THE PARCHED LAND CRIES OUT FOR RAIN; my soul does too. We’ve been sowing cover crop and prepping for winter, but it won’t germinate without irrigation because everything is too dry. We sucked the pond down so far that the floating docks mired in the mud and ground one of the pumps to a halt; a $2500 mistake will make you beat yourself up pretty good, but that’s the life of the farmer.
You live and learn, getting better at the craft with each trip around the sun. One thing you learn is that no matter how much you figure out, you’re still gonna find new ways to make mistakes. The saying goes that this year is always the year, until sometime in August; then next year is the year.
In my decade as a food farmer, I’ve never experienced such a long, dry fall. We’re still harvesting a bountiful crop of tomatoes and peppers, and the eggplants are in full flower with another flush of fruit. The cover crop that has managed to germinate (located close to the drip irrigation) is lush and thick. The pasture that I irrigated is a vibrant, thriving green, but my soul is parched and my injured shoulder is desperate for some rainy days.
We rely on the rainy downtime for compliance work, strategic planning, crop planning and budgeting for the year to come. The rain is important for our bodies and spirits, that we may rest and rejuvenate; I hope for a speedy arrival. Being a farmer means that there is always work to be done; this is both the blessing and curse of the calling. We call it job security, but it can also be a strain on the psyche because the work is never finished.
You can’t go big picture with farmwork; you have to stay centered in the present and focused on the tasks at hand. If you pull the focus out too far, all you see is an endless grind of labor that will win out in the end; the body has a finite lifespan. Ten years ago I was invincible; now I’m not so sure.
If you zoom the lens out too far, the work can be overwhelming, but the correct focus provides access to the flow state of engaged practice. Farming is like life; stay in the present and do your best. Utilize the lessons of the past to guide current practice, like a structural framework, but don’t dwell on them. Mistakes are part of life; learn from them and move on.
I could beat myself up about ruining the water pump, but what’s the point? It’s imperative to have permission to make mistakes, otherwise innovation will be stymied by fear and flow will be broken by concern. They say that worrying is like praying for things you don’t want, so don’t do it.
As I write, the glow expands upon the Eastern skyline. Day breaks upon my reality, with joy, love, and work. I am glad to have the opportunity to work the land; to increase soil fertility and bounty over time. It is a thrill to produce nourishment for my community and to see the land flourish with our efforts. The life of the farmer is a process of deepening connection with the land; a visceral reminder of the bond between us.
My identity is defined by my relationship with land and my work upon it. I treasure the opportunity and am grateful for my place in the world. As I move through life, my body carries the memory of the many injuries and strains that have been done to it. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but I am also forced to reflect on the fact that I won’t be able to do it forever. One of the great travesties of American farming is that there is very little in the way of safety nets.
My injured shoulder is a constant reminder of the frailty of life. I reflect on the fact that I need to learn to be more careful in my work. I tend to use my body with rough, blunt force; O’Neills are stubborn, determined workers, often at the expense of body parts. It is time for me to learn how to be more cautious in my efforts, so that I can maintain my life of physical labor for as long as possible. It is also time for me to plan for the future; I expect that over time, we will transition away from rapid rotation, labor intensive crops to more perennial cultivation with fewer labor requirements.
It is an odd feeling to be in charge of payroll, work comp, and the other paperwork aspects of employment, but that is part of the tradeoff for not doing all of the labor myself. I enjoy mentoring young farmers, and I expect that over time our internship program will be able to take on some of the physical labor requirements as I age. Though I hope to have many years of physical prowess left, I find comfort in the process of considering options and alternatives. Focusing the lens is necessary; too much in the future is not helpful, but without an idea of where we are going it is easy to become mired and stuck. It is a joy to learn the lessons, though they may be painful. Much love and Great Success 🙂
Casey O’Neill co-operates HappyDay Farms, a micro-diversified farm in northern Mendocino County, California. His family raises two acres of Sun&Earth and DEMPure Certified vegetables, poultry and medical cannabis in a small-farm setting while working towards sustainability. He is stoked about sharing food, medicine and cultivation techniques with others. He is passionate about representing small farmers and works to support Mendocino County policy-makers in crafting sensible regulations. You can find his radio show on podcast at HappyDay Farms - Farm and Reefer Report on iTunes or Soundcloud.