It’s the middle of August and I’m finally getting around to writing a blog. My first of the season.
We chose to give gardening/farming a shot a few years ago for a few very specific reasons: we wanted to work outside as much as possible, we wanted to do something universally positive with the rest of our lives (meaningful work), and we wanted to create a sense of community centered around this old farm and the produce that grows on it. A community of good people, good deeds, and thoughtful conversation. We wanted to create something different in South Dakota-a healthy foods movement centered on local agriculture. After all, the reason we were even considering doing this was that we ourselves had had such an experience-we just happened to be in Mexico when it happened.
5 years into our experiment, I feel that we have somehow failed.
Looking back at ourselves imagining what our farm would be like in 5 years we had some pretty lofty dreams. We knew that farming would be hard work. We wanted that. But aside from the planting, weeding, and harvesting, we envisioned a community of friends surrounding the farm-shareholders, old friends, and family spending time on the farm to bond with new friends while simultaneously learning about their food. Bonfires. Kids classes. Community outreach. Square dances…well, maybe not square dances…And we had a little of that in our first year or two. Not to the extent that we’d hoped, but we had time to spend with our families. We had picnics and marshmallow roasts. Some of our city friends came to visit us and we relished the time with them, again. Old friends in new places. And we had lots of shareholders and their families visit the farm. It gave us joy to show their children where their food was growing-to pull a carrot from the ground, brush off the dirt, and hand it to a nervous 4 year old. And to watch as the child reluctantly took a bite, followed by another and after a bit was pulling carrots by himself. Dozens of times we’d just started making dinner after working 12 hours in the field and we’d hear a car come down the driveway…another shareholder coming to visit at 8:30 on a Thursday night. We’d stop making dinner, put our boots back on, and show them around the place-happily trading our home cooked dinner and ice cold beer for an opportunity to talk to another family about the importance of fresh food. We always had frozen pizzas on hand and we’d just heat one up once the sun went down.
But then something happened. Something changed. We were 3 years into farming and hadn’t made a dime of profit. We began trying to sell produce in other ways to try to get to profitability. Office deliveries. Farm stands in businesses. Market stands. Restaurants. Grocery stores. And we got closer to the farm operating in the black. But that progress was not without a cost. We had no spare time. Out the door as early as 3 am…dinner on the table each night at 8:30 or 9:00. 6 days a week. Sundays were days for us to fix things that broke during the week, do laundry, do grocery shopping, and sleep. If friends or family wanted to visit we just had to tell them that we weren’t available. Call us again in October.
Only in October we didn’t have time. I went back to work at the grain elevator in an attempt to put some money back in the bank. Nancy went to work at her two jobs-in Sioux Falls and at a bar/restaurant in Lennox. My first day back at the grain elevator started at noon on a Monday-I literally drove the delivery truck straight from Feeding South Dakota (where I had dropped off a few thousand pounds of squash) to the elevator. My first week was 91 hours. We both worked 7 days a week for the next 6 weeks. By mid-December we had paid off the annual farm loss and were back in the black.
The cost of lost or damaged friendships was incalculable. Not having time to return your mothers phone calls? How do you put a price on that? It’s OK that we’ll never get to go to a baseball game again. Or travel to Europe in summer. Or go backpacking in the mountains. Or take a summer bike ride. But even hard work has its limits and not having time to have a casual conversation with an old friend is unacceptable. The farm can’t have any more of me.
The farm is out of balance. We’ve lost track of why it was that we wanted to do this in the first place. We commonly talk about sustainability of the farm as being a balance of financial sustainability, environmental sustainability, and the sustainability of our energies. Two of the three were in serious question. But Nancy and I are optimists. And despite the floods of 2014, the season ended as perhaps our best growing season. We were optimistic that the CSA would turn the corner in 2015 and we’d get to our goal and push our farm into the black-allowing us to hire a few more employees and lessen the load on us. Our regular CSA retention rate was usually around 30%-very low by any standards. But last season had been pretty darned good. Our shareholders got as much food as they could take for the last few weeks of the season and everyone seemed incredibly satisfied.
Skip forward to this season. It seems that our “take what you need” strategy at the stands backfired. Our retention rate was a slightly improved, but nearly every shareholder downsized their share…full shares to half shares, half shares to quarters. We have as many shareholders and are feeding as many families but our revenues are down considerably. Couple that with more pick up locations and delivery options and we’re working harder than ever and have less time to enjoy the lifestyle promised by living in the country. Oh. And we’re going to lose a lot more money than we did last year. Not great.
These are troubling times for us. It’s pretty clear after 5 years of farming that the financials may never pan out. And if they do, at what additional cost? Our marriage? Our health? Neither are acceptable costs. And yet it’s hard to just quit. Last night we sat around a fire and some of our summer crew played instruments and sang songs. It was the first time all year that we actually had time to sit and relax. As they played and enjoyed themselves I sat in a dark shadow and held back tears. It’s hard to imagine going back to town and getting a regular job. They don’t offer moments like that. The cost for that moment was that we skipped the wedding of a friend. We were simply too tired to drive into town. I guess life has its trade-offs.
We’ve done the math already for this season and it’s official: our CSA revenues will run out well before the end of the season. We’ve both lined up jobs for when our growing season ends. Hopefully we can get our farm debts paid down a little sooner than last season so we can take the time to talk about the future and if farming plays a part of it. We both hope that it does. It’s the most meaningful work what we will ever do.