Recently one of the first interns who worked with us in our first year emailed me saying that he is considering studying organic agriculture, and that he wanted me to make a list for him of everything that “sucks” about farming. Maybe I could have said…
“Farming is exhausting”
“Farmers must work constantly, (if they are not over-burdened by work they are doing something wrong)”.
“Farmers need to be good at fixing things!”
“Farmers never have enough money or time!”
“The life of a farmer is a life of struggle!”
“Farmers must be physically and mentally very strong!”
“It is impossible to leave the farm!” Etc.
But I didn’t say any of these things. And this is why…
There are a lot of thoughts buzzing around in my head these days relating to mindfulness, the nature of fear, and self-care as it relates to farming. This past December I was part of facilitating a workshop for ecological farmers on self-care. In a short amount of time we managed to share snippets of the stress that enters our lives, we talked about how we manage that stress, and we started a conversation about how to best care for ourselves and our farming community moving forward. It felt both simple and revolutionary at the same time. It is very clear that the ways in which our bodies and minds are stretched each season on the farm is worth acknowledging. We all must be diligent and mindful in caring for ourselves in this career, and we all have very challenging moments when we felt alone or at a loss for time/money/energy/support. In our conversations, and in conversations since this workshop it’s become apparent to me that there are many “expectations” and “stories” about farming, like the ones above, that play a role in our stress. I would like to put forward that the way we speak about farming has an impact, and that it may be greater than we may realize.
75% of our farmers are retiring in the next 10 years with far fewer folks following in their footsteps. This is a clear enough indication to me that farming as a career has become less and less desire-able for a number of reasons.
We all want to do everything we can to keep farming possible and desire-able for the next generation, but some of us are so committed to our individual struggle as farmers, or to some of these stories, that we don’t realize we are perpetuating the very ideas that cause new aspiring farmers to quickly lose motivation and passion. What if we were to stop idolizing and idealizing the dawn-to-dusk-6or7-days-a-week farmer? Respect these farmers, for sure- but I have come to see that this model of farming is not great for anyone’s relationships, family, health, or community. As ecological farmers we are leaders in an alternative farming movement that respects the health of land and animals, and ultimately that should always be respecting the people working that land as well.
Of course we’ve all had those weeks on the farm where we work way past the time intended and fall in bed aching. Some of you may have even left farming because of the challenges it presented for you both physically and emotionally. However, for those of you who are as stubborn as I am to make this a life-path I ask you to experiment with the way you speak about farming, with the way you see farmers, or with the way you see yourself. I challenge you to experiment with the stories that are most strong for you, and to create new realities for yourself and your farm. If the story “I never have enough money on my farm” is most true for you, I say- dig in and have a look. Have you decided what is enough money? Do your decisions line ups with your priority to have more money? Are the income-generating activities you have chosen on your farm actually profitable enough? Are you sinking into more debt than can be reasonably paid off? Have you asked for help?
When I first landed on a farm I didn’t even consider myself as the type of person that could farm for a career. I was volunteering, travelling, and seeking healing from physical health issues while picking edible organic flowers and greens on a farm in Florida. In the back of my mind there were stories about farmers deeply engrained in me, as well as a combination of assumptions I had made.
In noticing what things you are believing about farming, I encourage you to notice where fear creeps in. The new stories I try to create for myself and others about farming have a lot to do with self-love and the acknowledgement of fear. Recognizing fear has been my personal theme of late in my mindfulness activities.
Here’s how it works for me.
When a negative thought arises, before my heart begins to race, and a reaction ensures, I try to find fear.
“The frost killed our kale”
“What am I afraid of?”
“The work that will have to be done to fix this, the CSA members that might be disappointed by a smaller first share, the money and time lost”
“What else am I afraid of?”
“Failing as a farmer, climate change, not being able to handle big challenges!”
This inner dialogue might continue for a moment, it might get big and wide and scary. Once I acknowledge the fear thoughts I will begin to seek a solution and try to put the fear out of my mind. I also might reach out and ask for help from someone if I feel it is needed. Self-care and mindfulness do not have to be isolated activities. Self-care often requires communing with others, being in dialogue, letting others in. In some of the most challenging times I might reach out and look for help, I might ask someone to come up with a solution with me, I might tell someone things I am grateful for to change the tone of things going on. I might even ask someone else to come up with a solution if I feel to frazzled.
I entered this spring harbouring a painful chronic parasite in my guts that I spent all winter trying to heal from. My deepest fear in the winter was entering the very busy farming season with this parasite, and now that I am here I realize that I have the support and strength to carry on through my days, and to continue to seek healing as I go about my season. When I feel physical pain, I pay attention to it but I try not to let fear make it more than it needs to be. I watch the pain ebb and flow just like the annoying pests that come and go causing problems for crops on the farm. Pain and discomfort will always change and manifest in new ways, and in that change there is comfort.
In the last few months I have been humbled by the amazing things that can happen when fear is acknowledged. This approach has not only improved my mental and physical health, but also has improved the health of our farm. Fear has helped our farm, and has helped me create new stories about farming.
Our brains usually run away from us quickly. In addition to our initial assessments of things happening around us, we layer on our own emotional/physical responses to things. Sometimes, within seconds of noticing a problem, our heart-rate will increase. Often our jaws tighten, our shoulders tense, our bodies follow suit with what is going on in our minds. We may frantically report the problem to another person, and collectively heighten the stress that is felt around that issue. We may do what is called “catastrophizing”, imagining the worst possible scenario and then prematurely we feel the loss and other emotions of that scenario. Our minds will take us in many directions.
If we can notice this, and notice fear, we change things- our stories as farmers will shift, our ability to accept ourselves and others will increase, and our ability to do our best will be strengthened. If we learn to observe our minds as much as we observe our plants and animals, if we create new narratives around the “problems” that arise on the farm, and and if we learn to understand that creating boundaries around our work and rest are essential I believe we will be successful in inspiring the next generation of farmers. If we become as passionate about practicing self-care/self-improvement techniques as we are about learning the newest and greatest method for efficiently planting onions we will be unstoppable. If we look at our farms and see possibilities instead of limitations our farms will flourish.
So here are the kinds of things I’d like to communicate with an intern who wants to know what “sucks” about farming. Here are some of the stories I’d like to tell our future farmers:
“Farming is sometimes exhausting, and also incredibly fulfilling”
“Farmers work constantly at times and have rest periods at other times.”
“It is helpful to remain open to learning new skills as a farmer but you don’t need to know everything to be successful!”
“Farmers might feel that they never have enough money or time but if they steward their resources carefully, pay attention to how they view the world, and plan well they can create profitable enterprises!”
“I love my job 80% of the time, that is more than many can say of their careers!” (Tony McQuail:))
“Some farmers are physically very strong while others are not, farming is a profession for a diverse range of people and bodies!”
“It is NOT impossible to leave the farm, with careful planning you can have a vacation, healthy relationships, and a fulfilling life!”
And of course…
“Learn some self-care and empathy skills! Meditate, journal, try a new healing activity (ie. Emotional Freedom Technique / homeopathy/ acupuncture/ osteopathy/ cranial sacral/ yoga/ reading/ talk therapy/ writing. Find something that is your “Liquid Gold”, as a friend of mine calls it. Keep at least some “Liquid Gold” in your routine even through the busy times of the season. Become a better friend; practice being generous and gentle with yourself and others. Have hobbies that aren’t farming. Say no when you need to.”
I absolutely don’t mean to belittle anyone’s experience of farming, and I acknowledge the systemic issues and privilege that I have to be able to say these things. I only encourage you to experiment. Notice what stories you are telling yourself and others. Decide which stories you want to make true for yourself and commit to the work that has to happen to get you there. Acknowledge, and then let go of fear. See if you can let unhelpful stories rest for a while. and notice what changes in your body and mind. On a daily basis observe your thoughts, and calm your mind. Meditate, journal, talk it out- try something new for your health.
Please let yourself fail! Try not to create a story around that failure. Realize that sometimes you have to make decisions for yourself that others don’t appreciate/agree with; try not to get caught up in the fear/grumpiness/pain of others. Challenge yourself to be more generous with your time/money/skills.
Creating better realities for ourselves is how we become ready and able to create and advocate for important systemic changes in farming. This is how we inspire new farmers. We understand better than anyone the impact of each tiny seed. Our stories are the seeds of our movement, do your best to nurture the good ones and let the unhelpful ones go.
Thanks for reading and happy farming,
ps. Attention Farmers- You are invited to a Farmer Health Retreat Day on our farm on Sunday July 10! – Register on the EFAO (Ecological Farmer Association of Ontario) website , if it’s not posted yet it will be shortly! This will be a day to rest, to learn from experienced health practitioners how to best care for our bodies and minds as farmers, and to strengthen our support networks as a farming community.