I would like to be more like you, you know, be a cool farmer, helpful, concerned and engaged yet never ruffled. How do you manage to stay composed when everything seems to be flying apart all the time?
– Pete Dixon
Thanks for your question. I am honored to be consulted on this topic by someone that I often point to as a creative grower who is managing to make a living on the land. I thought at first that you were kidding by asking me since I wasn’t feeling very “composed” at the time. You raise an important topic so I will attempt an answer.
August is tough.
Your question arrived about a month ago but I find mid-August to be one of my most challenging times of the year. With about two months until frost, it becomes completely clear that some of my ambitious plans made next to the wood stove in January are not going to materialize. The actual income for the year is coming into focus with only a few trips to the tailgate market left. Late blight has arrived. Days are shorter and the production is slowing down but it is still irritatingly hot during the middle of the day. Keeping enthusiasm high in August is a challenge.
My biggest trap as a new grower was the thought “If I just worker a little harder, then everything will get done.” I have decided that only so much is possible to change entirely by force of will (if I want it bad enough it will happen.) In the end, farm life needs to be sustainable for the farmer and the farm family. “I’ll sleep this winter” can work for a week or so, but after that I start to get fuzzy-headed and make poor decisions which often make more work for us later. Although I do not always follow this advice, I believe it is important for farm managers to be clear-headed enough to make good management decisions in the midst of chaos. Eating well, adequate sleep, and getting away from the farm occasionally all seem to help me be a better farm manager.
While I am not always successful, I see value in being able to detach from a current emergency and to look at the farm from a broader perspective. If we spend an hour weeding one bed, what is not being harvested in that hour? If I patch that leak in the barn, how much repair time will I save later? If we take a day off at the lake, will we be more excited about farming next week? If I take ten minutes to just enjoy that sunset, will tomorrow be a better day?
Diversity leads to stability.
This principle is a key to ecosystem management, soil health, and plant pathology but I believe it also can guide farmers as we attempt to manage a chaotic growing season. For example, crop diversity helps manage shifts in the weather. Our lettuce had trouble with the heat in June but the peppers loved it. If all our efforts go into one planting of leaf lettuce, one hailstorm can ruin the season financially.
A diverse crop mix tends to be less risky than a single crop, but this principle of diversity may also apply financial stability and mental health. A farm that depends entirely on a successful growing season to make the land payment may produce more grower anxiety than a farm where several revenue streams exist. Some growers work construction in the winter, some sell Christmas trees in Atlanta, others manage rental properties or do computer consulting. The average small farm in the US gets roughly 80% of its net income from off the farm. Diverse farm income streams seem to make sense to most small farmers.
Another area to consider for diversity and stability is grower interests and friendships. If all your friends are bummed out about the drought, your outlook may be fairly bleak. If some of our friends think that organic farming is the coolest profession they can imagine, it may be easier to remember why we started farming in the first place. Diverse ideas may help solve problems too. Your community organizer friend may have just the right approach to deal with the tailgate market zoning administrator.
The list of tasks on our farm seems endless. The “I’ll do it this winter” list is even longer. I was complaining about my long list to my Dad at one point years ago and he seemed puzzled. “Why would you want to finish your list?” he asked. “Then you won’t have anything to do tomorrow.” Over time I became more comfortable with an endless “to do” list. I try to focus on the most important task to do next. If I can scratch off a few of those each day, I am satisfied. David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done works fairly well in helping manage my task lists, as well as long range goal setting.
Next year is a clean slate.
One nice thing about farming is that we get to try again with all our mistakes erased at the beginning of a new growing season. Both our successes and challenges make us smarter about our farm for next year.
Fall is coming. Celebrate Thanksgiving! Fire up the woodstove. Spread out the seed catalogs. Anything is possible in 2013.
Thanks again for your note.
Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.