On Christmas eve this year– a holiday I become more and more uncertain about how I wish to celebrate or appreciate– I planted garlic.
It was late in the ground for many reasons. And if you’re a farmer, you’ll see this December post in the Midwest and very much understand how late this is. But, finding soft, plant-able soil on a warm day in the dead of winter felt like a sign that it’s still possible, maybe meant to be, that I could still fulfill my goal of having a whole garlic bed completely dedicated to both food and medicine creation.
So, I lurched forward. I just needed to do it. And I finally had the energy to do so. Even if it happened to fall on a holiday. (Such can be the nature of farming).
It got me thinking about how farmers are so hard on themselves, often for what feels like such unreasonable and, I should add, very outdated reasons to me. This includes yours truly: I’ve been so hard on myself for not working at full physical capacity this year. Even if for completely understandable reasons, such as learning how to manage a new chronic illness, which I am only now just figuring out how to put a dent in what feels like never-ending pain while still managing to grow things for part of my living. And which was why the garlic was planted so late.
It’s been a lesson in surrender. Old me would have been upset, freaking out to be planting on a Holiday. I would be beating myself up that I hadn’t gotten it done earlier so that I could just relax, or maybe just because most farmers would be embarrassed or wince at me for saying it got done this late. All because pain and life circumstances I couldn’t control had stopped me earlier, and I was forced to slow down, pay attention to it, listen to it, actually attend to it. But even then, thinking, “I’m such a bad farmer.” All because I had to put myself first at those times – put me and my body before my ideals.
I’ve farmed and worked at farms for about 12 years now, about 7 years of that having managed fully operational farms or running my own. I took pride in the farmer culture I absorbed in my 20’s, yes. That you simply run yourself into the ground running your business and growing food for your community, and that’s that, that’s how you’re a true farmer. And run myself into the ground I did, proudly. Days off, what? Taking time off in the summer? Are you insane? That person is not a real farmer, if…. fill in the blank. That was during a time when I was younger and my body could afford to pay for that ethos.
Where did this ethos come from, I wonder? That you are not a “true” farmer if you do not rise at the crack of dawn, daily, with automatic joy and cheer? That having no days off to care for yourself and loved ones is to be worn like a badge of pride? That the less subsidized your farming is by other pursuits or careers (or dare I say, the government or grants) the “purer” it is? That you’re ungrateful and spoiled if you inherit the family farm and land, and will have no true taste of what scraping out the farming living was ever truly like – Or, inversely, if you’re the first generation of farmers in your family ever (or for a long time), you’re still not a “true” farmer somehow?
And lastly, that somehow, unsustainable self-sacrifice is all part of the practice of running a sustainable farm? And if you’re not doing all of this while turning a profit, you’re still nowhere near what a true farmer is, or was?
This does not sound very sustainable to me. Between you and me, I do not think it is an ethos that was dreamed up by farmers themselves. And because I ascribe myself less and less to these things as I get older, the less and less I feel like I am a “true” farmer, or a “real” farmer, and others might agree…but I can’t help but wonder why this is. Do shame and perfectionism have to be the fuel for growing food? What does shame accomplish?
I look at my peers and what they share publicly, however, and how giving one’s growing passions almost entirely to economic or perfectionistic gain seems to be the norm. And, when things inevitably go wrong– which they always do when farming, as we toy with a thin line between life and death that we can never completely control– farmers are crushed by the the loss of a crop, a weather event, or the death of an animal or several animals that are only happenings in nature we could never hope to control. But we still carry all the shame, as if we have not done enough.
I continue to wonder. Where are the farmers of old who held tight to these ethos, and how are they doing? How are their families doing? Do they still have their lands, their jobs, their occupations, their fully intact farming legacy? Who profited off that legacy, the farmers themselves…or someone else? Are these farmers and their progeny mentally healthy chasing these ideals in today’s day and age? Are they happy? Physically well? How did they manage to pursue this perfect ethos when grief, tragedy, loss, and chronic illness outside of the farming passion emerged out of nowhere to flatten them? While they farmed, were they good to their partners, their families, their children? Was putting food on the table enough?
Did the community, the economy, and the government compensate them for this self-sacrifice? Now as I approach my mid-30’s, and take stock of where my body is now after all that, I realize I can’t pay for this ethos anymore. I feel a strong respect and kudos to those who still can, and do. If this causes me to fall into a different category of person for you, so be it.
My very late planting of garlic could have brought me a ton of crushing shame, worry, and anxiety.
Instead, it turned into a delightful, sacred-feeling moment on the ridgetop. I was completely wreathed in fog while pushing cloves into the soft earth that next year will turn into food and medicine for many people.
I found I didn’t care it was Christmas eve at all, I most didn’t notice. Nor that the planting was late, or that I was working on a holiday covered in mud, still :trying” to farm well.
What I did notice is that growing things had been woven into my life in a way that was almost secondhand, natural, and enjoyable under the right circumstances– one of these having a pain-free body in that moment– to the point where it was laborious, sure, but did not feel like “work.” To be more specific, the act of planting garlic late did not fill me with shame. I was just in the present.
And I was just happy. Because the moment and meaning behind it was beautiful, and I felt grateful and humbled that I could even do this with my life, period.
So, here’s to warm feelings on this winter occasion, dear blog readers out there, no matter how and what you celebrate. Whether you consider yourself a farmer, an herbalist, or just a unique person who transcends those labels but happens to like growing healthful food, to make healthful food, to take care of plants, and to make abundantly healthful things out of those plants.
This blog post is also a bit of an update on my transformation as both a farmer and herbalist, in response to chronic illness, with more updates to follow on this soon. Next year, as I grow things for Jupiter Ridge Farm alongside my husband, I’m putting a renewed focus on the types of things I grow having a strong overlap with the health and herbalism world – and delving into some flavor artistry as well.
My goal is to create more health- and herbalist-related products from the many things I grow. I’m also intent on having more and more of what I grow, that cannot be sold or crafted, donated and landing in communities in need. There will not only be an expansion to our online shop, but an Etsy shop as well with wider shipping options, and to be able to share the magic of what I grow on the ground here, in Driftless Iowa soil, with people beyond Iowa as well. A lot of people are completely unaware of Iowa’s overlooked magic and I wish to change that, as I truly feel I’ve chosen to live and grow in an endlessly magical place. Updates on this soon…
A CSA next year is up in the air but still very possible, with much fewer members and a much greater emphasis on Farm Share boxes that will be more customizable and directly delivered to you. Think an online produce store and apothecary – even now I’m feeling how non-traditional this is in the farming world, but realizing how little I care as long as healthy food, nutrition, and herbs can get to people.
I’m trying to remind myself and embody the lesson that if you’re a farmer, it doesn’t help to be too hard on yourself, compare what you do with others, or burn yourself out running everything into the ground pursuing outdated ideals or some notion of the “perfect farm” – ideals that have helped me for years, but now feel obsolete.
What matters more to me is that the food itself comes out of the ground and nourishes others, and that I can learn to do it in a way that nourishes myself in the process.
As I continue to grow, learn, and produce as a farmer and herbalist, I’m excited by the possibilities and what passions I can still create when I take the extra time to take care of my mind and body first, now that I’m just learning.
It is daunting to think of “time lost” in the efficient mind of a farmer that is instead going towards better health and taking care of the self. But then I think of all the time lost to abandoning pain, imbalance, and the shame felt afterwards when burning myself out made me lose time regardless in the first place. We all start to run right up against our limitations as we get older….
….and if farming and growing things for a living isn’t teaching us that, then are we really listening?