Maybe there's something in the air (or soil or water). Maybe it's the growing (no pun intended) interest in farming around the country. Maybe... it's just time. How else do you explain not one, but three Ethicurean contributors heading off into a new field?
Unlike Stephanie and Steph, though, I'm not going to be living and breathing the farm 24/7 this year: I'm just a humble "apprentice," heading away from my town life a few times a week to work at a friend's organic produce farm the next county over. It's a first step, one I've wanted to take for a couple of years but only recently found the courage and motivation to do so.
I grew up here in northeastern Ohio, in a suburban neighborhood west of Cleveland, always just a few miles down the road from the classic amber waves of grain. Barns, silos, pastures, animals, and tractors dotted the landscapes I traveled around the county with my parents. Neither set of my grandparents owned or ran farms, though the generation before them did, so farming is not my birthright. But we've never lived too far from the farm mentality: my parents grew up with extensive home gardens and the occasional chicken, and they carried that practice of growing their own food into their own homemaking, teaching me at an early age how to plant and weed and harvest.
My lifelong love for local foods led me in recent years to visit the local farmers market, and after my initial hesitation, I started talking to the farmers I saw and supported week after week. At first, my questions to the farmers had to do with my own eating, but eventually I started turning to them for advice on growing or ideas for future crops of my own. Each new bit of information opened a little window onto the farming life, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to farm along with them.
Farming couldn't possibly be a valid career move, though, right? Who in their right mind would choose to work at such a physically exhausting job, subject to the caprices of weather, and get so little monetary return for it? I honestly didn't think I could afford to farm, but I continued to talk with the farmers, and talk gradually turned to occasional offers to help (especially to help out my CSA farmer).
By the time 2009 was well under way, I had found myself not only joining the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) to learn more and to connect with more local farmers, but I also became deeply involved with the establishment of a year-round farmers market (Local Roots), which I've written about here –- and through Local Roots, had found more room (at a new friend's homestead) in which to grow dream crops such as buckwheat.
I had enough sense to recognize that farming the way I wanted to farm would involve a great deal of physical labor –- something that nearly 20 years at a computer did not prepare me for -- long hours, and frustration with the weather and with pests. I had a vision of a diverse collection of crops growing lushly to feed me and my friends, with enough left over to sell for income, but I had no illusion (from my own gardening experience) about how much work would be required to turn that vision into reality.
Still, I couldn't shake the growing dream. Yes, it would mean a lot of work. Yes, it would leave me exhausted at the end of the day, probably without much energy to preserve the harvest. Yes, it would mean making a lot less money.
But I wanted it –- I wanted to be a farmer.
By the time I turned 40 last summer, I knew I had to find a way to get out of the office and into –- literally -– a new field. I looked into the apprenticeships offered by OEFFA, but most offered very little for salary and were located far away. A friend suggested to me that instead of taking the formal apprentice route, I become an independent contractor with my own business, combining freelance writing and editing as well as baking for the market with the farming and ensuring a better balance of income. I had dismissed the possibility of self-employment many times before because it just didn't seem right for me. This time, it clicked.
I wanted to work with a farmer in the immediate area, and I had narrowed my initial options to three farmers I knew to varying degrees. One had a handful of children plus in-laws who helped on the farm, and she wasn't sure that she would have enough for me to do or would be able to pay me regularly. One was enthusiastic but couldn't pay me at all. And one –- Dave -– not only said he needed an apprentice for the following year, he was ready almost immediately to hire me, and he offered me a reasonable wage as well as the flexibility to tackle my other work.
I had come to know Dave through meetings of the local OEFFA chapter, where he was clearly respected as a leader, and as we worked together to help start Local Roots, I found myself sharing that respect for his abilities. So when it looked like I'd have the opportunity to work with Dave, I knew everything would work out fine.
I spent four months setting up my business, lining up work, and cleaning up projects at my old job –- and at the start of this year, I resigned from the library and looked forward to starting out on a new path in life. Over the past three months, I haven't exactly raked in the money, nor has my back been particularly happy with all the hard work. But I can safely say that even with all the "weeds" in this new field, I'm happier than I thought possible. I'm spending time outside, listening to birdsong while I work and soaking up an early tan, and though I ache at the end of the day, I'm learning better techniques for my own gardens, and I feel as though I've accomplished something important.
And it's only the beginning.
All photos, save for the big farm landscape, come from this spring's work at the farm. Regular farm updates and musings can be found at my new blog, Farming the Back (of) Forty.