Field Notes From The Pandemic Summer

female farmer cultivating in the field

“You just need to go with the flow,” Edge said the other morning as we tried to get a 5 minute conversation in before breakfast ended.  

The lack of structure to our homeschool routine (or, more accurately, non-routine) had me frustrated and second-guessing just how possible running a farm while homeschooling really is.  Not to mention doing both in the on-going pandemic that’s left us without our typical childcare supports — Grandparents.  Summer camps.  Friends.

“I don’t mind going with the flow, but I want to create the riverbanks,” I said.

That’s what this spring and summer felt like: a swell that obliterated the container I once knew.  Like water careening and crashing, remaking the landscape.  

Though this metaphor doesn’t work — drought plagued Vermont all summer as haze from western wildfires drifted to the Northeast.

But now here we are: November.  Rains finally came to quench the earth, and I’m finally back to the blank page.

Each time I went to write this summer I stalled.  I could pick up my pen and journal, process and scrawl in a place no one else would read, but I didn’t know how to translate that to the public.  Even instagram captions began to feel strained.  

So I pulled back.  

I tried and failed and tried again to give myself the grace to just be.  To navigate being a mother and a farmer and a business owner and a writer and a person living through this pandemic.  There were weeks I’d think everything had smoothed out only for the next day to be what I came to call a “COVID Day.”  When nothing goes right, when tears come at the slightest trigger, when no one seems to be getting what they needed.

Sometimes you have to live through a season before you can write about it.  

Now I’m ready to begin, ready to share the bits and pieces that make some sort of sense, and maybe some that still make no sense at all.

So here it is: a look into the pandemic summer on our farm.

Farmer seeding in a field

The Pandemic Begins:

Sign-ups for the Summer Farm Share began to pick up around March 19th, just after Vermont’s first school closures and just before the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order came.

In just over a month we sold 70 CSA Shares.  

For context, we’d sold 30 summer shares before news of the pandemic, and we typically start marketing our summer shares in April and May — but this year’s CSA sold out before I could even write the marketing copy.  

Our wholesale accounts, comprised of local restaurants, completely halted, which allowed us to sell more CSA shares — bringing us to the first 100 share summer.  Still, we soon found ourselves turning people away, which felt awful. 

Why couldn’t we just squeeze one more person in?  What if we just planted a little more?  While our intensive growing system means we produce a lot on a small plot, 1 acre still has a limit.

The Summer Complications

organic lettuce seedlings in the field

Simplicity is one of our core values.  

So when, in the confusion of March and early April, there was a collective rush to setting up online ordering systems, we didn’t.  There was enough to figure out already, and while we have an element of choice to our shares, we’re also small enough that the expense of adding an online ordering system would outweigh the benefits. 

That doesn’t mean we didn’t add in new variables.  We did.  

  • Two new share sizes, a Small and a Large, added to our Regular share.
  • A new pickup location.
  • 100 Summer shares, up from our typical 70.
  • 4 rounds of pasture-raised chickens

The only catch here was that we’d added in the first two variables pre-pandemic.  Now we had to navigate three share sizes, three pickup locations, and 30 more shares in a very different season than we’d anticipated.  

Oh, and we were “trying out” raising chickens again.  

For us, “trying out” chickens meant 4 batches of 125 chickens each, which were to graze on a section of cropland we took out of production for the year to rebuild the soil.  Though the birds did do a fantastic job on building soil, we cancelled the last batch.  It was just too much to manage another enterprise.

Lessons:

You get to decide how you respond to a crisis.  It’s easy and alluring to get swept up in the rush of what others are doing, but it’s vital to take action that aligns with your values and goals.  That means you need to know your values and goals — a Holistic Goal can help you navigate crises and grow in calm times, too.

Too many new variables can wash out the benefits that any one may carry.  Remember that there will always be unforeseen challenges that crop up, so leave yourself enough space to respond to the unexpected.  If that means letting go of something you planned, let it go.  Focus on your strengths.  For us, that’s vegetables, not chickens.

It quickly became clear to us that the “small” sized share was too small.  

More of a sampler than anything, a handful of members upgraded to the regular share, and a few others let us know the small share was disappointing.  

I hate disappointing people.  

It’s one of the worst feelings in the world — to be stretched thin and then hear that it’s not enough.  This isn’t their fault, of course.  It’s more of my own invisible bruise that I’ve been learning to contend with.  Edge was able to shake it off almost instantly, knowing the answer was to eliminate the Small share option in the future.  Which we did come fall.

Lesson:

You can’t please everyone.  That’s okay.  There will always be attrition.  Instead of focusing on those who aren’t in love with the CSA, focus on growing the best food you can and serving your ideal customers who do love what you offer.  

On the flip side: if your ideal customer comes to you with constructive criticism or a suggestion, consider how you could improve or expand in a way that stays true to your values and goals.

What You Can’t Control

Farming is a constant lesson in letting go of control.  

We spend countless hours planning the crop map, reviewing varieties, setting seeding and harvest dates — and still, when it comes down to it, everything depends on the one variable out of our control: the weather.

From wildfires on the west coast to extended drought on the east, we had to contend with one of the hottest and driest years I can remember.

The plants needed water.  Constantly.  

While irrigation kept the crops alive, when the rains came back in September the beets perked up as if they had never been watered, the greens of brassicas deepened, the broccoli and cauliflower miraculously decided not to bolt, but to produce heads after all.  

Lesson:

Keep the soil covered to help retain moisture and decrease the need for irrigation.  The same methods that suppress weeds also maintain soil moisture, a win-win!

There’s emotion to all of this.  You don’t have to keep it all in or attempt to control every variable day after day.  Instead, learn to lean into uncertainty and take care of yourself just as well as you take care of your plants.  

What about you?

What brought you through this pandemic summer?  What lessons sprouted up alongside the lettuce, or were hard-won like broccoli through heat?

Let me know.  I’m still reflecting on what worked and didn’t work this summer, and I’d love to hear how things went for you.

3 thoughts on “Field Notes From The Pandemic Summer”

  1. Pingback: Farming & Writing: The Harvesting Words Scholarship - The Good Heart Life

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