Greasing the Farm Wheels: Tips From a Former First-Year Farmer
The day-to-days of farm life are decorated with strings of lessons, just waiting to be pulled to see the mystery that lies on the other end.
To me, farming is about leaving the security of the 9-5 structure, the comfort of specialized tasks, completed over and over again, to push limits, to put to use all information ever learned in order to try and understand the best way to work with the land. New challenges arise daily, presenting opportunities to craftily figure out a way to overcome, a renewal of the life of ancestors where work and gratification went hand-in-hand.
I didn’t grow up on a farm. I grew up in an old General Motors manufacturing city in Michigan. I was the kid who changed what they wanted to be every other week, which was consistent through grad school completion. An internship in Northeastern Pennsylvania drastically altered my worldview and kept me at that same farm for another season, then, running my own operation through a land-lease in the same county this past year.
It was incredible; the freedom that it presented for expression through work while learning from many fields of thought, which enabled a deeper relationship with the land and people. It was a moment-to-moment journey requiring self-application, pulling from where I’d been in order to move forward. The result: beautiful vegetables to share with new and old friends and a wheelbarrow full of lessons to help guide in the future.
My business background prior to farming kept me open minded to comparing the suit-and-heel structures with the overalls-and-barefoot ones. This brought to mind the similarity of a corporation’s needs with those of a small farm, with corporate back-of-the-house operations placing emphasis on having the right thing, at the right time, and at the right place. This mantra, along with continual improvement and flexibility leads the way to ensuring supply meets demand. The processes in their operations can be applied and put to good use on a small scale, where seeds, soil, and labor all need to connect.
A procedure that I uphold highly is that of regular review. It ensures that self-reflection occurs on a regular basis. Keeping up with the fast pace of nature in the spring and summer months can set-in place a forward thinking mindset where the time isn’t taken to truly learn from past decisions. Having scheduled review, at least once a year, can keep a truthful and holistic understanding of the operation’s current state. An exercise to help includes writing out on paper where you are, including the strengths and weaknesses of the different functions of your operation. This can lead into where you want to improve, broken down in different areas, and simple improvement steps that can be taken each day.
Farm life is laced with fast decision-making: whether to plant before the rain since it’s forecasted to continue for the next week, to transplant a week later or to follow the biodynamic calendar, or even how you will start your seedlings. All of these questions need to be answered by you, working in an overarching direction towards your goal. It helps to have what you’re working towards viewable every day. Fortune 500 companies do this by displaying their mission statement and objectives. There is power in being reminded every day the reasons behind what you are doing. That top of mind awareness can ease the stress of quick adjustments in routines, staying firm in the roots of the farm.
Then there’s the matter of balance. Long nights and early mornings in the late spring and summer, plus a continually refreshing list of to-do’s that, even if you never took a break to sleep, would still multiply, create a combination of juggling and tight rope walking that would make even a senior acrobat do a double-take. This challenge, recognized by a wise woman who was raised in the lifestyle, advised me, “break or be broken”. It’s so important to take care of your body, to do what you can and then step away, and to ask for help when needed. Your body is your tool, the best one that can be applied to the fields, which requires physical, mental, and emotional health. Working the land offers renewal of all three of these states in return.
After the season and some cold winter nights to review, I’ve picked out some advice I’d like to offer for those just getting involved, a few tools to ease stress plus general tips.
Some Toolbox Essentials
The Wave accounting app is great. Their basic free service makes it easy to track the money coming in and leaving your operation. You can create invoices from a standard template and send professional looking receipts through email.
Johnny’s seed starting date calendar, available on their website in the Interactive Tools section, gives you a customizable spreadsheet. You can put your last frost date in and it automatically calculates when you should start different seedlings.
Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique, it’s a way, through deep breathing, to calm your nervous system. Say it’s pouring and you didn’t get the carrots directed seeded, 4-7-8, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.
Some Farming Tips….
It really helps if you make it as easy as possible to stay organized. This might mean creating a system to separate papers as you pile them up in the “to-be-dealt-with-later” section.
Energy output is also required for hiring help. It’s one of the hats to be worn that needs your attention.
Slow growth. Slow growth. Slow growth. I’ve heard this from so many farmers and only now am starting to get it. You’re working towards your goals a little bit everyday.
Through reading this, I hope you were able to grab some information that will help spring your operation forward. This season I’m actually taking a step back. I realized that the farmers that I look up to, the Jerry Brunetti’s and the Arden Anderson’s, have steadily learned and grown over time. That slow continuous growth presents a pace that is sustainable to achieve life goals, it doesn’t all have to happen over night. I’m taking what I learned and applying it on a smaller scale to connect with the soil, the plants, and the people in my community.
Nice article Alicia. I have a masters in information management and a bachelors in civil engineering. After working for six years in technology consulting in Manhattan, I quit my day job to start farming. This is my first season where I am managing a small 10000 square feet mini farm by myself. It is a lot of work and the forces of nature continually test me. I am not yet earning money from the farm (would be good if I did) but I am earning to understand my limitations and to take it slow. I do get tired easily though.
Thanks Krati. I’m echoing the congratulations expressed by Claire from Cornell’s Small Farm Program. That’s an incredible leap you’ve taken in starting a new journey working with the land and nature. It can be the most incredible, trying, vulnerable, and wonderful mix of experiences. I would love to visit for the day sometime. You can reach me at Aander49@gmail.com.