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.