Farm School: Day 1
Yesterday I went to the first day of Farm School. I woke up early to milk and got ready to go as I would for a day at work, but the drive out to the County Ag Extension office, just 5 miles down the road, felt more familiar then my commute into the office. I felt energized to start this day as opposed to those mornings I have to fight myself to crawl from bed, into a car, then into a desk for 8 hours at the computer. As soon as everyone started to stand and introduce themselves in the morning, it was evident I was in the right place – do you know what I mean by that? For years I’ve shown up to meetings where policy and research are discussed and debated. I’ve watched countless individuals lean across tables to passionately punctuate their arguments with rapid hand gestures. They speak from their guts because this is the work that drives them from bed each day, to coif their hair and slide into professional clothing, fighting hard to further the issues they champion. I used to be a table leaner. I’d arrive at those meetings shined as a penny and ready to blurt out whatever findings I’d read in a study, anxious to attach myself to some project for the greater good. Over time, however, I leaned forward less. My interactions became flat, un-animated, and I started to recline in my chair, stopped showing up in heels; exchanged them for comfortable flats. Did just enough to get by and doodled while everyone else threw their passions on the table.
For the first time in years I felt like leaning forward again. Every person in the class clung to a singular, common thread: farming. Whether it was selling tomatoes from their backyard garden to opening a vineyard, to creating an educational farm for children – we all care deeply about our food. Here, I mentioned my cows without getting a second look, that familiar stink eye when someone sizes you up again (You own what?). Here, we exchanged stories about chicken predators, talked about the benefits of eating grass-fed vs. corn-finished cattle. There were discussions about the farmer’s market in my small town and the stirring farming movement in the town just down the road. I met my county ag extension agent who asked to visit the farm and learn how the extension office can better serve our efforts. The day itself consisted of a long discussion about business plan development and business management from an A&M ag professor. Despite being rather high level and more targeted to large producers, two of his key points resonated:
1) Be adaptable to your market without compromising your core values.
2) Are your dreams a vision or a hallucination? Know the difference.
This 5-class series covers a range of topics from fruit crops to social media marketing, but yesterday’s class was arguably the most important, dealing us a hand flush with reality: money. Do you have any to spend on getting started? Do you know how to get it, spend it well? How much is needed? What’s your business plan look like – oh you don’t have one?! That sort of thing. In the afternoon we met with the USDA lending agent for our county along with a private lender, in addition to discussing other options like grants and Kickstarter. The USDA agent told us how, back when she lived in Georgia, she received most of her cold calls on Monday mornings during blueberry season. People would call her when sitting in traffic heading into their offices on Monday mornings after a weekend spent picking blueberries with their families. “They just wanted out but didn’t have a crystallized idea of what exactly they wanted. My job is to help you distinguish between the vision and the hallucination. Do you really want to do this, or are you just having a crappy week.” We all laughed at this distinction since, for most of us probably, that line was drawn some time ago, long before we even signed up for the class. More than ever I’m confident we’re not in the midst of a hallucination – just stuck somewhere before getting our hands around a vision. I think the first step is identifying that you’ve been in the wrong place and understanding what feels right. And yesterday was closer to the right place then I have been in many years. I did feel a little lonely as the only person interested in dairy but hopeful this means the market has room enough to bear another little cheese/yogurt/ice cream maker – wherever the vision lands.
We ended the day touring Tecolote Farm, merely two miles from my place. We stood under old oak trees and learned about some of their choices, values, and the obstacles they’ve faced to break into and remain a strong presence in the local food community. Then we watched as their crew drove from the field in a truck brimming with fresh tomatoes and observed as they cleaned and prepped produce for the CSA (community supported agriculture) baskets for next day delivery. The group of us gathered was hot, mostly wearing cowboy and straw hats, squinting around the property in the July sun. We snapped pictures of the old tractor and the food bins or the rows of verdant plants sprawled behind the farmhouse. I think we’re a hopeful bunch, most of us likely in awe of the farm’s operation, turning the idea over in our heads carefully – how to get from here to there. It’s a delicate concept, the this to that reality of moving modest beginnings into something profitable, and after yesterday I’ve started flipping that thought over repeatedly. It’s not a mathematical equation – there’s no immediate answer. But just signing up for classes like this; it’s a start.
During the day, one of the women in my class walked up and touched my arm gently, “I just wanted to say, and I mean this in the best way, you just look like a goat herder and someone who works in dairy.” I smiled politely at first. Was this a veiled insult? What the hell does a goat herder look like – I wondered – with visions of manure-smeared, wild-eyed women racing through my head. Then she said, “When you talked about your goats, it was obvious you love what you do.” There was a rush of memories then, suddenly, the various hours – time accumulated over the past many years – spent convincing people “No I really do have livestock. I really do have a farm” their perception of me so colored by whichever office I stood within or conference I was attending. Now someone identified me for who, I suppose, I really am.
You could not have slapped the smile from my face.