Hi Folks, Max here. It's great to be sitting down to write again, it's been a while since I felt like I have time for this. The girls are napping on this warm summer Saturday afternoon, and Declan for the moment is keeping himself entertained to give me a moment for writing.
The last several months have been packed with farming, and they certainly have not been without their challenges. I was struck recently with the thought that in our enthusiasm to start this blog, we have focused mostly on the glamour, and haven't talked much about the challenges. I am a very positive-thinking type of person, and I certainly don't like giving off a negative vibe, and I think that was one of the factors that we haven't mentioned the hard times up to this point. But I has some thoughts recently that I want to share with you which lead me to open up a little bit about the challenges as well the fun stuff.
1. First of all, challenges don't have to be negative. It's all about how you choose to see them. This is something our good friend and wisdom-guru Brian Johnson has helped us to see in the last 6 months. Brian makes his living by publishing amazing material that helps people live the best version of themselves, and his advice is stunningly helpful. Two of his insights in particular have been life changing for us: "win or learn" and "anti-fragile" or "the obstacle is the way."
Basically, Brian doesn't ever lose in life, and we don't have to either. He wins or he learns. What many people see as a "loss" Brian sees as valuable data. When things take a turn for the worse, we can take that experience and learn from it for the better. That's how I want to see life! I'm not gonna be a loser!
"Anti-Fragile" means that we aren't just tough, we go one step further. We take obstacles and challenges, and actually turn them into opportunities! When something doesn't go our way, we don't despair. We find a way to take that unexpected circumstance into an opportunity to make us a better person. If approach set-backs with that mentality, something which we thought was an obstacle can turn out to be the means by which we grow closer to our goal.
2. Second, I am a regular listener to Diego Footer's great podcast "Permaculture Voices." Over the last several years, Diego has complied an incredible amount of information in his shows for aspiring and practicing eco-farmers. Two things I appreciate about his show are the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes the need for permaculture-based farms to run themselves as businesses, and he also has no fear talking to farmers about the hard sides of farming, whether that be grueling work, hard start-ups, crop failures, family struggles etc... A regular listener of Diego's show certainly knows that farming is not all romance, and that is really the truth.
So, both those thoughts gave me the desire to share both the challenges and the good times, because we won't be painting an accurate picture of "First Steps Farm Life" if we didn't. We wouldn't want readers of this blog to think that starting this farm is easy. We want people to know it is entirely possible, and we want to encourage others to do it too, but you better know what you are getting into first. Diego does a great job at that. I think we all know, or at least have heard of somebody who started to farm, and couldn't make it work, and gave up. I want to minimize those stories, and having the full picture of farming before starting your own farm can really help.
There are lots of challenges we could talk about, but the one I want to talk about now is fairly unique to our situation. I know that by writing this down, it will help clarify it in my own mind, and help me find ways to turn it to our benefit. In one word, that challenge is "commute."
Let me explain. We don't live on our farm, we live in a two-bedroom, 540 square ft duplex, in the middle of our town. We live on a residential street, with neighbors on all sides, and every day we drive 2.3 miles down the road, to a rural property outside town where we rent 1 acre for the farm. It takes about 5 minutes one way. Not a big deal, right? Well, it has a few consequences that present a challenge to our farm life.
1. First all, we don't get to live on our farm. Emotionally, this may be the most difficult and disappointing for us. Both Deirdre and I have this insatiable craving in our souls for rural living. We want to fully live the farm experience, day and night. We wanted to raise our children on the farm as a way of life, and have that be their home environment. Our home is of such immense importance to us, and we value so much making our home a beautiful, enriching place to live. We want to be able to throw that love and energy into our farm, but when home and farm are two different localities, we find ourselves torn.
Do we spend our precious time, money and energy into building a front-yard garden that will enhance our home, or do we invest those resources into productive beds on the farm, that will return a greater profit to make us financially stable? If home and farm were in the same place, this would not be an issue. Are farm would BE our front yard garden, and we would have the double incentive of knowing that we are making a profit, and beautifying our living environment at the same time!
2. Moving beyond the emotional pull, there are some very practical ramifications too. One is that we have to pay rent for our farm land, AND we have to rent an expensive urban home at the same time. That's a lot of money. We would be willing to live in a trailer on our property to save money while we get started, and that would have saved us tens of thousands over the first 3 years. Too bad it isn't legal, and our landlords like to stick by the rules! We are left with the bill.
A few months after starting the farm, we quickly realized that our 1 car was not enough. We had to buy a 2nd car, because while I commute 2 miles away to go farm, Deirdre needed to be able to get around too, including to go teach her Irish dance class once a week. We tried to do without for the first few months, but after wasting tons of gas and productive time dropping each other off, and picking each other up, and biking with a load uphill in the dark at the end of a hard day on the farm, we had to get the 2nd car. We found a great used van for $2600, but man, we didn't exactly have that lying around to spare! Now we have the cost of registering and maintaining both vehicles.
3. Another expense, whether we bought the 2nd car or not, is the commute itself. We usually end up driving back and forth 2-4 times round trip per day. That's 10-20 miles and 20-40 minutes per day, burning gas, and using our own productive time just to get there and back. Sometimes the trip out at the end of the day is just 5 minutes to turn the the swamp cooler off in the greenhouse, or switch a new line of sprinklers on. But that 5 minute chore turns into a 15 minute chore when you don't live on site!
4. That brings us to #4, which is that sometimes we just don't go out and do that 15 minute chore. At the end of an exhausting day, with cranky kids at 9:00 pm, getting in the truck and driving out to check the greenhouse does not sound like fun. There have been plenty of days that we decided to just leave things the way they were, and then we come out the next day to to wilted plants that badly needed a shower the night before.
5. #5 is kids. If Deirdre and I were just a couple, this aspect of farming would not be nearly such a challenge. It's not too hard to jump in the truck and drive out to the farm with another adult. But once you make a decision that you want to this as a family, and you want your kids to grow up around the farm, then logistics get more complicated. The hat, water bottle and sandwich I would have grabbed for myself turns into baby carriers, stroller, diaper bag, 4 water bottles, snacks, books, baby dolls, and the kitchen sink. A 5-minute prep becomes a 30-minute packing routine. By the time you make it out to the car and get it loaded up, somebody has to go to the bathroom, or is crying because the car-seat buckle is too hot. The bottom line is that it takes a LOT more time to get out there with the family!
6. You can't have two sets of everything. With all the constant hauling stuff back and forth between home and farm, something often gets left behind in the wrong place. I use my tools at home and at the farm, and all too often, I forget that I left that wrench behind, and need to hop in the car to go get it.
That gives you an idea of what "commute" means in our context. Most commuters probably don't load their family into the car and take them to the office each morning. I admit, this challenge is definitely a unique set of circumstances!
On the flip side, here are some positives, and also ways we deal with it.
1. We came to this farming dream without any home or land to our name. By being flexible and willing to consider the commute, we were able to get started without owning anything.
2. If we lose our ag lease, at least we don't lose our home!
3. We get the advantages of living in the city, like parks, easy shopping and community, and have a private rural spot outside of town!
4. We live only 2 blocks away from our downtown weekly farmers market. Being able to run the kids home mid-morning for a snack and bathroom break is a huge advantage over growers that have to drive to get there.
5. Sometimes getting away from the house and kids lets me focus on farm work without family distractions.
There are several ways to cope with this handicap and make it more workable.
1. Most importantly, better planning ahead of time. Know what you need, pack it up first. Plan what needs to be done, and get it done all at once, so you don't need to drive out again later because you forgot.
2. We bought a timer for our sprinklers which we can set to turn on and off at a certain time. We still need to open up the right lines manually, but at least we don't need to drive out to turn them on AND off every time.
3. Some days I just bring my lunch out with me, and don't come home until the end of the day. That is hard, because I miss my family, and one of the main reasons I am farming is to spend more time with them. But some days, it just has to happen, and it helps cut down on gas and time, and lets me focus with no distractions.
4. For the future, there are more things we could automate and get hooked up to timers. That is a goal for the future.
So, that's our commute! Finally, we know that if we can succesfully handle the management challenge of a farm-at-distance, we will be all the more equipped to set up a productive, profitable hometsead farm in the future. Remembering that we are building a skill-set now that will stay with us wherever we go is the encouragement that keeps us going when the going gets tough.
One final note: although this is a challenge, it is a necessary one for us if we wanted to start farming in our current situation. I would not want others to be scared away by this challenge, and if a distant farm is the only way for you to start farming, then go for it! Take this advice to know ahead of time what you will be dealing with, and take these as suggestions for ways to make it doable.
That's all for now folks. Until next time...
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!