A Path to Farm Community
The Cornell Small Farms Program’s “Reconnecting with Purpose – A Renewal Experience for NY Farm and Food System Educators and Change Makers” fosters a welcoming and trustworthy space for participants to explore challenges, to “live their questions,” and to uncover a sense of clarity and direction in their work and lives.
“One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery” – Parker Palmer
There are so many articles and videos emerging right now bringing attention to how taxing the work of farming in these times can be to farmers’ minds, bodies and spirits. We know that the challenges are not just in the hard physical work, the constant adaptation to extreme erratic weather, the breadth and depth of skills required, and the often elusive profit margin. We know that farmers, like all of us, need time and strength to focus on tension in relationships, wellness and health, healing from trauma and a sense of belonging, connection and community.
Those who are helpers and supporters of farmers (sometimes called service providers) are seeking ways to alleviate the isolation and distress farmers face. Some are designing mental health curriculum and offering trainings. Others are producing videos and resources. And yet these service providers who are incorporating farmer mental health programs have their own challenges to contend with: an endless to-do list, a treadmill of email correspondence to stay ahead of, funding shortages, required trainings, organizational upheaval, and staff turn-over among others.
So what can we do when it seems neither farmers nor supporters can add one more ‘thing’ onto their plates, yet nearly everyone is stressed out, disconnected, fatigued or depressed?
That is where our program “Reconnecting with Purpose: Renewal for Agricultural Educators and Changemakers” seeks to help. In this
program, our participants – a mix of educators, change-makers, land stewards, farmers and activists in the farm and food system – convene in a retreat space where we begin by settling into a long, slow, luxurious stillness. Once centered and grounded, we as facilitators begin by inviting the group into a carefully curated journey of themes and reflections. For some, this means naming barriers and burdens, and letting go of them or finding ways around them. For others, it means rediscovering and reclaiming birth gifts and strengths that are life-giving. For everyone, it means leaning in to our inherent human capacity to deeply listen, receive and support one another.
As facilitators, we are not experts of wellbeing nor do we have academic degrees in mental health related fields. We are genuinely caring and committed to creating a safe and trustworthy container for our participants to uncover and speak their truths. We both lead and follow, share and listen alongside our peers and colleagues. We are grateful to draw from a set of practices and principles put forward by the Center for Courage & Renewal to guide our ways of being together in the program. These Touchstones come from multiple wisdom traditions and have served thousands of communities around the world over the past 30 years. As facilitators, we practice them not just in “Reconnecting with Purpose” but in many aspects of our work and lives.
Two of these practices are: offering attentive, open-hearted listening and asking open, honest questions. During the program, these practices are very simply the only ways we relate to one another in small groups. Too often when we confide a quandary or challenge we are facing to a friend or colleague, they fire back advice or their own solutions. When we are received with attention and questions in service of helping us hear ourselves – our inner teacher – it opens exploration. It can be surprising – even startling – to realize how simple it is to invite the voice of truth and clarity from our inner depths. The more practiced we become inviting and listening to our inner teacher the more we become empowered by the reservoir of gifts, strengths, energy, courage – stirring and awakening – within us.
At the end of our 5 month journey together, we have uncovered a lot. Our respective learning, realization and discovery is unique to each of us. Some quit their jobs or take a break from farming to pursue a vocation that is more aligned with their needs or passions. Others return with a renewed sense of what is alive and meaningful and how they want to create change. In our closing circle, participants usually express that the greatest gift of the program is the sense of love, care and connection they felt in community. While meaningful and lasting friendships do form, eventually as time goes by and our lives evolve, our group begins to lose touch. But the ways of being together – the ways of stepping into luxurious stillness, receiving others with open-hearted listening and asking open questions, inviting and learning from our inner teachers – those ways create love, care and connection toward ourselves and others where ever our paths take us.