I was tagged in a post the other day on Facebook, and when I went to see what it was, it turned out to be a picture of myself and the other officers of our high school chapter of FFA. This picture is probably 20 years old, and we were such baby faces! It got me to thinking though; when I was in high school I would have told you really fast, with absolute certainty that there was no way under the sun I would ever become a farmer. Mike Rowe says as a country we don’t think of farmers in aspirational terms, and he is so right. I didn’t think “farmer” was anything to aspire to, I was going to be something. Something special, something new, something unique, but by golly, something. I didn’t know what, or how to get there, or even who I was. I went with the wisdom passed down to me to do what I love, find my passion and follow that path. To an 18 year old that had held down restaurant and factory jobs during the summers to supplement financial aid during the school year, that meant that I pursued 7 majors and maybe 19 minors/specialties. I graduated college with enough hours that when I went back to school in my late 20s to pursue a BSN, I only had 3 prerequisites that I had to take. I was in nursing school for my bachelors for 3 years, and only took nursing classes. I knocked out those prereqs in two summer sessions. When I graduated as an RN, I was so excited to get started working; I was helping people and I had finally found my passion, my lightbulb moment.
Let me say before I go any further that I love being a nurse. It is the most challenging, rewarding and exhausting thing I have ever done. I love taking care of people, and talking to families and patients. I like to learn, and to be challenged to become better at my job. I even like working with some of the doctors (don’t you tell them I said that!). And I adore my coworkers; I have never worked a job where people have your back the way that nurses do.
But as I was sitting in my garden, weeding my onions and peanut plants, I thought back to who I was in high school, and directly thereafter. And more precisely who I wasn’t. I wasn’t someone who had a lot of direction in life, and I didn’t have a dream I was chasing. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I couldn’t have told you what I did want to do or be, or what problems I wanted to solve or what challenges I wanted to work on. I wasn’t aspiring to be a farmer. But in all honesty, I wasn’t at that time aspiring to be a nurse either.
Then it struck me as pretty funny that 20 years ago if you had asked me if I ever saw my future self weeding onions and peanuts at 7:00 a.m. and trying to plan ways to grow enough tomatoes this season so I could give some away, and that I would be so passionately talking to people at work, either coworkers or patients and families about rotational grazing, heirloom tomato varieties, and no-till, well I would have laughed and thought you were crazy. But the fact is, if you ask me about (insert any of the many farm related things we do here) you are probably going to get a whole new level of conversation than you were prepared for.
When I started the gardening/farming/crazy chicken lady path in life, I had no idea we would end up where we are today. I made jelly and thought I was a bad-ass canner, we grew a couple of tomatoes and I thought we were first-class gardeners. I kept a couple of small-bodied fancy chickens who laid tiny eggs at my parents house and thought I was a chicken tender. But here we are today- chickens, turkeys, ducks, and pigs. So far in the garden, I have two 50 foot rows of tomatoes that are canning tomatoes, and I’m wondering if that will be enough. We have 100s of broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and lettuce plants. We have 5 rows of peas. We have a huge patch of potatoes growing like weeds, and rows of onions that are actually happy. We will be harvesting peaches and pears off of our trees in a couple of weeks. We will be freezing, canning, drying and fermenting our harvests. We are planning our cover crops and companion plants. We are working out a way to put ruminants onto our small acreage in a way that promotes the health and regeneration of the soil. We are already talking about next years garden and how we want to shift our paradigm to a more perennial, less degenerative-annual model. And I am pestering my coworkers, patients and their families with all of this. But they started it! They asked “how’s the garden?” So they are getting exactly what they asked for.
Over the last couple of days since I saw that picture of us, full of potential, youth and hope, I have wondered about where everybody ended up and what they are all doing now. I have reconnected on social media with at least two of them, and I haven’t spoken to others in the 20 years since we graduated. I wonder what they might think if I told them, well, yeah I did finally become a farmer, but it’s not the traditional role you may be thinking of. We barely mow our grass, much less clear cut our property to put up rows and rows of soybeans or corn. The birds free range our property and eat the seed heads on the knee-high grass. The pigs are rotated every couple of weeks so they are on new ground, and in the process they are giving us amazing fertilizer for the garden and they don’t stink. Our next door neighbors didn’t even know we had pigs last year. We even put our meat chickens on grass instead of locked up in the coop. They don’t free range like the lighter bodied egg layers, but they move around and eat grass and bugs, and live a life better than any factory farmed chicken out there.
Over the 4 years we have been on this property, we have seen the return of so many species of wildlife. This spring (all two days of it), we sat outside and listened to the myriad kinds of wildbirds squabbling over tree branches for nests and who gets to take that really nice big turkey feather back to their nest for building. We noticed how many more birds we have than when we moved here. The wild rabbits have come back. I was weeding in the garden this morning and a butterfly landed on my knee for a second before heading off to the peas. The insects are everywhere. And another thing we noticed this past weekend when a strong thunderstorm rolled through was how our property retained the downpour of rain beating the earth, while the soybean field next door had soil and plants washing away and the rain was sideways in the field.
So I guess, once I found out who I really was, at heart I am a farmer. And I am an advocate for healthy soil, nutritious food, access for everyone to fresh produce and meats, and I am a talker. I love the small scale farming we practice here, and I love discussing it with people who have never been exposed to this kind of farming, or this kind of food. I am a nurse, and will always have a strong urge to care for people when they are having the worst days of their lives. But,
I am a farmer, and it’s the best thing I could have done with my life.