Max here... The new year is a time naturally conducive to making changes in one’s life. 2019 is going to be a year our family will look back on as one of the biggest years of change, although the seeds were planted over a year ago in 2017.
This post is our official announcement that the Becher family and First Steps Farm is packing up, and moving to Northern New England. Specifically, Maine.
There is hardly a person we have talked to that is not shocked, and often somewhat confused by our decision to move to the opposite corner of the union. I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to explain this in conversation, that I decided to write it down. Naturally, upon hearing the news, people want to know why, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes I wish I knew why myself in a more demonstrable way, and was better at conveying our deep-seated, fully confident intuition in terms that someone else can actually understand. Hopefully this post will shed some light on what seems like a rash adventure at best, and irresponsible folly at worst.
The first thing I feel compelled to say is that I have been in this place before. I don’t mean Maine, or any physical place, but rather the place of having to explain something about my life choices that most people have a hard time understanding, and even see as foolish. My entire college term of 5 years, I constantly had to answer the question “You study what??” “I’m pursuing a Masters in Theology at an international Catholic institute.” “Whoa, that sounds cool I guess. So, what is that exactly?” … “Okaaay, let me try to sum it up for you.”
After graduating and getting married, people naturally want to know about your plans for the future. Can anyone have a conversation with a new college grad without broaching the subject of ‘what’s next?’ “Well, Deirdre and I want to start a family farm.” “Oh, cool. I knew someone who tried that once. They lasted a few years, but they realized pretty soon they’ve got a family to support, and there’s no money in farming.” … (OK, now that you’ve just written me off as a head-in-the-clouds unrealistic dreamer setting my family up for poverty, how shall we continue this conversation?)
Fast forward 7 years. We made the farm. We’ve been through our fair share of business start-up financial ‘excitement’, but we’ve supported our family in an area with high cost of living with no outside employment since 2014, and built a successful market garden and a separate successful produce delivery business. We made plenty of mistakes, learned tons, and this past year has ended up being our most successful, despite being burdened by some earlier debts, and being knocked down by the aftermath of last year’s wildfires. We had established a local reputation for head lettuce, sprouts and bagged greens at our local farmers market. We were honing in on the farming operations that were working for us (lettuce and cut greens primarily, and our local delivery service) and shedding the ones that didn’t make sense for our context (olives, chickens).
So why would we move? Why destroy all this momentum? Aren’t we just taking a giant step backwards? Why leave it all behind?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Here’s my attempt at making sense out of this.
If you go back to our early friendship and dating years, our friendship was centered around a common dream. Deirdre and I had a vision for family life that intrigued us, which to certain extent has developed and matured over the years. Deirdre had caught various glimpses of this dream in her childhood travels; my exposure had been primarily through books, but also some firsthand experience. We dreamed of a family living simply, beautifully, close to God’s original temple (nature!), productive rather than consumptive, steeped in love, actively practicing faith, supported by a farm, keeping work close to family and home, committed to helping neighbors, practicing acts of charity, enjoying robust health through nutrition and natural healing arts, and participating in a vibrant culture of traditional arts (Phew!). And maybe most importantly of all: demonstrating that these values are intermingled and consistent with each other, rooted in our very nature as human beings, although different families will live them out in different ways.
Sometimes pursuing that dream feels like an uphill battle. We’ve certainly had that feeling before. But pursue it we have, and relentlessly. Sometimes when we get a bit discouraged, we sit down and list all the different things we have accomplished at one time or another that move us closer to our vision, and in fact are the living out of that vision in reality.
So, back to the move. The pitch for this big move is that it has simply been shown to us through much prayer, thought, conversation, experimentation and discernment that this is the next step God is asking us to take. This step is going to bring us closer to our vision. To put it most simply:
We have been called. We are following that call.
That being said, I think there is still a lot I can say to give specific reasons that played into our decision that this is truly the best step for us. I want people to realize though that there is not a single one of these reasons that is acting on its own. Only when you add them all up together, does it begin to make some sense.
#1 Cost of Land, Farms, Homes
I start with this one because economic realities are tangible and easy to measure. It’s a hard fact that agricultural land in Southern California is not only hard to come by, it comes with a high price tag, and lives under constant pressure of development. We found more than enough land here to rent (once people saw we could farm successfully, we had to start turning down offers for new land leases), and ag rent rates are good. That is how we started here, and I think renting is the best option hands down for a new farmer almost anywhere. But we don’t want to rent forever, we want to own our land. Buying farmland in SoCal can cost you anywhere from $1-3 million, with few exceptions. I fully believe I could build our farm and delivery business to the point where we could afford this if I made that my goal. But my land-buying money will go so much further in Maine, where farms for sale are more plentiful, and sell for between $200,000 and $800,000. You can’t even buy a house in town here for $200,000. There are many other rural areas around the country that boast the same, but as I said – none of these reasons stand alone. Please read on…
I mention this one second, because it is really the one that tips the balance toward Maine instead of any other area. Without this one, I don’t think we would be making the move. But the fact is that in our 2 visits to Maine in 2017 and 2018, we made a surprising number of friends that have been very welcoming and encouraging. We found ourselves staying up into the wee hours of the night, having conversations about life, family, dreams, faith and everything in between. Two families we met are farmers. Two of them homestead off-grid. The majority of them are self employed, and either live on the land, or are working toward that. One is a sustainability professor at a local college. One is a Catholic priest. Others all share our Catholic faith, and the conviction that the Church has an important role to play in re-grounding society’s roots in the soil and the land. Neither Deirdre nor I could imagine moving to an area where we didn’t know anybody. This makes Maine stand out for us, over other rural areas in the country where we have made no connections. Mainers have been very welcoming, and we are grateful.
Central to our dream has been living in a rural area. Our hearts come alive in rural areas. Most of America used to live in rural towns and farming communities, and now that is flipped toward urban living. Society needs both, but rural is where the roots are. And we need roots, if we are not going to topple. Southern California is so urbanized, it gets stifling. The few rural pockets that exist here are sandwiched by mega-cities and massive wilderness preserves which are off-limits to both residents are farmers alike. We started our family here out of desire to be close to our immediate families (we both grew up here, Deirdre all her childhood, and I since I was 6), but we always felt the urbanization, and were uneasy about it. Our original plan was to save like crazy, and hunker down in one of the few rural pockets left here, but as #1 above lays out, that is a much steeper climb here than elsewhere in the country.
#4 Early Dreams
Deirdre’s maternal grandparents are from New York and Boston, and she spent many happy summers outside Boston with family, and traveled extensively through New England and Eastern Canada in her touring band days. She fell in love with the area then, and wanted to live in New England throughout her teen years, until she married a guy from the next town over in CA (Me!) She is simply reviving that desire from her youth, so in a way this is nothing new. Many of her experiences of inspiration that fueled our common dream came from visiting farms and families in the Northeast.
#5 History and Roots
I have an absolute fascination with the concepts of roots, history and genealogy. When we study history, we study primarily the history of the countries and cultures that we have inherited, because by studying them, you learn something about yourself, and where you came from. All history happens in a certain place. It’s just a fact that most American history happened East of the Mississippi. That’s where our families and heritage came from. Early America was built during a 200 year period of colonial settlement along the East Coast, and won its independence in the same area. Westward expansion has been a defining characteristic of American history for the last 2 centuries, and has increased with shocking speed in just the last 100 years. Our immediate families were part of that trend, which even in the last 30 years brought our parents from their homes in the Midwest and Northeast to California. Now we stretch from Coast to Coast, but our distinctly American culture was born and incubated in the East. Although we do not seek to live like Luddites, much of our common dream involves slowing down the pace of modern progress long enough to look to the past and see what we might have lost along the way that is worth holding onto. We believe firmly that many essential cultural constructs have been weakened or even torn down in the modern age, and it is our mission to revive them. This culture has 400 years of history in the Northeast, and much less in California, and only here by extension. California was settled too fast to develop a rich, distinct culture of its own. So much of what we are trying to live out was once lived out in communities across the Northeast, and there is still a skeleton of that culture stamped into the landscape, and in the hearts and memories of the people who live there. What we are trying to do with our lives could be termed a true revival there, whereas in California it would be better described as innovation. I’m a big fan of innovation, but we feel called to go East and sprinkle innovation as seeds in a pre-cultivated bed of revival. Sound kind confusing? I know – it’s hard to put my finger on it. And it’s pretty personal too.
Farming in New England was based on smaller family farms for centuries; California agriculture has been primarily commercial from the beginning, and depended often on imported water, imported labor, and distant Eastern markets. It’s one reason why many California farms don’t have homes on them. That’s not the farm culture we want to live. California does not have the same history of small family farm communities dotting the landscape. It’s there to be sure, but more so in Northern CA, and much more so in New England.
I could go on and on about various cultural elements that have a stronger history and presence in New England, and I will touch on some of them below. The material point to make here is that we are intrigued to be relocating our family in the very area that produced much of the culture we are trying to live. We feel that we can gain more traction there creating a revival, than we could in CA with an innovation that originated elsewhere. I fully encourage Californians to transform their culture and infuse it with traditional arts, skills and values, but for our part we feel called to take our efforts East. This is one of the hardest ones to explain, but hey, I had to give it a shot. Take it or leave it, it's an evolving intuition.
#6 Contradance Culture
For years, Deirdre and I have danced and played for contradances, and find it one of the most enjoyable social activities, and one that has a mystical power to bring people together and strengthen the glue of society. Contradancing is a strong New England tradition, and is still very much alive there. We play frequently for our most local contradance group (45 minutes away in Santa Barbara), but it is attended primarily by an aging group of dancers that seems unable to attract younger generations. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to contradancing in SoCal, but it’s an uphill battle. This is one example of what I was talking about in point #5 above. It was such a joy to see Maine’s young people contradancing, and the sheer number of dances and groups in the area far surpasses what we have here. While we are immensely grateful for the weekly dance in Santa Barbara, the next closest dances are in Los Angeles, almost 2 hours away. When you combine the fact that Maine’s population is a tiny (about 1/20th) fraction of SoCal’s, and the fact that there is so much more contradancing in Maine, it reveals just how embedded contradance still is in their life and culture compared to SoCal. It has been wonderful to promote contradancing here, but there is a joy and relief that comes from realizing that we are going to live somewhere we don’t have to start from scratch almost every time.
Everything said about dance above can be said about the music we hold so dear as well. Irish music and the related music traditions of England and Scotland have been huge formative factors in the various Maritime, Cape Breton, New England and Contradance music traditions. The intermingled folk music traditions of the British Isles and Ireland found a new home and even a kind of revival through the development of folk music traditions from Maritime / Eastern Canada, throughout New England, and down into the American South. Boston, New York and Chicago are the three main cultural hubs for Irish-American music, and the surrounding areas of the country are more richly steeped in that type of music as a consequence. The majority of the musical and cultural events / festivals we would want to attend are in the Eastern 1/3 of the USA. We’ll be a lot closer to all of them. Not to mention the wealth of traditional and musical events in the immediate locale we are moving to. Unity, ME is home to multiple week-long fiddle camps, just 1 hour away. The highschool in the town we are moving to has a fiddle group at the public highschool, which boasts around 100 students! Local concert series feature regular performances by some of the best traditional Irish, Bluegrass and Cape Breton groups in the US / Canada. We are very excited to be “going home” musically. Folk music is a social tradition, and is hard to maintain in isolation.
#8 Small Farm Scene
Despite its relatively small population and short Northern growing season, Maine is home to some of the rockstar farmers, artisans and farm-related organizations in the modern small-farm revival underway in the US. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is one of the oldest, most established and most active organizations promoting small scale, family scale and organic farming in the country. They are headquartered in Unity, ME, and boast an impressive arsenal of resources for farmers, including the legendary Common Ground Fair, held annually each September. Common Ground is the biggest fair in the country that specifically celebrates the growing subculture of the greater organic farming and homestead movement. The Maine Farmland Trust works actively to preserve some of Maine’s most “at-risk” farmland threatened by thoughtless urban development, and gives active support to young farmers like us who are seeking land to farm. Legendary farmer/author/inventor Eliot Coleman resides and farms in Maine. My personal #1 market gardening mentor/author/farmer Jean-Martin Fortier farms only 4 miles to the Northwest near Montreal. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Taproot Magazine, Growing For Market Magazine, and the Greenhorns all claim Maine as home. High Mowing Seed Company operates in nearby Vermont. The list goes on and on. There is a real, vibrant subculture of small farming underway in the Northeast, and Maine stands out among the New England States. Not only has Maine seen a higher percentage of young Farmers start farms in recent years than other states, it was also the first state to pass a state-wide “Food Sovereignty” law. We are excited and privileged to participate in and contribute to this growing momentum for family farms, and the support networks to help them thrive.
#9 Long Term Extended Family Investment
This one is a bit hard to explain too. It’s related closely to reason #1 – cost of land. But I’m looking at it from a generational angle, rather than an immediate one. Part of our family vision involves more place-stability for extended families than is customary in our modern, mobile society. We want our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to be able to settle and start their homes near us if they choose. Ironically, this was one of the very reasons we chose to stay in CA in the first place – we wanted our children to be raised around multiple family generations, and to reverse the modern trend of children leaving their home and settling elsewhere. When I began to think long-term though, I realized the harsh reality of CA real estate, urbanization and access to farm-homes could make it hard for my children and grandchildren to find homes/farms here, and I certainly hope some of them consider farming. I realized that I might pour all my life’s energy and resources into stabilizing my family here, put serious roots down in CA, save to buy a 2 million property, only to see my children move away to find more affordable land elsewhere. I see more opportunity to develop a robust generational family farm culture in the more rural areas of the country, Maine being just one example.
I know, it’s ironic! Here we are leaving our own parents, in hopes that our kids don’t need to do the same thing. I don’t have a perfect answer to this one. But I didn’t personally choose to move to CA, and I didn’t choose to have it settled and developed in this way, and our parents couldn’t have known it would happen when they moved here in the 80s and 90s, and they didn’t know we wanted to be farmers. This isn’t the first time in history that folks decided to emigrate for economic reasons, and made a new start with fresh roots in a new land. My hope is that even if I personally don’t get to live where I was raised, and enjoy the pride that comes with an extended family structure and roots, that I can sow the seeds for my children’s children to enjoy this for themselves. I know, its a gamble, and a very long-term investment that I will only benefit from in part. But it’s a gamble either way, and my intuition is that Maine holds more long-term promise for us than California. It’s a little sad to admit that, but there is something of a pioneer in my veins that feels ready to take this on, and build for the future of my family. Who knows, maybe our parents (none of whom are CA natives) will leave CA themselves someday? Things happen so quickly in this State, it’s hard to know what’s coming.
#10 People Say It Can't Be Done
If you want to see me do something, tell me it can’t be done, and I will go find a way to do it. I know that can sound a little bold and reactionary, but there is really something to this. The more I experience well-intentioned people coming to tell me I shouldn’t do this because of colder weather (#1 objection from most people), shorter growing season, lower population, higher poverty, too many farms, too rural, too risky, too far, etc. the more it makes me want to demonstrate the possibility of things outside their vision. I’m aware of all the obstacles mentioned here, and they are real. But it doesn’t mean this can’t be done. If I can’t convince you of this, then just watch and see. If I’m wrong, I pray for the humility to admit it, learn from it, and move on. If I’m right, I hope the naysayers think twice before being skeptical.
Well, that’s a very summarized version of the conversations we’ve had that are leading us to move from our California home. No one of these reasons stand alone. I hope that laying this out helps to make it more understandable. There is certainly a kind of sadness we feel in leaving the place where we grew up, met, fell in love, got married, had kids, started our first farm… We are leaving behind family members and friends that will miss us as much as we will miss them. But when the Lord calls, we must answer. And we are truly excited and happy of what awaits us in Maine.
Over the coming days, I will be posting a little series of posts related to our move including: