I took my first farm job in 2009.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned a ton—here are the most important lessons that have grown my farm (and me as a farmer).
Soil is the foundation of life
95% of our food comes from the soil – without it, life on earth wouldn’t exist.
I didn’t think much about soil before becoming an organic farmer, but now the majority of our time on the farm is spent thinking about, tending to and growing soil.
Bill Wolfe writes in the foreword to The Soul of Soil :
“We are innately and inextricably connected to soil for our survival…There is a strong spiritual bond between humans and other living souls with whom we share this planet. In today’s fast-paced world, the music of that bond sometimes gets lost. Soil, like humans, has soul because it contains the universal life-force. This is the difference between soil and dirt — life energy.”
Farming Brings You Closer to Death. And that’s a good thing.
I became a farmer because I wanted to eat meat again. Fresh out of college, I took a summer job (what I thought would be only a summer job) on a diversified livestock and vegetable farm, with the intention to get close to the process of raising, slaughtering, and butchering a chicken. It’d been 6 years since I’d eaten one, and I was craving my mom’s roast chicken.
This isn’t the fastest way to start eating meat again.
But it is the way I needed to do it, after years of swearing off the meat industry. From reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I knew there was another way to raise livestock, and I craved that closeness as much as I craved the taste and protein.
By the end of the year, I’d spent countless days hauling grain and water, moving fences, herding goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys and chickens to new pasture. I’d helped load pigs onto a trailer destined for the slaughterhouse. I’d eaten bacon, goat, and roasted my first chicken. Eventually, I slit a turkey’s neck.
It was straightforward. It was emotional. It was close.
And all of it brought a reverence for the animals and the land that I’d never known.
Even now at Good Heart, where we grow vegetables, the plants keep me tuned into the cycle of growth and death. When you’re close to it, part of it, an immense gratitude grows alongside the land, plants, and animals.
Everything Starts as a Seed
I had no idea I’d end up owning a farm. I figured I’d work one summer, and then move on to a “real” job. But that summer planted a seed of connection, and by the end I knew I wanted it to grow.
Often, the seeds in our lives start out as curiosity and wonder. The only way to know what will come is to tend to them.
When You Tend to the Land, the Land Will Tend to You
There’s nothing the pasture and garden can’t ease.
When I’m anxious, I thin carrots. Or hoe the onions. Or tuck seedlings into soil.
But it’s more than that—
I’ve sat in a swale and felt the land hold me through heartache. I’ve harvested crops and rediscovered abundance in times when abundance felt so far away.
The rhythms of the land and of farming offer a healing steadiness, a big space to be present in. When you spend your days connected to soil and plants, invisible roots will inevitably grow from your feet, and the land will help you grow, too.
Taking Care of Your Body is as Important as Taking Care of the Crops
Your body is your #1 asset in farming and gardening. Don’t accept a strained back as part of the job—if you want to grow well into old age, it’s important to take care of your body now.
Learn how to bend safely, take time to stretch everyday, drink a lot of water. When something’s too heavy, ask for help.
If You Want to Run a Farm, Take a Business Class
When Edge and I started Good Heart Farmstead, we knew how to grow vegetables. We didn’t know how much work it would be to run a business.
If you want to farm for more than a few years, it’s not enough to know how to do the work of farming. You need to know the backend of running a business, too. Think of learning business skills as growing a perennial. The first few years will be more work than reward, but once it’s rooted in and growing, you’ll reap the fruit.
There will always be more to learn, just as fruit trees will always require pruning and amending. Commit to growing and fertilizing your business-owner roots and you’ll grow a much healthier farm.
If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend Holistic Management International.
Relationships Are Essential
Soil + Roots
Plants + Water, Sun, Air
You + Soil
You + Customers
You + Fellow Farmers
Organic farming and gardening depends on relationships. Cultivate them.
When a plant needs a boost, give it some water and compost. When you need a boost, go have coffee with a fellow farmer, who understands the challenges and can commiserate, empathize, and celebrate with you. More than anything else, it’s the relationships that will keep you going when obstacles sprout up.
Looking at the Field Counts as Work
Observation is the precursor to action.
Take time everyday to observe the crops, pasture, and livestock. Take note of what’s thriving and what needs help. Simply walking around the field and looking at each crop is a critical part of staying connected to the health and growth of your fields.
There Will Be Seeding Days and Full-Bloom Days, but Most of the Time You’ll Occupy the Space Between
The space between seeding and harvesting. The space between intention and fruition. This is the hardest space to be in, because it holds the challenges and obstacles, and you will get impatient.
But the only way to get to the harvest is to cultivate, water, amend. To show up everyday, do the work you can, and let nature do the rest. Trust in the wisdom of seed and soil. Take consistent action.
And succession plant — if for no other reason than to make sure there’s something blooming on the hard days.
Winter is Necessary
There are seasons to grow and seasons to rest. Even if you don’t live in a place with snowy winters, every climate has a rhythm. Learn yours. Embrace the winter as a time to recharge, reevaluate, and revision.
Many seeds require darkness and a period of cold in order to sprout again.
We’re not so different from seeds—take the time you need, and understand that winter is here to help you grow again.