While ice dams plague roofs, snow drifts cloak balsam roots, and the soil steeps in frozen stillness, I turn inward. Winter is not just a workout with the shovel, but also an exercise in exercising choice—if only to stir movement and heave the frosts of doubt that last season—the wettest, darkest on record for this farmers 12 year tenure stewarding Hilltop—threatened to erode the seedbed of my spirit.
Bone-weary, I fall back to the days spent pumping butternut barbels to meet the ossuary demands for the mid-winter dinner. Why do I persist? There is this lingering romantic myth in our culture that is perpetuated about farming. It goes something like this: Summer days are spent basking with butterflies and blooms, gallantly hoeing away weeds and cares, plucking peppers, and careening with carrots, so that come winter, farmers in the world's temperate regions, kick back, relax, sleep and feast the days away in a quiet merriment as there is 'nothing' to do. This world might exist, if only in fits and spurts, but do we really have control around our days, and who would really choose working 90 plus hrs a week in pursuit of plums? Life circumstances and societal demands of business plans, taxes, market analysis, crop plans, seed orders, grower conferences, 'off farm work to feed the farming habits and pay the interest on your operating loan', the unsatiable hunger of instragram and facebook feeding, and our longing to (re)connect with nature (ironically through social media datapoints and virtual realities) make it hard to take a step toward Enough.
What's a farmer to do? I am body-weary and mentally stuck as the moon and deer look on from my window. I turn to Plato, “The person's own better nature...is determining that person's choices.”
What choice as farmers do we have? Or rather, what is the new Nature that wants to be born in my 'farmer' spirit and that of the land, and how does one 'nurture' its agency?
Farming is a conscious choice I made, since moving back to Wisconsin in 2006, and one I am continuously asked to make. There's a certain momentum that is seeded in start-up and carries it's own sub-set of intent and hope-fueled breathlessness. This starts with soil and seeds, rootstocks, grafts, and plant plugs, an attitude of can-do self-actualization, but also a certain illusion of control, even if it comes with social support. For example, our one-acre orchard demanded a set of interventions and intentions during establishment phase and we 'chose' to pursue additional fruit possibilities through research, food forests, and celebration. Now we are tasked with 'how to best intervene' as the orchard takes shape and our bodies age. We see the folly of some of our decisions and recognize the way forward demands a different sort of presence with nature. Of the myriad and wonderful beginning farmer and mentorship programs out there, one thing I believe is missing from the instruction is sequencing and forethought. They don't teach you to design and consider your farm with sequencing and succession in mind—how to survive those 'middle age' years and groan zones in the fields, in your bodies and your bank account. If agency is to be actualized, balance to be achieved, groan zones to be massaged, it's through the recognition that stasis exists in the spaces where cooperation and conflict co-exist. You evolve to rest in trust in your agency and try to find grace when the Japanese beetles eat all the seaberry, the field mice gnosh at your prized peppers and the winds render your dahlias horizontal.
This winter, I have felt stuck and honestly considered stepping away from farming. There have been a lot of tears, self-doubt and unraveling that took place. Something peculiar also took root, just as I told myself all the reasons I have failed as a farmer because I am out of balance with cash flow, I don't have a tractor or a hoop house, I lost my winter teaching job in the winter, I indulge in scarcity thinking, “...am I really helping humanity by selfishly thinking that through creating beauty you can save the world.” Soon thereafter, an influx of wedding flower inquiries flooded in, and the healing flame of enchantment was once again lit.
At first I just surrendered to what is. Here we go again, seeds are to be started, agreements are to be made, but that alone implies a certain passivity. As philosopher Amelie Rorty eloquently relays in her essay on Personhood (which I believe extends into 'Farmerhood'), “...the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made.
Choices of the soul or operations of the mind? What do I have control around and what are life circumstances that I just have to contend with right now? Or maybe a more alluring question to ponder is, “Where do my gifts as a farmer and the needs of the world meet right now in time?”
There is a part of me that longs to fully utilize my training
and skills as a soil scientist, educator and facilitator to travel the world and create spaces for people to engage in intergenerational dialogue about how to cultivate a love for the Earth for all beings seen and unseen, be a whole human, find home wherever you are at. Maybe that time will bear fruit. I think the world is asking me to share my gifts as a farmer and a farmer florist. At least that is the locus of agency and lesson of power from which I am operating from—to make peace in my mind, let go of negative thought patterns, and feel out the next steps in my body as I imagine the time where barefeet can move in the mud once again.
The gravitational pull of fruit and flowers remains a mystery to me. Yet I can't ignore the area of understanding that emerges in between my hands where bouquets are born and pears picked just at the right ripeness. I tell my flower clients and CSA members that I do my best work when you give me a general sense of style and preference, let me know if there is a color or flower you just don't want to have at your event or on your table, and then trust in my ability to create floral feasts and magic with what is in season. As winter turns toward spring, I will rest in trust that the season's momentum is underway. I will try and embody the perennial mojo of keeping a strong underground root system, retain flexible shoots and bloom where planted to make the world beautiful and edible for you.
As your farmers we trust you find value in this and chose that which serves life.