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Work-Life Balance? Isn’t That Why We’re Starting a Farm?

Over the past year we’ve spent a lot of time reading books and chatting with farmers of all shapes and sizes. Veteran farmers, young farmers, former farmers, aspiring farmers, urban farmers... if it ends with farmer we’ve found someone to tell us about it! Aspiring farmers, including ourselves, tend to have a romantic view of life on the farm. We may tell you that we understand it's hard work, but no matter how many farms we visit and how many farmers we speak with I still can’t get that image out of my head.
Part of it is because when we visit and work on farms we don’t really get to see the most difficult aspects of farm life. We’re agri-tourists. At the end of the trip we get to go home to a place where we don’t have to worry about the livelihood of hundreds of other beings twenty four hours a day. We’re never around when a cow goes down and needs to be put to rest. We’re not around when the plumbing in the dairy breaks and all the cows have to be hand-stripped for a couple days. Therefore, our bucolic vision remains intact and the only way for it to turn into the often more sobering reality is to actually start farming. We’re not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about the hurdles we’ll face and the potential difficulties we may have adapting.
One of the most debated and feared hurdles in our decision to move to the farm has been our concern over striking a work-life balance. How do you balance work and life when work is your life!? It’s interesting that this is such a struggle for so many farmers because isn’t that a big part of why we want to be farmers in the first place?
I tend to work very hard all the time. I like working, find it rewarding, and if given the choice would choose some form of being productive over just about any other activity. Sweetbreads is very similar in that regard, but if I’m 100% work, she’s probably closer to 75-80%. She very rightly expects to spend some time away from work pursuing other leisurely activities. Most of the time it’s small stuff. Picnics in the park, a movie date-night, a walk along the Hudson. It’s relatively easy for me to acquiesce to those desires right now, but what will happen when our livelihood depends on the success of the farm and the farm’s to-do list is literally never-ending?

To get some perspective, we've always found it helpful to read about and listen to other people's stories. One of the most striking cases of an imbalanced work-lfe situation is described in Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is in Your Hands. In her memoir, Melissa details a childhood as the daughter of one of the most prolific organic farmers in America, Eliot Coleman. Having only read a few of Eliot’s farming books I had the perception that this would be a book describing days spent frolicking in the fields and eating the most amazing food on earth with not a care in the world. Obviously, there would be hard work when she was older, but in her youth I expected to hear tales of bliss. While I think Melissa did have a lot of amazing experiences in her childhood it was also apparent that she experienced some extreme sadness and numerous heart-wrenching experiences. Most of those experiences were a direct result of the lifestyle her parents chose and were a function of Eliot’s intense dedication to farming. I don’t want to surmise too much, but it becomes quite apparent that there is a struggle for work-life balance in the Coleman household and Melissa’s mother is losing it.  Without giving away the story, I'll just say that this isn't a happy story and her parents eventually split. Now when Sweetbreads and I speak of our own work-life balance concerns the conversation typically ends with Sweetbreads saying, "Well, just don't send me away in the car like Eliot did...". She says it half-heartedly, but with a stark sense of reality, and it's a good reminder of what we don't want to happen. We're thankful for Melissa's memoir to provide us with that point of reference.
In The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball, she references her husband’s demand that they take Sundays off to engage in non-farm activities in order to avoid burning out. His request highlights another concern beyond the stress that an improper work-life balance can place on a relationship: burn-out. The last thing you want is to get burned out on farming, especially when you've left great careers to do so. Everyone needs a break from work to unwind and there's a strong argument to be made that farmers need it the most!
Another example that has been publicly detailed for our benefit is the balance that Tim and Liz Young at Nature’s Harmony Farm in Elberton Georgia are battling with. They speak of a balance that can meet both of their needs: Tim's entrepreneurial and growth desires and Liz's homesteading desires. It's a great example of the dilemma of needing to make money to survive, but not wanting to be so focused on money and growth that the original dream slips away. I have no doubt that Nature's Harmony could be MUCH bigger than it is, but they have made the clear choice to limit growth and have actually begun down-sizing.
We don’t know how our own story will turn out, but we’ve thought about it a lot and we’ve listened intently to other people’s experiences, so we hope that when we’re going through it we’ll at least be able to recognize it and move on. I now appreciate how important it is to make time for R&R and hopefully striking that balance will be a little easier for us with the knowledge we've gained from others.
Do you struggle to find that balance in your current life? Do you think it would be harder if you switched careers and became your own employer?
Happy Fourth of July weekend everyone, and as they say, God bless America!


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