Facing Uncertainty on the Farm

One of the topics that I must address is the challenge beginning farmers face in having to experience “newness” all of the time. Beginning farming, establishing markets, and trialling seeds surround you with a lot of change, just like what we all face when starting down any new path. Add in that we also have to deal very directly with working in an unpredictable work environment. Ever changing weather, climate, markets, all make for a shifting situation, in addition to learning to farm in difficult times. Too much change can be stressful, and it will keep us from being our best. Facing the unknown on a regular basis does have some upsides, especially if you remind yourself that it is a part of learning. There are many issues in agriculture that can get me rattled, but on a day to day basis, I find myself trusting the process, and embracing the many aspects that come with trying to move forward as a new farmer. Each time we try new things, we challenge ourselves to step free and clear of safe zones. You are leading, and moving forward with every experiment, even if your idea fails commercially. Pushing yourself into new directions is uncomfortable at times, especially because the financial risks can be great. We all know that risk taking can be stressful, but let’s step back for a moment and allow us to look at things holistically.

Yesterday, I was fretting and thinking that I should be planting more squash for our Nov-Mar high season. Instead, I was pouring 200 gallons of spent hops from our local brewery into the farm’s soil. Let’s look at this for a moment. Instead of fretting, I tried to stop and realize that the great haul of free soil building materials is a real gift. It is a gift that will nurture my plants all season long. By stopping and taking those opportunities, I have found that the healthier plants grow faster, resist disease, and often surpass the growth of plants that were planted earlier, but didn’t get the additional care that soil amendments added to their life.

It is normal to fret when looking at agricultural Calendars. Time ticks on regardless. The irony is that my friends in short season areas often have faster growing plants and more abundant harvests than we do in long season, but up and down weather that higher elevation Hawaii has. In Hawaii, one of the toughest questions to answer is “when do I plant?” I was getting plants in the ground in March, and they are not any bigger than the squash vines in May. Why? We had a strange weather pattern. The faith in continuing on, and soil building instead of worrying about timing helped me greatly. I now have healthy seedlings that are soaking up the benefits of my soil building, even though they were planted later. Late and healthy are better than “on time” and sickly. Too many are tempted to throw up their hands when things swerve off schedule, or when drought, pests, or weather sidelines us. All I can advise is don’t let yourself get too rattled.

In just the couple years that I have been farming, I have learned to throw in some radish, or mustard seeds when the cool weather stays too long. Why? You will have a happy take away to soften the blow. Yes, your heat loving commercial crop may be late, but often there isn’t a single thing you can do about it. You are not going to change the weather, worrying isn’t going to help you, so you may as well have some food in your stomach. I do it all the time. It keeps my farming fresh, and my ability to adapt becomes a comfort for me. Yes, I get disappointed as chefs want me to produce more, but the vines are not having it. The plants can hit the pause button, and that is how it is. The pressures of producing 24/7/365 is an absurd standard that no farm can do. Soil needs to rest, plants need to rest, as do farmers. We are more likely to let the soil and the plants rest before we do. I once had a talk with a distributor who believed that some farms produce everyday of the year, what she didn’t realize is that the produce that is coming into Hawaii is pooled together at warehouses. It isn’t from one farm. Nature doesn’t work like that.

Adaptability is hard, it takes practice, and I don’t always do it well. Before I lash out at the cloudy cold weather, the drought, the this, the that, I try to see it as and opportunity to do something else that needs some attention. Sometimes the one that needs attention is me, as the farmer. A strange stormy sky drove me indoors for one hour last week. High winds interrupted my flow. I decided to put my feet up and read a couple of farming articles. It was rejuvinating and I felt like that break actually put me forward. The skies cleared, and my mind thought about the words I had just read. I completed all of the work that needed to be done, and that break gave me an idea or two of things that I could do at the farm. It also reminded me of our shared experience. Farming isn’t always appreciated, and often it is made fun of by people who may not even realize that their words cut through you. Not all of us are surrounded by an immediate support team, so make sure to read the stories of others that are doing things similar to you.

I pick up memoirs of farmers, chefs, travelers and foodies. They are a great source of inspiration because their road isn’t easy either. If it was, it wouldn’t make for a very good book. Farming memoirs are popping up here and there, and they can be great to keep nearby. I happen to love William Woys Weaver’s book of vegetable essays 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From
It is the kind of book that inspires in snippets perfect for a short break. William Woys Weaver can make anything interesting. He is a historian, chef, educator, gardener, and seemingly, a pretty dynamic individual as a whole. Remind yourself that your actions matter, and celebrate your role in our food system.

Sometimes an injury drives me out of the field and garage completely. It can happen to us all. When I get hurt, be it a knot in my back, or a sprained hand, I try to take it as an opportunity to expand my photography, writing, research, or my kitchen trials. The injury can lead to inspiration. Like other unexpected events, we can react in many ways. Injuries make me very aware of plan B, especially since I am a one person farm. Everything is on my shoulders. Being injured may sidetrack us from our immediate plans, but it has made me make changes that were very positive. One change that came from one too many slips and twists was as simple as changing my shoes. One of my customers observed that I carry about with 40-50 lbs in my arms at most times. She was right. That can be 1/3 to nearly 1/2 of my body weight. When I twist an ankle, or turn on a slippery floor, the additional weight is felt, and it can cause injury. Making a simple change to wearing better shoes, even sporting running shoes, made my delivery days more enjoyable. The wider base for your foot, the arch support, and lightness all made for a better, safer day. I calculated that in one day I lifted and moved 1850 lbs so to set up a photoshoot for the Hana Hou Magazine photographer that was visiting the farm. It was just a few bushels of pumpkins, but they were lifted and carried back and forth as props. It adds up. With the change to better shoes, I found that I was working longer hours, but I was less tired.

I don’t really want to get injured, nor do I desire windstorms, but I also know that when you choose to garden or farm, you put yourself in a very physical job immersed in unpredictable conditions. Complaining about the weather is a bonding experience for many of us, but let’s remind ourselves that we can use those unpredictable times to push us in a new direction, to reinvent, rest, or seek inspiration. Let a scorcher of a day lead you to an ice cream cone once in a while. Open a book and rest your back. Your productivity may actually increase. We may help to motivate a new generation of farmers if we treat ourselves with the same care and respect with which we treat out soil, our produce, and our communities. So let’s farm by example, and do our best to roll with it.

One thought on “Facing Uncertainty on the Farm

  1. Too bad we didn’t get to come out to the farm at the start of July could have eloped you till that spent grain into the soil. Good luck on your year season

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s