Are we quitting?

Since our announcement way back last summer that the 2012 CSA would be our last, a few folks have accused us of “quitting farming”, though accused is perhaps too strong of a term.  The phrase was lobbed at us at least once in a somewhat angry manner (“You’re quitting!  I can’t believe it!!”), but it’s also come in the form of a question (“So….you’re quitting?  That’s it?”) or as a simple statement of fact, almost an aside (“Now that you’ve quit farming…”)  With both kids in daycare/preschool yesterday and much of our days’ work done by lunchtime (schoolwork for Sonya, farmy/householdy stuff for me), Son and I decided to get out into the sun and mild air for a snowshoe around the fields and woods, and the “quitting” question came up.  Sonya wanted to know if it bugged me when people said it.  I said that it did, and we both figured it would be a good topic to flesh out right here on the blog.

So, it’s true that we are cutting way back, and this is a process that started a couple years ago.  2011 was our high water mark…2 apprentices, 3 markets per week, and 90 CSA shares sold.  The biggest decision we made after that season was to try a summer without apprentice help.  Our markets were popular and fun but ultimately not really worth the time and effort required of them, so those were dropped.  We also decided to scale the CSA back to between 50 and 60 shares (I think we wound up with about 55 for 2012).  I think we sensed at that point, with a young Lydi and a very new Ezra, that our focus was necessarily shifting.  2012 was a great season for us mentally.  We never enjoyed managing apprentices but loved our jolly and very capable crew of volunteers, CSA workshare members, and assorted WWOOFers.  We worked as hard as ever, but the stress levels were much lower.  Sonya’s decision early in the season to return to school prompted us to once again look carefully at what we’d been doing.  There was some consideration of continuing the CSA on a very small scale (perhaps 20 shares), but as with markets a year earlier, a quick assessment of the effort involved vs. return made it obvious that that wouldn’t work well.  I was also, frankly, daunted by the prospect of running the CSA solo.  If you haven’t figured this out by now, folks, Sonya is the brains behind the operation.  Her ability to plan, assess, and act in this farming context is way beyond mine.  I’m essentially a mule who also writes.  Go figure!

So here we are, and our plans are as follows…  We are scaling waaaaay back….going from about 4 acres of veggies to a mere 1/3 or so of an acre…from a veggie farm to a very large garden, essentially.  We plan to feed ourselves, of course, and also to continue to provide produce and herbs to our friends at Poland’s Square Root Natural Foods and Auburn’s Axis Natural Foods.  Last fall, we had so much wonderful, big, seed-quality garlic that we decided to plant a ton of it out in Field 3 with the idea of wholesaling the results this summer and selling seed garlic to other farmers and perhaps even to area seed distributers.  Garlic is fairly easy to grow, and organic seed garlic, especially, fetches a good price.  Much of the rest of our fields will be seeded back to pasture for our sheep, and those sheep represent an intriguing way forward for us.  Our flock o’ 5 will be expanding soon…Sienna and Fiona are obviously pregnant and the smaller Lake and Coco may well be, too.  Sonya’s search for the best way to deal with our wool is on-going, and as the flock grows, we plan to offer lamb cuts for sale here at the farm and perhaps at area winter farmers’ markets in the future.  We’re going to get a couple of pigs this spring, too.  These will be just for us, but if we can get a better handle on effective fencing and gain a little more know-how, we may try raising them for sale again in the future.  There’s been some talk of getting a milking cow, too.  Our lack of a real barn is an issue, but we certainly have enough pasture to make a go of it.

So…we really don’t feel that we are quitting.  Reassessing, refocusing, evolving…certainly.  I’m very curious to see how this coming season goes.  But the bottom line is that if we stay on this piece of property…and at least for as long as Son is in school, we plan to do just that…we intend to work with it in some capacity to produce food for us and for others.  It would be ridiculous not to, both in practical terms and closer to the heart, too.  The physical and mental wear-and-tear of running a CSA/market farm are too much for us at this point in our lives, but we still love to farm, love to get our hands dirty, and feel that it’s important to keep this place productive.  We’ve spent so much time working and improving the soil and getting this land in “farm shape” that it seems almost criminal to just stop altogether.

I want to also touch on the topic of farming with kids.  There’s an idyllic sense about it, a view right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Admittedly, I share it, this idea of babies strapped to the back while harvesting, kids helping out with age-appropriate tasks and doing their own specific farm chores, teenagers out there doing the heavy lifting, etc.  I know a few “traditional” farm families…loads of kids, Mom tends to them and homeschools, Dad is The Farmer, the kids help out, etc.  It works for them, and I admire them for it.  This charming approach, however, this traditional scene, for us, bumped into reality once we had Lydia.  Farming with a baby strapped to your back SUCKS for everyone involved.  It was not something either Son or I could do for long periods of time.  And the thing about full-time farming is that is tends to be all-encompassing…during the CSA season, we were busy all the time.  I have awkward memories of Lydia hanging out with a babysitter in the yard on harvest days and rushing by, yelling “hello!”, literally unable to stop becasue there was so much to get done, and Lydia crying because she wanted me.  This past season, on more than one occassion, I plopped her down in front of a movie so I could run outside and harvest this or deal with that.  I don’t know what the explanation is…maybe we’re just softer than our farming forefathers were, less willing to lose ourselves to the work at the expense of our children.  And that’s really how we were feeling…that we were neglecting our children because of the farm.  So…no more of that, or at least not to the extent that the CSA seemed to require.  This topic…the idea of modern folk like us returning to an agrarian lifestyle while raising kids and achieving, or failing to achieve, that balance of farm vs. family…is fascinating to me, and one I hope to pursue.  A book idea, perhaps?

In closing, I want to note that we’re also very proud of the fact that over the past five years we’ve brought people together, fostered friendships, and created a little organic  farming community here in Poland.  We very much want our friends and former CSA members to keep in touch, and with that in mind, we plan to continue our tradition of hosting potlucks here at the farm.  They may not happen as often, but they will happen!  As a matter of fact, the first potluck of 2013 is scheduled for Sunday, March 3rd from 11 AM until 2 PM.  This will be a brunchy affair, so bring along a dish to share and catch up with us and with other members of our little SSF tribe!  See you soon.

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13 Responses to Are we quitting?

  1. Bryan says:

    Nicely written, John. And makes loads of sense.

  2. John says:

    Thanks, Bryan!

  3. Sonya says:

    I just want to add that although we didn’t love managing apprentices we’ve had some pretty amazing ones here at SSF!

  4. John says:

    I second that. And my comment above about managing apprentices…that’s all on us. We are so grateful for all the hard work our various apprentices and workers put in over the years. We literally could not have done it without you!

  5. Lynda Allanach says:

    John and Sonja…we are blessed to have enjoyed the fruits of your labor these past two summers. All the best in your future endeavors and we will see you around town!

  6. Alice Ruvane says:

    Thanks for sharing this John. You and Son are such hard working, heart centered people. I feel so lucky to have been part of your CSA and look forward to continuing our friendship for many years. Life is full of changes. Might as well embrace them when they come around. After all we’re always becoming (not necessarily pretty but you know what I mean.)

  7. Jim Cooke says:

    Thank you –
    A very thoughtful entry that leaves this reader much to think about. Your great-great grandfather is quoted as saying: “The only respectable way for a man to get a living was by tilling the soil.” He further counseled: “Stay on the land.”

  8. John says:

    Thanks, everyone!

  9. Heidi Audet says:

    Well said, John.
    Changing focus and reassessing the needs of a family is not quitting. I respect the decision you both have made. My father and grandfather were farmers, and I know from experience how much energy is involved just in a personal farming life, forget about the CSA portion! My young life was spent working in the home gardens at both my parents home and my grandfather’s and on my dad’s farm when I was old enough to pull my first weed, and then spending my Feb./March every year helping my father with him maple syrup business. While I enjoyed that time immensely and couldn’t imagine not digging in the dirt or collecting and boiling down sap, my siblings didn’t always share my sentiments. Doing what feels right for a family is always the best decision. Thank you and Sonya both so much for the hard work and good food you provided for us CSA members over the past years. Looking forward to attending some potlucks with you all! Blessed be.

  10. Jean says:

    John, I think there’s a very interesting writing project in this whole question of balancing farming with family. You’re right; the idea of the “family farm” seems so idyllic, but the reality is different. Because I teach sociology of family, I am aware that ideas about children and what they needed changed dramatically with industrialization, which means that people had very different ideas about children and childhood in our agrarian past. (If you’ve never read it, I recommend Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s *A Midwife’s Tale,* based on the late 18th century diary of a Maine midwife, for a very realistic sense of daily life and family life during that time period.) I have a student who grew up on a farm, was home-schooled with her siblings, etc., and she has come to define her upbringing as bordering on child abuse.

    I hope to get to a potluck one of these months; alas the March date is a week too early for my “spring break” in Maine. -Jean

  11. John says:

    I agree, Jean. In talking with a few other farming friends of mine, a pattern is emerging…youthful enthusiasm and dedication to the farm lifestyle bumps up against reality once kids enter the picture. On farmer I know noted that many of us in this new wave of farming grew up in middle-class suburbs, went to college, lived in cities, etc. Once we have children, it’s like we have to completely reassess because of the sense of wanting our kids to experience many of the same things we did growing up. And none of us grew up on farms! Anyway, we hope you are well, and I’m sure we’ll see you at a potluck later in the spring or summer (you too, Heidi!)

  12. Stacy says:

    The true essence of a diverse family farm is one that can flex with your needs. You all should feel proud of putting heart first. It is a choice that can only serve you well. Tons of love to you all…Stacy and John

  13. John says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Stacy! Hope Broadturn has a rockin’ 2013, and hope to see you and John at some point.

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