Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Chapter 4" - Back Again and Lessons Learned

An honest title for this final chapter describing my transition to full-time garlic farming this summer would have been "Slowing Down/What's That?! Lessons Learned Anyway :-)".

Again, to briefly recap Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 , this summer (our first living full-time on the farm) found me loving living here and farming full-time, but thinking, thinking, thinking (all the time, day and night) about everything that needed to be done and running, running, running trying to do it all and eventually not sleeping. Chapter 3 described just how the Universe got me to 'slow down' with a major medical crisis needing a 3-day hospitalization that I described fully in "Wham Bam!".

However, I understand the concept of 'slowing down' is desirable, but to be honest, I also find it  ambiguous in regards to both the actual goal and the means of doing so! I have enjoyed taking time to cook and even preserve some food and for about one week I was able to keep up with filling our bird feeders and even enjoying looking at my birds, but during the two weeks since I last posted, I have been able to see and feel my life speeding up again.

Why? When you're a farmer and have crops to sell (even a 'durable crop' like garlic that has storage capacity, but only if you have the correct storage facilities), you have to 'make hay while the sun shines' so to speak, getting your product to your customers, in our case to three local farmers' markets, when your customers expect to see you, rain or shine, with full baskets of multiple assorted garlic varieties.When they are ready to buy, you need to be ready to sell!

It's difficult to figure out a business model. Where should we try to sell our garlic? How much time needs to be spent marketing and selling versus farming? How do we set prices? How do we sell all our products at the highest price that is both possible and appropriate? Can we can get all the work done by ourselves or do we have to hire someone to help? How many people would be needed? Can volunteers do this or do we really need to hire 'help'? How much to pay? How fast can they learn, how fast can they work, how careful will they be? Will we still make any money after our expenses? Why are some growers 'dumping' or 'undercutting' our prices?

These questions are only the tip of the iceberg that occupy our minds and our discussions over meals, whenever we're in the car together, and increasingly racing through my mind at night when I was wide awake. (The first year we started our farm, we used to say we knew we were 'real' farmers because we discussed the drainage issues of our fields over dinner! There are still drainage issues in the fields and with our house, and maybe there always will be, but we have clearly added other concerns to our worries!)

I read a book recently about the joys of vegetable gardening, in which the author interviewed some small farmers who had made the jump from 'gardening' to 'farming'. One line caught my eye and brought tears to my eyes with full understanding in my brain, my heart, and in my gut, in which one of the new farmers said that the difference between gardening for yourself and farming for a living was the constant 'cramming' that was needed to be done each and every night when daylight finally dimmed enough to bring you out of the fields and back into the house.

Yes, I understand that. Reading, reading, reading books and internet sites, or talking to other new farmers takes up more time than either of us ever imagined, trying to figure things out as quickly as possible, because our 'cash flow' is on the line. In addition, equally important if not even more important, our 'place' in our community of local food growers and buyers needs to be earned. It's not 'if you plant it, they will come, i.e. buy!"

Getting just an inkling of our busy life, a friend recently asked me "Do you HAVE to do this?" Without missing a beat, I answered truthfully "We WANT to be doing this!" :-) With a different tack however, other people we know have called us 'retired' (ha!), or used the term 'hobby farmer', even 'gentlemen farmer', to describe what we are doing.

Another book I read sometime during the past year about starting up a new farm had a cute title (a 'publisher-type' of title), which I would have promptly and more truthfully re-titled as The Non-Stop Life. Reading it made me laugh a lot, but also weep, again with full visceral understanding of the long days, the days when things seemed to go wrong or just not get started. I have found it not uncommon to hear myself say "we are a year behind on that project", seriously!, even though we feel as though we are working 36-hour days, every single day.

In addition, there is the near universal confession in these books (plus from us along with many of our young-new farmers friends) that those of us growing this beautiful, delicious, and healthy food to sell to our community are regularly too tired to cook and/or eat our own good food.

Going back to knowing that we had a LOT of garlic that needed to be sold this year plus the knowledge that 'our place within the local foods community' needed to be earned have been the two underlying forces leading to the sense of not having the luxury to slow down. Yes, we continue to re-evaluate how to work smarter, not harder, but we still have high expectations for ourselves and need for that positive 'cash flow', both of which have led us both to work, work, work to achieve those two major inter-twining goals. (I have always loved the 'braided' rivers I first saw in Alaska, which is the image I see in my mind for these paths leading to the achievement of our goals).

This past week was our last week for the year with 3 back-to-back-to-back farmers' markets scheduled (two have now ended, one will continue through October). Weather is such a big factor for market turnouts, that when we checked the weather forecast for this past week (rain, rain, and more rain), we groaned and groaned. Maybe it will be wrong; it often has been, all summer long! No, this time the forecast and the actual weather converged accurately. It rained, and rained very hard, each of our market days this past week.

And yet, and yet........we had our best week EVER financially. :-) People came anyway, and they came to the market to buy our garlic. Many people bought a LOT of our garlic to last them through the winter and into the spring without needing to buy store-bought garlic, which is regularly grown overseas, may be a full year old by the time it reaches your local grocery store, chemically treated to successfully store that long, and likely be dry and far less flavorful than ours (even if the same variety).

Thank you to all of our 2011 customers, whether you bought from us once or came back weekly ('See you next week' was music to our ears!) It does look like we will sell out during October! Our gamble last year at this time to plant double the amount that we had planted in 2009 has paid off. We worked very, very hard to market and sell our much larger garlic crop harvested in 2011. I'll be honest. What a relief!

However, again, as I mentioned above, equally if not more important than just 'selling out', we knew we needed to 'earn our respected spot' within our local food growing and food buying communities. Being a novelty as 'old-new' farmers would not be enough. We knew that going into this new venture. We were starting a new small business and knew how much work a new business needs to be successful plus we know the odds against both initial and long-term success for most new small companies.

However, I think our 'sweet success' came this past Thursday evening at the end of the market day. With the rain pouring down, the chef at the Ann Arbor Westside Farmers' Market (located in the parking lot of Zingerman's Roadhouse) came to our market stall to buy and buy and buy as much of our garlic as he could round up cash to do so. He insisted on paying full price, saying our garlic was 'worth it', and thanked us for growing this great-tasting garlic, selling it for what it was worth, and educating our local community about all these varietal differences and appreciation of garlic.

After getting our van loaded up with our remaining garlic and market gear (all quite wet), we then went into the bar at Zingerman's Roadhouse to dry off, collapse, and celebrate with a few other vendor friends. One of the founders of the Roadhouse (along with Zingerman's Delicatessen and the other Zingerman's businesses) who was the strong advocate for the founding of this new farmers' market came to say hi to our small group of vendors enjoying a beer. He extended his congratulations for a great season, saying that seeing us right then 'just made his day'. I think his huge smile (in addition to the large amount his chef bought from us that night) told us that we had 'earned' our spot in our community of both local food growers and local food buyers. I slept well that night. :-)

The biggest lesson (re)learned this summer that I have not already articulated in previous posts came from a third book that I breezed through recently when I spent a morning in bed trying to shake off a new cold/virus (again another easy to read book about starting a new farm from scratch, told from the perspective of a young-new farmer). The author also (like me) quickly became overwhelmed with both happiness and the 'to do list'. She also was bone-tired, not eating well, not sleeping well, constantly thinking about how to better plant, grow, market, sell, make enough money, how to 'please' various types of 'fussy' buyers (thankfully we have very few of these!), how to maintain a relationship when you are so tired you find yourself getting 'snappy' more times than you want to admit, wondering how to explain your passion and and sense of mission ("do you have to do this?") to your parents, your non-farmer friends and relatives (i.e., your 'old world'), and there are so many additional similarities that I could go on and on and on articulating them, including the author having no time for her passion of writing and blogging!

I forget the exact 'crisis' and/or epiphany that this author experienced but it led me to remember the phrase "Rome was not built in a day." Of course! I know that life is an organic, evolving process of 'baby steps'. :-)

"Hello, Diana, the Universe calling again, gently reminding you that you are the one who chose the headline for your blog, i.e. 'Cultivate your life - you are what you grow - inch by inch, row by row'. You put that up on your blog in 2007. So I know that you know that life is 'baby steps'. You know that you know that, and now I hope we can both rest assured that you will remember those words of wisdom and stop trying to 'build Rome in a day', i.e.,  build your farm, repair your home and your land, making all of these and other major transitions to your new life in a day, in a year, or even in two years! This is what is called 'slowing down'. Move fast when you need to, but also take the time, indeed make the time to breathe deeply, look around to enjoy the beauty of your farm (even those annoying invasive species that will eventually be removed), and give yourself a break from your high expectations. You may sleep well tonight and every night, you've done a full day's work, even more, no one can ask for or expect more of you, feel the peace your soul is looking for and has earned."

Those of you who have read my blog since I started it in 2007 (and even read my email newsletters from 2002 through 2007) know I occasionally mention some aspect of my love for New Zealand. However, I don't know if I ever mentioned in my blog or newsletters that on one of our two trips, my husband and I almost spontaneously bought an organic winery. We did not, I guess our sensibility rose to the top, but knowing we came close to doing so made us think deeply about what we almost did, why, and why not.

Those cross-Pacific flights are long and can lead to long thoughts and discussions. We began (re) planning and seriously started looking for our own farm, closer to home, upon arriving back to the States after our second trip to NZ in 2007. :-)

The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, use the phrase 'kia ora' for both informal greetings (hello, how are you?) and departures (good-bye, see you!). However, between close friends, kia ora can also have deeper meanings, i.e. as a greeting it may mean 'how are you?' or 'how is your soul?' and is said in a manner that invites the friend to sit down and share thoughts and feelings. As a good-bye it may be used in a way that is closer to its literal meaning of 'be well, be alive'. I like these deeper meanings.

The logistics of starting up and running a successful new, small, organic farm can be daunting, indeed overwhelming, apparently no matter if one is a young-new farmer or an old-new farmer. However, if a close friend were to greet me today with 'kia ora', I could honestly say my soul has re-found a sense of peace. Indeed my soul is truly alive, and it is well.

I do believe that in addition to all the worry and even sadness I carry for all those struggling with cancer plus the worries and endless and challenging logistics about our farm that were swirling around in my non-sleeping brain this summer, the universe also tapped me on the shoulder and opened up a small sliver, showing me its ever-lasting beauty, love, life, hope, and goodness. Seeing and feeling the universe in this way gave me a deep sense of happiness and was also a very good reason to not sleep - I did not want to miss a minute! I'm sorry I cannot explain any of that further because I know what I have just said must already sound a wee bit 'out there', and even if you can catch a glimpse of what I am saying, I'm afraid I do not know how to use language to explain what happened any better than that.

Our farm has given us a sense of being part of the life, the hope, and the goodness that are within our community, the world, and the larger universe. It has also given us a sense of place, as we are finally, at last, putting down real roots in our own community.  As I am nurturing our soil back to health, I am also nourishing the people of our community with our beautiful, delicious, and healthy food.

I am privileged to have reached my dream, and I humbly and happily accept the challenges of small-scale organic farming and what will eventually become some of the routines of being a small organic farmer in honor of all cancer survivors, of all people who did not survive cancer, for all people who have endured something difficult in life that has taken away or challenged their health or happiness, and most importantly for all people who in some way will have better health and happiness and be more 'alive' because of our farm.

(Diana and Dick Dyer at the Ann Arbor Westside Farmers' Market, Thursday September 29, 2011, The Dyer Family Organic Farm, at last!, 
Photo by Kris Dudley, my first Ann Arbor friend in 1987, still with us!)
The three books I have referenced in my blog tonight are:
The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
Grow the Good Life by Michele Owens
The Wisdom of the Radish by Lynda Hopkins

Kia ora, be alive, be well, my friends. :-)

"Cultivate your life - you are what you grow - inch by inch, row by row" 

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

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