After a long, exhausting, and challenging (but successful!) week where this farm sent out a record amount of food, I was hoping to wake up to a slow news day on Sunday. Alas, in a world full of love and good people, hate still claims the news and forces our attention on the horrible. It engages our fascination with the abomination (credit to Joseph Conrad for the phrase) and, if we’re not careful, lands us deep in a tar pit of despair over the state of humanity.
And so once again, we retreated to the river for some nature immersion with the wonderful, kind, and generous fellow river-loving people who continuously welcome us into their world with gentle, open arms. We returned to the farm Sunday evening full of gratitude, love, and hope for our fellow human beings.
The truth, that we so often need reminded of because our brains are wired to emphasize the negative and bad news is what keeps us watching or listening, is that we’re surrounded by good people committing random acts of kindness all around us all the time. Our minds can so easily skip right over the held door, the small smile, the car that stopped to let us into the traffic flow. But if we just shift our focus a little bit, we’ll see that this is the actual reality around us: kindness and humanity are our “normal”.
This weekend, I saw a reunion between a 23 year old and his 6th grade school teacher. Maybe 6th grade was too young to feel this way, but I would have wanted to impress her—or at least not disappoint her. I often wonder about some of my teachers, especially English teachers, who interact with their former students in the age of social media. Are they disappointed? Impressed? Do they feel like it reflects on them at all?
All this is in focus for us this week because our mentor farmers are coming for a visit. Suddenly, we’re eyeing up every escaped weed, every evidence of disorganization, every problem and needed repair with laser vision like those things might take precedence over this week’s planting schedule. They won’t, but we might kick in a few extra hours in the evenings to at least hide them 😊.
I mean, we’re proud of how far we’ve come with the knowledge our elders passed along to us, but can’t help but want to impress them with all we’ve learned from them and where we took their ideas and systems and ran with them. We want to reflect well on them. We want them to be impressed by their own teaching skills. And so we find ourselves once again, like nail biting school children on test day—did we learn it well enough to get that coveted sticker from the teacher??
I’ve often talked about the choreography of farm management. The planning of how 8 people will move about the farm all day/week/month tackling which tasks in which order to make the most efficient use of everyone’s time while accomplishing all the tasks around the current weather pattern. It’s a delicate dance, and really beautiful when you pull it off.
I’ve recently expanded this choreography to our whole lives, which is even more delicate. Early on in our careers, the farm was the baby: we catered to it’s every whim, sometimes fumbling to figure out what it needed before we spoke the same language. We worked late nights and weekends just trying to keep this baby alive. You know the tired and crazed look all new parents have—we looked like that. But we were young and didn’t mind and could handle loads more lack of sleep and physical exhaustion.
As we and the farm have matured, a little more balance is necessary. The dance has become less frantic putting out fires, and more about the delicate details of pulling in all the variables and planning properly. Little details that now include a life outside the farm, now that it’s grown and we know how to provide what it needs in advance. The choreography now includes our human needs of down time, social connection, exercise, rest, play, normal household duties, and pursuits or hobbies outside of the farm. Too much of any of those, including farm work, can leave us discombobulated and not our best selves. This more intricate balancing act is, of course, more challenging, but also even more beautiful when you pull it off.
There’s this trend in yoga to take a picture when you first start trying a pose, or really anytime. Then to take another picture trying the same pose each year of your practice (bonus points if you’re in the same place wearing the same clothes) and place the pictures side by side to see your improvement. I’ve never done this but today as I was cleaning out old files from the filing cabinet (what do you do on rainy days?), I found this newspaper clipping from our first Hickory Farmers Market in our first year of farming here.
Oh! How far we’ve come since our humble beginnings all those years ago. It’s good to look back sometimes and cringe—to see represented in photos all the things you’ve learned, all the improvements you’ve made, to see how far you’ve come.
This is the week we’ve all been preparing for. Our farmily is complete this week and we all move to full-time work. We jumped right into teamwork to cover our last two high tunnels to prepare for pepper planting this week. Then all of the tunnels will be completely full and our outside fields are filling up fast with cool season crops. Kelsey seeded our first warm season outdoor crops today in the greenhouse and we’re off and running.
This week kicks off the rush of the season. Both Charlotte and Boone farmers markets begin this Saturday and so every week adds more and more harvest time to our busy planting and crop-tending schedule. Since Jason and I have been slowly entering the realm of whitewater kayaking, a kayak metaphor seems appropriate.
It’s as if we’ve been paddling down a placid river and have suddenly encroached upon a waterfall followed by a long series of (insert whitewater lingo here) super-fast and challenging rapids that will last until at least September. It will be chaotic and slightly terrifying, with one challenge after another with no reprieve, but we’ve paddled this route before and managed not to die, and we know more or less which lines to follow down the course. Every run is slightly different, of course, but we’ve practiced and we know how roll when we get in trouble. And there’s the promise of celebration at the end!
I’ve never considered myself an adrenaline junkie before, but market farming is not so placid—the season moves fast and furious—so maybe I’ll have to reconsider that image of myself.
We speak of "grounded" as if it's next to godliness. But I've always been grounded. I'm so grounded I'm half buried in dirt. Sometimes I yearn for some head in the clouds--some dreaminess. Some floating. Ground is stable, which has many benefits, but is also boring. It grinds the imagination down.
It's days like these that make me wonder: Did I live my most interesting life when I was young? While I'm extremely proud of what we've built here, and what we're still building here, I still get a hint of wanderlust from time to time. Just a whiff. A craving for adventure, for intrigue, for stories to tell. Being consistently content is great, but boring.
It's these moments when you're no longer a tourist in your backyard. When everything becomes "normal" and you forget to notice the astounding beauty around you. You know you're supposed to, but you're like that person trying to catch the autumn leaves at just the right time-- you're just waiting for something to happen that's out of your control, and then you'll jump into action.
What is in my control is the opening of my eyes. Or closing and re-opening them to notice the wonders all around me. To follow my curiosity. To create stories right in the here and now. And occasionally, to stick my head in the clouds and dream.
The sense of freedom washes over me and it is both terrifying and liberating. I mean, sometimes it would be nice to have a model to follow—a clear set of instructions. But it’s liberating to thing with imagination: “We could do this or be this. It doesn’t matter if no one’s ever done it that way before, we can do it.”
I can attend workshop after workshop, webinar after webinar (well, as many as my terrible internet allows me to attend), and pick up new and useful information. But I’m still applying it to our unique system and environment and culture here. And it will still likely look a bit different than the place from which I garnered the information or idea.
These are the things I ponder as I try to imagine and plan for the future Tumbling Shoals Farm. We have such a dynamic and competent team right now that I find myself working to create a succession plan in which they take over the farm. At times, I wish I had a good manual to follow, but there just isn’t one that I know of, and so I’m both free to create (and burdened with the task of creating) a plan of our very own. All while doing my best to also enjoy the current time with these dynamic and competent people.
Winter and early spring are the most time affluent periods of our farming season. Hence, this is the time we take to do equipment—of all sorts including our bodies. We rest and sleep and vacate, all part of maintenance, yes, but also we head to the gym, do more cardio, reconnect with our social networks and families, and we work on what I like to call “side quests” like learning new skills or just pursuing hobbies that are completely related to farming.
Just like the oil changes, filter replacements, and grease that keeps our equipment going, the human maintenance is what keeps the farmers going. Our main season can get kind of intense (working 6+ days/week for 8-9 months) and unsustainable. So we do our best to balance it out in the three months of slower time that we take to do our own personal maintenance.
That slow times speeds up a bit next week as more of our crew returns to work again and the planting schedule really kicks into gear. But we’re ready. We’ll continue to do our best to keep some of our maintenance/side quest routines in order to ease back into full swing (I will continue to learn how to roll my kayak until I get it, for example), but we feel refreshed and ready to take on the new season.
The seasonality of this work is one of the things I’m most grateful for. I recognize that most people have a more sustainable schedule and have a bit of time for maintenance activities regularly, I have become accustomed to this yearly balancing routine and have come to prefer it. Knowing the break is coming in December keeps me going at full speed when our crops (and weeds) are growing the fastest and the most markets are up and running at full tilt.
A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to pay little attention to what others were doing and just focus on my little corner of the world. I don’t mean callously, but more like less judgmental. I can recall the exact moment. Why, I realized, was I spending energy worrying about what others were doing that I perceived as wrong? What good was that putting into the world? And what if my perception of wrong was, well, wrong? And even if my perception wasn’t wrong, why did I think that was my job to sort it out?
And so I quietly descended from my high horse😊 and turned inward to my little corner of the world. It’s harder to pay attention and thus, judge, from solid ground. Plus, not paying attention gave me more energy to work on my own, uh, manure, and work on doing the absolute best we can in our own lives and work.
I chose this path because of the wasted energy, the negativity, and because of my own sanity, but the unintended result of this is that the farm—where we spend so much of our time—has become more of a bastion, a shelter, a big ball of love. Seriously, the farmily has a giant beating heart that is pumping it’s love outward into the community, and the community pumps it back. People want to be here; I want to be here. This, I think, must be what they mean by “fulfilling work”. We feed families, yes, that is our mission, but we also feed our own souls by doing the work in such a warm symbiotic environment.
I don’t like the cold. Thus, I tend to have very harsh feelings about winter, especially the whole working outside in the cold part of winter. But as with everything, there’s a silver lining. Local food may be harder won in the winter, but it’s also sweeter. I won’t bore you with the science of cold temperatures on the natural sugars in veggies, but the resulting effect on the taste buds is sensational.
I’m sure this can be a metaphor: harder won things are worth working harder to win them? Perhaps (although don’t ask Mallory, who had to take two consecutive hot showers last week to warm up). All I know is that ever since we made the decision to keep growing food through the winter, my taste buds have warmed me up to the idea. I say this, of course, as I sit inside my, um, “corner office” (which is actually a closet) inside a heated and insulated house. So there’s that. But the sun is out, there are still some gorgeous leaves on the trees, and we're setting up a temporary winter produce wash station in the heated greenhouse and, well, I'm headed south for a bit.