Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: What it Takes To Be a Farmer

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

The dilemma I see in the alternative agriculture movement is that most of the young people who grow up on farms and therefore have common sense to operate machinery and handle animals are not open to new ideas; the city youngsters that are open to new ideas do not have the common sense to operate a farm. –Joel Salatin

Something happens to city people when they grow their own food.  They eat better, that’s number one. Number two is that they feel a wild sense of pride and accomplishment.  They have done something that very few people in our society do anymore.  Consequently, they begin to feel very good about themselves.  They meet other people who grow their own food and feel an immediate connection to them.  They begin to feel as if they belong to an elite club, or have access to some secret knowledge.  And in a way, they do.  Growing food, for how mundane, how historically common, how necessary it is, might as well be rocket science to much of the American population.

But farming, actually farming for a living, is much more than growing food.  Working in extreme conditions, building barns, fixing irrigation, closing business deals, operating machinery–the list of non-growing-related skills farmers use every day ranges from calculus to construction.  This was good news for me at my one month mark at Ryder Farm, because I knew nothing about plants or how to grow them.  The bad news was that I didn’t know about any of that other stuff, either.

By late May, I was finding my learning gap at Ryder Farm was more like a cavernous abyss.  I didn’t grow up learning, let alone utilizing, any of the skills farmers need.  With no knowledge of plants, no experience with machinery, no affinity for fixing or building or physical anything, and a physique that screamed academic, I was probably exactly what Salatin had in mind in You Can Farm: a “city kid” with “no common sense.”  Maybe I had one thing going for me: I liked being outside.  …But I was still afraid of spiders.

Travis, on the other hand, was developing an obvious knack for the work.  Every day, he would fix things around the farm, create new systems for Betsey, and was easily becoming a leader among the other interns.  During our first few weeks I noticed it here and there, but Travis’ early farming talent really hit me the day he first drove Betsey’s old tractor.

Betsey’s pride and joy at Ryder Farm are her tomatoes. Over a dozen varieties of heirlooms and hybrids with romantic names like Brandywine and Sungold Cherry, Betsey’s tomatoes afford her farm local celebrity status around Brewster.  The tomato transplants had been growing in the greenhouse since April, and at the end of May they were ready to come out of the greenhouse to await planting in the field.  At 2pm on a Friday, Betsey, Chris, Travis, and I had formed an assembly line, passing flats of tomato plants out of the greenhouse and onto a cart attached to the back of Betsey’s tractor.  We filled the cart with 15 flats, jumped on the back, and Betsey drove us and the tomatoes about 100 yards away to a tarp she had laid out for the tomatoes to harden off.  In a similar assembly-line fashion, we unloaded the flats and were about to jump on the tractor to ride back to the greenhouse for another round, when Betsey got a call on her cell phone.  She had to go to work.

Wanting this job finished today, Betsey looked at Travis and said, “Do you want to try the tractor?” Travis nonchalantly nodded and moved toward the tractor seat.  The tractor was a stick shift, and the controls were unwieldy, but Travis listened to Betsey’s quick and vague directions and looked, in my mind, unreasonably confident as Betsey turned away and left.  Travis laughed and said, “Well here goes nothing!”  He tried to start the tractor.  It revved, then died.  Silence.  He looked back at me.  He tried to start it again.  It died.  He tried a third time, and voila, we were moving.  I got out of the back cart and walked beside the tractor, making sure Travis didn’t run into anything as he maneuvered the trees on the way back to Betsey’s front greenhouse.  The tractor died twice on the way.  When he stopped at the front of the greenhouse, he nearly flung the other interns off the back cart and into the front seat with him.  Still, he had done it.  We continued four or five more trips, loading and unloading tomato plants, and by the end of the afternoon, Travis was handling the tractor like he’d been doing it for years.

I felt pride swell inside me, followed by a pang of jealousy.  Where did Travis learn how to drive a tractor?  How did he get so good at it so quickly?  Whereas I, accustomed to careful deliberation before any action, would have been paralyzingly afraid that I would break something.  Or kill someone.  Or something.  So what was with Travis’ confidence to just hop on and go for it? Did he know something I didn’t?

But Travis’ apparent natural ability to drive a tractor wasn’t due to a higher aptitude for handling machinery. More than anything else, it was his attitude, his lack of inhibition, his willingness to figure things out as he went along.  He had been doing that all month–volunteering for jobs just so he could have the experience.  He never let his lack of formal knowledge become an obstacle.  He just did it, and if it wasn’t right, he would do it again.  As time goes on and we have grown together as farmers, I think this willingness to learn by doing is one of Travis’ most valuable assets.

For city kids who want to farm, working on a farm and doing as much farm work as you can is the best way to get into the business.  The idea of learning a trade has fallen out of favor in our society, but learning by doing is still the best way to learn how to farm.  Memorizing harvesting motions, makeshifting fences, fixing irrigation equipment–none of that can really be taught, it can only be done. The times I have learned the most about farming have been when I was thrown into a situation and forced to sink or swim.  Did I do the most professional and productive job the first time?  No.  Was it incredibly stressful and against my nature?  Yes.   But the next time I did it, I knew what to do.

So what does it take to farm for a living? Is it physical strength? A green thumb? A background in construction? Knowing all the plants in the Solanaceae family?  No, all of those things come with time. In my opinion, all city kids who want to go into farming need is the drive to stick with it, even when you don’t really want to. Even when it’s been raining for 28 days straight and the mud is pulling your rain boots right off your feet as you try to harvest carrots. Even when it’s 105 degrees and you have to pull up drip tape so you can prepare a bed. Even when you have no idea how drip irrigation works, but someone asks you to fix a line. Farming is such an independent enterprise, you have to be prepared to learn what you can from the scraps you’re given, and have the self-initiative to figure out the rest on your own.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa. View last week’s post.

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3 Responses to “Why We Farm: What it Takes To Be a Farmer”

  1. Neysa,
    Great article. I think it’s interesting the relationship between what our society has deemed “intelligent work ” and practical knowledge. The BODY knowledge needed to fully integrate body and mind into problem solving a real hands on situation, like you describe Travis so easily doing.
    Our culture has rewarded mental , mind, thinking over this practical knowledge.Yet, as I’ve found working from architects plans on a site there is a lot that has to be inserted into that mental two dimensional concept to get it to actually work in location.
    I think as we’ve grown more familiar with some eastern concepts, yoga, meditation, etc. we are beginning to see how body and mind and the integration is so important. That and intuition is what I think is the unspoken information, so vitally important.I recently read that Tibetans regard the mind as being located in the heart. It’s a different way to “Think”.
    At this point after gardening for thirty years I can feel it in my body, sometimes smelling what’s currently blooming, and wake up at night dreaming about what needs to be done now, currently. It’s no longer a mental activity but a body awareness. Fruit trees pruned and sprayed is what is calling out to me these days. This is the time here in Calif.
    But you are so right that positive, no hold back attitude , willing to try anything is also a way to get past that MIND wanting to think about it first.
    Katie

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Farm Aid. Farm Aid said: RT @HOMEGROWNdotORG: Why We Farm:What It Takes To Be A Farmer "the self-initiative to figure out the rest on your own" http://bit.ly/geKNrr […]

  3. […] For updates on her farm, visit http://www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa. View last week’s post. A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of […]

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