)

It is possible that the concept of the second shift, the idea that working women then come home to a second shift of house/child/domestic work, should for farming women be extended to the concept of the third shift. In my own life this was true. I wasn’t exactly forced to do this but it was partially a result of social structure and patriarchy and partially about my own embrace of the idea that I could, should, and wanted to have it all. I went from working a 30 hour a week job (that I neatly got done in 15-20 hours) teaching college, to 30-50 hours of farm work not including paperwork, intellectual work like newsletter writing, and CSA communications, to lots of meal prep (not all but half), all of the house cleaning (despite the fact that I am terrible and negligent), and breastfeeding, child care taking and NOT SLEEPING more than 3-4 hours in a row for about 7 years… like almost a full decade. In my free time I went running (escape) or sometimes watched a movie for 30 minutes before falling asleep. I tried to be a good wife in many ways. Facebook, CSA email replies and paperwork became my break while I nursed one of the kids and tried to read a book to another.

So, I do think there is a point when lack of self care and trying to do it all drains you so you do nothing well.. or most problematic for me drains me to the point that I can do only one thing well… keep working and moving. And even more problematically I was always rewarded for this work by everyone. I was practically high fived by everyone I knew for doing it all. Only twice in the past 10 years has someone actually asked with concern about if I was doing too much. Otherwise everyone was happy to help me celebrate being super woman.

So I don’t have an answer to how to create a beautiful economically sustainable business; to give to children, spouses and friends; and to take time for ourselves but… I have a couple of ideas.

There is a new movement in sustainable agriculture to embrace ideas like the Lean Farm, or small intensive acreage of high value crops. I do not think these new models are popping up and so attractive because they make farming easy (because almost nothing does); and I’m not sure they are possible until you have considerable access to capital and are established but… they all bring up the idea of creating farms where we try to do less of everything and get really good and specific things and systems. Using an approach where we look seriously at time management, at work flow, at profit margins for individual crops means thinking about limits as part of farming. The problem is many of us who get into farming have issues with limits. We want to be to model farm to prove to neighbors that organic farming is the future, we want to recruit and make it look beautiful because this type of farming has a certain level of evangelism embedded in it. We also set ourselves up to grow and grow long after we need to because we thrive on accomplishment and challenge and we get used to living in chaos. In fact not feeling chaos is mentally and physically difficult for me. Rejecting certain aspects of being driven and replacing them with self care, with naps and a little meditation, with ice cream cones before dinner, with a day with friends in planting season. Those are good ideas (but not easy at first).

Create your budget and living needs expectations holistically and clearly. For years, and I know my friend, fellow farmer and now extension staff extraordinaire Claire  will confirm this, I was looking for a way to understand what the heck was going on with my farm and how balance could be built in. I realized part of the issue was actually my marriage but many farmers work and work and plan and plan for the farm and leave life behind. My budget for the summer includes some serious fun money for a tree house, for a canoe, for vacation, for outdoor tools (and low tunnels) for kids. I am not personally interested in constraining eating out to once a month – I want to enjoy fish fries and beers and fancy dinners at restaurants I sell produce to. This part probably sounds crazy but my ability to spend money on non farm things without guilt or insane internal accounting has also been a learned skill.

Build in family/spouse friend/personal time into the schedule and treat it like a task. Last year I started having weekly friend dates one night a week. Holy moly those were liberating. I don’t think it is too much as a farmer to plan activities like pool night with the kids, date night complete with childcare, and a friend date weekly. A lot of it is just allowing yourself a little less perfection and a lot less guilt. It is not easy to say to your kids who have been taken care of by someone else most of the day “I’m going on a date” but perhaps we need to. It likely would have not saved my marriage to have date nights but I do think that being treated as a friend and lover, not just a farm worker, house keeper and brood sow, is important. I don’t think I was not valued but work, physical and emotional, cannot be our only metric of self worth, as easy as it is. The possibility I see in disappointing the kids for spouse time or personal time is actually being present when you are with them. I have decidedly not been present for much of my kids lives. My body was there, I still sleep with the entire kids pile, my love was there, they were cared for and fed and school folders were perfectly checked. I was also impatient, overwhelmed by the chaos and both mean and buried in other things (my phone, my email…) because that work allowed me a breath (but not recovery).

 I have to say now that I am separated and nearly divorced I have so much time. I will soon be busy with the task of farm building and managing land for next year to prepare, but 50% of childcare is way way way less than I have provided because I actually mentally check out from childrearing. This year I will also have really really good childcare which I need because if I feel like I need to check in I am emotionally draining myself.  Hire childcare and treat high quality childcare as MORE important than hired farm labor. Let me say that again. Childcare for women especially matters the most. Also have options for back up, for date nights etc. I spent years calling in favors, asking my mother and mother in law at the last minute to help and that is the worst. Passing on my labor to other women at the last minute uncompensated also seems to perpetuate a system I really don’t love and I would be highly annoyed if I was them. Also while this solves nothing if you are already in a heterosexual marriage, only marry someone super kind who lives out feminism in all their actions. I'll save this for a future blog post but really understand what forms of equality you need and expect upfront because even the most well intentioned people haven lots of baggage from patriarchy (men and women included)

Hire out housework unless you are someone who likes it for some crazy reason. Unless you have aspouse who wants to do this work pay someone to help you keep it together. Do you know what I don’t want to do after working a 70 hour spring week? Laundry… mopping… wiping little boy pee off the toilet and the entire area around the toilet…basically anything more than basic dishes and once a day sweeping. I also want my house to look nice and be free from clutter and messes because otherwise the work just stares at me.

Understand the mental effort in maintaining relationships and try to maintain healthy personal boundaries for self preservation. I am a bit of a multitasker. I actually don’t know why everyone cant hold 6 things in their mind at the same time and why anyone would not want to… but this is emotional labor. I also have spent a lot of time thinking about babies, meals, how my workershares and employees feel. I spent a lot of time trying to manage other peoples experiences and feelings because this is what I thought they needed. Do you know what will make you crazy, drained and miserable.. trying to keep everyone happy all the time. I am learning to walk away from work if the people or person I am working with is not kind to me instead of trying to argue that I deserve better treatment or trying to manage an employees reactions. I am rethinking future farm structure and considering doing things with people I love instead of things for people I love.

What we get from being good enough. Last week I walked away from work because I felt sick and went home and took a two hour nap at 10 in the morning (the 4th nap of my life). Then I went back to work, did only what I wanted (drank tea and planted in the greenhouse with my 6 year old) and went home and slept for 12 hours. And… I was better instead of sick for a week and a half. I have had incredibly deep conversations with my kids, been able to have energy to teach them how to clean up their own “around the toilet pee” rather than flipping out yelling and doing it myself. I play kickball without wishing I was alone somewhere else. I am planning on staying over at a friends house so she can watch my kids while I go to a fancy dinner so I can drink the paired beers and so I can not drive my kids home at 9pm and wake up drained and exhausted. I still feel a little guilty when I feed my kids cereal but that is fading away. I also don’t spend so much time judging others because I like myself and know all we can all hope for is to be good enough. I know it is a cheesy thing to say but I am not interested in having life as it should be but rather liking life as it is.

In forgiveness we are freed – understanding self love as an overachieving farmer type.

Getting ready for a cheesy one folks! Sorry I have been absent, to everyone who hangs on my every word (just kidding of course). Instead of talking about another spreadsheet I am talking here about self care because boy do I wish this was something I learned rather than rolled my eyes at a long time ago… and in the midst of hard weather and short harvest windows and storms literal and emotional it would have saved me a lot of tears.

So, letting go is not something that comes easily, naturally or pain free for me. It is something all farmers should learn to do. As a person and afarmer I am currently caught in a place where I am simultaneously learning to let go and accept and love life as it is, and to dream big and accomplish big goals like I always have. In this process I am learning the most important lessons of my life. It is sad to realize the richness in life I have missed, the ways in which I chose accomplishment over calm and happiness, and the fact that I literally forgot how to take care of myself because I believed that is not where human potential lay. To be fair self care is something most farmers are bad at. For years… and I mean like 10 years, I told myself that my farm work was my meditation, it was my art, it was my calm. And it was in so many ways. I actually cried happy tears (for the second time this month and the second time in my life) weeding in a hoophouse this week because I was able to embrace the level of love and thankfulness I have for what I get to do.  But a life where self care and quiet and calm is always equated with work just isn’t sustainable. Just because farming felt like a break from nursing and caring for children all night, did not make it a real form of recovery. Doing more is not recovery and self love, not for women like me at least.

I am simultaneously processing a decade of emotional trauma and falling in love and I have been challenged to re-envision happiness in profound ways. I am able to be the best, the hardest working, the most accomplished but I can choose not to. I can choose calm, and a bowl of popcorn and a nature documentary, and a walk in the woods where I can laugh at myself when I fall down. I can choose to weed half the hoophouse to do yoga and then continue… or even more radically for me I can choose to not meet my insane arbitrary speed goals and just do the yoga because I want to. Because I have time does not mean I need to do more. Sitting the in quiet of life is a skill not a failing. Making my bed, and washing my face and putting on lotion and making a big breakfast are parts of living a simple beautiful life, not a sign that I need to fill my minutes with more. As farmers, especially in the sustainable agriculture movement, we are often rewarded for doing it all. Being a model family farm from the labor arrangements, to the beautiful bodies and children, to the photographs of animals smiling – that is what people want, even our peers, because it is what we should look like. In a conversation with a farming friend he mentioned throwing a giant fit last year after losing another lamb and kicking and screaming and pounding his fists on the ground in tears… noting that no one talks about that. There are many parts of the beautiful farms people don’t talk about. Not just grown men crying alone in the barn, but the levels of work demanded from women who in our liberation can now do 80% of all work, not just house and childcare, and still be asked to do more. I’ll leave these topics for a future rambling.

So what does self care looking like. I was so unfamiliar with the idea and resistant to it I spent hours of the internet trying to figure out what it looks like to have love and compassion for ones self… that’s a little depressing but here is what I am coming to.

I meditate – every day for 5-20 minutes. I use an ap because I am not good enough at quieting my mind yet. And as an agnostic Jewish woman I listen to the prayer of saint fransis.. because it is beautiful.

I do yoga- every day for 5-45 minutes. I am working with my wonderful friend heather at 5 koshas yoga because I need to take care of this body of mine if I want to farm for 30 more years… and I do.

I look into my kids eyes a lot when I talk to them instead of at my phone. I let them engage in the very funniest depth of potty humor and let them get wild with laughter because it is beautiful. I do mad libs and tickle time and we all sleep in a bed together. I let us all eat junk food some times and a million marshmallows cooked over the fire. I allow myself to enjoy my children.

I call people I love when I am sad. I seriously bother them and ask for love and pep talks and cry openly a lot. I am way better now but my poor sister and several friends endured hours of this a day. I asked for help and love because I needed it. I should have asked a long long time ago.

I write letters to people I love or know who need letters or appreciation.

I sit in my pain. I am a doer. I am learning not to always be one because it allows me an escape in a bad way.  

I plan my future tiny house in insane detail from the porch swing to the wood stove. I plan my gardens and my vacations and the dreamy parts of the future.

I hike and hike and hike. I was afraid of the darkness and the woods at night until last summer when I somehow freed myself from that. I walk in the woods by myself or with a love or with my kids. I get wet and muddy and feel the world fully. I try my best to be Aldo Leopold instead of climbing Everest… enjoying the process and place instead of the goal.

I have 2 friend dates a week. I hope I can sustain this in the summer but friend-dates are freeing and fun and needed. At the least I am planning weekly potluck at my new farm/home and inviting lots of people I want to see. If I cant drive to the party at least I can have the party come to me.

I just kiss, like for hours. Three hours of kissing someone who just wants to look into my eyes is a form of self love even though it involves another person. While new relationships can just be an escape, they can also be fundamental in allowing one to ask for and receive the exact form of love they need. I fundamentally want kissing and judgement free beautiful laughter and someone who just loves me. And I am celebrating it a little bit.

And cheesiest and last of all I let myself feel all my emotions and appreciate and understand them all. There should be no guilt in joy, no needed escape from pain and sadness, and no disappointment in anger. The upside of this has been having new emotional experiences at 37 years old. Happy crying is incredible. Being emotionally vulnerable with friends, really honest and raw is freeing and supportive, and love can be so deep without fear.  

Debt in restarting the farm - a new vision

Starting the farm again understanding equity and debt

I promise to finish my planning series but first, because I was at USDA FSA and NRCS and thought I would write about restarting the farm from a financial standpoint. First let me say I always open about money. I feel like there is no shame in not making a lot of money and no shame in the type of success most small farmers might eventually have at best. We are not running oil companies or investment banks. We generally exploit our own labor not that of others so why not be honest about where we are.

To put things into simple terms last year we did really really well financially. If we had not bought a newer tractor, reroofed a barn, put in a parking lot and paid down a lot of farm debt (accelerating our land contract payments), and bought all of this year’s supplies we would have had a net income of way over $100,000. We were able to pay folks well, the farm has never looked or produced better. Unfortunately, even in success we were unable to actually take care of ourselves emotionally and physically which was a poor choice we have always made.

In restarting the farm I am drastically rethinking just about everything from my work week hours, to my relationship to future partners (business and life), to what kind of parent, friend, daughter, sister and person I want to be. I have always been debt adverse to a fault (I now realize). Paying cash year after year for giant capital expenditures, borrowing money for several years from family (which in debts you in other ways too), and paying off the farm at record speed.  I have taken these all off the table.

Since I am now focused on life and happiness first (and let me say I am a grounded practical person who is almost embarrassed to write the word happiness) my ideas about debt are very different. I would rather spend 10 more years paying off my perfect farm, spending 20% of my income on fun adventures and nice new carhartts, taking vacations, working 40-50 hours a week max, and having time to enjoy my children, friends and days than pay off the farm fast, pay cash for investments, increase equity at record speed and cry for 7 months as my life collapses. Sounds obvious but many farmers like me also LOVE farm work, are workaholics, find our meaning and direction from farming and can get lost in the work happily as life in a deeper sense passes us by. Our lines for what is reasonable change as we get deeper into farming. And if others are like me at all, there actually is a payoff financially and in terms of a farms care and beauty, that comes with abandoning everything else – terrible but beautiful at the same time.

I had a conversation with a fellow farmer the other day and he said – you know hopefully you will still work really fast and efficiently and hard but then you will take off all the time you saved by being that way. That is exactly what I want. I will never be a slow worker or able to control my love of getting hard work done fast, but boy should I enjoy the time I gain from working like that – right?

I should say that my business plan, not yet official or finished, will involve at least 150,000 of debt and probably almost double that if I purchase all the land my mother owns. I need a house which is a little spendy even if I use a pre-exsisting farm building (because I cant actually live with my mother and three children together forever). I want a simple packshed but one with a few bells and whistles. I want solar power and a new well that can actually run irrigation and retain pressure in the kitchen sink, and I am putting in the exact greenhouse and hoophouses I want – upfront and paying someone to do the work (or at least some of it). When I say want I also mean need – need in a broader sense because while I can scrap and scrape by I shouldn’t have to and I am worth more to myself and others than that.

So, what is the plan… first, I am in a unique position financially for a starting farm. That is why I am restarting. First and foremost I have a huge amount of equity which will be paid out to me over the following 5 years – 150,000 to be exact. It will cover all my infrastructural investments or get close. I also own 40,000 of nice farm equipment that works perfectly in my soil type (because my new soil is the same as the old), and legal access to another 40,000 of equipment from the home farm and even more because we share things with our neighbors. I have use of infrastructure and land at my old farm for now and into the future for the greenhouse and cooler. I have almost every farm supply I need and all of my inputs covered for my first season (this year). I also have 12 years of farm experience, I have expanding wholesale (restaurant and small grocery) markets that grossed 50,000 last year and I expect to almost double. I am also planning a CSA for next year (3 seasons – 50 members) which I know I can fill and should be one of the best CSAs in the country. I also have a deep understanding of market potential, production, the economics of farming and just about everything I need to do. I am expecting to use a combination of both long term 30-40 year financing for the house, well, packshed, and renewable energy and shorter term operating loans of 5-7 years for hoophouses and basic supplies. I also plan to pay it out slowly and will be visiting Yellowstone national Park next winter, vacationing at a lake for a week midsummer for the rest of my life with my kids, and going to the Andes to hike. Life is life and while I used to see debt as a shackle at this point it is a form of liberation.

My business plan is on the horizon.. and I will share it here and USDA FSA is waiting in the wings to help.   

Back to the basics: bread baking 101 (the human side of bread) - Elisabeth Becker

Back to the basics: bread baking 101

In Morocco, Bread can only be ripped, not cut with a knife: the act is considered too violent for the sacred food. While we may not hold ourselves to this standard of care when it comes to bread, we consider it a staple food, one that accompanies us and our families through our daily lives. The appreciation of bread is not unique to Morocco, however. When I lived in Berlin, bread-buying was a daily act of indulgence, a selective process of tasting and comparing freshly-baked breads. Unlike the thick white leavened bread that characterizes North African cuisine, Germans prefer their bread dark and heavy, whole-grain. It is typical to witness children exiting Parisian bakeries with fresh baguettes that they slowly devour on their walks home. And as the child of a man with southern roots, I know the centrality of hot cornbread complete with slabs of butter.

Bread is a basic whose soul we have somehow lost.

Bread in our supermarkets has lost a lot of its luster. It has become an accompaniment that carries other foods—a soup, a salad—rather than a celebration of life. Of course, prebaked and pre-sliced breads are anything but inspiring. The answer to this mediocrity is not to abandon bread, but to return to freshly baking bread at home. The task sounds daunting. I, myself, adorer of bread, avoided it until just this year. But then I found the surprising simplicity, joy and celebration of life accomplished in the baking of bread. We are mistaken in thinking that bread-baking takes a lot of time. It doesn’t. It takes some preparation and timing, in order to allow dough to rise, but many breads can be prepared in under 10 minutes of hands-on time; and many without kneading at all.

What you need? 1) A pizza stone. This maintains even heat throughout your oven and also provided the surface for baking most loaves or rounds of bread. 2) A pizza peel. This allows you to move your uncooked, shaped loaves onto the stone without ruining their shape (or burning yourself). These can be bought online or at local stones, often in combination. 3) Ingredients: the basics are yeast, flour, water. Of course, you can combine various flours and other grains. If you are my sister, Kat, you can harvest and grind your own wheat. If not, you can, like me, still make delicious bread. 

This is one of my favorite beginner bread recipes, from the New York Times. I guarantee that you, like I, will succeed in beautiful pita breads on your very first try.

INGREDIENTS

·         2 teaspoons active dry yeast

·         ½ teaspoon sugar

·         35 grams whole-wheat flour (1/4 cup), preferably freshly milled

·         310 grams unbleached all-purposed flour (2 1/2 cups)

·         1 teaspoon kosher salt

·         2 tablespoons olive oil

PREPARATION

 

1.      Make sponge: Put 1 cup lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add the whole-wheat flour and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and whisk together. Put bowl in a warm (not hot) place, uncovered, until mixture is frothy and bubbling, about 15 minutes.

2.      Add salt, olive oil and nearly all remaining all-purpose flour (reserve 1/2 cup). With a wooden spoon or a pair of chopsticks, stir until mixture forms a shaggy mass. Dust with a little reserved flour, then knead in bowl for 1 minute, incorporating any stray bits of dry dough.

3.      Turn dough onto work surface. Knead lightly for 2 minutes, until smooth. Cover and let rest 10 minutes, then knead again for 2 minutes. Try not to add too much reserved flour; the dough should be soft and a bit moist. (At this point, dough may refrigerated in a large zippered plastic bag for several hours or overnight. Bring dough back to room temperature, knead into a ball and proceed with recipe.)

4.      Clean the mixing bowl and put dough back in it. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, then cover with a towel. Put bowl in a warm (not hot) place. Leave until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

5.      Heat oven to 475 degrees. On bottom shelf of oven, place a heavy-duty baking sheet, large cast-iron pan or ceramic baking tile. Punch down dough and divide into 8 pieces of equal size. Form each piece into a little ball. Place dough balls on work surface, cover with a damp towel and leave for 10 minutes.

6.      Remove 1 ball (keeping others covered) and press into a flat diskc with rolling pin. Roll to a 6-inch circle, then to an 8-inch diameter, about 1/8 inch thick, dusting with flour if necessary. (The dough will shrink a bit while baking.)

7.      Carefully lift the dough circle and place quickly on hot baking sheet. After 2 minutes the dough should be nicely puffed. Turn over with tongs or spatula and bake 1 minute more. The pita should be pale, with only a few brown speckles. Transfer warm pita to a napkin-lined basket and cover so bread stays soft. Repeat with the rest of the dough balls.