When you look at a farm, our Farm in this instance, it can look peaceful, beautiful, balanced, and oh-so-green. You can tell yourself a story about how wonderful it is to be a farmer, and how in sync farmers are with life. You can imagine the sense of satisfaction that comes from working with the land, with your hands, feeding your neighbors, and making a life.
All of this is true…but what you might not realize by simply looking in is that these things are true intermittently, sporadically, and they are dotted with moments of total frustration.
Maybe not our best marketing tagline, but frustration is probably one of the most compelling teachers at the Organic Farm School. And we are grateful to host this instructor so that our students can learn the harder lessons while supported by us.
Farming is an honorable profession, and one that can net farmers a living wage if they know how to plan and make do within their means. It is a profession in which your business partners are the soil, the weather, your neighbors. And it is a profession disrupted regularly by our rapidly changing world.
This year, for instance, to achieve the goals of a USDA grant we were awarded, we planned to raise 600 chickens over the course of the season, harvesting 200 at a time using the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU). This unit certainly had expenses associated with it, but it provided a particular kind of WSDA permit that allowed us to not only sell fresh chicken on the day of harvest, but also frozen chicken throughout the year. And while students were involved in the process, they had a lot of help. But that MPPU didn’t meet the financial expectations of the organization that offered it, and so they sold it to a university on the other side of the country.
Without the MPPU, we were faced with students doing ALL of the harvest/processing work. We were faced with significant concerns on the part of our insurance company. We were faced with a new permit that now requires us to sell ALL of the chicken on the day of harvest. And we were faced with a class, half of whom are vegan. So we adjusted. At the end of this month, we will harvest 95 birds ourselves, under the watchful eye of our WSDA inspector, selling all of them on that one day. On that day, we will be done with chickens for the year, and we will have to figure out a way to catch up on our projected revenue with additional sales in other categories.
All along the way, we made good and reasonable decisions. It’s just that all along the way, the context in which our Farm operated was changing.
Another example. We work hard to model practices as an individual farmer would incorporate them. This means that even though we have 8 students and two instructors, we do our best to act as if we have one farmer when it comes to decisions around time off the Farm. Farming on an island however, means that sometimes your “inputs” come from the mainland, and as you factor in the ferry, ferry lines, and mainland traffic (tourist season overlaps farming season, by the way), picking up the lambs and pigs you want for your soil development plan and operating budget turns into hours of time NOT farming. By sending an instructor and a student with the van to pick up lambs, we lost almost a full day of their time in the field. Today, sending that instructor with another student to pick up pigs will cost us the better part of another day.
OK, so we "lose" a couple of days. But a couple of days in which students don’t have as much instructor support (well, maybe more support from Professor Frustration). And factor that in with a day a week at the farmers market, a day a week harvesting for that market, a day a week distributing CSA shares, a day a week harvesting those shares, and your impression of a farmer’s peaceful life begins to shift. While students are balancing all of this time off the Farm and time getting ready to be off the Farm, they are also balancing a never ending list of infrastructure maintenance and repair tasks (that irrigation line is leaking again…the zippered door in the hoop house has lost it’s zipper…the lawnmower is broken again…the basket weeder needs adjustment on the tractor…compost is being delivered and there’s no clear path for the truck to get from here to there…). We haven't even talked about the time needed to propagate, transplant, and weed the 140 one-hundred foot long beds of vegetable crops.
In the meantime, a hawk got into the chickens yesterday evening and the flock is down another bird. Today’s the day to move the lambs to new pasture and yet between where they are and where you want them to be is a soon to be harvested bed of leafy greens — organic standards say you can’t move the lambs through that bed. We just received a donation of 150 lbs. of potato seed that needs to get planted in the next 5 days. The weather is supposed to turn tomorrow, meaning you need to get that cover crop seed in the ground before the rains begin so you don’t have to irrigate it just yet - which buys you time to get the irrigation line set up for when you do eventually need it.
It never stops. And it's frustrating. It's frustrating to us, trying to fit everything into a cohesive package of instruction. And it's frustrating to our students, who are trying to learn the totality of farm management even as that huge task twists and turns and runs upside down.
Here’s the counterintuitive thing. While students rail against the onslaught of chores and frustrations, by the end of the season they will be ready to do it all again. And so will we. The life is a good one, it’s just a little more real than many other occupations. The consequences are closer to hand, heart, and bank account. So are the joys. Frustration is a mighty teacher, but one that gives a lot of feedback and oddly phrased encouragement. Frustration teaches us to look wider, consider options more deeply, think farther down the line before taking that first step, breathe more often, remember and occasionally re-order priorities.
Now, to talk to our marketing advisor about how to say this in a more attractive way…