Any success that happens at the expense of your
health, your family, or your character is not real success. ~Dave Willis
About a year ago we decided to try turning our homestead into a business. This isn’t the first time that we thought we’d try to make money off the extra land we have since moving here. A few years ago we started a raw milk herdshare that we quit for a number of reasons I won’t get into here. We never intended for that little enterprise to be anything more than supplemental income which is what made it different from this time around.
As I announced back in June, we were transitioning our large family gardens into a Market Garden where we would sell our produce to local folks in the city. We had the open, tillable land, we had the high tunnel, we have a good location, we had an opportunity, and we took it.
There are numerous resources available about how you can make an incredibly decent living on an acre or two of vegetable production and I spent last winter devouring as much as I possibly could on both the growing side and the business side of the enterprise. I listened to the entire season of the Urban Farmer on Permaculture Voices, and every other podcast I could come across, taking notes all the while. I’m naturally well-organized and had a binder full of plans and charts. I started the season with a Command Center, numerous spreadsheets, and Trello. I was as ready as I could be for whatever the summer threw at me.
Or so I thought.
What happened in the weeks that followed was exactly as much work (non-stop, all-day) and exactly as much stress (I lost 20 pounds) as I anticipated. But it was harder on my family than I ever imagined it would have been. So we quit. And I am NOT a quitter, so I won’t lie, for me, quitting has been harder than the workload. It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions but I’m without-a-doubt certain that we did the right thing.
The aftermath still continues. It continues to be hard on our marriage, the failure continues to take an emotional toll on me. I thought it would be over when we buried the gardens in hay mulch last month. Every time I would go outdoors I would have a panic attack and break down. It was just so overwhelming. Sure we weren’t selling and I didn’t need to plant so much for fall, but something had to be done with the 800 pounds of tomatoes I grew! I couldn’t let the weeds pull nutrients from the soil and go to seed making my garden work that much more difficult next year. Earlier this week, when I sat down with the first seed catalog of 2017 that arrived in the mail, there it all was again. All the anxiety, frustration, and weight of failure. I pushed through it and felt the emotion (just like I am to write this now… it’s been sitting in my drafts for weeks, and I can’t bring myself to finish). I made sure to circle a few fun things that would never sell at the market but might be interesting to try.
I’m not going to get into what led us to begin this work. I’m not going to play the blame game, though I really, really want to justify it and feel like less of a quitter. Instead, I’m going to simply tell you the reasons why we aren’t turning our homestead into a business again. Sure, there may be ways that we can earn a few extra dollars here and there. I’m talking about quit-your-day-job, leave-the-rat-race, make-a-full-time-living-off-the-land kind of business here. Much ado is made of becoming part of the ground swell, join the movement, and becoming a local farmer. Much ado is made about leaving your day job behind and I know many, many of you have this goal in mind. It is my hope in doing so that you might be able to glean from our experiences and be prepared for what lies ahead of you should you choose to go forward with plans to start a family farm.
The One Reason Why We Aren’t Turning Our Homestead into a Small Farm: Quality of Life
I’ve heard it said that “Family farming is hard on the farmer’s families.” Seems opposite of what the goals might be setting out, but it turned out to be true in our lives.
The number one reason we quit is because life immediately sucked.
You hear so much from these new farmers talking about their “quality of life” being the catalyst for their new career. They’re stuck at high-stress or dead-end jobs, they spend little time doing the things that matter the most, they are looking for meaningful purpose in their employment, and they desire the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship. Sounds good, doesn’t it?! These farmers are working awful jobs that suck the soul out of them and they want something different. I totally get it!
We want that too! But early in the season we realized we already had all that!
My “profession” allows me unlimited liberty, creativity, and full control of my time. I’m with the people I love the most and do as I please each day. My work is not only meaningful but has the ultimate generational impact. I’m also able to work sharing my passion about homesteading while my little ones are napping while we get to live and play in the country even if we “only” feed ourselves.
But what about Bill? Did we need to do this for him so that he could have a more fulfilling life? That was the sole reason I was willing to do this. But Bill already works from home. He can take it with him wherever he goes. (Blessings of modern technology.) We’re always together. He has an excellent job, it supports us well, and promotes a family economy since he works for my father as does one member from each of my sibling’s households as well my son. The only thing missing was the complete (perceived) liberty found in entrepreneurship. Answering to no man, but yourself. Unless that is, you count your customers…
We were decreasing the quality of our lives to participate in our local food community in a different way than we already were. And while face-to-face interactions with people are always more valuable, we found that the ones we were having with each other were charged and unpleasant. We weren’t spending time with each other. I only saw my children, and don’t forget I have EIGHT of them, over breakfast and to kiss them goodnight. My 2-year-old regressed and never made it to the potty to do her business.
If you want to hear more about this issue, I recommend this podcast: Homesteading vs. Small Scale Farming
I think I’ve made it out to milk Holly 2 or 3 times this year. We have fallen out of the habit of doing chores together as a family. Our pastures are trashed from overgrazing because we didn’t have time to move paddocks. I’ve been a slave to the garden since March. In the end, Bill couldn’t juggle the market garden with his day job (which is more like an anytime from 4:30am to 10pm job, just depends on when a call needs dispatched or a tech needs help troubleshooting). We felt that since he was collecting a salary we were stealing, despite the fact his boss knew what we were doing and that the job came with the assurance of some freedom to tend to farm matters when they arise. But that left all work that didn’t involve a tractor or loading/going to market on me.
We certainly didn’t have time to do the things we enjoyed doing together as a family over the summer months such as hiking. We couldn’t even go to town together anymore (which we pretty much always do) because it would mean unloading all of the market display items from the van and reloading them later.
We were eating less quality/hardy meals, on an irregular schedule, and my 13-year-old daughter was making the majority of them. I don’t know how we could have made it as long as we did without her help in the kitchen. Now while I’m all for kids helping out, learning skills, and becoming proficient at them, I do not believe that it is my children’s job’s to bear such a responsibility as feeding 10 people 2-3 times a day (and then having to do her part of the dishes as well) because I had 6 other babies after she was born and made a bad business decision.
How about the house? I would say the mess, the smells, and the bad habits that were being established all worked to decrease the quality of our life. It’s not like the kids were going to voluntarily pick up after themselves and clean the place. And of course, as I’m sure you already picked up on, the new business was an extreme source of marital discord.
So each morning I’d wake up in a panic and feel my spirits slowly sink with an exhale as I remembered what my new life looked like. Out to the battle of bugs and weeds and watering I’d go. It wasn’t the work that I had added to my life that I was opposed to, it was what I had taken away from my life that I was missing.
I listened to so many podcasts (hoping for motivation, encouragement, and wisdom) through those hours in the garden this summer and farmer after farmer repeated the same story: It took them years to get their farm up and running and before it felt like it wasn’t ruling their lives. Years. I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. That is the rest of the time I’d have with Hannah! With Jacob not far after. My baby would be 7! With my oldest, Jared moving away this summer and nothing but mindless weed-pulling to do this summer, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I wanted to invest those years I have left. What is my duty and responsibility towards my husband and children? What is my calling? As opposed to what is Bill’s and can his calling interfere with mine and to what extent? God has used this whole experience to help me recover from un-biblical teachings about womanhood and what my calling is before Him, and what my responsibility to my husband as his helpmeet actually requires of me. I think with those 8 kids my calling is pretty clear. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a line between helping my husband and doing his calling for him, to the exclusion of my own. If he can’t make his happen because there isn’t enough time or money, then perhaps it’s not a calling after all. All I know is that I’m not going to sacrifice my children’s future or my future relationship with them so I can follow his dream.
Quality (and quantity) time with the children aside, we committed 15 years ago to home educate and disciple our children. We believe that this is what God has commanded us to do and though we have worked out an awesome Agrarian School Year that works so well for us, and allows us to get gardens done, we missed 8 weeks of (formal/bookwork) schooling because we were busy working on the farm and on our day jobs that pay the bills. With all of that work, there was very little time left to deeply engage our children. They were hesitant to even be around us because it didn’t take long for them to realize that every conversation ended with, “Hey, could you give me a hand with this?” It’s not their job to make our dreams a reality, but it is our job to give them the fullest education possible so they can one day make their dreams a reality.
It’s been interesting watching the Amish since we’ve moved here. No doubt you’ve heard stories about how their kids are forced to turn over the majority of their income to help dad support the family. I’m seeing a culture where the children are the labor force for their father’s business, the son’s expected to pick up the trade, and the daughters spoken ill of throughout the community if they try to pursue lives outside of the home. (Because poor mom needs help with all her other children, don’t you know?)
I don’t want to be that kind of mom. Rather than placing my expectations on my children, I want to give them skills and opportunities that will serve them and their family’s in the future. Not me, today. I want them to grow up to love this lifestyle and have fond memories of it, not remember the drudgery of the chores.
I don’t want to lose the joy. If I lose the joy that can be part of this lifestyle, how can I pass it on to my children? I am coming to believe that those fond memories, my contagious joy will be what causes them to still want a connection to the land when they are grown. How can my 2 year old daughter learn the satisfaction that comes from eating the food that her little hands first buried in the soil when I’m flipping out because she walking in the beds, wasting precious seed when she spills it, and making inefficient crooked rows that take WAY too long to plant to ever be considered “lean.”
I heard one particular farmer tell a story about how romantic his first year was on the farm. He was mindful of his surroundings, soaked in the pleasures of the natural world, enjoyed the views, and the sunsets, and the wildlife. And before long it dawned on him that every time he did that he was losing money. Profitable small farming quickly must become about efficient time management. He learned to work hard with a single-minded focus while on the farm and then get away and leave the farm when he needed a break and wanted to deeply experience the wonders of nature.
We weren’t but weeks into the summer when I realized the truth of what he had said.
I had to remind myself not to chase Green Lacewings around the garden and try to find their beautiful eggs, I wasn’t letting the clumsy little ones into the garden, I can’t remember stopping to soak in the beauty of the sky, I have missed the time I used to spend with my cows. It wasn’t productive, so I didn’t allow myself to do it. And I was beginning to find gardening, something that has always been so peaceful, relaxing, meditative, and enjoyable… a job. They say do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life and I’m not sure that’s true. We were created to need rest and play and while we should find joy and purpose in our work, why isn’t good enough that we can allow the satisfying, yet hard work of homesteading be our rest and play? Though it’s not technically either, the break from our real work makes it so. If we love our homestead’s so much that we want to do it full-time, we’re going to find we need something to fill the place that homesteading once had in providing us with a break from our day jobs.
I’ve learned so much this year, not the least of which is that healthy living is more, so much more, than just eating well. Quality of life really does matter to our health and happiness and well being as a family. I’m determined to make more choices in the future that factor it into the decision making process and if that means I need to pass by opportunities when they arise, then so be it. If that means that my sphere of influence and change in this world is limited to just 9 other people then so be it. I believe with every fiber of my being when (and if) I make to a ripe old age, I will never look back and have regrets that I threw everything I had into my children.