What Am I Doing?

Note:  Since starting this post last night, I have begun to feel a bit better and I’ve been buoyed, not back to optimism, but at least back to stability.  Maybe admitting hardship is the first step in coping with the challenges we are facing.

“Looking at him, you knew he was a man who had not spared himself.  He had the lean look, not of a young man or of a man at all maybe, but of an old timber after the sapwood has sloughed away.  You knew he was either distant or cold or proud or shy, for nothing that he was thinking showed in his face, and he had far less to say than Nathan ever did.  By reputation, he was work-brittle and enduring, scornful of hardship and discomfort…  He had learned to live for work, not out of need or greed, and not as a burden, but as a comfort, the mere interest and pleasure of seeing each task accomplished as each year brought it around again.”  Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

Until now I’ve always been able to throw myself at any difficulty, and I’ve always been able to outlast and outwork my challenges.  I’ve heard all the talk about burnout, but never before have I felt overmatched by a challenge.  I’ve never considered that burnout was a possibility for someone with as much grit as I give myself credit for.  But something has changed.  I’m working two jobs, the farm being about 60 hours each week, the other job 40 hours a week to subsidize the farm’s losses.  The long hours are hard, but they aren’t the thing that gets me.  The unremitting financial stress of operating the farm at a loss adds a level of anxiety and futility to my work that has been acutely distressing, watching the bills pile up almost in inverse proportion to the effort I make.  Lately I’ve been feeling clenching in my stomach, today my stomach is on fire.  Lots of other people have gastric problems, but that always happened to “other people”; I never imagined that I’d be stressing myself into ulcers.  I don’t accept failure well, so I’m a hard person to be around these days.

I didn’t expect to make a fortune in farming.  In fact my initial plans didn’t forecast breaking even until year five.  My updated forecast puts the breakeven in year seven, so my earlier plans weren’t terribly far off.  But now that I’m starting my sixth year, I recognize that despite all that financial planning, I never contemplated what it would feel like to go through such a pressure cooker.

I know I could save a little money by being more frugal, but I don’t think anyone looking around our farm would find extravagance.  And I don’t think that we can achieve the kinds of efficiencies we need just by frugality; I believe we’ll need to continue to invest in infrastructure and equipment, either that or work more hours.  The scarier prospect is that beyond breaking even, the farm needs to grow four to six times our current production in order to support ourselves with a $10 per hour pay rate.

I wonder about the level of my self delusion.  Can I outlast the startup challenge?  Can I make this farm into something that is self supporting and that makes a living for my family rather than only costing us all our strength and all our money?  Can I ever grow the farm into something that pays us a living wage?  Can I  create something in which one of our kids would consider investing their life’s work?  Until now I always would have answered “yes” unequivocally.  Now I’m not so positive.  I’ve gone as far as I can go on bullheadedness.  Grim determination can only get me so far.  I’ll need wisdom to go any further.


5 Comments on “What Am I Doing?

    • Thanks Aud. That’s a nice compliment, I think. I can’t say you are my favorite sister without risking some discord. So let me just say you are definitely in the top three. How’s that?

  1. Hi Dave,
    I pray God will give you that wisdom you need to know how to move forward. I love what you are doing and wish I were younger and could do something like it! Have you spoken with other successful organic biodynamic farmers who have been successful? I think of Hawthorn Farms not far from you there in upstate NY. They are just off the Taconic Parkway near the MA border. I think they would be considered successful, at least they have been doing it long enough to have created a school to teach others “how”. We love in rural KY and see lots of struggling farms, though most are not struggling, but taking the gov money to grow GMO crops and raise CAFO animals who need to be fed loads of antibiotics just to remain alive. I pray God will give you wisdom and strength to carry on through this tough time! Lois Stickler
    PS Wendell Berry is something of an icon in rural Henry County, where we live. The Berry name is on everything around here. He loves not far away from us.

    • Thanks Lois. Hawthorne Valley Farms is certainly successful, but as with other locally famous farms like Stone Barns, they are backed by substantial endowments. So not to dismiss their success or to detract from them in any way (I don’t want to imply that their financial position makes them bad guys), but when I’ve talked to farmers from those sorts of places that have no shortage of capital, their relationship to farm expenditures and planning is entirely different.
      A few years ago Rachel wrote to Wendell Berry thanking him for his books and poems. True to form, she received a letter back that wasn’t a generic form letter. It wasn’t long, but he had taken the time to read and to respond,

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